Malaysia’s Langkawi – more than a tropical island beach paradise

Dusky monkey in the trees above a rainforest cabin at Berjaya Langkawi

“Gilligan’s Island” was a great TV program but it put me off tropical paradise – who wants to be stuck on a really small island, even if it is pretty. My general view of tropical islands is that they are isolated and uncomfortable if you don’t like sand in your clothes and crevices. Langkawi does fit this image, but it also has a World Heritage site. It’s a tropical island 30 kilometres off the coast of Malaysia – about the same size as Singapore, but far less crowded. It is still big enough the sustain some amazingly diverse environments and ecosystems.

World Heritage Geopark in the Tropics

Langkawi’s tropical climate and rugged geography supports amazing rainforests that extended from high hills down to the shores of the calm Andaman Sea. During a recent side trip from Singapore, we had a wonderfully relaxed weekend on this island, which included exploration of World Heritage Listed ecosystems.

Rugged cliffs along the coast of Langkawi

We had limited time on the island so we combined a couple of half day tours to explore the key highlights on the island. In addition to some R&R, my main mission was to see hornbill birds. Our weekend trip included one busy day where we went for a morning boat trip through the mangroves, followed by a drive through the rainforests and mountains in the afternoon.

Launching place for boat tours of the mangroves.

We were collected from our hotel by Jungle Walla Tours for a 45 minute drive to the mangroves at Kilim geological park which is a World Heritage area on the northern coast of Langkawi. We boarded a very safe boat (with adequate lifevests) to explore the weird geological formations that rise from the estuaries, in addition to the endless steamy mangroves.

Vast protective mangrove forests on the coast of Langkawi

So why is this a UNESCO World Heritage Geopark Site?

Langkawi’s terrain is a dramatic mix of barren rocks that rise from the sea, set against lush mangrove forests at sea level and rainforests elsewhere. These barren rocks were once part of the ancient southern continent of Gondwanaland, which has gradually moved north towards the Asian mainland. This slow geologicial process has produced a dramatic landscape of ancient rocks that have many similarities to places like Australia, which were also part of the megacontinent of Gondwanaland.

Ancient cliffs that originated from the Gondwanaland super-continent make up a large proportion of Langkawi’s dramatic seaside landscape.

Upon commencing our boat trip, it was apparent that our fearless leader was enthusiatic and knowledgable about the trees, birds, fish and crabs that live in this harsh, exposed, humid environment. There were regular stops to get a detailed view of these remarkable mudflats that are full of life. As the boat stopped against the tidal mudflats, we had time to stop and reflect on the details of this amazing little world. Hundreds of small mudcrabs were scrambling around on the warm sun drenched mud, looking for food and love. The male crabs had huge orange claws on one side of their body, which they used to impress their mates. Although it was a brief stop, it is great to reflect on the reality of life for these creatures, even if it is just for a moment – the world is so amazing.

The male fiddler crab has one big colourful arm – quite a turn on for its dull looking girlfriend!

Most mangrove ecosystems in other South East Asian countries have been destroyed through rampant overdevelopment. Fortunately, this ecosystem has been preserved in Langkawi across a vast area, probably due to its isolation as an offshore island. When the big tsunami hit the region in 2004, no one died in Langkawi, but the death toll in other parts of Thailand and Indonesia was over 200,000 people. Links have now been established to support the need for mangrove ecosystems that protect seaside communities from these disasters.

Fish can walk on land. A mudskipper (Oxudercinae sp.) crawls acroos the mudflats in the warm morning sunshine in Langkaki’s World eritage GeoPark – evolution in action

Birds and animals were abundant in the mangrove ecosystem, which we passed through at a leisurely pace. Brahminy Kites and White Bellied Sea Eagles feed on the fish that jump out of the water in front of your eyes. It was great to see so much life, although the heat and humidity were challenging.

White bellied sea eagles survey the food opportunities in the mangrove forests.

The flat mangrove forest dramatically contrasts against the rocky outcrops that once formed the ancient super-continent of Gondwanaland. Dense forests cover this landscape providing shelter to birds and monkeys. It’s a truly remarkable place to explore – our boat passed through a cave that was covered by a mountain – it had a unique colony of bats.

