28.09.2009 - 29.09.2009
We had to choose between Penang and Langkawi....
After the Singapore GP, Arjun, Priyatham and myself had already made up our mind to go around Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur was planned for the last two days, and we still had two days in between. So where do we go? We had to make a choice between two islands on the west coast of Malaysia, two islands which were touted to be 'must-see'. But we simply did not have time to cover both. Ultimately, the lure of duty free shopping tipped the scales decisively. Langkawi it was!
Palau Langkawi is your typical Southeast Asian island, or rather it is an archipelago of 99 islands situated in Malaysian state of Kedah, the main island being the largest and most visited with beautiful beaches, lush green forests, seafood, seafood and more seafood. After we landed in the smallest international airport I have ever seen, we headed to Pantai Cenang, the most popular beach in Langkawi at the south-west tip of the island and we checked into 'Gecko Guesthouse', one of many budget guesthouses around the beach.
The beach was just a few strides from our place. As soon we entered the beach, a downpour greeted us and we had to run for cover. Exactly after five minutes, it was as sunny as ever. This was typical Malaysian weather. We enjoyed the quiet beach and we even made Priyatham get into the sea water (he who had never even got into a swimming pool before). After the swim, I had a 'sea food' pizza in the nearby pizzeria which consisted of fish, shrimp, crab, squid and what not.
But I felt Langkawi was a world apart from the tourist hustle and bustle of Phuket. Maybe we were in the off season, or maybe I was doing too much travelling for my own good. The serenity, or rather the lack of activity on the island, took me by surprise. The guest house we checked into was vacant, the roads were deserted and we ate all alone at the pizzeria opposite our guesthouse. There were a few people at the beach but not as many as you would expect to see on a beautiful beach of a Southeast Asian island. I knew the place was sparsely populated, but this was almost like a ghost island.
We had huge expectations on shopping 'duty free' in Langkawi. I was already imagining myself with a brand new camera and wondering how I could carry all the liquor, cigars and chocolates that I would be buying in my bag. My dilemma was short-lived after all; because we found out that the items in the duty free shops were in fact more expensive!
Yet, duty free shopping is supposedly a major tourist attraction in Langkawi. Huge duty-free shopping malls (malls mind you, not shops) have been constructed in Kuah and other places to attract shopping tourism. We did not understand the phenomenon. The only thing I found reasonably cheap was the liquor and needless to say, we made most of it. A six pack of Carlsberg cans for 10RM was too good to be true, even cheaper than in India!
I have always loved moped riding on deserted islands, and Langkawi was no exception. Taxis were a trifle expensive on the island and there was no other public transportation. Renting mopeds was economic and apart from the obvious monetary benefits, gave you the luxury to explore the area more freely. We found a bike rental shop just outside our guesthouse. The lady at the desk gave a long, hard look at my driving license issued by the Government of Andhra Pradesh (I got it for about 1500 bucks and did not as much as touch a 2-wheeler during the so-called test) and decided it would do. She showed me the bike and asked me whether I was familiar driving an automatic. I gave her an assuring nod and then immediately asked her how to start the bike. She became more apprehensive. However, off we went on our new vehicles. We could see the lady was still very doubtful as to whether we could bring her bikes back in one piece. We certainly hoped to, because the penalties in case of damage to the bikes were prohibitive.
With just a small map on the backside of some tourist brochure to guide us, we went exploring the island. Fuel was cheap in Malaysia, courtesy Petronas. We covered the entire breadth of the island by going to the northwestern tip of the island to see the Pantai Kok beach as well as the Telaga Tujuh Waterfalls aka Seven Wells and then to the south-eastern tip to Kuah, the major town on the island. The famous 'Eagle Square' was situated in Kuah. The huge eagle statue was the icon of the island and ferries coming to Langkawi supposedly catch sight of this statue first.
It was while returning from the waterfalls, that the 'helmet incident' took place. The three of us were given helmets by the rental shop and they were compulsory while on the road. Priyatham, who was pillion riding on Arjun's bike and who had till then obediently put on the helmet, decided to take it off for a while. Just then, we were flagged down by a burly, dark skinned policeman who demanded to see our license. Turns out, he was a Malay Tamilian or a Tamil Malaysian. He looked at us closely and apparently thought we were Tamils too. He gave a cursory glance at our Indian passports and said “Malaysia la helmets compulsory appa... teriyuma?”
We were all apologies, and explained to him in English that we were poor, ignorant tourists who were unaware of the rules here. Priyatham put on his helmet and we were waved off with a warning never to repeat the mistake again. I was grateful and even tried thanking him in Tamil, but thought better of it.
Just before leaving for the airport, we decided to visit the 'Underwater World', an indoor aquarium near Pantai Cenang. The aquarium showcased many dirverse forms of marine life including seals and sharks. The highlight of the visit was me posing for a photograph with a huge snake around my neck. You could do that by shelling out 10RM for the smaller snake and 20RM for the bigger snake. According to the caretaker, the 'small' snake was for ladies and children and the bigger one which was curled up in a huge box was for men. He asked me whether he should take the big snake out. I said "No Thanks, I prefer the smaller one". The snakes were apparently 'domesticated'. The skin was slippery and the snake I held was constantly trying to wriggle out of my grip. It was a heady feeling standing there with the reptile wrapped around your neck. The caretaker asked Priyatham and Arjun whether they would also like to hold the snake and get themselves photographed. They said "No Thanks".
The Langkawi trip ended with a minor blunder. We had checked the airline fares to Kuala-Lumpur online but did not bother to book our tickets deciding to purcahse them there. It turned out that purchasing tickets at the airport cost you more, a lot more than booking online. So, we had to shell out 200RM each for a 120RM AirAsia ticket.
Despite the duty-free letdown, Langkawi was an enjoyable two days. It has also taught me valuable lessons. One, you should always purchase airline tickets online; Two, helmets are compulsory even for pillion riders in Malaysia; And last but not the least, snakes are nice creatures, after all!