Getting to Malaysia was among the least pleasant travel experiences of Jenni’s life. The journey began with moderate trepidation. The tide was super low when we left our little slice of paradise in Lipe, so we were unable to take the longtail boat. Instead, we had to call a “taxi” to take us by land over to the immigration stand at Bundhaya Resort on Pattaya Beach. A taxi on Koh Lipe is basically a moped with a sidekick module attached to the side. And by sidekick module I mean a little metal basket. The engine was apparently not powerful enough to carry the both of us and our luggage up the hill from our resort so the driver picked up our bags and told us to meet him at the top of the hill. Then we hopped on and I, being of course a person afraid of approximately 87% of things in the world, hopped in the front as we began zooming down the semi-paved road. I held on to the damn seat for dear life as I imagined which bone would be protruding from which part of my body when I went flying face first into the pavement.
Alas, we made it to immigration. As is now par for the course, we encountered obstacles. All the normal tourists have their itinerary/confirmation pages for their ferry tickets printed out and neatly presented in little laminate pockets. We had an email on an iPhone, which didn’t make the cut. So Alan walked around to the resorts, trying to find WiFi to e-mail the immigration/ferry lady a copy of the PDF so she could print our tickets. Of course, though, the one resort where WiFi had worked well before…now not so much. It’s becoming comical how often technology fails us.
By the way, one of the cardinal rules of international travel is to never let your passport out of your sight. But it’s impossible to follow that rule. So don’t be alarmed when they take your passport at the immigration office in Thailand and then call out names and hand out passports (already stamped) 45 minutes after you disembark in Langkawi.
The “ferry” from Lipe to Langkawi was horrid. Perhaps someone could have warned us that it is not, in fact, a ferry, like the ferry we took from Railay to Lipe, but rather a motorboat cum amusement park water ride. Expect to get absolutely drenched. Not a little “sea spray,” friends. Soaked. Like how wet you get when you shower, and not a shower in India or some place where the water pressure sucks. Like a shower with a rain shower overhead and those side sprayer things coming out of the wall from three sides. I normally wouldn’t mind the wetness, but for the fact that everything of technological value was stored in a non-water proof bag I desperately tried to keep dry by hoisting it above the ground between my legs and covering it with my lifejacket when I wasn’t holding on for dear life as the boat and my stomach dropped over harrowing waves that caused all the Asian women on the glorified “ferry” to scream like I do when I see spiders.
The rational man’s take: It was a tad scary, but mainly a rollicking, rough ride. Four factors jump to mind that often lead to accidents with casualties: a vessel in bad condition; passengers beyond capacity; lack of life jackets; inclement weather. None of the four was present.
First impressions on arrival, however, are quite positive. The harbor is attractive, feeling less industrial and more like where your wealthy Malaysian friend might keep his yacht. The backdrop is comprised of steep, jungle-covered mountains and the Langkawi cable car. Langkawi is actually an archipelago of 99 or 104 islands, depending on the tide. But the name usually refers to the largest, main island.
Here does not feel remote as Lipe did, and it seems decidedly modern. There are high quality signs with (almost) perfect English. (To be fair, though, passed and past are at least both words, as opposed to “showa,” as some Thai ads boast. I’m from Boston, but I don’t think the rest of the wicked smaht English speakers of the world would agree it counts.) Our taxi driver, while naturally charging us a bit of a rip-off price, was friendly, spoke pretty good English, and engaged us in conversation about both his hometown of Langkawi and our experience in Lipe.
We stayed a little bit off the beaten bath. We decided an ocean view for a reasonable price (with some compromises of course: shared bathrooms and no actual beach) trumped an expensive beachfront resort or a cheap place off the water. So we opted to stay in a tube. Tubotel is a strange little spot with “rooms” built into what are essentially large concrete pipes. They’re just about big enough for a bed (with your bags stored underneath) and a lamp. It’s definitely a funky and unique place, with lounge music, abstract and somewhat hipster art, a fun common area complete with day beds, plunge pools (pretty much just a couple large concrete tubs of unheated water, but pleasant enough to cool off in), a pool table, homemade pizza and mini-kegs on offer from the fridge. The airport is nearby, and we quickly learned that Air Asia here is like Southwest in Los Angeles. You see their planes constantly, easily identified by color.
