The dark clouds were threatening to ruin the party. We were on the beach near the Langkawi mangroves, clutching soft drinks and cameras, waiting to be partnered up for a spot of tandem parasailing. But the wind was changing shift, and the grim shakes of the head from the adventure sports crew were a hint that the plan might change. Soon enough, raindrops were falling, leaving little damp spots on the sand. What now, wailed every expression. Don’t let the day turn into a snatched candy, please. Hurry, hurry, someone waved at us urgently. Some boats that had been bobbing away on the waves a little while ago had come to the beach, and there was a flurry of arms and legs as people started jumping into them. Parasailing was off for now, but we were going to the mangroves. Abandoning a huddle of dithering Indian journalists, I ran forward and hopped into a boat full of Malaysian-Chinese media people from Kuala Lumpur. Adventure can taste better with strangers.
Sitting in a boat getting wet, or sitting in a boat and staying semi-dry in a plastic poncho — doesn’t sound like much of a choice, does it? The afternoon rains, so typical of the Malaysia-Singapore belt, can in fact be refreshing, as the oppressive humidity releases itself in gentle precipitation.
This afternoon’s rain, too, started slow, almost teasingly. A few drops fell, stopped, and just as the ponchos were coming off, fell again. The clouds that had stopped us parasailing cast a spell on the mangroves, light and shade playing on the green cover of the low cliffs. The Langkawi mangroves grow in the sea channels running between these cliffs, making the boat ride a meandering one, like an exciting treasure hunt. Our jet boats passed traditional wooden vessels, one of them carrying a ‘Just Married’ couple who waved at us.
The clouds now flexed their muscles and the raindrops fell faster, becoming a downpour. As if on cue, the jetboats picked up speed. I was at the head of our boat, getting happily soaked, while others hid under their ponchos. It was outright magnificent. Urban life makes us hate rain, and we blame it for our own sins: traffic chaos, filth on the streets. In the Langkawi mangroves, rain is a primal force, transforming a good sightseeing trip into one to be remembered for a lifetime. I vaguely noticed other people in other boats, the music coming from a phone, the friendly waves, but the only thing that consumed my mind was the feel of the torrent hurtling towards us, and our boat bucking and rushing towards it.
Thus spent, the rain finally let up, just as two floating platforms came into view. These were fish restaurants; we were going to make a halt here to see sting-ray feeding. First, we peered into a tank holding a school of groupers, no doubt destined for a dinner plate. Do they eat the sting-ray, too? I didn’t ask. If the answer had been yes, it would have been sad; after some of us had fed and even patted the sleek rays coming up for their fishy treats. If you’re a carnivore, though, these floating restaurants serve the freshest fare.
The mangrove tour is the Langkawi equivalent of a ‘must-do’ at any other destination. We had been warned that we’d miss, because of the time at which our tour started, an immensely rewarding experience: entering a limestone cave, its stalactites and stalagmites shaped by nature and time in this prehistoric geological space. The tide rose in the afternoon, making the cave entrance too narrow for a boat to enter, said our hosts, the people at Vivanta by Taj – Rebak Island Resort. A hotel guest visiting the mangroves the next morning did go into a cave, and told us he felt “like a rich man.”
Staying at the Rebak Island Resort can make one feel like that too — it’s not just that the property is lush, expansive and within touching distance of the sea, but also because the resort is set on its own island, a luxury that few can match. One of the nearly hundred islands that make up the Langkawi archipelago, Rebak is the perfect size — large enough for guests to explore a tropical paradise, yet small enough never to feel cut off from the main property should one stray off the walking track. Its Malay-style wooden cottages are so roomy and lavishly appointed that a rainy afternoon spent indoors would be a holiday in itself.
The most romantic feature of the resort is the Moon Deck. A stepping-stone path from the main walking track leads up to this little private dining area overlooking the sea, diaphanous curtains fluttering in the breeze. At the tip of a rocky outcrop, the deck makes one feel merged with the sea. A bespoke menu and even a serenading band come with a Moon Deck dinner, so if you were thinking of popping the question in the right setting, this might be the one.
