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
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
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
There is not much in the way of entertainment, other than the
enthusiastic cover band at Mutiara’s Seashell
Beach Cafe, but watching the prolific number of eagles, monkeys and monitor
lizards that scour the bay can be a fabulous way to pass the time.
Burau Bay’s culinary options can also be a bit limited, with
overpriced Western food making up most of the standard fare. For a far more
pleasant dining experience, a 15-minute walk east from the bay along the picturesque
Pantai Kok beach leads to the stunning five-star hotel, The Danna. If you can, stay there. If, like
most people, you cannot afford to, then it is a sublime place for people watching,
a bite of gourmet Malaysian cuisine and -- if you are feeling really cheeky --
a dip in the infinity pool, which provides sublime and uninterrupted views of
the surrounding rainforest and out to the glistening Andaman Sea.
For the more adventurous weekender, a nerve-jangling journey
by cable car awaits at Oriental
Village, a colourful complex of souvenir shops, spas and tour operators located
only a short taxi ride from both Pantai Kok and Burau Bay. The trip will take
you 709m up Gunung Mat Cincang, one of the islands peaks, for a birds-eye view
of one of Langkawi’s most mythical stories.
Langkawi is an island steeped in legends, and none is more
dramatic than the story behind Gunung Mat Cincang and its neighbouring peak
Gunung Raya. According to historical tales, the two mountains were once two
giants who were close friends. At the wedding of their children they fell out
and had a tussle, spilling gravy and breaking pots and pans. The gravy spillage
became the coastal town of Kuah (which means gravy in Malay), and the
neighbouring village of Belanga Pecah (or broken crockery) was born from the
pots and pans. Eventually the giants came to the senses with the help of a third
giant and mediator, Mat Sawar. They were ashamed of their behaviour and,
remorseful, chose to be turned into mountains. Mat Sawar was turned into a
small hill, and to this day he lies wedged between the two peaks, keeping a
watchful eye over them.