Langkawi – December 2012. Holidaying here. Retiring here?

One Malay word you should know if you are in Langkawi – “Pantai” = “Beach”.

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Tanjong Rhu beach – in the north of Langkawi

I wrote a blog about Langkawi after my visit in April 2012, and I have just returned from my third holiday in Langkawi in about four years. I will combine my previous blog with this, adding more information. The smaller photos are from April 2012, the larger from December 2012 – so you can tell


  • In August 2008 we drove up to Kuala Perlis and caught the ferry over to the main ferry terminal in Langkawi.  All we had to do was phone a contact who ran a parking lot, give an approximate arrival time, and he bought the ferry tickets.  When we arrived we could park undercover and he gave us the tickets, and pointed out where to catch the ferry.
  • In April we flew on Air Asia from Penang to Langkawi, which is about 25 minutes in the air, but from when we left home by taxi to when we were in our hotel room about four hours had elapsed.  Which was about the same amount of time as driving and catching the ferry, although the flight was less strenuous.

From Bangkok to Penang by train – Part 1 – planning and establishing the details

Health note: Bangkok airport now, it appears on a sporadic basis, employs full body scanners,  which scientific studies have shown cause cancer, and damage DNA.  In the US the machine attendants are coming down with cancer.  Besides, many dangerous objects have been snuck through them, and so they are not even effective. I for one will not fly out of Bangkok anymore.  An alternative to flying to Malaysia is catching the train south.

I am planning sometime this year to catch the train from Bangkok to Penang. The first step was to check The man in Seat 61. There you can find good information and photos.  The information here is in addition to Seat 61.

Then I asked a friend who has done the journey a number of times.

You have to buy a ticket at the station in Bangkok. They speak English.

There is only one class of travel to Butterworth.

However, there are upper and lower bunks.  The lower is far more popular as there is more headroom, and a window..

The ticket is about RM110 for the upper bunk, the lower a bit more.

The station is at the end of a subway line, so easy to get to.

There is only one train a day – around lunchtime. Two carriages go to Butterworth.  It arrives about lunchtime in Butterworth.

But the train can be three or four hours late arriving.

Food is available on the train – the conductor comes around and takes your dinner order fairly soon after departure.  Dinner is basically Thai food.  Beer is available anytime and isn’t expensive.  You can also get food when the train stops at stations.

The train is reasonably clean, and the bedclothes are clean. There is a basin and a toilet at the end of the carriage – which is not clean. There is no shower.  There aren’t mosquitoes.

The aircon is too strong so it is cold.

The beds are made up around 8 or 9pm, and then people tend to sleep.  And the beds are returned to seat state when people wake up – but it is done so noisily everyone wakes up.

Scenery tends to be paddy fields in Thailand and jungle in Malaysia.

The train stops at the border, and everyone disembarks, and goes through first the Thai Immigration and Customs, which is quite quick and not thorough, and then through the Malaysian equivalent, which is much slower and may check luggage.  Then it’s back on the train – which hasn’t moved. All told it takes less than an hour to cross the border.

At Butterworth the train terminates, and then you can catch the ferry across to George Town, Penang.

Addendum on 8th September, 2012:

Now I have made the trip, which you can read about here.

Langkawi – some observations from my latest visit. And could I retire here?

Tanjong Rhu Beach

I have just returned from my second holiday in Langkawi in about three and a half years. So, while I cannot claim any vast knowledge, I would like to make a few observations.

For a newer version click the green button.


  • In August 2008 we drove up to Kuala Perlis and caught the ferry over to the main ferry terminal in Langkawi.  All we had to do was phone a contact who ran a parking lot, give an approximate arrival time, and he bought the ferry tickets.  When we arrived we could park undercover and he gave us the tickets, and pointed out where to catch the ferry.
  • This time we flew on Air Asia from Penang to Langkawi, which is about 25 minutes in the air, but from when we left home by taxi to when we were in our hotel room about four hours had elapsed.  Which was about the same amount of time as driving and catching the ferry, although the flight was less strenuous.
  • There are other alternatives, such as a ferry from Penang to Langkawi, directly; or driving to Alor Setar, and catching a ferry from there.


