Malaysian take-away

The locals call it the ‘war’. From late March to April, the dry season gives way to the wet, and the prevailing winds change from north-easterly to south-westerly. During this period the winds fight each other, often causing sudden changes between the two, until the south-east monsoon finally becomes established in late April to May.

The island of Langkawi, just 15 miles off the Malaysian peninsula and close by the border with Thailand, is still relatively unknown as a cruising area. Yet this archipelago – the official count is 99 islands – offers a destination compact enough to explore in a week. Given more time, it leads to the better-known Thailand cruising area, with Phuket and its islands less than 200 miles further north, and Penang and the Malacca Straits 300 miles to the south.

Malaysian take-awayFollowing the Tsunami earlier this year, tourism has suffered as elsewhere in the region. But the islands had mercifully few casualties, although two of their three marinas suffered badly. Rebak Marina remains closed, while most of the pontoons at the new Telaga marina basin were wiped out.

The Malaysian government is making a considerable effort to develop the island as one of the country’s major tourist attractions, with new hotels and a marina development currently under construction. Apart from actively encouraging foreigners (notably British) to buy second homes, the intention is also to establish Langkawi as a major cruising base. Significant investment has been made in the Wavemaster boatyard, which has facilities for lifting boats up to 500 tonnes. English is widely spoken – it’s virtually a second language for many – and Malaysia Airlines runs two direct flights from London each week, which makes the long haul, with a time difference of some eight hours, considerably more comfortable.

Malaysian take-awayMorgan Hayes, Sunsail’s base manager, is happy to meet people at the airport and take them the 15 minute ride to the charter base, but we decided to recover from the flight with a night at the Datai, an elegant hotel in a secluded bay on the north of the island. Working alongside Morgan is Andy, who looks after the boats, and Melissa. Between them, they have 20 years continuous service with Sunsail, and Andy now lives permanently on the island. Melissa, a typically cheerful and helpful Australian, took us into town the next morning to provision in Kuah, the island’s rather ramshackle capital. Apart from the local shops, there is also a supermarket, which stocks most of the things one could want. As an added incentive to visit the island, Langkawi has been made a duty-free port, with quality, branded spirits at £4 per litre! Since there arelimited supplies on the other islands, provisions need to last the entire stay – in our case ten days.

Sunsail has its office by the Royal Langkawi Yacht Club, whose 200-berth marina is adjacent to the town’s main jetty. They run their Phuket and Langkawi fleets together, and charters can be started in one place and ended in another – an excellent option for those with more time. With our supplies now laid out along the pontoon, we were introduced to our boat, a Sun Odyssey 35. This two-year-old boat has three cabins, and to help those on tighter budgets, it’s equipped to sleep 8! Since there were just the two of us, we were able to spread ourselves out, choosing the forecabin as the coolest place to sleep. Fortunately at this time of year there were few mosquitoes, so we were able to keep all the hatches open to allow a through draught.

Malaysian take-awayIt was quite late in the day by the time we had finished the briefings and everything had been stowed, but such is the compact nature of the area that little over an hour later we were anchored in a deserted bay surrounded by uninhabited islands, with just the circling sea eagles and the screeching of monkeys in the rainforests for company. The wind was fitful, but the sheltered waters were flat. As night closed in, apart from the loom of Kuah Town from behind the island, the only light was provided by phosphorescence glowing in the water.

We had left our passports to be stamped for our visit to the Thai islands just across the border, and arranged to pick them up from Andy at Telaga marina on the west coast of Langkawi. On the short passage to the west of the island, we passed through a vast school of dolphins – they must have stretched across a mile of sea, but they were too busy looking for food to pay us any attention. Telaga Bay is now the scene of a major development programme, with a hotel under construction and the next phases of residential development about to start. Although the larger yacht pontoon was unaffected, the Tsunami wiped out most of the remaining berths, and the piles were leaning over drunkenly, requiring complete replacement. This is one of the Langkawi’s least populated areas and it’s a wonderful setting, with a cable car up to the summit of the island’s highest peak (880m) just a short walk inland.

Both Malaysia and Thailand have clearly decided to cut down on bureaucracy, and having collected our stamped passports, there is no requirement to check in at any border post – not that there were any. We simply took off, and headed for Ko Lipe, the only settlement in the Butan group of Thai islands. It was a passage of only 25 miles, and with north easterlies, the sea was completely sheltered by the mainland. In a few month’s time, everything would reverse and this would become a lee shore open to the ocean – and at times a very wet one. As a result, Morgan was about to take a small flotilla of boats around to a new ‘summer’ base at Ko Samui, in the Gulf of Thailand on the other side of the peninsula, a passage of over a thousand miles, or just a couple of hundred if you’re a crow (or an eagle).

The waters of the Malacca Straits have been plied for centuries by itinerant communities living mainly off the sea, but with a little piracy on the side. These Chao Lay, or sea gipsies, have established a permanent base on Ko Lipe which has inevitably turned into a tourist destination, along the lines of Nicholas Garland’s The Beach. But unlike Phi Phi Don near Phuket, the relatively steep shores around the island didn’t allow the waves to build up when the Tsunami struck, and the low-lying island suffered little damage.

Living is cheap here. With fish brought in by the local fleet, a few rusty old generators provided the only other necessities of modern life: electricity to power the recently installed mobile phone mast. It was an extremely laid-back place, with tourists arriving on a ferry from the mainland, and staying in settlements of wooden huts built just behind the beach. In 20 minutes we had walked from one end of the island to the other and there was little else to do except swim and laze around – and eat. The seafood was magnificent, especially at the New Wave which had a fish barbecue every evening, with tables set out along the beach and the lapping sea lit by torches in the sand.

