Weekend Escape to Langkawi

Figure 1:  A stunning sun setting over the waters, docked boats & catamaran, fronting the Royal Langkawi Yacht Club, Kuah. To the left is Pulau Tuba, the happy island village.

Turquoise blue waters, fine sandy beaches, swaying coconut trees,  relentless waves, stunning sunsets and sunrise, scooter rides in bermuda shorts with wind blowing in your hair, cruising down empty roads surrounded by endless green prominence, night markets, hawker food at almost any time of the day or night and a laid-back atmosphere of peace ..………Langkawi is truly a gem of an island.

 

Langkawi is a cluster of 99 islands in the Andaman Sea.  It is located in the state of Kedah, in the north west of Peninsular Malaysia. Langkawi is one of the four populated islands of the 99 islands (besides Pulau Tuba, Pulau Dayang Bunting and Pulau Rebak).  There are daily ferries from both Kuala Perlis and Kuala Kedah on the mainland to Langkawi’s Kuah jetty.  Daily local flights bring visitors from the mainland to the island while international flights land daily at the Langkawi International Airport in Padang Matsirat.  2018 brought 3.63 million visitors, an increase in the number of foreign tourists, even though a slight dip in the number of local visitors.  Langkawi island is definitely on any traveler’s wish list.

 

Visitors come from countries like neighbouring Thailand, Singapore, India, Korea, Australia, Europe and the Middle East. It is perhaps more popular than the Terengganu islands such as Redang on the east coast for several reasons. Langkawi is bigger than Redang, with more variety in terms of resorts (ranging from backpacker to super luxury) and many more sightseeing potential (Tripadvisor.com). Ultimately the choice depends on what kind of holiday a visitor is looking for: a luxury yacht experience or a five-star hotel pampering or a wholesome laid-back local experience….all on Langkawi Island.

 

Recently I had the opportunity to visit the island of Langkawi for a weekend break.  Since one of our travel members was crazy about boats, we decided to try the Langkawi Yacht Club (Fig 1) in Kuah, a 3-star, 44-room hotel.  It is located in the south-east corner of Langkawi, just a five-minute walk to the Jetty where duty-free shops, banks, post-office, restaurants and scooter rentals are located; and a 10 minute-walk to the Dataran Helang.

 

Most patrons of the Club are understandably boat, catamaran or yacht owners, many are Caucasian.  The Langkawi Yacht Club (Fig 1) has an award-winning 250-berths marina able to accommodate mega-yachts up to 90 meters long. For those interested in luxury yacht and sporty luxury experience in sea travel, there are a number of companies with headquarters in Langkawi which offer a variety of cruises around the island for a skippered or bare boat charter. There are options for holding weddings or exclusive meetings (hgroupmarine.com; dreamyachtcharter.com; or the langkawiyachtclub.com) or private dinners or to disconnect completely, travelling at a pace set by the winds.  Of course some prefer the traditional, no frills, more affordable boat charter.

Figure 2: Night life at the Yacht Club in Kuah. There are restaurants and pubs at Jake’s at the Fisherman’s Wharf complex.

Facilities at the Club are limited to a swimming pool and a coffee house serving Asian and Western breakfast but there are restaurants and a bar located next door to the Club (Fig 2).  Renting a car or a scooter is probably the best way to see the town of Kuah but certain sights are best seen from a boat (Fig 3).  There are many boat tours and cruises around Langkawi.  And tour operators are more than willing to pick-up and drop-off visitors from their hotels.

 

One of the most popular tours in Langkawi is probably the Fauna and Flora Eco Mangrove Boat Cruise of Kilim Geoforest Park, one of the 3 top UNESCO sites in Langkawi.  The mangrove forests of Langkawi is home to an incredible variety of wildlife.  It is a four (4) hour tour around the mangroves, in an open boat, costing close to RM200 per person (faunafloraeco.com). It was one of the best mangrove tours I ever experienced.

 

Figure 3 : A boat taking a sharp turn on the blue waters of Kampong Killim, at high speeds causing a white water splash. 

The tour is a trip into the diversified mangroves on the north-eastern part of Langkawi.  The nature guide is licensed and very knowledgeable, giving a very thorough run of the entire trip especially the wildlife in the Kilim forest. If you are lucky, you get to sit next to the boatman who would gladly give you his life story and his boating experience in his thick local accent, while skilfully steering the boat around the turquoise blue waters at speeds that kicked up a water splash.  The water splash will deposit tiny salt crystals on your forehead.

