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Articles Blog

Langkawi, Malaysia

Karyn Planett

The “Jewel of Kedah”

Langkawi is no longer a well-kept secret. In fact, the word’s been out for a while about this tiny island, one of 100 or so in the Langkawi Archipelago, that’s plunked right into the clear waters where the Andaman Sea greets the Strait of Melaka*. For so long it was little more than a haven for pirates, darting in and out of protected coves to escape capture. That all changed for a few reasons not least of which was the declaration of Langkawi as a duty-free destination in 1987. This unfettered buying opportunity became the icing on the travelers’ cake for visitors looking for yet another island get-away with gentle waves, swaying palms, tropical sunsets, and beaches crying out for string bikinis. Some 65,000 people live here, the majority Muslim. Many practice their faith at the Ah-Hana Mosque in Kuah, the largest of the island’s towns. 

The story about the island’s centuries of obscurity follows later. 

What’s In a Name? 

The “Kedah” in “Jewel of Kedah” is the name of the Malaysian state that’s home to Langkawi as well as territory on the mainland, 20 miles away, that forms the border with Thailand. And “Langkawi” is a combination of two local terms. “Lang” means something like “brown eagle.” And “Kawi” is a type of manganese stone found locally. This translation literally comes to life at Eagle Square with its 39-foot-tall eagle statue perched atop a base representing a 5-sided star. The complex is called Dataran Helang. 

But that’s not the only “wildlife” found in the area. There is the Bat Cave where literally hundreds of these animals form a pulsating canopy in a 196-foot-long cave. On land, there are curious macaque monkeys who actually love the water and swim happily about. Other swimmers include a critter called a hairy-nosed otter. Add to that the sluggish, thuggish prehistoric-looking monitor lizards and you’ve got a proper natural menagerie that’s complemented with stingrays, turtles and sharks at the Aquarium. I guess this suggests why UNESCO viewed this favorably and designated the tropical rainforest area a “World Geopark”.  

Mausoleum, Museum, Marine Park 

Some say this 185-square-mile island was once cursed. A legend tells us of a beautiful princess of long ago, Maksuri, who married a chieftain’s son Mat Darus. He left to do battle with the Siamese and, while gone, her family invited a traveling musician from Malacca* to stay in their home. Rumors swept through the kampong, village. The princess was falsely accused of adultery by her in-laws and was sentenced to “death by stabbing” by the elders. She was tied to a post and stabbed with a traditional kris. The blood she shed was white, not red, bearing witness of her innocence for all to see. With her dying breath, she cast a curse over the island for the next seven generations. Since these events occurred some 200 years ago, Langkawi has awakened from this dark chapter only recently. 

Today the princesses’ crypt, in the village of Mawat, attracts visitors from afar. And, it’s claimed that her grieving husband fled with their son to Phuket and their descendants, three dozen or so, live there to this day. Remember, though, this is but one of more than a dozen versions of her story. 

A cheerier tale is told at the Prime Minister’s Museum, called Galeria Perdana, the former home of the nation’s longest-serving Prime Minister. Within the Islamic-inspired rooms are some 2500 items that are part of the collection of state gifts and awards he amassed during his tenure from 1981 to 2003. His Malaysian name is Dato Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad but he’s also called Tun Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad. The Prime Minister believed these magnificent items belonged to the people and displayed them here for their enjoyment. 

But the wonder underwaterworld is what beckons many. Swimmers take to the Payar Island Marine Park rich with coral gardens and a vibrant, lively reef. Those not wanting to get their hair wet step inside the Aquarium where large tanks house everything from stingrays and sharks to turtles and penguins. Yes, penguins… in a specialized environment that suits these little creatures. 

A Walk In The Clouds 

Well, a swing then a walk. On a cable car, a gondola, up Machingang Mountain (also spelled Mount Mat Cincang) at a 42 degree incline. To the top, 2300 feet up. Over almost 1.5 miles past gaping chasms, towering cliffs, in view of waterfalls. The destination, the Langkawi Sky Bridge, built in 2003. Hanging from a single pylon measuring 300 feet, it is technically a 410-foot “cable-stayed” bridge. This bridge is an architectural / engineering dream and an acrophobiac’s nightmare. But if you want to experience something so unique, you must say, “right, I’m doing this” and start singing that tune from the King and I about no-one suspecting you’re afraid.