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Lying north of the Strait of Malacca in the southern Andaman Sea near the border between Malaysia and Thailand, the island of Langkawi, the so-called “Jewel of Kedah”, was once home to fishermen and farmers and a haven for pirates with nary a luxury resort in sight.
That is, until a young Malay doctor in a sampan waded ashore to Pulau Langkawi, falling in love with its remote beauty. Mahathir Mohamad, a Kedah boy then in his first medical posting, would go on to become one of Malaysia’s most influential prime ministers, ruling the country for 22 years. But he never forgot the island, engineering a transformation of this former rural backwater of fishing villages, rice paddies and kampung settlements after he took power in 1981.
Dr M proved remarkably prescient. Now an international tourism drawcard, Langkawi welcomes millions of visitors a year. It’s famed for its Lake of the Pregnant Maiden, snorkelling haven Pulau Payar Marine Park, the UNESCO-listed Machinchang and Kilim Karst Geoforest parks, and sugary white beaches from Tanjung Rhu in the north to Pantai Cenang on the west coast.
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We arrive here after three frenetic days in Kuala Lumpur, swapping gold-domed mosques and shopping malls for mangroves, tropical jungle, and nine days of lazing at the Meritus Pelangi Beach Resort & Spa on Pulau Langkawi, the main island in this archipelago of 104 isles off the Malaysian west coast.
It’s fine white sand, turquoise fingers of Andaman Sea and casuarinas everywhere we look, but even here, as in KL, we sense the lingering aftershocks of Malaysia’s dramatic general election in May that resulted in Mahathir’s return to power after overthrowing the six-decade rule of prime minister Najib Razak’s party. And little wonder, as Mahathir is Langkawi, that the islanders couldn’t be happier.
To some in this deeply mystical culture, it all dovetails nicely with the prophesies laid out in the legend of Langkawi which tells of Mahsuri, a fair maiden unjustly accused of adultery who bleeds white blood at her execution as a sign of her innocence. As she lay dying, she put a curse on the island declaring it would remain barren for seven generations. “But now we are in the eight generation,” our hotel’s genial front office manager Praba says happily. Auspicious times indeed.
Our chosen hideaway is the grand dame of this island, rising out of dirt roads, coconut groves and rice paddies to play host to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in 1989. Our beachfront family villa, one of 355 across 52 traditional Malay-style wooden chalets, is set amid cartoonishly lush tropical gardens home to hibiscuses as big as teapots and at least one massive resident monitor lizard; one evening, we see it carrying off a huge snake for dinner.
Only five metres from the shoreline, our villa fronts a private kilometre-long stretch of white sand that merges into the island’s pretty Cenang Beach, dotted with kite-surfers and retro thatched beach bars bedecked with Malaysian flags and staffed by raffish young Malay men a world away from the conservative, tudung-wearing Langkawi villagers.
The glorious sunsets draw a diverse audience. On our first evening, we sit in inches of bathtub-warm ocean watching the sea turn lava red; nearby, two African women take selfies framed by a halo of tiny black bats while a young blonde woman punts a beach ball past a honeymooning Arab couple with a background of the low slope of Rebak Besar island across the strait.
My daughter digs her hand in the coral grit and pulls out what we discover is an auger, or turret shell, long and thin and as elegantly corkscrewed as a ballet dancer in a pirouette. It’s a magical moment.
It’s tempting to just sit by the pool in a lizard stupor, but fuelled by buffet breakfasts of kaya toast, fresh parath and the tarik and nasi lemak, we venture out eventually. We visit a croc farm on the road to Teluk Datai Bay, about 32km north of Kuah in the island’s stunning, undeveloped green heart, passing rice paddies and startled water buffalo. We head to the local shops at Pantai Cenai where we browse racks of burkinis and eat the best seafood of our lives at local institution Orkid Ria, strung with romantic Chinese lanterns, and graced with tanks of fat dragon tiger grouper, king crabs and mantis prawns.
One morning we drive in to Kuah, the island’s quaint main town, where we sip masala tea at an Arabic cafe full of shisha-pipe smoking Qataris before a trip to Dataran Lang, or Eagle Square, the island’s most prominent landmark, featuring a 12m tall eagle statue. According to local folklore, Langkawi derived its name from the eagle, or helang in old Malay, and kawi, denoting reddish brown. We count Brahminy kites circling above Kuah Jetty as ferries come in from the 90-minute trip from the mainland port of Kuala Kedah, before we trek up a mountain road through monkey-filled jungles for lunch at the Westin Langkawi.
But mostly, we lie poolside, fascinated by the exotic deckchair demographics, including a clan of boisterous Liverpudlians, a pretty young Algerian newlywed in a burkini, a sprinkling of eastern Europeans as red as a bucket of boiled prawns and Middle Eastern women in designer sunglasses and billowing black niqabs like dhows at full sail sipping tea and studying cellphones around the pool. Burkas and bikinis? It’s a wonderful mix. As we drive to the airport, a solitary eagle soars overhead; Helang Kawi, a symbol and legend in search of supper. A farewell sign from Mahsuri, perhaps, says my daughter, auger shell clutched tightly in her hand.
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