Shortly after my trip through colonial stardom with Penang, I took a speedboat ride north and sat down for a little chat with Langkawi. This fan favorite of Malaysia resides a languid skip away from the mainland, and just another hop from the Thai border. Everyone knows her, but she can be a bit hard to pin down, forever variegating between her star-stuffed resorts and her rowdy beach-busting youngsters and her local squad of role-players. Langkawi, princess of Malaysia’s Andaman coast, sat down with me for a few days this March.
Piled Life: It’s great to finally meet you! I’ve seen more than a few Malaysia travel specials featuring you, and—
Langkawi: [Laughing] Yes, yes. Those things where they bring in a guest chef to a resort, or a stroll around a shapely presenter in her bathing suit and sun dress – yes, yes, those crews keep dropping in here all the time. I think they must like what they see, or they wouldn’t keep it up, you know? [Laughs again.] What can I say? A lady’s got a reputation to keep.
Piled Life: Well, since you mentioned that, what exactly would you say that your reputation is – more caviar and cocktail or beer bucket and bikini?
Langkawi: Well, I guess you’ll just have to spend a little more time with me and find out for yourself. [Winks].
In all seriousness, though, I do like to think of myself as a more refined lady. If you’re into private spas and crisp valet drivers and white gloves and champagne and A-list guests and spending a small mortgage for a visit, well, I can definitely help with that. Try the Datai.
On the other hand, I must admit that plenty of youngsters—even, yes, backpackers—stay for a week on what others spend on a meal. It all depends, you see, and exactly where you’d like to meet me.
And by the way, I should certainly like to add that foreign tourists are not my only suitors. Plenty of local folks – honest, hard-working, family types who just want to take a break from the routine and bring their kids to build some sand castles and splash—stop by as well. Although, come to mention it, I probably ought to do something about keeping those beer-toting thong-mongers on a separate beach from the hijab-and-family-photo crowd.
Piled Life: True, I was thinking the same thing after walking down Pantai Cenang the other day. But to come back to my previous question, is it true that Michael Schumacher has a private mansion here – up around the Datai that you mentioned?
Langkawi: I can’t tell secrets like that, you know. If Mikey wants to hide on his own beach, let him. All I can say, is that a little ride to the north shore of the island is well worth the trip. Enjoy the mountain views and the beach air all at once. Stop by and marvel at my world-class golf course. Peruse the flocks of rare hornbills flitting through the coconut palms, and the black-faced monkeys peeping from the roadside jungles. Just make sure that if you come on motorcycle, you have a plan to get past the guards. [Laughs again.] You know that here is Southeast Asia everyone still sees the motorbike and the chariot of the lower castes. [Laughs yet again.]
Piled Life: [Blushes.] Yes, heh heh heh. I’ll certainly make sure that I don’t go call at fancy resorts in my swim trunks and sunscreen and riding a motorcycle. That would just be bad taste, right? [Takes a drink of water and blushes again.] Is it getting hot in here or is it me?
Langkawi: I mean, that would be like rolling up to the Oscars in a Pinto! Think just how ridiculous! [Laughs even more loudly.]
Piled Life: [Coughs.] Changing the subject a little—are you saying, then, that renting a motorbike isn’t a good way to visit you?
Langkawi: Oh my, no. A motorbike is an excellent idea, in fact. You can find nice ones without too much trouble, and I think you’ll find the scenery spectacular—from the azure coasts to the spires of mountains to the thick, swampy mangroves… Well, I mean, you shouldn’t actually try to take a motorbike through the swamps, of course. I think that would be ridiculous. Almost as ridiculous as taking it up to the five-star resor—
Piled Life: [Angrily.] OK, I get the point – back to the scenery.
Langkawi: Right, as I started to say before I was so rudely interrupted: visitors find my scenery amazing. The mountains for instance, are incredible, if I do say so myself. Just imagine—Jurassic Park type of peaks launching thousands of feet of primal jungle into the crystal sky. Cliffs and gorges that only a child or geologist can imagine lying right next to world-class beaches. Jutting spires of jungled stone a veritable library of the geological forces I can scarcely begin to recall. And then picture this: the morning mists floating in and out of the gorges as exotic wildlife calls to one another. No sane human bothers to try to step here; it’s absolute Wilderness in the backyard of resorts so refined that all wildness is taken out of nature.
