There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Langkawi, a Tropical Paradise (for now): Part 8 of the Malaysian Peninsula

06/03/2017 to 08/03/2017

We were up early and in the restaurant before the staff. Someone soon turned up, cooked us an omelette and then apologised - he was not the chef, he said, and cooking was not actually his job. Any semi-competent amateur (me included) can turn out a passable omelette and if he had kept quiet we would never have known.

We were driven the short distance to George Town ferry port. At home it had seemed a good idea to take the boat to Langkawi rather than fly, but nobody in Penang agreed. It can be bumpy they said, the air-conditioning will be so aggressive, you’ll need a sweater, they added, if not a fleece. But what, we thought, could be pleasanter than bobbing along on the warm, blue Malacca Strait?
George Town Ferry Terminal, Penang
I should have looked at the timetable. The 120km journey from Penang to Langkawi was scheduled for under 3 hours and the boat - like the catamarans that speed between the islands of Hong Kong - was fast and sealed. This was not a pleasure cruise, there was no deck with a rail to lean on and gaze thoughtfully at the sea, this was a swift, efficient crossing.
The Langkawi Express awaits us, George Town Ferry Port
It seems churlish to complain, so I won’t. The sea was smooth, the air-conditioning moderate, the seats comfortable and the legroom ample. We saw little more than we would in a plane, but there was no check-in queue, no officious security, no sitting in the departure lounge wondering if the flight would be called on time, no tedious wait in cramped seats while the paperwork was completed and the crew counted and re-counted because they had mislaid a passenger. We boarded and the boat pushed off - quick, simple, stress free. The journey time hotel to hotel was very little greater and of course we did not have to stand beside a carousel waiting to see if our cases had also arrived.
Leaving George Town - and hoping to return one day
The ferry port is in the pleasant town of Kuah, the island's capital and home to almost half its 65,000 people. Langkawi, the largest of the 104 islands of the eponymous archipelago, is bigger than the Isle of Wight, smaller than the Isle of Man - and noticeably warmer than both. This is as far north as Malaysia goes, Tarutao Island, less than 10km away, is part of Thailand.
So that's where Langkawi is!

The ‘Frangipani Resort’, like many of Langkawi’s beach hotels, was in the south west corner, looking out onto the Andaman Sea. A little south of the main Pantai Cenang/Pantai Tengah development, but none the worse for that, it consisted of comfortable bungalows beside wooded paths among abundant bird life.
Comfortable bungalows, Frangipani Resort, Langkawi

Lynne spotted a hornbill among the trees, myna birds were everywhere and after much research we identified another frequent visitor as a yellow vented bulbul. Finding one of these in Malaysia, I read, requires the same level of patience and skill as spotting a pigeon in England, but they are rather prettier – and they do have a yellow vent (or arsehole as I would normally call it). Birds do not always cooperate with the camera, but the trees...
Lynne and a frangipani at the Frangipani Resort, Langkawi

… and carefully tended flower beds were less temperamental.
I have no idea what this is, but it is quite striking
Frangipani Resort, Langkawi

Our 72 hours on Langkawi were largely spent in the sybaritic delights of beach and pool. The large, clean uncrowded beach, was perfect for a stroll…
On the beach in Langkawi

…and the water was so calm and warm even Lynne managed to immerse herself.
The rare sight of Lynne up to her neck in water, Langkawi

The pool and jacuzzi were pleasant, though affected by the spirit of idleness I failed to photograph them. You will also have to imagine the poolside bar and restaurant, which was good for a snack at lunchtime and a drink at any time – in addition to its other charms Langkawi is a duty-free island so even our upmarket hotel offered a remarkably cheap gin and tonic.

I do have a picture of the main restaurant in the morning, and I know of nowhere pleasanter to break one’s fast. On the edge of the beach by the warm, blue sea, they offered all you would expect of international breakfast buffet, plus local favourites like beef rendang and nasi lemak (rice cooked in coconut milk) – I am not convinced it is true breakfast food, but in this case I will willingly make an exception.
Breakfast at the Frangipani Resort, Langkawi

The mynas were the only drawback. I am happy to see them sitting on the backs of vacant chairs, but when I wandered off to replenish my fruit juice, the bird swiftly hopped from chair to table and started eating my breakfast for me. I did not approve. ‘You are,’ I said firmly, ‘nothing but a jumped-up starling, and like all starlings you are two-a-penny.’ That told it; it won’t mess with my brekky again.
The myna that ate my breakfast, Frangipani Resort, Langkawi

