Wednesday, July 8, 2009
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
Langkawi, and some if its smaller islands, has a legendary reputation, with many places where myth and natural beauty seem to coincide.
Many of its legends are all the more real, simply because its people are convinced of their authenticity.
Langkawi certainly has its own share of geological uniqueness, as the very landscape from which these legends are derived.
The island's oldest geological formation, Gunung Matchincang, was the first part of South-East Asia to rise from the seabed in the Cambrian period more than half a billion years ago.
You can literally see Langkawi's history in the oldest part of the formation from Teluk Datai at the north-west of the island, where the exposed outcrop consists of mainly sandstone (quartzite) in the upper parts and shale and mudstone in the lower parts of the sequence.
This piece of history in the form of the rugged topography makes a stunning backdrop to the culture and myths around the island.
The history behind this whole area is facinating, and it will have been the older civilisations that fostered many of the famous legends.
Langkawi is part of the State of Kedah, and as you will see from the following precis of its very ancient connections, that many of those involved will have past these islands from time immemorial.
It may only have been in the last few centuries that Langkawi was settled but fisherman and pirates have been here long before.
Archaeological evidence suggests that Kedah is the site of Peninsular Malaysia's oldest civilization.
Before the sea route around the peninsula was firmly established, trade between India and China was conducted across the peninsular isthmus.
One of the primary trading centers for this overland trade was a Hindu-Buddhist kingdom that flourished from the fourth to the seventh century in the Bujang Valley, just south of the peak of Gunung Jerai (and thus easily located by early Indian mariners).
Like Malacca a thousand years later, the Bujang Valley civilization attracted a cosmopolitan population of merchants and traders, including Indians, Chinese, Achenese (from Sumatra), Burmese, and Arabs. With the arrival of Arab traders, Islam arrived on the Peninsula for the first time, though the most substantial cultural influence came from Pallava India.
As was the case with many of Malaysia's greatest trading civilizations, the Bujang Valley kingdom's prosperity made it an attractive target for outsiders.
The region came under the influence of the Sumatran kingdom of Sri Vijaya in the 7th and 8th century, followed by a period during which Kedah was dominated by the Thai states to the north. Kedah's ancient civilization waned in importance by the 15th century, when Malacca assumed a more dominant role. The establishment of Islam in Kedah is due to Malacca's influence.
When Malacca fell to the Portuguese, the influence of its Sultanate over Kedah weakened. However, other powers soon asserted themselves in Kedah, including both the Portuguese and the rising Achenese, and by the end of the 18th century the Thai threat arose once more.
Fearing renewed domination by its northern neighbours, Kedah appealed to the British for assistance. As inducements to a commitment, Kedah ceded first Penang (1796) and then the adjoining strip of coastal land (1800) to the British. Nonetheless, Kedah fell to the Thais in 1821. Thailand transferred their sovereignty to the British in 1909. With the exception of the period of occupation by the Japanese during World War II, Kedah remained under British influence until independence.
And what makes Langkawi so alluring are the many legends that surround it, in their natural setting.
Some of the legends have some basis in truth and historical events.
Others have made the natural landscape come alive with fantastic beings. But wherever you go on the island, it will be the haunting beauty of the scenery and the charm of the people that will convince you of Langkawi's mythic status.
Some of the places where you can still find these natural legends include:
One of the most significant sites on the island that have been preserved for posterity is Makam Mahsuri (Mahsuri's Mausoleum), about 12 kilometers from Kuah.
This shrine was erected in honor of Mahsuri, a beautiful maiden who was unjustly accused of adultery
and put to death some time in the 18th Century.
According to legend, white blood flowed at her execution, proving her innocence as with her dying breath she laid a curse on the island that it would remain barren for seven generations.
The subsequent invasion by the Siamese began the decline, signs of which can also be seen at Beras Terbakar (The Field of Burnt Rice) with blackened grains still on the ground).
After many years languishing as a backwater, one of the first people to begin re-introducing Langkawi to the world was the late Tunku Abdul Rahman, the first Prime Minister of Malaysia.
Having heard the legend as a young District Officer in Kedah, the Tunku was able to find Mahsuri's grave to pay his respects and set up a tomb to honour her memory.
