PUBLISHED IN THE NZ HERALD, May 2004
The prospect of lowering your feet into a lake boiling with catfish is only slightly more appealing than bathing in raw tripe, but the reality is deliciously sensual. Soft, slippery and wonderfully tickly, catfish massage could become addictive.
At the interestingly named “Lake of the Pregnant Maiden” (according to local legend, bathing in the lake was once equivalent to IVF therapy for childless couples) on the island of Pulau Dayang Bunting, a refreshing fresh water swim can be followed by a catfish massage chaser. Armed with a sachet of fish food, you sit on the edge of a floating pontoon with your feet dangling in the water. A light sprinkle of fish food brings the catfish calling. They’re about 20cm long and magnificently whiskery. While they swoosh about your toesies eating fish food, you enjoy a massage that will have you squirming with delight. Four of our party (all under twelve) were gently lowered into the wriggling water for the full body catfish massage – an experience that will probably give them a bunch of interesting fetishes as adults.
Langkawi’s slippery eco-experiences don’t stop with the whiskery inhabitants of Pulau Dayang Bunting. At the Hole in the Wall (an ancient geological feature with no resemblance to an ATM), the local fish farm provides an opportunity to stroke the deliciously soft, slippery wings of a full size stingray. Thankfully not included on the fish farm’s restaurant menu, the stingray loves attention and can be summoned with a light frisking of the water. The other fish farm residents are also worth a look, and most of them are on the menu.
A slippery sensation of another kind can be found at Telaga Tujuh, a highly scenic tumble of seven waterfalls. Instead of walking to the top of the falls, local knowledge prompted us to walk down to the final fall, where a natural water slide over algae covered rocks promises a good time for all. Like Waiwera without the plastic, the slide has the ability to transform politically correct parents into naughty school kids. After the first few tenuous slides, we were forming seated conga-lines for faster, terminal-velocity slides into the deep river pool at the base of the falls. The only pause was to photograph some of the wildly coloured butterflies that were flitting through the gorge. Not to be outdone by noisy visitors from New Zealand, a pair of local lads displayed years of misspent youth by siding down the rocks on the soles of their feet, culminating with a perfect spring dive into the pool.
Described by some as ‘Bali thirty years ago’, Langkawi leans towards eco-tourism experiences that are highly original. The island is the size of Singapore, but has only 50,000 residents – a convivial mixture of Muslims, Hindus and Christians. Habitation is mostly around the edges and the mountainous interior is clothed with rubber trees and tropical jungle. Even the most popular hotel/beach area, Pantai Cenang, is pleasingly uncrowded. The long sweep of white sand beach provides a comfortable footpath for travellers browsing the water’s edge restaurants. The cheap and cheerful accommodation villages blend into each other, with no building exceeding the height of a coconut palm. Airfare aside, you could stay a couple of weeks here and it would probably cost less than a cabin in Orewa. If you run out of things to do, the hermit crabs at Pantai Cenang are an easy source of fun. We staged races – our biggest contender could have auditioned for a part in Alien.
When you consider Langkawi’s natural assets – equatorial climate, bath temperature water, white sand beaches, an immense culinary culture and charming residents – you can’t help but wonder why there aren’t more hotels, resorts and such. The answer to this riddle lies with Malay legend.
In the fourteenth century, Princess Mahsuri of Langkawi was falsely accused of adultery and put to death. Before dying, she cursed the island for seven generations. The island was pestered by floods, famine, invasions and other unspeakable evils before the curse wore off in the mid 1980s, and then the development began.
Over the Christmas holidays, when the temperatures regularly peaked at 36°C, my family and I experienced Langkawi from two points of view. Firstly as guests on an ocean-going catamaran, then as Sheraton-ensconced sun loungers.
While based on the boat we explored mangrove mazes in the Zodiac, spotted sea eagles and monitor lizards, watched monkeys eating crabs on the beach and ventured into limestone caves adorned with bats and stalactites. The majority of our evening meals were sourced by rowing ashore to a beachside restaurant, where the average meal cost for a family of four was around NZ$20.
The yacht provided access to places that would be hard to reach any other way. One beach, nicknamed ‘Sandal Bay’ for the amazing array of flotsam footwear in the sand, was strewn with the beautifully translucent oyster shells that are usually only seen on cheap light fittings imported from the Philippines. And we had the daily joy of watching silver flying fish skip across the water like frightened…err….flying fish. For those, who fancy an Asian-style sailing holiday, which could include a dip into Thai waters, Sunsail have a charter base in Langkawi.
During eight nights at the Sheraton Perdana, which was hard to fault, we discovered the delights of Langkawi’s duty free shopping at the town of Kuah (pronounced ‘Kwah’). Cigars, clothes, electronic equipment, luggage and French champagne were among the best buys. Rip off European designer handbags were another addictive form of retail therapy – just check that the monograms read LV not LW (nobody can skite about owning a Louis Wooton!). We also hired a tiny car (a Kancil, named after the equally compact native mouse deer) and explored the land-based attractions. These included the Barn Thai – an excellent Thai restaurant in the middle of an ancient mangrove forest, an Austrian-built gondola for a knee-trembling ride to the summit of Machinchang Mountain and a tropical bird park that’s better than any I’ve ever seen. It’s even interesting to visit the crocodile farm, where the snappy residents are destined to become snappy shoes and handbags.
Monkey business is an inescapable entertainment on Langkawi. Large, spectacled black langurs can sometimes be seen crashing through the highest branches of the forest and long-tailed macaques live in communal groups all over the island. Like hitchhikers, they prefer to hang out at intersections and roadside rest stops. It doesn’t take long to discern the social structure of a macaque troop – the biggest, strongest, best-looking bloke monkey decides who can collect bananas from the tourists, and who’s going to have the next batch of little monkeys (our children were exposed to frequent outbreaks of monkey sex – the Discovery Channel comes to life!). And although they’re very appealing, the macaques are also very bold. While we were at dinner one evening, we lost our entire supply of mini-bar snacks to the leader of the Sheraton pack, who was more than able to climb the four storeys between the lawn and the hotel room balcony (our fault for not shutting the French doors). That’s one mini bar tab we’ll be owed forever.