Legends and luxury
Langkawi’s transformation from its fabled past by Chad Merchant.
With tales of pirates, lovelorn princesses, and scorned maidens, Langkawi has earned its fabled reputation as the Island of Legends. Today, that reputation also includes a duty-free haven and a beautiful island that’s home to some of Malaysia’s most lavish resorts. TEG’s Group Editor Chad Merchant takes a closer look at both the legends and luxuries of Langkawi.
The beautiful archipelago of Langkawi’s 99 islands is steeped in historic legend, mystery, and lore, and perhaps its most well-known legend is that of the beautiful maiden Mahsuri.
The curse of Mahsuri
Married to village leader and warrior Wan Darus, Mahsuri was wrongly accused of adultery while her husband was off at war, and she was ultimately sentenced to death by those who envied her beauty and were jealous of her favour.
At Mahsuri’s execution, the legend goes, several stabbing attempts with conventional daggers failed, presumably owing to the maiden’s purity. Finally, a soldier plunged a ceremonial kris into her bosom and her blood was pure white, confirming her innocence.With her dying breath, Mahsuri laid her curse onto the island, proclaiming that it would henceforth be barren for seven generations.
And so it would be. Despite the natural splendour of the islands, Langkawi remained frozen in time, locked in an impoverished, agrarian state for years, its stagnant existence broken up only by occasional attacks by neighbouring Siam.
In 1821, the island was invaded by the Siamese army for the final time. Realising the inevitable defeat at hand, the head of Langkawi’s ancient capital, Kampong Raja, ordered the village’s rice fields and granary burned and the wells poisoned in a bid to starve the occupying enemy.
Following this rather demoralising episode, it seemed that Mahsuri’s curse was very real, and locals still talk of the years of crop failures that followed. The island slipped into irrelevancy for decades.
Still lingering on in a slumberous and underdeveloped state while Kuala Lumpur and Penang were taking their first strides towards modernisation, Langkawi’s nascent fortunes changed in the early 1950s, when a young doctor from Alor Setar stepped onto the island to carry out his required government medical service.
That man, of course, was Mahathir Mohamad, a doctor who would, years later, become the fourth Prime Minister of Malaysia. Dr Mahathir’s special love for Langkawi inspired him, as Malaysia’s leader, to work closely with the government of Kedah in the 1980s to develop, modernise, and promote Langkawi.
By that time, seven generations had passed since Mahsuri’s curse, and in line with the terms of her dying decree (and perhaps with an assist from the providential declaration of the entire island as a duty-free haven), the Langkawi of today began to take shape.
Stay and play: An island transformed
Yet another generation has passed since that time, and today, Langkawi is still plenty laid-back, but has now unquestionably transcended its years of irresolute barrenness. From a host of accommodations catering to all budgets to a dozen or more duty-free shops in the island’s main town of Kuah, Langkawi has indeed awakened from her slumber and shaken off Mahsuri’s curse for good.
A fairly well-developed infrastructure, likely due in no small part to Dr Mahathir’s influence, means that Langkawi has some of the best roads you’ll find on any island in Southeast Asia. Renting a car here is a breeze, and is a great way to explore the island at your own leisure.
Some of the finest hotels and resorts in Malaysia can be found in Langkawi, and the island is consistently among the most popular holiday destinations for locals.
And why not? Though Langkawi draws travellers from near and far, for those of us living in Malaysia, it’s a particularly appealing destination. Langkawi may be reached by air in a very short flight from KL, or by sea with ferries operating from Kuala Perlis and Kuala Kedah on the mainland, and also from Penang.
Beautiful sun-splashed beaches can be found at Cenang, Tengah, Teluk Nibong, and Tanjung Rhu. Take in the sights and learn the history at places such as Langkawi Bird Paradise, the Black Sand Beach, the Ibrahim Hussein Art Museum, numerous caves (some of which are said to be haunted), the Field of Burnt Rice (paying homage to the deliberate burning of the fields and granary in 1821) with its market and batik workshop, and, of course, Mahsuri’s Tomb.
Golfers will find their nirvana here with scenic and challenging courses lauded by regional and international critics alike, including the stunning Els Club at Datai Bay on the island’s north coast, recently named Asia’s best golf course, and the magnificently scenic Gunung Raya Golf Resort, located at the base of Langkawi’s highest mountain.
Shopping, sightseeing, eco-tours, or just lazing around on any number of beaches ensure that visitors have plenty of options to keep their holiday time filled.
And if it’s water sports you crave, Langkawi has really improved its game in recent years. Many beachside hotels and resorts offer non-motorised water sports, often at no charge for guests.
Though some resorts also manage their own motorised water sports offerings, these are just as likely to be arranged through a third-party provider. One of the newest is Naam Water Sports and Naam Cruises, with locations throughout the island and a diverse range of activities on offer, from jet-skiing to mangrove eco-safaris to sunset dinner cruises.
