A 550 million year old island off the north-west coast of Malaysia, Langkawi is renowned for its biodiversity and beauty, and the only Unesco designated Geopark in Southeast Asia. But as the tourists flock, so do the developers, creating a clash between preservation and profit.
“LANGKAWI is the Galapagos of Asia,” croons Peter Hoefinger, an Austrian naturalist and my tour guide for the day, as our old wooden schooner slices through Langkawi’s turquoise-blue sea, which dazzles like diamonds in the afternoon sun. Around us, clusters of limestone outcrops rise from the water, their sheer sides thick with rare Cycas clivicola trees which nestle into the rock cracks and feed from rain residue. Above us, a sea eagle circles, his snow-white belly illuminated against the royal-blue sky.
An archipelago of 99 islands clustered off the far north-western tip of Malaysia, Langkawi was once a hideaway for pirates rampaging in the Andaman Sea. These days, it is better known for its sumptuous resorts and stretches of white sand that tourist brochures boast are “just like Bali 30 years ago”.
But, like the Galapagos, nature is the real drawcard on Langkawi. UNESCO listed the archipelago as a World Geopark in 2007, highlighting its unique ecology and value to science.
I came to Langkawi to discover its nature-based activities a few days ago but my first excursion left me feeling a little worse for wear. Teaming up with Canopy Adventures, a local outfit run by German author and hypnotist Juergen Zimmerer, I went on an abseiling/bush-bashing expedition and used muscles I didn’t know I had. Never mind that neither myself, nor the motley bunch of tourists also on my tour, had abseiled before.
Up bright and early before the mercury rose, we strapped ourselves into harnesses, had a quick briefing on how not to hold the rope saving you and embarked on an adrenalin-fuelled tour of the rainforest. We climbed rock faces, walked tightropes, swung Tarzan-style between trees and had an unwelcome encounter with a group of cheeky monkeys who defecated on us from above.
The next day I could barely move. So, what better way to recover than on a boozy sail with Blue Water Star Sailing’s Damai Indah? Made of teak, this charming 51-foot traditional Sulawesi-style ship is long and curvaceous, with two downstairs cabins, plus a full kitchen and dining area. It also comes with crew, an open bar and a scattering of cosy day beds upstairs where guests can busy themselves sipping champagne while watching the world pass by.
Leaving the Royal Langkawi Yacht Club at 2pm, our five-crew-three-guest party slid around the south-east coast of the island to an idyllic cove with thick jungle and a strip of white sand. Best of all, there is not another boat to be seen.
Paddling a kayak to shore, Hoefinger tells me just how exceptional Langkawi’s biodiversity is. The island’s sandstone foundation was formed more than 550 million years ago and is thick with 100,000-year-old primary rainforest that has been growing ever since. Although it’s not volcanic, Langkawi has a black-sand beach. It also has the only deciduous trees in tropical Asia. There are more than 400 types of butterfly, 221 species of birds – including the extremely rare mountain hawk-eagle (there are reportedly only three pairs left in Malaysia) and the great hornbill, whose size is as prominent as its shrill call.
It’s this ecological uniqueness that attracts thousands of tourists a year.
However, I learn that tourism is a double-edged sword for this exquisitely beautiful little island nudging the border with Thailand, as tourism activities, which account for 80 per cent of Langkawi’s income, threaten to destroy the very thing that is drawing people to its shores.
Hoefinger starts by telling me the fate of the island’s once-prosperous eagle population. Eagle feeding has become one of the island’s most popular tourist activities; each day scores of boats converge in a stretch of water in the mangrove forest to watch the birds feed. But the chicken skins they are being fed are not nutritious enough for them and, consequently, the shells of the eagles’ eggs are too weak and fewer chicks are surviving. Because they no longer have to hunt, the birds are also becoming obese and the young no longer know how to catch their prey.
A quick search on the internet reveals countless stories about illegal deforestation on the island. Although accepting a Geopark status requires strict monitoring and protection of forests and wildlife, much of the logging is carried out either in the dead of night or by loggers working from the depths of the forest outwards, so nobody knows what is happening until it is too late.
Everywhere I go, there are piles of rubbish, sometimes inside the forest itself. Driving behind a motorbike through a particularly spectacular patch of rainforest, we watch as the driver throws her empty chip packet, followed by a cola can and then the bag they came in, straight on to the side of the road.
The poaching of birds, mouse deer and snakes is also rampant.
But Langkawi isn’t without its wardens; a group of eco-warriors, such as Hoefinger, who are determined not to let the island’s wilderness go without a fight. Wendy Wu, the spirited naturalist at the deliciously luxurious Four Seasons Resort, is one such foot soldier for the cause.
I join Wu on a morning kayak trip through Langkawi’s extensive mangrove forests, which are a 10-minute speedboat ride from the Four Seasons. Our first stop is at a seemingly unremarkable-looking sandbank. Wu points out mudskippers, stone-age amphibians that use their gills to walk on land, burying themselves deep in the sand for the incoming tide. Fiddler crabs, with one enormous pink claw strung high into the air, scuttle from our feet.
We discover dozens of freshly sown mangrove saplings, self-planted when the tree drops its spear-like fruit lined with tiny hair follicles into the mud. Wu’s enthusiasm is contagious and before long, I see a whole new world happening around me.
