Arrive, revive and then you’ll thrive on this intriguing island that’s Malaysia in miniature.
Allow me to make a confession: although incurably bitten by the travel bug, travel sometimes wears me out. This happens on a visit to Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur, a contradiction of modern and old. Although fascinated by it, the relentless hustle and bustle tires me out.
Self-diagnosed with sensory overload and sightseeing fatigue, I escape to Langkawi Island, where I surrendered myself to the magical hands of Pugi. Pugi is a Balinese massage therapist at the Datai Resort, an enclave of luxury in the mountainous rainforest of the remote north-west of the island. Pugi’s workplace is a bungalow under the trees near the beach. Once on the massage table, the gurgling of two merging creeks just a few metres away and the hypnotic buzz of insects let me drift off to heaven.
The biggest indulgence here, however, is to do as little as possible. A day at the Datai can be a showcase of how to turn into a sloth. The 7am start is a contradiction that’s squarely down to a body clock that defines an early riser. Morning showers drift in. Slow stroll past the lily pond to the breakfast room overlooking the pool. The insects and birds are still holding their breath. Breakfast turns into a lingering affair, less food than just gloriously wasted time. Lunch – skipped; afternoon nap not. Later in the evening a walk down to the beach. Monkeys frolic in the trees that fringe the bay, tropical storm clouds hang over the mountains. The air is like velvet and the real world is light years away.
And that is the problem with the Datai; any resort, really. It is a wonderful escape from reality, an enclave of comfort and luxury for those high-powered types in desperate need of a recharge. Or honeymooners. I’m neither and, as expected, my recuperation period is short.
Curiosity is gaining the upper hand.
Langkawi is by far the largest island of the Langkawi archipelago, a cluster of 99 islands in the Andaman Sea at the border to Thailand. It’s almost too big for that special island feel, although it does have everything you’d expect from a tropical paradise: jungle-clad mountains, pristine beaches, sensational sunsets. Langkawi has a rural side as well, and with a population of about 65,000, it’s basically Malaysia in miniature.
The Datai is too remote to be the ideal base for exploring the island, whereas the Bon Ton Resort, just south of the airport, has rural Langkawi at its doorstep. The resort itself, on the grounds of a 100-year-old coconut plantation, has a distinct village feel, with antique Malay houses spaced around a pool. The houses, immaculately renovated to reflect contemporary demands, are nevertheless worthy of an open air museum.
Beyond the resort lie vast rice fields. Water buffalo, caked in mud, stand near their wallows. A traditional farmhouse surrounded by coconut palms sits, like an island, in the middle of the fields. In the distance is a village and further back rise dark rainforest-covered hills. It is time to explore.
“What do you want to see,” asks taxi driver Amir. “Everything that has to do with rice and everyday life,” I answer. So for the next few hours we cruise back streets, stop for quick chats with locals, and check out gardens and backyards full of exotic fruit trees in various kampongs. Rice harvest is just about finished, new paddies are being prepared and rice sown with a loud petrol-powered contraption is fertilised.
To the east of the island is Langkawi’s wild side: Kilim Geoforest Park. Within the 100 sq km park, limestone, and the tireless work of the tropical climate have created a strange and impossibly rugged wonderland of jungle-clad landscape with steep cliffs, mysterious caves, mangrove-lined waterways, hidden bays and myriad islands. A boat is the only way to see it, so even this fearless self-navigator yields to the need for an experienced guide. Indian-born Selva has a wealth of knowledge, great enthusiasm, a huge environmental conscience – but also a rather overwhelming personality. My ears soon start ringing and my mind starts somersaulting while the boat zips down a broad, mangrove-lined channel. Limestone cliffs soar behind the green fringe. The opaque sky is featureless in its tropical heaviness. Occasionally big raindrops pelt the boat. First stop is Bat Cave where a large colony of roundleaf bats roost. Monkeys greet visitors at the entrance. This is followed by a whole array of Kilim’s natural attractions.
Let’s return to the Datai for a quick postscript. Besides the magical hands of Pugi, it is the culinary skill of Habib Nor and his kitchen crew that makes the stay so memorable. At the Gulai House, a restaurant tucked away under the rainforest canopy, undercuts my argument that the Datai shields you from everything Malaysian. The food is so good that I have to refrain myself from gushing. With hindsight, maybe it would have been better to have left Datai until the end of my Langkawi visit. But without Pugi’s magic hands, I may never have had the energy to explore Langkawi in the first place.
Kilim Geoforest Park www.langkawigeopark.com.my