Langkawi - the Jewel of Kedah – is an archipelago of 104 islands. Blessed with postcard perfect beaches, 3 geoforest parks, tax free booze and dirt cheap flights, it’s Malaysia’s most popular island getaway. Unlike neighboring Phuket, Langkawi is still undersold. The island gets better with every visit. It took me 4 trips to find the best places, but with this list you’ll hit bull’s eye first time around. Here’s what I’ve learned.
Lesson #1: Resorts are a waste of money
Mistake number 1 is to book a fancy resort. OK, if you can afford The Datai (starting RM 1500) then please, be my guest … But since you’re not a Hollywood celeb, you’re probably looking at a mid range resort like the Frangipani (starting RM 570). Apart from the mediocre restaurant, the Frangipani is a nice place with a private beach and cute little villas in a lovely garden. The thing is: you can get the same view from Pantai Cenang, for free - And the same, cute little villa for a fraction of the price.
Lesson #2: The Chenang Inn is Malay for 'Paradise'
We discovered this place almost by accident at the end of our second Langkawi tour. Located in a little side street, right in front of the Casa del Mar, the Chenang Inn is just 200 meters away from all the action. But also 200 meters away from all the noise. It’s central, yet kampung. Buffalos are standing in the field. Tropical birds whistle in waving palm trees. Chicken cross the road. You can choose from 32 comfortable rooms – bungalow style, each one with a little terrace. Starting at just RM 160 (or less if you book directly), this is a resort at hostel price. Breakfast, with yummie omelet, is just 8 RM extra. Wifi is ok, but hey, you’re not here to watch the Internet, are you?
Lesson #3: Rent a scooter
Hit the road to hit the beach. Renting a scooter costs around RM 25 to 35/day, a full tank of petrol RM 3. Check for damage or take pictures before renting the bike (to avoid trouble when returning the scooter). In general, traffic on the island is relaxed, but drive safely. You can’t get lost because there are only a couple of roads.
The brave and the bold can also rent mountain bikes. Right in front of The Chenang Inn, Razif (013 6942618) charges only RM 10/day. Double check if you can change the height of the saddle, the brakes, the tires, the gears, etc. People rarely rent mountain bikes here, so things might have gotten a bit rusty. Let Razif give everything a little fix before you pick up the bikes. Keep in mind that roads do get quite hilly around Pantai Kok. Ideally you bring your own helmet.
Lesson #4: The best beaches are in the North
Pantai Pasir Tengkorak - Langkawi’s best kept secret
Skull Beach, as it’s called in English, is 300 meter of heaven in the Northwest, few kilometers after the Crocodile Farm, easy to reach by scooter. It’s a public beach – so yes, for zero money you get the same view as bourgeois digging out RM 1500 at The Datai: crystal clear waters, white sand, shady trees, Thailand at the horizon and luscious jungle on every other side. I once saw 3 hornbills up close while taking a dip. In Taman Negara it took me hours of trekking to spot one, here they were sitting right under of my nose. Pour la petite histoire, legend goes that skulls of pirates used to wash ashore here, explaining the name of the beach. There are some very basic food stands, selling soft drinks and coconuts. Local families come to picnic in weekends, which is Friday and Saturday here.
Tanjung Rhu Beach – Hello Paradise!
At the Northern tip of the island sits another fancy beach resort. What most tourists don’t know is that right next to the Tanjung Rhu Resort is a strip of public beach, where you can rent deck chairs and umbrellas. If you come by scooter, don’t make the common mistake of stopping at the boring beach before the Four Seasons Resort. Keep driving, all the way to the end. You’ll come to a parking lot, as many mangrove tours leave from here. It’s actually a good idea to combine both. The pizzas and sandwiches at the beach bar are disappointing.
What about Pantai Cenang? Still good, lah.
