(First appeared in Swagath, Feb 2011)
The tropical forests, turquoise waters and white sand beaches of Langkawi can dish up a memorable vacation
40 kilometres off the western coastline of Thailand and Malaysia, Langkawi is the largest in an archipelago of 90 odd islands, collectively declared a Geopark by UNESCO. 25 kilometres from anywhere in Langkawi, you can reach the fine white sands and the emerald waters. The southern tips of Pantai Cenang and Kuah town, both with a high concentration of hotels, are well connected to all major tourist attractions, with good roads winding through paddy fields if not tropical forests. An ideal place to drive around.
After checking into the three-star Aseania Hotel– spacious parking, huge rooms, three swimming pools — in Pantai Cenang, I stepped out to study the lay of the land. Curio and cloth shops, as well as Turkish to Italian restaurants are lined along the main street. There is a bit of Goa here, but it’s much quieter. I almost picked up a scooter on hire, for MYR 35 a day, but backed out because the tank was empty. Sandwiched between the main street and the 2 km-long Pantai Cenang beach are hotels and guesthouses for all budgets .The beach is a popular and busy stretch, offering parachuting and water sports. I walked on to reach the quieter Pantai Tengah beach by sunset. The clouds were in full play, putting up an ever-changing and eminently photogenic western sky and I celebrated my luck, at the Lighthouse restaurant which offers fantastic food in an ambience set by the waves and the sinking sun.
Next morning, I returned to Lighthouse. The previous night, at the opposite shack, I had registered for an island hopping tour. I asked the four men sitting behind the shack, whether they had enough passengers for the boat which takes 10. They did not reply but one of the men produced a 1-foot long knife and stuck it into the ground, a gesture whose meaning I could not comprehend. After a while, another man came on a scooter, gave me a battered helmet and asked me to hop on. He took off in the opposite direction to the town, on a road flanked by mountains. I kept asking him about the other passengers but his responses did not go beyond murmurs. I wondered what price I would pay for making this deal at the shack for MYR 25 (MYR is Malaysian Ringgit, each equal to around IRs 15) while travel agents in town quoted MYR 30 and MYR 35. Thankfully, another bend and the harbour came to view.
I got the solo front seat in the fibreglass boat because of my camera. Boatman Shubri was chatting with the local passengers and reeled off the names of many Bollywood stars. He named me Amitabh Bachan and there were peels off laughter. So, I christened him Shah Rukh Khan( no offence, SRK. You are top of the mind!). Shah Rukh proved a speed maniac as he guided the boat past islands, some of them with jagged limestone cliffs. Soon, waves from the open sea started hitting the boat, tossing it up in the air, only to come down with a thud seconds later. The squeals gave way to shrieks as the winds hit us. After clinging to whichever part of the boat we could, we were relieved to reach the shores of Beras Basan island. Shah Rukh rustled up a deal with some passengers, to take us on a fish feeding expedition – an extra MYR 5 per head. He left to buy the tickets, promising to be back soon.
Beras Basan is an unspoilt little island with a clean sandy beach and clear waters – and, for a bonus, the chirping of a variety of birds in the forest covering the nearby mountain island.. A couple of Europeans were already enjoying a swim and children were having their brand of fun with the sand. Then, before anyone realised, the sun vanished behind rain clouds and the adjacent island barely visible in the incessant heavy downpour accompanied by lightning and thunder. No sign of Shah Rukh and here we were, two dozen people of varied nationalities, apparently marooned on our treasure Island.
After an hour, the sky cleared. Shah Rukh returned with another boatload of passengers. Re-boarding the boat, off we went, to witness eagle feeding – sadly, an inadvertent domestication of those magnificent birds of prey. Fish feeding wasn’t too great except for the lion fish; some of us also got to hold a tortoise larger than our chests. At the Tasik Dayang Bunting island, braving the hordes of monkeys that attacked people carrying food or plastic bags, we had to hit a narrow trail that ended in a calm and inviting sweet water lake. The sweet water is a mystery, since the water body is linked to the ocean. The local explanation comes from the ‘legend of the pregnant maiden’.
By 1.00 p.m., we were back at the harbour. I hired a four-wheel drive Kembara for MYR 125 (Rs 1,900) a day, from Kasina Rent-A-Car. The rate could have been lower but I guess it had something to do with how I handled the auto-gear car first offered to me – when I applied its deadly brakes in a test drive, the mechanic seated beside me nearly dove into the windshield!. To hire a car, all you need are your passport , an international credit card and an international driving licence ( I had got mine from my neighbourhood RTO in Chennai, in under three hours). Madam Shikin at the counter was very patient, noting down every little scratch or speck I pointed out on the car body. I would rather be paranoid than pay good money for scratches I didn’t cause.
Past the airport I drove to Beras Terkabar. The road with very little traffic was a gift-wrapped offering for this urban Indian. The drive became the destination, the means the end – well, almost. I kept missing my turns and driving back, after stopping and checking with any rare human on the way. I soon realised why. Maps in Malaysia are rather informal, like the sketches on the rear of invitations to parties. There are no scale indications. I realised that in the A4 size map of the 45km x 30km island, one inch was equal to a couple of kms, and not the longer distances they represent in Indian state maps. With this calibration done, without having to ask for directions, I reached Beras Terkabar. It is also called the field of burnt rice, commemorating a 19th century incident when the Langkawi army chief, anticipating defeat at the hands of the Siamese, ordered burning the rice rather than letting the enemy have it. Besides scores of shops selling clothes, herbal medicines and agricultural produce, the place also has a Sunday night market. There are markets operating on different days of the week, in different parts of Langkawi.
I was now headed for the Tanjung Rhu beach on the northern tip. With no other car on the road and with the thick foliage creating a green tunnel, the lonely drive has a spiritual quotient, which is completed by the sight of the wide, white beach rimmed by mangroves. I had decided to give the Langkawi cable car and the Oriental Village a miss and instead reach the North Eastern trip of Datai by sunset. However, en route, I met a youngster in a car who urged me to skip Datai and instead head for the Rerdana beach if I wanted some great sunset photographs. Changing track, I headed south and soon realised that new highway construction had made the map somewhat obsolete. After a detour, I hit the curliest of Langkawi’s roads, along the western coast. At the Langkawi Lagoon resort, the insightful security guard told me that the entire coast had a wave- breaking sea wall, which would spoil my pictures!. I hit the road again, desperate to reach the clear coast of Pantai Cenang before sunset.
After a calming sunset, I walked across to Palace Restaurant, famous for its kebabs. The place is a bit pricier than Tomato Nasi Kandar, an unpretentious restaurant that offers a menu of 40 non-vegetarian dishes besides Indian items including Roti Canai – a close relative of Ceylon parotta. Across the road is Red Tomato Garden Cafe which has top billing for European food. My best breakfast was near the Kuah Jetty, at Charlie’s Place. The sea made its presence felt under the restaurant’s wooden floor, with the incessant beating of the waves on the stilts. Close by, a hundred yachts bobbed up and down, waiting for tourists who want to go snorkelling and scuba diving.
Though I skipped the Underwater World at Pantai Cenang, Langkawi’s duty-free shops had some irresistible offers on luggage and liquor. And to sweeten the deal further, top international chocolate brands at half their price at airport duty-free shops!. At the airport, the Kasina staff checked the car and returned the MYR 200 credit card slip I had signed and given as security. I had topped the tank on the way – 11.5 litres for MYR 21(yes, petrol is cheap), to cover the 130 kms I had clocked. That still worked out to less than MYR 500 for two days exploring the leisure island, also known as the Jewel of Kedah.