In Depth

Langkawi: Malaysia’s astonishing archipelago

Malaysia

Known as the Jewel of Kedah state, Langkawi is an archipelago of 99 islands along Malaysia’s west coast. Once a sleepy, near-deserted backwater, in the mid-80s Malaysia’s then-prime minister decided to make Langkawi a tropical tourist paradise.

Pulau Langkawi, one of only four inhabited islands in the archipelago, is by far the largest - and in fact is often simply called Langkawi. Today, the island’s powdery-white shoreline is fringed with slender palms and with laid-back bars. Venture inland and you’ll find jungle-cloaked mountains and picturesque paddy fields as well a plethora of duty-free bargains - a big draw for travellers since 1987.

Despite the efforts to make Langkawi a tourist hotspot, the island has not been over-developed. Awarded Unesco World Geopark status in 2007, today two-thirds of the 478.5-sq-km island remain an idyll of forest-covered mountains, hills and natural vegetation.

There’s no public transport in Langkawi and by far the best way to get around the island is by hiring a car or scooter. We opted for a scooter, riding pillion alongside locals on small village roads to waterfalls, quiet beaches and night food markets.

We visited during Ramadan, also known as Puasa month, where locals are forbidden from eating, drinking, and partaking in vices from dawn to sunset. For the non-Muslim traveller, the cultural experience can be fascinating. The nightly call to prayer reverberates throughout the island accompanied by the sweet, heady scent of incense. The food on offer throughout Ramadan is even more extensive than usual and roadside hawkers of all shapes and sizes pop-up. We sat by the side of the road with locals and ate with our fingers from brown paper cones filled with rice, meat and fish.

While Langkawi has a night market seven days a week, during Ramadan two much larger and festive ones set up for the month, one in Kuah and the other near the international airport. If you want to fill your boots, you’ll need to be quick - you’ll have approximately 45 minutes after sunset before the locals snap up the delicacies and the markets disappear until the following evening. 

For a luxurious stay, head south to boutique hotel Ambong Ambong Rainforest Retreat - a five star property set within lush thickets of emerald jungle alive with wildlife. Built in 2011, the hotel is home to just 11 units - a cluster of cottages, suites and poolside villas.

Six years later, a sister property was built on a separate site 300m away, Ambong Pool Villas. Secluded but not isolated, the hotel is a mere five minute stroll from Pantai Tengah, the longest stretch of beach in Langkawi. Perfect for nature-lovers, the jungle surroundings are host to a plethora of chattering monkeys, loud cicadas and spectacular hornbills. You’ll feel like you’re in a nature documentary as you watch long-tail macaques, silent giant squirrels and horn-bills flit through the trees. Flying lizards and Giant Malaysian Fruitbats (1.4m wingspan) occasionally come out at night too.

The best place to watch this live show? Your private balcony, where you can choose to feast daily in private rather than in the main restaurant. Ambong Ambong Pool Villas is home to nine upmarket villas, each with their own private outdoor pool, open patio and sunny open terraces.

The main restaurant, Rimba, uses locally-sourced ingredients to make up a traditional Malay, Chinese and Indian menu, with input from neighbouring Thailand. The extensive cocktail menu is best enjoyed at sunset at one of the tables in the outdoor bar area, complete with stunning views of the Andaman Sea.

Popular tourist activities in Langkawi include sailing, mangrove kayaking, bird watching, and jungle trekking. One of the major visitor attractions is Langkawi SkyCab, offering an aerial link from the Oriental Village at Teluk Burau to the peak of Gunung Machinchang, where you’ll also find the Langkawi Sky Bridge. The total length is 2.2 km (1.4 mi), with a journey time from the base to the top of around 15 minutes.

We opted for a more adventurous experience and headed out early one morning to climb Gunung Machinchang, part of the UNESCO World Heritage Geopark. Formed some 550 million years ago, the mountain is the oldest rock formation in the whole of South East Asia.

Although only 701m high, the climb is challenging and only for experienced hikers, but the rewards are plentiful. During the rainy season (June to October), the climb is slippery and often avoided. Allow a whole day, take plenty of water and wear suitable footwear. After a point, the trail becomes very steep and you’ll need to use a rope to hoist yourself up. The foliage changes from dense rainforest at the lower levels to small trees, bushes and orchids towards the top. On a clear day you can see all the way to the mainland and southwest Thailand from the summit. On your way back, stop at the Seven Wells waterfalls at the bottom for a quick dip.

If you prefer life in the slow lane, head to one of the traditional kampung (villages) dotted all over the island. Nearby Bon Ton is a secluded bolt-hole, home to eight traditional Malay villas, carefully restored and transported to theresort by Australian owner Narelle McMurtrie. All profits fund her animal rescue centre next door, a draw for volunteers passing through the island from all over the world.

On the northeastern tip of the island you’ll find the quiet Tanjung Rhu beach. Tanjung in Malay means Cape, and Rhu refers to the species of evergreens here, also known as the sea pine. Far less crowded than Pantai Tengah or Pantai Cenang, but with the same talcum-white beaches and evergreen trees, on a clear day you can see the faint silhouette of the mountain ridges that run from Malaysia to Thailand. At one end of the sands, you’ll find a beach bar with bean bags, ideal for lounging with a beer as you watch the sun go down.

On our way back from Tanjung Rhu we stopped off at Temuran waterfall, the tallest on the island, with three tiers of water cascading 30 metres to the pool below. Although ideal for a refreshing post-beach dip, make sure you keep an eye on your belongings, as eager monkeys are keen on snatching them and scurrying off into the trees.

If you’re after a relaxed escape from modern-life, Langkawi offers it in spades. However it’s not just any run-of-the-mill idyll. For some high-octane fun, peel yourself from your beach towel and explore the mysterious mangroves, winding rivers and ancient limestone caves and mountains.

From the UK, the easiest way to reach Langkawi is to fly to Kuala Lumpur and then take a connecting flight to Langkawi - Air Asia offers daily hour-long regular flights. Boat service connects the island to destinations including Kuala Perlis, Kuala Kedah, Penang, and Tamalang.

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