Looking back on my Malaysian experience, I have to say that this country has it all. From rain forests to coral islands, rocky mountains to white sandy beaches and fishing villages to bustling cities, Malaysia is a joy for tourists. The country’s population is a rich tapestry of various ethnic groups; mainly Chinese, Malay and Indians. The diversity in their lifestyle, their distinctive features and their exotic cuisine makes Malaysia an exciting destination. The country is big, and has a history that reads like a story book. Intriguing tales of piracy, warfare, colonization, communism and finally modernization, fill many chapters in its fascinating history.
After a few days in the capital city, Kuala Lumpur, and then in peaceful Penang, we moved on to the other more distant and less populated islands. We caught the ferry from Penang in the morning and headed for the idyllic Langkawi. After a two and a half hour ride, which incidentally was quite enjoyable, we arrived at Kuah, a charming little town which is also the entry point to Langkawi. During the ride we could climb up on to the deck and enjoy the sun and the strong wind. Chatting with the other passengers was a treat. On the shore, we were greeted by the gigantic eagle icon sculpture that looms over the harbor. The real eagles inhabit the islands in large numbers and are a delight to watch as they swoop low to grab fish or whatever food the tourists throw at them. Now, that is some photo opportunity.
We were driven to one of the finest resorts in Malaysia, the Pelangi Beach Resort off the Cenang Beach. Consisting of many superb cottages, the resort is patronized by the very wealthy. After a day of sight seeing, listening to the house band play popular international songs was a great way to relax.
The very next day, our itinerary said “Island hopping”. It sounded exciting and it was. As we roared past numerous uninhabited islands in the little motor boat, Subodh Rana of Marco Polo Travels could not help remarking, “This is paradise.” In fact, if somebody told me, “This is the garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve once lived,” I would believe it.
We encountered fishermen in their little fishing boats gently bobbing in the sparkling green waters of the sea. We pushed further out to the island of mangrove trees where the brown eagles circled in search of food. And when the excited visitors tossed pieces of bread, they swooped down in great numbers. We then headed for the jungle lagoon hidden by a thick growth of tropical trees. Climbing up the stone steps, we found ourselves in an enclosure where a serene body of water awaited the enthusiastic tourists, who wasted no time in diving in. It was a scene right out of a Hollywood mystery.
Island hopping took us to various islands among the 99 different islands that constitute Langkawi. If you read Lonely Planet, it says, 104. The islands lie in the far northwest of peninsular Malaysia. Secluded coves and long lovely stretches of sandy beaches make the islands ideal for sun and fun loving tourists. As if that were not enough, the waters from the Andaman sea that splash the shores are clear beautiful emerald green, and the hills are covered in rich forests. Yet, the beaches are not overcrowded, as tourists are only just discovering this island paradise.
Langkawi is not wanting of anything. The hotels and resorts live up to the highest standards (seems to be a recent development), the roads are lovely and the islands abound in natural beauty. Away from the tourist areas, one sees buffaloes grazing near the sleepy farming villages. Deep in the forests lie hidden waterfalls, placid lagoons, exotic flowers and chirping birds of many species. Langkawi will charm you.
In Kuah, our guide took us to the batik factory where we sampled cotton and silk clothes that included shirts, trousers, cushions along with bags, pewter handicrafts, ashtrays, etc. There were also some wonderful paintings in batik. We were quite simply amazed by the high quality and the creativity of the local people. There is much to see in Langkawi. It boasts of the first fully covered walkway bird park in Asia. The Langkawi Bird Paradise has more than 150 exotic species of birds and there are supposedly more than 2,500 birds. You can have your fill of hornbills, cockatoos, the colorful macaws and the beautiful flamingos, to name a few. Another place of interest is the crocodile farm in Taman Buaya, which houses thousands of crocs. The amazing display of bravado by professionals is a must see. Then there is something the kids should not miss—the Underwater World Langkawi, located at Cenang Beach. The sight of sharks and many other species of fish at eye level is unbelievable. A 15 meter long tunnel with transparent glass provides a fascinating view of underwater life replicating what lies in the deep oceans.
To add to your enjoyment, the island is totally tax free, and to our amazement we could buy six cans of beer for RM 9:00 (pronounced Ringit, with a slight ‘n’ sound at the end) whereas in the other parts of Malaysia, we had bought one can for RM 5:00. I did tell you earlier, it is paradise. Buy what you can right here.
In terms of water sports, there is sailing, fishing, snorkeling, diving and much more. More inland, you can go bike riding, hiking, golfing (there are superb golf courses here) or on helicopter tours. The island is also gaining fame thanks to international events like Le Tour de Langkawi for cyclists. Then there is the IRONMAN triathlon which includes a 3.8 km swim, a 180.2 km cycling and a 42.2 km marathon run in succession. The winner gets the title of “Ironman”. Nothing was said about the women, and I did not bother to ask.
An exciting excursion is a ride in the cable car to Mt Mat Cincang. A stupendous view of the islands is the reward you get when you reach the rest stations. The ride is short and swift. The ocean stretches endlessly to the horizon. The rich forest and waterfalls lie below you and the ships and boats in the harbor are clearly visible from the top. I had mentioned in my previous article that Malaysia abounds in live entertainment. Believe it or not, there was a band singing Malaysian songs in one of the stations. They stopped only when it started to rain. Everywhere you go in this fascinating country, there are also souvenir shops. The beer mugs begged for attention, but were rather expensive.
Our most memorable trip was to the coral island. It was a one and a half hour journey by ferry and this boat was fast. It was a sunny day and the ride was pleasant. A guide spoke in detail on the finer points of snorkeling. Listening to him explain the various problems, which sounded quite discouraging, we unfortunately thought this sport was not for us. It was only later when we watched the others floating about in their life-jackets that we realized the guide was going on about DIVING, which is not for the uninitiated like us. Snorkeling on the other hand is so easy (we found out rather late in the day), we spent half the afternoon chastising ourselves for not having hired the equipment. We could have done it too. The life-jacket keeps you afloat; the breathing apparatus keeps the water out of your mouth, and with the goggles on, you can immerse your face into the water to look at the fishes at close range—simple as that. They even had a fence to keep people away from the deep waters. Diving being a more serious sport, it requires expertise and experience. The divers jumped off the boat long before we reached the shore.
Near the shore, the crystal clear waters enabled us to observe the colorful salt water fishes even from the walkway that led to the boat. Thousands of fishes came rushing (the visitors were instructed to buy bread for them) at the pieces of food tossed at them. Small sharks came close to the shore and swam past the legs of those standing in the water. The ladies screamed as the sharks brushed past them. It was an exciting experience. Lunch was served promptly at 12:30 pm after which, everyone jumped back into the water. There are rest houses up in the forested area for rent and showers near the beach. Underwater cameras were being sold in the boat, besides food and equipment, which have to be bought or hired before reaching the island.
The only thing that went wrong on the islands of Langkawi, was that we ran out of time, and we were soon on our way back to the real world. As I took a last look at the giant eagle with wings spread out towards the sea, I said, “I’ll see you again.”
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