Langkawi is a tropical paradise, but the island is changing and not always for the better.
Sometimes the changes are subtle. ‘In the old days,’ our driver had said on the way to the hotel, ‘there were no traffic lights on Langkawi, and the biggest danger was running into oxen lying in the highway, but now…’ he left the sentence ominously unfinished, gesturing at the empty road as though it was replete with hidden dangers.
Sometimes the changes are more obvious. The space between the Frangipani Resort and the main development was being filled with more and more building. We could not see it from our hotel, the landscaping was too good, nor could we hear it, but walking along the beach or the coast road it was all to obvious. Tourism kills the things it loves and Langkawi has been developing as a tourist resort since 1986. So far, so good, but as development gathers pace Langkawi could disappear under rambling hotels and concrete malls.
Hotel restaurants are rarely the best places for dinner, local food is better and cheaper in the outside world. With one unfortunate exception we had eaten spectacularly well in Malaysia enjoying Indian dishes cooked by Indians, Chinese food cooked by Chinese, Malay specialities cooked by Malays, ‘fusion food’ and the street food of Penang.
Unusually in Malaysia, Langkawi’s population is 90% Malay, but happily our explorations along the coast road had discovered restaurants run by all the country’s main ethnic groups as well as Thai (unsurprisingly in this location) and European restaurants.
The road outside the Frangipani Resort, Langkawi
On the first evening we chose the Tulsi Garden, run by Malaysian Indian’s for a largely Indian clientele. I might criticise the Indian tourists among our fellow dinners for lack of imagination but I could not fault the restaurant. Their lamb dopiaza was outstanding, the dish by which all future dopiazas will be judged, and if the spinach and dahl did not reach quite the same heights they were still very good. We even managed a dessert, kolfi ice cream for Lynne and gulab jamun – always my favourite Indian sweet – for me.
Lamb dopiaza, spinach ans sambar, Tulsi Garden, Langkawi
Day two we went Chinese. The proprietor was pleased to see us – he had no other customers – so he was able to concentrate on our fish with ginger, fried soft shell crabs and mixed vegetables. It was excellent, and the duty-free beer was ludicrously cheap.
Soft shelled crabs, fish with ginger and mixed vegetables
On Day three we took a walk the other way down the road and marked out a Thai restaurant for later. Returning to our hotel we encountered a group of dusky langurs, a new species to us, in the trees beside the road. With their black fur and striking white eye-liner they are also known as spectacled langurs. They decided not to co-operate with the camera, so here’s a picture from Wikipedia (thanks wiki).
Dusky Langur, photograph by Pavel Kirillov of St Petersburg
The Thai clams in spicy sauce, ‘squid salt egg’ (squid in batter with a mashed salted egg!) and vegetables with garlic completed a trio of first-class Langkawi dinners. Serious investment had gone into the restaurant so it was sad that we again ate alone, though two other customers arrived as we left.
Thai restaurant, Langkawi
Having earlier bemoaned the coming despoliation of this beautiful island, am I now arguing that it should be despoiled more to provide customers for excellent restaurants that deserve support? Not necessarily, there are already plenty of foreigners hiding away in their luxury hotels – they should get out more. But more generally, there exists an ideal level of development where the customers match the available facilities without destroying the island’s natural attractions. Langkawi has not arrived there yet, but it will soon. Unfortunately, stopping at that point is probably impossible.
Langkawi has sea, sun and sand in abundance, but little in the way of historical monuments. It has been a largely forgotten part of the Sultanate of Kedah since medieval times, sometimes trading in pepper and sometimes being a haven for Malacca Straits pirates. The Siamese invaded in 1821, killing a large proportion of the 3-5,000 inhabitants, Kedah took it back in 1837 and the quiet life returned until 1986 when the Malaysian government decided to develop Langkawi as a tourist resort, initiating a major growth in the island’s economy and population.
The Langkawi Cable Car, almost the island’s only built tourist attraction is designed to exploit its natural beauty. Situated on Langkawi’s northwest corner, twenty minutes’ drive from our hotel, it was opened in 2003. The six seat gondolas take you from sea level to the 708m peak of Machinchang Mountain in 15 minutes. Sharing our gondola with a young Indian couple on holiday from Hyderabad, we took some pictures of them and they returned the compliment.
Riding the Langkawi Cable Car
There is a middle station where you can break your 2.2km journey but only two supporting towers. The 919.5m span between tower 2 and the middle station is claimed to be the world’s longest cable span and at 42° its steepest. The Austrian/Malaysian constructors also boast that not a single tree was felled during construction.
The long, steep span to the middle station
From the middle station there are some fine views…

