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21 STRANGE AND BEAUTIFUL THINGS ABOUT LANGKAWI

By Siew Lyn Wong     1 Jul 2016

Ancient rocks, healing plants, brilliant butterflies and furry critters that fly—Langkawi is full of surprises. These are just a few of the things that make the Malaysian archipelago an exceptional place to visit

1. Numbers game

Ninety-nine or 104? How many islands does Langkawi have? Geologists say ‘104 or more’ even if some are mere rocks that are submerged more than they are revealed. In fact, humans inhabit only four islands. But taken together, these rocks are what earned the region Global Geopark status, the only place in Southeast Asia bearing the UNESCO designation.

2. Big birds

Besides the brahminy kite (Haliastur indus), whose giant stature welcomes ferry passengers, Langkawi is home to 19 raptors. The fact that so many call Langkawi home means the island’s ecosystem is in great shape (these top predators help keep things in balance). Lucky bird-watchers can spot rare species such as the streaked mountain hawk-eagle (Nisaetus nipalensis) and the crested black baza (Aviceda leuphotes).

Butterfly resting on a stone
A Malay Yeoman (Cirrochroa emalea) resting on a stone

3. Flight pattern

Zebra, Tiger, Baron, Albatross—these are actually names of butterflies, among the 500 species that can be found on Langkawi. They flit around not only flowers but also puddles, riverbanks and decaying fruits. Most likely to be spotted are the brilliant blue flashes of an Oakblue (Arhopala sp) or the striking orange of a Sunbeam (Curetis sp).

4. Thick and fin

Dorsal fins tell us a lot about a dolphin. Each has unique scarring and pigmentation so we can tell one dolphin from another. That’s how researchers know that 150 Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins (Sousa chinensis) hang out in the waters of Langkawi. There are even more Indo-pacific finless porpoises (Neophocaena phocaenoides) in the same waters, but without fins they are trickier to ID. Still, this is the best place in the region to spot them.

5. Fields of gold

Come harvest time, Langkawi’s rice paddies turn gorgeously gold after a lush green growing period. In the last 20 years, fields have shrunk by 20–30 percent as younger islanders choose to work in tourism over agriculture. But this is still one of the best places in Malaysia for paddy vistas complete with buffaloes lying in the mud and an amazing assortment of birds, from long-legged egrets to swooping sparrows to flashy kingfishers.

6. Rocking it

The trilobite may sound like a unit of data, but it’s actually an ancestor of modern-day insects that existed when water covered the earth hundreds of millions of years ago. Look hard enough and you might spot some embedded in the fossil-filled rocks at Kilim and Machinchang on the northeast edge of Langkawi.

7. Up in the air

High in the canopy, a swooping movement could reveal not birds, but creatures that glide. Gliding is a pretty nifty way to get from tree to tree or escape predators—species that get around this way include the flying squirrel (Petaurista petaurista), flying fox (Pteropus vampyrus) and the most skilled glider, the lemur-like colugo (Galeopterus variegatus). Langkawi’s reptiles glide too, such as the colorful flying dragon (Draco volans) and flying snake (Chrysopelea sp).

8. First aid

Nothing beats the ‘airplane plant’ (pokok kapal terbang) for treating cuts during a jungle trek. The Eupatorium odoratum Linn grows everywhere, and all you need to do is squeeze its juice onto a wound, wrap it and leave it for three days. As for its name, well, according to folklore the plant often grew near airfields and its seeds were inadvertently transported around the world by British colonial-era planes.

9. All for one

Due to cultural differences, islanders shunned the tourism industry for a long time, preferring to lease or sell their land and keep to themselves. It’s different for today’s generation. Tourism is vital—and many islanders would like it to develop along the lines of ‘one village, one product.’ The movement began in Japan and has spread to Thailand, and promotes creativity, self-reliance and economic development without compromising nature.

10. Bugging out

Lemon grass is the islanders’ answer to keeping pesky mosquitoes at bay—just leave stalks lying around, crushing the leaves slightly. Alternatively, burn coconut fronds together with the leaves of the cemumar (Micromelum pubescens), a member of the citrus family. The smoke is fragrant and mosquitoes hate it. Local entrepreneurs have come up with another option: virgin coconut oil, sold as an insect repellent that you apply to exposed skin.

Oriental pied hornbill (Anthracoceros albirostris) is one of the most common Asian hornbills
Oriental pied hornbill (Anthracoceros albirostris) is one of the most common Asian hornbills

11. On the line

Langkawi’s forests behave differently from much of the peninsula—they turn brown during the dry season. This makes them more like Thailand’s forests than Malaysia’s, but nature has never respected state boundaries anyway. The reason for this is that Langkawi sits above an invisible line similar to the Wallace Line (drawn by British naturalist Alfred Wallace), which marks an obvious change in vegetation.