His fortune, and that of those who had helped him pay respect, improved not long after, and so the legend of Mahsuri began.
The legend is now firmly established in the Malaysian psyche, with many plays, movies and school textbooks.
For Malaysians, the legend of Mahsuri shows that truth and goodness shall prevail. Langkawi's development and prosperity improved not long after the supposed end of the curse in the 1980's, and Mahsuri's descendants have also been located in Southern Thailand.
Makam Mahsuri, Opening hours: Daily; 7.30 am - 6 pm
Telaga Tujuh (Seven Wells) is a geological marvel located in the south-western corner of the main island.
The waterfall used to be buried deep in the jungle and its beauty was rarely seen.
Its name is derived from the series of seven natural pools forming the waterfall's dramatic cascade down a steep 90 metre high rock face.
Although now easily accessible by road, the lush green forest that surrounds the waterfall still adds a mystical touch to the natural splendor with trails leading up to nearby Gunung Matchincang.
Legend has it that fairies used to come down to the waterfall to bathe and frolic, though only the most skilled or lucky would ever be able to glimpse their unearthly beauty.
Telaga Tujuh has some picnicking and changing facilities and is located near the Cable Car.
Open daily. ..
This lovely beach, located near the Ibrahim Hussein Museum and Cultural Foundation on the north-west of the island, has a rather sinister name.
Literally the 'beach of skulls', rumour has it that this was long a traditional shelter for pirates who preyed on vessels around the Andaman Sea and the Straits of Melaka.
Today, the beach has well-developed tourist facilities so the only treasure to be found is a great day on the beach.
Pantai Tengkorak has some picnicking and camping facilities.
The legend with this hot spring arose from a wedding feast that went wrong. After a perceived insult, a fight between two families of giants began with smashed banquet items being hurled miles away, giving rise to the island's main features.
The spilled hot water became the springs at Air Hangat (hot water), while the broken pots turned into
Belanga Perak and the liquids lost into the ground became Kisap.
As a result of all the furor, a witch known as the gedembai turned the two patriachs, Mat and Raya, into two of the island's major mountains, Gunung Raya and Gunung Matchincang to punish them for the mayhem and to this day they still remain locked in stone watching over the island.
Air Hangat Village has tourist and bathing facilities in the hot springs.
Open daily from 9am to 6pm. .
This is the main town located on the south-eastern tip of Pulau Langkawi.
The word kuah is Malay for gravy and is also associated with the ancient legend of two battling giants who overturned a gigantic pot of curry at the spot where the town now stands.
Dataran Lang (Eagle Square) in Kuah is Langkawi's most prominent landmark with the main attraction being the statue of the eagle poised in flight.
Langkawi supposedly derives its name from the Malay word helang for eagle, hence Langkawi is truly an island of eagles.
Real-life birds of prey, including hawks and raptors, can be seen allover the island, wheeling about in aerial circles high above the land like the island's natural guardians.
Open daily, close to the Jetty area.
Pulau Dayang Bunting
Pulau Dayang Bunting south of Pulau Langkawi has the largest freshwater lake in the group of Langkawi islands. The hilly landscape on one side of the lake indeed resembles the shape of a pregnant maiden lying on her back.
However, the name of both the island and lake, the Pregnant Maiden, is attributed to the legend of a lovely fairy princess who blessed the lake's waters so that any childless woman who bathed in the lake would conceive thereafter.
Nearby on the same island is a cave known as Gua Langsiar which is so deep and dark that local people traditionally would never set foot there. They are convinced the cave is home to a giant female vampire called the langsiar, which lured men to her lair to feed on their blood. The eerie sounds coming from the depths of the cave were said to be the cries of the banshee, though it is now known that the cave is home to thousands of bats.
Pulau Dayang Bunting is accessible by boat, group trips and charters can be easily arranged with major hotels and tour operators.
For an island filled with legends, this cave off the north-east coast of the main island is appropriately named the cave of legends.
It is a unique natural limestone formation accessible from the mangroves by boat. It was also believed to be the home of the giant female witch, known as the gedembai.
The cave was also made
famous for its cave paintings, including ancient tribal paintings and seventeenth century Arabic inscriptions, though some have been vandalised over the years.
Access to Gua Cerita can be made by organised boat trips.