Eagle spotting, Cable-car riding and beach lounging on a backpacker's budget in Malaysia's Langkawi
A little snippet of paradise sits hidden away, nestled 30km out to sea and as close to Thailand as it is mainland Malaysia. Langkawi is Peninsular Malaysia’s prize jewel: an island idyll that buzzes with life and where a single night stopover all too easily turns into a week’s misguided adventure.
Langkawi translates as ‘strong eagle’ and an imposing statue of such welcomes you to the island, leaving you to momentarily wonder if you’ve arrived at a Wolf Blass Vineyard. The friendliness of the locals soon becomes apparent as eager taxi drivers attempt to porter your bags and outbid each other for your fare; barter well and you’ll have enough change to stop en-route at one of the local roadside stands and indulge in exotic treats (the coconut water was a good choice).
The island itself is easy to navigate and exploration is highly recommended, be it by vintage cycle, motorbike, hire car or taxi. To the north Telega Tujuh is a collection of seven waterfalls that brim with life and flow into one another during the rainy season. In monetary terms it’s free to enter; one pays with leg-power, as it’s a worthwhile 45-minute trek to the top, involving over 500 fairly steep and daunting steps. The ascent offers plenty of opportunities to meet the locals, cool down in the water, spot monkeys, hornbills and abundant greenery, possibly all at the same time. The view from the top isn’t too shabby either!
At 700m, Mat Cincang, situated in the island's south west, is Langkawi’s second highest peak and also home to a cable car (Jalan Telaga Tujuh Teluk Burau; (604) 959 4225; open 10am - 8pm) that will conveniently transport you to the top, from which the sheer scope of the forest and a sea of green will unfold beneath you. The cable car stops at a couple of stations, allowing you to disembark, walk round, and see the island from differing perspectives. A suspended steel bridge, 125m long and hanging above the clouds, permits a nerve-racking walk to a neighbouring mountain peak, and stunning vistas of both Malaysia and Thailand are all en-route, time it right and you’ll be rewarded with sublime sunset views too.
Pantai Cenang is the island hotspot, with a 2km long sweeping white-sand beach bordered only by swaying coconut trees and crystal blue sea. It’s the perfect base for a range of activities: from adrenaline inducing jet skiing, parasailing and kayaking to the more sedate sun bathing and lilo-floating. Snorkels can be hired for minimal cost, but the finest coral is further out and best encountered as part of an island-hopping trip. Behind the beach the street is lined with a wide variety of shops which act as Mecca in this tax-free haven, and an eclectic choice of eateries ranging from German and Japanese to Italian and traditional Malaysian compete for business. Fresh fish comes in abundance and great deals are to be had though it’s the slightly scruffy looking, budget-friendly canteens (D’Sini Restoran, Red Tomato Canteen) that serve up the best treats – dhal and roti is a breakfast dish that takes a day to get used to, but after that it’s a long-awaited mealtime.
While Langkawi has recently undergone, and still experiences, rapid development that caters specifically to the tourist market, it is still a far cry from the mega-resorts of other south east Asian countries. International airports make it an easy destination to reach and a plethora of multi-national resorts offer a luxurious stay with private-beach chalets complete with attentive staff, swimming pool and comfy loungers. Venture off the beaten track and you’re rewarded with modest backpacker lodges un-touched by time and surrounded by greenery. Rainbow Lodge is located a mere five minute walk from Pantai Cenang beach and laid back Addy welcomes you to his home with warm smiles, traveller tales, and delicious scrambled eggs. A variety of accommodation ranging from a spacious 10 bed dormitory to private rooms open onto a central courtyard and with prices starting at £3 per night it leaves plenty in the backpacker fund. Addy happily arranges tours and transport to suit your needs, thus allowing you to sit back in his bar and relax with your instant new best friends as eagles soar above your head and geckos run at your feet.
Pantai Cenang comes alive at night too as hordes of people come to browse the street stalls and pick up hand crafted bargains - beads anyone? If it’s entertainment you’re after then the beach is the first stop for nighttime revelers. Babylon Bar sits right on the sand and aims to satisfy all the senses with home-grown live reggae bands, exotic handmade cocktails and fire dancers spinning poi dangerously close. It’s an intriguing hand built construction complete with upper sitting area (if you dare) and benches half buried in the sand. An old VW camper van props up the scene, offering cosy seating or impromptu sleeping and at roughly RM5 per beer it’s the place to be, day or night. Another good choice is Reggae Bar: get there early, find yourself a table and some friends and buy a bottle of spirits (cost effective), graffiti the wall and then dance the night away to UB40, Peter Tosh, Bob Marley and the bar will close around you, leaving you to bop to the music in your head or improvise with the percussion instruments that have undoubtedly been cast aside in delirium. Sunba is a Malaysian experience, small in size but big in character, it’s semi-rural location appeals to a varied mix of west and east. It’s where music is loud, bass is heavy and where night turns into day.
A collection of friendly local guys looking no older than 25 with ponytails, bandanas and missing teeth seem to be one step ahead of the party: they’re a permanent fixture in all the bars, and they’ll be telling you where to go too. So insistent they are, that they convoy everyone to the next bar on the back of their bikes. Resist, follow, and party like a local.