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Awkward Beauty
March 19, 2011  |  by jess c  |  Langkawi, Malaysia

The island of Pulau Langkawi on Malaysia’s northwestern coast is one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever seen. Before arriving, we’d heard wonderful things about the island, which is itself legendary––not just by reputation but also in it’s own history. It is actually known as “the island of legends.” After a couple of weeks in Kuala Lumpur and Penang’s historic Georgetown, we were ready for some beach time.


Glorious sunset on Pentai Tengah.


Looking down Pentai Tengah

What we found on Langkawi was different than we expected. The island was, at least on the beaches, stunning. But it was also awkward somehow.

The reason is, we think, partially our own. Other than Langkawi the only islands in Southeast Asia that we’ve visited so far have been in Thailand. Of those, we’d not even been to the most trafficked ones, as we’ve purposefully been avoiding the spring break-esque full-moon party spots like Koh Phangan and Koh Phi Phi. Instead we’ve visited islands a bit more off the beaten path, where tourism and catering to tourists is a primary industry, but by no means the only one. Where the Andaman sea gypsy culture is still felt in the pace and sea-centric lives of inhabitants, almost all of whom seem to have a temperament in harmony with the natural environment around them. Where locals, despite any language difficulty, very often go well out of their way to find means of connecting with us personally.

These were the images, and also admittedly the expectations, that we brought with us to Langkawi.

As the ferry boat from Penang neared Langkawi’s main harbor in the town of Kuah, the first unexpected sight was a gigantic, cartoonish, statute of an eagle. Its wings are outstretched, spanning some fifty meters, ready to take flight. The eagle, as it turns out, is one of a dozen or so statutes in Legends Park, all of which seem to parody a local story or myth. The theme-park vibe of Legends Park matches well the ferry-terminal and harbor, which house a duty-free playground of shopping and fast-food dining (Kenny Rogers Roasters is huge in Malaysia).

We’d booked a room at Charlie Motel, one of the few affordable beach resorts on the island. Charlie Motel is on Pentai Tengah (Tengah beach), which, in addition to the price, we chose because it isn’t on the main tourist beach of Pentai Cenang. When we told the taxi driver where to take us, he repeated the name “Charlie Motel” with more than a hint of disapproval in his intonation.

We speculate that there was at some point a heyday for Charlie Motel. Out in front of the motel facing the beach, the paved terrace and concrete canopy pillars carved to look like tree trunks suggest a time of dancing and social activity. Perhaps a band played on the raised platform. There might have been festive barbeques cooked in the now dilapidated fire pit. The garden, tamer and more tended, might have witnessed romantic moonlight strolls.

As it is today, Charlie Motel is just a run down motel. Utilitarian but unloved by both its keepers and its guests. The restaurant no longer operates. The pathways are all cracked and unable to hold back the burgeoning jungle underneath. The terrace abandoned for most purposes, except as a place for garbage to collect. In the dirt parking lot, a rusted out Datsun rounds out the atmosphere, hood and trunk lids both raised as if to signal surrender.

While the look of Charlie Motel was enough to give us pause about staying there for the duration of our visit, we were made even more cautious by the unapologetic and often-leering stares of the men gathered out front. By this point in our trip, we’re fairly accustomed to being spectacles. More so in Malaysia than in Thailand. In Thailand, curious glances or looks quickly soften into smiles and friendly salutations. In Malaysia, the stares of the mostly muslim women are initially suspicious, sometimes becoming cautiously friendly once we say hello. The stares of many of the men, however, range from openly curious to leering to, well, if not disgust, then at least disapproval. As best we can with a limited wardrobe, we’ve taken care to dress more conservatively than we otherwise might, although neither of us are especially saucy dressers in any case. But, compared to the hajib-with-long-dress or full burqas that most women in Malaysia wear, we stand out as scantily dressed no matter what (though, not so much so in Kuala Lumpur, which is more diverse and well-touristed). Add to that the facts that we’re white, one of us is quite tall, and are, er… rounder… than the average Malaysian resident, and we are spectacles.

So, upon arriving at Charlie Motel, we wondered if we’d be comfortable donning our one-piece bathing suits on the beach. We were the only westerners (“Ferengi” as we’re referred to in Bahasa Malay) staying at Charlie Motel, and our survey of the beach indicated that most Malaysians were swimming in their clothes. And for the girls and women, in their hajibs.

The next day, we walked down to Pentai Cenang with the idea that since it’s more populated by tourists, perhaps we’d be more comfortable there. And less likely to offend. This thought was quickly rejected, however, once we noticed how much Pentai Cenang resembled Clearwater Beach. If Clearwater Beach was packed into 200 meters. The street behind the beach was a further discouragement, and not just because it was chocked-full of bars and souvenir shops. But also because it stank. In a fairly severe lapse in judgement, the city planners in Langkawi decided it best to route Pentai Cenang’s raw sewage passageways under the sidewalks, and to vent the sewage fumes through open grates which occur about every twenty feet.

Charlie Motel quickly became much more attractive. Even so when our waitress that night, after inquiring into where we were staying, replied, with what I detected as a tinge of contempt, “Oh, Charlie Motel, that’s where the Malaysians stay.”

And it was. Almost exclusively Malaysians, in fact. As it happened, our stay on Langkawi coincided with the start of the Malaysian spring school break. Families ranging in size from three to twenty checked into Charlie Motel, and the concrete structure practically sprang to life with the sounds of tiny feet and big laughter. While still spectacles, especially to the children, whatever suspicion or disapproval we’d perceived before melted away and we were greeted by everyone warmly (well, except for that one little boy who Jess M made cry simply by emerging from our room, tall and white and, it seems, scary as all heck!). In fact, some of the boys even made a game of lying in wait for us from behind trees and bushes, and then leaping out yelling and then retreating, laughing hysterically at our startled surprise. By our third day there, we’d been adopted by Manna, a grandmotherly figure, who stopped by several times a day to make sure we’d eaten or were planning to eat. Apparently the fact that neither of us look like we’ve missed many meals was no comfort.

By our last day on Langkawi, we were a little sad to leave Charlie Motel. Sure, our toilet kept getting clogged, and the mini-fridge in the room was useless since whenever you left the room and took the key out of the switch inside, the room lost all power. But all the same, we got to experience a glimpse of family life in Malaysia. We got to see a little bit of what “being on holiday” means for Malaysians, away from the fracas of tourism that caters almost exclusively Ferengi. It was lovely, and something we likely wouldn’t have had the pleasure of knowing if we hadn’t come to Langkawi and to Charlie Motel.

For more pictures from Langkawi, CLICK HERE.

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  1. Lovely post! And you write so well…refreshing after so many un proofread blogs, loaded with crap grammar. I’m really enjoying your tales.

  2. What a great story! It would benefit all “Superior” Americans to experience being a less than popular minority for a few days–perhaps they would be a bit more tolerant of their fellow man! I am proud of you ladies for understanding how the world works and appreciating beauty wherever you it–carry on.


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