Island time Malaysia: Langkawi

After our recouperation break in Kuala Lumpur, it was finally island time. Malaysia has some incredible beaches, and it was hard to choose just where to go first. But, as we were heading in the general direction of Thailand, we decided to go north.

Our plan was to go to Penang – a colonial island paradise with Georgian architecture, white sandy beaches and a killer street food culture. However, Penang had just flooded a few days before, and news reports looked pretty awful. So we opted to go one island further to Langkawi, which would likely have been stop number two on our beach hopping itinerary anyway.

In KL, we boarded a luxury coach with business class sized seats, and excellent air conditioning. It should have been a 5 hour trip, which would have gotten us to the ferry port just in time for the last three ferries to the island, but we hit traffic and sat stopped for a while. Then toward the end of the journey, people kept requesting to get off, resulting in a 5 minute stop each time. All of this added up to us missing the last ferry to Langkawi, and we had to overnight in Alor Setar in a scummy hotel near the bus terminal.

Never get stuck here

It’s not like we didn’t have many hotels to choose from. There were at least a dozen similar looking scummy hotels, but after looking at a couple, we realised they were all the same. Stinking of cigarette smoke in the hallways, less stinky in the rooms, but with dim lighting, gross bathrooms and god knows what smeared all over the walls. Again, thank goodness for our silk sleep sacs that keep out the bed bugs and generally provide a placebo between you and whatever icks you.

Our hearts dropped as we saw our room, (and maybe our stomachs turned a little), but with little other choice, we dropped our stuff and ran out of there to go get some dinner at one of the several open air restaurants surrounding the bus station.

We wandered around, not feeling very confident after hotel search, and likely chose the only restaurant without menus or anyone who spoke English.  Through sign language and basically just agreeing to whatever was suggested, managed to guess at something we’d like to eat.

My dish came with fried rice and some sort of breaded meat that was flat and grey, and which wasn’t about to touch. From the number of skinny cats running around the place, I guessed that it either was cat, and those little mogs circling around our feet were the livestock, or that their love of cats precluded them from eating them or serving them to tourists, and it was something else. Regardless, I wasn’t feeling very adventurous. Mark got fried noodles that were totally normal, and Austin had a chicken fried chicken fillet.

We were still hungry after picking at our meals, so went to the one beacon of familiarity anywhere nearby — KFC. We lingered in that neon lit fast food restaurant as long as we possibly could, and even made sure we went to the toilet in the relative cleanliness so as not to have to go at our hotel.

Whether it came from the cat restaurant or KFC, Austin woke us all up at 3 am shouting “water!!” And promptly sprayed vomit across the room six successive times, covering pretty much the entire room, walls and all. Mark kindly cleaned up himself, the boy and the sheets, and I worked on getting him back to sleep. Normally, I would have been paranoid at having made such a mess in a hotel room, but I was so cross at the state of the room that I didn’t care. We turned in our key in the morning and left, feeling thoroughly icky.

I knew we’d have some less than luxurious accommodation on this trip, and many of the mountain lodges in Nepal were as basic as they come, but they were clean. That’s a pretty simple and reasonable request of a room, and this one over-charged and did not even meet this most basic agreement between hotel and guest – trust that your room isn’t grosser than I am.  I have now set the bottom line to how “open minded” I am willing to be about accommodation, and that hotel room at the bus terminal in Alor Setar is it.

Get stuck in Langkawi instead

In contrast, the ferry to Langkawi was an orderly and fairly easy process. We took a taxi to the ferry terminal, bought tickets for the next hourly sailing, and were assigned seats. I was a little disappointed to see that there were no outside decks to watch the mainland float away, but we were comfortable, and the hour long ride went quickly. There was even a kung fu movie playing at the front with English subtitles.

Langkawi turned out to be a beach haven for tourists of all kinds, and we happened to have landed there on the day of a huge international Ironman Triathlon. Given that most of the island’s guests were racing or supporting their racers at the time we arrived, and we were oblivious to what was going on just a few kilometres away, we were surprised to find the place somewhat deserted.

Our little guesthouse in Langkawi was a 180* turnaround from the place we had stayed the night before. So clean you could eat off the floor, with good wifi, cold air conditioning, a hot shower, and staff that made us feel right at home. Simple but perfect.

Beach time

Beach time was our first priority, and we walked from our little end of a long, wide, clean white sandy beach all the way to Pantai Cenang – about 2 km down perfect, nearly unclaimed beach. There were a handful of resorts along the way, but none of them imposed themselves on the beach, leaving it open for anyone and everyone to enjoy. As beaches go, it’s a pretty spectacular beach, and I couldn’t believe how pristine it was, even though it wasn’t being regularly cleaned.

Pantai Cenang is a busy little tourist hamlet about 15 km away from the ferry port, and the centre of all that is tourist on Langkawi. Beach bars, beach hotels, beach chairs and long shallow white sandy beaches line the long stretch of water on this side of the island. We spent all of two whole days just beach bumming around on that beach. But even that can get old, and there’s more to Langkawi than just the beach in Cenang, so we rented two motor scooters to go exploring around the island.