We paddle through the back channels of the mangrove forest; narrow passageways where brilliant blue kingfishers flutter in trees and frogs rest on the gangly roots. We paddle for more than an hour before heading back to the main river where we happen across a dozen tourist boats that have congregated for one of the daily eagle feedings. Birds circle overhead, swooping to the surface to scoop up chicken skins. Wu cringes and turns her kayak away.
“Islands, due to their isolation, are wonderful places for evolution to occur. Likewise, they are most vulnerable to extinction,” says Irshad Mobarak, a naturalist and the director of Langkawi eco-tour agency Jungle Walla, who was awarded an Amazing Malaysian award for his conservation efforts on the island.
“The governing bodies of Langkawi need to get serious about protecting natural heritage. They need to create legislation and then enforce it. They also need to educate tourists and ask them to start demanding eco-friendly tours.”
Moborak is also the chief naturalist at The Datai, a rambling resort set deep within a 750-hectare pocket of rainforest on the north-west side of the island. Built from stone and timber in 1993 by Australian architect Kerry Hill, it remains one of Asia’s most spectacularly located resorts.
Stand-alone villas are scattered across the mossy forest floor, each with a balcony and planter chairs from which you can watch monkeys swinging from the trees or monitor lizards drinking from the stream gushing past. Or, armed with the nature companion found in the villa, see a variety of birds. The lobby bar and tasty – but not so authentic – Thai restaurant, built in the forest canopy, share space with the branches of encroaching trees. Criss-crossed with pathways down to the ocean, it all ends spectacularly at an idyllic white-sand cove.
Here Moborak takes twice-daily and complimentary tours of the rainforest for in-house guests. I join him and an all-Asian group of guests for the 90-minute early-morning walk, which proceeds at a snail’s pace while Moborak scours the forest for mouse deer and wild boar. We don’t see any on this morning’s tour but this is compensated for by Moborak’s stories of the forest, such as the indigenous strangler fig that thrives by asphyxiating other plants.
The next day, I head out with Jungle Wallah’s Indera Shuhardi to spot hornbills. We start with a drive up Mount Gunung Raya, a soaring slope with verdant jungle and the highest peak on the island. We stop the car to set up a telescope and watch a woodpecker working industriously on a tree branch and then a kingfisher cleaning himself in the afternoon sun. We glimpse only the bright orange horn of a hornbill as he passes through the trees. Feeling slightly disappointed, we start driving back when a mountain hawk-eagle swoops in front of our car, its giant wingspan speckled with the bird’s characteristic spots.
Shuhardi gasps in awe; after several years living on Langkawi, this is his first glimpse of the elusive eagle.
See it while you still can.
Three (other) things to do
1: Take the somewhat terrifying trip on the Langkawi Cable Car to the top of the Machinchang range. Here, viewing platforms offer a dazzling 360-degree view of the azure waters and snow-white beaches flanking the island. Remember to pack something warm; it’s an average 5 degrees cooler on top of the mountain.
30 ringgits ($10) a person; open 10am-6pm weekdays, weekends until 7pm
2: Treat your tastebuds to the smorgasbord found at the night market (the venue changes daily so check with your hotel), where vendors prepare local dishes such as beef rendang or char guay teow- Chinese-style stir-fry noodles. Better still, sign up to Shuk’s six-hour cooking class and learn to meddle with spices.
+60 4 955 2586; thelighthouse-langkawi.com
3: Hire a car (100 ringgits a day, hertz.com) and take a drive around the island’s beaches: from the action-packed Cenang Beach, lined with lively beach-shack bars, multi-cuisine restaurants and duty-free shops (with bottles of 42Below New Zealand Vodka a steal at 50 ringgits) and cheap water skis and windsurfing boards for hire, to the powder-white- and usually completely empty- stretches of sands of Tanjung Rhu.
The Four Seasons Resort Langkawi has 91 guest rooms, spa, three restaurants and family and adults-only pools on the powder-white sands of Tanjung Rhu.
Doubles from about $620; +60 4950 8888; fourseasons.com
The Datai is a 110-room property set inside a rainforest that swoops down to an idyllic cove and beach. The location is unbeatable but the resort has seen better days. Don’t miss dinner at the fantastic Malay-food restaurant, Gulai House.
Doubles from about $470; +60 4959 2500; ghmhotels.com
Temple Tree is a collection of rustic colonial-era houses a few kilometres from Cenai Beach. Book the superb Black and White House for its four-poster bed and spacious living room, or the Penang House for art deco touches. The Nam Restaurant at adjoining Bon Ton Resort is one of the best on the island, with dishes such as parmesan and harissa pita and nonya platter with prawns in pandan leaf and pickled lamb curry.
Double rooms from about $165; +60 4955 1688; templetree.com.my
See & Do
Dev’s Adventure Tours offers three-hour guided jungle trekking for all ages, from 120 ringgits ($40) a person. Explore the mangrove forests and northern coastline, stopping to swim on a remote beach, on the six-hour mangrove tour, from about $60 a person.
+60 194 9193; langkawi-nature.com
Irshad Mobarak’s Jungle Walla has various nature-based excursions, including four-hour bird watching tours to see the giant hornbill, from about $80 a person.
+60 192 252 300; junglewalla.com
Blue Water Star Sailing operates 10 boats, from the 46-foot Daddeldu to the 249-foot Lili Marleen. Shared cruises are from about $150 a person for six hours. Includes food, snacks and endless drinks.
+60 134 073 166; bluewaterstarsailing.com