Langkawi is an archipelago of 104 islands located in the Andaman Sea, about 51km from the coast of the northern Malaysian state of Kedah Darul Aman. Only four of these islands are inhabited with the island of Langkawi being its largest and therefore the major island in the archipelago.
It’s a grouping of islands that has its fair share of myths and legends, not so unlike many of the places that I have been to, but it’s so close to life to dismiss as just one of those stories.
With regards to Langkawi, the island’s history and fortune is so much intertwined to the legend and myth surrounding the Lady of Langkawi, known throughout as Mahsuri, that it would not be wrong for some to say that Langkawi is Mahsuri and Mahsuri is Langkawi.
I first step foot on the mythical island of Langkawi in 1995. It was not a planned holiday and neither was it a spur-of-the-moment-trip to destination WHEREVER. But rather it was courtesy of one of my previous employers who introduced me to the idea of a Company Family Day, but with a difference : the employee’s family is treated to a weekend outing, an outing to a somewhere totally somewhere else altogether.
Of course, with that said, it does not naturally reflect well on my other previous employers who either never had a Family Day organized for its employees at all OR whose idea of a Family Day was to have all their employees gather their families within the company grounds, seated under tents of varying colours and play games that would normally be reserved for kindergarten toddlers. But I digress.
When our then company’s Management decided that we were going to Langkawi for our Family Day, the excitement level went up a notch or two and getting people to be in the Family Day’s Planning and Logistics Committee was a breeze. No problems there.
After all, it’s not everyday you have an all expenses paid trip (only the relevant expenses, of course) to what was then a heavily promoted and touted as THE up and coming holiday destination by none other the then Prime Minister, Tun Mahathir Mohamed.
So high was the expectation and so feverish was the excitement that the journey by bus to Kuala Kedah was regarded as a side sight-seeing trip to the paddy fields of Malaysia’s designated Rice Bowl, rather than a long and boring bus journey to the middle of nowhere.
To the middle of nowhere, you might ask? Sounds a bit harsh, I admit, but that’s was the impression back then, as for one to get to Langkawi, one can always take a flight or travel by car or bus to either Penang, Kuala Kedah or Kuala Perlis and board a ferry to Kuah, Langkawi; Kuah being the port-of-call at on Langkawi island.
Penang may not be in the middle of nowhere but as for Kuala Kedah and Kuala Perlis, lets just say that, if not for Langkawi, we’d be hard pressed to find a reason to step foot there. My apologies if I sound insensitive or unappreciative of someone else’s backyard.
As we boarded the ferry for Langkawi at Kuala Kedah, came Lesson No. 2. Lesson No. 2 came in the form of the songs that greeted our ears as we boarded the ferry. It was a revelation to discover that what was playing on the ferry’s PA system was actually a collection of Thai songs.
So pronounced was the use of the Thai language then was that we were even greeted on board not with the traditional Malaysian greeting of ‘Selamat Datang’ but with the traditional Thai greeting of ‘Sawadeekap’.
For a while then, we did wonder whether we were actually bound for Langkawi, Malaysia and not Langkawi, Thailand. Otherwise, we would be getting into a lot of trouble as no one thought of bringing along our international passports.
As we were to discover during the course of our trip, the use of the Thai language is quite widespread in Langkawi that outsiders would not be wrong to think that Langkawi’s lingua franca is actually Thai. Something to do with the history of the island, they said.
Fast forward to 2014, and here we are again, my wife and I, in a bus making our way all the way from Johor Bahru, this time, to Kuala Perlis before boarding a ferry to the mythical island of Langkawi. This time, it was just the two of us, unlike the first time when our first two sons, then barely three years and a year old respectively, accompanied us.
Our journey by bus from Johor Bahru to Kuala Perlis up north took roughly thirteen hours, and that is via the North South Expressway (NSE).
Thirteen hours was more than enough to make our backs ache and our bums sore. But since we were travelling during the night, the journey itself was made bearable as we spent most of the journey sleeping or trying to sleep.
We awoke to the sight of the paddy fields which was an indication that we are already in the northern part of the Peninsular and on the way to Kuala Perlis, stopovers were made at places like Changloon, Alor Star, Sungei Petani, Arau, Kangar; either to pick up or to drop off passengers.
Taking advantage of these stopovers, we began to take in the sights and sounds these places have to offer, places that we would otherwise be hard pressed to make a beeline for, more due to distance than to anything else.
The sight of spanking new university campuses in the middle of sugar cane plantations and paddy fields is perhaps indicative of the development that is coming their way as these campuses are expected to become catalysts for new economic and social activities in their respective locations.
When we finally arrived at Kuala Perlis, I must admit to a tinge of disappointment. I had expected that after the many years that Langkawi have developed and grabbed the attention of holiday seekers, both domestic and foreign, that the arrival of would be holiday seekers to Langkawi would be greeted and treated by facilities deserving of the allure of the island itself. But alas.
In my humble view, the bus terminal and the ferry terminal could have been designed as a single integrated complex with facilities linking both the ferry and bus operations.