For luxury holidays, few places in Malaysia can compete with Langkawi. And it’s luxury delivered in many different forms, too. Want a lavish beach-side resort experience? Check in to the sprawling Four Seasons or the brand-new St Regis Langkawi, two absolute top-of the heap resorts, both of which will drop your jaw and drain your wallet.
Want something both intimate and suitably posh? The beachfront Casa del Mar is one of Malaysia’s most romantic destination hotels. At the other end of Pantai Cenang, the outstanding Meritus Pelangi resort caters to a wide range of upmarket travellers.
Want something with a classy, colonial flair? You’ll not do better than The Danna, a first-class hotel sited on Telaga Harbour brimmingwith personality and sophisticated elegance.
And for an unparalleled back-to-nature luxury escape, The Datai Langkawi reigns supreme, a sumptuous resort property set harmoniously within an ancient, lush rainforest on Datai Bay, boasting gracious service and all the expected touches of class and comfort you’d expect at such a remarkable property.
Other high-end resorts and hotels on the island include The Westin Langkawi, The Andaman, Tanjung Rhu Resort, Ambong-Ambong Rainforest Retreat, La Villa Langkawi, and the sprawling Berjaya Langkawi Resort.
For more authentic, self-catering island holidays, homestays are a great option, with places like Bon Ton, Temple Tree, and the privately expat-owned Sunset Valley Holiday Homes serving up cosiness and care with a distinctly personal touch.
See the sky, eat the sea.
Though rather crowded at peak times, Langkawi’s Cable Car (officially named SkyCab) and SkyBridge, which opened in late 2002 and early 2005, respectively, are collectively a highly enjoyable way to spend a few hours. Ample parking is located at the base near Teluk Barau, just north of Telaga Harbour.
From the base station, located at the incredibly touristy Oriental Village, the cable cars take passengers up a dramatically steep incline that reaches 42 degrees at one point, giving them the chance to not only enjoy sweeping views of the Andaman Sea and numerous islets off the coast of Langkawi’s main island, but also the uncommon perspective of actually looking down onto the canopy of a lush tropical rainforest.
The length of the aerial skyway is 2.2km, with one free span – unsupported by any towers – stretching to an astounding 950m, and once you arrive at the peak of Gunung Mat Chinchang, over 700m above sea level, you are rewarded with relatively cooler weather (sometimes quite windy!) and, on a clear day, incomparable views in nearly all directions.
Once atop the mountain, you can negotiate a flight of dubious “stairs” cut into the earth to reach the SkyBridge, another wondrous feat of engineering and one of the most impressive pedestrian bridges anywhere in the world.
This cable-stayed, curved pedestrian bridge is 125m long and soars gracefully across a jungle-covered chasm, and is supported in its centre by a single tower with multiple cables. The bridge itself is almost two metres in width and those with a pronounced fear of heights might do well to stay in the centre, as venturing near the curved edges can induce quite a sense of vertigo. Even for those normally unaffected by acrophobia, the Langkawi SkyBridge is a thrilling experience.
The SkyBridge was previously closed for over two years, but has now reopened with new facilities and displays, and is well worth a visit.
Admission to the SkyBridge is an extra RM5 (in addition to the SkyCab fare), and those who would prefer to be transported to the bridge rather than make the 10-minute walk – which can be challenging for some – can now take the SkyGlide inclined rail transport for an additional RM10 return.
Though sensational food is not Langkawi’s claim to fame (as is the case with Penang), that certainly doesn’t mean it isn’t available. Loads of Western-style fare can be found on the main beach road by Pantai Cenang, like the East meets West Backofen Restaurant or the Orkid Ria Seafood Restaurant.
For surprisingly good pizzas, try T. Jay’s Italian Bistro, Red Tomato Splash Beach Café, or – my favourite – Artisan’s Pizza, which has three outlets on the island. Local and regional flavours are, of course, never far from reach, and Thai cuisine features prominently given Langkawi’s proximity to Malaysia’s neighbour to the north.
One of the best local seafood places on the island, and another personal favourite, is the distinctly downmarket Wonderland Food Store near Kuah. Offering almost no ambiance, the place is nevertheless consistently popular with locals and regular visitors because the service is efficient and the food is delicious and very reasonably priced.
Naturally, the high-end hotels all have equally high-end dining, and some offer on-the-beach al fresco dining by sunset. Alternately, you can opt for a posh sunset dinner cruise and really get a sense of the beauty of the archipelago.
So whether you want to “fly and flop” on Langkawi’s picturesque beaches, catch a thrill by jet-skiing or parasailing, do a historical and cultural tour of the island, or simply avail yourself the opportunity to buy some duty-free goods, the legendary island of Langkawi has certainly rid itself of Mahsuri’s seven generation curse and is now penning the latest chapter in its storied history.
This article was originally published in The Expat magazine (May 2016),