At the middle station, Langkawi Cable Car

…and also the chance to meet Darth Vader. The photo was intended to amuse/impress our grandson, but we felt sympathy for Darth, standing in the sun inside that hot suit is a hard way to make a few ringgits.
Darth Vader on the Langkawi Cable Car

We headed on to the upper station…
Heading out on the upper section of the Langkawi Cable Car

…where there are views across the mountains….
Looking across the mountains from the top of the Langkawi Cable Car

…and down to where we had started. Several retail opportunities also presented themselves and we paused for a high-altitude coffee.
Looking back down to where we had started

We could also look down on the Sky Bridge, an impressive if worryingly fragile looking swoop from one peak to the next.
The Langkawi Sky Bridge
A funicular railway descends to the bridge….
The funicular down to the Sky Bridge
… where we re-encountered our Hyderabadi friends for more mutual photographing.
The best 'on the Sky Bridge' picture
It is an exhilarating high-level walk, and we took lots of pictures…
The best 'looking across from the Sky Bridge' picture
… which fell neatly into three categories.
The best 'looking down from the Sky Bridge' picture
Taking the funicular back up, we had a final look round the top and then started the descent. We shared the gondola down with the same couple - I don’t think they were stalking us, it was just a coincidence.
Descending on the Langkawi Cable Car
The ‘Oriental Village’ at the bottom is the sort of tacky mall that will exist in every settlement on the island when the developers have had their way. For some reason our cable car tickets included entry to the mall's ‘Art in Paradise 3-D Art Museum’ – a grandiose name for collection of trompe l’oeil paintings.
We had already paid so we went, though I approached it with an air of snotty superiority. It took about a minute to win me over. It may not be ‘Art’ but it is very clever and great fun. We took many photographs, the best are reproduced below with minimal comment…
Pour one for me too, please. Art in Paradise, Langkawi
I think she is about to fall off. Art in Paradise, Langkawi
At last Time chose the right 'person of the year'. Art in Paradise, Langkawi
I always said Pandas were dangerous. Art in Paradise, Langkawi


On the final day I had a last swim in the sea…

A last swim in Langkawi - I don't seem to have had much sun on my back!
…and while I had a shower Lynne washed the shells she had collected for our grandson. A little later, alerted by a strangle rattling in the washbasin, she discovered that some were still occupied. We returned a couple of hermit crabs to their natural habitat.
Some of Lynne's shells were still occupied
We had a final Malay lunch of local style chicken curry and Nasi Campur (rice, rendang, satay and sambar), then waited to be taken to the airport. Langkawi - Kuala Lumpur – Dubai – Birmingham takes a very, very long time, and at the end of it there was grey sky to greet us. Why do I live in wrong climate?

The Malaysian Peninsula
Part 2: Kuala Lumpur

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Turtles, Monkeys and the Penang National Park: Part 7 of the Malaysian Peninsula

After breakfast a driver arrived to take us to Penang National Park, which occupies a small peninsula at the north-west extremity of the island.

The position of Penang in Malaysia
Maps, like the one below, show George Town as a dot, though its urban sprawl covers the north-east quarter of the island.  Yesterday we were in Kek Lok Si on the city’s southern edge, today we travelled along the north coast. Batu Ferringhi (Foreigner’s Rock) is George Town’s outermost suburb and the island’s major beach resort. James Lancaster (the relevant ‘Foreigner’) arrived in 1592, almost a century before Francis Light (see yesterday’s post) and stayed for four months, cheerfully pillaging passing shipping. Sir James (as he became) was an important figure in the Age of Exploration and a founder of the East India Company though, in the spirit of the times, many of his exploits are indistinguishable from piracy. Ironically Batu Ferringhi is now home to a large and officially encouraged European expatriate community.

From the dot of central George Town we drove round the north coast to Teluk Bahang, then took to our feet.

The driver dropped us outside the park office in Teluk Bahang where we met A, our guide for the day and set off along a broad concrete path. The plan was to walk across the base of the peninsula to Kerachut Beach, then take a boat around the headland to Monkey Beach for lunch and another boat back to Teluk Bahang.
Into Penang National Park
The concrete did not last long and soon we were heading into the jungle on a well-worn track. Having made an involuntary blood donation to an opportunist leach in a Sri Lankan rainforest I had wondered if leach socks might be useful but decided just to swap my sandals for socks and trainers, though ordinary socks are no defence. The day was overcast – which meant hot and sweaty - so I wore zip-off shorts which could become long trousers if the guide suggested I was underdressed. I need not have fussed; our Sri Lankan guide may have worn leach socks like chain mail but A was more laid back in his clothing choices.
A models the best dressed jungle explorer kit, Penang National Park
We climbed some steps, paused to watch a scurrying squirrel - brown with a white flash on each side – climbed more steps and then followed a rough path before halting to inspect a rengas tree. A relative of cashews and mangoes, the black patches of dried sap on its reddish bark contain an irritant which produces a severe allergic reaction. The rengas is not a tree to hug, lean upon or shelter under in the rain.

