Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Langkawi, Malaysia (9 - 12th August 2007)

Thursday, 9th August 2007: Woke up at 5.30am this morning to pack up, check out and have breakfast downstairs at the hotel. The buffet breakfast was not bad - way better than last night's dinner. Today, mum and I took the ferry from Penang to Langkawi. At 7.30am, we got picked up by another representative from Pan Island Holidays Sdn. Bhd. to the ferry terminal.

Boarded our ferry at 7.45am and the ferry was full. The journey was somewhat rough, making both mum and I feeling a nauseous. Having been on other ferry services before, I would tell you not to expect too much from this one. The seating was very cramped and the ferry looked quite old. And you wouldn't know what to do in event of an emergency - there were no safety guidelines or video played on board the ferry. Oh dear...

Kedah is the state characterised by vast paddy plains and offers a captivating variety of natural attractions such as the famous island getaway of Langkawi, Pulau Payar Marine Park and Lake Pedu. The Langkawi Geopark, comprising of the 99 islands in the Langkawi archipelago is Malaysia’s first geopark. The total land area of Langkawi Geopark is about 478 square kilometres. According to local legend, Langkawi derives its name from 'helang' meaning eagle and 'kawi' meaning reddish brown. Those of you who love shopping would be pleased to know that Langkawi is a tax-free zone :)

We arrived at Langkawi around 11am and our guides, Tom and Jingo, were at the terminal to meet us. Unfortunately we were stuck at terminal as they were waiting for another group to arrive who was on the same day tour as we were. I didn't mind the wait but was not happy to find out that they (the guides) had swapped my activity plans - we were supposed to have a free day tomorrow so we could go to Pulau Payar Marine Park but they brought forward the tour from our last morning in Langkawi to tomorrow morning. It wasn't their fault as they were only following instructions from their office but I was disappointed that I couldn't go to Pulau Payar - it would have been a nice snorkelling/diving trip to the marine reserve. And to go to Pulau Payar, you would need a full day and we couldn't do so as we were leaving on Saturday afternoon. Sigh... :(

Finally, we can go now! At 12.30pm, the 3 others we were all waiting for turned up. Apparently they missed their ferry or something so were late. I have had enough of being hassled by people at the terminal trying to sell me trips and rental car deals. Was even more irritated when my mug of iced tea 'exploded' at me - don't know why or how but before I picked up the mug for my first sip, the mug just shattered and I had tea spilled on my jeans and shoes. Great...just great...

Our first stop was at Dataran Lang (Eagle Square) and Taman Lagenda (Legends Park), where there is a sprawling 19-acre landmark located to the front left of the new Jetty Mall Complex in Kuah. Built on reclaimed land, the imposing 12-metre tall statue of the Brahminy Kite brown eagle can be clearly seen from the air or from the sea. The park is a popular place to stroll and picnic and to look at cravings related to local folklore. Photos taken in the morning and at Dataran Lang: http://www.flickr.com/photos/8070917@N05/sets/72157602124395808/detail/

We found out that our 2 guides are Ibans, a branch of the Dayak people of Borneo. Their language sounded like Malay, yet I couldn't understand the context (sounded like a mix of Thai and Malay language though soothing to the ear). Both were very warm and friendly, and if you didn't ask, you would just assumed they were Malays because they spoke the language fluently.

We drove through Kuah, a town that has numerous duty-free outlets, handicraft centres as well as restaurants offering a variety of local and international cuisine. This was also the town we will be staying during our time in Langkawi. The name Kuah, which means gravy in Malay, comes from a legend of two battling giants who overturned a gigantic pot of curry.

All along our journey to the other side of Langkawi (we were heading toward the Underwater World), the scenery was just paddy fields, Malay villages and you get to see some buffaloes here and there. Still under-developed but I think I would prefer it to remain this way.

