Published: June 2009
By Jeff Wise
There's not much to do on Langkawi, a remarkably low-key tropical island in Malaysia. But that's exactly the way its visitors want it
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.
At the opposite end of Langkawi's northern shore, the Datai, the island's other luxury hotel, plays the ecology angle even harder. The 112-room, four-story resort is built right into the rain forest, with views over the jungle canopy to the ocean beyond. From my suite, which looked out onto the treetops in three directions, I could lie comfortably on the divan by the window and scan the skies for birds using a pair of hotel binoculars left on the table. (I could also scan the swimming pool, if I preferred.) A laminated sheet provides pictures and names of the more notable species. Elsewhere in the room I found a handy guide to other living things of the forest—printed on unbleached paper, of course—and a schedule for the hotel's complimentary guided rain-forest walks.
I also found the Monkey Rules. A good thing, too. I had scarcely lain down for a well-earned nap—okay, not well-earned, but desired—when there came a rattling at my door. "No need to turn down the bed!" I called from beneath the rumpled sheets. But the doorknob kept on rattling. Groggily I raised my head. There, beyond the glass door to my balcony, sat a rather pissed-off-looking macaque. As per the Monkey Rules, I had latched the doors and stowed the fruit bowl out of sight in a corner. That wasn't fooling the monkey, though. He kept glowering at me. I glowered back (a look I rarely get to use, except with monkeys, some dogs, and my girlfriend). Finally he went away.
If the Tanjung Rhu made me want to spend all my time exploring the resort, the Datai made me want to spend all my time in my room. The architecture is a kind of soft-focus cross-cultural fantasy of Mayan temples and Balinese pavilions, the sort of place Indiana Jones might retire to if he made a billion dollars in Internet stocks. On the rare occasions my increasingly sluggish metabolism allowed, I padded barefoot over the glistening hardwood floors of my suite, draping myself in succession over the various couches, chaise longues, and other upholstered surfaces. Forget the beach—that was down a hundred or so steps and through a sweltering stretch of jungle. I had a fruit basket to work on (and no help from the monkeys).
Eventually even I had to admit that this was getting ridiculous. I was on a rather large island; surely there had to be something more to do than lounge around an extravagantly comfy resort. "How about a restaurant?" I asked a helpful-looking staffer. He stared. "A restaurant?" I insisted. He gave me the address of a place called Barn Thai, billed as the world's only restaurant in a mangrove swamp.
As soon as I arrived I realized that there is a good reason the world has only one mangrove-swamp restaurant. A mangrove swamp, essentially, is a large waterlogged ditch. It does harbor a vast array of wildlife, mostly insects. To get to the restaurant, you cross the stagnant, muddy water on a 500-yard wooden walkway. Floodlights illuminate the straggly trunks of the mangroves, and draw even-larger-than-usual swarms of flying bugs. Every hundred yards or so the walkway widens to accommodate a set of benches, where those so inclined can pause to enjoy the gloom.
Still, my spirits lifted once I arrived at the dining room. For one thing, I was alive, and second, the place was cheery, well-lit, and air-conditioned. As I worked my way through a serviceable bowl of tom ka gai (a soup made with coconut milk, chicken, and Chinese parsley), the manager, Eidy, sat down for a chat.
"So whose idea was this place?" I asked.
"The prime minister's!" Eidy replied. "He was in Turkey, and they took him on a tour of a swamp where they'd built a restaurant. He loved it. He said, 'We have lots of wasteland back home. We should build one ourselves.' " Eidy smiled at how prescient the prime minister had been. "Tourists love this place. It's unique."
Unique, yes. Personally, I'd prefer a private barbecue on the beach at Tanjung Rhu, reclining under an umbrella as the sunset transforms the evening clouds into a palette of indescribable colors. There's nothing unique about a sunset, or a beach, or a good meal—but under certain circumstances those elements can come together in a wonderful way. I'm not alone. A few months ago, Jodie Foster was on Langkawi for the filming of Anna and the King, a movie based on the story that inspired The King and I. Location shooting took place at a replica of the Thai summer palace built on the western shore. Though Foster was staying at the Datai, she came to Tanjung Rhu repeatedly for alfresco dinners on the beach.
Ironically, Anna is being released this season by the same studio that's making The Beach. But unlike The Beach, which was filmed in Thailand and caused a ruckus over supposed environmental destruction by the crew, Anna came and went rather quietly, leaving warm feelings all around. Still, I wonder if the seeds of trouble have been planted. Pristine movie locations have a way of becoming not-so-pristine tourist magnets. Could such a fate befall Langkawi?
Possibly—but probably not. More likely, most moviegoers will think Anna was shot in Thailand, and they'll start booking flights to Bangkok. The rest—the sort of people who stay around long enough to read the movie credits—may be exactly the minority who would appreciate Langkawi's orderly vision of paradise. For those who fall into that category, my advice: Bring plenty of sunblock and a good book, and prepare for life in low gear.
It's hard at first, doing nothing. But you'll get used to it.
No matter when you visit, Malaysia will be sultry. Langkawi's rainy season is in October and November, then again in April and May; it's a bit cooler during these months.
Short, inexpensive flights ($15-$35) on Malaysia Airlines link Langkawi with both Kuala Lumpur and Penang. A taxi or car is a necessity for getting around. Except for the commercialized areas on the south of the island, Langkawi is thinly settled, and everything seems to be a 40-minute drive from everything else.
The Datai Jalan Teluk Datai; 60-4/959-2500, fax 60-4/959-2600; doubles from $275.
Tanjung Rhu Resort Mukim Ayer Hangat; 60-4/959-1033, fax 60-4/959-1899; doubles from $200.
Barn Thai Langkawi Kampung Belanga Pecah, Mukim Kisap, Daerah; 60-4/966-6699; dinner for two $30.
Bon Ton at the Beach Lot 1047, Pantai Cenang; 60-4/955-3643; dinner for two $20. It's a lot less "at the beach" since developers laid down a big patch of landfill right in front. But come nightfall the eyesore is invisible, and the lamplit atmosphere perfect for dining alfresco on tasty Malaysian specialties.
THINGS TO DO
Crocodile Adventure Jalan Teluk Datai; 60-4/959-2559; admission $1.50. Located along the road to the Datai resort, the farm is home to more than a thousand handbags-to-be.
De'zone Lot 5, Kuala Teriang, Jalan Pantai Kok; 60-4/955-6684. You can't go home empty-handed, so stop off on your way to the airport for some reasonably priced Southeast Asian handicrafts.
Underwater World Pantai Cenang; 60-4/955-6100, fax 60-4/955-6103; admission $4. Five thousand varieties of marine life in 100 tanks. The main attraction is a 50-foot-long glass tunnel through a giant tank containing sharks.