A cave bat hangs out on the roof
Myths, Mangroves and Mystery
Story and Photos by Gary Singh
s we emerge from the airport on Langkawi Island, my driver pulls out
onto the desolate highway and points towards the road ahead of him.
With a sweeping gesture, left to right, he proclaims: This is
Langkawi. Empty roads and no ones in charge.
Indeed, the road from the airport worms its way along
the western coast, around a bend or two, and straight into a slew of
high-end resorts. Diving gear and rental shops abound. Everything on
the island is close to everything else, so the taxis dont even
use meters. They just charge set rates from one destination to another.
If one wants to escape the throngs of tourists invading from the ferry
jetty, one can rent a bicycle for dirt-cheap. Even though Langkawi is
a tourist Mecca, relaxation comes quite easy.
Drifting through the mangroves
Located 30 km from northern peninsular Malaysia, where
the Straits of Malacca meet the Indian Ocean, Langkawi is an archipelago
of nearly 100 islands, with Langkawi Island being the main attraction.
It is a land of myths, mangroves and mystery.
It was here, the legend goes, that a young woman named
Mahsuri was executed for adultery. The townsfolk stabbed her to death
and white blood flowed from her wounds, indicating she was actually
innocent. She then cursed the entire island and her tomb is now a tourist
Amazingly, Langkawi has only been developed since 1987.
At first, there was only one hotel, the population was around 30,000
and the main activity was agriculture. Then the prime minister declared
it a duty free island and away it went. During the first few years,
the main tourists were the Europeans, who preferred a quiet isolated
place with seemingly no authority. Over time, tourists from other Asian
countries began to visit en masse and they preferred more activities,
so more development eventually started to happen. Tourism boomed in
the ensuing years.
Cruising down the river
Today, retail shopping, business complexes and commercial
districts exist primarily in the town of Kuah near the ferry jetty,
with other scattered retail villages here and there. Sporadic pockets
of native civilization occupy everything else in-between. Independent
shops and restaurants engage wanderers on a few streets, and traditional
Malay wooden homes on stilts are omnipresent.
Much of the island is an official UNESCO Geological
Park, perhaps the only duty free one of its kind anywhere. One is instantly
beckoned into the convoluted green shadows for some serious mangrove
and mystery seeking. Depending on which ecosystem one enters, there
are bat caves, monkeys, eagles, a cable car ride and a skybridge providing
a spectacular view. One can even go to a catfish spa, where fish munch
the dead skin off your feet. In the bat cave, literally hundreds of
bats occupy their places on the ceiling and stalagmite formations a
million years old continue to reshape themselves, ever so slowly.
Catfish Spa, Langkawi
At my request, the guide led me into a restaurant and
fish farm named The Hole in the Wall. I guess it was the moniker that
attracted me the most. Owner Rahmad originally built the eatery eight
years ago as an addendum to an already existing fish export business
that doubled as a pit stop for yachts traversing the surrounding waters.
As the destination grew in popularity, he expanded the restaurant several
times. Nowadays, every boat stops by for food or drinks. Theres
a bar, a makeshift souvenir shop, an internet connection and 10 ample
rooms at RM 55.00 per person. It is a common stop for all the mangrove
tours, business travelers, weddings and even the occasional politician.
There exist 25 cheap mooring docks for yachts, with many skippers often
hanging out for months at a time.
Hole in the Wall Fish Farm and Restaurant
In fact, it was the yachting community that originally
chose the name Hole in the Wall, since the facility is located on a
tiny passage off the Kilim River, right in-between two enormous limestone
outcrops. Thus, a hole in the wall.
If the owner had chosen the name, he would have
just thought of some other Malay name instead, my guide tells
Feeding a sting ray at the Hole in the Wall Fish
Attached to the restaurant are 60 cages where Rahmad
breeds fifteen types of fish, including sea bass, red snapper, greasy
grouper, sting rays, electric eels, archer fish, dart fish and more.
For RM 5.00, one can watch a trained employee walk around on the planks
and feed the fish, including the stingrays. Theres even a hanging
bridge that leads 100 meters off into the mysterious mangroves. The
entire facility literally floats on the water and you can even dine
outside on the planks, while watching the fish swim by in the river.
Hole in the Wall floating fish farm
Even though tourists now regularly flock to the island,
Langkawi still somehow retains a passive laidback atmosphere. Natives
staff almost all of the resorts, Im told. When I arrived at the
Pelangi Beach Resort, the bellhop who drove me to my chalet had worked
at the property since the place first opened twenty years ago. It was
the only job hed ever had.
View from the beach restaurant at Pelangi Resort
And each room at The Pelangi supplies a brown pamphlet
describing all the native creatures inhabiting the resort property.
For example, one must feel at ease with tiny geckos running across the
bedroom walls and ceiling. Malays will tell you theyve lived in
harmony with house lizards for generations.
Now thats what I call local flavor. I vowed to
Cave bats hang on the roof