Our first border crossing – from Thailand to Malaysia – was impressively painless, apart from carrying around a rucksack on my freshly scalded back. Flesh-grating torture aside, the visas were free, the immigration officers unquestioning, and the boat was quick and comfortable.
Our first port of call – Pulau Langkawi – was made a duty-free zone in 1987 to boost tourism and improve the livelihoods of the island’s inhabitants. We celebrated this economic liberation with a glass of Prosecco as soon as we arrived, toasting the island’s effervescent relationship with alcohol, before heading out for a booze-free meal.
The island is nice – it’s just… Langkawi suffers most from its proximity to Koh Lipe. Its beaches are largely featureless in comparison, pocked with ugly stands advertising jet skis and banana boats; its ambition of paradise is forced, as palm-sheltered beach-front restaurants vie with duty-free binge drinking; while the local food lacks that flavourful gusto of the Thais.
It’s by no means a bad place, certainly if you rent a scooter for a day or two (around £6 for 24 hours) and explore away from Pantai Cenang. There are more picturesque bays to be found if you’re willing to hunt for them – Pasir Tengkorak is particularly pretty – and the cuisine gets markedly better the further from the coast you go.
There’s also a cable car that goes up a mountain, which is nice. However, you catch it from potentially the most vacuous place we’ve been so far, the utterly perplexing and misnamed Oriental Village, which is nothing of the sort. This little hamlet of souvenir shops surrounding a small lake is about as Oriental as Milton Keynes.
It gets odder… Buy a ticket for the cable car, abruptly refusing like everyone else to upgrade to the ludicrously expensive “crystal-floored cabins”, and you’ll be ushered into a waiting room, where you sit for a few minutes before being led into a domed cinema. For seemingly no reason, other than they must be immensely proud of it, you’re treated to a 180-degree screen above your head, beaming a stuttering and poorly rendered video of a roller-coaster ride on Mars. It’s like the Planetarium in London, but utterly pointless.
Bemused and confused, you’re finally led to the actual cable car. We were unfortunate with the weather once up the mountain – a thick haze restricting the view only to the closest town and to the airport – but on a clear day, I’m sure it’s spectacular. There’s also some bridge they’re renovating between peaks, which, when completed, will be awesome. But it was fun regardless.
If I may, a quick observation: there are a lot of Arab couples on Langkawi, the women covered in full niqabs – those outfits most closely resembling a ninja’s attire. We later discovered that Malaysia is one of the few countries in the world where immigration officers do not insist on revealing a woman’s face if it is shrouded in religion. Consequently, Langkawi is apparently a hotspot for Saudi honeymooners.
This may be deeply insensitive, but when one of these faceless wives takes a photo of her husband at the summit, and then they swap, and she poses in front of the vista (presumably smiling underneath?), I’m suddenly desperately curious to see the rest of their holiday snaps.
I’ve decided it’s not bigoted at all. It’s irrefutably amusing. Like the Stig on vacation.
Anyway… There’s also an excellent aquarium on Langkawi, full of tropical fish, pooing penguins, languid lizards, colossal crustaceans and rippling rays, all vying for attention, but perhaps not as much as the diver who jumps in a tank with massive carnivorous beasts to feed iddy biddy fishies to the enormous, blank-faced murderers of the sea – sharks and the like.
If you like your nature massive and motionless, there’s the crocodile farm on the north of the island. They’re impressive, certainly; but if they’re not being fed, they don’t really do anything except lie in stinking muck listening to Bollywood love songs.
We also found Langkawi’s black-sand beach, which was interesting for about 12 seconds. Excellent tom yam soup from the nearby kitchen though.
It’s all a bit of mixed bag, really. We had a lovely time, but, well… it’s just not Lipe. Perhaps we had a bit of a Thai hangover; a Changover I think they call it.
Thing is, I very much hope Langkawi isn’t the only stop people make into Malaysia. I’m writing this a couple of weeks later having explored Georgetown, Ipoh, the Cameron Highlands and Kuala Lumpur (I’m a bit behind…), and Malaysia’s been ruddy lovely.
In short, if you want cheap booze and banana boats, Langkawi’s right up your alley; otherwise, it’s time to get back on the road.
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