18 September 2009

Languid Langkawi

Languid Langkawi
3 Days of Butterflying on a Tropical Island Paradise

The Helang or Eagle, stands guard at the entry of the harbour at Kuah Town, Langkawi

Think searing blue skies softened by tufts of cloud, white sand beaches washed in clear green seas, wandering water buffaloes in light green paddy fields, and eagles soaring over majestic mountain ridges reaching up into the clouds… and it is easy to understand why Langkawi is popularly known as a tropical paradise.

Pulau Langkawi is the largest island in an archipelago of 99 islands off the mainland coast of northwestern Malaysia and is part of the state of Kedah. Langkawi has a World Geopark status by UNESCO with Machincang Cambrian Geoforest Park, Kilim Karst Geoforest Park and Dayang Bunting Marble Geoforest park (Island of the Pregnant Maiden Lake) being the 3 most popular parks.

That being said, we averted from the touristy areas and banked our chances of encountering rare butterflies on trails less travelled. Our little group of butterfly-philic photographers consisting of Sunny Chir, lepidopterist Khew SK, Bobby Mun and Ellen Tan, were less averse to leech bites than disruptive crowds of excited tourists.

After a short 90 minute flight from Changi Airport, our SilkAir flight landed at the Langkawi International Airport in the early evening. Our car rental driver met us as we emerged from the airport, and he drove us to the nearby Langkasuka hotel where we were staying. Dinner was at a local seafood place at Panti Cenang. Langkawi is also a paradise for alcohol-loving tourists, as a can of Tiger beer costs only RM1.60 (that's about S$0.65 a can!)

Day 1 : Gunung Raya

Our first day saw us up and about early, and the first thing we did was to look for a petrol station to make sure that we don't end up gas-less somewhere in the middle of Langkawi. After orbiting around town, and navigating via the map and road signs, we ended up back at the hotel for breakfast! We soon learnt quickly that you either referred to the map OR the road signs, but not both, otherwise we'll orbit hopelessly around the island.

We headed for Gunung Raya, and the first site we trundled up in our struggling little 3 gear car (Proton Wira Auto has only 3 forward gears) was the 881-metre high Gunung Raya, the tallest natural feature on Langkawi. The mountain is believed to be the cursed form of a giant, known as Mat Raya, who once lived on the island.

Gunung Raya’s peak was persistently shrouded in mist and cloud while we were there and the weather on its winding roads switched as suddenly from sunshine to rain to sunshine as quickly and dramatically as a time lapse recording of seasonal rains in African savannah.

Sunny getting rid of the pesky blood-sucking leeches!

In spite of the erratic weather, Helens abounded in numbers, Chestnut tigers wafted by and there were plenty of butterflies to shoot.

Tanjung Rhu Beach

Just after 1pm at the urging of Ellen's growling tummy, we bade farewell to Gunung Raya and headed towards the Tanjung Rhu Beach. This was an area that I visited some years back in 2001 and also where I recorded the presence of the Leopard Lacewing (Cethosia cyane), which eventually worked its way down the Malay Peninsula and Singapore.

As fate would have it, history appears to repeat itself when our group found another new species of butterfly (a pair of them actually) fluttering around the low wild flowers just a short distance from where I found the first Leopard Lacewing nearly 8 years ago! A quick check with our Malaysian expert, Dr Laurence Kirton, confirmed that this species is new to Malaysia! A special blog article will feature this species shortly.

A languid scene at Tanjung Rhu Beach

The Tanjung Rhu Beach area is very much as I had remembered when I visited it in 2001, and the Lantana, Snakeweed and other wild flowers were blooming! However, probably due to the late hour of the day, there were few butterflies around. So we ended up taking the breathtaking landscape shots of the area. But the discovery of a new taxon for Malaysia made our day as we called it quits and headed back to our hotel.

We drove off to Kuah Town for dinner, and visited some of the more 'touristy' areas of Langkawi.

A serene sunset scene from the main ferry point at Kuah Town

Day 2 : Telaga Tujuh Waterfalls

The next morning, we had breakfast at the hotel and headed out to the nearest of the waterfalls - Telaga Tujuh (or Seven Wells) Waterfalls. The area was at the base of Langkawi's Cable Car attraction. There were also horse-riding and elephant-riding attractions in the area.

The lowland forest trails at the base of the mountains proved to be a good butterfly-hunting ground. Despite the rain-sunshine-rain-sunshine weather again, the group had a relatively satisfying time shooting the many species in the forested areas. Strangely though, there were few of the usual Papilionidae puddlers along the open sandy paths as compared to areas like Endau Rompin or Fraser's Hill.

Day 3 : Telaga Tujuh Waterfalls - Part 2

A group shot of the four intrepid adventurers on Langkawi

On our last day on Langkawi, we decided to do the Telaga Tujuh Waterfall trails again. This time around, the weather was more stable and sunny, and we were able to shoot more species to add to the previous day's tally.

However, the butterflies seem to be more skittish and frustratingly hard to shoot as they enjoy the warmer weather.

We returned to the hotel just after mid-day, and after a quick shower, had lunch at the little restaurant at the hotel again - but not before Bobby and Ellen had their fair share of frolicking in the hotel's swimming pool, whilst the two older fogeys wandered around shooting whatever came across as interesting to shoot.

Some additional points to note :

Always wear your seatbelt (both front and back seats) whenever you're in a car, unless you want to contribute generously to the local constabulary's retirement fund. Also, the speed limit throughout Langkawi is 60 km/h (except for the main highway, where it is 70 km/h). Police roadblocks are frequent and turn up at the most unexpected areas - mostly where unsuspecting tourists are likely to let their guard down, and end up donating to the policemen's charitable cause.

Our SilkAir flight back to Singapore was at 8:40pm and by the time we got back to Changi Airport, tired but generally happy (to leave any ghosts that were supposed to be in the hotel bedroom behind) to have visited one of Malaysia's island paradises that is home to many butterfly species.

Text by Khew SK & Ellen Tan : Photos by Bobby Mun, Ellen Tan, Khew SK & Sunny Chir