First impressions while flying into Langkawi are spectacular. Strung along the coast of north-western Malaysia, this archipelago of 99 tightly clustered, jungle-clad islets rises up dramatically from the turquoise waters of the Andaman Sea. The largest, Pulau Langkawi (or simply, Langkawi), has been slowly developing as a resort over the past two decades, but as yet remains essentially unspoilt, with lush rainforest, deserted beaches and verdant rice fields that stretch as far as the eye can see.
“Langkawi offers an unparalleled biodiversity of flora, fauna and geology compared to anywhere in South-East Asia,” says local naturalist Irshad Mubarak. This natural bounty is best appreciated through the various excursions on offer: boat trips that thread through eerie mangrove swamps, where sea eagles swoop down on unsuspecting fish; early morning jungle walks with naturalists like Mubarak, who point out brightly coloured hornbills or chittering macaque monkeys hiding amid the dense canopy. Over at the Pulau Payar Marine Park, shallow waters teem with iridescent fish and harmless baby sharks, while the mirror-still lagoon in the middle of Pulau Dayang Bunting is perfect for kayaking and paddleboarding. And after a day amid nature, there’s nothing like relaxing on the terrace of an idyllic sundowner bar at the edge of a white-sand beach as the evening sky explodes in a kaleidoscope of colours.
The best new hotels in Kuala Lumpur
One such place is Hidden, at the south end of Pantai Tengah beach in the island’s buzzing south – the one corner of Langkawi that has moved with the times. Hidden’s owner, 26-year-old Esther Lee, is a recent arrival from Kuala Lumpur: “I gave up my job and home in 2018 to come here, and once I saw the beach location [where Hidden now is] I signed immediately. I want to create the same kind of hip locale you find in Bali,” she declares. “Hidden is a start; I’m looking to open a glamping-style resort or a jungle bar up in the hills.”
If Lee’s dream resort materialises, it will join a growing crop of luxe stays on Langkawi. Tucked away in undisturbed corners are some of the world’s most exclusive hideaways: Four Seasons Resort Langkawi resembles a sumptuous Moroccan palace; the plush Ritz-Carlton recently set up shop on the south-west coast; while the St Regis boasts the island’s top chef, Frenchman Gaetan Biesuz, who dazzles gourmands with dishes like Andaman-fished grouper roasted with ginger-flower crust, grilled pumpkin and jungle herbs. Then there’s the iconic Datai, which is once again welcoming visitors after a year-long facelift.
But it’s not all five-star luxury. There are also intimate boutique alternatives like Temple Tree, a compound of century-old heritage houses looking out over lush wetlands and craggy mountains in the distance. These include the Chinese House, which has a mahjong room adorned with ancient family portraits; and the Black and White House, with its veranda and rattan recliner – perfect for sipping a gin and tonic. The brainchild of Australian hotelier and restaurateur Narelle McMurtrie, Temple Tree helps finance her adjoining animal sanctuary, LASSie, with guests often volunteering to walk rescued pups. With a smile, McMurtrie says, “I always advise guests to visit Penang first, get all the sightseeing and partying done, then come here to Langkawi and relax.”
And it’s easy to trade Langkawi’s go-slow vibe for the cosmopolitan flavour of neighbouring Penang – or, as McMurtrie recommends, vice versa. Separated by a 35-minute flight (or three-hour ferry ride), the islands feel worlds apart; as long-time Langkawi resident and yoga teacher Marc de Faoite puts it, “Every time I travel from Langkawi to Penang it feels as if I’m visiting a different country.” Once the heart of colonial Malaya, Penang was the first South-East Asian outpost of the British Empire and a fabulously wealthy port on the Spice Route. Writers like Somerset Maugham and Joseph Conrad extolled its lush vegetation and wild coastline; today, however, its main drawcard is George Town, the colourful colonial capital made ever more popular after it was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status over a decade ago. One of George Town’s most famous sons, fashion designer Jimmy Choo, is still a frequent visitor.
It’s far removed from the swaying palms over on Langkawi, but it’s authentically, delightfully Malaysia all the same
“I learnt my trade growing up here when this was a sleepy backwater,” he says. “Today, our unique architectural heritage has been preserved… you can get around walking or by bike, there are no ugly tower blocks, and suddenly my hometown has become a vibrant global destination.”
An annual calendar highlight is the George Town Festival, which distils the city’s vibrant cultural scene into a month-long arts do. Founded in 2010, it continues to attract acclaimed artists, dance and theatre companies, and musicians from around the world. “I can say we put Penang firmly on the global arts map,” says former festival director Joe Sidek. “What’s more, the striking murals [created by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic in 2012] have transformed our streets into an Instagrammer’s paradise. Sometimes, though, I wonder if people are so busy taking selfies that they walk straight past our more ancient heritage.”
So heed his words, brave the stifling humidity and plunge right into the teeming crowds at Chowrasta market, which dates all the way back to the 1800s. Here, stallholders brandish everything from mangoes to live ducks; spices such as nutmeg and clove to aromatic Chinese herbal medicines; prickly spider crabs to giant conch shells. Down the atmospheric side streets, wizened artisans roll joss sticks by hand and plump cooks fold wonton dumplings into perfectly formed parcels – much as they’ve been doing for the past few decades.
When I travel from Langkawi to Penang, it feels as if I’m visiting a different country
Then, amble along Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, dubbed Harmony Walk, which provides a colourful snapshot of Malaysia’s complex confluence of races and religions. You’ll pass the Kapitan Keling mosque, with its elegant Indo-Moorish architecture; the Sri Varasithi Vinayagar temple, where devotees smash coconuts then shower perfumed flowers over their fierce Hindu gods; and then the Kuan Yin Temple, where the echoes of gongs reverberate around the compound and the air is thick with incense.
On Kimberley Road, old-school eateries dish up George Town’s legendary street food: tender har gow (shrimp dumplings), piquant assam laksa (spicy, sour fish noodles flavoured with tamarind, ginger and galangal); tender satay (meat skewers) smothered in a crunchy peanut sauce; and heart-stopping char kway teow (stir-fried noodles), redolent with the exquisitely smoky aroma of wok hei (literally “the breath of the wok”). This is again proof of George Town’s living heritage; many hawkers here are second- or third-generation owners of long-standing family businesses. Twenty-something Por Han Kee serves up his parents’ famed kway chap recipe: flat rice sheets swimming in a rich broth served alongside duck offal. “Foreign foodies are becoming more adventurous because of social media,” says Por. “Once they smell the delicious aromas of our soup, well, they can’t resist.”
The perfect end to an evening can be had at China House, where old and new seamlessly coalesce. Here, three Chinese heritage buildings, linked by a courtyard, house an incredible 14 spaces: gourmet restaurants, a wine and cocktail bar with an in-house DJ, an art gallery, an ice cream parlour and The Canteen, a raucous live music venue where Penangite bands perform funk, hip hop and jazz. It all feels far removed from the rice paddies and swaying palms over on Langkawi, but it’s authentically, delightfully Malaysia all the same.