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

Penang to Langkawi by Boat

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
Langkawi's 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!

Langkawi: Flora, Fauna and The Pleasures of the Beach

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.

Langkawi: The Pleasures of the Table
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 and 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.
The Langkawi Cable Car and Sky Bridge

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


Langkawi: A Fond Farewell

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

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