Alabaster beaches, a dense tangle of million-year-old rainforests, the cacophony of the cicadas… this could be a place I could get addicted to. Once a refuge for the pirates in the Andaman Sea, Langkawi, part of an archipelago of 99 islands, is today a classic get-away-from-it-all island paradise. It was former Prime Minister Mahathir who, in 1986, made Langkawi a duty-free, investment-friendly haven, and gave a fillip to its growth as a resort town. It's a region of exceptionally pristine bio-diversity — there are over 400 types of butterflies, 200 species of birds and around 100 species of bats.
Our hotel room is a villa built into the forest floor with views of the emerald Andaman Sea. A sign on our bed-side table ‘Monkey business' explains the ways of safeguarding our rooms from simian guests. They quite often let themselves into the rooms through the balcony door, and even help themselves to the minibar! Monitor lizards walk across jungle paths and small buggies ferry guests across the sprawling resort. The jungle feel of the forest villas is in contrast to the sunny vibe of the sea-side chalets that many guests prefer. The first few days are a whirr of cocktails by the pool and walks on the white sand beaches. The more energetic among us play beach volleyball and navigate kayaks in brilliant shades of yellow and orange on the ocean waters. We are spoilt for choice with Chinese, Malay and even Indian food on the menu. A relaxing aromatherapy massage with ginger oil at the spa set at the edge of the resort and a dip in the open-air Jacuzzi after that set the tone for the next few days. Sinking into a stupor is the natural order of things after that.
We take a slow boat tour of the mangroves fringed by the limestone cliffs of the Kilim Geo Forest Park (recognised by the UNESCO as a World Geo Park with unique ecology), starting with Tanjing Rhu village. The sea arches, stacks and rocks here may date even to the pre-Jurassic period! The mangroves are a magical place where the tenacious plants, capable of surviving in both saline and freshwater, have a unique eco-system. The mangroves act as a natural defence against strong waves — they say many Langkawi coastal villages were saved from the full force of the 2004 tsunami, thanks to the mangroves. There are mud skippers and fiddler crabs; a huge monitor lizard looks almost like a tree trunk; and frogs sit nonchalantly on gangly roots. Dusky leaf monkeys watch us from the roots of a tree. Our boatman asks us to hide the snacks on the boat as they are capable of grabbing what they can and dashing into the wilderness. We visit a floating sea-food restaurant-cum-fish farm called the ‘Hole in the Wall', situated as it is between two massive limestone outcrops. It has huge cages holding sea creatures such as archer fish, electric eel, bat fish and even king crabs. There are huge pet stingrays, playful and hungry — and can be hand-fed with fresh fish.
There are colourful yachts moored in the estuary, a safe place for travellers from European countries who return here a couple of times a year. If you want to linger, you can have fresh sea-food lunch with local beer. Murky caves lie close to the swamps. We visit the Gua Kelavar or the bat cave, an eerie tall cave where several hundreds of fruit bats hang above. The roofs and the walls are covered with old sea shells proving this cave was once the sandy bottom of a river raised by tectonic forces millions of years ago.
A different world
Our boat goes through the Crocodile Cave, so called because the tide comes through its jaw-like opening. Inside are wondrous stalactites and stalagmites formed over millennia. A little away from the Kilim River Jetty is the ‘eagle feeding spot'. The boatmen rev up their engines to attract the attention of the sea eagles and the Brahminy kites swooping overhead. They scatter some chicken gut and skin on the water, and the sharp-eyed birds of prey swoop down near our boats for a wonderful photo-op. I hear there is protest from environmentalists for this is a bad practice, and should be discouraged as it dulls the predator's instinct to fish, and is not their natural diet.
From river Kilim, the return journey home is exhilarating — our boat suddenly speeds into the open sea, a choppy bumpy ride which has us clinging for dear life. Far away, we see the limestone outcrops, deserted beaches, and the glorious royal blue sky turning crimson. There are Disneyesque attractions that I have missed — such as the Underwater World and even a cable car ride. But then, I am high on what Nature's offered. What's not to love? Terima Kasih, Langkawi. Thank you!
Published in The Hindu Metro Plus,2011.