Langkawi: A Weird Introduction to Malaysia

Malaysia is strange all around, so it was fitting that our introduction to the country was a weird one. Langkawi is an archipelago of 99 islands, but as only 4 are inhabited the name references the very largest island frequented by tourists and business people alike. Langkawi has an interesting mythological history, which is at least minimally visible to visitors in the form of an imposing bald eagle statue nearby the port. One of the many legends regarding the island’s name is that it comes from the abundance of eagles on the island – helang means eagle in Malay and kawi refers to a red marble-like stone formerly associated with marking goods in the port city.

The island dates back as far as 500AD, and the name Lankawai is the final remnant of the ancient kingdom of Lankasuka to which it used to belong. It also used to be a haven for pirates due to its geological makeup (lots of places to hide in the islands). Langkawi was ruled by the Sultanite of Kedah for a long time, briefly by the Thai monarchy, then was under British rule until independence. This [the British rule] explains the prevalence of English spoken in the island and throughout Malaysia.

“Prison Ferry” and a Strange Arrival

We grabbed a ferry from Satun (by way of Trang). It was an easy van to shared taxi truck ride all the way. Naturally the 11am scheduled ferry did not actually exist, so we stashed our bags with a nice lady whom Sarah was convinced was trying to rob us (to be fair this happened a lot), and hung in town for a while.

All aboard the “Prison Ferry”

The blue boat to Langkawi is old and questionable. Yes, we take questionable transit daily but this was something else – imposing, rusty and dingy inside with a faint smell of gas and noxious chemical fumes in the area below deck where passengers sit. Adding to the atmosphere was the absence of airflow, and the act of stashing our bags behind thick a thick silver metal gate that resembled prison bars. Near the end of the ride, there was a loud grating sound as we casually collided with something unknown under the water’s surface. 

On land, our first impression was not as expected. The town is HUGE, hardly a remote island, and standard chains abound. We even spotted a Kenny Rogers! Approached by an onslaught of taxi drivers, we negotiated for one to match the price of the Grab (rideshare app in SE Asia). The ride was long and weird, the sky turning dark as we passed sketchy rundown building after sketchy rundown building, punctuated by the odd casino. Adding to the atmosphere it began to downpour, and cool water flew through the open window onto our faces and bags.

Langkawi Beaches

Cenang Beach | Although not the most amazing beach, this massive, developed swatch of sand offers some incredible views of the mountains and islands. It’s pretty popping by day, full of families and travelers alike. There are cheap umbrellas for rent, and many variations on water sport for those so inclined. We were a bit lazy and spent our time reading and drinking alcohol from Duty Free (more on this below). We even broke the budget and rented chairs! Beaching in a conservative country such as Malaysia offered a bit of a different vibe, espeecially after the liberal nearly-naked beachgoers of Thailand. It was definitely a change to see people covered up and swimming in full clothing, and at times felt a bit weird to be running around in a bikini.

Sunsets in Langkawi are amazing, and by night some beach bars light up the sand with cute lanterns. Small tables, cushions and setups also adorn the beach at night, so you can drink, eat, hang, smoke hookah or watch the fire shows going on. Or, if you’re us, you can buy cheap beer from Duty Free and sit next to these places to enjoy the entertainment at a fraction of the cost.

Pantai Tengah | Walking to this beach south of Cenang wasn’t difficult, but required a bit of road trekking thanks to the mountainous outcroppings on beaches in this part of the world. This beach was much less crowded and more remote, but lacked something so we turned back.

Pantai Kok Langkawi | I visited this random/unknown beach near the Sky Bridge after glimpsing it from above. Obviously I got lost walking and wound up at a different beach than intended, but it was beautiful, remote and blue-watered so it hardy mattered. I only saw one group of people as I swam – a gang of locals going out into the water in a raft – whom nicely said “hi” to me no less than 12 times.

Duty Free! And Things To See…And Eat

Langkawi is popular in large part because of its duty-free status, which it earned in 1969 when Penang (Malaysia’s largest and most popular island) lost it. Literally, Malaysians travel there solely to buy things…in quantity. I will admit the prices are insanely low, especially on alcohol which is very expensive in the rest of the country. As it’s a Muslim country drinking isn’t widespread, and Malaysia also has the second highest tax on beer in the entire world (only after Norway).

There are many things to eat and buy along the main drag in Langkawi. Among our favorites were the Roti John, a massive grilled sandwich with unknown assorted veggies, meats and excessive sauces for less than 1 dollar. There are also a lot of disgusting egg burgers for sale (almost puked after eating one of these). We had our introduction to local favorites Nasi Lemak (Malaysian specialty of rice cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaf) and Roti Canai (fried dough with a curried dipping sauce) here as well.

Langkawi Sky Bridge

A popular attraction in Langkawi is the Sky Bridge which is, as it sounds, a bridge built kind of sort of in the “sky” and offering views of the Gunung Mat Chinchang mountain. The bridge is supsended 2,000+ feet in the air, held up by a single pylon. Pretty scary when you think about it, and so extreme it was constructed via helicoptor. Also pretty scary to know it was closed previously for several years due to safety concerns…

The gondola up is one of the more terrifying things I’ve done – and I am not even afraid of heights! The complex around the sky bridge is a strange, Malaysian-style tourist area, with shops, attractions and a weird 3D art “museum” included in the price of admission (which is, like the bridge, very high). Nearby is the waterfall which is also a popular attraction although I didn’t visit as I find waterfalls to be generally anticlimactic and not worth the effort.

Weird Place, Weird People

We met some very strange people in Langkawi. I try not to make a habit of writing about them on my blog, but here are a few favorites…The toothless drunk man who approached me while I was running at 7am and opened with “I am kind of high right now,” then tried to sell me yoga lessons, then a dorm room bed. Shortlly thereafter he admitted actually he sleeps in his car but sometimes also in the dorm bed he offered….The overzealous and nosy hostel boy who kept asking us where we were going, why we were out so late and who we were with?, who yelled “I’ve been waiting for you!” each time we came back. I woke up one night and saw him watching my sister sleep. Cool…A guy walking up and down the beach in a full winter hat in the 90 degree weather.

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