Rengas tree (I think)
We certainly saw one, and this is exactly the right colour, but most Rengas tees are larger and straighter than this

Some of the path was roughly flagged…
Steps and a rough flagged path, Penang National Park

…though most of it wasn’t.
Slogging up a rough path, Penang National Park

There were sunken paths lined with tree roots to trip the unwary…
A minds the tree roots, Penang National Park
…a stony area…
Lynne on a stony area, Penang National Park
…and a section known as ‘the tunnel’,…
Lynne in 'the tunnel' Penang National Park
After 50mins of hot, sweaty uphill slog we reached the rest station at the junction of the Bukit Batu Itam (Black Rock Hill) trail where a brief sit down was welcome. We had reached the ridge running down the peninsula and here the path forked, left to climb along the ridge to the top of the hill, right to descend to the coast. We turned right.
A fat bald man and a sweaty woman take  break on the trail
There are more flattering photographs of us elsewhere on this blog (though none less)

For the next 90mins our path was mainly, though not entirely, gently downhill.
The path goes gently downhill, Penang National Park

We saw two hairy caterpillars sitting on a leaf – probably best not to touch these…
Hairy caterpillars, Penang National Park

…and crossed a small stream, happily seeing no sign of leaches.
Stream in the Penang National Park

A sturdy stone bridge crossed the next stream and we leaned on the parapet and looked down on pale, almost ghostly, fish swimming just hard enough to remain stationary in the current.
The park authorities provided a boardwalk to help with the more difficult ground….
A boardwalk over the most difficult ground, Penang National Park
….after which A decided to go off-piste. Lynne declined to cross the stream, leaving me to clamber over the fallen tree and pick my way from rock to rock.
Over the log and across the stream, Penang National Park
He wanted to show me the pitcher plants on the far side….
Pitcher plants. Penang National Park
…and we also discovered a millipede. Longer and thinner than the deeply scary Malaysian cherry red centipede we found in the Cameron Highlands, this looks benign but I still prefer it climbing over A’s hand than mine.
Millipede, Penang National Park
A little further on we reached the meromictic Kerachut Lake. ‘Meromictic’ was, I confess, a new word to me and for the equally ignorant Wikipedia says ‘a meromictic lake has layers of water that do not intermix. In ordinary, "holomictic" lakes, at least once each year, there is a physical mixing of the surface and the deep waters.’ ‘Wow,’ I thought, ‘that is strange’.
Kerachut meromictic lake has a layer of salt water sitting permanently below a layer of fresh water, at least that is the theory – early March being the end of the dry season, it had little water of any salinity. Apparently 1 in a 1,000 of the world’s lake are meromictic so it is not that rare, the biggest being the Black Sea, which is not even a lake.
Kerachut meromictic lake, Penang National Park
The sea was now visible, but before we reached the beach we had to step over a tortoise bumbling through the undergrowth…
There are lots of species of tortoise, this is one the less colourful, Kerachut, Penang National Park
…and admire a Tongkat Ali tree. It is good for men, A told us, claiming an infusion of roots is a ‘power drink’. [It is, apparently, widely available in the UK and according to the ‘supplement’ industry will cure pretty well everything. Much of it is said to be fake, though there is enough  genuine stuff around for the Malaysian government to be concerned that harvesting the roots is threatening the tree with extinction.]
Tongkat Ali tree, Kerachut, Penang National Park
As Kerachut beach can only be reached by foot or boat it was relatively sparsely populated. The cloudy sky might not attract beach-goers, but the temperature was far higher than the picture makes it look.
Kerachut Beach, Penang National Park
The beach is a turtle conservation area.
Turtle conservation station, Kerachut Beach, Penang National Park
The sites where eggs have been laid are clearly marked and protected from predators….
Turtle egg sites, Kerachut Beach, Penang National Park
…but not all the eggs have been left in situ. The gender of the hatchlings depends on temperature and there is believed to be a shortage of male turtles so by bringing them into controlled surroundings the number of males can be boosted.
Turtle eggs under controlled conditions, Kerachut Beach, Penang National Park
Two infant turtles were swimming round a blue bath inside a shed. They looked uncomfortable in the constrained surroundings - I do not know why they were there, but I hope it was not just for the benefit of tourists.
Frustrated turtle, Kerachut Beach conservation station, Penang National Park
Kerachut has a substantial jetty…
Jetty, Kerachut Beach, Penang National Park
…but boats taking people back round the headland did not bother with it.
Not our boat, Kerachut Beach, Penang National Park
Boats came and went, and 40mins later we were still sitting in the sand. Most left less than half full, but A kept saying they were not for us. After 50mins I was becoming irritated and A seemed slightly on edge though trying to hide it. Then a boat arrived, he leapt to his feet and announced ‘This one.’ [The system, I learned, requires you to book a particular boat, not any seat on any boat, and if your boat is delayed, well so be it. I could improve their efficiency - but putting boat drivers out of work would make me unpopular.]
Leaving Kerachut Beach, Penang National Park
The sea was choppy and the boat sped along, leaping from wave crest to wave crest, sometimes not making it and plummeting into the trough with a spine jarring crash. After 5 uncomfortable minutes we reached the headland…
Towards the headland
… rounding it past crocodile rock.
Rounding the headland
Monkey beach was few minutes further.
Monkey Beach, Penang National Park
Despite the delay we arrived for lunch at 1 o’clock. The shack (pictured above) was basic, but the mee goreng (spicy stir-fried noodles) with vegetables and chicken was wholesome, filling and full of flavour. There was only lemonade to drink – until we discovered they had tender coconuts, so we drank those afterwards.

