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Exploring Malaysia's Northwest

Chasing sharks by day and a yacht's wake at dusk. MARCO FERRARESE discovers a few more surprises tucked down the less-visited coast or northwest Malaysia's Kedah state. Photographed by KIT YENG CHAN.

Published on Jan 23, 2017


"Stop being a fool or it will bite you."

My companion and voice of reason is right: trying to grab a baby blacktip shark by the tail is an act of pure madness. But conformity and safety be damned, for I have never swum that close to such a fearsome but elegant creature before, in the emerald green waters of Pulau Payar, midway between the better-known Malaysian islands of Penang and Langkawi.

Pulau Payar
Baby blacktip sharks tempt swimmers in the shallows of Pulau Payar.

I'm not crazy, just overcome by temptation. Wherever I wade in this sea, a missile-shaped baby shark comes wriggling its tail in front of my nose, and the game's on. It zooms forward, circles around the pier's poles, and then loops back, darting all around me. From the water, the shark looks as if it were an unruly remote-controlled toy with no sense of direction, hell-bent on driving me crazy. The chase is unfair: I have no fins nor the buoyancy of a shark, and every time I get anywhere close to gripping its tail between my fingertips, the creature twists away. Luckily for my tired shoulders, I don't have to fire off after that particular rocket, because as soon as it's lost in the deep blue, another mini-shark drifts my way, and I have a new tail to chase.

After a good half hour of serious paddling, I'm the exhausted loser of this man-versus-wild challenge. Letting the snorkel out of my mouth, I emerge to the placid sea surface, floating and soaking in all the sun I can as if I were a spent battery in need of a solar recharge. I close my eyes, feeling giddy on top of gentle waves that rock me up and down like liquid lullabies.

Pulau Payar
The unspoiled horizon.


I am in Pulau Payar, the best-preserved marine park on the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia, the largest in a single file of four protected and uninhabited islands—Payar, Lembu, Kaca and Segantang—30 kilometers southeast of Langkawi. With no hotels, it's a great place to escape the development of other nearby Malaysian beach destinations. Diving and snorkeling here still feel like being lost in a remote paradise. The only way to visit Pulau Payar is as a day trip from either Langkawi or Penang. After a two-hour ferry ride operated by Langkawi Coral from the latter, we are ushered on a floating platform moored off the island, the waiting station for all visitors to the marine park. In a gambit to preserve the reef from global warming, a life-jacket-wearing guide briefs us on the local dos and don'ts.

There are more than a dozen dive sites around Payar and its three smaller sisters, but since we are only here for a day trip, we opt for Coral Garden, the closest to the platform. As I descend toward the bottom of the sea, I'm distracted by a few large rocks that seem to be a bit too alive. I'm surprised when I realize the boulders are actually three grouper fish the size of my body, their scales perfectly camouflaged to look like they're part of the reef. I keep breathing slowly as they separate me from groups of industrious clown fish wriggling among the tips of anemones. Their dance continues until a shadow looms in from one side, scaring them away in a dash of orange and white. I gulp and swim away, too, when the ugly mug of a barracuda emerges from the reef, its sabre-sharp teeth a reminder that life in this marine underworld means survival of the fittest.

clown fish
Making friends.


By midafternoon, we arrive at Kuah's port in Langkawi, and sea salt still stiffens our skin. No point in washing it off, though, because before retiring to our cozy chalet at Panji Panji, a peaceful gem on the northern end of an otherwise bustling Pantai Cenang, we have more water-borne activities to come. Lounge chairs wait for us on the deck of a Tropical Charters' yacht that will take us around Langkawi's southern islets, this time chasing the tail of the sun. Piña coladas in hand, we leave Langkawi's port sailing over peaceful waters and among viridian-covered atolls that emerge from the ocean like the backs of colossal, shy ostriches. We are sharing the boat with a group of Kiwis on a bachelor's party holiday, and things are about to get a little wild.

"Ladies and gentlemen, get into your swimming clothes, for our own marine Jacuzzi is waiting," a thin but muscular Malay in shades and red trunks announces from the upper deck. He's Jay, our chaperone for the night. We all gather at the back of the yacht, where a rope net is slung into the sea.

Charters' yacht
Sunset snapshots on the southern Langkawi waters.

"C'mon, jump in," Jay urges, throwing beer cans to the first few who are already dangling on the net. Soon we are all floating in the ocean, enjoying a natural whirlpool-like massage in the trail of the yacht. Munching on marinated shrimps and barbecued chicken fresh off the grill, we end the day admiring the sun dive into the ocean and leaving a sparkling trail of stars in its wake.

Maybe it was the sunset cruise's free flow that inspired our change of plans. Instead of returning to Penang, we venture into Kedah state proper, a place that rarely makes it on Malaysia's travel routes despite all it has to offer. We rise early the next day to catch a 90-minute ferry ride to Kuala Kedah's jetty, a mere 12 kilometers from Kedah's capital city, Alor Setar. Rising on the flanks of the Kedah River, this sleepy town is dotted with magnificent mosques and is noted for being the home of Malaysia's former prime minister, Mahathir Bin Mohamad.

