After such a great few days in Penang, we took others advice and made the short journey to Langkawi, a collection of a hundred or so islands north of Malaysia and basically on the boarder of Thailand (arguably it’s actually over the land boarder at points but still Malaysian territory). We did the journey with Cormac, our new travel buddy who is seemingly doing the same route as us in Malaysia at the same time. He was meeting a lady friend Belinda at our hostel, so we’d have another member of our group for a few days.
Langkawi is a popular weekend destination for locals we were later to discover. Not only because it’s bloody beautiful, but because it’s a tax free island! Apparently this is somewhat historic; something to do with a promise made by a ruling leader years ago to never tax the land, that’s stuck in place. In more recent years this has obviously resulted in areas becoming a full on tourist trap, and Langkawi now boasts an airport, the largest aquarium in Asia, a number of very upmarket (and eyewateringly expensive) hotels, and obviously, a bunch of activities to please the masses. This, as a budget conscious backpacker didn’t interest us massivey; most of the activities on offer would easily decimate our £15 a day each budget within merely looking at what’s on offer. Because of this, we bypassed the Sheraton and four seasons hotels, and stayed at a great little place just off the super touristy road, offering everything we needed for about £14 a night. Result!
Imagine a super touristy road in any country. You’ve all seen them. The buzz of Khao San Road in BKK, the main strip in Ibiza, spots around parliament square in London. Langkawi had one too that ticked all the boxes, massively overpriced food, dozens of shops selling utter shite with a 200% markup, a number of bars trying to out do each other with their touristic enticements, the works. On our first night we hired scooters and rode up said street in true Asian fashion (the wrong way up a one way street) to see if we just got a bad first impression. We didn’t, it was shite, end of. To add to our entertainment, an obviously new to Asia Aussie traveller and her partner looked aghast when they spotted us and shouted ‘what you doing???? It’s a one way!!’ Welcome to Asia my dear!
So after effectively deciding that we’d avoid this strip like the plague, and subsequently we’d be missing out many of the tourist laden activities, we set a plan for the next few days to hunt out many of the free activities that were available. Fortunately, Langkawi is blessed with some absolutely glorious topography, beaches, waterfalls, lookouts, and roads so this wasn’t too difficult!
In the end, the four of us agreed we should probably do the SkyCab, the number one attraction on Langkawi. It’s also one of the steepest cable cars in the world, and the views from the top are supposed to be pretty amazing. As soon as we arrived here, it was apparent this is a SERIOUS tourist spot, with almost a mini theme park surrounding the site offering everything from 4d cinemas, amusement arcades, a very weird 3D art museum, even go karting! Obviously none of that really appealed so we didn’t pay any extra for those, but gained entrance to some as part of our 55Ringit entrance fee (about £10, so an expensive commitment immediately sending us over budget for the day). More on those activities later though. From my perspective the SkyCab was really worth it. The views from the top were pretty spectacular, with lookouts at 3 different points overlooking pretty much the whole island. The views were definitely impressive, and made even more impressive once we also did the sky walk, the worlds highest single suspension point bridge. This spot offered equally impressive views across the hundred or so islands dotted across the horizon. Perhaps the most impressive thing for me was the water. In all the time we’ve been on the road I don’t remember water to have such an expansive turquoise hue, which made for such a beautiful site from so high up.
Once we ventured back down the cable car, we gave the 3D art museum a go. Whilst this is clearly geared towards the younger end of the age spectrum, there were some great instalments to immerse yourself and interact with. We may have taken a few shots with some of them, once we could battle our way through the hoards of Chinese tourists who seemed totally oblivious of personal space, order and, well, anything around them at all really!
To finish off the day, we rode to a couple of local waterfalls. The benefit of these was twofold. One, they were free, and two, they could cool us down! The first required a bit of a hike but was totally worth it, greeting us with a natural water slide and beautifully naturally cooled water. At the base of the waterfall was an evidently popular local spot for a dip, with a huge number of locals tourists enjoying the various spots to get drenched. This was a very impressive waterfall, with probably 100ft from summit to base. God I love a good waterfall!
The following day, the four of us donned our bikes, and spent the day riding around the island, exploring the more unseen areas off the beaten track. Cormac identified a hill we could drive up, which evidently turned out to be the highest point in Langkawi. After a fairly arduous ride for about 45 minutes we made it to the top, paid our £2 to enter the lookout for even more impressive views than the day before! The panoramic views, matched with a clear day free of overcasting clouds made for a great view of the whole island and surrounding islands, and was totally worth it. One issue though to finish this off; I was basically out of fuel! We had to freewheel the best part of 12k back to the main road down the mountain, only tapping the throttle to get us up the larger inclines, before praying to the petroleum gods we’d make it to the closest fuel stop, a good 10k away. I’ve mentioned many times the infrastructure in Malaysia is immensely better than other Asian countries we’ve visited, and sometimes this brings with it a downside. In Cambodia or Indonesia, the primary method of filling up your bike is from a small roadside stall with litres of petrol in old vodka bottles. These tended to be everywhere but here, totally non existent. Hunting out one of the half dozen petrol stations on Langkawi always involved a drive, but unfortunately for us these were all in totally the wrong direction! Regardless, we made it, filled up, said our goodbyes to Cormac and Belinda (both catching a boat to mainland that afternoon), and went about our day. Then we found this.
This is what I really love about backpacking. You hire a bike, just ride randomly around the area you’re in, and discover hidden gems totally off the tourist track just like this beach. Honestly, at this point we could have been on a near deserted Thai island, as we only shared the beach with about a dozen other people. Obviously, we made full use of this and stayed for a good couple of hours, soaking in the vitamin D and great views.