Pantai Cenang is the longest, most famous and most crowded. Especially during high tide, the beach looks more like a showroom of jet skis, motorboats and parasails. Salesmen are friendly, not pushy. When asked: ‘Jet ski?’ – a friendly ‘No thanks’ or ‘Not Today’ does the job. Look out for jellyfish on the sand before taking a tip. Overall, still good fun.
Lesson #5 – Don’t even think of booking a 250 RM snorkeling trip
The island’s most lucrative trip is to go snorkeling around Palau Payar. And yes, the pictures at the tour operators look absolutely great. The sad reality is the reef is mostly dead and hovered by armies of snorklers in lifejackets. Internet reviews are an endless saga of complaints. My advice: for RM 250 you can fly to Redang or the Perhentian Islands to see the real thing.
Lesson #6 – The best boat trip is actually the cheapest
Costing as little as RM 25 - hotel pick up / drop included - Island Hopping is simply unbeatable value. First you get a glimpse of Tasik Dayang Bunting Island – with its silhouette of a pregnant woman lying on her back and giant fresh water lake. After paying RM 2 at the brand new visitor center, it’s a short, but nasty hike to the actual lake. Watch out for aggressive macaques. I’ve seen a monkey stealing a woman’s wallet, climbing into a high tree and throwing down every credit card. At the lake, you can rent a pedal boat or a canoe, take a dip or simply walk the wooden boardwalk. The lake is 10 meters deep. Swimmers are supposed to wear a lifejacket (8 RM). But let’s face it, unless you can’t swim, that’s just not done.
After 1 hour you’re picked up for the next event: eagle feeding. Eagles have become extremely lazy and simply hunt for tourist boats instead of prey. But it’s a spectacular sight to see whole squadrons of nose-diving birds scooping pieces of chicken out of the water. Very National Geographic. Last stop of the day is Palau Beras Basah, which looks like the set of a Bounty commercial. Turquoise blue waters, green jungles, soft sands … the perfect spot to take a dip or to beef up your Facebook pics.
The entire trip takes about 3 hours. It’s a good idea to book the trip at your hotel. In case of bad weather, they can easily postpone. Bring swim gear and towel.
Lesson #7 – Book a Private Mangrove tour, not the silly Day Tour
Another classic is the Mangrove Day Tour at the Kilim River (RM 70 without lunch, RM 90 with lunch, RM 120 with fish). Before you start fantasizing about a romantic sailing trip through ancient mangrove forests, there are a couple of things you need to know. You’ll be stuffed in a noisy, badass motorboat, rushing from one faux attraction to another. In a cave with sleeping bats, not-so-smart tourists can’t stop flashing their smart phones. At the fish farm a man sticks his fist into the mouth of a stingray. At ‘Monkey Lane’, a pack of peanuts from the 7-Eleven is fed to eagerly waiting macaques. A bit further, it’s time for eagle feeding. And finally, an entire loaf of white bread is chunked overboard to attract some fish. Also included is a meager lunch of rice, processed fish and powdered juice on a floating restaurant. Remember the Russian roulette scene from The Deer Hunter?
Instead of this pathetic filler tour, it’s much better to book a private 2 hours killer tour. The boat leaves at the divine Tanjung Rhu beach and slowly heads for the mangrove forest. The rhythm is relaxed and quiet. You really get to absorb the majestic beauty of nature. There’s no silly eagle or monkey feeding. Instead the boatman points out wild animals: kingfishers, herons, white eagles, even perfectly camouflaged vipers. The boat then goes through waterways so narrow the trees start touching the boat. At the same slow speed you pass through Crocodile Cave. Via the sea you return back to Tanjung Rhu.
This trip is even cheaper than the classic tour. The boat can take 12 passengers, 8 is perfect. The manager of the Chenang Inn helped us to pitch in with other guests, bringing the price down to RM 60. Ask for Shamms the boatman and tell the hotel you want to spend an extra hour sunbathing at Tanjung Rhu Beach.
Lesson #8 – Guilty pleasures are still pleasures
Drop the guilt trip. Sometimes it’s just fun to play tourist.