Malaysian take-awayThe water around the Butang group is much clearer than in Langkawi, and there are numerous diving schools and guide boats which operate during the dry season when the sea is calm. After leaving Ko Lipe, we anchored off Ko Rawi and walked through the rain forest to the deserted bay on the seaward side. Back at the boat, as the sun disappeared into the sea, behind us, we had dinner in the cockpit, completely alone.

Malaysian take-awayTuratao is the largest of this group of southern Thai islands. Having once been used as a penal colony for political prisoners, it is now a national park and a popular destination for city dwellers from Bangkok. We anchored off the beach at the top of the island near the park headquarters. Once again there was a settlement of cabins and tents for rent, but this was much better maintained than the sprawling huts of Ko Lipe. There was even a small shop, as well as visitors’ centre, clinic and restaurant where, astonishingly, they even managed to sell us ice, even though the electricity was only on twice a day.

Malaysian take-awayApart from walks through the island’s rainforests, the main attraction was the caves at the head of the estuary which winds through the dense mangrove swamps. We had intended to go there by dinghy, but the Park ranger’s complicated instructions about how to fire up the generator to operate the lighting, made us decide to hire a longtail instead. These gaily painted wooden craft are ubiquitous around the Thai and Malaysian coast and have somehow resisted being adapted for outboard motors. The old man brought his grandson along and we sped up the river with the throbbing of his engine reverberating around the mangroves. As we threaded through the various branches of the river, I became increasing grateful that we hadn’t attempted it ourselves, otherwise we might have become seriously lost.

We moored at a rickety landing stage and hopped gingerly ashore. The boatman fired up the diesel generator and pulled a switch to light up a walkway, which receded into the darkness several hundred yards deeper into the cliff face. The boy led us in, waving a torch to highlight the extraordinary display of stalactites and –mites, which were lit up in eerie colours, looking more like sea monsters than rocks. Even if we had found our way through the labyrinth of the river, I don’t think we would ever have managed these caves alone. As we walked further in, colonies of bats swayed rhythmically on the roof above and although it was a fascinating experience, we were pleased to get back to the sunlight outside.

Malaysian take-awayThe advantage of islands is that at least one part of them is usually sheltered, and with the north easterlies still winning the battle, we found an anchorage on the south west of Turatao, Ao Makham bay, where a simple park ranger’s house had been built among the ruins of the penal colony. We anchored in seven metres in a dying breeze. The calm of the evening, however, was not matched by the night. At around midnight we were woken by a rising wind, which although fortunately still from the east, was sweeping over Turatao’s mountains in severe gusts of well over 30 knots. The wind continued to rise during the night as the boat was first pulled up short on its chain in one direction, before charging off in another. Fortunately we held fast, though it was difficult sleeping with the noise of the straining chain. Winds of this force are unusual, but the good holding in the muddy bottoms around the archipelago provides welcome security when bad weather does arrive.

Malaysian take-awayWe now retraced our steps and headed for Datai Bay, where we had spent our first night in the hotel. This is the most beautiful of all Langkawi’s bays, and the buildings have been carefully hidden behind the trees that line the beach. The bay’s second hotel, the Andaman, (under the same management as the Datai) welcomes visiting boaters, and it makes a change if you want to feel pampered in one of their three restaurants. We limited ourselves to one of their exotic cocktails before setting off around the top of the island, heading for the Hole in the Wall.

But the weather hadn’t quite finished with us. As we rounded the island’s north east corner, the threatening clouds coming from the mainland duly served up strong winds and driving rain, reducing visibility to just a few hundred yards. It would have felt just like England if it hadn’t been for the 30-plus degree temperatures. We were heading for the creek which winds several miles into the island’s west coast, but we virtually had to feel our way into the narrow, almost concealed, entrance. The squall passed as we turned in, leaving flat water and pale sunlight. The shelter is almost complete, and several boats are kept here on permanent moorings alongside the fish farms.

Malaysian take-awaySince we still hadn’t officially re-entered Malaysia, Melissa had offered to collect our passports, so we took the dinghy upriver and met her at the municipal quay. Since the tide was flooding, we continued exploring upstream until we reached the extraordinary Barn Thai restaurant, a dramatic recreation of a huge traditional Malaysian thatched barn, isolated in the middle of the mangrove swamps.

Before leaving the next morning, we had to make the obligatory visit to the sea eagle feeding grounds. Collecting some chicken skins from one of the fish farms, we took the dinghy down stream and turned into what was effectively an inland lake. The well-conditioned eagles had seen us coming and were already arriving in some numbers, circling low overhead, or waiting in the boughs of the mangroves. As we tossed the skins into the air there followed an extraordinary display of aerial acrobatics. The sight of an eagle, feathering his wings and diving straight down at high speed is one never to be forgotten.

Malaysian take-away

Malaysian take-awayOur final night was spent in a small bay in Pulo Timun, a small island to the east of Langkawi. After dropping the anchor we watched a local fishing boat for some time before having the sense to get in the dinghy and talk to him. We came back with a couple of crayfish which we barbecued with brandy: total cost one pound sterling.

Malaysian take-awayIt was time to refuel and hand back our boat. Our flight left later that evening, and after making our farewells to the Sunsail team, we had just enough time for a final meal, this time at Langkawi’s best restaurant, the Bon Ton. Narelle, the Australian owner, had literally collected old traditional wooden houses from the mainland and rebuilt them in a small coconut grove, which she has established as a stylish resort. We sampled a range of delicate Malaysian dishes on her terrace, with a backdrop of elaborately carved wooden façades, discreetly lit by floodlights hidden in the fronds of the palms. Across the bay, the darkness closed around the islands, preserving them for other visitors, on another day.

British Virgin Islands