Langkawi Culture & History
Charming, Beautiful, Tax-Free
Langkawi is an island of legends. Its name is believed to have originated from the abundance of eagles on the island: helang (eagle in Malay) and kawi (marble in Sanskrit), begets the moniker helang-kawi which was eventually toned down to Langkawi. The main settlement of locals is in Kuah, a dusty town noticeably beloved for its array of duty-free stores and Chinese seafood restaurants. Other popular areas include the Pantai Cenang and Pantai Tengah stretch, the quite strips of Pantai Kok and Padang Matsirat and the exclusive beaches of Datai Bay and Tanjung Rhu. No matter where you go on Langkawi you will find that myths and legends permeate its culture and history, so read up on them and familiarise yourself with the island’s most popular stories.
Of course there are many accounts on Langkawi’s origin, including those from legends & folklore, but officially (and according to history books) we can surmise that the island was under the rule of the Sultanate of Kedah for a very long time. Eventually, it came under British rule during the colonial century and then, for a brief period during World War II, it was controlled by the Thai monarchy. This has resulted in some Thai influence on Langkawi’s culture, evident by the number of Thai restaurants and Siamese-inspired sights.
After the war, the island became known as a nesting ground for pirates. The many islands and dense, verdant jungle provided much-needed cover for their dubious activities while providing an excellent hide-out. Meanwhile, the island’s inhabitants continued to live a sleepy life in wooden villages, pushing bullock carts and harvesting paddy fields. Life was simple and easy; simply too peaceful for modern change.
The catalyst that triggered the development of Langkawi was when a certain man stepped on the island to serve as a doctor; Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohammad, who would become the fourth Prime Minister of Malaysia. When he was elected, Dr Mahathir proceeded to work closely with Kedah authorities to modernise and develop Langkawi.
The pinnacle of the transformation occurred when the island was granted duty-free status, attracting tourists and locals alike to cheap goods such as liquor and cigarettes. Soon, Langkawi hotels and restaurants started popping up as the tourism industry began to boom, and the island took a giant leap towards the 20th Century.
Today, Langkawi is probably the busiest island of Malaysia second to Penang. The landscape has changed dramatically along with the number of visitors. Gone are the old designs and drab colours of Langkawi; new buildings painted in bright colours project a vibrant and dynamic image. Roads are constantly being tarred and maintained, while new construction projects occur at an astounding rate.
Almost the whole population earns an income from the tourism industry. Life has become fast-paced and, sadly, some old traditions were lost. But alas, change is progress. With its diverse offerings and attractions, coupled with the beautiful landscape and ideal climate, Langkawi’s future is secure as a prime tourist destination.