Weekend respite in Langkawi
A cable car takes visitors 709m up in the air for a birds-eye view of one of Langkawi’s most mythical stories. (Gavin Hellier/Getty)
Whether you are on a business trip, backpacking through or have permanently relocated to Singapore, it is hard to go any distance without overhearing the assertion that being in the glossy Southeast Asian hub is “not really like being in Asia”.
Whether you agree with that sentiment or not, it cannot be denied that one of the city-state’s greatest merits is its proximity to the rest of the continent – where there is a bevy of travel opportunities that do not require hefty journey times or weighty budgets, as well as a host of budget airlines vying for your attention.
One such hotspot is Pulau Langkawi, an archipelago of 99 islands (or 104 when the tide drops) off the western coast of Malaysia. Once a sanctuary for pirates worn out from pillaging and plundering the Andaman Sea, Pulau Langkawi is now a refuge for slightly less exotic -- but equally as exhausted -- backpackers and business types seeking respite from Southeast Asia’s major cities. And with a flight time of only an hour and a half from Singapore -- or a mere 55 minutes from Kuala Lumpur -- you can be sipping a beachside cocktail in the time it takes most city-dwellers to battle their way home from work.
Langkawi, the largest of the archipelago’s islands, is surrounded by palm-fringed beaches and filled with rainforest-clad hills. It is also where the majority of the population lives and is relatively commercialized, which is useful for things that are often difficult to find on Malaysian islands, like access to ATMs and currency exchange.
The area of Pantai Cenang, near the island’s southwestern tip, has emerged as a vibrant tourist hub due to its proximity to Langkawi International airport, and is consequently the most popular destination for weekenders from Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. This makes for a fun atmosphere, with a buzzing beachside stretch of craft shops that are pleasant enough to browse, despite the offerings being relatively typical of coastal towns all over the world. Langkawi is also a duty-free island, so a trip to the bustling local supermarkets can prove worthwhile.
Pantai Cenang also has the best waterfront nightlife on the island, where -- fittingly -- the bars offer a laidback atmosphere filled with Bob Marley tunes and cold beer. The best of the bunch is the appropriately named Reggae Bar (60-4-955-1457), a beachside shack with live music, strong cocktails and an interesting selection of sociable travellers and friendly locals all lounging around the low tables on the sand. The easiest way to find it is by strolling along Pantai Cenang’s beach or asking a local.
Alternatively, as in many predominantly Islamic countries, most drinking establishments are based around the area’s many hotels. Bon Ton Resort is a popular spot among visitors looking for a boutique experience, offering eight individually-styled traditional Malay houses -- with enticing names like Silk, Black Coral and Blue Ginger -- that claim to be more than 100 years old. It is not for the animal allergic though, as it also operates as a dog and cat sanctuary.
For more romantically inclined travellers, the traditional, Spanish-themed Casa del Mar offers a cat and dog-free luxury hideaway, with excellent service and the option of watching the sunset from the hotel’s poolside La Sal cocktail bar or ordering tailor-made moonlit beachside dinners.
If it is ease you are looking for, Pantai Cenang is a charming place to spend a relaxing weekend sunbathing on the beach. But if you are willing to travel a little further, Langkawi has other more peaceful enclaves, where there are also fewer tourists.
The sweeping curve of Burau Bay, for instance, lies slightly north of Pantai Cenang, about 30 winding, monkey-dodging minutes from the airport in a taxi. The bay is flanked by thick coastal rainforest which makes it a tranquil spot to stay, and the serene beach is generally only frequented by guests of the two sand side resorts, the family-friendly Berjaya Resort at the north end -- where you can wake up to majestic views by opting for a traditional Malay stilted bungalow over the water -- and the private, tranquil cabins of the Mutiara Burau Bay Resort to the south.