Piled Life: Yes, of course, and thank you for telling about you scenery in such modesty. But—
Langkawi: I wasn’t finished, thank you very much. I also built a cable car there – up on those mountains—and a huge sky bridge too. Millions of dollars I invested in the infrastructure, and won quite a few international engineering awards, I might humbly add, if I may. The ridges are so steep that I had to helicopter the materials up there. It was an enormous investment of time and labor—and a few dollars that I, for one, actually have to spend. But I do think it was all worth the effort—getting people up there, in person, to see the marvels firsthand in such an amazing setting is completely different than viewing from afar on a boat-based tour.
It’s a fabulous spot for a selfie.
Piled Life: Narcissistic selfie—something I’m sure your expert in.
Langkawi: Excuse me?
Piled Life: So, for those of us who aren’t blue-bloods and silver-spooners, who actually work for living, who might drive a motorbike instead of a Mercedes, what do you have to offer?
Langkawi: Oh my, yes, of course I cater to the little people like you, too! Why, just try the night markets! Every night of the week a different village hosts a market full of local foods and crafts. Stroll through the stalls and sniff the homemade cuisine and the hand-crafted, uh, crafts, and the food—
Piled Life: Already said that one—
Langkawi: Yes, of course, but the food is the thing. So much variety—from the bursting flavors of Thai-style mango salads to the subcontinent’s spice in the curries to Chinese noodles to a gorgeous heaping of Nasi Lemak, well, even quality folks from the resorts will venture into the local scenes for a taste.
Piled Life: Hang on, missy—for your information, there’s plenty of quality folks not anywhere near your resorts, Langkawi. For example, our guesthouse owners were amazing – a father-son duo with absolute friendliness and heaps of hospitality. Why, we had a blast just sitting in the shade and having a Coke and listening to his stories of raising a family while making dentures for a dentist office. Just to see how proud he was of his son, who worked by day as an accountant and in his free time managing the little property—which had much higher customer-satisfaction ratings than you’re a-list resorts, by the way—
Langkawi: Ha! Of course less refined tastes have less to complain about! But don’t you get carried away. I’m the one being interviewed here. Give me another question.
Piled Life: OK, sure. What would you say to those who call you the “Bali of Malaysia”?
Langkawi: What! How dare you! Why I never— Who says that?
Piled Life: [Shrugs.] Maybe certain motorbike tourists…
Langkawi: Well, you can just tell these motorbike tourists of yours that maybe I do dominate tourist publications of my country just as Bali does. And maybe I do attract more than my fair share of foreign tourists, just as Bali does. And maybe there is a certain clamoring for my exotic sort of getaways—for all classes of people—that Bali tries to imitate. But I certainly wouldn’t strain myself to make that comparison. After all, I specialize more in foreign millionaires than in drunken club-goers.
Piled Life: True, I do see plenty more Saudi Burqas than Bintang sleeveless tees around here. Besides, Bali offers plenty of fun stuff – like snorkeling and diving and surfing. Not just geology tours and mangrove swamp excursions—
Langkawi: What! How dare you! I offer diving and snorkeling tours too! You just have a book a little trip to a nearby spot—
Piled Life: So they’re not really yours. One’s actually in Thailand. Got it. And they cost two arms and a leg. And they’re not really that good. And there’s no surfing. And—
Langkawi: That’s it. This interview is over. Besides, you probably have some places to get to on your rink-a-dink little motorcycle. Good luck finding a meal within your budget. Ha! Now, where’s my valet service?
Piled Life: But don’t you want to tell about all the giant jellyfish in your waters?
Langkawi: I hope you get stung by all of them! [Slams door.]
Langkawi makes me smile.
Following the interview, Andy and I continued our motorbike odyssey across the island, sampling the specialty beaches of the north shore—black sand, jet-ski and parasail, quiet relaxation, and jellyfish all in turn. To patch things up with Langkawi, I agreed to spend a night in a moderately priced resort in nearby Rebok island. And I enjoyed it, too.