Explore the Kilim geoforest park, a Unesco site since 2007, and encounter the diverse wildlife of the 99 islands through the Good Travel with Marriott Bonvoy programme
To many, Langkawi is known for affordable alcohol and chocolate. Since obtaining tax-free status in 1987, tourists worldwide have flocked to the island to indulge in duty-free shopping, where a bottle of gin costs about RM40 to RM60 (between $11 to $17).
But tourists who only seek these excesses are missing out on the one true free experience of Langkawi: Its diversity of nature. Nicknamed the Jewel of Kedah, Langkawi — located in Northwest Malaysia — is made up of 99 islands with a natural history that dates back more than 550 million years and is home to magnificent geological structures, wildlife including 200 bird species and monkeys, and pristine beaches with turquoise waters.
As part of the Good Travel with Marriott Bonvoy programme, I stayed two nights in two of Langkawi’s most luxurious beachfront hotels. I also joined in on their ecotourism activities, where I learnt about the island’s ecology from passionate locals.
My vacation cum education started on the first day of my arrival at The Ritz Carlton Langkawi, where I had a welcome from two of nature’s friends. A troop of adorable dusky leaf monkeys hung around as I checked in, and I spotted two yellow-beaked great hornbills on my way to my room. Although they can be found all around the island, Natasha Venner-Pack, the marketing and communications manager at The Ritz Carlton, told me I was lucky the animals had come out to greet me.
The conservation plan
The Ritz Carlton Langkawi sits on the Pantai Kok side of the main island, nestled between a 10 million-year-old rainforest on one side and the clear-blue Andaman Sea on the other. This makes them well placed to participate in both green and blue conservation efforts actively, says Venner-Pack.
The hotel piloted a conservation programme to educate their guests about sea cucumbers in two parts, the first is through an educational programme under Ritz Kids, and the second is a hands-on reproduction effort.
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Langkawi’s industrialisation of sea cucumbers for food and medicine has led to over-farming and coral bleaching. However, sea cucumbers play a crucial role as the ocean’s “vacuum cleaners,” says Fadzli Luqman, The Ritz Carlton’s marine biologist.
Fun fact: Did you know sea cucumbers can grow up to 1.8 m in length, and they breathe through their posterior? Sea cucumbers are sea animals that can reproduce sexually and asexually. They are found on the seabed, where they eat the dirt nestled between sand grains and later release the “clean” sand back into the waters.
Crowding around a little sea cucumber nursery within the premises of The Ritz Carlton, Fadzli explains that our goal today was to help the sea cucumbers reproduce asexually. The species of sea cucumber is the black sand fish species, common in the Pantai Kok part of the archipelago. Fadzli fished one sea cucumber out of the nursery, and the animal shrank as if to harden up against external threats.
The marine biologist then placed a cable tie in the middle of its body, where the animal would slowly adapt to split into two, forming two new sea cucumbers from the one. This process takes about six months, after which the team releases them back into the sea.
Fadzli says that they pick out the sea cucumbers just along the shores of the hotel front, and they work closely with the Malaysian Department of Fisheries to evaluate the population of sea cucumbers at any one time and consult them on their process of asexually reproducing the animals.
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As we crowd around the little nursery, Fadzli reflects on the last year of conducting this educational programme for guests. “We’ve had more than 100 educational talks and repopulated between 20 to 30 sea cucumbers since then,” he says.
I have always closely associated sea cucumbers with food consumed as a means of luxury and wealth, but through Fadzli, I learnt that these sea creatures are as important as any other in balancing the ecosystem in our seas. I made a mental note to share this newfound fact with all my relatives the next time someone tries to order it as a dish.
The next morning, we geared up for a hike in the rainforest just in the backyard of our resort. Our guide, Wafiq Othman, is a recreation executive and certified naturalist from a family of environmentalists. I was told that his grandfather was one of the few pioneers of conservationists in Langkawi, and it was apparent after spending the morning with him that the green gene runs strong in his household.
We walked through the 10 million-year-old rainforest where Wafiq looked right at home. He could comfortably identify each species of unique flora and fauna and describe their special place in Langkawi’s biodiversity in a heartbeat.
Like any tropical rainforest, it was humid and incredibly dense, but Wafiq’s lively injection of educational tidbits on our journey made all the difference.
