Way back when in Oz, when I first started this trip and first started thinking about traveling to Southeast Asia, I started to piece together my dream holiday in the region.
It was simple.
A hut on the beach with a few funky bars nearby, lots of free time to read; think; write; whatever, and someone special to share it with. Just this for weeks or even months on end.
As usual when traveling, plans change. As the year went on in Australia that dream slowly moved to the back burner as my list of places to see grew. When I finally got to SE Asia, the dream drifted even further out of mind as I struggled to actually find affordable huts on the beach and destinations with the perfect mixture of beauty, fun and affordability.
But I never gave up hope.
Even when I left SE Asia after five months unsure when or if I’d ever return, even when I was freezing in Wellington, NZ, I still dreamed about that hut and that beach.
That dream finally came true on my 26th birthday and it came true in the last place I expected it too, Malaysia.
It’s not that I thought Malaysia was bad or that it didn’t have nice beaches. It’s really just that I never thought of it at all.
All the travel stories, guides and tips I heard and read about over the years rarely mentioned Malaysia. So Ric and I never really thought too much about visiting the country. The only reason we did this time around was for a visa run from Thailand.
Months ago when we started planning this six-week trip, we knew we would have to leave Thailand eventually for a few days as the country gives visitors only a 30-day visa upon arrival by air. It just worked out that we would be in the Krabi area at the time our visas ran out, so the natural pick to refresh them would be Malaysia.
We thought about visiting Penang, because I met someone from there and heard the food was amazing. But reading more about the country we learned about Langkawi, which we read was stunning, tax free and a shorter ferry ride from Satun, Thailand than Penang.
We were only supposed to stay for a few days. We were supposed to leave before my birthday. Ten days later and we’re still struggling to leave this amazing island.
The Spanish say “mañana”.
Everyday, on Langkawi Ric and I said, “esok”, which means “tomorrow” in Malay.
It’s quite easy to get into that mindset at any beach location, but one like Pantai Cenang, the “backpacker” area on Langkawi, it’s impossible to avoid.
We definitely didn’t do as many activities as we should have with that much time on this island, but I don’t really care. Because I finally saw my dream come true of an affordable hut on the beach (RM50 at Grand Beach Motel), nothing to do but whatever I wanted day to day and even someone incredibly special to share it all with.
Most days we would wake up and walk out to our front porch to look at the beach and declare, “Another nice day.”. After that we would read on lounge chairs on the beach or even fool around on the internet (our motel had free and fast wifi). Around noon we would head to Tomoato or Nasi Kandar Almaz for some Indian food. More laying on the beach and playing in the sea. Then we would head to Babylon Bar for happy hour (RM4 cans of Chang beer, RM7 glasses of decent wine), food (wedges, samosas and more RM7-15ish from Warung Cafe-next door), shisha (RM25d), music and of course to watch the sun go down.
You can see why we kept on pushing the planning to esok.
But we did have two active days on the island.
The first involved renting a motorbike and touring half of Langkawi. There are heaps of places to rent bikes and cars along Jalan Pantai Chenang, the main road there. Most of them ask that you have a motorcycle license. For some countries this just comes with their normal license, others it’s a completely different license. We paid RM30 for a vespa for the day.
Taking off at about 10 a.m. we headed to the cable cars. The launch point for this popular Langkawi activity is in a sort of Disney-like area. Expect cafeteria eateries as well as a few restaurants and lots of souvenir stores. You can also find a rabbit farm and deer farm here.
The cable cars cost RM30 per adult. We waited about 45 minutes to get in our car. It’s worth the money and the wait. The view is incredible and the rides up and down are exhilarating.
Green forests completely cover the hilly area below all the way to the coasts. Endless blue seas are spotted with island after island also covered in hills layered with jungle. Eagles soaring above. Then, one waterfall and another. Finally, we reach what looks like our final destination, but a fellow American on board says, “Oh no, wait for the next stop.” The thin cable up looks too steep to carry our six-person car, but we continue. My stomach slightly drops as we go up and I look down. Finally, we make it.
At the top the sight is even more incredible and several platforms allow visitors to get their fill of it. They say that people can walk through the jungle to a sky bridge up there, but this is often closed for maintenance. It was when we were there and a sign at the bottom informing everyone about that looked somewhat permanent.
