01 July 2007
Travel: Langkawi, Part 1
For my first planned trip (Bangkok was a last-minute decision), I wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city and chose Langkawi, an island off the northwest coast of Malaysia, just next to Thailand. Actually a collection of 99 islands, Langkawi is part of Malaysia and a popular destination with Europeans and Australians. So, I prepared for three days of sitting and looking at the sea, just relaxing. I didn't really do much of that, but the island was a perfect get-away. I arrived on a Thursday night, a couple hours later than planned after my flight was canceled (mechanical problems). My hotel was on the southwest part of the island, on the beach. I had a little villa to myself, and I could hear the waves hitting the sand, since the beach was about 50 yards from my front door. The villa even featured an outdoor shower (totally private), a nice touch that emphasized my temporary escape from an urban environment.
I decided to spend my first day on a mangrove tour, a guided boat ride through the natural environs of the island. The tour left from the northeast corner of Langkawi, and they arrange transportation. I was expecting a bus or van but instead got a ride from an employee of the tour company in a beat up car, with a fellow tour passenger up from Australia. The driver apparently has never met a vehicle he couldn't tailgate, whether it be car, van, or scooter. But, the 40 minute drive allowed me to see much of the island, which was beautiful. Flat pastures divided lush green mountains that would disappear into low-hanging clouds of mist, reminiscent of something out of King Kong. I suspect Hawaii looks much like this. We passed ramshackle houses and shacks, and then we would drive by new homes that looked like they were out of any subdivision in America. All in a very tropical setting. The locals were out and about, the majority riding on motor scooters, which is a popular way to get around the island. This is a very laid back environment - often, you would see young women driving a scooter with a toddler just propped up on the handlebars, having the ride of its life. It was crazy! But, despite the tailgating of my driver (and the presence of cows in and alongside the road), it seemed like everyone got around safely.
My co-passenger and I met up with the rest of our group at the dock and boarded the boat, just as it started to drizzle. Our first stop was a fish farm. Here we fed stingrays and saw all kinds of marine life, from eels to horseshoe crabs to oysters to archer fish, which spit precise streams of water to knock insects out of the air. Our guide rolled a napkin into a point and held it between the planks of the deck, and the fish would hit it like a bulls eye. We did miss the barracuda, who would not come to the surface due to the rain. We then headed out to open sea, just as the rain stopped and the sun came out. It was amazingly calm, almost like glass. I’m talking waterskiing calm. We circled a couple of rocky islands and then experienced two really cool things - we fed coral fish and observed thousands of fruit bats. The coral fish is colored brilliant shades of yellow, blue, and green. We would throw crackers in the water, and they would swarm like piranhas. They really were beautiful, even in their frenzy. After we finished feeding them, we trolled a little further to the fruit bat habitat. These are very large bats, known as flying foxes because of their size and the shape of their faces. They were hanging by the thousands in trees on the hillsides of the island. (Quick aside: there were a couple of Germans on the boat, and it was cool to hear them speak of the fledermaus.) The bats apparently adhere to an age-determined hierarchy, with the younger, smaller bats relegated to the lower level trees. The higher up you went, the larger (and presumably older) the bats got. The really were pretty big, but they seemed harmless (and they are) at a distance.
On we went into the mangrove. Mangroves essentially are forests that grow in salt water. I, of course, thought they were mango trees, and I was looking forward to sampling a few of the tasty fruit. Good thing I kept that assumption to myself, because they are not mango trees. As we navigated into the mangrove, we passed by a mountain called "Gorilla Mountain" due to an uncanny (and apparently natural) resemblance to the face of gorilla. It looks man-made, it is so perfect. I have included a picture here - talk about reminding one of King Kong!
The boat threaded through the trees to an open area that was more like a river, where our guide started throwing chicken meat into the water. All of a sudden, several brahminy kites and a sea eagle (a cousin of the American bald eagle) swooped down for a meal. They would circle for a little bit, spy out a piece of chicken, and then plunge to grab it. The kites eat it immediately, dipping their heads to their claws as soon as they begin their ascent from the water. Our guide said that was because they are small for predatory birds, and they have to eat quickly to ensure other, larger birds don’t take their food from them.
We then headed to Gua Kelawar, the bat cave, where thousands of smaller bats make their homes. We had to walk about a hundred feet from the river, and you could hear their squeaking as you approached the entrance to the cave. It was pitch black in there, and our guide had the only flashlight. The cave is an old limestone cavern, complete with big stalactites and stalagmites. The bats clung to the roof of the cave, and they were mostly interested in sleeping or taking care of their young (several had babies clinging to them - pretty cute!). Some, however, flew out and buzzed us. The cave was quite impressive - I bet it's even better when the bats all fly out for their nightly hunt! This was our last stop on the tour, but it wasn’t the end of our interaction with the local wildlife. On our walk back to the boat, we encountered dozens of long tail monkeys who were quite interested in us. They entertained us for several minutes, even jumping on one of the German's outstretched arm to check out her sunglasses and earrings. They clearly were used to having humans around, and it wasn’t the only place on the island that I encountered “friendly” monkeys. More on that later.