Underwater World Langkawi (Foreigners RM 40, children RM 30) is good entertainment, especially on a monsoon day. There’s a fresh water section with Amazon giants, a little strip of jungle, penguins (!) and an entire floor for Nemo & friends. Don’t miss the hilarious feeding of the Sea Lions at 11 am - very educational and very slapstick.
The Cable Car (RM 35, children 25 RM) is the steepest in the world, so if you have vertigo … good luck. You might face long lines in weekends. The queue is interrupted for a trippy 3D video at The Sky Dome – so bring a sick bag. The actual cable ride goes vertically to a first viewing platform, then horizontally to a second. The view is mind blowing. The designish Sky Bridge requires an extra ticket (RM 6) and a 300 meters jungle trek, but doesn’t really offer extra value.
You can actually get the same panoramic view for free, driving up Gurung Raya with your scooter. A 10 km winding road through the jungle takes you to the top, 881 meter up. Hornbills soar over your head, giant monitor lizards cross the road … It’s a fantastic ride. No need to dig out RM 10 for the viewing tower at the top.
Langkawi is home to 3 beautiful waterfalls that only fill up during the rain season. Beware that it’s a grueling 700 steps to reach the 7 Wells Waterfalls – making the 200 steps of the Batu Caves look like a picnic. You can sit in one of the natural pools. The site is extremely clean and very well maintained.
Lesson #9 – Food sucks
Unlike its big sister island, Penang, food is pretty lousy in Langkawi. The Pantai Cenang strip is just a collection of tourist food outlets. Some are good, others a total disgrace. Don’t expect Paul Bocuse cuisine.
One of my favorite no frills options is The Yellow Cafe, close to the Langkawi Aquarium, painted in – guess what color? It has a lovely terrace overlooking the beach: nice to eat a sandwich with your feet in the sand.
Avoid the neighboring Langkapuri Beach Restaurant. Service is extremely slow. The chicken was uncooked and drowning in a ridiculously peppered sauce. The seafood spaghetti is a collection of chewy, defrosted Captain IGLO bits.
Better walk to the Red Tomato Restaurant & Lounge, one of the rare, really good restaurants. Managed by a German Fraulein, the menu features exotic options like Züricher Geschnetzeltes and German Flamkuchen. Jawohl! The eggs benedicts are excellent, the salads refreshing, the deserts yummie. Maybe a little bit more expensive, but worth every Ringgit.
On the other side of the Pantai Cenang road is the popular Chinese Orkid Ria restaurant. I had a nice dinner here until I went to wash my hands. My stomach turned around when I saw both the men’s and lady’s toilets filled with – well, you know. The kitchen is 2 meters further so you do the math. Dirty toilets, dirty kitchen.
Better walk to the nearby Artisans Pizza for a tasty sandwich (RM 8) and – surprise-surprise! – a good pizza (the supreme seafood is lovely, RM 38). If you don’t feel like going out, you can simply order in from your hotel.
Romantic souls can enjoy candle lit dinner in the rice fields of Seashells Cenang. You can choose from different Malay platters, combining rice, fish (or meat) and veggies for dips. It's not bad, good value (we paid 44 RM for the fish combo and 2 drinks) and great photo opportunities. Don’t forget your mosquito spray.
Lesson #10 – Nightlife is non-existent but booze is dirt cheap
If you’re looking for Sodom & Gomorrah-sur-mer, then Langkawi might be a total turn off. Pataya and Phuket are really, really far away. Thank goodness for that! The scene is pretty sleepy. But unlike the rest of Malaysia, booze comes without 300% of taxes. A can of beer: RM 3 – a bottle of Belgian Leffe: 5 RM (instead of 16) – a bottle of wine: RM 25 (instead of 50+). The best thing is to take your supplies to Pantai Cenang beach after sunset, long after the jet skis have left. Just sit in the sand and listen to the sound of the waves. Really, it doesn’t get better than this.