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Monday, 19 September 2011

Langkawi - Malaysia's beautiful gem

If the Perhentians are Malaysia’s glittering Diamonds and Penang, it’s oriential Pearl, then Langkawi must be its precious Emerald.
 We’ve spent six glorious days exploring this lush multi-facet island, delving into her dark jungles, zipping across bejewelled seas, lounging contentedly on blinding white beaches and marvelling at soft coral pink sunsets.  This island shimmers in hues of colours capturing a sense of timelessness that we’re all looking for.  An hour feels like a day, a day like a week, it’s beauty lulls you into a sensation of peace and bliss.
For the first two days of our arrival it rained torrentially and blew a gale, so much so I checked the weather to see if Langkawi was getting a hurricane. But instead of the downpours giving the impression of depressing times to come,  it brought a sense of thrillingness, sharpening the kaleidoscopic of greens of the jungle and the iridescent rice paddies, bunches of coconut fruit hung like huge golden nuggets in the palms trees and everywhere tropical flowers blazed in the most brilliant colours. 
We set up home in the most gorgeous little guesthouse with the most delightful name – The Sweet Inn.  And it is.  Hidden down a narrow lane that leads to fields of water buffalo lolling in muddy hollows surrounded by mauve lilies, this little apricot abode became our ‘home away from home’ in the tourist strip of Pantai Cenang.  Though, ‘tourist strip’ is almost too rude a name description to use for this place. Here  the pace is super slow, nothing opens before 11am and then it’s just the occasional mini-mart or thong shop. A stroll along the paved footpath leaves you totally unaccosted, not a tout in sight, no request for taxi, no enticement for tour, not even a beckoning to have massage.

So chilled the vibe, the local reggae bar opens for breakfast instead of late night doofs, the renegade reggae dudes offer  nasi lamek, omelettes and coffee (with condensed milk)… the only green thing you’ll probably  get here is a lime melon juice. With so little happening, pre-noon is still sleeping time; which judging by some of the parting going on in the back lane guesthouses into the early hours of the dawn,  is exactly what this morning period is for.  It’s not until about 4o’clock when the tour groups stroll back from their island hopping ventures and the shopping mad locals converge onto the duty-free shops this island is known for, that the street and strip begins to buzz. 

