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Aptly named "The Jewel of Kedah," Langkawi is one of the most spectacular tourist destinations in Southeast Asia. Located about 17 miles off the coast of Kuala Kedah, Malaysia (and less than five miles from Ko Tarutao, Thailand), this beautiful cluster of 99 islands (104 during low tide) boasts year-round tropical climates, pristine white- and black-sand beaches and an abundance of natural wonders just begging to be explored. And, if that's not enough, the islands also offer an array of opportunities to get up-close-and-personal with many species of wildlife. One worth noting is the sea eagle, since Langkawi derives its name from this majestic creature. In Malay, helang is the word for "eagle," and kawi translates to "reddish-brown." So, it's no surprise that a statue of a massive reddish-brown eagle stands tall and proud in the Kuah harbor and welcomes visitors to this fabulous locale year-round.
Langkawi's heritage is steeped in myths and legends, with the most famous story surrounding a young maiden who cursed the islands with seven generations of bad luck (see "Don't Miss"). Following her death, Langkawi spent many years in turmoil and passed through the hands of the Siamese, British and Thai before finally gaining permanent independence in 1957. Whether it's coincidence or truth, Langkawi began to flourish in the 1970's, right around the time that the curse is said to have lifted. With a population of more than 60,000 people, today Langkawi thrives on tourism as well as many other industries, including the exporting of rubber, rice, teak wood and palm oil.
Pulau Langkawi, where the cruise ships dock, is the largest of Langkawi's isles and houses the majority of tourist attractions. The island is only about 154 square miles, making it a manageable size for taking in many sights during the course of a day. A rental car will buy you the freedom to wander at your leisure, and the best place to start is along the coast. Regardless of the direction you take, you'll be rewarded with sweeping views of the ocean, endless beaches for a quick or lingering dip, and a window into the lives of the Malay people as you pass by countless quaint and inviting villages along the way.
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Langkawi Fair Shopping Mall (sandwiched between Eagle Square and downtown Kuah) houses many shops that specialize in beautifully handcrafted plates, made from the bark of Malaysian cinnamon trees. These elegant plates come in all shapes, sizes and designs and make the perfect accents for entertaining back home. You can also find a healthy selection of these dishes at the Oriental Village gift shop at Kereta Kabel (see below).
Bahasa Malaysia is the official language, but you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn't speak -- or at least understand -- English. And, since Langkawi is a popular tourist destination, a great deal of the signage is also translated into English.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The Ringgit (RM) is the official currency of Malaysia. Some tourist shops will take U.S. dollars, but those places are few and far between. And, despite Langkawi's proximity to Thailand, store owners will not take Baht. The best places to exchange money are at the airport, banks and some of the larger resorts. And, if you find yourself running low, there are several ATM's in Kuah and at the Kuah jetty near Eagle Square. For current exchange rates, visit XE.com.
Where You're Docked
The Star Cruises jetty, where many big cruise lines dock, is about eight miles west of Kuah. Aside from a few resorts, this port isn't close to any of the main tourist attractions, so when you dock you'll need to either rent a car or take a taxi to explore the island. If you've booked a tour, the buses meet you right at the dock to start the excursion.
There are no facilities of any kind at the Star Cruises Jetty. It's just a concrete dock, and passengers must be driven from there to get to any activity. The closest town is Kuah, which has shops, ATM's and other facilities nearby.
The main attraction of Kuah is Eagle Square, where you'll want to head for one of the best photo ops in town. The square's iconic and imposing statue, with its wings outstretched toward the sea, is what visitors see first when approaching the island by air or sea (even cruise ships not docking directly in Kuah). So, there's no better way to commemorate your visit to Langkawi than by striking a pose underneath this massive, 39-foot-tall bird. You'll also find a number of souvenir kiosks at the nearby shopping and performance pavilion. And, if you don't pick up a fun trinket there, the Langkawi Fair Shopping Mall is an easy 10-minute walk from the square.
If you decide to head out on your own, the easiest -- but most expensive -- option is to hire a taxi for the day. (They hover as you're disembarking.) This will run you about 15RM an hour, but drivers will negotiate, depending on how much of the day will be spent driving versus waiting.
The more economical choice is to rent a car, starting at approximately 80RM for the day. You can book a car in advance or rent one once you get there from locations near downtown Kuah or Pantai Cenang. And, if the car company does not offer pickup at the dock, a taxi can take you from there to the rental place. For a wind-in-your-hair kind of ride, motorbikes and bicycles are also available for rent.