Yet another charming aspect is the private marina of the Rebak Island Resort. Hotel boats moored at the marina ferry guests to a point from where the main island, Pulau Langkawi, is a short drive away. Should you want to arrive at Rebak Island on your own luxury yacht, partying like Sir Richard B, the marina is at your disposal. There are, indeed, several boats anchored here permanently. These belong to the ‘yachtis’, people who are on a Western version of vanaprastha — many are Australians. “They have finished doing everything in life, and then taken off on a boat,” said Pravin Bancharam, learning and development manager at the Taj Hotels and our go-to person. “They stay here for most of the year, and then sometimes sail back to where they lived, for a visit.” Pravin’s ancestry was of interest: though he is from Mauritius, his roots are in Kolkata, where the Bancharam name is revered by sandesh-lovers. Was he a part of that family? Pravin didn’t know, but he was going to visit Kolkata and perhaps reconnect with his distant relatives. “Sweet idea,” I said, with a lame pun.
Thoughts of manic urban spaces are so far away when one is on Rebak Island that a visit to Pantai Cenang comes as a shock. This is the ‘high street’ of Pulau Langkawi where tourists arrive with large bags for some of the cheapest liquor and chocolate shopping in the world. Close to the beach, this is a buzzing neighbourhood with cheerful merchandise, small cafes and hotels. After stocking up dutifully at a duty-free mall, we carried on to get a souvenir. It was the best I have ever got, because it wasn’t bought by me, but made by me. Malaysian batik art looks very different from Indian batik, and a little undeclared competition began between the Indian and Malaysian groups when we sat down to create our own batik paintings at the Atma Alam Batik Art Village. Paintbrushes, colours, batik drawing, all on the table and ready for a completely unique work of art. We were no match for the Malaysians, who made absolutely stunning paintings. Still, I like my little fish with the slightly smudged colours, for it is a reminder of a marine world beyond beautiful.
Getting there: Flights to Kuala Lumpur start from about Rs 12,000 (Air Asia from Chennai). From Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata, the return fare is Rs 24,000–30,000. There are frequent flights from Malaysia Airlines and Malindo as well.
Visa: Malaysia has visa on arrival for Indians (www.kln.gov.my), but only if they enter from Singapore and Thailand, have a valid return ticket and carry $1,000 in cash. The VOA fee is $100.From India, the visa fee is about Rs 1,000. The visa application can be made through VFS (www.vfsglobal.com/malaysia/india).
Currency: Malaysian ringgit (1 ringgit (MYR/RM) = Rs 18)
Where to stay: We stayed at the Vivanta by Taj – Rebak Island Resort (partial seaview rooms from MYR532 with breakfast, plus taxes; www.vivanta.com), a boutique property on a private island. Luxury hotels abound in Langkawi, which also has the Four Seasons (‘Upper Melaleuca Pavilion’ MYR2,667 with breakfast, plus taxes; www.fourseasons.com) on a beach near the mangroves; The Danna Langkawi (‘Merchant’ rooms with hill views from MYR891 with breakfast, plus taxes; www.thedanna.com), with a semi-colonial design; and The Datai Langkawi (deluxe twin rooms from MYR1,870 with taxes; www.thedatai.com), surrounded by rainforests. Several budget and mid-range hotels are clustered around Pantai Cenang.
What to see & do: Langkawi is big on adventure sports. The beach from where mangrove tours start also has jet-skiing and parasailing facilities(www.naam.bz). We did manage to do both. Jet-skiing is not for the faint-hearted though perfectly safe — you have to ride pillion and hold on to the chap driving the machine, which goes over the waves like a rodeo horse. Tandem parasailing is a far more tame affair — two or three people are put in a harness and reeled out of a boat, which moves in a slow arc as the parachute gains height. Keep your cameras ready for a shot you can’t get from anywhere else. You couldalso join a relaxing dinner cruise (see list of cruise operators at www.langkawi-insight.com). There’s plenty of scuba-diving at the Pulau Payar Marine Park (www.tourism.gov.my). Try batik painting at the Atma Alam Batik Art Village (www.atmaalam.com) and watch eagle-feeding in the mangroves (www.viator.com).