By Lily Ong

For a second, I thought I might have landed in the wrong destination when greeted by an airport scene very much different from the one just a year ago. I soon found out that Langkawi International Airport had undergone a 12-month expansion to increase its capacity to accommodate up to four million passengers a year and 1,000 passengers an hour during peak times. This was a necessary undertaking as Langkawi, an archipelago of 99 islands on the west coast of Malaysia, has increasingly made it on to the radar of travelers over the years.

In 20 minutes, our group of three, comprising my mother, my daughter and myself, was shuttled from the airport to Anjung Villa where we were staying. Despite having modern facilities such as a swimming pool, this low-rise hotel was serenely nestled in the quiet of the rice paddy fields; even our local driver was surprised to learn of its existence.

We wasted no time in offloading our baggage before heading straight to Langkawi Wildlife Park. A year on, the park still calls out to the animal lovers in us, enticing us back to Langkawi. Those dreading the hot sun can take relief in knowing that the five-acre park comes with sheltered walkways providing shade throughout all the exhibits.

We purchased a couple of bags of feed comprising seeds, cabbage, apples and carrots. At each exhibit, a chart is prominently displayed to educate us on the right items to feed the specific animals. Indeed, what we appreciated most about the park is the up-close interaction it affords its visitors with its inhabitants. Friendly parrots, hungry deer, curious emus, adorable bunnies and elegant flamingoes, among others, all took food out of the palms of our hands with little hesitation, just as the hedgehogs did.

We were privileged to run into the snake keeper with an exquisitely patterned python wrapped around her neck. She graciously allowed me to hold it, much to the giggles of my daughter and the disapproval of my mother. With a little encouragement, my daughter took the snake from me and charmed it with ease. A further hike into the park found us at the crocodile exhibit. We walked eagerly up to the keeper with a baby crocodile cradled in his arms. He beckoned for us to sit on a bench; no sooner had we done so, we felt the slap of a cold and sticky load on our bare skin. There it was, the little reptile looking as cold as it felt, making itself completely at home upon our laps.

This night, we continued our adventure at a night market. Known locally as Pasar Malam, this is where street food can be seen being fried up in a wok, heated up on a grill and strikingly paraded upon rows and rows of makeshift stalls. As these markets move around through the week, be sure to inquire of their daily location with the locals.

From chicken satay to mutabark (stuffed pancake), nasi lemak to drinks of motley flavors, pasar malam showcase authentic local delicacies in the most vibrant way. Haggling is a common sight among the locals but even if you aren’t skilled in the art, know that the prices remain a steal without you having to bargain. Besides food, toys, sunglasses, clothes, bags, shoes and an assortment of other merchandise are dotted throughout the night market.

On our way home, we came upon a roadblock by a herd of water buffalo. Having done their grazing all day, these fellows were just as ready to head home. We saw no herder around and learned from our driver that these well-trained beasts simply walk themselves home at night.

A well-rested night readied us for a day of adventure at Kilim Geoforest Park, located at the northeast tip of Langkawi; as soon as were arrived at Kilim Jetty, we jumped on a waiting boat that would first take us to a floating fish farm.

Sitting atop a timber platform floating upon large empty drums, the small fish farm is more a sampling exhibit of Langkawi fish than a commercial fish farm. Nonetheless, we took delight in feeding the water creatures, including the horseshoe crabs and the stingrays. It was an amazing experience to watch the large rays open up their mouths on their underbelly as they gently drew the cuttlefish out of our hands.

Our next stop was Gua Kelawar, the bat cave. I couldn’t help but notice a monkey looking straight at us as we stopped at the entrance to rent a flashlight. Our guide handed me a three-feet stick, noticing the wary look on my face. Armed with my defense tool, I led my mother and my daughter into the dark cavern. We must have seen a few hundred pairs of eyes staring back at us as we shone our flashlight above.

The cave itself wasn’t very large and we soon found ourselves on the opposite opening, only to be greeted by what appeared to be the same monkey that had been eyeballing us at the front entrance. This time, though, with half a dozen of his kind around him!

After what felt like an eternity of avoiding eye-contact with  these primates who took to following us, but was in reality no more than a 20-meter trek, we arrived back at the front entrance to hop on the boat that would take us away from the stealthy bat cave treacherously flanked by one rascally monkey too many.

No trip to Langkawi would be complete without a voyage to one of its pristine beaches. We elected to dine at a beachside restaurant at Tanjong Rhu on our last night after the adults had pushed enough sand into footrests and the Frozen fan had erected her Arendelle Sandcastle. While breaking juicy prawns out of their shells and quenching our parched throats with fresh coconut water, my daughter blurted, “The monkey just wanted to play with me.“ “Maybe yes,” I replied, “maybe not.”