The Underwater World Langkawi is a 30-minute drive from Kuah town and is loacted on Pantai Cenang. Costs us RM28 per person to get in. This was the first place of visit during my travels in Malaysia where tourists and Malaysians pay a different rate for admission (it was about RM10 difference). The Underwater World Langkawi is the largest aquaria in the country and houses 4000 varieties of animals from 3 different ecosystems. Quite interesting though I felt sorry for the fishes being put in small tanks.

Mum and I had some spare time so we took a stroll down Pantai Cenang. Pantai Cenang is a beach that caters for sun-worshippers and adrenaline junkies as they can choose from several watersports available. The beach didn't look very pretty to me due to the haze (and I guess I've been to Fiji Islands so no other beaches are comparable to the ones there). Photos taken at Underwater World and Pantai Cenang: http://www.flickr.com/photos/8070917@N05/sets/72157602124719378/detail/

The weather was hot and humid - I could smell the rain coming...

We got to know the other people on our tour as our journey continued on for the day. Found out those 3 we were waiting for earlier were from Singapore, and the older couple at the back were Arabs.

We next went to Atma Alam Art Village located at Padang Matsirat, the birthplace of Langkawi’s art of hand-made batik (the art of decorating cloth using wax and dye). Saw some people designing and painting batik on site. We were told that the artist usually paint their own designs. The designs are drawn with heated candle wax, and then colour is added inside the designs, using dyes from light to dark colours. Once the painting is complete, the batik is washed before it can be used.

Next stop, Makam Mahsuri (Mahsuri's Mausoleum). Costs us RM5 per person to enter the premises. The mausoleum is a shrine built in memory of Mahsuri, the legendary 19th century Langkawi princess, who was innocently stabbed to death for committing adultery. With her dying breath, Mahsuri cursed Langkawi to have 7 generations of bad luck, which many locals of Langkawi believed to be true, citing Siamese invasion and decades of failed crops following her death. It is only at the end of the 20th century, after the 7 generations have supposedly come to pass, that Langkawi began to prosper as a tourist destination.

We began our tour of the place watching a movie clip depicting the Mahsuri story, followed by a traditional Malay instrumental remix of the Mahsuri song. The grave itself has nothing inside - the actual grave location is still unknown on the island. We walked around the premises, taking photos and mum buying some local crisps (very oily, mum!).

Our last stop for the day was at the Gamat Factory. I had thought gamat was some food or stone but turns out to be sea cucumber processed into medicine. It enhances the body's resistance towards various diseases and contains a cell growth factor which has the ability to accelerate the regeneration of biological cells, bone, collagen and rejuvenates skin. A popular produce of Langkawi.

Tom showed us how the locals make gamat oil - a hot boiling mix of sea cucumber and coconut oil. And he actually put his finger into the hot boiling pot of cooking gamat!!! Is this part of your job description, Tom?? He said it burned at first but if you leave the oil there for awhile then wash it off, your skin will be perfectly fine. True, because his finger looked fine when he showed it to me.

Hotel drop-offs from 5.30pm and by 6.30pm, we arrived and checked in at the Hotel Grand Continental Langkawi. The hotel is centrally located in Kuah amongst rows of departmental stores, banks and duty free shops. It stands 7 levels high, featuring traditional Malaysian architectural design. The room condition was similar to the one we stayed in Penang. The hotel we were staying in had no internet facility and neither quality tourist information nor access to the beach! Not what I had in mind for an island trip.

We walked through the Kuah shopping strip to Orchid Restaurant for dinner as recommended by the guides. Very nice. After dinner, went in search for an internet cafĂ© – only 1 in area with no air-conditioning and was very stuffy and humid inside. Photos for the remaining of our day out: http://www.flickr.com/photos/8070917@N05/sets/72157602124959324/detail/


Friday, 10th August 2007: Another early morning for mum and I as we headed downstairs for breakfast and await our 9am pickup for the other half-day tour. You would not believe this but we (mum, me, Tom and Jingo) had to wait over half and hour for those same 3 people we waited for yesterday to finish their breakfast before we could move on. Sheesh! They really had no sense of time and our guides were ready to leave them behind just as they casually walk towards the van from their hotel lobby. What the?!

