Langkawi: Let us introduce you to this lunatic ecosystem

From flying lemurs and jungle-smothered mountains to rice paddies, rivers and ancient curses, Langkawi's human and natural worlds collide to spectacular effect

By Ben Lerwill
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:21 BST, Updated 6 Dec 2021, 15:14 GMT
Fiddler Crab. Image: Aidi Abdullah
Fiddler Crab. Image: Aidi Abdullah

At sundown, with the day's heat loosening its grip on the rainforest, the colugos begin to glide. They climb the tree trunks, spread their limbs, and leap into the dusk. Also known as flying lemurs, these nocturnal mammals — part-squirrel, part-monkey — soar some 160ft from tree to tree, the baggy skinfolds between their arms and legs stretched as taut as a parachute. Night has arrived, and the darkening sky is alive with airborne squares of fur.

Langkawi's 10-million-year-old blanket of rainforest is full of surprises, and gravity-scorning squirrel-monkeys are just the start. Alongside the white-noise cicada drone and the head-swim of botanic aromas, there are sky-high mahogany trees, flying snakes and moths the size of paper planes. Everywhere are figs, creepers and heard-but-not-seen birds with long and unusual names. It's the tropics at full throttle.

It's been 10 years since UNESCO awarded Langkawi its global geopark status, and the compact Malaysian archipelago scattered across the Andaman Sea is about as biodiverse as it gets. Three types of protected eagle boss the skies. More butterfly species are found here than in the whole of Europe. It even lays claim to being the first part of Southeast Asia to emerge from the primordial oceans, having poked its tectonic nose above water around 220 million years ago.

For some visitors, Langkawi is as much about its beach culture and duty-free malls as its natural uniqueness. The destination routinely draws more than three million annual arrivals, and handling high-volume tourism in a sustainable manner has at times proved challenging. After UNESCO issued a warning to clean up its act, steps were taken to help local communities understand just what an asset they had. The archipelago, it was stressed, is somewhere to be nurtured.

It's an asset young naturalist Abdul Fuad has built a career around. "Listen — in the trees," he says, as we kayak along the glassy green Kubang Badak River. He holds his finger up. A sharp weet-weet-weet can be heard, coming from the mangroves. "A greater racket-tailed drongo," he explains. "It can mimic 10 other birdcalls."

We continue onwards, until the only sound is the muted splash of our paddles. Our kayaks drift along at walking pace, keeping to the shade of the banks to escape the insistent sunshine. Bright fiddler crabs scuttle along the shoreline as fishermen bob past in search of barracuda.

The tidal river is a part of Pulau Langkawi, by far the largest of the 104 islands in the archipelago and one of the only two inhabited ones. It's roughly the size of Singapore but only has about 65,000 inhabitants, most of them ethnic Malays. The island has 28 mosques, one hospital and no university. The nearest thing I experience to a traffic jam is when cars slow for a monitor lizard to cross the road. "Young people often head to the mainland," a coconut vendor tells me. "But most of them come home again."

Back on the river, Abdul steers his kayak down a side channel. I follow, and we pass a mudflat crowned by a rotting boat hull. We stop paddling. "Langkawi was lucky in the 2004 tsunami," he says flatly. "Only one person died, because our outer islands acted as a barrier. But this boat belonged to a Thai fisherman. It was washed up here by the wave — 25 miles over the sea then another two miles inland along the river. Now, it stays where it is."

Langkawi's proximity to Thailand has influenced it in numerous ways. Its cuisine makes liberal use of lemongrass, coconut milk and chilli, to salivating effect, particularly alongside the abundant seafood. And the island also borrows architecturally from its northerly neighbour. The tiny fishing villages could be taken from a Thai postcard, and high-end resorts too mimic those on the country's southern coastline.

Fruits of the forest
I'm splitting my time here between two of the island's smartest hotels. First up is The Andaman, in the white-sand-and-rainforest amphitheatre of Datai Bay. Hornbills, swallows and kingfishers overfly its jungle surrounds, and several types of monkey roam here too. The long-tailed macaque is by far the most brazen — and the most common — of the bunch; known to be partial to the occasional minibar raid, while the dusky leaf langur is prettier and altogether less hedonistic.

The resort grounds are also a fine place for watching colugos. On an evening walk with resident naturalist Fendi, we see four curled up on a fig tree. Then suddenly, silently each glides off to settle on a different trunk. "They're herbivores," he says. "There's always fruit in the rainforest, so for colugos every evening's a good evening."

I walk to the beach. The night is warm, and out at sea squid boats create a wobbling line of lights on the horizon. In the moonlight I pick out the large, dark outline of Koh Tarutao, the Thai island that was once a notorious penal colony. Things turned nasty during the Second World War, when prisoners and guards were both left to fend for themselves without supplies. They banded together to become armed pirates, hijacking supply boats until the British Armed Forces were called in.

Britain, like Thailand, has exerted considerable sway on Langkawi. Malaysia was a British colony until 1957 and English remains widely spoken, but Thailand's links are older and stronger. Many islanders have part-Thai heritage, and the tale of Mahsuri, a beautiful young Thai woman who lived here in the late 1700s, has become a much-repeated part of island folklore.

According to legend, she was brutally executed after being wrongly accused of adultery. Some say that from her gaping wounds flowed white blood — proof of her innocence — while others insist that as she lay dying, a cloud of mist enveloped her body. With her last breath, Mahsuri cursed the islands to have seven generations of bad luck.