 

The tour covers visits to the floating fish farm where visitors have the option of a local lunch, eagle-watching, bat cave (Fig 4), crocodile cave (Fig 5 & Fig 6) , monkey watching (Fig 7), beach stop on Tanjung Rhu, ending in a simple lunch.

Figure 4: The bat cave tour starts here

 

Figure 7 below shows the crab-eating monkey species which not only can swim but can dive too.

 

Figure 5: A tour boat leaving the entrance to the Crocodile Cave off the Kilim River. Since it was low tide, it was possible to easily enter the cave. 

There is an alternative to taking the boat in Kilim.  If you have a strong back, and feel a need to physically challenge yourself while enjoying the sights, try kayaking around the Kilim mangrove river. There are many  guided kayak tour if you feel less confident to kayak alone.

 

Figure 6: Another tour boat passing through the cliffs in Bohor Merah on the Kilim River

By the time you return to the Yacht Club in the late afternoon, you are probably too exhausted to go far for dinner. But around the Club, at the Fisherman’s Wharf complex, there are restaurants like Jake’s for a good steak and an all-night chat.  Charlie’s Bar & Grills is another interesting place to dine.  The bar was named “Charlie” after the founder of the Royal Langkawi Yacht Club, the late Tunku Tan Sri Abdullah who was fondly known as “Charlie” among his friends.

Figure 7: Who says monkeys can’t swim. This crab-eating monkey was bravely swimming alongside our cruise boat in Kilim River in Bohor Merah, Langkawi.

 

 

 

But if you fancy dinner in a posh restaurant in a five-star luxury hotel, you need to drive past the Langkawi Yacht Club, all the way down the almost deserted road called Jalan Teluk Datai towards the Datai Bay, where a one-night stay at The Datai in Padang Matsirat costs about RM3,400 or RM4,700 at the Ritz-Carlton.  And where the security is so tight that the guard would grill your curiosity to death before ever allowing you to have a look-around.

Ulu Kedah Culinary & Hospitality

Trains are just enticing: picture windows, freedom to move around,  time to bury yourself in a book or socialize, yet moving smoothly at a speed that does not upset your cup of tea. Last month, I took the ETS to Sungai Petani, meeting up five other friends with their wives for a lesson on history, culinary and hospitality. It turned out to be a delightful three-day trip down memory lane for those born and raised in Kedah.  For me at least, having overstayed my welcome in the big city of Kuala Lumpur for the last 46 years, and now completely retired, the trip presented the perfect opportunity to reconnect with the serenity of kampong life once more….the green paddy fields stretching as far as the eyes could see, the spectacular mountains in shades of green, the soft breeze blowing, carrying with it a rhythm of kampong chatter.

 

I constantly visited Kedah in the past, at least to reconnect with whatever was left of my early life: my nieces, my nephews, my cousins but largely my memories.  The migration of kampong folks to the big city seeking new opportunities, have brought with them practices and tradition peculiar to Kedah, especially the cuisines. I have tasted Laksa Kedah, Pindang Ikan Temenung, Curry Ikan Kering, Asam Pedas Keladi, while eating out around Kuala Lumpur but I have never heard of Jeruk Maman, let alone tasted it.  Jeruk Maman  is part of Ulu Kedah cuisine, popular among the kampong folks in the district of Baling, Sik and Kuala Nerang.

Figure 1: Jeruk Maman, ulu Kedah culinary

 

Maman plant, is a national treasure, according to a farmer growing it on a large scale in Gemencheh, Negeri Sembilan.  The maman leaves, bitter though they were, actually prevented a war with the Johorians  at one time, only because the Johorians fell in love with the maman dish served (initially, an idea as a nasty prank) (http://www.straitstimes.com, October 2017). The scientific name for Maman plant is Cleome Gynandra and it is popularly-grown in Negeri Sembilan and Terengganu.  The name Maman most probably originated from the name of the town Kemaman in Terengganu.

