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Paradise found, briefly.

The main beach at Cenang on Langkawi

There’s a boat service from the harbour in Penang that runs out to Langkawi Island. Langkawi is just south of the border with Thailand and is Malaysia’s version of  sun-kissed tropical party islands such as Kho Samui, not far away in Thailand. The Thai islands are about lazing on the beach by day, and partying with glow-sticks and various forms of drug by night dream by night. The film The Beach captured all that very well.

Malaysia is an Islamic State so debauchery and drugs are not really on the menu. No funny smelling cigarettes and groups of predatory ladyboys here. Actually we did spot some of the latter in Langkawi, quite surprisingly. Malaysia has laws forbidding the love that dare not speak its name. Prime Ministers have used them to have opposition leaders locked up on almost certainly false charges, a handy way to stay in power. I’m diverting off-topic a bit but it’s interesting that in this country where such acts still mean prison, we’ve seen quite a few men going about as ladies. With varying degrees of plausibility it has to be said. Examples you say? CM crept up to the free squirt of perfume counter at a top Department store the other day (Similar as John Lewis). A make-up girl saw her and rushed over to be of assistance, as always they want to make a sale. Only the well turned out make-up girl was, behind all the foundation,  a Chinese looking man. He/she was clearly a man in body and voice. I couldn’t imagine seeing that in John Lewis, are we really as liberal and enlightened as we think we are? Perhaps less enlightened than this Islamic state in some ways. In Langkawi they have an English Tea shop, bone china crockery and Devonshire Tea’s and all that. The young lady who served us was also a man, although more convincing than the perfume man. Lastly, while strolling down the main street by our hotel a woman in tight jeans with faultless complexion, very long hair, and very feminine features sashayed past us. CM though could see this was a man from his walk, I have to admit though, at first pass I was fooled. You see all this a lot in Thailand, but I’ve been surprised to see it here. Government aside, it says something about people’s willingness to accept people for what they are here. It probably helps that many men here are often fairly androgynous looking, unlike in the west.

Anyway, our boat to Langkawi took three hours, below deck it was the icy blast of huge air conditioners, up on deck it was lovely views and a hot day. We arrived and got a taxi to the main beach for affordable accommodation, called Cenang. It didn’t look too impressive at first sight, a bit tired looking and the hotels were either silly money or ramshackle. But we found an ok place for £20 a night which is a good price here. Most of the other visitors to the island are local Malay’s and other Asians. This was a good thing as it meant it wasn’t backpacker central with noisy drunken westerners roaming around making the place look untidy. Most of that crowd were no doubt holed up not far away in Thailand. We spent a relaxing five days one the beach or in the many beach café’s. The weather was almost too hot (I got burnt) and the sea was the temperature of a warm bath. The beach was quite a scene with lots of water sports in progress; there were also groups of Koreans having boisterous fun accompanied by near continuous shouting much of the day. Many Muslim women remained covered up in the 30+ degree heat. They were usually sat away from the sea under the palm trees together, while their men and children frolicked in the sea. Sometimes you’d see a woman totally covered, walking along the shoreline behind her husband (who’s in shorts and T shirt). All she is able to do, apart from swelter, under this burning sun is get her ankles wet. Seaside fun all but denied.

Local ladies cover up while foreigners sunbathe

Penang Langkawi beachfront

Golden sands and warm waters, perfect.

We came the week of a big bi-annual military air show and regional gathering. Fighter jets and big troop carriers flew over the beach much of the day putting on a display of military might and acrobatics. The sound of those powerful jet engines went right through you at times. At night the place comes alive and looks very attractively lit, dozens of restaurants near the beach and on the beach, and one or two bars. Although only one or two. Despite this being a duty free island, meaning that alcohol is very cheap, beer is relatively scarce. Beer is half the price of the rest of Malaysia but the Muslim majority don’t drink (officially at least) so it’s not available everywhere. This seemed a bit barking, especially to CM. Surely the guzzling of beer and wine should be mandatory on a duty free island? They had duty free shops but they stocked more European chocolate than booze. However we seek out the well stocked but unadvertised chiller cabinets stuffed with cheap but high quality beer; and lo, it was good.

On another day we rented a scooter and rode around the island, it’s a beautiful unspoilt place. Very little traffic and good winding roads through the thick verdant rainforest. This is probably what the rest of Malaysia looked like before the oil palm plantations came along. We went up to a cable car attraction which was very impressive, really spectacular views at the top and the cable car itself was probably the steepest one I’ve been on. They do know how to make a good job of things in Malaysia, this Swiss built cable car and ‘floating bridge’ walk at the top was first class. See the pictures below.

The cable car and views out over the islands

View from the floating bridge at the end of the cable car run

The end of the cable car run and the two viewing platforms left and right

On our last day on the island we got all extreme sports and went up parasailing. We did a tandem flight, neither of us had done it before but it looked fairly safe. It turned out the three young lads running the operation were a bit fly-by-night, but we got up and down in one piece and it was a great feeling. Once up in the air it was almost silent as we went along high above the beach. Very peaceful, and a beautiful setting in which to look down from above. The ride wasn’t very long but it was hugely enjoyable, if slightly uncomfortable in the harness. The ground crew gave us hand signals, telling us what to do in order to land safely. We followed them and hit the sand only to crumple in a heap; it was quite funny and didn’t hurt. See a couple of pictures below.

Us flying high over the beach


We left Langkawi quite satisfied, we’d had a few relaxing days on the beach in a truly exotic location, we’d also drunk quite a lot of beer. We now had to head back to Kuala Lumpur, where we would soon be leaving the heat and sunshine behind, for the bitter cold of home. We caught the ferry to the mainland, and then a day bus to Kuala Lumpur which took about nine hours, far longer than advertised. In KL we went back our favourite hotel for two more nights. KL has become one of my favourite cities, it’s friendly and all the mod cons are there. It’s not sophisticated like Singapore, but it has everything you want and it’s all very affordable. While there we ingested as much good Indian food as was possible, having curry for breakfast both days. We did some last minute shopping in the dauntingly large shopping centres, and just soaked up the ambience.

East is east and west is west, as they say. No European city feels like an Asian one, you have to board a plane and fly south and east for at least ten hours to experience the vibrancy and buzz of an Asian city. I hope it’s not too long before I do so again. After all, they say the 20th century was the American century, but the 21st will belong to Asia. Based on the hard graft and investment we’ve seen in most Asian cities (Phnom Penh excluded) I’d agree that this is the region of the world that’s doing the most to get ahead.

Travel must end at some point I suppose, although this does feel a bit premature for me I have to say.  I still plan to write a bit more on here yet, some collected thoughts about the whole experience and places we’ve visited. The world is changing fast, in the twenty years between my first long trip and this one places, and the whole travelling experience has changed. In some ways for the better, and in some ways for the worst. I will put something more about this on here very soon. Until then if you’ve read some of this blog and have wanted to make a comment but didn’t, or had a question to ask but didn’t now is your chance. I may of course be blogging into thin air and nobody may be reading my ramblings, although this websites visitor statistics indicate there is a small audience (aside from the regular commenters).

I’ve enjoyed writing this stuff as we’ve gone along. If nothing else it’s a diary and an aide-memoir for us. Something to recall when we peer out of the window at the grey sky and rain on a winters day in coming months. I can’t overstate how much I’m not looking forward to going back to the English winter. Whose idea was it to set up camp on an island in  such a northerly latitude? Why didn’t they all pack up and move south a few millennia ago, somewhere in the region of Italy or Greece  would have done nicely.

Stay tuned, more to follow soon.

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