Several locals I speak to express a belief that this curse took effect, lasting right up until the mid-1990s, when Langkawi first found success as a tourist destination. And when floating idly down rivulets in a wooden canoe, surrounded by nothing but jungle, it's easy to forget just what a tourist hotspot the place has become.

I head inland, and after sampling the smoke and halal-sizzle of the food market in Kuah, the island capital, I visit Pantai Cenang. This is Langkawi's understated party zone, and a strip of open-air beach bars competes for space with a string of budget hotels. Guitarists are setting up on the sands, while travellers flop on beanbags with beers and hookah pipes. Speakers are thumping out basslines, and the stars overhead are mesmerisingly clear.

The second portion of my week is at Four Seasons Langkawi, an all-out luxury resort with a vast palm-tree beach and a Geopark Discovery Centre. "We've had a British PM stay with us," one employee shares. "I can't say who, but Cherie and the kids were charming." Its geopark centre gives a good overview of the different rock formations that shaped Langkawi all those millions of years ago — huge shelves of sandstone, limestone and granite forced their way upwards, abutting and overlaying each other to create today's islands.

The resort covers such a wide area that guests have the option of using a bike to get around. I take the opportunity to cycle even further afield, joined by Yasin, a hotel staff member. We pedal past rice paddies and slow riverside villages. He points out wild fruit trees: papaya, banana, mangosteen and jackfruit. Fertility like this needs a rainy season, and a short tropical shower reminds me I'm in the middle of it. "We have Arabic guests that come every year especially for the rain," Yasin tells me. "They go to the beach and stand there, faces up and arms outstretched."

Falling for the archipelago is easily done. In 2008, a smitten local sultan bestowed the islands with a new title: Langkawi Permata Kedah. The name translates as 'Langkawi, the Jewel of Kedah', in reference to the wider state it forms a part of. The sultan's largesse was understandable. The entire archipelago has geopark status, but within its borders are three designated geosites, those parts of Langkawi considered to hold exceptional natural and geological significance.

The first is the jungle-smothered mountain range of Machinchang, the oldest rock formation on the islands, and a steep cable-car leads up to its 2,500ft summit. This is Langkawi's most popular attraction, meaning no shortage of souvenir shops and tour groups, but the views are stupendous. Up close, the ancient sandstone strata — originally formed under the sea more than half a billion years ago — lie horizontally like the pages of a book.

The second is Dayang Bunting, one of the outlying islands, with an enormous freshwater lake. Legend has it that the water has healing properties, helping women to conceive after bathing in it. Magic or otherwise, it's an awesome sight, ringed on all sides by high, shaggy trees and broad walls of natural marble. I take a short, enlivening swim and then make the five-minute walk back through the woods to the island's sea jetty. Monkeys scamper along the boardwalk and ladies in hijabs pull up on jet skis, patting down their clothes before wading onto land.

Langkawi offers plenty when it comes to modern holiday indulgences, and motorised watersports, spa treatments and island-hopping tours are all widespread. For me, the standout thrill is Umgawa, a new zip-line course set in thick rainforest. Two of its 12 lines stretch for almost 500ft — right across the valley — and the guides are both enthusiastic and well informed. They highlight the little and the large, from punkish caterpillars crawling up rattan palms to brochure-shot waterfalls crashing down the mountains.

The third of the islands' geosites is the remarkable Kilim Karst Geoforest Park. It's still early in the morning when I arrive there by boat with Aidi Abdullah, the naturalist at Four Seasons and a man personally responsible for the first sightings of seven of Langkawi's 241 bird species.

"Let me introduce you to this lunatic ecosystem," he smiles, as we turn into a bay lined with jagged karst hills. Over the next three hours, our little vessel winds its way through a labyrinth of mangrove-crowded waterways. The trees themselves thrive in muddy, brackish conditions, filtering salt from the water and raising their hooped black roots above ground, sometimes elevating the central trunk a good metre into the air. "There's no other forest like it. They out-evolved all competition," Aidi explains.

If the mangrove banks are a compelling sight, so too are the creatures that live on them. Mudskippers are fish that can survive for up to eight minutes out of water, and we see hundreds of them hefting themselves along the shore by their flippers. One squares up to a crab and succeeds in standing its ground, a bizarre tableau that perfectly sums up Langkawi's mind-bending take on the animal kingdom.

"I've been doing these tours for 16 years. I can't give it up," says Aidi, before pointing out a coiled viper on a branch. "This is my paradise." As he talks, two white-bellied sea eagles pass overhead, heading inland to the sun-patched green mountains. Langkawi might be the oldest part of Southeast Asia, but it remains fiercely alive.


Getting there & around
Malaysia Airlines flies from Heathrow to Kuala Lumpur (13h) and from there to Langkawi (1h).
There's no public transport, transfers are by taxi and car hire is readily available. Boat operators offer tours to outlying islands.

When to go
December-April is high season, with highs of 29C. April-August sees fewer crowds and occasional showers while September-October is the rainy season, but can still have up to seven dry hours a day.

More info
Naturally Langkawi. T: +60 4 960 0600.
Langkawi Development Authority

How to do it
Audley Travel offers a nine-night trip from £2,580 per person (based on two sharing on a B&B basis) with four nights at The Andaman, three at Four Seasons and two at Mandarin Oriental, Kuala Lumpur. The price includes flights, transfers and activities, including a cable-car rainforest and zip-lining tour.

Published in the December 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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