Freedom on a scooter

I had never driven a scooter before, and I was terrified at first. I refuse to ride a bicycle in London because of a little thing like valuing my life. But driving the scooter on the peaceful roads of Langkawi was amazing!

For the first time since Nepal, I felt free — in control of where I was going, and I had the means to take me there – this time sitting on top of an ultra cool pearly white scooter. We went all over that island in search of hidden beaches, which we didn’t really find. There were a handful, but most of the usable beach in Langkawi has been swallowed up by the tourist trade. But that’s all right…we were free and I was in control (one of my personal basic life needs, as my husband, family, friends and colleagues will attest.)

A tourist trap that’s worth it

We may not have found paradise on a hidden stretch of beach, but we did find the Langkawi cable car, which takes you up the highest peak on the island for spectacular views out over the water and the rest of the island. It brands itself the world’s steepest cable car, and my lord, I believe it.

The fully enclosed cars, give a 360* view as you go up, and up. It starts out okay, but then your eyes inevitably follow the line of the cable up the mountain and realise
that not only do you have a very long way to go, but it seems to take you straight up at a 90* angle for the last several hundred metres up a karst cliff.

To make matters even more stomach churning, there are a total of four towers supporting this whole operation, including the ones at either end. The final span is truly the steepest of anything I’ve ever been on, and I still don’t know how the cars don’t just slide down the cable.

I said a lot of things during that ride that I hope my son never ever repeats (again). He tried saying a few of the choice phrases while on the ride, but we shut him down pretty quickly. Call me a terrible mom, but the sailor in me just came pouring (crying) out. I think Mark filmed me freaking out, and I’m fairly certain he’s stored it in the same place as the footage of me having an even bigger freak out while dune bashing in Land Rovers in Abu Dhabi. 

The views from the top over the Langkawi archipelago are magnificent. The sea is a sea foamy turquoise green, and the skies are spectacularly blue. Looking down on the shape of the island, you see the conical mountains that make it distinctly South East Asian in nature.

At the top, there is another flat cable car across the saddle of the mountain that takes you to the start of a long curved skybridge held up by a single tower. The skybridge requires a second ticket, but once you’re up there, you may as well pay for it, and the bridge is actually pretty cool. You don’t actually feel like you’re flying, but it’s pretty close, and you can see over the back of the island.

Never trust your photos to a stranger with a boombox 

Mark is always on a quest to find the best person to take family photos for us, and never fails to find someone who doesn’t live up to his expectations. The photos never turn out like he had in mind, but it doesn’t stop him from stalking out just the right non idiotic looking person (in his mind) to take the photo, giving them minimal instructions, and hoping the picture will turn out.

Naturally, we needed a family photo from the skybridge, and his quest unfortunately started after Austin started whining about going back to our hotel. Always a recipe for success.

He picked out a big rugby playing looking Malaysian who was there with his mother or possibly his much older leopard pants wearing girlfriend, and toting around a boom box playing Justin Beiber. Mark handed him the camera, we posed and smiled, and Beiber fan took about seven photos of us from all angles — and managed to shoot our faces and the sky in all of them – not the skybridge, not the view, nothing else.

Not impressed, Mark wanted to have another try with someone else, but not wanting to hurt the big man’s feelings, wanted to wait until he had left the area. Naturally, that meant that no matter how long we lingered, that man wasn’t going any further than 3 feet away from us for the next 15 minutes, boombox and all.

By the time we gave up and climbed back in the short cable car ride, the clouds had rolled in, and we were totally socked in white, which made it a little eerie. Just like on the ridge in Nepal, the clouds helped to make it feel more secure, but when we popped out beneath them, we could see that we had a long, long way to go down. It was easier on the way down, and I didn’t screech nearly as much.  

I’m happy to say that we survived the world’s steepest cable car. As tourist attractions go, I’d say this was a pretty good one, and worth the money.

Random encounters

In a surprise turn of events, one of Mark’s friends from his London Aussie Rules Football club had raced in the Ironman the day before, and he and his friends were celebrating and recuperating in one of the beachside bars in Cenang.

He had moved to Hong Kong a couple of years earlier, so it was a lovely surprise to randomly bump into him on the other side of the world. Things got even more interesting when we realised that two of the guys he raced with were colleagues of mine from PwC in London, who were on secondment to Hong Kong. As an expat, I’ve found the world smaller and smaller with every encounter, and this trip continues to show me that the world really is just one big community.  

We all hung out there catching up on old times and making plans for the future until well after dark, when we had leave to return the scooters. We took our photos and said our goodbyes, and rode off into the darkness to reluctantly turn in our freedom machines. 

I have a new “must do” for tropical islands, and that’s to rent scooters to go exploring. After I got over the terror of driving a motorbike on a road, I felt like I owned the world and wanted desperately to keep going and going forever.


About the author: Shalena

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