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Malaysian Persuasian

Nothing is happening at the Tanjung Rhu. And I mean nothing. The white sand beach stretches out from my toes toward the islet-dotted bay. Behind me, someone splashes in the grottoes of the swimming pool. For a moment, it feels as if something might happen — something, possibly, exciting or dangerous —but once again, nothing. No crisis, no sudden urgency, no lurking peril. As I lie there, slowly turning darker, a faint breeze blows in from the ocean. It carries the scent, not of intrigue, but of salt. I raise myself up and wave my hand. A minute later, a man brings a banana daiquiri.

And so it goes. It is exactly as I had feared. I have come to a Southeast Asian beach resort for a relaxing vacation, and I am actually relaxing.

It's a bit disconcerting. After all, beaches in this part of the world are supposed to be about letting go: marathon massages on the beach, an endless stream of 25-cent beers, all-night raves. Tourism in Southeast Asia revolves around the mad, feckless pursuit of pleasure. There's even an upcoming Leonardo DiCaprio movie about it, called The Beach, in which a fabled hippie paradise in Thailand turns out to be a den of unsavory wackos. The idea is hardly new. Backpacker bliss—with its attendant crime, hangovers, pollution, STD's, bad food, bad hotels, and unwashed bodies—has trashed a long list of once-miraculous beaches, and the locals' patience is wearing thin. Last April, on Bali's Kuta Beach, disgruntled mobs made bonfires of surfboards and beach umbrellas.

But I'm not on Bali or Phuket. I'm on an island virtually untouched by backpackers, one that Leo DiCaprio won't be making movies about anytime soon. It's called Langkawi, and it's in Malaysia.

If you haven't heard of it, you're in good company. Malaysia still lies beneath the radar of most American tourists. Its people are the Canadians of Asia: sensible, moderate, and progressive, dedicated to the notion of making life steadily and rationally better. Compared to the three-ring-circus atmosphere of Thailand, its neighbor to the north, Malaysia is pretty dull. And Malaysians like it that way. It's a country of devout (but not fanatical) Muslims, where bars shut down at midnight, topless sunbathing is strictly taboo, and drug dealers are enthusiastically hanged.

Langkawi may elicit furrowed eyebrows from Americans, but Malaysians don't really care. "Tourism isn't a priority for us," one resident told me. "We'd rather modernize the country in other ways, with industry and technology."

Industry, though, was never a good fit for Langkawi. With a population of just 45,000, the island is stuck in a remote corner of the country, and no bridges connect it to the mainland. Tourism was the only option. Fortunately, Malaysia's prime minister (we don't like to use the word dictator), Dr. Mahathir Mohamed, once practiced medicine in Langkawi and is fond of the place. In 1991, the government shifted its promotional funds away from the nearby island of Penang and began pushing Langkawi instead, granting the latter duty-free status and building an international airport. Overnight, a new luxury destination was born. Sorry, Penang.

That Langkawi has thrived—it now attracts more than 1.5 million tourists a year—is as much a testament to its beauty as to the government's sound planning. Shaped roughly like a four-pointed star, 25 miles across at its widest point, the island rises from a ring of white beaches to a steep, mountainous interior, its whipped-cream peaks napped in jungle. Most development clings to the southern shore of the island, from Kuah, the island's commercial hub, in the east, to the Pentai Cenang beach area in the west, where the lower-priced hotels and restaurants tend to cluster. The northern half of the island remains much as it has been for centuries, a rugged tangle of nature and farmland, hedged by the surf of the Andaman Sea. A resemblance to southern Thailand's karst region, with its famous limestone spires, is unmistakable: the Thai border lies just a few miles away. Understandably, the two best hotels on the island—some say the best in the country—were both developed here, in remote pockets of the north.

My first stop was the 137-room Tanjung Rhu Resort, the newer and lesser-known of the pair. I arrived reeling from the midday heat, and was whisked through the central garden of palms and tropical flowers, past the crystal-clear saltwater pool with its sandy bottom and man-made beach, and up the stairs to my room. The receptionist, Tan, a lanky fellow with a ready smile, knelt beside me on the hardwood floor as I filled in the paperwork on a low table piled with exotic fruit. A little pamphlet gave the names of the fruit and explained how to eat each one.

The surrounding landscapes of forest, river, islets, reef, and mangrove swamp all beckoned me to explore. Jet lag, and the rows of empty deck chairs by the swimming pool, told me to crash. It wasn't a fair fight. By dinnertime I was two-toned—red on my front, pale on my back.

I felt guilty, but not for long. Sinking into a torpor at your resort is excusable on Langkawi, because frankly, apart from a crocodile farm and an aquarium, outside activities are scarce. Even good shopping is hard to find.

"There isn't much to buy here," admitted I. Z. Melvin, the amiable general manager of the Tanjung Rhu, as we sat on an outdoor terrace, eating sorbet out of bowls made of ice. It was a beautiful evening, though the wind had come up, rippling the sheet music of the string quartet playing across the terrace. "Things tend to be more expensive on Langkawi than in Kuala Lumpur. And there isn't such a fantastic variety of crafts. It's the poorer countries that produce the really exceptional crafts, you'll find. In Malaysia, everyone wants to be a banker."

A banker, or perhaps an environmentalist. Despite a bad rep for overlogging Borneo, Malaysia is the most eco-conscious nation in Asia, and everything in Langkawi seems to have an environmental slant. Each morning, guests at the Tanjung Rhu receive a rolled-up list of suggested nature activities, such as a boat trip through the adjacent mangrove estuary or a guided mountain-bike ride to a nearby waterfall. During my stay, staffers were busy charting new hiking paths through the surrounding jungle. I wondered whether they weren't a bit ahead of the curve, demand-wise: the most intense activity my fellow guests were up for was soaking neck-deep in the pool.


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