February 9, 2015
Enchanting Langkawi, land of flying and mischievous monkeys, and million-year-old mountains, pulls Merritt Gurley in and sends her skipping down the evolutionary brick road. Photographed by Tharathorn Sitthitham.
Published on Feb 9, 2015
That's how naturalist Nurhidayah Hussein describes the spectacled langurs and macaques that, though indigenous to Langkawi, have adapted perhaps too well to a certain invasive species: tourists. "These are five-star monkeys living in a five-star hotel"—namely, the Andaman Langkawi, where the little devils have conjured every trick in the book to break into guest suites and raid mini bars. "You hear a knock on the door. Room service? No! Monkey service!" Hussein warns. "They will send their cutest baby to knock at your balcony, asking for food. When you open the door to feed it, the whole family will sneak in behind you." Why? "They will have a monkey party. Open your beers, drink your champagne, eat your chips, sit on the couch and watch your TV."
Mischievious macaques plot their next move.
I SHOULD BE CONCERNED, but a monkey party sounds fun. Besides, macaques learning to pop champagne corks is just the tip of the evolutionary-oddity-iceberg in this collection of 99 tropical islands off the northwestern coast of peninsular Malaysia that includes some of the weirdest animals, from flying lemurs to walking fish, and oldest landforms known to man. "Ninety-nine magical islands? You've heard this slogan?" ecologist Farouk Omar asks me as we motor through the mangroves. I nod, ready to gush, but he goes on: "They aren't islands; they're sea stacks. Just rocks really, but I guess 'ninetynine magical rocks' doesn't sound as good."
No, Farouk, it doesn't. But if he's trying to keep me grounded, he's failing. The boat tour he's leading is only gelling my impression that Langkawi is thoroughly enchanting. As we get further into the wetlands, the vines weave into an arch overhead and I can sense the age of the land. It even smells old; millions of years of life and death, flood and drought, growth and rot, have given the earth a rich zoetic cologne. In 2007, Langkawi was awarded World Geopark status by UNESCO and, according to their research, most of this archipelago rose to the surface 220 million years ago—though the island's oldest geological formation, Mat Cincang Mountain, may have risen from the seabed twice as long ago, following the breakup of the supercontinent Pangea. This would have been during Cambrian era, a period of great proliferation of life on Earth, and modern-day Langkawi still reflects that biodiversity, both in its wide range of topography and its miscellany of animals (there are 503 different species of butterflies alone). Naturally, there's been an upsurge of luxury resorts that are designed, from architecture to operations, to dazzle visitors with this veritable petri-dish of earthly wonders. It was the mid 1800's when evolutionary biologist Alfred Russel Wallace reflected, "The very finest field for an exploring and collecting naturalist was to be found in the great Malayan Archipelago." I'm 150 years behind him, but I intend to bask in those same peculiarities of olden extant species.
A prehistoric rock formation pops out of the jungle.
"IT IS SLEEPING WITH ITS EYES OPEN like a reptile," Hussein tells me pointing to the bark of a tree. Every rustle in the kelly tangle hides some furtive animal action. I squint in the direction she is indicating but, though I've spotted kingfishers, hornbills, otters and squirrels already in the past hour, now I can't see a thing. In this dipterocarp jungle the trees fruit and flower at such towering heights that the forest floor is left dimly lit and sparsely populated. Every felled tree spawns a flurry of growth as saplings compete for the prized patch of light and climb eagerly towards the vacant spot in the vertiginous canopy. The whole ecosystem revolves around height, with animals forced to find their way into the treetops in search of food—one result of which is the abundance of more than 230 species of birds. Local folklore has it that the name Langkawi comes from a shortened version of the Malay word for eagle, helang, and kawi, which means reddish brown: Red Eagle Island.
There are a few unexpected additions to the airborne family, as well—creatures that evolved the gift of glide. There's the flying frog, whose wide webbed feet allow it to drift through the air. The flying lizard relies on an extra membrane around its throat, like a bullfrog, to launch from tree to tree. The flying snake winds up tree trunks, then hurls itself from high branches and flattens its body to catch the draft as it cruises towards its unsuspecting victims below.
And what I'm blinking at? The enigmatic colugo, or flying lemur. For years nobody was able to classify this animal. It looks like a big squirrel, its long nails allow it to hang upside down like a bat, and it uses the extra flaps of skin between its legs to sail through the heights. In 2002, DNA testing shed some light on the mysterious mammal, revealing that it is, in fact, a primate. But that simple answer doesn't satisfy everyone. "The DNA does not suit the behavior," Hussein says. "A monkey does not look like this. A monkey does not fly."