It didn’t matter. The cable cars are well-worth a visit.
While there we heard about an even higher view point on the island, that’s also well worth a visit, but doesn’t get nearly as much, if any, attention.
Gunung Raya is Langkawi’s highest point. It’s located near the center of the island and offers views of the entire island. On the way there we stopped at Seven Wells Waterfall and Black Sands Beach, which doesn’t have black sands.
The view is incredible, but for me, it was the entire experience surrounding our trip up and down the mountain that made Gunung Raya my favorite stop of the day.
Driving up the meandering Route 278 up the mountain, the developed island below starts to disappear. Taking over is nothing but jungle, monkeys, a few cows and an asphalt road. It’s a long and steep trip up, so be prepared with petrol.
At the top is what looks like a cell phone tower, but the side street just before it leads to the D’coconut Hill Resort. Judging by the line up of cars out front, Mercedes, Jaguar, Bentley, I’m guessing the place is quite exclusive. But they let visitors go to the top of their tower for an even better view of the island for RM10. They even served complimentary tea up there.
The way down was a bit scary for me. As much as I like motorbikes, they make me nervous, so the steep view below and the thought of just how long Ric would have to ride the break to the bottom was taunting. But we made it down and saw something really incredible on the way.
There are two types of monkeys on Langkawi. One is the gibbon, which are not shy. In fact, they’ll rob corn from a baby-I’ve seen it. Second is the dusky leaf monkey, which are the opposite. Spotting one of these is a big deal on Langkawi and guess what, we saw five on the way down. Motorbikes are definitely a good luck charm for us when it comes to seeing monkeys. But I think the raw nature had something to do with it in this situation.
I may not have been quick enough to photograph them, but I’d rather that than another round with a vicious gibbon, like the one in Chiang Mai.
The following day was another busy one as it was my 26th birthday. For it, Ric took me snorkeling at Pulau Payar. The trip costs RM90 and includes a 90 minute boat ride out to the island, equipment rentals and lunch. Plus access to an unbelievable reef located just off the island.
Pulau Payar is the best place I’ve ever been snorkeling.
Now I know that is a bold statement, so let me back it up.
Within seconds of arriving on the island, everyone was pointing at baby black tip reef sharks swimming right at the edge of the water. Swim out further to see their parents, measuring up to six feet. On top of sharks we saw groupers, clown fish, parrot fish and more. In fact, there wasn’t much time when we weren’t surrounded by fish.
And in these shark and barracuda-infested waters, it was a tiny pink fish that bit my leg. Really?
But my birthday celebration didn’t end there.
I’m one of those people who wants all of my favorite things on my birthday. A beach in SE Asia, cake from the USA, food from India and wine from Australia. Somehow all this happened in Langkawi.
One of my only complaints about SE Asia is the lack of wine. I was extremely spoiled in New Zealand, to be able to pay $10 for an incredible bottle of wine whenever I wanted it. Wine is not as common in SE Asia and the good bottles can be very expensive.
Not in Langkawi.
The island is tax free and at a duty free store in a nearby mall, I found loads of my favorite Aussie wines on sale for $10-20.
Birthday bottle of shiraz? Check!
From the time I arrived in Pantai Cenang, I had been eyeing up a bakery called Leeane’s. I thought I was lucky to just find birthday cake there, but to go in and find my favorite? Well that has all the makings of the best birthday ever.
After Indian food at Tomato, Ric took me down to the beach near our hut, poured me a glass of Shiraz and lit one candle on a slice of red velvet cake.
We finished our bottles of wine and talked about birthdays past on the beach for a few hours then headed down to Babylon Bar. There, the night just got better. Ric went to get some drinks, I ordered a hookah (RM25) and sat down at the only free table.
Turns out that free table was right next to the most interesting table in the entire restaurant.
An Iraqi soldier called Shaq, a skinny Saudi guy called Smokey. There was Richard from Ghana, Veronica, the fire-breathing dancer from Germany and two Swedish guys we could only compare to the fishermen in “The Beach”.
Interesting conversation and amazing company? Check!
I think it’s pretty clear why it’s been so hard for us to leave this island.