We arrive in a propeller plane under the cover of night and have no idea what to expect. All we know is that after months of heavy travel, we need this beach escape bad! The question is…will Langkawi let us down like so many of South East Asia’s beaches have so far?
Within 30 minutes of touching down on the Malaysian island of Langkawi, the first lesson we learn is that Langkawi is much larger than we thought. After exploring the main beach for a few days, Cenang Beach, we rent a car, pack our swimming equipment and head out to what we imagine are the dozens of gorgeous white sand beaches around the island. Our hotel is kind enough to arrange the rental process for us…
The next morning, the ‘rental’ car arrives, but this isn’t your ordinary Enterprise or Hertz experience. This very small Malaysian man drops off his very small, personal Malaysian vehicle – complete with KitKat wrappers, Chinese music tapes (yes, actual cassette tapes) and discarded Pistachio nut casings. We honestly don’t notice at first, as we are giddy with the excitement of driving after not having been behind a wheel for so many months. A few minutes ater we have to fill up the tank just a few minutes later (because yes, he delivered it on an empty tank), we realize that this is not the most official rental we’ve ever had.
But why worry! We play the random Chinese tapes until we can’t take it any more. We then opt for silence and watching the sun filter through the jungle canopy and catching glances of crystal blue water in the distance. Suddenly and simultaneously we both shout ‘Monkeys!!’ A family of at least thirty monkeys lines the guard railing on the side of the road, eating, playing and staring right back at us as we gawk out the window on the way past.
Our first stop is the famous Langkawi Cable Car, a trip to the top of a mountain – which promises stunning views over the Andaman Sea as far as to the islands in northern Thailand. Once at the top of the mountain, a world record awaits: the world’s longest curve suspension bridge, a 125-meter long Skywalk, swings softly as visitors cross (holding on for dear life).
A little further north from the Cable Car station we find the Telaga Tujuh Waterfalls, which turns out to be an 800m hike up the mountain…a steep mountain. Okay, a VERY steep mountain. Already sweating buckets in our semi air-conditioned car, we unstick ourselves and head out into the crazy Malaysian heat and up the seemingly never-ending stairs. The falls are actually all but dried up – it’s the height of dry season – but there are cool pools of water on top we can’t wait to dip into.
Except…within two minutes of our arrival, we find ourselves again shouting Monkeys! But this time it’s a warning. A gang of monkeys spits at us and chases us out of their spot. We take refuge in a covered picnic area and watch them tumble, play-fight, and swim. Despite their aggression toward us, watching them is really fun – but we definitely tip-toe out and back down the mountain to avoid their attention before setting off to find white sand beaches.
Unfortunately, it is ages before we find any sign of a comfortable beach…we follow the road around to the northwestern point of Langkawi, but if there are any beautiful beaches, they all belong to the luxury resorts we can not quite see, their landscaped properties hidden between the forest and the sea.
Instead we follow a sign to Langkawi Falls, which ends up being a man-made, papier-mâché rock overpass over the road. From far away, this looks like the road cuts right through bedrock, but up close, we see it is no more real than a Flintstones cartoon. Holes in the ‘rocks’ reveal chicken wire and newspaper stuffing on the inside.
One of those WTF moments? Yes.
A total bust? No, but only because back at the car we meet an adorable monkey trying to get in our car. Thanks to our friendly monkey encounter earlier, we stand on guard until, finally, she hops to the ground and gives us the monkey equivalent of puppy dog eyes. She wants food – but we are starving ourselves and have nothing to share. So we slip into the car (she almost manages to get in with us), and head off in search of food and hopefully, a white sand beach.
Thirty minutes later, tummies rumbling in full force, we finally arrive at Tanjung Rhu Beach, which is just as stunning as we had hoped: miles of white sand, crystal clear water, and only a handful of tourists, but the restaurants are a bit grungy and can not make vegetarian food (so they say) so we continue to starve for an hour or so while we soak up the sun on the beach.
There are two lagoons that meet to create a tangle of rivers and mangroves, which can be visited in small tour boats, but we are hungry, crabby and a bit crispy, so we drive back to Cenang Beach rather than doing any of the tours in the area.
Food, oh glorious food!
When we finally get there, we realize that, after a semi-successful day around Langkawi, Cenang is the best beach of all.
The sand is even whiter than others we have seen, softer like a light powder and the food options are so varied and delicious. On this night we opt for a fancy Italian meal to reward our starving bellies, but most days we split between an affordable organic restaurant and a super cheapie with rice and eggs for $1 down the road from our hotel at the time, the Mali Perdana hotel at the south end of the beach.
We spend the rest of our time on the island relaxing on Cenang Beach, with the only decisions to make being where to eat for dinner and where to take in the stunning sunsets at night… the perfect vacation – finally!
Tip 1: Do not rely on public transportation
This is mostly because there isn’t any public transportation (buses, trains, trams, that sort of thing). Plenty of cabs drive around, and this is a great way to get from one of the beach to the other (it’s a long, hot walk from end to end). But to get from Cenang to the other beaches we visited, taxi rates run between $20-$35 one way.
Tip 2: Rent a car
Instead of adding up all those taxi rides, both short and long, we wanted freedom on Langkawi and decided to rent a car. Sure, it may have felt like we were driving around in someone’s personal car. In fact, that was actually the case. But it was RM70, or $23, for two full days’ rental, plus gas.
Tip 3: There are two ways to get to Langkawi
One option is to take the ferry (3-4 hours) from Penang which costs RM60.00 ($20) one-way or RM115.00 ($38) round trip. There is only one ferry and it leave before 8am each day.
We chose to hop on a 25 minute flight instead. Firefly operates several daily flights from Penang and Subang Jaya (a Kuala Lumpur suburb) and AirAsia flights operate between Langkawi and Kuala Lumpur or even to/from Singapore. We booked just 12 hours in advance on Fireflyz.com and paid $30 each for our quick flight.
There is a wide range of accommodation on Langkawi, from luxury resorts to backpacker hostels. While the luxe spots are tre chic, we recommend a mid-range or budget spot right on Cenang Beach where all the best food and ‘nightlife’ is centered (party spots are limited on this Muslim island).
Backpacker: D’Bayleaf (Dorms RM25/$8.50)
Mid-range: AB Motel (between RM80 / $26 and RM200 / $67 per night. The cheaper rooms are across the street from the beach, and the bungalows right on the beach look great.
Melati Tanjung has rates at RM140 / $43 for beachfront bungalows
Luxury: Casa Del Mar boutique hotel is one of Malaysia’s accommodation darlings
Payaworks Organic Restaurant has a great selection of vegan, vegetarian and organic meat dishes.
The Breakfast Station has quick, easy excellent breakfasts, both Malaysian and Western.
Oasis Beach Bar on Tengah Beach, just south of Cenang Beach has a wide selection of Western, Malaysian and Indian dishes and is a great spot for sunset.
Beach Garden is on the north end of Cenang Beach. It is German-run and offers very good antipasti platter, plus Western and Asian dishes