Langkawi’s main beach, Pantai Cenang, is the definition of a tropical paradise; the sand is a soft, pure white powder lined with gently swaying palms on one side and the crystal turquoise sea on the other. Last time we were on a beach like this was in the Similan Islands, where every square inch of sand was packed. Fresh off the boat from Penang, we went straight out for a walk on the beach but found it almost deserted. It only took us a few steps out from under the shade of the palm trees to realise why. The sand was incredibly hot. Flip-flop-meltingly hot. Even with shoes, there was no way you could spend time on the beach in the midday sun.
Towards sunset more and more people spilled out onto the beach. The sun loungers and deck chairs began to fill up, and the horizon was full of jet skis, banana boats and wake boarders zipping back and forth, and parasailers swooping and gliding overhead. At nightfall, the sand temporarily turned into an express way for Range Rovers and mopeds coming to tow away the watersports gear, making room for the candles and bean bags as the beachfront bars come to life.
Compared to Palolem in Goa, India or Ko Lanta in Thailand, there were far fewer bars and restaurants actually on the beach here. Yellow bar at the southern edge of the beach had a big terrace and put out Hershey’s Kisses-shaped beanbags along the sand at sunset. Towards the middle, another beachfront bar put out a technicolour spread of beanbags, flags and umbrellas. The best sunset views were at the northern end of the beach, where a couple of expensive-looking small resorts sit behind a wide curve of empty sand.
We found our favourite spot on the top of a slightly rickety wooden beach shack. Langkawi is a duty free island, so drinks are cheap by Malaysian standards; freshly-squeezed OJ and iced bottles of Tiger were 5 Ringgit (under £1) each. We found the bar, but dinner found us. Once the sun had set, and we’d started thinking about food, the smell of barbecued meat started wafting up from the beach. We looked down to see a barbecue shack being set up just in front of the bar, and soon a plate of delicious freshly grilled chicken and vegetable skewers was being passed up the ladder to us.
This was perfect, but not the cheapest food in Langkawi. For cheaper eats, we headed to the main strip set behind the palm trees running along the beach. This turned out to be where everyone is in the midday heat; duty-free shopping. We loved the fact that, in spite of its global appeal, lots of things on Langkawi still feel very Malaysian and, noticeable by the array of beach hijab fashion and halal food options, that it’s a popular holiday place for Malays as well as international tourists. In true Malay style, at night, street food vendors start frying, sizzling and grilling all kinds of delicious food from their stalls along the main road, dishing them up with mee (noodles), or nasi (rice). We found a little collection of vendors with picnic tables in the middle where you can take a pick’n’mix approach, ordering a few bits from different stalls. We ate mee goreng (curry noodles), Middle Eastern kebabs and nasi kandar. We were looking forward to nasi kandar – a Malay take on steamed rice with a mix of Indian curries – but from the stall we picked it turned out to be an underwhelming, cold, dhal rice. But for 2 Ringgit (30p) it wasn’t the end of the world, we just moved on to the next stall.
For a small island, Langkawi has a surprisingly busy airport, with international flights as well as domestic – to places as close as Penang. We left by plane for Singapore, but arrived from Penang by boat. This turned out to be a really slick process compared to haggling over longtail prices in Cambodia and Thailand. The ferry terminal in Penang had departure lounge seating, luggage scanners and issued boarding passes with our names printed on. Ferries go twice daily, with the only difference between the 08.15 and the 08.30 being that the earlier boat makes a quick stop at the mainland. The three hour crossing was smooth, half empty as most people seem to fly with Air Asia, and see-your-own-breath Baltic thanks to the super-charged AC. The 20km drive from the port town of Kuah was also easy – there are taxis waiting to whisk you away for 30 Ringgit, though we clubbed together with some guys from the boat and shared a 7 seater for 45 Ringgit.
On our last day, a few clouds appeared and the temperature dropped, slightly. Whilst this is usually devastating news on a beach holiday, on Pantai Cenang it meant going to the beach was less like tip-toeing across molten lava and more like, you know, going to the beach. We took the chance to try out some water sports, and hired a jet ski. There are loads to choose from all along the shoreline, but Tripadvisor reviews took us to Mega Watersports.
They wouldn’t let us jet over to the private beach on the island opposite, though you can pay for someone to drop you there for the night if you have your own tent. Beyond that island, it’s not that much further to Ko Lipe in Thailand. Too far for jet skis, but boats leave daily for 180 Ringgit. If we come back to Langkawi that’s definitely our plan.