  • High season is supposed to be between mid-November and mid-April, which corresponds to the dry season -but we got low season prices in early April, and rain didn’t bother us. As I mentioned, we’d previously visited in August, and again we had no problems with the weather.


  • Langkawi has changed quite a bit in the intervening three years. Now there is a vast range of accommodation available – from very cheap to very expensive (resorts), and many choices in between.  Cenang Beach is the mass tourism area.  There are a lot of motels now, homestays all over the island, and you can even stay in a caravan at a beach. Or you can camp at the government fruit farm, mentioned below.

You can rent this caravan at the beach


  • Car rental is cheap – from RM40 or so a day for an old car in poor condition, RM70 for a newish car in good condition, and motorcycle hire is also available.  It seems you can also rent bicycles.  If you rent a car, check the tyre condition before you drive off, too.  They will also give you a road map, most likely.  Of course, there are taxis; and buses exist, but I saw very few, so you’d need a lot of time.

This one year old Proton Saga cost RM70 a day to rent, and RM50 deposit.


  • The standard of driving in Langkawi is better than in Penang, and there are not so many cars on the road, so driving can be quite relaxing.  As Langkawi is quite small, it doesn’t take very long to get where you are going.  I think it took about 40 minutes to drive from the crocodile farm in the north-west, to Kuah, the main town,  in the south.
  • Petrol is slightly cheaper than the mainland, at 1.90 a litre.  In three nights / four days we used about RM40 of petrol for about 250KM – but put in RM50 as we didn’t want to be low on petrol on the other side of the island where there is no petrol station so near. (Yes, this happened to us last time.)
  • You are warned not to drive at night because of cows and water buffaloes on the road.  Cows are a tan colour, and not so hard to see, but water buffalo are black, and hard to spot.

cows wander the roads at night


  • As a tourist there are some nice things to do, and the airport tourist office has brochures and maps, of course.  I’ll just mention a few activities.
  • Our favourite beach is Tanjong Rhu in the north of the island – but there are some other nice beaches, too.  And there are no jellyfish – at least at this time of year – so you can swim in sea.  As you approach Tanjong Rhu there is an open manned barrier for some reason – just slow down and drive through.
  • You can  also swim in waterfall pools in the jungle.

waterfall pool – the wet season hasn’t yet started, so water level fairly low

  • When we were there we could walk off into the jungle and not get attacked by mosquitoes – much.  We did get the odd bite, but nothing like the jungle, or even anywhere outside,  in Penang.
  • The government agricultural research facility – Taman Agro-Teknologi is interesting. They take you on a bus within the grounds to eat the fruit in season, and then drive you around, stopping to show you different fruit trees and landscapes.

Dragon fruit plants at the Taman Agro-Teknologi

  • And the Bird Paradise and Wildlife Park is worth a visit if you like birds.  Many attractions charge tourists a higher price than Malaysians. I dislike this, so I asked if I could get the lower price as I was a resident; and I showed my Malaysian visa.  I was charged the lower price, which was RM15 instead of RM22.  The tickets we were given had printed on them that they were children’s tickets. This question is worth trying everywhere there is discriminatory pricing.

one of my favourites

and this is a friendly one

  • There is far less litter than much of Malaysia. It was so nice to see beaches and jungle paths with the only litter being leaf litter.  This is so different from elsewhere in Malaysia.


  • Food more expensive than Penang and it is much more expensive to eat out, and there is less variety.
  • Since we live in Penang we didn’t really see the point in spending a lot on food, so we had a big breakfast at the hotel, which was included, and ate fairly lightly later in the day.
  • The biggest variety of restaurants is in Cenang Beach. Kuah, the main town, of course has restaurants, too, as do the various malls. And there are the usual hawker centres and roadside stalls.
  • We enjoyed fish and chips on the north coast, however.

