Langkawi was the final destination on our Malaysian adventure. Langkawi is not really known for its food. But it is know for its beaches. Langkawi was to be the relaxing beach leg of our trip – the holiday after the holiday.
You can fly from Penang to Langkawi but we chose to take the 3hr ferry instead and I highly recommend the journey. The seats are comfortable, the boarding is done with military like precision. There is no arguing, no being late, and no confusion as to which ferry you are to board. The boarding is purposely staggered to make the narrow strip of concrete boarding area less crowded. I was picturing the same scene in India and it would have been utter chaos, hundreds of people confused about which ferry to board, the narrow strip of concrete crammed with travellers carrying huge bags of rice or goats jostling with old ladies selling samosas or malli poo (jasmine flowers). It’s either colourful chaos or sterile order, I’m yet to see a place with both (maybe Katpadi railway station.)
But Penang is where the sanity ends. Get to Langkawi and getting your luggage off is a mad scramble at the water’s edge. Luggage is thrown off and there is quite a bit of chaos as people try to identify their large cases. Get a trolley is my advice, it’s only RM1. This was only the second bit of chaos we saw in Malaysian public spaces, the other being the ferry from Butterworth to Penang.
It’s best to get your tickets at least 2 days in advance. The guys at New Asia Heritage Hotel were absolutely fantastic with getting us tickets. You can book online as well (which we forgot to do). They wisely suggested we get there an hour before departure as our passports needed to be checked (in a little shop before you enter the ferry terminal area). That was a good call because it meant we were first in line and got good window seats. There is a toilet onboard the ferry but no food or drink is sold.
The ride across the Andaman Sea is blue and green and occasionally grey. Everyone’s excited to be seeing this spectacular island. As you approach the island you see many yachts and sailing boats anchored in the beautiful clear green waters.
The ferry takes you to Kuah which is the main town. Kuah is busy (by Malaysian standards and empty by Indian ones) and there’s really not much to see or do here. But we did have some lovely chinese food here for breakfast in a non-descript place that was packed with chinese people (which is what drew us in).
We stayed on the popular beach strip Pantai Cenang (pronounced Che-nang) costing RM24 in a taxi from Kuah ferry point (exactly what the Lonely Planet says it is). There are other more quiet beach strips like Tanjung Rhu but those are the ones with private beaches for luxury hotels like the Four Seasons, Sheraton, etc. Pantai Cenang is a bit like Goa’s Palolem beach or Mahabalipuram but it’s much cleaner, nicer, relaxed, less frenetic and less crazy with much better products. If you’ve forgotten your bikini, swimming trunks, flip-flops, sarong or any other possible conceivable beach wear then it’s all here. Buy your sarongs here is my advice.
There being very few Chinese here, the food is a lot more Malay and most of the hotels are run by Malays too. The hotel we stayed at had an arrow on the ceiling, saying “Kiblat” which points to the direction in which to face when saying your prayers. This was my battery failing so the photo is blurred.
We stayed at the Malibest Resort which we found on TripAdvisor. I’ve heard that the AB Motel is also good. Book well in advance if travelling in December as it is the Malaysian school holidays and it’s very difficult to get a hotel booking as it is peak season for domestic tourists. Malibest for 3 nights (without breakfast), set us back Rs.7000. While it was not on the beach but across the road it was a large, very clean room with two extremely comfy double beds, a huge bathroom which was clean and had a hot shower. For Rs.2300 a day, it was heavenly compared to what you’d find in India for the same price.
My review with pictures is on TripAdvisor. The staff though were quite unhelpful in simple things like getting us a taxi to the airport. Also, the check in is strictly 3pm and while there is a place to leave your bags safely, the ferrys get in at 11am so you’ll have to kill 4 hours in the middle of the afternoon.
