Langkawi is the principal island in an archipelago of 99 isles in the Andaman Sea. Langkawi is also the name of this island chain which lies across the Strait of Malacca from Malaysia’s mainland. The islands are part of the state of Kedah, adjacent to the Thai border. In 2008, Sultan Abdul Halim of Kedah consented to change the name of the archipelago to “Langkawi Permata Kedah” (The Jewel of Kedah).
Langkawi had always been part of the Kedah Sultanate. An ancient Kedah legend tells of a great snake “Ular Besar,” who was the custodian of the Langkawi Islands. The story states that each new king of Kedah had to sacrifice a virgin daughter to the snake upon ascending to the throne, or each time he declared war with another state.
It was a pretty good incentive for a king to maintain continuous rule and not to fight with the neighbours!
Various Chinese explorers noted Langkawi on their maps in the 14th and 15th-centuries. The Yuan dynasty, Ming dynasty and the Acehnese all had different names for the island.
The French general, Augustin de Beaulieu, reported visiting “Lancahui” to buy pepper, in 1691. He had to obtain permission from Kedah’s Prince before the Island chief would allow the purchase.
Sea People and Pirates
Langkawi became home to all kinds of seafarers. The “Orang Laut” (Malay Sea People) lived alongside pirates and local fishermen. Another legend speaks of a curse. In the 18th-century, a woman named Mahsuri was wrongfully accused of adultery and put to death. She put a curse on the island to last for seven generations. Shortly after Mahsuri died, the Siamese army invaded Kedah and attacked the island. In defence, the locals decided to burn down the granary at Padang Matsirat to try to starve and therefore drive out the Siamese invaders. Nevertheless, the Siamese captured the island in 1822. They killed the chiefs and took slaves from any islanders who did not manage to flee.
Eventually, after around fifteen years, the Sultan of Kedah returned from exile, with Siamese permission. The islands fell to British rule under the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909. The Siamese border became the centre of the sea channel between Tarutao National Park and Langkawi island.
The end of the Seven Generation Curse
Langkawi continued to be a haven for pirates. In 1946, the British fought the pirates hard and won both sea and land territory. Malaysia gained its independence in 1957.
Langkawi remained a quiet island until the government decided to create a tourist resort here in the 1980s. Mahsuri’s seven-generation curse ended when her 7th-generation descendant was born. The island flourished as a tourist destination receiving over 3 million visitors a year. Langkawi is a duty-free island. Mahsuri’s great, great (etc.) grandson lives now on the island of Phuket.
The population is approximately 100,000. 65% live in Langkawi. The majority of people are Malays Chinese or Indians. Thai make up the rest of the populus. Islam is the primary Malay religion. However, Buddhists, Hindus and Chinese Christians form significant population groups. Malay is the official language for formal occasions. English is widely spoken and understood by locals, together with Chinese, Siamese and various Indian dialects.
Tourists can reach the island from Kuala Kedah, Kuala Perlis or Penang by ferry. Budget airlines offer flights from both Kuala Lumpur and Singapore to Langkawi.
Islands close by include Langun Island which has a fresh-water lake and south-facing sandy beaches. Nearby Dendang Island forms a sheltered bay which is popular with Langkawi sailing tour operators.
You are spoilt for choice for beautiful beaches on Langkawi. In particular, tall coconut and casuarina trees line Pantai Cenang’s exceptional beach. Cenang offers long stretches of fine white sand plus restaurants or bars. This makes it ideal for watching the sunset.
The Kilim Karst Geoforest Park around the Kilim River is rich in wildlife. Tourists can see sea otters, kingfishers, monitor lizards and swimming macaque monkeys. There is also a bat cave (but no Batmobile!). Limestone caves, mangroves and Pirate Lagoon are all within the area.
The island’s oldest geological form is the Machinchang Formation. This was the first component of Southeast Asia to rise from the seabed, more than half a billion years ago. This formation is the best example of Cambrian rocks in Malaysia – made up of quartzose clastic rock. The coastal areas consist of flat, alluvial plains punctuated with ridges of limestone. Forest covered mountains and natural vegetation cover most of Langkawi.
Langkawi receives more than 94 inches of rain each year. The dry season runs from December to February. March to November can be rainy with September being the wettest month.
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