When I was last in Langkawi I was not even in my teens, and annoyed at having to put up in thatched huts with hole-in-the-ground toilets and visit meaningless and badly maintained “historical” sites.
Fast forward to more than two decades later, Langkawi is visited by tourists from all over the world from Korea to India to Russia; that the quiet, idyllic strip of premium white sand on Pantai Chenang now appears to be a Kuta in the making. Some of you may be relieved to hear that as tourism is the main driver of the local economy, attitudes to alcohol consumption and females in bikinis are rather lax. Mosques and bars seem to coexist peacefully.
Langkawi had never been on my “destinations to visit” checklist until Nonamolytta (Molly) – a friend from primary school who had migrated to Malaysia when we were 12 – decided to work at the St Regis there.
In 2013, Molly found me on Facebook — that we have managed to spell each other’s name correctly after all these years still astonishes me — and with two other school mates Siti (Siti) and Norazlin (Lin) we kept in touch on Whatsapp, where our conversation oscillated between cajoling Molly to visit us in Singapore and daydreams of “girls-only” road trips to Langkawi.
Last November, by fluke, Lin managed to take leave over a weekend in February, and the idea of the “girls-only” road trip appeared to surface again like a fart in a swimming pool. However, instead of bursting into nothing like it usually did, the three of us booked hotel rooms and return flights to Langkawi within days. We told Molly and forgot about the trip until a week before departure, when we broke into a mild panic wondering what we were going to do in the three days there. Molly sent us a rather spaced out itinerary of spa, a three-hour sunset cruise and dinner at the L’Orangerie at St Regis which we agreed to.
I am certainly not of seafarers’ stock, but I agreed to the sunset cruise only because Molly had planned it.
Some years ago I organised a fashion shoot on a catamaran thinking it would be a breeze. But because our skipper had chosen to anchor close to Pulau Bukom’s oil refineries to capture the sunset, we were hit by waves left, right and centre generated by all manners of oil tankers, container ships and tugboats. Although I did not throw up, I could not even look at the screen for anything more than 10 seconds to see what the fuck I was doing and had to leave the running of the shoot to my colleagues and photography team. Back on land, my body and head swayed from the waves for two days.
This time I took precautions. I picked up a pill for seasickness at Mahsuri Clinic which was five minutes from the Aloft Hotel Langkawi where we stayed, popped it an hour before the cruise, crossed my fingers and went on my way.
We were herded with 10 other folks onto the Apanama by one of her crew, Muiz. There were a honeymooning couple from India and the bride’s parents, Kuala Lumpur-based Mumbai blokes on a weekend getaway, a Filipino or Malay gay couple, and us childhood friends. I was somehow relieved that the boat was much smaller than the one I had been on and also nervous that this meant that even the tiniest waves could trigger my seasickness.
To my relief, thanks to the 99 surrounding islands, the waves were so much gentler than that off the Pulau Bukom oil refineries. I spent much of the time on the deck because the weather was lovely; it was only slightly overcast and the breeze was a gentle six to nine knots according to Khalid the skipper. Not only was I fortunate to be joined by friends who were obsessive about taking photos so I barely had to whip out my camera phone, they ensured every step of the way that I was okay.
The boat anchored somewhere mid-cruise so that guests could take a dip in their life vests. We did not bring our swimsuits because we were going straight for dinner at the St Regis; and I did not want to meet Molly or enter a six-star hotel looking like I had been salted and dried.
Muiz doubled up as host and DJ and he played songs everyone could bop their heads to and as the sun began to set, he entertained requests from the guests. On board, Muiz and I shared a couple of laughs (Iblis and Tonic) and discovered we had similar tastes in music (rock kangkang).
If you were lucky enough to enjoy the sunset in its full splendour like I did, you would certainly be tempted to capture it on camera. I left the phototaking to my friends, preferring to enjoy the dying light without a filter. Before we disembarked, one of the Mumbai blokes asked me if we had plans that evening; I told him the truth.
I wished I had found my sea legs so that I could enjoy the cruise more but was more than relieved to be able to leap onto the moonlit boardwalk and into the arms of our old friend Molly who drove us to dinner. At the L’Orangerie at St Regis, we dined and talked and laughed till we cried, and pinky-promised each other to do this again soon.
Here are a few precious little nooks on Langkawi that my friends and I have discovered while we were there.
Furusato Spa, Pantai Tengah Langkawi
Lin and I were mere hours away from departure time when we decided to go for a full body massage and scrub, so we shaved some time by dropping the foot bath and the wrap that came with it. And it was well worth the risk. Seasoned massage therapists Nurul and Sha massaged away the tension from our lack of sleep and walkabouts in the sun; Lin claimed that the massage had resolved the niggling tightness in her right calf. We felt lighter, relaxed and smooth all over thanks to the very thorough body scrub. Prices were very reasonable too.
Your Language Books Corner, Jalan Pantai Chenang
If you love secondhand bookshops like I do, this is a must-visit. The shop owner is a friendly local who spoke to me in English and Malay with an endearing Kedah accent. According to him, all the books in the shop had been listed alphabetically until a Bohemian Westerner (he didn’t say from which country) and long-time friend of his, decided that “his business was a not-for-profit” and so took it upon himself to rearrange the titles in the haphazard manner I saw then. He had been thinking of closing the store for the day to get it back to how it was when I sailed in with Lin. The shop carries Swedish, Russian, German, French, Danish, English and even Malay titles.
Ah Chong Beach Café Bar
This bar was run by staff who looked like they could be extras from “Pirates of the Carribean”; drink prices were reasonable and service was brisk. At night, anywhere along Pantai Chenang you could rent a chair on the beach for just RM10 (sitting on mats is free though), stick your feet in the cool, premium white sand while watching fire dancers light up the night.