Georgetown, in Penang, was a much smaller city than Kuala Lumpur, but it wasn’t the chillin’-under-the palm-trees island experience I was looking for. Langkawi was exactly what I needed.
I discovered Langkawi by asking my Airbnb hosts in KL what some of their favorite spots are (always such a great tactic). I turned to Airbnb to find lodging, too, but the place that talked — no, it sung to me — was a guesthouse with no reviews. I ran a Google image search and found the same guesthouse on TripAdvisor, where they had nothing but outstanding reviews. I e-mailed the owner, Di, and booked a single.
The Pondok Keladi guesthouse is exactly the sort of place I love. It’s set back away from the main road, off the beach, but the “strip” of restaurants and shops near the beach was only about a 15 minute walk away. Relaxed, secluded, off the beach, but with common areas to socialize. As I arrived I already wanted to come back.
My room was clean and comfortable, but the real attraction at Pondok Keladi is the community area, an open lanai with room for lounging and a huge, well-equipped kitchen to cook in. I spent my days working on the lanai, watching the monkeys leap from one palm tree to the next and enjoying the warm breezes. In the afternoons, after one misguided attempt to walk on the beach (trash-strewn and crowded with parasailers), I’d take long walks on dirt roads through the jungle. I quickly built up a rotation of favorite restaurants in the little beach town for meals, and some favorite produce stands to buy the longans, rambutan, pineapple and mangos that make life in the tropics so heavenly.
The open lanai lent itself to meeting other guests as well. A few couples and individuals came and went. One day a man arrived alone. Younger than me, but not as young as most of the travelers I meet. Fit and tanned, with deep smile lines. He greeted Di with a hug, like an old friend. Clearly he’d been here before. An English-speaker, from Manchester. Some sort of traveler. Interesting.
Later, his friends arrived. Another man — who stayed in a separate single room — and a couple. The three men knew each other from teaching English in China 10 years ago, and they’ve all remained in the Far East, so they like to get together and play their favorite semi-geeky board game, Settlers of Catan. Shortly after they arrived, Di (who is Malay but used to live in England) invited us all to a restaurant that serves roast beef and Yorkshire pudding on Sunday nights and we all bonded over food and alcohol. How funny that I finally got to try Yorkshire pudding in Malaysia.
The next day, Manchester invited me to come along on an island-hopping tour with his group. I spend way too much time working and walking and don’t venture out often enough, so I jumped at the chance to join the group. We piled into a too-small car and drove down to the beach, where we learned the last tour for the day had already left. We were able to book a private boat for the day for less than $20 each, so we went for it
All of Malaysia was under a thick haze from the Indonesian clear-cutting fires, but that only added to the mystical appearance of the craggy islands jutting out of the water. After buzzing around the islands for a bit, we stopped at our first island. We had to pay a small admission (the island is a national park) but Kevin stopped me from paying and the group covered my admission. I was pretty sure this was not a date, but when he motioned me to put my money away, I wondered for a moment. It’s hard to read social cues cross-culture, even from the U.S. to England, sometimes.
A boardwalk led us through the jungle and down into a lake at the center of the island, where we swam in what must have been a volcanic crater, surrounded by mountains. The water was warm and silky, and in the mist I felt like I had jumped into an impressionist painting and was treading water in the paint. I remember floating on my back and thinking that if I’d had any stress, it would be melting away. That may have been the first time I really connected with the fact that I have no stress in my life. No people = no stress. It’s not a tradeoff I’d want to make permanently, but for a few months it’s heaven.
Too soon someone was calling out our boat’s number and we had to get out of the water and go back to the dock. After a bit more buzzing around, the driver stopped the boat. He indicated that we could take pictures and I watched him take a bucket off a hook and throw something in the water. I must have still been feeling thick from the surrealistic swim because I didn’t get it at first. I pointed my camera at an aging dock jutting out from an island in the direction he’d pointed and wondered what the big deal was.
When at least a dozen huge eagles descended to eat the food our driver had thrown onto the water, I was too dumbfounded to take photos. They were only a few feet from our boat, and they were enormous! I watched them feed, and then they soared and circled majestically around us as if to say “thank you” before they headed back to their island. By the time I recovered enough to point my camera at them, they were almost gone. It was a glorious display and I don’t have a single great photo.
Our final stop was at an island with one of the most serene, peaceful beaches I’ve ever seen. The group started playing frisbee, but all I wanted was to get back in the water and swim in that scenery some more. I swam and feasted my eyes and soul on the beauty of it all until it was time to leave the island.
When we arrived back on Langkawi, Manchester turned to me and said “We’re all going to get something to eat. Do you want to come with us?” Again, I jumped at the chance, and being in a restaurant with a group of friends was such a familiar, joyful feeling I didn’t want it to end.
The next day I checked with some English friends for a cultural reference. They told me that if an Englishman invites you on a boat ride, invites you to dinner, AND pays your admission to something, you’re practically engaged. They said it’s usually the custom for men to ignore you if they like you, and then when they start being sort of mean to you, you’re going steady. They told me it was my move. They said I should knock on his door with a pizza. Naked. I was very confused. I wasn’t really ready to date, but I was happy to have a brief social life, and if it might include a little flirtation that was also fine with me. But I wasn’t ready for naked pizza.
When their “extra man” went home, I was invited to learn to play the Settlers of Catan game at the big table on the lanai so they could have four players. It was great geeky fun, with a lot of drinking thrown in for good measure. No flirtation ever developed, and I later learned that Manchester has a long-term girlfriend he’s absolutely devoted to, so I was glad I hadn’t taken my friends’ pizza delivery advice. Lesson learned: just trust your gut.
Still, it was nice to know I could feel that hint of attraction and surive the awkwardness and uncertainty of cross-gender interactions. It’s been a while since I felt that. I realized I’ve started looking forward to wrapping up my Year of No Dating, and to being back in the States where it’s not so hard to meet people. I guess my broken heart has pretty much healed, finally.
Every evening when the call to prayer started, the neighbor dogs would howl along, which set off a chain reaction among all the local dogs. Maybe this is why Muslims don’t usually care for dogs? I found it hilarious that the dogs were trying so hard to pray.
Langkawi seemed like the perfect opportunity to get back on a scooter. They’re the best way to get around in Asia, but I’d been avoiding it since i haven’t driven one in a couple of years and the traffic in the cities was insane — not to mention that in Malaysia they drive on the opposite side of the road from what I’m used to.
All in all, Langkawi offered a beautiful, peaceful break before the whirlwind of activity that would begin in Ho Chi Minh.