After the rains, we first ventured off to Langkawi absolute pride and joy – it’s cable car, the ‘Longest Free Span Single rope Cable Car’ according to the Malaysian Book of Records – it has one of the steepest gradients in the world at 42%… one look at it and I can’t get myself to step foot inside the gondolas.  Maybe tomorrow I suggest.  Instead we head for the ‘Seven Wells Waterfall’ which is described as a fairy glade.  As we hike up the hill towards it, signs warn us to watch out for maundering monkeys, scorpions and enormous spiders that look like dinner-plate tarantulas.  Of course I spend the hike staring are the ground looking for these killer creepy crawlies and miss most of the scenery.  The waterfall is fabulous!!!
The next day, courage is gathered and we head back to the cable car.  I am going to do this.  Even Big M has harnessed his fear of heights.  We are determine to go up.   We will do this!!!  We arrive and find the Cable Car closed for maintenance – all day.  Shame. Ok, I am secretly delighted…. alright then, make that exhilarated that I don’t have to go up… and off we head for another waterfall.  This time its Temurun Falls, Langkawi’s tallest.  This should be called the fairy glade, the walk up to it is coved in amazing soft mosses and ferns, water cascades into ponds filled with tiny fish and bright red pebbles glint between the motley grey stones and the trees surrounding us stand majestically tall with enormous creeping buttress roots, perfect for elves, fairies and other mythical creatures to hide amongst.
Another day we drive along every road we can find on the island, up narrow dirt lanes past rice fields being worked by tractors – the kids still walking behind to fish out the catfish that is ‘kicked up’ by the rotors.  We were told that five kids always walk behind the cultivators to grab the fish, if their lucky its fish, occasionally it’s an eel and if their unlucky, it’s a snake.  At the time, this didn’t impress me in the slightest. As we watched the kids walking behind the tractor, I’m praying that on this super hot muggy day is only a fish they’ll net.  As we drive around I’m intrigued at the architecture of the homes.  I love the tradition Malay abodes – some are woven rattan in the most wonderful designs.  There’s not many of these left standing.  Then there is the next step up, the highset timber shutter houses – they are gorgeous – dark in colour with bright blue and/or bottle green coloured glass windows.  If the windows are open we catch glimpses of frilly pink or yellow curtains.  But the latest trend in Malay homes seems to be the ‘MacMalyaMansions’ – a blend of many styles – big  cement walls with Grecian columns topped with flowery pedestals and a tiled verandah featuring opaque pearl balustrades in pink, yellow or blue…. blue being the most popular.  These houses are everywhere and I just love how the locals embrace colour – no boring white walls here, it’s all hot pink, lime green or coral peach.   
Everyday we drive out looking for the ‘Field of Burnt Rice’, a very special place in Langkawi’s history and folklore.  Every day we follow the map to the village where this burnt rice field is, eager to see it and try and find the grains that were burnt and buried centuries ago. It said  the grains sometimes rise to the surface after heavy rains…. Well after the recent rain, there is sure to be grains arisen.  Every day we try to find this amazing field, but we fail.  We drive up and down the same street, then turn down other roads and streets.  We walk up and down in the sweltering heat looking for this field but with no luck.   On the very last day, one hour before we are due to board the ferry and leave Langkawi we drive back to the village of the burnt rice, determine to find it.  And we do.  It’s not a paddock or a field, it’s not a rice paddy or even part of some farmers farm.  Its not even in a nice park.  No, it’s a small bit of dirt hidden down a market walkway to a private home (a nice traditional Malay home at that!), on the inside of the driveway near their front fence.  This holy spot with its centuries aged rice grains is not more than the size of a patio on a suburban house.  After seeing it Big M is unimpressed with my insistence we drive everyday to the same minuscule one-buffalo village to find it.
There is no more free days for cable car rides.  Our next ‘adventure’ is a mangrove and Andaman Sea tour – and the day dawns blue.  And fierce. The heat and glare threatens to zap away any energy we dare show.  Thankfully the boat zips across the water at such a speed the breeze hits with such force that I need to cover my chest with an extra shirt to keep out a chill.   These mangroves are nothing like those I’ve seen at home. There’s still the sticky muddy banks with stale rotting stench and trees of jutting roots and large broad leaves. But there the similarity ends.  These dense green forests are filled with thousands of jewelled colour crabs sporting one enormous red claw and one puny green claw scurrying about; masses of trees stand high above of the banks, their roots ‘walking’ across the mud flats and tribes of muddy monkeys run and swing through the trees and when they see us, launch into the river and swim towards us. 
When our boatman throws bread to them, they come in such numbers and with such aggressiveness I freak thinking they will swarm the boat. 
We explore caves housing miniscule bats so tiny we can barely see them and in another, the roof is so low and narrow our boat can scarcely fit. The strange thing about this cave is its more like a one lane freeway going both ways as everyone on the river wants to travel through it so there’s a lot of going forward and then backing backwards before we eventually get through it. 
We stop at a fish farm and a lovely young chap who looks about twelve, but is probably fifteen takes us along the floating planks to show us the various displays.  Small net cages filled with enormous gropers, sting-rays, trevally and barramundi of varying sizes are on display and when morsels of food are tossed in the fish go into a feeding frenzy.  One particular specimen, a cobia, looks and acts more like a shark than a fish, snapping violently and darting in a weaving fashion with its fin out of the water.  I don’t think it’s a fish I’d like to meet in the water.  The sting-rays on the other hand are absolutely delightful and after watching them feed, I’ll never be able to consider them as a food source ever again.  Big M is enticed into feeding them and the ray sucks on his hand and arm like a gummy baby suckling on a finger.  It’s enchanting.  
Just as our visit is finishing our delightful young guide, wants to show us a sea urchin.  This spindly, spirally creature is sitting in water of an almost black colour and as the young man lays across the net to reach in, to our horror, he slips and plunges head first into the netted cage and almost get caught in it.  Big M jumps to the chaps aid and pulls him out, he’s spluttering and wiping the muck of sludge and weed from his face.  Then to our surprise bends back into the pit to try and bring the creature up.  We beg him to stop, but he’s insistent on showing us, to carry out his guiding duties.  Horrified at the state of the water, I now can only worry and wonder about the state of this young boys health.
We leave the Mangroves and launch into the open sea. The Andaman, a bejewelled expanse of flashing green with stunning limestone pinnacles jutting from it’s depths.  The boat wizzes us around it’s islands and over coral beds.  Some of the islands are little more than rock, others sport lush green forest and white sandy beaches.  All are amazingly stunning.
Every night Big M and I indulge in another spectacular show of colour.  As the day ends, we wander along a beach of shell beds so deep and full that the breaking crunch under our feet is almost criminal.  These beds are filled with the type of shells we’d find selling at the markets for ridiculous prices.  Big. Colourful. Intact. They are every beachcombers dream. We make our way to a delightful sandy bar, order beers (a shandy for me) and watch the sky turn from hues of blue, silver and mauve to carillion gold and fiery red.  As the sky darkens, stars appear and the carnival lights of Langkawi blink on we can hear the thrilled screams of the banana boat riders whisked across the black ocean, firecrackers explode, music burst forth and Pantai Cenang, Langkawi comes alive and sparkles like a beautiful gem.