Anti-Travel Post #2: Saying Goodbye to Langkawi

Originally posted to The Shorty Method as “Anti-Travel Post #2: Heisenberg In Langkawi”

Thursday, September 05, 2013
W & O Hostel, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

Although Langkawi had some charms, I wasn’t sad to leave it and head for our next stop, the historic city of Georgetown in Penang.

To be fair to Langkawi, it was the first stop on our trip and we arrived there after a grueling 30-plus hours of travel, most of which was in the air (which I hate—more on that later). We were tired and jet-lagged, not to mention that we had yet to adapt to the nomadic way of life (for example, our packs were, and still are, woefully over packed). The whole process of planning (thanks Lucy), packing, tying up loose ends in the U.S. (many still dangling loosely in the breeze), saying goodbyes (“but you just got home!”), and actually doing the traveling was very stressful, which probably clouded my view of the first place we ended up somewhat.

In fact, at least for me, the stress of travel was piled on top of the stress I’d gone through in preparing to leave Taiwan, where I’d been living for over a decade (talk about loose ends!), and the stress of getting married (I’m ecstatic to be married, but the actual process of a wedding is a logistic nightmare. I was lucky in that Lucy handled almost all of the planning and organization. Even so, it was no walk in the park for me). So when I finally crashed into my bed at the Bon Ton Temple Tree Resort in Langkawi, Malaysia, I was on the verge of mental collapse. In fact, it has taken me a couple of weeks to start winding down and to realize that, at least for the next few months, I don’t have to live by a clock—or even by a calendar.

So, I’m sorry Langkawi. As Tyler Durden said to Marla Singer at the end of Fight Club, “You met me at a very strange time in my life.” Still, I have to be honest that as a place you are your own worst enemy, or at least the people that live on you are. I guess the same could be said about the whole planet, for that matter.

I could probably fit this in to my general “anti-travel” theme, but instead of laying it at the feet of the travelers, I’m going to take aim more at the locals. Langkawi is a jewel. If one could visit there before the government turned it into a duty-free zone and began to develop it as a tourist destination, it would be a paradise (aside from the insects, crocodiles, snakes, impossibility of getting from one place to another, and likelihood of contracting water, food, or insect borne disease). It has beautiful beaches with warm, green water from the Andaman Sea. The lush flora covers all but the steepest cliffs of its stunning mountain formations. There are a number of breathtaking waterfalls to see, as well as to swim in. The sunsets are awesome. The fauna is exotic and varied, from birds to fish, reptiles to mammals (who doesn’t love monkeys—I mean, other than people who actually live in proximity to them?). Sure it is a little bit on the warm side, but that is what the beaches and waterfalls are for, right?

All of this natural beauty is still there, but the problem is that no-one can make money from it, or at least not enough people can make enough, and not directly from nature. So what do the local people do? Well, the first thing they do is drop the plow and get behind the wheel of a taxi, or, if they’ve got more capital, open a hotel, restaurant, or mini-mart. Or more likely, they stand there with their mouths open in shock and wonder while other Malaysians flock to their island and start those businesses (then they probably go to work for those off-islanders). Either way, one can’t blame a farmer for preferring driving a cab (or doing whatever other service-based job) to staring at the backside of a water buffalo all day while slogging through the muck. They probably make a lot more money with what is certainly a lot less physical effort. This is all good, and part of the economic development of the place. But the problem is that the pie is only so large, and the slices start to get pretty thin as more and more people try to get their piece.

There is only so much room for drivers to take arriving tourists to their hotels (just as one example, another might be that there are only so many meals that tourists can consume), so locals have to come up with new ways to compete for the tourist dollars. So you end up with those banana boats, jet skis, parachute sailing (or whatever it is called) and various other activities that people will shell out for because sitting on a gorgeous tropical beach thousands of miles from the normal stresses of life is just not enough. There probably isn’t a tourist-destination beach in the world that doesn’t have all of that stuff. I don’t deny that it might be fun, but is it really necessary?

Then there are all the tours and attractions that spring up. A good example in Langkawi are the crocodile “farms.” Crocodiles used to live naturally in the mangroves, but the government put a bounty on them and now they only live in captivity, mostly at places that show them off to tourists, and then slaughter them for their hides and meat. Naturally tourists want to see crocodiles. Who doesn’t? But the problem is that it is difficult to observe them in nature, as well as time-consuming and costly. Solution? Round ‘em up and put on a show!