Perhaps what we appreciated most about Tubotel were the “eco-pirate” tours they offer on a daily basis, shuttling guests to and from the nearby islands for free provided they pick up trash while on the beach. Even though we weren’t able to participate, we loved this idea, especially after our inspiration in Railay where we made a small contribution to remove some garbage from the otherwise magnificent beach.
Tubotel is just across a little inlet from the very popular beach (Pantai Cenang), but it takes about 20 minutes to walk there because the bridge is inland a bit. Once you do reach Pantai Cenang, be sure to look both ways when crossing the sand to avoid being hit by an SUV (they drive along the beach, jet skis and banana boats in tow). The beach is deep and the water is calm, albeit not so pristine looking and the sand quality is mixed. Picky comments for sure, but we’re coming from Thailand, and Cenang, my friends, can’t hold a candle to Lipe or Railay’s beaches. Though the sunsets were consistently marvelous on our three nights here.
Casa del Mar, a pricier resort on the Cenang strip, seemed like a great place to post up. So much so that we spent the better part of a day at its beach-side restaurant using WiFi and drinking sangria. The sangria was necessary, because much of this day was spent trying to pay for our new and improved (and by improved I only mean more expensive. Except for that pediatric dental care. That will come in handy for all the children’s teeth we’ve hoarded) Affordable Care Act health plan (seriously, how has this been so hard), and dealing with getting our credit card replaced (and all of our automated bill-pays updated) because the first time we shopped at a Target in probably two years was the week before we left the country and coincided with hackers stealing the credit card information of all Target shoppers.
The street just behind the beach resorts is abuzz with restaurants and shops. We thoroughly enjoyed Yasmin’s chicken shawarma. So much that we considered getting it again the next night, changing our minds only when we found a Turkish restaurant, Istanbul, where we wolfed down a chicken doner kebab sandwich and spicy lamb iskender kebab with yogurt sauce. Near Yasmin we bought some potent Carlsberg special brews (8.8%!) at the 7-11 and noticed a sign that alcohol sales are only for non-Muslims. By the way there are so many 7-11’s in much of Asia.
Langkawi manages to strike a nice balance between action and relaxation. The main strip is lively and the beach has jet skis, but you don’t see rowdy partiers or hear much untz-untzing.
We did something here that we hadn’t done since leaving the states almost two months before: we drove! We rented a car to explore more of the island. It was such an incredible feeling of freedom we’d forgotten, to be able to go as we please, wherever we wanted, with no haggling or ten minute conversations with a tuk-tuk driver to try to communicate a destination, and just throwing anything we might need for the day in the trunk. Alan was a pro with the steering-wheel-on-the-right, keep-left style driving, which was made very pleasant by the fact that there are super nice, rule-abiding, non-aggressive drivers here! It’s interesting that we have traveled exclusively in countries that drive on the left so far this trip (Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand and Malaysia). You’d think this means I know which way to look before crossing the road by now, but it still isn’t quite second nature. The roads are also well-labeled and well-maintained, which made the contrast of roadside monkey clusters and later a herd of water buffalo crossing all the more intriguing.
We first drove up to what had been described as the nicest beach on the island, on the north side, where some fancy schmance resorts are (Four Seasons and Tanjung Rhu). It’s a nice beach for sure, but still can’t really compare to Koh Lipe or Railay. That said, it was very interesting to see some women sporting bikinis next to Muslim women covered entirely head to toe. And we arrived at low tide to some really cool sandbars, one of which Jenni walked out to. It was a very long path and she lost her way on the return. A Malay man wanted to talk, know where we’re from, welcome us to his country, but Jenni was having a mild panic attack worrying that if she couldn’t find the sandbar to lead her back the way she came then would she step on those sea urchins with the crazy long needles? Asian sea urchins are far more destructive looking than the ones you see in the U.S. Which reminds me, I found it amusing and impressively resourceful when a kind European man we’d met in Thailand warned us to be careful to avoid stepping on the urchins in the direction we were headed by describing them as “sea porcupines.”
There are lots of women by the parking area at Tanjung Rhu offering one or two-hour boat rides to visit the mangroves and watch an eagle being fed. We passed, but I did see some mysterious animal poking out of the ocean that may or may not have been a crocodile. Or do they have seals here?
We planned to check out Datai Bay but stopped for lunch at Scarborough’s fish and chips. This nice little beachfront spot caught a hold of us with its free WiFi, and it was here over fried snow fish and spring rolls that we took the plunge into joint blogdom! (Only to run into…you guessed it…technical difficulties that were not resolved for weeks).
