The waves crashed on the shore, over and over again. They could be heard at the little shack I had discovered at the edge of the beach two days ago. The setting sun had turned into a brilliant ball of orange, so tempting to pluck if one could from the depths of the universe. The souvenir sellers were preparing to leave, while signs that read ‘jet ski and banana boat rides’ were being folded and taken away. The plastic beach chairs that lay under bright red umbrellas were being cleared. And I sat at my little shack, watching the scene slowly unfold.
Sunbathers were headed to their rooms, others were headed to the cafés where fairy lights were coming on… The long-haired owner of the shack came to my table and placed a candle. Its light gave off a warm glow, setting the mood for the long night ahead. “Apa khabar?” (“How are you?”), he asked. “Saya sihat” (“very well”), I responded, taking a swig of my chilled beer. How quickly had the afternoon given way to the evening, I thought. Not that it mattered—I had no care in the world. After all, isn’t that the best way to celebrate a birthday?
Have you ever had one of those impulsive moments when you pick a place on the map and just decide to go there? I often experience these moments, and in their aftermath I always tell myself to research at least a little bit. But I am yet to heed my own advice. Add a birthday to the mix and you end up with tickets to Kuala Lumpur and Langkawi—accommodation and visa details to be formulated much, much later.
After a brief halt to eat street food in Kuala Lumpur’s Jalan Alor, it was onward to Langkawi, once considered Malaysia’s best-kept secret. As a travel writer, I like surprises. In a world where such a simple task has become incredibly difficult, it takes a bit of effort—I ask locals for recommendations rather than researching online, ask people for directions and not Google Maps, and, more often than not, just walk around to discover neighbourhoods. No wonder when I landed in the quaint airport, I was surprised to realise how big the main island really is. The archipelago is almost 500 sq km (the main island is about 370 sq km)—Singapore is a little over 700—making it impossible to walk around. The local red-and-white taxis are cheaper than the others, so I hailed one to take me to my hotel in Kuah, which did not turn out to be as close to the water as it seemed on a map. Indeed, a peril of less research.
Did you know that the debate of exactly how many islands constitute the Langkawi archipelago is still raging? Some say 92, others 104, but there is no confusion concerning the weather—hot and humid throughout the year with wet monsoon—and the ecological diversity they can find at the Unesco Global Geopark with its protected caves, waterfalls, mangroves, ancient rock formations and fascinating plant life. To promote tourism, the entire island is duty-free and one comes across numerous such shops on the 20-minute taxi ride to Pantai Cenang, one of the few public beaches. It is interesting to note that the majority of beaches in Langkawi are private. You will have to stay in a resort to visit those.
There’s plenty going on at Cenang beach. Both locals and tourists frequent it. There are many cafés, souvenir shops set up in a line on the road, and water-sports shacks with eager touts trying their best to send you on island-hopping tours. Amid the chaos, I found exactly what I was looking for—peace. Towards the end of the beach stood Ah Chong, consisting of a bar, a few wooden tables and stools, planters in old wine bottles, second-hand books behind the counter, and, most importantly, no wifi. Obviously, it became my local hangout and I often struck up conversations with the owner. It is a wonderful feeling to be treated like a regular in a country that isn’t your own.
It was he who suggested that I go to the Langkawi Sky Bridge in the north-west part of the island. A major tourist attraction, this 125-metre curved pedestrian bridge is quite the spectacle. You take the cable car up to the final station, from where steps lead up, down and up again to the entrance of the bridge. The cable-car ride is extremely picturesque. One can observe the island’s beauty for miles—the blues of the sea and the sky intermeshed at the horizon, the yellow of the beach, the green cover of the surrounding hills…no wonder this particular backdrop is extremely popular on social media. The Sky Bridge is about 700m above sea level and a quick walk across will show you the many natural wonders the island boasts—Telaga Tujuh waterfalls, Gunung Mat Cincang (a well-known mountain) and the many inlets that surround the area. However, it is the fierce wind speed that one needs to be mindful of. So many of my poses came close to Marilyn Monroe’s iconic scene in The Seven Year Itch. But, of course, this madness was trumped by the spectacular views.
The eagle is possibly the most recognised symbol on the island. Birdwatching is a very popular pastime and the Eagle Square is another extremely popular landmark. But if you want something really local, check the night-market schedule. The market changes location every day of the week and on the day I was there, I managed to locate it at Temoyong. Meats on sticks, custard cakes, fresh char kway teow and mie goreng, laksa, glasses of mango juice, martabak, silver jewellery and clothes along with a large local crowd—familiar sights and sounds but in a different country. Even the flavours, though very local, left a sense of familiarity on the tongue.
On a mission to search for another public beach, I headed to the secluded Tanjung Rhu in the north of the island. It was filled with casuarina trees that provided plenty of shade, but the water was extremely choppy and made swimming difficult. Instead, I did what I do at most beaches—ate fresh seafood and drank coconut water.
Langkawi is quite an interesting place. Though the island-hopping tour was a let-down, especially after having seen spectacular bays in neighbouring countries, the island has its charm, and gives a sense of complete abandonment. Just like the owner of my regular shack-cum-watering hole, with whom I never exchanged names, but spoke about everything under the sun—from American politics to Queen albums.
I finished the remaining beer and left, looking for something to snack on as tourists came out to enjoy the nightlife. Some dragonfruit juice and skewered meats later, I was ready to call it a night as the music pulsated from the cafés and restaurants. On my cab ride back to Kuah, my thoughts turned towards the milestone birthday. I may never come back but the essence of Langkawi would forever remain in my memories. Sun, sand, adventure, a polaroid picture and peace—what more could a girl want?
Flights ply to Langkawi from many Indian cities via Kuala Lumpur. One would require an e-visa to enter Malaysia (visit windowmalaysia.my/evisa/evisa.jsp). There are plenty of resorts across all budgets in Langkawi. Don’t forget to exchange your currency to Malaysian ringgits (RM 1 = approx. INR 17).