Langkawi: Malaysia's ecotourism hotspot with an eerie past

Langkawi: Malaysia's ecotourism hotspot with an eerie past

Listing as a UNESCO Geopark has stopped developers overrunning this wildlife-rich island cluster on the Andaman Sea
With sunsets like this, who cares if Langkawi's cursed?

One of Malaysia's top beach and eco resorts has a pretty freaky back story, if you're the superstitious sort. 

Located near the border of Thailand on the Andaman Sea, the main island (called Langkawi, as is the whole district of 99 islands) was supposedly cursed in 1819, when a beautiful woman named Mahsuri was executed for alleged adultery.

Seems her real "crime" was rejecting the advances of the village chieftain who ordered her death.

Right before she died, she hissed with her last breath: “There shall be no peace and prosperity on this island for seven generations.”

Why only seven, when she could have cursed them for eternity?

Who knows? But two years later Langkawi fell to the invading Thais and many locals died of starvation. 

Breaking the curse?

Pantai Cenang, on the west coast, is Langkawi's most developed beach. ​Remaining a bit of a backwater for more than a century thereafter, in the mid-1980s Langkawi was declared duty free by the then prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, who laid out a plan to turn it into a tourist paradise.

Cheap booze and beautiful beaches?

You'd think Mahathir was setting the island up for tourist ruin like many other regional beauties before it. (Sorry Bali and Phuket, we mean you.) 

Langkawi's growth has indeed been strong, with high-profile luxury resorts now dotting its sandy shores and the construction of an international airport in 2003 making it a holiday hotspot.

According to reports in June, the island is on track to meet its 2013 target of 3 million visitors

But the UNESCO listing of Langkawi as a Geopark has kept huge plots of uninhabited land on the 475 square kilometer main island -- where all the infrastructure, hotels and restaurants are found -- from being taken over by developers. 

Today Langkawi remains one of the world’s most accessible ecotourism destinations.

During the span of a recent four-day visit this writer came across everything from great hornbills and monkeys to wild boars.

And that was before she even left the resort.  

For suggestions on how to take in some of Langkawi's top natural offerings, read on. 

Fertility-granting powers

The Dayang Bunting Marble Geoforest Park -- home to the Lake of the Pregnant Maiden, with its apparent fertility-granting powers. On June 1, 2007, UNESCO declared Langkawi a World Geopark -- "a territory encompassing one or more sites of scientific importance, not only for geological reasons but also by virtue of its archeological, ecological or cultural value."

Though the entire archipelago of 99 islands, surrounding waters and marine ecosystems make up the Geopark, it’s the protected "Geoforest" areas that really impress.

These are the 400-million-year-old Machinchang mountain ranges, the karst limestone formations of the Kilim Karst Geoforest Park and the Dayang Bunting Marble Geoforest Park. 

The latter is best known for the body of water at its center, the Lake of the Pregnant Maiden.

The tale goes that a goddess bore a child to an earthly prince, lost the child, buried it where the lake now stands and blessed the waters with fertility-granting powers. Bear that in mind before you dive in. 

The best way to see the Machinchang range is via Langkawi's famed cable car, which takes passengers on a  2.2-kilometer-long ride almost to the top of Machinchang mountain.

At the top there's a 125-meter-long SkyBridge suspended 100 meters above ground (Panorama LangkawiBurau Bay, +60 4 959 4225).

Wildlife in the mangroves

Many Langkawi mangrove tours include an eagle feeding stop, when you can watch the birds of prey dive from above for their meals. ​Mangrove tours can be one of the biggest let downs in travel.

You drift down a watery brown trail, eyes straining as you stare into the trees in search of wildlife as the sun beats down overhead.

At the end of it all, you scroll through your photos to find 20 shots of exposed tree roots and the odd blurry mudskipper.

No offense to mudskippers, but nobody travels thousands of kilometers to see them. 

The same can't be said of a trip through the mangroves of the 100-square-kilometer Sungai Kilim Nature Park. Most visitors report seeing wildlife as diverse as snakes, sea otters, wild dogs, monkeys and eagles.

And yes, mudskippers. 

Junglewalla, a well-regarded tour company led by a group of dedicated naturalists, offers a four-hour mangrove cruise that includes birdwatching, wildlife observation and cave visits. ​

Another reputed company is Dev's Adventure Tours, which has a five-hour tour of the mangroves by kayak for the truly ambitious.

More on CNN: Insider guide: Best of Langkawi

Langkawi island-hopping 

With 99 islands making up Langkawi, the problem is deciding which ones to hit.One of the most popular things to do in Langkawi is join one of the dozens of half or full-day boat tours that show off the area's island and beach highlights, including Pulau Singa Besar, Pulau Beras Basah and Pulau Dayang Bunting. 

Not a bad option -- they all offer incredible natural sights and wildlife -- but if you're willing to shell out some extra cash you may want to consider chartering a boat for the day. 

Among the reputable boat charter companies running out of Langkawi are Crystal Yacht Holidays, Damai Indah, Blue Water Star Sailing and Stardust Yacht Charter. All offer itineraries ranging from short day trips of Langkawi's highlights to overnight tours of the islands and beyond. 

Perks of booking a private cruise include tailoring the itinerary to personal interests (bird watching, beach bumming, snorkeling, etc) and being able to choose onboard meal menus. 

At the end of the journey your memories might be foggy after too many visits to the open bar, but that's what cameras are for, right?   

Diving in Pulau Payar

Though technically not part of Langkawi, Pulau Payar Marine Park lies just 30 kilometers south of the main island. The protected Pulau Payar Marine Park is 30 kilometers south of the main island of Langkawi -- about a one-hour boat ride. 

This uninhabited area is made up of four pretty little islands.

Under the surface are waters famed for a quality mix of black tip sharks, barracuda and colorful corals -- divers will be spoiled for choice.

Wreck divers will want to head east of Pulau Payar to Pulau Kaca, where a bunch of fishing boats have been sunk in the area to create artificial reefs. ​

For snorkellers, it often gets crowded on the main marine park beaches and offshore pontoon. Visibility is also hit and miss in these areas. 

There's no accommodation on Pulau Payar due to its marine park status so most visitors stay on the main island of Langkawi and cruise in for the day. Tours can be booked directly through most Langkawi hotels.

For more on the top Pulau Payar dive sites check out

More on CNN: 10 best islands for a Malaysia holiday 

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Karla is a digital producer with CNN Travel based in Bangkok, Thailand. 

Read more about Karla Cripps