Our first stop of the morning was at Telaga Harbour Park, a Mediterranean-themed harbour town located at Pantai Kok. The area was originally a fishing village that has rapidly transformed itself into a prime tourist attraction and major sailing destination. A popular place with foreigners.

We passed by Pantai Kok but saw no one at the beach. According to Jingo, no one comes to this beach because of the many buffaloes in the area. Danger, danger!

After that, we went to Oriental Village, a themed shopping centre, where the Langkawi Cable Car is located and goes all the way up Gunung Mat Chincang. There were so many people there queuing up for the cable car! Costs us RM15 per person for a return trip and only mum and I went ahead; the others remained at the village area.

The legendary Gunung Mat Cincang, Langkawi's second highest peak was believed to have been once a being named Mat Cincang who turned himself into a mountain. The exhilarating 20-minute journey you take in a four-seater cable car silently ascends the height over a distance of 2.2 kilometres - all the way hovering over the verdant forest canopy. I have to say, it felt rather scary being lifted so high up and those 20 minutes felt like a very, very long time. It's one of the world's steepest and is the longest free-span mono-cable car in the Malaysia Book of Records.

The top stop was about 700m above sea level. It was rather foggy and windy with haze at the top and the temperature was probably about 24-25 degrees Celsius (very humid). Mum and I took a walk to the viewing points and also to the Curved Suspension Bridge. The wind must have picked up while we were on the bridge because I could feel the bridge 'move' as the wind blew. Don't feel very safe up here....On a clear day, you would be able to enjoy the magnificent view of the island all the way to southern Thailand. Photos from our morning: http://www.flickr.com/photos/8070917@N05/sets/72157602153429350/detail/

Found out that the Singaporeans didn't want to pay for the cable car because they thought it was similar to the one in Sentosa (oh no, this one is WAY different!).

Our next stop was at Galeria Perdana, a unique gallery that was built to display and share with everyone the various awards, souvenirs and gifts the former Prime Minister, Tun Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad, and his wife received from world leaders, statesmen as well as Malaysians during his tenure. No one was keen to go in so we took off to our last stop, the Langkawi Wildlife Park. Here, you can experience close interaction with animals and birds including feeding and handling them. The park is the first in Asia to have a fully covered walkway. Photos at the park: http://www.flickr.com/photos/8070917@N05/sets/72157602162332059/detail/

I wanted to do a mangrove trip but we had to charter a whole boat, which would cost us the price for 4 people (RM360), rather than for 2. Not much luck in persuading the Singaporeans to join us so mum and I went ahead with the trip. I managed to negotiate for RM50 less. Sure hope the trip is worth the cost...

This eco-trip we took was called the Sungai Kilim (Kilim River) Mangrove Tour. Kilim is home to the region's best mangrove ecosystem uniquely thriving on a limestone foundation. We had a boat to ourselves and Jingo as a guide during the tour - a private tour. The boatman took us to Gua Kelawar (Bat Cave) located in the mangroves of Sungai Kilim and this cave visit is usually bundled with the mangrove tour packages. Jingo guided us with a torchlight along the wooden platform that runs through the cave interior. Don't touch the railing - it's covered with guano. Mum and I didn't realise there were bats inside until Jingo showed them to us with his torchlight - there are 4 species of bats (we saw only 2) and they feed on fruit and insects. The bats were only found hanging from the ceiling in the main chamber of the cave.

There are 2 parts of the cave. We hopped on the boat to get to the smaller western cave, where the ceiling was only 1-3 metres high (yep, we had to duck to get in). You would only be able to visit this cave when the tide is low - during high tide, the cave gets flooded and if you happen to be there at the time, the only thing you could do is to climb a wooden stairs to the waiting chamber and stay there till the water goes down. Jingo brought me up to see the waiting area - wow, imagine being stuck here with no supplies, no light or food and you by yourself. Won't want to be stuck up here...