Disappointingly, the only monkeys on Monkey beach were two tied to a bed beside the shack. Leaping about, as monkeys do, they were becoming frustrated with the shortness of their tethers. Then one of them threaded himself – and the tether -  through the strings of the bed until he was upside down and trussed up like a turkey. Having no wish to be bitten by an increasingly panicky monkey, we called A over, expecting him to tell the cook, presumably their owner, but instead he squatted down, untied the end of the tether and carefully unravelled the knot. He did not expect gratitude from a monkey, but neither did he expected it to leap forward and make a grab for the headphones still stuck in his ears. He jumped back, dropping the tether and watched as the monkey climbed into a tree with part of his earphones in its mouth. I was happy to see it free, but the looped end of the tether caught among the branches and it was soon in trouble again. Eventually we coaxed it down and Lynne got hold of the tether.

Got him, Monkey Beach, Penang National Park

Having a dog on a lead is one thing, having a monkey is quite different. Dogs rarely climb their lead and try to bite your hand, but monkeys….
...but the monkey climbs the lead, Monkey Beach, Penang National Park
Lynne dropped the lead and in a flash the beast was back in the tree. I found the missing piece from A’s earphones in the sand, it had survived unscathed. The monkey had now re-tangled the tether in the branches and was in danger of strangling himself. The cook’s husband arrived with a machete and, despite being a bulky man, managed to climb the small tree far enough up to lop off the branch the monkey was entangled with - and standing on. Falling monkeys do not hit the ground, they catch a twig on the way down and swing back into the tree, but his momentary confusion allowed the tether to be grabbed. At this point our boat arrived and we said farewell, but I wished they had just let it go free - nobody should ‘own’ a wild animal.
It was a short and more gentle trip back to Teluk Bahang, passing a fish farm….

Fish farms, Teluk Bahang, Penang

….and several moored fishing boats....
Fishing boats, Teluk Bahang, Penang

Back on central George Town we walked to Armenian Street. Yesterday, E had told us that the Channel 4 series Indian Summers (shown on PBS in the US) while set Shimla, northern India in 1935/6, had been filmed in Penang with Armenian Street cast as Shimla’s Indian quarter.
Armenia Street, George Town, Penang

Some of the people looked the part, but even with all the cars, Malay and Chinese signage and assorted post 1930s paraphernalia cleared away only the magic of film making could make this place remotely like Shimla.
A most un-Indian corner of Armenia Street, George Town, Penang

We enjoyed the series, but too few others did, and it was cancelled in 2016 after only two of the projected 5 seasons.
Armenia Street, George Town, Penang

On the way back, we passed Nagore Dargha Sheriff. Built in the early 1800s it is the oldest Indian Muslim shrine in Penang.
Nagore Dargha Sheriff, George Town, Penag
In the evening we intended to seek out a Chinese restaurant but our quest failed and we found ourselves back in the Red Garden food court. Fortunately, we had far from exhausted the Red Garden’s possibilities and this time enjoyed Hainan white chicken with rice, mixed squid and prawns, vegetable spring rolls and ‘famous pork with bean sprouts.’
Despite three visits to the Red Garden Food Court we were not there on a Thursday so never saw the Ladyboy Show
Did we miss something?
Sadly, it was our last night in Penang. The diversity of the people and the food, the climate, and the relaxed atmosphere made Penang special and I would have happily stayed longer.