In Singapore 40-odd years ago, when I contemplated an up-country vacation, I thought of Penang, Malaysia, as the ideal destination: sunshine, tiled-roofed shop houses, Straits colonial architecture, and seldom-visited beaches. If Langkawi was mentioned, it was usually in a whisper; the place (which was off the map anyway) was associated with an obscure curse. But it turns out that bit of misinformation was Langkawi’s blessing, keeping the crowds away. Only in the past 20 years has the archipelago begun to attract the attention of luxury travelers, dismayed by the overdevelopment of Penang.
Tucked into the northwest corner of Malaysia, part of the state of Kedah, so near to the coast of Thailand that it could be mistaken for being an offshore chunk of that kingdom, the lush island we know as Pulau Langkawi glows green, a lumpy emerald isle set in the Andaman Sea. Langkawi is a cluster of about 100 gorgeous islands, most of them small, with a total landmass of 185 square miles (about three Staten Islands). Only four of the islands are inhabited, which is perhaps the reason Langkawi has, so far, kept its culture intact—language, pieties, and rituals—and so it still possesses its soul.
In that sense, as a coherent and traditional place that is lovely, without high-rise buildings, Langkawi is a throwback, a rarity in the world of intense tourism—along with its pleasant roads, good schools, friendly people, flourishing agriculture (a much sought-after rice harvest), and great natural beauty. Days here are blissfully low-key and can be whiled away rock climbing, jungle trekking, paddleboarding, windsurfing, or simply cycling down country roads laced with feathery casuarinas.
Langkawi has some of the most delicious food in Southeast Asia—a spicy Straits cui- sine, sometimes called Peranakan (the word means “descendant”), the culinary masterpiece of which is the complex soup known as laksa. It’s worth a trip for the laksa alone, and as the Langkawi International Laksa Carnival demonstrates, variations on the dish might combine rice noodles, chicken or prawns, coconut milk, bean sprouts, lime leaves, chili peppers, pineapple, coriander, and laksa paste and a dollop of a dozen pounded ingredients, including garlic, onion, lemongrass stalks, cashew nuts, cumin, and much else. As I write this, I hear Langkawians whisper, “There are 50 different recipes, Tuan Paul!”
The food of Langkawi is a mélange of the different ethnic groups that have passed through or settled this part of Southeast Asia: the Hakka and Hokkien of the China coast, Burmese, Thai, Tamil, Indonesians, and Malays. The majority of Langkawi’s population of just under 100,000 is ethnic Malay, but the minority groups have been so influential, it is impossible to overestimate the pride of these islanders in their eclectic way of life.
All those years ago, as a teacher on holiday in Penang, I was enchanted by the villages, the fishing and farming economy, the atmosphere of welcome. I stayed in a bungalow on the beach in Batu Ferringhi—my first encounter with the word ferringhi, which means “foreigner.” The shop houses and markets reminded me of the structures being pulled down in Singapore to make way for hotels.
On a recent return to Penang, I saw that the warm welcome I first noticed had been accepted with such energy that the island has been transformed to the Malaysian version of the Costa del Sol—wall-to-wall hotels and restaurants, crowded beaches, heavy traffic, a nightmare of rampant development and disenchantment. On an island that had no high-rise buildings, the pride of Penang is now the 65-story Komtar Tower in its capital, George Town.
Langkawi has been spared this blight of overdevelopment. The main town of Kuah, where the fer ries arrive from the mainland, a little over an hour away, is a rambling place of old shop houses and restaurants: not beautiful but not blighted either, and user-friendly, easily walkable, a place to make connections, the location of markets and meetings as Malaysian towns were long ago. The cities of Southeast Asia have grown to intimidating sizes, with a crush of people in stifling climates without elbow room. Kuah and its nearer villages have a human scale, and Langkawi itself is what all Malaysian communities were in the past—kampongs surrounded by paddy fields or rubber trees and, beyond those tended crops, the dense and overhanging hutan, or “jungle.”
At the Langkawi UNESCO Kilim Karst Geopark, lining the inlets at the north of the island in Tanjung Rhu (the Bay of Casuarinas), past the limestone caves and cliffs, monkeys dive among the spindly roots of mangrove trees—most of them long-tailed macaques. One might get a glimpse of a dusky leaf monkey or a langur and, overhead, the soaring eagles for which Langkawi is known (and possibly named), the white-bellied sea eagle and the Brahminy kite. But that doesn’t mean that all the fauna are friendly—at certain times of the year, box jellyfish are a nuisance but are avoidable if you take precautions.
The presence of indigenous fauna and flora is reassuring and indicates that the pressure of people and development has so far been slight— an island that is without skyscrapers or traffic, still largely supported by fishing and cash crops. One of the tallest buildings is a big, plain cement factory but distant and solitary and could, in the mist, be mistaken for a mausoleum.
At the moment, a great many of the visitors to Langkawi are Malaysians and Singaporeans, whose first outing is usually the cable car up to the top of Langkawi’s second-highest mountain, Gunung Machinchang. It’s not a bad idea. Rising from the bazaar and the souvenir shops at the entrance to the cable car, you are afforded a spectacular view of the island and the reassurance that it is largely jungle and rain forest and rice fields. Some of the nearer islands resemble the cliffy columns of jagged rock rising from the water that are the icons of the Li River in the Chinese city of Guilin.
Such a pretty place of sunny beaches, fundamentally old-fashioned and friendly, must seem to an investor like an opportunity, as Juan-les-Pins, in Antibes, once did, and Waikiki, in Hawaii, and Benidorm, in Spain, and so on. They were just villages once. Perhaps Langkawi is on the cusp of development, but I hope not, because seeing it—and I’ve been there twice recently—I was reminded of a lifetime ago in Malaysia and the way things were: cheerful, local, friendly, quiet, comfy, tasty; the happy highways where I went...the land of lost content...the blue remembered hills.
There are two luxury hotels of note on Pulau Langkawi: the Datai Langkawi (rooms, from $415; Jalan Teluk Datai; 60-4/950-0500; thedatai.com), shaded by the rain forest's canopy, and the Four Seasons Resort Langkawi (rooms, from $508, Jalan Tanjung Rhu; 60-4/950-8888; fourseasons.com). The latter is slightly smaller (91 pavilions and villas) but much newer and along a sweep of Tanjung Rhu.