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Sunday, June 29, 2008

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Breathtaking: Some of the 99 islands that comprise the Langkawi archipelago can be seen in the distance as a cable car makes the 705-meter climb up the peak of Gunung Mat Cincang on the island of Palau Langkawi, Malaysia. CAI EVANS PHOTO

Getting high and then horizontal in Langkawi

Things may not always follow logic on this island — but a visit still makes sense


Special to The Japan Times

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Ask any question you want in Langkawi and you will get a friendly response. But you may not get an answer. Take the following exchange I had with a musician who was leaving the Beach Garden restaurant as I was strolling in there in search of a late supper on my first night in the hot spot of Pantai Cenang:

"Hi there. Is the restaurant closed for the night?"

"Yes, closed my friend. But there are still some tables free."

As it turned out, the restaurant wasn't closed, but there weren't any tables free either.

But there is nothing ambiguous about Langkawi's natural splendor, as exemplified by the cable-car trip up to the 705-meter peak of Gunung Mat Cincang. This is that very rare thing: a holiday cliche that exceeds its billing. Offering a jaw-dropping panorama of emerald rain forest and sapphire coastline, the ride delivers myriad opportunities to take photos certain to bore friends into a coma at a later date.

Opportunities for lens abuse notwithstanding, the people of Pulau Langkawi, the largest of the Malaysian archipelago's 99 islands, are justifiably proud of its ecological credentials. The tour rep who met us at the airport soon boasted that the island must stay 70 percent green, thereby safeguarding it against the deforestation and commercial development that has defiled so many other natural gems across the globe.

While this undoubtedly delights tourists with big cameras, it isn't popular with everyone. According to the guide who later escorted us on our rain-forest tour (on which I have more to say later, to my enduring regret), one byproduct of this decree is that the 45,000 local inhabitants are effectively prohibited from chopping down their own trees to build houses. A simple way of life passed down through countless generations has thus been sacrificed at the altar of tree-hugging. On reflection, perhaps residents are reluctant to give straight answers for fear of what might be banned next. Harvesting local foods, maybe?

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High up: A suspension walkway at the top of Gunung Mat Cincang. CAI EVANS PHOTO

In any event, the cable-car ride leads to a blinged-up version of the walkway Indiana Jones always has to cross when he's stolen something and people are throwing spears at him. I suppressed a panic attack on the way out to the viewing station at the end of the walkway by keeping my eyes straight ahead and refusing to look at the free fall to damnation beneath the creaking metal slats.

More impressive still, I noted on the way back that I was actually only the second-most terrified man in Langkawi. The top spot went to a robust Yorkshireman coming the other way. He was swearing out loud, whereas I was only doing so in my head. We set our respective cursing strategies aside momentarily and exchanged pleasantries as we passed each other. Langkawi does that to you, by the way: makes you exhibit unwarranted niceness to random strangers.

If you want to see some of the island's rich flora close up, you can also attend one of those aforementioned rain-forest tours organized by Langkawi's many resort operators. This I found rather underwhelming — one of the trip's few disappointments, in fact. It was certainly interesting to learn how one tree attacked a perfectly innocent neighbor and slowly strangled the life out of it, and arguably more so to witness firsthand the grisly debacle that unfolded when a leech slithered up the trouser leg of a pale young man from Surrey.

But I had been expecting more than this for my 90 ringgit (about ¥2,800) — some flying squirrels or a flock of fruit bats at the very least. All I got was the leeches, fungi, about 7 billion termites and a slightly larger version of the lizard that had been sharing my nice room at the Meritus Pelangi Beach Resort & Spa all week. Never mind, though. If that's what a rain forest looks like close up, there's no point whining that it doesn't match a scene from "The Jungle Book."

In fact, the rain-forest tour isn't a bad metaphor for this destination as a whole. As long as your expectations aren't too outlandish, visiting Langkawi is immensely satisfying. Specifically, your expectations should involve relaxing, eating, relaxing some more and enjoying the view (while relaxing, and possibly eating some more). It's not really a place for backpackers, culture vultures or intrepid explorers. It's a place you go when you've done all that, bought the T-shirts and just want to decompress slowly with a colorful drink while taking in the sunset. Yes, there are a lot of boring old people in Langkawi. But it isn't Florida. There are plenty of boring young people there too, and hardly any gangsters.

The relaxation options on offer in Pantai Cenang can be roughly divided into two categories: spa and nonspa. If my own experience is anything to go by, this means you will spend most of your holiday in the pool or ocean, while your girlfriend spends most of hers on a massage table. It's basically a horizontal place. As far as the spa treatments go, I'm told that the Shirodhara massage, during which warm oil is poured over the "third eye" in the middle of the forehead, is the most satisfying. At 150 to 200 ringgit (¥5,000-7,000), it also represents value for money, compared with the prices charged for such pampering in Tokyo.

As for the ocean, some bemoan the fact that it's cloudier than the best parts of Phuket, Borocay or even Okinawa. Personally, I loved it because I'm a coward and the last thing I want to do while chilling out in the briney is to see what's really down there. It is blue, and when you are from Wales, that's all that matters.

Another familiar complaint about Langkawi is that it hammers your wallet. This notion isn't entirely without merit. If you remain within the confines of the large resort complexes, you will indeed be cleaned out in no time. An hourlong body massage at the Meritus Pelangi's indoor Teratai Spa can set you back the best part of 300 ringgit (¥10,000). Yet, if you walk down the street, you'll find the same thing for half the price, albeit in less opulent surroundings. Same with the food; we stuffed ourselves insensible every night but never spent more than 140 ringgit (¥4,600) between us at any one sitting. Our top recommendations along Pantai Cenang include the raspberry smoothies at Red Tomato Garden Cafe and pretty much everything at Putumayo (but especially the beef in black pepper).

So, does holidaying in Langkawi make sense? In keeping with the spirit of the place, I should probably offer an elliptical answer, something along the lines of: "No, but you should try it." But in truth, I can't honestly pinpoint any really compelling reasons to go there — other than that I was more relaxed at the end of this trip than I have been after any other holiday I have ever taken (and I've never been so sorry to leave a place in my life).

So, let me answer by saying: "It depends." If you're after excitement, adventure and a journey of self-discovery, then don't bother. But if you're just out for a blissful hiatus from life's stresses, then make a reservation tomorrow.



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