We spent the time renting a bike at the T-SHOPPE which is about 100 meters across the road from Malibest reception towards Tanjung Rhu. The lady who organised the bike rental was so impressive and incredibly precise about all the instructions. The accident insurance, the helpline to call, tyre puncture, fuel refilling, helmets,choice of bike, checking our license and all explained in perfect English. Motorbike is “cheap and best” way to get around the island.
The roads in Langkawi are immaculate and the drivers are so polite and disciplined on the roads. If you’ve got a GPS then there’s no getting lost. Or there’s no other freedom like driving around with the wind in your face, discovering a lonely beach at sunset. And all for just RM37 a day (Rs.600). A really good way to kill time between checking in is to ride around and discover some of the road side Malay eating joints that dot the highway towards Kuah Town. Another great bike ride is to Tanjung Rhu for sunset. The journey from Cenang will take about 40 minutes on bike.
The beach at Cenang was a bit busy but it was clean and the water was like a large green swimming pool surrounded by mountains, with beautiful sailing boats in the distance. We had hours of fun just floating on our backs and unlike beaches in India there were no waves lashing the shore. Also, no leery men or young boys or touts patrolling the beach. You can sit in your bikini with no one but you making you feel self-conscious. My kind of beach. We felt so free in Langkawi. It’s the beach, the relaxed pace, the lack of crowds and that we had our own mode of transport and didn’t have to rely on taxis.
The food choices are vast but everything’s a bit mediocore. We liked to drive out of Pantai Cenang towards Kuah town and stop at the little Malay shacks that sell food to locals. BUffet style set up with a variety of dishes from chicken and beef to spinach and even gizzard (much to the DH’s delight). The food was perfect for our Indian tastebuds but people from Western cultures might have a problem with it.
Based on a blog recommendation, we went to Fat Mum’s for dinner. It had been hyped up as the only decent, well priced chinese food in Cenang. Instead it was overpriced and the atmosphere was pretty dull. We thought we’d have a leisurely night, a few beers, a few starters and order as we went along. But the owner was adamant that we order everything immediately because he had a party of 10 people about to arrive and had to cook 21 (21 precisely dishes for them and he’d have no time for our food. Didn’t make us feel very welcome at all. The food was heavily overpriced. i WOULDN’T recommend it.
There was Islandish – empty in the afternoon but with a very friendly manager whose charming street touting style brought us in to the restaurant. We had the squid and the clams. Both tasted vaguely Indian. All washed down with some Tiger Beer. It was hot outside but relaxed at Islandish. A good place to spend time while you wait for your check in time. The young woman who worked there was not at all pleased with life. She was slack, had this sour look on her face, was about 21 and clearly hated her job and probably thought Langkawi the dullest place on earth. She was very fashionable and probably wanted to be partying in KL’s clubs. People come from all over the world to be in Langkawi and all she wanted was to get out.
The other good place to eat is Tomato, a Malay buffet style place (if you have a strong stomach). We saw a lot of Indians there. Hefty troughs of meaty stews – the beef, fish, chicken drumsticks, spinach all spectacular. But it did have a way with even our cast iron stomachs. Still worth it though. Becuase our stomachs took a hit, we opted for something bland before we flew. So we stopped at the English Tea Rooms for breakfast. A total recreation of an English Tea Room, complete with hand embroidered table cloths, vintage tea pots and china, union jacks, Branston pickle, Heinz baked beans, brown sauce, chicken pies, sausage rolls and clotted cream. The owner had even made minced pies for christmas. A great little place if you’ve been travelling for a long time and need a taste of home (if your home is Britain.)
After this most relaxing holiday, after experiencing how ordered things are in Malaysia compared to India, we were made to experience a little taste of Indian conditions in Malaysia. We flew from Langkawi to KL by Air Asia and noticed that the people boarding the Malaysian Airlines flight were mostly white westerners, with us low cost Asians flying back to our low cost lives. 6 hours later from the same LCCT (Low Cost Carrier Terminal) in KL was our Air Asia flight to Chennai. We decided to wait it out in the airport – at least there’d be chairs to sit on… we assumed.
