Langkawi’s Monsoon Music
By JOHN BORTHWICK
Monsoon rain buckets down magnificently on my Langkawi roof. Here is weather to stay home for — a joyous crescendo of water music on the shingles.
“Without rain you’ve got no rainforest,” an old Queenslander once told me (stating the obvious, laconically), but this is the Langkawi version of rain: an equatorial Niagara of dogs, cats, macaques and monitors. Five minutes later the forest is already dripping-dry, a squirrel pokes its head around a sunny bough and I’m out the door, exploring.
Malaysia’s Pulau Langkawi is an air hop north from Kuala Lumpur or a zip out from the mainland ports of Kuala Perlis or Kuala Kedah (by a fast ferry sometimes known ominously as “the vomit comet”). Or by ferry from Thailand’s Satun town or Koh Lipe island. Langkawi’s 104-island archipelago is as far north as you can go on Malaysia’s Andaman coast without bumping into Thailand. Unlike some nearby islands eager for tourist dollars, Langkawi’s jungles and shores haven’t been heedlessly strip-mined to build pop-up resorts, bling malls and beer bars.
The 10,000-hectare island and its satellite isles were declared a UNESCO Geopark in 2007 — that’s a stage below a World Heritage wilderness. “We haven’t got a Big Five here, like Africa,” says my Junglewalla Eco-tour guide, Shakira as we board a launch to cruise the Tanjung Rhu River in the Kilim Karst Geoforest Park. “Instead, we have the Little Five,” she adds. They might also be called the Langkawi Flying Five: the flying lemur, flying lizard, flying squirrel, flying frog and flying paradise tree snake.
I don’t actually spot any members of this aerial quintet — the Elusive Five? — as we head up the mangrove and limestone-hemmed river, but there are plenty of sea eagles, kingfishers and brahminy kites swooping low across the water, scooping up fish as they go. A two-metre water monitor basks on the shore. We watch macaque monkeys that have learned how to leap aboard tour boats — not ours, you varmints, no way! — and to intimidate the passengers into handing over snacks.
Shakira tells me that, even more deviously, the local crab-eater macaques have figured how to hunt by “fishing” with their tail, using it as a lure, beside crab-holes on the beach. Crab grabs tail. Monkey grabs crab. You know the rest. It sounds extraordinary — but would a tour guide lie? (Don’t answer.) In this case I believe Shakira, an earnest and educated environmentalist; but more to the point, I believe that the kleptomane macaque is capable of almost any form of larceny short of grand theft auto.
We pull into a wharf called Hole in the Wall, a fish farm-cum-restaurant. It has broad, submerged pens that hold among other marine species, large black stingrays that you can feed and stroke. They thrust their gleaming “faces” above the water, eyeball you a bit as you stroke their oil-smooth skin and then take food from your hand. Stingrays fed, we lunch on chicken satays and durian juice, then chug on, downriver to the sea’s karst cliffs where unique cycads grow, nourished only by whatever nutrients they draw from the limestone.
Langkawi, “the Jewel of Kedah” state, has been passed back and forward over the centuries between Siam-Thailand on one hand and Malay sultans and administrations on the other. The lush but undeveloped island began to bloom in the 1980s when the ever-competitive and combative Malaysian PM, Mahathir saw other Asian islands prospering from tourism. Let there be resorts and duty-free stores, he declared. And overnight there were, although not to the general ravishing of the island.
I take a swim at Langkawi’s most popular beach and shopping strip, Pantai Cenang. It’s a democratic and amiable shore, like a polite Kuta of three decades ago, or Sanur in purdah. Malay Muslim women, and even little girls, sit in the shallows, shrouded in billowing chadors — not ideal for swimming or not-drowning — while other women stroll by in bikinis. The water is clean. There are kids and kites and selfie sticks galore but only a few pesky jetskis.
I decide to climb a jungle mountain, but the easy way. The island's oldest geological formation, Gunung Matchincang, is said to be the first part of Southeast Asia to have emerged from the sea, some 500 million years ago. I join the terrific Panorama Cable Car for its trip to the 700-metre summit. Our gondola angles aloft high above the dense rainforest canopy. From the peak we can see much of the island and, just a few kilometres north, the misty shapes of Thailand’s Koh Tarutao-Adang archipelago.
It’s time to head back to The Datai resort where I’m staying. En route I check out its adjacent Els Club golf course. Despite the colour of their glorious fairways, golf courses are far from “green” (think, water consumption, land clearing, habitat depletion) but it’s easy see the game’s greenish offsets: open space, fresh air and exercise.
Over the Andaman horizon afternoon thunder begins rumbling like a dropped piano. Golfers, squirrels and macaques head for cover. The rain begins again as I reach my room in time for this green-on-green island’s next rousing performance of monsoon music.
Air AsiaX flies Kuala Lumpur—Langkawi. There are ferry services from the mainland, and Satun and Koh Lipe in Thailand.
Junglewalla Wildlife and Birding Tours; www.junglewalla.com
Seasons. Dry, December—February. Wet, March—November; August the wettest month.