You can still go on a boat tour of the island and the mangroves. It is pretty interesting by itself, but just to make sure the tourists get what they paid for, the boat operators toss food into the water to get the birds to swoop down for dramatic effect. They also toss food to the monkeys to attract them to the shoreline so people can take their pictures. The result is that the monkeys lose their ability (or will) to forage for natural food and instead become pests that are dependent on scraps from humans. Probably the worst thing I saw was a “fish farm” where local fishermen bring not only typical food fish, but more exotic varieties that they catch (barracudas, rays, giant angelfish, sharks, and so on). These fish are kept in tiny underwater pens and are pulled up repeatedly all day to show the tourists. They can’t survive long like that. Finally there was the zoo, or “Wildlife Park” as it is billed. It’s not the worst zoo I’ve seen (that distinction belongs to the Hsinchu Zoo in Taiwan), but it was pretty bad. A lot of the animals there aren’t even native to Langkawi, so it isn’t even really an informative experience to go there, and the conditions are pretty bad for the animals. Still, it is one of the major attractions.

The list could go on, but I think I’ve given enough examples to make my point. Looking at something, particularly a fragile natural system, changes it. This is true even in the least intrusive cases where people actually trek far into the wilderness to observe nature. In the case of tourist destinations, it is really devastating to the natural systems. On one hand you can’t really blame the locals; they are just trying to make a living. Tourists should know better (if you can afford to got to a tourist destination, you should be able to afford an education), but I think what happens is that many people arrive at a place like Langkawi, have a swim, look at a sunset, and then wake up the next morning and say, “What do you want to do today?”

Given a more eco-friendly option, a lot of people would probably take it. Without such options, people will do whatever is available. I don’t know why people feel driven to do anything while on vacation, after all doing nothing is what vacations are for. What seems to happen, though, is that locals see tourists as a source of cash, and so they invent things for them to do, and human nature seems to impel people to do whatever activity there is available to do, even if they never would have thought of doing it on their own.

So what ends up happening is that the very thing that makes a place like Langkawi attractive in the first place, its natural beauty, becomes degraded to the point where it eventually ceases to be a feature of the place and is soon replaced by luxury hotels, theme parks (a major one is under construction in Langkawi at the moment), and banana boats. The locals, in the natural desire to make a good living, try to make nature unnaturally accessible, and try to come up with all kinds of other activities and enticements that have nothing to do with the original character of the place (duty-free shops and theme parks, for example). All of this, coupled with the generally dilapidated condition of much of the Langkawi infrastructure (there are many partially constructed buildings, things that are falling apart, and places in serious need of maintenance) lead to lot of disappointing experiences for anyone who is looking for more than rest and relaxation on a beautiful beach.

Lucky for me, that’s all I really want from a gorgeous tropical island.

Looking back on Langkawi

I told Mike tonight that I prefer websites over blogs. In websites everything has a place for a reason. It has some sort of logical, categorical order, laid out like a table of contents.

Blogs may be searchable by tags and categories, but mostly they are at the mercy of chronology. That’s the point though. I think blogs were intended to be like journals (I was inspired to start blogging when I read of how a writer developed his craft by blogging every day in a personal blog no one else had access to), but have somehow turned into the new newspaper. Newspapers are also subject to the passage of time, sometimes mercifully so. I remember attending a talk given by a journalist that my dad took me to when I was in high school (I was guilty of being on the school newspaper). She seemed wary of an audience member’s suggestion that newspaper works be bound up and saved in the form of a book. Her reply insisted that journalists liked the transience of their own work, how it was all here today and gone tomorrow.

That’s right. A book or a website may be polished. Blogs, no matter how polished each post may be,are rawer. It is only with journalistic integrity that they may be edited (I generally don’t have this fastidiousness).

The truth is, I wasn’t happy with the quality of my posts while in Langkawi, even as I was writing them. I didn’t feel like writing then,but felt somehow obliged to. I could go back and edit,and probably will, but for the most part I will let them stand as they are as testament to how I was back then. I was cranky, due to hormones and jet lag and being new to the wear and tear of travel–frustrated by Langkawi, and very frustrated by the poor Internet connection.

Overall, I like Georgetown much better. It’s still unrelentingly touristy, but not vacations, as Mike said. It’s walkable. The hostels are cleaner and the Internet works (obviously). I am also reading better literature. (For some reason I decided to slough through The Dragonriders of Pern while on Langkawi. While preparing to leave the island, I started Howard’s End instead. Come to think of it, the first few good days on Langkawi, I was reading The Fault in Our Stars.) Good literature makes me thoughtfully inspired. Rather, my criteria for what good literature is, is that it makes me thoughtfully inspired.

Anyway, I still intend to document life on Langkawi, but it will be chronologically dis-synchronous.