Jingo was a very good guide and told us many interesting facts about the mangrove forests and fascinating vegetation and wildlife that the mangrove support. Mangroves protect the coast from erosion, surge storms, especially during hurricanes, and tsunamis. The mangrove seed is unique - when it is mature and ready to root, it falls vertically into the soil to lodge itself into the mud and root.

We stopped at one of the floating fish farms and I got the opportunity to feed a stingray. Eeks! The skin of the ray was silky/slimy soft and it 'flaps' itself near my hand and 'sucks' the fish bait I was holding like a vacuum cleaner! There were a variety of fish at the farm and if you have the time, consider staying for a meal of fresh barbequed seafood - hmm, must be really delicious...making me hungry!

We next went through Gua Buaya (Crocodile Cave). The name of this cave may either entice or scare off visitors, depending on their attitude to the crocodiles that still exist in the area, although not in so large a number as in the old days. This cave is unique because the Kilim River actually flows right through it, and is navigable by a small boat at low tide. Mum thought she saw a baby croc - nah, it was just an iguana, mum!

The sky has finally cleared up for us and the view of Kilim River and its surroundings was just beautiful. Our boat trip continued on towards the Thai border. I really, really enjoyed the trip - the scenery was just amazing! Though it was an expensive trip, it was worth the money and definitely recommended to those who plan to visit Langkawi in the near future. In fact, I suggest you do the eco-trips e.g. Pulau Payar, Tasik Dayang Bunting (Lake of the Pregnant Maid), Telaga Tujuh (Seven Wells) and Gunung Raya during your visit to Langkawi. More worth the money than the inland touristy places of visit that we went. Photos from our mangrove tour: http://www.flickr.com/photos/8070917@N05/sets/72157602154863802/detail/

Our tour ended about 5.30pm (the actual tour was about 90 minutes) and we got dropped off at Orchid Restaurant again for dinner. We had 'kong pow' frogs for dinner - it's really nice dish, trust me! The frogs were fried then cooked in a dark sauce and dried chillies. One of the dishes on my list of things to eat every trip back to Malaysia.


Saturday, 11th August 2007: Got up early (again) for breakfast and went back to sleep till 10.30am. At 1.20pm, mum and I got picked up to the Kuah jetty and at 2.30pm, we ferried to Kuala Perlis on Labuan Express 7 (normal ticket fare RM12 per person). The ride felt smoother compared to the other ferry we took but the seating was more cramped.

Eew, the guy sitting next to me was digging his ear with his little finger - I don't get why some men grow the little finger fingernail long. This could be the reason?? Still - eew!

An hour later, we arrived in Kuala Perlis jetty in the state of Perlis (the northern-most state in Peninsula Malaysia). We had to locate the bus station, which was a 10-minute walk away from the ferry terminal. The bus terminal was rather isolated - it was very hot and humid in the open-air premise. I tried to see if we could reschedule our bus for an earlier time but was told that the buses were fully booked. Wish we could go back now but we couldn't so had to sit around for the next 3 hours till our bus arrived. Finally at 6.30pm, we boarded the Mayang Sari Express bus home.


Sunday, 12th August 2007: Mum and I arrived in BP at 7am. Rosie from Chiu Travel had organised a transfer from the bus station for us. You would not believe this but she and her husband came to pick us up in limo. Yes, a limo! At 7am in the morning!! I was too tired to comment - all I could think about was getting home. Was feeling so tired after the longest bus ride of my life (12 hours!!!). I don't know if giving us 'royal treatment' and some 'pulasan' (rambutan-like fruit) was meant to make us feel any better from the messed up travel itinerary.

Note to self for future travels: do not let the travel agent plan my itinerary because he/she may not have been to the place and do not know what I like to see and do. I had higher expectations of this trip given that both Penang and Langkawi are famous tourist destinations and would have better planned my itinerary of the things I wanted to see and do given more time to research about the places. Well, at least now I know where I will be going my next trip back :)

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