This past February, life here on Areca Island* was an exceptionally hot, sunny, and dry affair, featuring a ceaseless schedule of feasts, festivals, and fireworks. While celebration is the norm in Penang during Lunar New Year, the weather felt like somebody had already cranked the thermostat up to pre-monsoonal scorch . Some are blaming that impetuous weather baby from the Pacific, El Niño, while other armchair meteorologists are certain this is the latest symptom of climate change--can’t it be both? Meanwhile, my middle-aged friends at the local nasi kandar spot would answer my heat-related griping with pained grimaces, declaring that it’s always this hot, why didn’t you know this? You’ve been here how long already? Either way, it was time to take a break from hiding from the sun in Kimberley Street’s cluttered “5 foot ways”, and being seared in the shadeless stretches of Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling. I did what any rational person with some spare time and pocket money would do--I hopped on a boat to Langkawi.
*Areca Island = Pulau Pinang!
After last year’s little misadventure of getting lost on an abandoned jungle trail in Langkawi, my goals for this trip were simpler: first, to find a clean and quiet beach, and second, to enjoy some downtime in a breezy seaside kampung--this time, away from the touristy/backpacker haunts and Reggae Bar/faux-moon-party atmosphere you might find at Pantai Cenang. The kampung may not be where the party’s at, but it is where you’ll find the best food and some peace of mind.
The trip lasted three longer-than-usual hours, when a few nauseated passengers turned out not to be so seaworthy--but eventually we arrived, and I made haste via Grab, to my first destination, Restoran Kak Yan. Yeah, despite watching those poor fellas next to me on the boat, trying to get their sea legs and keep their breakfasts--I was personally ready to makan. It’s always kind of baffled me, that people can come to Langkawi and not explore the food. Sure there are plenty of places near the back packer slab, or in your luxury resort, to grab a roti or some Chinese seafood, but I’m a firm believer in getting to know a place and the people you’ll meet, by immersing yourself in the food—and Langkawi’s kampungs are chock full of Malay delicacies. Having made a few pilgrimages to Restoran Siti Fatimah in years past, I wanted to try some more of the island’s Kedahan cuisine, and Restoran Kak Yan didn’t disappoint. Watching the grill-cook in action, as he basted several varieties of fish in a tangy chili and lemongrass sauce, I knew this was going to be my new favorite spot. I splurged, trying the delicious jenahak bakar (grilled red snapper), the toasted coconut-thickened sea cucumber kerabu--essentially, a punchy seafood salad--the fiery mango kerabu, the ayam masak merah (red-cooked chicken), and a few other lauk (dishes). Langkawi’s unique confluence of flavors reflecting its Kedahan & Thai history was on full display here: sweet, sour, tangy, a slight pungency--but not overly rich, with a nice bit of heat, complemented by the ulam (fresh local herbs like Thai basil and sour, spice-tempering pegaga, a local pennywort, as well as blanched local vegetables), and a salted duck egg. I ate a lot, and was ready for a blissful nap.
After checking in and napping at my quiet B&B near some dusty mudflats and a dried up riverbed--signs of a two-month drought, I’d eventually find out--I decided to hit the beach. More accurately, I got lost trying to access a path to Pantai Kok, a beautiful beach that now seems to have been absorbed into the domain of the Berjaya Resort. Not one to be deterred, I waded from the harbor, through the high tide around a rocky head, until I came to the idyllic bit of shoreline, as well as the resort’s luxurious grounds and pool with a sunken bar, perched against the limestone hills. Clearly in over my head and out of my budget, I stayed just long enough to gawk at a band of dusky leaf monkeys and their absurdly cute orange babies, doing a bit of landscaping on the property. The beach-hunt would have to wait.
Next morning, it was time for some Langkawi-style nasi lemak. The Nasi Lemak Simpang Tiga that locals raved about was closed, so I settled for this spot across the street—not an earth shattering revelation but the delicious sambal and some of the freshest, crispiest ikan bilis goreng (small fried anchovy fillets), gave this fragrant coconut-pandan rice a luxuriant texture, and provided me with the needed carbohydrates to face the grueling trek to the day’s destination--gasp--Skull Beach .
Okay, it’s hardly a grueling trek; in fact, the “smart people” accessed the remote beach by--get this--walking through the adjacent parking lot! Boring, people, what happened to our sense of adventure? I personally needed a calorie burning challenge somewhere in my day, so I sought out a trail down the road—partially buried in rubble, leading through the dense forest along the mangroves. These paths were, at best, overgrown, and at worst, actively crumbling or completely washed away, requiring me to jump, climb, and swing from ropes. Despite almost rolling down a few cliffs into the sea a couple of times, these dark corners of the park were some of the most peaceful spots I’ve visited in Langkawi, and lead to some fascinating half a billion year old geological formations from the Cambrian Period, out onto a rocky promontory, and...not much else, as the path and the explanatory signs after this stretch had completely disappeared, reclaimed by vines and landslides. My senses and dehydration finally got the better of me, so I quickly abandoned my fantasy of trekking to Skull Beach through the wild, and I used the parking lot like everyone else.
By the way, not-scary-at-all Skull Beach is beautiful--perhaps what the rest of the island's beaches once looked like--but I’m afraid its days of pristine-ness are numbered, as I’d already seen large water bottles and soda cans dancing through the clear blue surf and washing up onto its white sandy shores. Why can’t we have nice things, again?
My final night was time for an obligatory stop at a pasar malam (night market)*, to try some more local specialties. Langkawi’s usual line up of mango sticky rice, delicious Kedah-style ayam percik (grilled chicken), and--what’s this long line? All of the locals are here, and nowhere else? This must be the place--so I grabbed my appetite and joined the growing mystery queue. The guy in front of me turns around and proudly announces, “nasi kandar! This one is very famous in Langkawi!”…I didn’t want to be that irritating snob guy for a change, the one that says “well, actuallyyyyy, I just got off the boat from Penang, you know, the birthplace of nasi kandar, so...”. I’m practicing being less insufferable these days (how’m I doing?), so I smiled excitedly. It was far from bad--the boss had the showmanship down pat: hacking chicken legs with speedy precision, mixing sauces like a mad scientist, packing and wrapping the take away bundles with frantic efficiency--but it didn’t quite have those flavors that come together like a symphony, when they flood a steaming plate of rice. Well, as I always say (to nobody in particular), Penang water must have something special in it, and I was happy to be heading back. The next morning, as I returned, I was greeted by a friendly “still damn hot lah!” which could overtake “sudah makan (have you eaten)?” as the colloquial greeting--but you know, this is Penang, where food is second to none.
Sometimes, life is about getting lost in an amazing place. Read our story on Getting Lost in Lanka here.