Pulau Langkawi: from Seasickness to Sing-alongs in 24 Hours

The very moment I first saw the little Malaysian island of Pulau Langkawi, I may have thrown up a little.

I know. That’s not exactly the kind of reaction you expect, or hope for, when dreaming of (or reading about) a tropical island. It certainly wasn’t an issue I’d foreseen when we decided, a few days ago, to ferry over to Langkawi from the Malaysian food capital of Penang. At the time, I was too busy longing for a break from the thick heat of Penang’s crowds and blazing street-side food carts, pinning my hopes immediately on what I hoped would be the lazy, breezy shores of Langkawi.

Cenang Beach, Langkawi.

I imagined spending a leisurely ferry ride leaning out over the bow on the top deck, getting tan and allowing the wind to style my hair into white-girl dreads. I pictured the boat having to stop a few meters short of the coastline for some unspecified nautical reason, us rolling up our pant legs and wading the rest of the way to shore while holding our backpacks high above our heads. I distinctly remember, at one point, actually using the phrase “It’ll be so nice just to get out onto the water!”

And so, in retrospect, it was probably my Murphy’s-law-induced fault that when we woke up to catch the ferry from Penang on Friday morning, it was raining with biblical force. The sea was rolling and heaving, like an enormous bedsheet being shaken out. As we shuffled from the jetty onto the glorified speedboat of a ferry, the gangway slid about a foot to the left, then to the right, then over again.

According to the signs above our heads, this was business class.

Minutes after setting out on the two-and-half-hour journey, it became clear that neither the water nor the passengers’ stomachs would be calming down before we reached Langkawi. Old Chinese women with emptied shopping bags at the ready sprawled out on their backs in the aisles, vacationing Malay families tried to soothe their crying kids even as mom and dad had to dart off for the bathroom. Women in full burkas maneuvered plastic sacks under their hoods and up to their mouths. And I sat doubled over in my chair, steadying my forehead on the seat-back in front of me and nauseously cursing the sound of Hugh Jackman’s voice, which was coming out of the tiny TVs lodged in the ferry’s front walls. Judd Apatow couldn’t have scripted a more graphic scene, and it played out until finally, mercifully, the boat dragged itself into Langkawi’s harbor.

But an hour later, propped up on a nearly deserted beach and squinting into the sun, I started to realize the destination had been worth even that horrific journey.

The view from Babylon Bar

But here’s the thing about about relaxing on islands: It can get hot. And a bit boring. After laying on a scalding white-sand beach for a few hours, sprinting into the waves for respite only to find they’re just as sticky-hot as the air outside, an ice-cold can of Chang beer and maybe some conversation starts to sound pretty appealing — even if you’ve just spent the morning emptying the contents of your stomach into a plastic bag. Fortunately, we quickly stumbled on Babylon Bar, right along the shore, and I instantly fell in love.

When I was deciding whether or not to leave New York, wondering where I might go if and when I ever left the comfortable discomfort of the city, I told my sister this: “I just feel like I need to be somewhere where people sit around a bonfire all night and sing Jack Johnson songs while someone strums the guitar.”

Swap out Jack Johnson for Bob Marley, and I may have found that place.

Entrance to Babylon Bar.

We sat cross-legged on straw mats all night at Babylon, listening to live reggae covers of Adele and Four non-Blondes, plunking empties of 5-ringgit Chang down on tables inches above the ground, talking to other travelers about where they’d been and where they were headed, brushing clingy white sand absent-mindedly off our legs. We listened to the waves and watched sparks floating like fireflies around the giant torches marking the bar’s entrance. And when the place closed down for the night I ran out into the ocean and stood ankle-deep looking up at the stars and the nearly full moon, wondering how on earth I’d had the dumb luck to end up here.

No, this is not some ironic camera effect I slapped on with my iPhone. It’s sand and ocean water stuck to my camera lens. I’m not afraid to show you the real nitty-gritty here.

We were about to head home, ready for a blissful night’s air-conditioned sleep back at the hostel, when a local outside Babylon called out to us: “Too early to go home! Go to Rasiah. Very chill. Tell the cab driver. He’ll know where to go.”

Hayley and I gave each other a shrug and soon found ourselves in the back seat of a taxi in what appeared to be the middle of a field down a long gravel road. We got out cautiously and looked around for a sign, some lights, some people — anything that would indicate we’d arrived anywhere other than the middle of nowhere. As I am wont to do, I may have freaked out a little bit, started flapping my hands at the wrists, speaking in hurried squeals about not knowing where the hell we were. (This was a time, unquestionably, when I was thankful to not be traveling completely by myself – indeed, this is a situation I never would have entered into by myself. Sometimes there’s safety in numbers).

We crept towards the only building we could find, which looked more like someone’s home with a printed drinks list than a bar, and hesitantly inquired whether we were in the right place or, as I suspected, if we were intruding on private property.

It turns out, of course, that “rasiah” means “secret,” and apparently no one else had been let in on it. We remained the only customers there all night, and the staff stayed up talking to us about Malaysian culture, gluing together the layers of Hayley’s recently broken flip-flop, and singing along as a drowsy-eyed Malay with dreads taught me to play “Leaving on a Jet Plane” on the ukelele.

And so it didn’t take long for me to forget how we’d arrived in Langkawi, how I’d felt when I first saw the island, or even how doubtful I’d been when we’d been plunked out there in the middle of a field, in the center of an island, off the coast of a tiny country I’d never dreamed I’d one day visit.

Surround yourself with friendly people and lots of music, and, I’m learning, you can feel at home just about anywhere.

View from Cenang Beach.


6 thoughts on “Pulau Langkawi: from Seasickness to Sing-alongs in 24 Hours

  1. Your photographic abilities have improved to the extent that I must hurl down the gauntlet and challenge you to a photo contest. Rasputin

  2. Well first I’ll have to try to remember to wipe my lens before taking pictures… then maybe I’ll be ready to learn a thing or two from the original JQ photographer.

    • It’s the weirdest thing… I never saw anyone actually surfing, and didn’t really see any waves, but I saw plenty of people carrying around surfboards. So it must be possible somewhere on the island 🙂 Have fun!

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