English style fish and chips

  • Of course, Langkawi is tax-free for at least alcohol and tobacco products.  There are many duty-free stores, but probably the cheapest are in Kuah.  It also means restaurants often charge a lot less for alcohol, too. A can of Royal Stout cost me RM1.80 in a store.  Sparkling wine costs RM30 and up, and champagne RM150 and up. For more, read this on Langkawi’s tax status.

this cost RM47 – the view somewhat more per night


  • I think it is too quiet for me to retire here, and too isolated – you can’t just drive onto the mainland and go somewhere.  And I would miss the variety and low price of food in Penang. Certainly the tax status of Langkawi is attractive, though.
  • A local Japanese lady we spoke to said that the two downsides of living in Langkawi are you really need to speak Bahasa, and for some hospital treatment you have to go to the mainland – Penang etc.
  • However, if you wanted a very quiet life, perhaps it would suit you, if you had no medical concerns. Bahasa doesn’t strike me as too difficult to learn.

Growing stuff on hot concrete – gardening in tropical Penang – episode 2

This post supercedes, “Growing stuff on hot concrete – gardening in tropical Penang – episode 1”, and has additional information – in italics.

It’s the tropics – everything grows like weeds, right? Couldn’t be easier growing things?! Er, no.

The easy way is to see what your neighbours are growing in pots, and just grow the same. But with the exception of bougainvillea and a couple more, I had more interesting plants in mind. And I want mostly things I can eat. Oh, and everything should be organic. I want to be able to grow food – and I know it would be much cheaper and easier just to buy it at an organic shop. Following is my experience from May 2011.

I have no ground as everywhere is paved, so apart from a 30 square foot raised brick bed I had made on a concrete slab, everything else I have to grow in pots. And I move the pots around if I think the plants will be happier with more / less shade, cover, etc. I painted the concrete floor, walls and planter box with a special white paint that reflects the heat – it is manufactured in Ipoh and they deliver. This means I can walk on the floor and not burn my feet, the plants are cooler, and the house is cooler.

30 square foot planter box, shade cloth and lattice

I’d buy local seeds, sow them, and absolutely nothing would germinate. Even in my raised bed, nothing would germinate. I would compost the fruit and vegetable remains, and then put the compost in my raised bed. And from this little seedlings appeared. I would nurture them, and they’d grow to about 1″ or 2″ tall, and then they’d wilt and die.

LESSON 1. It’s too hot. I put up a pergola with lattice, and put shade cloth over the top of the garden bed. Pots could also be shaded. I put another layer of shade cloth directly over the raised bed for the hottest part of the day. And then I watered frequently to keep it all cooler. Doing the same kind of thing with seeds in seed pots brought some success – carrots, cabbages, cherry tomatoes… Shade cloth, watering to keep cool.

So now I had some plants growing up from my compost. I often did not know what they were, and neither did the nursery man.

LESSON 2. People tell you there are no seasons and you can sow seeds / plant plants anytime. I don’t believe it. Passionfruit I grew from seed became about 9″ high and then stopped growing for months – then suddenly around October they took off and grew rapidly all over the lattice. Now, mid-February, I have had one flower, and a fruit is now growing. I have 20 plants, so I hope many more will follow. Similar experience with other plants – the time of year makes a difference.

LESSON 3. Talking about passion fruit – if you want to grow the vines, all you have to do is buy the fruit at the market or even Tesco recently (buah markisa – hooray, I can count from 1 to 5 in Malay and I know the word for passionfruit), and then save some of the seeds. Just have them dry on a dish. If you wish you can rinse them with water to remove the clingy pulpy stuff (sorry, technical language). While at Tesco, or an organic shop, buy mung beans – other legumes that can sprout may also work for you. Then put a seed or two in tiny pots, along with a couple of mung beans. The mung beans will increase the success rate of germination from about 15% to about 90%. Once they have grown enough, repot, and repot until in a pot of at least 12″ diameter. Full Malaysian sun seems to be OK once they are 9″ high or so. This is where I am up to now. More info as I observe it.