Hours later, we drove over to the Langkawi cable car at Oriental Village hoping to catch the sunset. This is a great opportunity to get views of the island, and a very popular activity for visitors. It was absolutely terrifying. I’ve been on aerial trams before. I ski. I’ve been on those sky-bridge platform things in the Australian jungle. I’ve taken the tram to Sandia peak in New Mexico. This was by far the scariest one. I cried. Both ways. Going up I made it to the first “stop” and to my horror I realized Alan wasn’t kidding that the ride wasn’t over. That’s when I cried. On the way down I tried closing my eyes, but it didn’t help. Wow. If you’re afraid of heights, maybe this one is not for you.
Fortunately for Jenni, at least the sky bridge at the top was closed so she was spared the horror of walking across this suspension path spanning a deep chasm. It was a bit hazy so the views weren’t great, but we could still see quite a bit and the jungle covering these mountains is impressively dense and verdant.
Overall we would say that Langkawi is quite a pleasant place and good for a Thai visa run or perhaps a quick beach escape with its international airport. But we would not advise traveling a great distance to visit Langkawi alone.
The main commercial area on the island is Kuah. The most popular beach area is at/around Pantai Cenang. The north coast is quieter with some fancy resorts. There are ATMs in Kuah and also at Telaga Harbour and Underwater World. Langkawi is duty free which means alcohol and chocolate, among other less important things, are cheap.
The exchange rate was 1 USD = 3.3 MYR.
Transportation: We took a ferry from Koh Lipe, Thailand which lasted about 1.5 hours. As noted above, it was a rough ride. We bought the tickets on Telaga Terminal’s website and paid $74 for two but the boat said Bundhaya on it. This ferry lands at Telaga Harbour, which is closer to the beaches and resorts on the west of the island than is the Kuah Jetty. There is an ATM and mini mart here. From Telaga it was about a 15 minute drive to Pantai Cenang (taxi cost 30 MYR). There is an international airport (and this is Air Asia territory), and also ferries from Penang and the mainland.
Our ferry to Penang left from Kuah Jetty, and a taxi there from Tubotel cost only 30 MYR and took 30-40 minutes. The Kuah Jetty area has a Starbucks with free WiFi, several other F&B options, ATMs, SIM card shops, etc.
Many visitors rent a moped or car, which is a good idea because it’s fairly cheap and the driving is very mellow compared to many Asian destinations. We got a Nissan Sentra automatic for 24 hours, delivered to and picked up from our hotel, for 90 MYR. A manual transmission would have cost 60 MYR. Petrol is subsidized and inexpensive at ~2 MYR/liter, far less than we pay back in California.
Accommodation: We stayed at Tubotel, an interesting property just west of Pantai Cenang that we described above. There are loads of properties on Pantai Cenang. Casa del Mar is very well-reviewed, and Meritus Pelangi is a big resort on the western end of that beach. Many fancier resorts are on the north side of the island, including Four Seasons and Tanjung Rhu at the eponymous beach, and The Datai on its namesake bay. There are also some less expensive, well-reviewed places off the beach in the hills.
Food: There are abundant options on the main strip at Pantai Cenang. Yasmin is a Syrian joint with a small, proper restaurant as well as a nearby sidewalk stand where we enjoyed chicken shawarma (10 MYR). Palm View offers seafood plus meats like deer and ostrich and was crowded. Orkid Ria was packed each night. Tomato is popular. There is Starbucks and a 24-hour McDonald’s.
Istanbul was closer to Pantai Tengah, the beach just southeast of Cenang. If you are near Tanjung Rhu then Scarborough’s is a good option for fish and chips.
There are also Dunkin’ Donuts and Dairy Queens in abundance in Langkawi and Penang. How is it easier to find a Dunks in Malaysia than it is in California?
Activities: Perhaps the star attraction is the cable car, ascending ~700 meters in less than 15 minutes. Tickets may be sold in combination with things like a 3-D movie, but we did just the cable car and it cost 30 MYR each. Pantai Cenang is the most popular beach area and it’s loaded with jet ski rentals and parasailers. Underwater World is located here. There are also some crafts centers, Telaga Tujuh (aka Seven Wells) Waterfalls, a museum or two and duty free shopping.
January 19-22, 2014 (Sunday-Wednesday)