Caves under the karst mountains in the World Heritage listed mangroves of Langkawi

Lunchtime Fish and Chips

After returning to the wharf at Tanjong Rhu, lunch was a little bizarre but very good. Malaysia was in the middle of Muslim Ramadan, so the Scarborough fish and chip shop on the beach was a real gem discovery for lunch. Fish and chips and beer in the shade of the palm trees. Just like England, except the sky was blue and we were working up a major sweat in the midday heat and humidity.

View from the Scarborough Fish & Chip Shop in Tanjong Rhu, Langkawi

Some serious birdwatching

After lunch, we joined a specialised birdwatching trip that was also organised by Jungle Walla. Our new guide (Ikram) was an engaging biology student who had awesome local knowledge, while our driver was patient and skilled at doing U-turns on mountain roads. Our mission was to follow the amazing birds of Langkawi all afternoon.

Firstly, we explored the river flats with sightings of many local endemic birds, including White Bellied Kingfishers, Dollar Birds, Laced Woodpeckers and Red-wattled Lapwings. My general impression of lowland areas of Langkawi were that they were very diverse in terms of vegetation and ecosystems with a reasonable amount of low intensity rural devleopment. It is a precious and enjoyable part of the world. This is a far cry from the horrendous palm oil plantations that have destroyed the rainforest environments in Peninsula Malaysia.

Onto the main birdwatching objective – Hornbills!

After hanging out along the riverside flats, we hopped back into our air conditioned minibus along the road to the highest point in Langkawi – Gunung Raya. This mountain was covered in dense rainforests with the deafening sound of tropical insects – very atmospheric, but no major bird sightings, despite our enhusiasm. Our guide and driver took us on a very slow trip, stopping frequently to survey the landscape and see whether we could spot the longbill birds which are famed in this part of the world – however they were elusive despite the dramatic climb up the scenic mountain road to Langkawi’s highest peak – Gunung Raya.

Towards the top of the mountain, our fearless leader spotted a number of wreathed hornbills that were flying high above the rainforests on their long journey from Thailand, but they were not stopping for a break in Langkawi. As a storm began to brew, we turned back down Gunung Raya, stopping every five minutes to survey the dense rainforest by the roadside. Towards the bottom of the mountain I spotted a lone bird flying low across the horizon, before it settled on a huge tree that overlooked the valley above the road we were travelling along. It was a Wreathed Hornbill that was making its way south from Thailand. (Our fearless leader was impressed by my attention to detail.)

Wreathed Hornbill – Resting in the tropical rainforests of Langkawi

This happened just before a large rainstorm unleashed its fury on us. It was time to scramble back into the minibus, and we were on our way back to the hotel. Mission accomplished.

One full day of exploration is insufficient to explore Langkawi, as the island has a slow pace and an amazing variety of landscapes and ecosystems to explore. But this is the reality of having to get back to work on a Monday morning!

Tips and practicalities

Langkawi’s international airport has good cheap links with many regional airlines to places like Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. Although the airport is small, is it very well appointed with regulated taxi cab services that will take you to any part of the island.

Accommodation: We stayed at Berjaya Langkawi Resort, and I would stay here again. It’s a vast, laid back property with well appointed chalets that are scattered in a dense rainforest along the shores of the Andaman Sea – about 30 minutes by taxi from the airport. I’d guess that the property is about 30 years old, with a good choice of restaurants, a good beach and lovely swimming pool with a bar.

Berjaya Langkawi Resort is a realxed, sprawling property with dense rainforests, good facilities and a wide range of places to eat and relax if you don’t feel like exploring the rest of Langkawi Island.

Further travel resources:

Birdwatching statistics at Gunung Raya – this is the mountain road where we spotted the hornbills.

Jungle Walla Tours – highly recommended, as the service was reliable, guides were enthusiatic, flexible and friendly and the vehicles were comfortable.

UNESCO Geopark Website for Langkawi

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