We had a pretty tough time deciding where to go after Penang, because we knew we’d be flying to Bali in less than a week so wherever we went would have to be relatively easy and quick to get to. Borneo sounded very appealing - jungles, islands, diving, and mountains all in one convenient package, but it would have been rather costly to get to at the last minute (which is, of course, how we plan almost all our travels). The Tioman Islands also sounded promising, but getting there seemed to be a bit of a challenge and we weren’t sure how much time we’d have to really enjoy our stay.
In the end we opted for Langkawi, a popular and fairly touristy island a short ferry ride away from Penang. Langkawi is well-known in Malaysia for being duty-free. For Malaysians, that means affordable shopping for everything from housewares to candy, and for tourists it mostly means dirt-cheap booze.
Of course, we were still reeling from a lot of partying in Thailand, so that wasn’t Langkawi’s biggest draw for us. What did appeal, though, was the promise of gorgeous white-sand beaches and a relaxed island atmosphere, along with more of the amazing food we’ve come to love during our time in Malaysia.
Getting to Langkawi from Penang couldn’t be easier - the ferry leaves right from Georgetown (we took an Uber from our hostel to the port, but it was a very short ride and you can easily take a RapidPenang bus) and the ferry leaves several times per day. We were able to book our tickets online, and all you have to do once you arrive at the port is check in at the ticket desk.
Langkawi is a fairly large island, so to get around you’ll need transport. Uber is available on the island, and there are plenty of taxis as well. We took a ‘taxi’ from the port (it was unmarked, I think it was just some guy driving his own car around, but he got us there in one piece and we’re so used to that at this point that we didn’t bat an eye) and it cost us around $10 for a roughly 30-minute drive to our hostel in Kedah Beach. I believe we overpaid, so if you choose to take a cab I would suggest negotiating that price down or just using Uber. If your lodging provides port pickup, I’d recommend using that.
As I said, we stayed on Kedah Beach, just a short drive from Cenang Beach where most of the action is. We stayed at Zackry Guest House and really loved it. We had a private room with AC and a shared bathroom and it was clean, comfortable, and affordable - what more could you need?. The crowd was definitely a bit older and more relaxed, which we loved, but the lobby has a beer vending machine (beers cost $0.50!) and the vibe was very friendly and social without being a party every night. The staff was super friendly and helpful as well. We were able to rent a motorbike through them for the duration of our stay, and they provided helmets and actually asked Alex to prove he could ride it by driving around the parking lot, which we REALLY appreciated because it seems like most places in Asia are far too lax about renting motorbikes to inexperienced tourists.
We really loved the location of the guesthouse. On Kedah beach there are several restaurants and lots of self-contained resorts, but everything is pretty quiet, whereas Cenang is much more crowded and bustling. Cenang is where all the duty-free shops are, and a lot of restaurants and budget accommodations are located here too, but it does feel very congested and traffic is terrible. We rented a motorbike so we were able to go down to Cenang when we wanted, but to be honest we hardly spent any time there because we preferred Kedah.
The main attraction on Langkawi is, of course, the beach. White sand, palm trees, blue water - it’s one of those picture-perfect islands that makes people super jealous when you post pics on Instagram. As I mentioned before, Kedah was super quiet and empty, and during our whole week in Langkawi we hardly ever saw more than 10 or 15 people on the whole beach. Cenang is a different story - I went there two days to go diving, and it’s pretty crowded with lots of hawkers and lounge chairs and other typical beach stuff. But Kedah was perfect. It was so empty and relaxed we felt totally fine leaving our stuff on the beach while we both swam, something we haven’t felt comfortable doing at other beaches we’ve visited on this trip.
One thing that’s sort of odd about going to the beach here is that Malaysia is, of course, a predominantly Muslim country. People are very tolerant and there were lots of tourists wearing bikinis on the beach, but there were also plenty of Malaysian tourists wearing conservative clothing and burkinis. After spending some time in other conservative countries (though admittedly not Muslim ones), I’m hyper-aware of the fact that the way a woman dresses can say a lot, even if that’s not her intention. Because of this, I always wore a covering when going to/from the beach. I felt fine wearing shorts around Cenang and Kedah but I’d never walk around in just my bikini top and shorts, for example, and if we went outside of the touristy areas I’d wear loose comfy pants instead of my jean shorts. It was probably overkill, but I’d rather err on the side of respectfulness.
There are some popular tourist attractions on the island apart from the beach - the Sky Bridge and the Sky Cab cable car are a great way to get a scenic view of the island. We actually didn’t go due to poor weather the day we planned to visit, but it’s one of the most popular things to do on the island and if the sky it’s worth the trip. There are also a few dive shops on the island, although visibility is notoriously poor. I dove with Langkawi Divers and highly recommend them.
For the most part, our favorite activity other than the beach was just cruising around on the motorbike. Langkawi’s roads are wide and well-maintained, and traffic is generally fine, so getting around is easy. The island is absolutely beautiful, and you can see a diverse variety of landscapes - palm trees, rugged coast, mountains, and rice fields, to name a few - in one afternoon. Of course, I’d only recommend doing this if you’re comfortable driving a motorbike, and make sure to wear a helmet.
We were pleasantly surprised by the food in Langkawi. At first we were worried about being stuck with mediocre and overpriced tourist food, but generally we found the food to be affordable and delicious. There are plenty of authentic local Malaysian eateries (gimme ALL the roti canai - Malaysia’s favorite breakfast) but when we were craving international fare it was easy to find. There’s even a Starbucks on the island, although thankfully we didn’t go there.
Our favorite restaurant on the island was HaRoo, a Korean place just down the street from our hostel. We tried almost everything on the menu and it was all delicious but the kimchi pancake was our favorite. The Pizza Maker served awesome calzones, Yasmin had pretty good middle eastern fare, and YamYam had delicious smoothies and good espresso. Colonial India right by our hostel was great for (you guessed it) Indian, and just up the road about a 10-minute walk from the guesthouse was a number of local Malaysian-style eateries serving up good local foods. Tomato Nasi Kandar was our favorite of the bunch, though a little confusing - you can either order a la carte or eat the buffet, though we didn’t fully understand this when we went there. There are also night markets and food stalls all across the island - if you cruise around on a motorbike you’re sure to encounter a couple.
We didn’t do much in the way of nightlife on the island. There are a fair amount of bars, especially down on Cenang but we preferred to grab some wine from the duty-free shop instead of going out. It’s so affordable - beer and wine are cheap, and you can get a liter of gin for roughly $8, which is more gin than anyone needs, and completely negates the need to buy drinks at a bar. Win-win!
All in all, Langkawi is a great and affordable beach destination. We didn’t do as many activities as we might have in, say, Borneo, but for us it was an ideal spot to relax and enjoy ourselves, and the beaches are seriously pristine. If you’re traveling through Malaysia and finding it difficult to pick an easily accessible, convenient destination with plenty to do and good food, Langkawi’s a great option.