Travel

Langkawi, the Legendary Island

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 BLESSED WITH NATURAL BEAUTY AS WELL AS AN ARRAY OF MYSTICAL TALES OF PIRATES, LOVELORN PRINCESSES, AND SCORNED MAIDENS, LANGKAWI HAS EARNED ITS FABLED REPUTATION. CHAD MERCHANT TAKES A CLOSER LOOK AT THE LANGKAWI OF LEGEND AND THE LANGKAWI OF TODAY.

The Sultan of Kedah would really, really like you to know that Langkawi is not, in fact, part of Perlis, even though it’s this northern state off whose coast the cluster of famed islands is located. To this end, in July 2008, he officially changed the name of the island. And all this time you’ve been calling it plain old “Langkawi” – shame on you! Au contraire, the legendary island’s official name is now – and has been for nearly four years – Langkawi Permata Kedah, or, “Langkawi, the Jewel of Kedah.” Take that, Perlis!

Jokes aside, the beautiful archipelago of Langkawi’s 99 islands is steeped in legend, mystery, and lore, and curiously enough, it is a previous Kedah leader who figures prominently into Langkawi’s most well-known legend, that of the beautiful maiden 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. 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 be barren for seven generations.

And thus it would be. Despite the natural splendor of the islands, Langkawi remained frozen in time, locked in an impoverished, agrarian state for years, occasionally attacked 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, it seemed that Mahsuri’s curse was very real, and locals still talk of the years of crop failuresthat 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. Seven generations had now passed since Mahsuri’s curse, and by happy coincidence (and perhaps with an assist from the providential naming of Langkawi as a duty-free island), the Langkawi of today began to take shape.

And what a shape it is! From a host of beachfront 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. Some of the finest hotels in Malaysia can be found in Langkawi, and the island is consistently among the most popular holiday destinations for locals. 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 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.

Though quite touristy, Langkawi’s Cable Car and Sky Bridge, which opened in 2003, is a highly enjoyable way to spend a few hours. Ample parking is located at thebase near Teluk Barau, just north of Telaga Harbour. From there, 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 cool 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 Sky Bridge, another wondrous feat of engineering. This cable-stayed, curved pedestrian bridge is about 125m long and soars across a jungle-covered chasm, and is supported in its centre by a single tower with multiple cables. The bridge 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 edges can induce quite a sense of vertigo. Even for those normally unaffected by acrophobia, the Langkawi Sky Bridge is a thrilling experience.

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 fare (or reasonable facsimiles thereof) 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 Artisan’s Pizza. 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. Naturally, the high-end hotels all have equally high-end dining, and some offer on-the-beach al fresco dining by sunset.

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 rid itself of Mahsuri’s seven-generation curse and is set to welcome you… and to write the latest chapter in its storied history.

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Source: Senses of Malaysia Sept-Oct 2012

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