WRONG. LCCT has no chairs at all. There are plenty of restaurants which are packed even at 2 am because everyone is biding time waiting for a flight. You have two options, either pay money to sit in a chair or swallow your pride and sleep on the terminal floor. It’s pretty hard to nurse one coffee for 6 hours. This is capatalist exploitation at its best. Either pay for a seat or go native.
For the first 40 minutes we roamed around the restaurants, trying to decide what to do. When we finally realised what their capitalist plot was we succumbed to the hard cold floor. We fashioned pillows out of our rucksacks and thanks to the bedsheet we had brought, that served us so well all through our journey, we weren’t that cold. This picture is when there were very few of us on the floor. By the time we left, the place was packed but my camera battery was truly dead.
People would walk by and look at those who had given in to the floor and think, “I’m not like them. I’ll never be like them.” But after 20 minutes of circling, they became one of us. There were some who just accepted the situation and took to it well. Like the guy who camped out next to us who was having the sleep of a lifetime, snoring incredibly loudly. After a while the airport terminal began to look like a morgue or like some poisonous gas had struck us all down.
There were of course the poorer Indians, Pakistanis and Malays who had done this before and had come fully prepared for a night on the floor of the airport. It was the tourists, the travellers from around the world who kept looking for those seats that just weren’t there. We could see the scorn on the faces of the Koreans and Japanese – this would never happen in their country. The street smart Indians piled on to the massage chairs that you have to pay for. Unfortunately for the rest of us after 10 minutes on those chairs they start to emit the most annoying alarm bells signalling to everyone that this cheapskate has not put any money in to the chair. So this alarm just kept going off all night long and those Indians just kept sitting on the chairs like determined elephants. If it weren’t for that constant alarm, I’d actually have slept pretty well.
After a hard few hours on the floor we couldn’t take it anymore. We stepped in to Coffee bean where people were unabashedly sleeping in the chairs, without having bought a thing. The staff didn’t seem to care either, they probably see this every night. With all the good comfy chairs already taken, we ordered a coffee out of politeness but soon put heads on the table and slept a while. Having no chairs in the airport reduces everybody to the common denominator. It’s survival of the fittest here. Amazingly people adapt and we found that everyone had placed between themselves and the stranger sleeping next to them, their trolley with bags. It created a temporary barrier for each person to have a little privacy in this very public space while doing a very private act ie. sleeping.
So traveller’s beware, if you have a wait between flights be prepared to slum it at LCCT. There’s plenty of places to spend your Ringgetts but essentially what you are doing is buying a chair. If you are spending more money you’ll get to fly out of the fancy KLIA airport on of those non-low cost airlines.
Overall, I loved Malaysia and it’s a place I’d keep going back to. For a tourist it is a delight to explore this country and we didn’t even explore any of the tropical forest parts of this country. Life for local people may be constricted, may be they don’t have as much freedom of expression that we do in India but their government has spent a lot on making superb infrastructure, transport and excellent systems that make public life very smooth indeed. To a tourist, there is so much opposing culture in Malaysia that seems to live harmoniously side by side. Maybe locals will disagree with me. But a tourist in India would say the same thing about how harmoniously temples, mosques and churches sit together in India. And yes, everyday life in India is very harmonious. From the outside looking in, Malaysia is a delight to visit. As an Indian, I felt so comfortable in Malaysia. I didn’t feel like a tourist at all and maybe that’s because interacting with people and using public systems is incredible easy and generally uncomplicated. It’s a foodie’s paradise and there I am always happy.
The whole trip taking in to account absolutely everything (flights, hotels, taxis, trains, ferrys, food, lots of shopping) set us back Rs. 1 Lakh (Rs.50,000 each) which I think is a pretty good deal for a week. We are back home now and have begun to use all the sauces, pastes, seaweed and meats we bought in KL, Penang and Langkawi, desperately trying to recreate the fantastic cuisine we had.
MALAYSIA – WE’LL BE BACK.