That was really the end of excitement for us in Langkawi. We had two more days there, but spent one by the pool undertaking much needed life admin, and another totally rained in. Sadly these things happen, but in the near 300 days we’ve been on the road now we’ve had surprisingly few like this.
Next stop was the Perhentian islands off the north east coast of mainland Malaysia. We set off in the afternoon, and after a fairly arduous collection of journeys (boat/bus/boat/boat), including a 3.30am arrival in the middle of nowhere, we finally made it! Kelly and I had heard a bunch about these islands, but still didn’t really know what to expect apart from ‘they are stunning;just go’. First impressions weren’t far off. The crystal clear water was a beautiful turquoise colour with clear visibility all the way to the bottom. Plus there were monitor lizards everywhere which is really cool. Mixing this with stunning soft white sand and some spectacular sea life surrounding the shores you could imagine yourself to be in paradise again.
One problem though; tourism is destroying this place.
You see it all over the world. A place becomes popular because of a new lonely planet review, a few famous instagrammers posting stunning photos at a now iconic spot, or a shitty TV show goes somewhere, and suddenly it’s the new spot to visit. Over the past year, we’ve heard so many times that place X is ‘what Y used to be like before it became touristic’ and sadly, the perhentians falls into the category of being overrun by tourism now. The main beach on the smaller island, Kecil, is literally laden with small shacks blaring reggae from water damaged PA speakers, selling paint stripper bottles of rum/whiskey, overpriced beers, and crap quality food laden with monosodium glutamate and E numbers (the regulations in Malaysia on flavour enhancers appear to be non existent so the processed foods are nearly all full with such chemicals). Accommodation here ranges from tents you pay £12 a night for the pleasure of, to pretty crappy quality DIY chalets you pay an arm and a leg for, and finishing with the new array of villas at the few opulent hotel complexes that I imagine cost hundreds or thousands a night. Whilst the beach is beautiful, it’s not big, and is totally overrun with small passenger boats. Walking down the beach is akin to walking along a minefield whilst you spend your time dodging the anchors dug into the shallow waters or sand, broken whiskey bottles dead coral or rubbish. Add to that the constant smell of petrol from the over choked boat motors constantly whirring guests in and out, the percussive rattle of the generators powering every beach front stall (there’s no grid system here, all the power is from generators, and most accommodation only has power during evenings), finding a quiet, quaint, and peaceful spot can be somewhat of a challenge. Perhaps the most upsetting thing on this island was the rubbish. There’s no infrastructure for dealing with the vast amount of rubbish that is generated from so many people, so the resorts, restaurants, hotels and guesthouse just seem to dump, burn, or hide everything. Sewage pipes could be seen running straight into the sea all over the island, or running along the coastal edge from one establishment to another. I discovered at another hotel complex we walked though, they just dumped most of the cans and plastic under the main building out of the view of guests, before carting off into the island later on to burn. For someone who cares deeply about the environment, and has made a real concerted effort to be a sustainable traveler wherever possible, this was deeply upsetting. To top it all off, there is no drinkable water on the island, so you are forced to drink water shipped in from mainland in plastic bottles. I dread to think how many thousands of bottles are disposed of every month, and how easy it would be to combat this in a few simple steps.
Long beach probably contains about half a dozen dive shops too, obviously appealing to the young clientele keen to dip their proverbial toes in the water and to get a cheap PADI qualification. Everyone I spoke to undertaking the courses seemed really happy with the quality of the courses, training and support, and the price was certainly en par with the outrageously good value found in Koh Tao, widely known as one of the cheapest places to learn to dive in the world. I think it’s safe to say if you want to learn to dive during the day for cheap, party at night, have a short term bender on an island, and cook yourself a little in a state of permanent hangover, this is a great place to be!
Having said all that, we didn’t partake in any of these activities, yet we still bloody loved it here.
The problem with places like this that they become so overrun with tourism (and lame tourism too) is escaping it can be a real challenge. But when you do, it can be totally blissful. After two nights staying near long beach we made the move to the other side of the island. This much quieter and more tranquil side still boasted a number of dive shops, hotels and small beach from restaurants. Move beyond the beach however, and you can find basic yet idyllic chalets for dirt cheap, which feel like they are in the middle of nowhere. We managed to get a chalet overlooking the islands and sea for about 70MR (£13) a night; a pretty decent price for this island. The beauty of this spot though was definitely it’s tranquility. One evening we watched a somewhat cloudy sunset whilst reading on our balcony, and felt like no one else was around. The reggae battles from the other side of the island were totally inaudible, the party scene non existent, and the stress levels depleted.
After moving to the other side, we spent a day exploring the area, discovered an almost secluded beach or two that looked ideal for snorkeling, and decided to head back the next day. The sea was so calm it almost looked like glass, and being so clear we had ideal conditions for a few hours out exploring under the sea. Whilst we didn’t see any turtles, we did spot some very cool looking schools of fish, the biggest trigger fish I’ve ever seen (seriously, this guy was a monster, and probably would have taken a toe off if he’d come for me), a number of needle fish, blue spotted stingray and a small group of baby black tip reef sharks nestling in by the shallow rocks. Overall, pretty awesome!
I guess it’s inevitable and unavoidable really; somewhere is discovered and word spreads, local micro economies naturally tap into increased demand by creating offerings for impending tourists, normally trying to squeeze the most out of profit margins, and before you know it you’re basically in Magaluf, or a stupidly expensive resort. Part of the fun of backpacking on a budget is definitely hunting out the unknown spots where you can live a frugal yet satisfying existence for very little. Sadly the Perhentians probably aren’t that spot anymore (although we did manage to just about stay in our £15 each a day budget, but only just), but it’s certainly not geared up perfectly for those of a slightly more budget conscious disposition. There are so many islands off the Malaysian coast, I’m sure most are equally as stunning with equally as clear and warm water. I just wish we had longer to explore more of them.