Add multi-tier parking facilities for vehicles (cars, buses and motor bikes) to that and you may have one major attraction by itself in addition to being an economic landmark in Kuala Perlis.
My disappointment with the facilities not withstanding, it did not, however, thank God, dampen our spirits nor our determination to enjoy a relaxing and refreshing getaway, even if it was just for a few days.
The ferry ride to Langkawi was a non-event. Heading towards Kuah (the main town of Langkawi), it was reassuring to note that the ferry was fully equipped for emergency, with more than ample supply of life vests.
As we approached the ferry terminal in Kuah, we were greeted with the sight of The Elang, a ‘recent’ addition to the many present day landmarks of Langkawi and with the sighting of The Elang, its welcome to Langkawi.
We had already made prior arrangements with regards to accommodation and with respect to transportation. Within half an hour of our arrival to Langkawi, we took charge of the steering wheel of a rented car and were happily getting lost on the way in search of our hotel.
Getting lost does have its merits though, as it does make you more aware of which turn you have to take and which turn you can definitely not miss.
Since Langkawi is an island and we had in possession a rudimentary map of Langkawi, the ‘getting lost’ phase did not last long and sure enough, it wasn’t long before we checked in the hotel and hit the bunks for a much-needed but very short power nap.
We promised ourselves that we would not follow the path of so many other tourists, domestic and foreign, by cramping in as much as we can within our two full days in Langkawi. We swore to take it easy and enjoy Langkawi as much as possible. We made a list of what we wanted to do and where we wanted to go. From the list, we narrowed it down and actually made a detailed schedule for each of the two days that we were to be in Langkawi.
Don’t ask me why but Mahsuri’s Tomb was a must. It’s now a mini-complex where they have other exhibits like replicas of homes during that period as well, instead of just Mahsuri’s tomb as it was when I was last there so many years ago.
So was the location where they identified as the site where she was actually executed. That was something new, to me at least. It may seem macabre to some people, but then again, the fortunes of Langkawi, like it or not, is somehow tied very closely to what happened to Mahsuri herself. Coincidence? Maybe. Maybe not.
The Hot Springs of Air Hangat was in too. Here I took the opportunity of soaking my weary feet into the hot springs and at the same time, wonder how on earth can algae grow in hot water.
The place where they made Minyak Gamat was definitely in. Minyak Gamat is especially well-known to locals and is sworn by locals and Malaysians as a must-have, to cure aching limbs, cuts, wounds and what-not. And to think its made of sea cucumbers.
Galeria Perdana or the Perdana Gallery, the gallery housing all of ex-Prime Minister’s Tun Mahathir Mohamad’s gifts from other countries during his tenure as Prime Minister of Malaysia was also in.
It may sound cliché but the souvenirs that he was given is, in my view, testimony to the many countries that were highlighted from Malaysia’s foreign policies as well as to his many interests to include the automotive industry, F1 and other heavy industries.
Also in was the cable car ride at Langkawi SkyCab. It wasn’t there back then I think. And please don’t ask me why the cable car ride as I get giddy just thinking about it. But I did complete the ride despite my Vertigo thingy and the view from the top was worth every single second of the angst and the almost-peeing-in-my-pants thingy.
It was spectacular. I guess I must put it all down to my sense of mortality. Once the ticket ride has been bought, just get on with it. But like I said, the view from the top was worth it.
As for night-time programs, we just had to experience the Pasar Malam or Night Markets, if not for the food fare on offer than for anything else. And apparently, the same thoughts were had by the foreign visitors as well. It seems that from where we were staying, there always seems to be a Pasar Malam somewhere.
Jalan Pantai Cenang had to be explored and that alone has undergone a lot of changes.
For a while there, I thought I was in Bali and not Langkawi, going by the number of barely dressed foreign tourists that we came across as we walked down the street.
All tourists, local and foreign, are welcomed as far as I am concerned but do one really have to show what at most times is best kept decently covered up? I could also barely see a local vendor and that, in my view, is not good news for the identity of Langkawi.
But I must admit that the street was alive with many different sights and sounds. But like I said, it has gone through so many changes that I could barely make out where what used to be THE landmark of Jalan Pantai Cenang ie the Underwater World. Maybe it’s because it was night-time.
I had looked forward to experiencing Dataran Elang at night. But I must say I was so disappointed with the state of what was touted as one of Langkawi’s landmarks. The state of disrepair and the sight of litter is too much to bear, making it a massive disappointment. I really hope the authorities will look into it.
There is no point in promoting Langkawi if there is no pride in maintaining Langkawi’s cleanliness and beauty, even if it’s for its own sake.
Langkawi has changed much since I last set foot in Langkawi. That there be changes was never in doubt and I’ll definitely be making an effort to go back there again in the very near future and what I really hope is that it will be to a better maintained and cleaner Langkawi. Expecially now it has been renamed as Langkawi, the Jewel of Kedah.
Date : 7 July 2014