Langkawi And Its Magical Islands

MANILA, Philippines - There are several ways of reaching an exotic island destination - by plane, train, bus, ferryboat, or by helicopter. I eagerly went all five ways.

Our team who went for a three-day city tour in Malaysia was split in half, and I was sent off with the second group to Langkawi, the farthest of three destinations. Although there are direct flights from Kuala Lumpur to Langkawi via SilkAir, our group headed for a road adventure -probably inspired by the F1 Malaysian Grand Prix we just witnessed-and that was boarding a train for an overnight bunker ride to Penang, where the first group dropped off, and my group continued on for the next few hours to Kedah.

From there, a bus took us to the jetty where we boarded the ferry to our island destination. The minute I saw the cluster of islets scattered like emerald gems in the Andaman Sea, this romantic getaway swept me off my feet.

Langkawi is a remarkable paradise which comprises 99 islands (104 at low tide) each with beautiful sandy shores, surrounded by pristine waters and lush rainforest, lying off the northwestern coast of Peninsular Malaysia in the Straits of Melaka, near the border of Thailand.

These mysterious islands are part of the state of Kedah (tagged as ''Jewel of Kedah''), with the main island referred to as Pulau Langkawi. Soaked in fascinating legends and intriguing folklores, the archipelago has been cited as a UNESCO Geopark in recognition of its amazing and significant geological history (fossils dating back millions of years ago!) and areas that cradle untouched paradise of age old forests teeming with undisturbed wildlife. The park covers mountainous peaks of sandstone and limestone formations, karst topography, mystical caves, enchanting lakes, beautiful waterfalls as well as fascinating flora and fauna dwelling in its distinct environmental wonder.

Recently, National Geographic has included it in its list of top ten best beaches in the world.

Interestingly, every island has its own legend which adds to the unique flavor of Langkawi. The most popular is that of the beautiful Mahsuri, who was married to the ruler's son. When the husband went off to war, Mahsuri befriended a passing trader, which set off rumors of adultery and betrayal in the village. Reaching the ruler, he sentenced her to death. Tied to a tree, she was stabbed repeatedly with her own sword until white blood flowed from her wounds, signifying innocence. Before her last breath, she cursed the island of Langkawi that it will not prosper for seven generations.

Soon after, Siam invaded Langkawi, bloodbath ensued, and rice was burned to the ground. Misfortune engulfed the island for decades. Whether it is true or not, a mausoleum was built in honor of the wrongfully accused maiden who left a curse on the island.

Uncannily, a seventh generation descendant's birth in 1980 was traced to a lovely young girl in Phuket, Thailand. She was afforded celebrity status and her family was invited to live in Langkawi, which she politely turned down. At about this time, Langkawi also earned its name as a tourist destination and island paradise, and was granted the status of duty free shopping zone in 1987. It has since flourished.

Many tourists visit Langkawi for a number of reasons. While it has busy shopping districts, five-star resorts and family activities for vacation, Langkawi gives you a wonderful recharge from the busy, stressful city life, embracing wonders of nature left unspoiled and unexploited.

Among its popular tours include the one to the Lake of the Pregnant Maiden or Tasik Dayang Bunting (a freshwater lake whose mountains form the shape of a reclining pregnant woman and whose legend says that a dip in its cool waters will bless women with pregnancy), an eagle-feeding scene off an island coast where eagles soar and dip in numbers right above you; riding the spectacular cable car, jungle trekking, golfing, cave exploring, parasailing, kayaking, boating, island hopping, visiting the Underwater World (an oceanarium), traditional villages, rice paddies and many more. Langkawi is a romantic honeymoon destination as well. Many first-class resorts have flourished catering to individual tastes of their visitors. We stayed in Frangipani Resort, which prides itself in being a green resort that supports the preservation of the environment.

As a fitting finale to my stay, I rode the chopper (Helitours) while my team went for the cable car ride up Gunung Mat Chincang mountain. Both sightseeing rides offer a breathtaking view of the islets surrounded by calm waters and the neighboring isles of Thailand.

(Special thanks to Tourism Malaysia and partner SilkAir for this wonderful experience. Jojie Alcantara is a photojournalist based in Davao City. You can view her travel adventures in www.pbase.com/jojie_alcantara.)

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