 

Maman leaves is sometimes used to cook rendang. But it is Jeruk Maman that I am more curious about.  Jeruk Maman (Fig 1) is prepared using young leaves or shoots, salt, water and some cooked rice.  The young maman leaves and some stems are placed in a plastic, together with some generous amount of salt and topped by a cup of cooked rice, and a cup of cold water, all placed aside to allow fermentation. They are best eaten with rice, preferably steaming hot, but sometimes made into a kind of kerabu or eaten plain with some shallots and chilli padi. It was my first time. I tasted this dish during a generous dinner spread in Kampong Bukit Pak Kuning, Kuala Ketil, courtesy of Taib’s family. Kuala Ketil is a small town about 21 kilometers from Sungai Petani by road.

 

The entire Taib’s family practically participated in the cooking of dinner on that particular evening, but for a family running a restaurant next door on a daily basis, cooking dinner for 16 people was no big deal. It was a dinner drawn out over two hours of eating, interspersed with endless conversations and sometimes, thunderous laughter. I remember changing seats three times just to make sure everyone were comfortable and had a good proximity to the dishes.

 

In Kampong Sintok Bugis , (Fig 2) in the district of Kota Kuala Muda, we had another big spread of lunch, courtesy of Ismail’s family. The family served fried meehoon, fried kuey teow, nasi lemak, and many other dishes.  But the one thing I have never tried before was Nira drink. Nira (or Neera) is a sweet natural drink made from the Nipah palm or mangrove palm, native to the coastlines of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Its scientific name is Nypa Fruticans. It seems Nipah palm produces a sweet edible sap collected in a bottle or plastic normally fitted to the trunk. The sap can be turned into a variety of products such as gula nipah and cuka nipah or vinegar. The Nipah sap can also be fermented to produce alcohol.  Cars fueled by alcohol is not a new idea at all. For decades experimentation with alcohol and bio-fuels has been conducted.

Figure 2: Behind Kampong Sintok Bugis

To top it all off, was the brunch in Kampong Setar, in the district of Yan. After brunch (Fig 3), some of us pulled out a bike each (courtesy of Salleh’s family).  I hesitated at first.  But after a few minutes, I was able to balance myself and managed to stay comfortable on the bike in perpetual motion. With the breeze softly blowing in my face, I felt an overwhelming rush of nostalgia.  I remember visiting cousins who lived in wooden houses among paddy fields when I was young. I cycled almost everywhere in the 1960s. My initial plan was to photograph a real farmer on his rounds on the old bicycle complete with a big straw hat and a parang. But we could not find one.

Figure 3: Cycling on the bunds of the paddy fields in Kampong Setar

 

 

If you look to the left, there is the majestic Gunong Jerai, with clouds still hanging around them like white cotton balls (Fig 4).  And to the right, are paddy fields half buried under irrigation water, with luscious green paddy plants sprouting from underneath.  Miles and miles of paddy fields is a common sight since Kedah is an agricultural state and the biggest producer of rice.  I can imagine Salleh’s uncle cycling around the bunds after working the fields in the early hours of the morning many many years ago.

 

Figure 4: Kampong Setar ,paddy fields

Before the close of the evening of the second day, Ismail took us for Mee Udang (or prawn noodles) in Kampong Pulau Sayak in Kota Kuala Muda.  There are about six or seven such stalls in the kampong.  The beach-front restaurant called Yaakob made a delicious Mee Udang, using prawns from the sea (Fig 5).  To be fair, I didn’t try other Mee Udang stalls.  But this stall was exceptional because of the picture-perfect, fast-fading sunset, laid out in front of us, the sun casting its last colourful hues over the sea as we dined.

 

If you had a chance to visit Sungai Petani on your way up north towards Langkawi Island, try stopping at the Hotel Seri Malaysia, a convenient stop since it is just opposite the train station. But there is a beautiful homestay nearer to Gunong Jerai if you prefer.

Figure 5: Kampong Pulau Sayak where we had Mee Udang

 

 

 

“People will forget what you said, forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel” and Taib’s family, Ismail’s family and Salleh’s family all made us feel extremely welcome in their homes. The 2Fs: Food and Friendships, made me feel truly blessed……of course it’s not always about food, but who you eat with that matters most to me.

 

(*Yaakob Mee Udang Segar, Pulau Sayak, Kota Kuala Muda, Kedah, Google or call 019-542 9812 if you are lost).