I am an avid hiker, but having Wafiq as a guide felt enriching. With him, we spotted black giant squirrels, hornbills, eagles, and various plant types, including the Tongkat Ali tree, which our guide verifies to be safe for consumption for both males and females. Our trek concluded as we approached a private beach tucked inside the rainforest.
Langkawi is an amalgamation of the Malay word helang (eagle) and kawi (Sanskrit for the bird’s reddish-brown tone), and Langkawi is most common to the white-bellied sea eagle and the brahminy kite, a sighting we would frequent later in the day.
We made our way to the eastern part of the mainland, Kuah, to the St. Regis Langkawi, where we stayed for the night. The luxury hotel boasts a lovely villa that consists of a private pool that is connected to the beachfront, where we were a walking distance away from the highly Instagrammable Kayuputih, which was named the best restaurant in Malaysia by Travel and Leisure Asia last year.
Hannah Rahim, the marketing and communications executive at St. Regis, says the “violet sunset” that many guests enjoy at Kayuputih’s Pavilion Bar. St. Regis Langkawi is within the Kilim geoforest park — Unesco’s first Southeast Asia Geopark — largely covered by sprawling mangrove forests and limestone rock formations. As part of the Good Travel with Marriott Bonvoy programme, the St. Regis Langkawi teams up with tour operators JungleWalla, who consider themselves “low-impact eco-tourism” providers, to teach tourists about the ecology of Langkawi.
We started the tour at the docks, where our guide, Venosha Balachandran, a professional naturalist, greeted us. We readied for a three-hour-long tour around the mangroves and the smaller islands on a balmy weekday. However, Balachandran’s expertise and fervour for the environment far exceeded our expectations, leaving us thoroughly impressed.
Up close with nature
In our little boat, we travelled around and between the mangroves, where she shared with us the importance of their role in the ecosystem. During the 2004 tsunami, which took over 230,000 lives in neighbouring Phuket, Langkawi remained largely unaffected, with only one fatality reported. Balachandran says mangroves and limestone rocks played an extremely crucial part in protecting the shores from the impact of the waves. Three years later, Kilim was awarded the Unesco title.
As we were visiting on a Tuesday afternoon, the waters were not as crowded as they would have been on the weekend, as not many other tour operators were around. The result? We could see rows of clear mangroves and limestone rock formations against the backdrop of a clear blue sky, with waters so clear it reflected the image on land. I gawked at the beauty of it, something I truly did not expect to see somewhere so close to home. It reminded me of the beautiful landscapes in the national parks in the US.
We learnt that there are 50 over species of mangrove forests in Langkawi’s Kilim Park which have a lifespan of 250 years. Over time, they have evolved to become an efficient contributor to the ecosystem, providing homes to vipers, monkeys and eagles alike.
As we settled deeper into the mangroves, we spotted a spread of eagles above us. Balachandran says this area has become a popular hangout spot for the eagles, who have grown reliant on being fed mass-produced chicken's skin by other tour operators who used that tactic to tout tourists for years.
The sight of the majestic eagles swooping into the waters to pick food up and circling above us was no doubt incredibly beautiful, but Balachandran said this was harmful as mass-produced chicken's skin is not a natural part of an eagles diet, and this dependence on being fed meant the birds would be less inclined to hunt for their food.
Overall, JungleWalla provides ethical, unique, fun, and informative tours. During our experience, Balachandran’s valuable insight enlightened us about the detrimental effects of feeding eagles, a perspective I had not previously considered.
As we headed back to the dock, we circled the exterior of Kilim geopark along the Andaman Sea, where Balachandran paused to show us a large fossil that resembled a palm tree perched on top of a limestone formation. It was a cliff cycad, an ancient group of cone-bearing plants that exists before rainforests did, which makes them about 100 million years old — a fraction of the age of the limestone it was growing on top of. It was impressive to stand witness to nature that had weathered through time. I snapped photos and excitedly shared what I learned from Balachandran with my attentive friends.
I was equally in awe of the beauty and how well-kept Kilim forest park was, and Balanchandran’s impressive knowledge of ecology, and my impression of Langkawi was forever changed.
On my way home from the airport, I spoke with a fellow holiday-goer who had been visiting with his family. He said that Langkawi was no longer the party island he recalled it to be almost 10 years ago, to which I felt inclined to chime in with the little nuggets of information I had taken away from my three educational experiences during my short trip.
If you are planning a Langkawi getaway, the Good Travel with Marriott Bonvoy experience is your ticket to exploring the region’s captivating history. Get ready for an unforgettable and enriching journey like no other.