12. Birth daze

How old is Langkawi? About 550 million years, give or take a few millennia. The visible layers of rock and fossils on the islands are the best evidence that the region was once part of Gondwanaland, one of two ancient supercontinents.

13. Taking root

Timber, dye and a salve for stomach ulcers—mangrove has more uses than can be counted. The bakau pasir (Rhizophora stylosa) is a mangrove found around Pulau Dayang Bunting, the second-largest island of the Langkawi archipelago, and only a few other parts of Malaysia. Besides protecting coasts from erosion and tsunami, its air-breathing roots harbor all kinds of life, from baby fish to tiny sea horses.

14. Seeing green

Malays have used the gamat (sea cucumber) for its healing properties since the 16th century, and this unassuming slug-like creature that lives on the ocean floor has long been a Langkawi export. Scientists are now investigating what gives sea cucumber such amazing powers of regeneration. A study in 2007 found that it can fast-track organ regrowth, and scientists are now studying how they can replicate the process to regenerate human body parts. As over-harvesting has led to dwindling numbers of sea cucumber across the region, underwater ‘ranches’ could meet demand.

15. Go with the flow

In addition to beautiful beaches, Langkawi is famed for its waterfalls—but most disappear during the dry season between January and May. One cascade that flows all year round is in Tanjung Chinchin, part of the Tama River in the northwest. Even better—it’s a serene, relatively unvisited spot that’s accessible only by boat, so you’ll be able to enjoy it under the shade of the tree canopy without being disturbed.

16. Snack attack

Sweet and spicy define the snacks and street food at the pasar malam (night markets) that take place at a different location on the island every day of the week. The flavors are typical of northern Malaysian food, but there’s a strong Thai influence too, with specialties such as pickled papaya salad and sticky rice. Portions are small, so you can sample everything. The biggest markets are at the weekend—in Kuah (Saturday) and Padang Matsirat (Sunday).

17. Night light

The best way to catch prawn-loving squid is by using a jig, a lure that pretends to be a prawn. At night, however, green lamps work even better—not by attracting the squid but by attracting the zooplankton that prawns feed on, and then, voila, you have your squid. The best time to squid-jig is from December to April.

18. Man with a plan

Charismatic nature guide Irshad Mobarak has worked for 30 years to steer Langkawi’s development away from a one-note duty-free shopping destination and toward a leading sanctuary for nature and wildlife. Styling himself as the JungleWalla, Mobarak sits on government committees, has his own NGO and kick-started nature-based activities now run by everyone else. And he can name every bird and butterfly on the island.

Rolling mist about to cover SkyBridge in Geopark Langkawi
Rolling mist about to cover SkyBridge in Geopark Langkawi

19. Sky’s the limit

Just to make your heart beat a little faster, last year additional glass panels were inserted into the floor of the SkyBridge, a soaring 125-meter-long (410 feet) curved walkway leading to the peak of Gunung Machinchang. The walkway is supported by a single pylon 82 meters (269 feet) above virgin jungle, and provides stunning views of the ocean and other islands in the archipelago. Take a SkyCab to the top station and start of the SkyBridge.

20. Shark tank

The end of February and beginning of March are the best times to spot the elusive whale shark (Rhincodon typus) off Langkawi’s shores. The largest known fish species in the world, whale sharks can grow to 13 meters (43 feet) long and weigh more than 21 tons, rivaling many dinosaurs by weight. The whale shark swims with its mouth open to filter out its diet of plankton, small fish, krill, clouds of spawn and microscopic plants. Divers can swim with this majestic, slow-moving fish—just beware of its powerful tail, which can be used to stun.

21. Chill factor

There are any number of lepak, or chill-out, spots in Langkawi—the word comes from the Malay for ‘relax’. We can’t think of a more beautiful place to kick back and soak up the sights and sounds of nature.

With thanks to herbalist extraordinaire Shaaban Arshad, Irshad Mobarak, Ahmad Zailani Bashah, MareCet and Federick Ho.

Langkawi’s wildlife is simply stunning, but have you seen the sea of stars in Maldives? Post your National Geographic moments on Instagram with the #momentumtravel.

Photos: Alamy

Siew Lyn Wong
Siew Lyn Wong

Siew Lyn Wong is a freelance writer, photographer and documentary maker based in Kuala Lumpur who specializes in travel and the environment. She has written two books on Langkawi and authored several more on Malaysia- and region-focused conservation and travel. Her current obsession is building an online ode to Berlin.

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5 comments

  1. Actually the closest the Wallace line gets to Langkawi is Bali or Eastern Borneo.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wallace_Line

  2. Lovely article, wonderful little snippets of information. It brought back some lovely memories of our visit to Langkawi!

  3. My next trip back to Malaysia would definitely include a revisit to Langkawi, your info will lead me into further explorations.

  4. As a Geoparkian or Langkawian… it a good information to know

  5. A concise, informative and fun skip through the must-sees of this beautiful island. It brought back some very fond memories of one of my most treasured holidays!

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