An enigmatic flying lemur.
Monkeys also don’t booze it up, but Hussein says, "I have seen them do it." And, although snakes are not known to amuse themselves with playground equipment, there, back at the resort, is a giant king cobra slithering from a low-hanging tree down onto the kids' waterslide. "I have chills," a young American woman tells me as, in the relentless tropical heat, she tugs up her sleeve and wags her goose-pimply arm at me as proof. I give her a courtesy nod but, like everybody else in the thickening throng, my eyes are glued to the largest venomous snake in the world. Though it's just a pipsqueak in king cobra terms, it is still thicker than my calf and at least 3 meters long. "Can you imagine being in the pool and having that thing come sliding right at you?" the woman asks me. "Surprise! It's the Jungle Book, but for real and we're all going to die."
Thanks, lady—now I have chills. I look to Hussein for reassurance. I know that she can't offer much in the way of physical protection, but surely there's some soothing factoid about the harmlessness of giant poisonous snakes that she can offer. "This is their house," she shrugs. "We just rent the space from them." While that's one landlord I'd hate to tick off, there's something life affirming and profound about an island where the divides between man and nature are still blurred, where the wilderness still reigns.
Handling a slithering local.
"WE ARE BLESSED TO BE IN THE MIDST OF one of the world's most incredible geological and ecological environments, yet so few tourists realize the extent of the nature that lies beyond Langkawi's beaches," says the Four Seasons' senior naturalist, Aidi Abdullah. "There's a lot of mind-blowing nature out there and we just want people to know about it." To that end, the resort opened Geopark Discovery Centre that features exhibition boards, interactive presentations and displays, which showcase Langkawi's incredible environment.
It's a perfect setting for responsible adventure tourism—the Kilim Karst Geoforest Park, for example, is ideal for sailing. Rife with secret restaurants tucked in quiet corners of karst-sheltered sea, this limestone labyrinth is a playground for sea dogs. The more aerially enamored can board the cable car that summits Mat Cincang mountain for a visual tease of all the captivating jungle below. No wonder backpackers have been wise to the many attractions of the "Jewel of Kedah" for ages. Now the whole vibe is flush with upscale options. Meanwhile stalwarts like the Andaman and the Four Seasons are tweaking their offerings to better highlight the natural surroundings, with scientists and preservationists on call to educate guests on the island's ecology.
An oxbow cuts through the verdant mangrove forest.
Malaysia has lost 90 percent of its natural fishing resources since the 1980's, according to marine biologist Dr. Gerry Goeden, but new coral colonies could generate fresh life. The Andaman has launched a protection program to help rebuild the thousands of years of growth that was cleared in the 2004 tsunami and to offset the impacts of commercial fishing. Working with the National University of Malaysia, the resort is creating artificial reef modules designed to provide the right environment to protect fish eggs and small fish, a system that could lead to an extra 10,000 kilos of fish a year. Currently the Andaman has four modules anchored off its shore, and Goeden has an ambitious end goal of bumping it up to 5,000 by 2020. This would reinvigorate the aquatic ecosystem, as well as bolster the local fishing industry to help meet the increasing demand for seafood that comes with the influx of new resorts and hungry tourists.
No island vacation is complete without at least one seafood feast, but responsible restaurants ban the purchase of adolescent fish, so they can grow to reproductive maturity and propagate before they are pulled from the sea. After the lesson on marine conservation, a short one-at-a-time snorkeling tour of the 10-by-20-meter saltwater coral nursery enclosure is offered, for an up-close look at the colorful sea life. "One thousand kids a year visit and come away with a more sustainable life view," Goeden says. "These are children who come from a privileged background. In 15 years they will be in the position to make a difference."
Fishing buoys the island economy.
THE CORAL CONFAB HAS ME LONGING for a sojourn at sea. I board Captain Todd Fisher's 14-meter luxury catamaran, the Gone Surfin', for a sunset cruise. I listen to the wind cracking the sails taut as we breeze through shallow waves, and from my spot on the bow of the boat I have a front row view of Thailand edging nearer in the distance.
"You need to bring your passport if you go swimming—you just may cross the international border," Fisher tells me.
I ask him how he ended up in Langkawi.
"Sometimes lightning strikes," he says.
"No, literally: lightning struck my boat and it jammed all my equipment. I had to sail to the closest shore and that was that beach right there," he points to Datai Bay. "That was several years ago and I keep coming back." He's not the first to get marooned in these waters. Fisher nods to Koh Tarutao: "That used to be an island of political prisoners." There were more than 3,000 Thai convicts held captive there and, during World War II, the country ran out of supplies to feed them. "They all turned to piracy," he says grimly. "Even the guards."