I tried many seeds in the raised bed – okura, tomato, carrot…. Nothing germinated. But one day these incredibly strong seeds appeared to germinate – and so quickly – bitter gourd. I had tried sowing them in this spot, but they also could have come from the compost as I had bought the vegetable at Tesco, eaten them and composted the seeds. Of course, at this time I had no idea what they were. They are climbers, and eventually they took over the entire pergola. They fruited like crazy for two months, and I cooked them, froze them, juiced them, and eventually cut down the vines and composted them once their lifespan was complete. The biggest success so far.

BITTER GOURD RECIPE FOR DUMMIES: Even I could do this. Cut in half along the fruit and remove seeds. (You can save these if you wish). Then cut into 1/4″ slices. Heat a frypan, put in olive oil (and later butter if you wish) and then bitter gourd. When reasonably soft, throw in three eggs per person, and remove from heat before eggs cook too much. Can add chilli and pepper.

LESSON 4. Seed sowing times/months I have had success with. As mentioned above, although I have been told you can grow anything anytime, this has not been my experience. You may be successful at other times, but so far this is my experience:

  • Bitter Gourd. Sowed seeds in mid-August in planter box, mid September fruit started to appear on vine, 2nd October harvested first bitter gourd. I had three vines. Thereafter the fruit produced copiously for about two months. You can pick green, like the locals, or wait until it turns yellow and it is sweeter.

bitter gourd on vine

  • Cabbage. At the end of September I sowed Gardenic cabbage seeds. Nothing germinated. On 28th October I sowed Copenhagen cabbage seeds, and they germinated in about three days. A few days later I transplanted them to pots, and a few weeks later some of them to bigger pots. They seem to prefer shade. They were growing very slowly. However, since mid-February they have been growing more quickly.  Mrs Tropical Expat told me she saw on a blog that cabbages like to be on top of a mound, and they won’t grow well if they are not, so I did this also around mid-February. The weather has been cooler than usual, and there has been more rain than usual.  There are now quite a few cabbages that are reasonably large, but none are near ready to harvest.

cabbage after germination - November 2nd

February 15th - the biggest and smallest from those seeds

  • Cape Gooseberry. I grew these from seeds of fruit I bought in Tesco. I planted them later in pots, and they have grown well in full sun, and flowered, but later the flower falls.  So no fruit so far.  I will have to research if they do not fruit soon.

cape gooseberry with small flowers

  • Carrot. The seeds germinated and I had many seedlings, but many months later the carrots are still tiny.  Not a success.


  • Chilli. My chillies just grew out of the compost. I have a bigger and a smaller variety.  I just pick the chillies when they are ready, and the plants produce more. I have also successfully transplanted chilli seedlings to pots.  It took a while before they produced fruit, but eventually they did.  So next time I will just either put seeds into compost or ferment a bit first and put into potting mix.

chillies - teaspoon to show size

  • Lentils. Seeds seem to germinate any time, and grow until about 12″ high, quite weak and spindly looking, and then wilt and die. I gave up after three tries.
  • Lime trees. I bought two lime trees at the nursery about nine months ago, and have repotted twice.  But they are still around the same size.  I have tried full sun, and semi shade, but haven’t seen much difference.  They flower, produce small limes, and at times create new shoots and leaves.  So far I don’t know what to do to help them grow.
  • Mung Beans. They germinate after only one or two days in the ground, grow quickly, and then flower, and produce pods with mung beans in them. All quite fast. I simply use them as a companion plant for passion fruit as they hugely increase the germination rate of passion fruit seeds, and help them grow well. Mung beans are great for sprouting and eating in salads, but it is far too much work to grow the volume you need, and even organic mung beans are very cheap to buy.

mung bean plants with seeds growing with passion fruit

  • Okra. Absolutely no luck so far germinating them in the planter box or in seed pots.
  • Papaya. Very easy. it seems any time is the right time. See Lesson 5.
  • Passion fruit. Can germinate seeds anytime, and plants will grow to perhaps 6″ to 9″, and then just stay the same. But from about October my plants suddenly started growing quickly. First flower mid February, first fruit – two days after flowering. But then the immature fruit soon dropped.  It may just be too early yet for the plant. More flowers are appearing, and some are dropping.