Our cab passes by his gracious wooden home on our way across the river to find the city's main attraction, the sumptuous Zahir Mosque. With its black onion domes and starkly contrasting white marble pavilions, it's a piece of Islamic architecture right out of an Arabian Night's fairytale. In the vivid light, the mosque looks as if it were breathing peacefully, like a sleeping giant protecting the heart of this slow-paced yet intriguing town.

Zahir Mosque
Zahir Mosque in Alor Setar.

It's time to catch a bus south along the green paddy fields that flank the 65 kilometers to Sungai Petani, Kedah's second most important town, but a hive of activity compared to Alor Setar. We decide to break the journey here at M Season, a centrally located boutique hotel with airy rooms and complimentary massage chairs in the lobby.

An eclectic mix of Malay and Chinese hawkers and patrons eat, cook and chat around the imposing clock tower in Old Town, a relic of the past compared to Sungai Petani's recent development. We slurp the local flavor with cups of ais kacang–shaved ice served with syrup, grass jelly, sweet corn and topped with condensed milk—at riverside coffee shop Ch’ng Chong Kooi.

Next, we're headed for west Malaysia's richest archeological area, a reminder of the Hindu-Buddhist influence that the seafaring Chola kingdom brought from South India to Southeast Asia between the 10th and 13th centuries. Bujang Valley, sandwiched between lush Mount Jerai and the Muda River near the village of Merbok, holds 90 ruins of candi, the ancient brick and stone Hindu and Buddhist terraced sanctuaries. We hire a taxi to take us 15 kilometers to the foot of Batu Pahat hill, the main tourist spot where four of the original candis have been relocated from other excavation sites in the valley. At the top, a swarm of visiting high school students from Tanjung Malim in southern Perak state is trawling on the temple bases, filling a solemn place with their youthful curiosity. When some come forward to interview me, the only foreigner here today, for their research project, I feel awkward drawing attention to myself from this ancient beauty. I also, as a reporter, feel a slightly disconcerting role-reversal.

Bujang Valley
Amid the millennium-old ruins of Chola religious sanctuaries, in Bujang Valley.

After so much beach, the dry shade here makes us heartsick for water, and we make a final pit stop at the Merbok River Jetty Complex. It's too late to catch a cruise upriver, but a perfect time to lounge with a coconut in hand, sipping fresh juice as the sun drips gold into the placid river below. Our taxi revs impatiently in the parking lot, but we have no intention of leaving just yet. Missing the direct boat to Penang was real travel eureka. From chasing sharks in Payar to absorbing ancient history in the Bujang Valley, nearly 100 kilometers of Kedah's coast packs a bounty of underwater and newly unearthed charm.






Pulau Payar is accessed from both Penang and Langkawi. Two daily ferry connections from Penang to Langkawi leave the Sweetenham Pier Cruise Terminal at 8:15 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. (; RM60 one way); the first makes a direct stop at Pulau Payar. From Langkawi, you must book an excursion with one of the snorkel- and dive-tour operators that depart Kuah ferry terminal. If you fly from Kuala Lumpur to Alor Setar via AirAsia, take a taxi to Kuala Kedah and catch one of the 10 daily boats to Langkawi between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. (; RM23 one way).

Panji Panji An intimate cluster of wooden-furnished chalets and a villa set around a secluded pool and in walking distance to a lonesome bend of Pantai Cenang, the mouth of a river, and a romantic fishing pier. 965 Jln. Pantai Cenang, Langkawi; +60 4 952 3319; doubles from RM350.
M Season Hotel Spacious rooms with wooden floors in walking distance to Sungai Petani's Old Town. 119-120 Jln. Masjid, Sungai Petani; +60 4 424 2133; doubles from RM140.

La Sal at Casa del Mar Haute cuisine in a romantic setting right on the beachfront. Jalan Pantai Cenang, Mukim Kedawang, Langkawi; +60 4 955 2388;; meal for two from RM100.
Restoran RT The Malay-Chinese fusion restaurant in Kedah's capital, Alor Setar. Jalan Tunku Abdul Hakim, Teluk Wanjah, Alor Setar; +60 16 418 8575; 11 a.m to 2:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.; meal for two from RM30.
Ch'ng Chong Kooi Coffee Shop Sungai Petani bus station's hawker center off Jalan Petri; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.(closed on Wednesdays); meal for two from RM20.

Langkawi Coral diving and snorkeling trips from RM295 per person, daily trips from Langkawi to Pulau Payar leave 9:30 a.m., return 3 p.m.
East Marine Diving Pulau Payar Experience Scuba Introductory Diver package RM350 per person.
Langkawi Sunset Cruise by Tropical Charters cruises from RM260 per person.
Lembah Bujang Archaeological Museum free admission.

clown fish
Clown fish hide-and-seek in Pulau Payar.



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A Tropical Charters cruise around Langkawi.
  • Clown fish hide-and-seek in Pulau Payar.
  • The unspoiled horizon.
  • Zahir Mosque in Alor Setar.
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