Watch Out For
Langkawi is an extremely safe place for tourists. Many locals depend on tourism for their livelihood, so you're almost certain to be met with friendly faces everywhere you go. Although the island is practically crime-free, you should still protect your valuables. Don't invite someone to take something from you by leaving it unattended, no matter how comfortable you might feel.
Makam Mahsuri is the birth and resting place of Kota Mahsuri, an ill-fated maiden who was wrongly accused of adultery and sentenced to death almost 200 years ago. Legend has it that she bled white blood at her execution, signifying her innocence. To avenge her untimely death, she put a curse of bad luck on Langkawi's 99 islands for seven generations. This culturally rich attraction, located in the village of Kampung Mawat, about 11 miles northwest of Kuah, includes a museum that elaborates on Kota Mahsuri's story and tells the history of Langkawi and its people. You'll also be able to see recreations of typical Malaysian villages and learn how they have evolved over time.
Kereta Kabel (the Langkawi cable car) is definitely worth a visit, if for no other reason than the view. The lines can get pretty crazy, so try to go early; the hours change, depending on the day, but most of the time it opens at 10 a.m. If you're part of a tour, that usually includes your ticket price and an up-front spot in the line. The ride to the top ascends more than 2,300 feet, and once you get there, you'll find yourself eye-to-eye with some of the most spectacular peaks in Langkawi, including Mount Machinchang. Be sure to take a walk out onto the curved hanging bridge. This architectural wonder offers 410 feet of jaw dropping scenery far, far below. Once you're back on solid ground, spend a little time wandering the Oriental Village, a great place to grab a bite or pick up some authentic Malaysian souvenirs. Kereta Kabel and the Oriental Village are about 30 miles west of Kuah.
Seven Wells Waterfall, or Telaga Tujuh, is located near the Langkawi cable car and promises some fabulous photo ops. This stunning geological formation is a series of cascading falls, broken up by seven natural pools. Think of it as a giant's staircase. The falls are shrouded in a dense green forest, and the magical setting has spurred the legend that mystical fairies frequent the pools. Note: It's a 30-minute trek up to the top, and the ascent can be quite steep at times.
For an array of unique outdoor experiences, consider a boat cruise through Kilim Nature Park, located eight miles northeast of Kuah. You'll board your riverboat just inside the park entrance. As you glide past dense mangrove forests, keep your eyes peeled for macaques (small monkeys), tree crabs and giant iguanas. You'll also have the opportunity to watch sea eagles dive into the water for food. And, the final stop on the cruise is at a fish farm, where you can take a turn at feeding and petting local stingrays.
The beach is a way of life in Langkawi, and your liveliest option is Pantai Cenang, located eight miles west of Kuah. There, you'll find water toys for rent, restaurants and cafes for snacking and endless shops for picking up souvenirs. If you're looking for a quieter stretch of sand, consider Pantai Tanjung Rhu on the northern tip of the island. This beach is the perfect place to enjoy the sun and sea with significantly less hustle and bustle. It's also a great jumping-off point for visiting the Cave of Legends, a fascinating limestone formation with ancient writings etched on its walls. (Speedboats will take you there straight from the beach.)
Considering there are 99 islands in total, another great way to enjoy Langkawi is by getting out onto the open water. The most popular itinerary takes you to Pulau Singa Besar, Pulau Dayang Bunting (home to the Lake of the Pregnant Maiden) and Pulau Beras Basah, all of which offer nature walks, pristine beaches and crystalline waters. Or, you can book a snorkel or dive trip to Pulau Payar Marine Park, one of the best spots to spy on fish and the surrounding coral reefs. Note: Most day-trip boats leave from the jetty near Eagle Square.
Been There, Done That
Couples looking to expand their family might want to make a beeline to Langkawi's largest freshwater lake, the Lake of the Pregnant Maiden, located on Pulau Dayang Bunting. It's often included in island-hopping tours, or you can charter a speedboat from Pantai Cenang to take you directly there. The legend behind this crystal-clear beauty starts with the story of a lovely princess whose firstborn died shortly after birth. Forlorn, she buried the child in the lake and blessed the waters so that any woman wanting to have a baby just needs to bathe in the waters, and she'll find herself able to conceive shortly thereafter.
Immerse yourself in Malaysia's agricultural history by paying a visit to Laman Padi Langkawi, just eight miles west of Kuah and conveniently located near Pantai Cenang. The museum gives you an overview of the impact the rice industry has had on the country, and you can also try your hand at traditional and modern padi planting. After your hard day's work, enjoy a meal at the attraction's restaurant, which showcases some of Malaysia's most popular rice-based cuisine.