I ask if there are still pirates sailing the Malacca Straits.
"Just one," says Fisher, "and you're with him."
There are more than a few medicine men in this region, however, and Shaaban Arshad is the resident healer at Kubang Badak, "buffalo wallow", village. Arshad concocts tropical elixirs that he prescribes for everything from breast lumps to psoriasis. "He goes into the jungle behind his house," local preservationist Irshad Mobarak tells me, pointing behind the lovely home where we are having lunch, "and that's where he gathers the plants and spices that cure lung cancer." Cure? "His father was a medicine man. His grandfather was a medicine man," Mobarak explains. "This knowledge is passed down."
Arshad breaks into a long rant in Malay and Mobarak translates: "Medicine men act from the heart. Very passionate. His grandfather would paddle in a wooden boat across 30 kilometers of ocean every weekend just to see his girlfriend in Thailand." "Why didn't he just move to Thailand?" I ask. "Malaysia is between India and China and the herbs are among the oldest in the world," Irshad says. "There are plants and animals here on Langkawi that you can't find anywhere else on earth."
A clown fish in the sea anemone.
I FOCUS ON THE BULLS-EYE and breathe in. As I exhale, I let my arrow fly. It breezes through the jungle and lands with a thump in the outermost ring of the target. I let out a triumphant whoop, though I can guess from my instructor's expression that this is not an impressive achievement. Still, I stand proud, bow in hand. It is 2 p.m. and I've already swum in the hidden Lengarra Creek; biked through rice paddies and a fishing village; trekked through boscage; climbed a limestone cliff and abseiled down; and now become a master archer. I'm breathing thick jungle air, sweating out city life and feeling right at home as I tumble backwards into a prehistoric age.
I'm caught in a paradox: the older my surroundings, the younger I feel. Maybe it's that on an island where fish walk, snakes fly, and one bolt of lightening can change the course of a man's life, anything seems possible. "In all works on natural history," Wallace wrote, "we constantly find details of the marvelous adaptation of animals to their food, their habits, and the localities in which they are found." Maybe I'm just evolving.
Four Seasons Langkawi This sprawling seafront estate has an adults-only swimming pool and a thick 1.6-kilometer-long private beach for multiple lounge options. The concierge can arrange rock climbing and archery in the jungle playground behind their property. Jln. Tanjung Rhu, Mukim Ayer Hangat; +60 4 950 8888; fourseasons.com/langkawi.
Meritus Pelangi Resort & Spa Designed in the style of a Malay village, this tropical resort has 352 guestrooms and suites peppered across 14 well-manicured hectares of beachfront. Pantai Cenang; +60 4 952 8888; meritushotels.com.
The Andaman, Langkawi Tucked between the jungle and Datai Bay, the rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows offering exceptional views. Jln. Teluk Datai; +60 4 959 1088; theandaman.com.
Strolling poolside at The Andaman; one of Langkawi's many small wonders.
Privilege Restaurant and Bar A mix of modern and classic Malaysian gastronomy, located right on Telaga Harbour. B8, 1F Perdana Quay, Telaga Harbour Park, Pantai Kok; +60 4 956 1188; privilegerestaurant.com.
Kuah Town Seafood Far from fancy but brimming with local flavor, this restaurant is a sister enterprise of the community favorite Wonderland Food Store and serves up the same high caliber of delicious and fresh dishes in a slightly more upscale setting. Bandar Baru Baron 33, Kuah; +60 12 470 7687.
Ikan-Ikan Restaurant Head to this charming beachfront eatery for the Monday Fisherman's & Farmer's Night, featuring delectable choose-yourown- ingredients noodle stations and a lively traditional dance show. Jln. Tanjung Rhu, Mukim Ayer Hangat; +60 4 950 8888; fourseasons.com/langkawi.
Eagle Rock Wash down pub food like nachos and wings with a cold beer or killer kamikaze, while you rock out to live music. Block 5, GF, Awana Porto Malai Resort, Tanjung Malai; eaglerockcafe.com.my.
Jungle Walla Explore the secrets of the mangrove forest with naturalist Irshad Mobarak. junglewalla.com.
Cable Car Board Langkawi's famous cable car for a breathtaking 1,700-meter ride to the Top Station of ancient Mat Cincang Mountain. panoramalangkawi.com.
Coral Nursery Learn about marine conservation and coral preservation under the guidance of marine biologist Dr. Gerry Goeden.
One-at-atime snorkeling tours of The Andaman's coral nursery.