By Chere Di Boscio
After a 12-hour flight, 8 time zones away, all any traveller wants is a refreshing drink, a cold towel, and the knowledge that the journey has been worth it. We got all of those things as soon as we arrived from a direct flight from London to Langkawi.
The island is simply beautiful, ideal for upscale tourists in the sense that there is an abundance of luxury restaurants and hotels to choose from, while the place is still pristine in a way that inspires seasoned travellers to say things like, “Oh, this is just like Thailand, 20 years ago.” and “Well, the new direct flights will soon kill the place, of course”.
Upon landing from dreary old England, our first priority was to lay our eyes on a beach. We were not disappointed. Long, white and rather empty on one side, after crossing some boulders, Cenang Beach transformes into an intimate party place, decorated with scattered shells, funky bars, and an international beach crowd. Everyone from semi-naked Europeans to burqa-clad Saudi tourists shares space, quite merrily.
Langkawi natives are some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet, their kindness is infectious. It is rare for passers by not to greet each other with a smile and a hello. Parents often encourage their children to wave hello or even blow affectionate kisses to tourists. Although Malaysia is officially a Muslim country, it is very cosmopolitan, with citizens of Indian, Sri Lankan, Indonesian and Chinese ancestry. The result is a varied cuisine, and a surprising tolerance of all religious and cultural practices.
After a few days spent on the beach recovering from jetlag, it was time to see more of the island. There is a cable car that transforms the rainforest into a broccoli jungle, with fantastic views to Thailand at the top (not for anyone with vertigo!). Duty free shopping is found at both Kuah Town and Langkawi Fair, which has an aquarium beside it– the largest in Asia, apparently. At Sun Village, you’ll see some of the most gorgeous home items for extremely reasonable prices, and when you’ve finished hitting the shops, chill out in the traditional Malay restaurant, set in the midst of a stunning tropical garden complete with goldfish-filled pools, wooden bridges, and orchids scattered around the low tables and decorative cushions.
Natural Healing, Natural Pleasures
If you want to immerse yourself in the natural beauty of the island, there are many nature tours on offer, from jungle treks to boat tours of the many surrounding islands. No matter which you choose, you’ll find yourself feeling instantly calmed and grounded by the sensual delights of the surrounding environment – the lush scent of the dense jungle; the beauty of the large variety of flora on the islands, including rare orchids; the delightful chatter of the macaques and their less cheeky cousins, dusk monkeys; the refreshment of filling your nose and mouth with unpolluted air. Eagles, iguanas, and if you are lucky, some hornbills and baby sharks will pop into view, sparking a primal sense of awe.
We took a boat tour that ended at the Lake of the Pregnant Maiden, so called because legend has it that by merely swimming here, women become more fertile (makes you wonder what’s in the water!). As we floated on our backs in the warm pool, we were entertained by dusk monkey acrobatics and myriad macaques leisurely grooming each other. Blue and yellow butterflies danced about, flirting with exotic flowers. I thought this was the most relaxed I could ever be, until I discovered Malaysian massages, that is.
If you do only one thing in Langkawi, you must get a massage! Reflexology, shiatsu, traditional Malay, hot oil – the choices are almost endless. These masseuses certainly know what they are doing too – for example, here, reflexology isn’t the glorified foot massage you get back home. Here, reflexology is a science. An art. And it hurts like heck!
My husband and I endured – and I do mean that literally – 3 hour long reflexology sessions over 5 days. After the first one, we could barely walk, and felt a bit unwell the next day. The second one was a bit easier to bear, and we almost looked forward to the third. But we were doing this for a reason: I was suffering from terrible insomnia, as I do when I’m jetlagged. My husband was having, shall we say, ‘stomach issues’ as he tends to on holiday. But after 3 sessions targetting these problems, I was sleeping like a baby, and he was digging into spicy Malay cuisine with no qualms.
The surroundings of most spas here are heavenly – usually on a beach, in the rainforest, or on the grounds of a luxury hotel, like the bijou Casa del Mar, which was the first place at which we stayed. The rooms are airy and light (ask for an upstairs room), there is a fantastic spa upstairs, and the staff are not only friendly, they make you feel truly welcome and pampered.
An example: after a casual chat, one of the staff remembered I spoke English, Spanish and Italian, and voila! Newspapers in all three languages was provided each morning. At noon, iced-peppermint infused towels were handed to us with silver tongs, with slices of cold watermelon. At teatime each day, we were given a basket of fruit, a bucket of ice, nuts and beverages, and to end the day, the bedclothes were always turned down, with mints and the next day’s weather report placed on the night table. A nice touch.
The Datai: Exclusively Enchanting
Two of the world’s best luxury resorts, the Atman and the Datai, are a 15-minute drive from the Casa del Mar, located directly in the rainforest. After hearing about its legendary location–set amidst a tropical jungle, overlooking a sheltered bay–we could not resist staying in the Datai for a few nights. To this day, I insist that it is one of the most beautiful places at which I have ever had the privilege of staying.
Constructed from local wood felled by elephants (not machines) and local natural materials like rattan and bamboo, the resort is subtly set in a dense, 10-million year old forest. Were it not for its pool, you’d barely see the place if you flew above it. The Datai’s award-winning interiors include creature comforts like a 37’’ flat screen TV, DVD player, Bose stereo, his and her dressing areas, and a Lavazza coffee maker, all of which seem almost incongruent with the dense nature all around. Keep a window open, and the sounds of creaking, buzzing, chirping and croaking wildlife is almost loud enough to keep you awake all night; keep a door open, and you may well be visited by a scurrying, scampering or slithering creature.
To get to better know these ‘neighbours’, the Datai offers a fascinating tour with an expert who points out which animals live in this tropical forest, and explains the medicinal properties of various plants. It makes you truly aware of how interdependent we all are on natural ecosystems, and how city living distances us from our place within them, far too much.
In fact, our stay amidst nature here was so wonderful–almost spiritual, in the sense that I felt reconnected to nature in ways that would never be possible in London–I actually cried when it was time to go home. The only way my husband could stop my tears was to promise to take me again next year. I’ll hold him to it.