For a shopping experience designed to promote Malaysia's cultural heritage, you'll want to make a stop at the Craft Cultural Complex. Located along the northern coast if the island, this destination is much more than a place to pick up some souvenirs. You'll be able to watch locals create magnificent pieces, representative of their ethnic backgrounds, from woodcarvings to batik paintings.
For an authentic taste of Malay cuisine, look for dishes cooked with coconut milk or chile paste. Both are specialties of the country, and you can't go wrong with meats, fish and veggies sauteed in either seasoning. If you're looking for an upscale sit-down experience, you'll find fantastic meals at some of the island's top hotels; Gulai House, between The Andaman and The Datai, or Ikan-Ikan at Four Seasons both offer traditional Malay cuisine. Casual dining also abounds, and plenty of great spots are located near Pantai Tengah and Pantai Cenang. (Menus include western and Asian eats.) And, if you're shopping in downtown Kuah, you'll be within walking distance of popular spots for authentic Thai cuisine.
Restaurants Near Main Attractions
Sun cafe, near Pantai Tengah, is part of the Sun Group, the enterprise behind fine dining, superior shopping and the Sunset Beach Resort in Langkawi. Travelers are constantly impressed by Sun Cafe's terrific food and amazing service. There are a lot of western options on the menu, but the restaurant is famous for its freshly caught fish -- particularly the grilled fillet of barracuda. Be sure to follow your entree with a worth-the-calories dish of creme brulee. (No. 8 Sunmall, Jalan Teluk Baru, Pantai Tengah)
Krathong Thai Restaurant is located in the Oriental Village at Kereta Kabel. Be sure to snag a table outside to enjoy the view of the surrounding mountains. This tourist outpost offers up traditional Thai fare, but some of the tastiest dishes are on the starter menu. The spring rolls and fried rice are a must! (Oriental Village in Jalan Telaga Tujuh)
Best for Local Eats
Restoran Wan Thai at the Langkawi Mall in Kuah is one of the best spots in town to get traditional Thai food at a great price. The tom yum seafood soup is a house specialty, but anything on the menu is sure to awaken your taste buds. Note: If your preferences swing more toward mild, this place might not be for you. The cook embraces all things spicy. (80-82, Langkawi Mall, Kuah)
Getting to Gulai House is an adventure in and of itself. Nestled in the middle of a forest, between The Andaman and The Datai hotels, it's a romantic escape for travelers who want to get away from the hustle and bustle of the beach crowd. Located on the northwest tip of the island, Gulai House is an open-air restaurant that serves superb crap soup and offers the banquet special, where the chef basically just sends out food until you're stuffed. (Jalan Datai, 604-959-1088, reservations recommended)
Staying in Touch
There's a small fee for local calls, and most grocery stores sell phone cards. To reach out to loved ones, you'll find a handful of Internet cafes in Kuah, as well as a few near Pantai Cenang and Pantai Tengah.
Best for First-Timers: To maximize your sightseeing, your best bet is to book an all-day island tour. These air-conditioned coach trips typically offer a good mix of Langkawi's highlights. Stops include the Kota Mahsuri memorial and museum, Kereta Kabel (Langkawi's cable car) with its unbeatable mountaintop views, Kilim Karst Geoforest Park and the iconic Eagle Square. Most tours end with a chance to hit the shops.
Best for Repeat Visitors: If you've seen the highlights of Pulau Langkawi, take a tour to a few of the other Langkawi islands. Half-day tours will take you to Pregnant Maiden Island, where you'll see lush forests and a freshwater lake, where some tours let you take a dip. Then, you'll travel to Wet Rice Island, one of Langkawi's best beach destinations, for free time to swim or sunbathe.
Best for Active Travelers: If you're looking to give your sea legs a serious workout, sign up for a Canopy Adventure Tour. Warning: These excursions are not for the faint of heart (or knees). In the span of four hours, you'll rappel down sheer rock faces, tightrope-walk across steel wires and soar above the trees on a lightning-fast zipline.
Best for Nature-Lovers: On a tour to the mangrove swamp, you will visit Kilim Marine Park and take a boat tour through the lagoons and islands. Look out for the odd-shaped limestone formations, as well as wildlife that includes monkeys, eagles and iguanas. In the Bat Cave, you'll encounter hundreds of bats, and at the Fish Farm, you can learn about aquaculture and the breeding of fish.
For More Information
On the Web: Tourism Malaysia or Tourism Langkawi
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Asia
Independent Traveler Message Boards: Southeastern Asia
--Anita K. Henry, Cruise Critic contributor