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Friday, March 16, 2012

Legend of Langkawi

The trouble began, as it often does, with a beautiful woman. Princess Mahsuri was a young woman of extraordinary beauty who lived on the island of Langkawi more than 200 years ago during the reign of Sultan Abdullah Mukarram Shah the Second.

She was falsely accused of adultery and sentenced to death by "piercing" but legend has it that during her execution she bled white blood, thus proving her innocence. As she lay dying, Mahsuri put a curse on the island: Langkawi would not be peaceful or prosperous for seven generations.
Looking down on the beachside resorts and yachts moored at the marina from the Langkawi Cable Car, I'm glad the seven generations have passed and Langkawi is flourishing again.
An archipelago of 99 tropical islands separated from mainland Malaysia by the Straits of Malacca, Langkawi was once a hideaway for pirates; now it's best known for its unspoilt beaches, sumptuous resorts and mountain wilderness.

The ride to the top of Mt Mat Cincang, on the north-west corner of the main island, is not for the faint-hearted. With a vertical rise of 680m and a gradient of 42 degrees, it's one of the world's steepest cable cars.

I get off at the highest point and step on to the curved suspension bridge, which crosses a deep chasm between Mat Cincang and a neighbouring summit. In the distance I can see across the Andaman Sea to Thailand, while, 100m below, virgin jungle is draped over the landscape like a velvet shawl.

A fearless macaque in the mangroves. Picture: Aidi Abdullah

According to legend, Mat Cincang and neighbouring Gunung Raya, are the bodies of giants who were cast into stone after brawling over yet another beautiful maiden. A smaller hill, Mat Sawar, stands between the two. In 2007 this mountainous region, with its ancient forests, waterfalls and beaches, was recognised by UNESCO for its "outstanding geological landscape" and assigned Global Geopark status. More than 550 million years old, Langkawi is home to the most complete Palaeozoic sedimentary sequence in Malaysia.

An easy 30-minute drive to the north-east of the island brings me to the second key conservation area in the Geopark, the Kilim Karst Geoforest Park. I've signed up for a mangrove forest excursion with Aidi Abdullah, resident naturalist at the Four Seasons Resort where I'm staying.
As we glide past sheer limestone cliffs and enter the mangroves, Aidi points out some of the swamp's strange inhabitants: fiddler crabs with pink claws, little amphibious fish that walk on mud and a brown-ringed kingfisher with a blood-red beak.

"Keep your eyes out for dusty-pink dolphins," he says. I assume he's pulling my leg but he explains they often see pods of up to 60 Indo-Pacific dolphins in the river.
Leaving the mangroves, we enter a section of the main river where boats gather to watch one of the daily eagle feedings. My heart sinks as dozens of Brahminy kites, Langkawi's official bird, dart and dive among the boats scooping up scraps of chicken. To see these magnificent creatures acting like a flock of greedy seagulls saddens me.

"The feeding was started to lure the eagles away from the airport," explains Aidi. "But it is now becoming a problem."
Tourism is a double-edged sword in the new, prosperous Langkawi.

"Development has come quickly to our paradise and we need stricter legislation to protect it," Aidi says.

Aidi is a champion for the cause and is lobbying the government to restrict boats in the mangroves, the speed at which they travel and also to educate the boat drivers in mangrove biology and eco-awareness.
As we turn our backs on the eagles, Aidi takes a detour through a series of limestone sea caves. Drifting through the luminous water, we stretch out and gaze up at the hundreds of bats hanging from the ceiling. The Cave of Bats (Gua Kelawar) is steeped in legend due to the twisted and tortured stalactites which look like otherworldly creatures. The smell of bat guano is overpowering and I'm soon glad to be in the sunlight, heading back to our resort.

Original Article
The Four Seasons is a Moorish-inspired retreat at the edge of the Geoforest Park. This private village offers luxurious villas and pavilions set on the white sands and emerald waters of Tanjung Rhu Cove. Being so close to the forest, I am constantly startled by macaques on my balcony, families of dusky-leaf monkeys on the lawn and hornbills in the trees.

The following day I drive to the southern part of the island, passing through small villages, coconut plantations and local markets before arriving at the tourist hub of Pantai Cenang Beach. This 2km stretch of beach is lined with stalls and restaurants and more places for a foot massage than I have toes. At a beachside bar with a frosty beer, my young travelling companion makes the cliched comparison "like Bali 30 years ago". I visited Kuta 30 years ago. I smile and nod in agreement.
But I'm after an experience that goes back further than 30 years; like about 100 years. A five-minute drive away, in a former coconut plantation, Australian expatriate Narelle McMurtrie has restored eight antique "Malay Kampung" (village) houses, sourced from all over Malaysia, to create an eclectic boutique property named Bon Ton Restaurant and Resort. Next door is the sister resort, Temple Tree, where a collection of antique Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian buildings form a 12-room, 13-suite, eight-villa property.

While Ms McMurtrie's goal is to conserve Malay heritage, these boutique properties fund her other passion - the rehabilitation of neglected and needy animals. Mainly cats and dogs through the Langkawi Animal Shelter and Sanctuary (LASSie), but they also treat wildlife which is returned to the wild once healthy.

The rescued dogs are kept in a nearby shelter; the cats, however are free to roam the resort. At lunch in the Nam restaurant I almost sit on a cat, another sits at my feet, while yet more sleep on daybeds by the pool.

I'm not a cat person but I take some comfort in knowing these well-fed felines are not roaming the rainforest causing further mischief. Furthermore, LASSie's main aim is to control the island's stray cat and dog population through sterilisation.

After a traditional Nyonya meal (a blend of Chinese and Malay) of chilli prawns, spicy and sour fish curry, lamb rendang and cashew nut rice I have one final detour before heading to the airport - Mahsuri's Mausoleum.

As I stand in front of the simple white tomb paying my respects, a group of schoolchildren enter the grounds, laughing and giggling, as children must.
Mahsuri might represent the past but in the echoes of these little voices I think I can hear the sound of a peaceful and prosperous future.

Getting there
• Malaysia Airlines operates 10 flights weekly from Perth to Kuala Lumpur with convenient onward connections to Langkawi. Economy class fares from Perth to Langkawi start from $1223 return during low season. For more information or current deals go to


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