passion fruit plants 19th, November with mock orange to left

flower starting to form

passion fruit flower

  • Tomato. My holy grail. Most days I eat some. I love tomatoes, and started growing them first when I was a child. But is it too hot in Penang to grow them? No, but it is difficult, and so far the crops are very sparse. I tried sowing tomato seeds – both from packets I bought and seeds from tomatoes I had bought in Tesco. None germinated. But plants did come up in the planter box from the compost, which I discovered in late August. I nurtured those plants, transplanted some into pots and some I spread throughout the planter box. The plants in the planter box grew much faster and produced better tomatoes. The tomatoes were not so big, but they were delicious. By late November I was picking tomatoes at the rate of about 4 a day. After a couple of weeks the fruit flies discovered them. So I wiped each baby tomato that appeared with white vinegar on a tissue – and had no more problems with the fruit flies. I had tried spraying the tomatoes with vinegar, but it was killing the plants from the overspray onto the leaves. Cheap vinegar is fine.

tomato plants


  • Cherry tomatoes. Cherry tomatoes may be easier, grow happily in pots – and they are much less bothered by pests. Early January germinated cherry tomato seeds from some cherry tomatoes. Now, in mid-March about 30% of the 20 odd seedlings are growing well, and others not.  Something is attacking the top of some of the plants – perhaps birds, or even snails.  Then the plant has to grow a new main stem.

cherry tomatoes - biggest and smallest from same seeds. Germinated early January, now 15th Feb.

LESSON 5. The closest I have to 100% success, no matter what you do, is papaya. But papaya in a pot, so possibly no fruit, unless you eventually put them into the ground, or find a miniature variety. I just compost the seeds from any papaya I buy at the market or Tesco; or just save the seeds, wash and sew them. And up come papaya seedlings. Repot during/ after rain or when cool. I like them as decoration, anyway, but am hoping for fruit one day. I also have three in my planter box that are 10 feet / 3m high. So far little fruit grow, but the trees shed them and they don’t grow to maturity. Also, papaya need both male and female plants to fruit. Apparently with several plants, I have at least one male. Growing just one papaya, unless your neighbours have trees too, will mean it’s unlikely to fruit.

baby papaya - they germinate and grow so easily

LESSON 6. Ants. They appear everywhere, but they are mostly small ones.  You can talk to them and tell them to go somewhere else – sometimes they listen and go, but mostly they come back. They quickly move away dead insects they find, and are usually not a problem if they don’t get in the house.  However, they can be a nuisance when they get together with mealy bugs. Ants eat the sweet excrement of mealy bugs, so what they do is carry the mealy bugs to the top of plants, and kind of farm them.  But the mealy bugs damage and kill the plants.  They are kind of white globs.  I usually remove them with a wet tissue, unless it is a bad infestation, and then I cut the affected area off and throw it away – not into the compost. I don’t want ants on the ground, so occasionally wash the concrete with dishwashing detergent, which kills them.

LESSON 7. Square foot gardening   & pots. Square foot gardening sounds great, but I haven’t managed it here because almost nothing grows where I want it to.  However, using pots it kind of similar – you fit the pot size to the plant(s), although you may start small and repot as the plant grows. And I can move pots to try to find the position the plants like, and as the sun’s path changes during the year I can also move the plants appropriately.

LESSON 8. Snails. I have either so-called Penang snails, which are small cone-shaped snails, or micro snails.  I think both have come from the compost I have bought.  Usually I look for them and get them out of the garden, but if it looks like there are too many to collect and rain is coming I use snail bait.  With cabbages I just look for eaten leaves – small holes in them. Then I search on the cabbage or soil and find a micro snail, usually.

micro snail with tea spoon


LESSON 9. Cuttings. Mrs. Tropical Expat got some cuttings of Malaysian basil from a neighbour. She used some rooting hormone, and then put them in a little water and promptly forgot about them.  When she remembered them she found the water almost evaporated – but the cuttings had long strong roots as they searched desperately for water. These are still thriving in my garden and the leaves are useful for toppings on salads or homemade pizza. I don’t know if this approach will always work, but perhaps being cavalier this time did.

LESSON 10. Compost. TBA

It’s foggy in Penang today

It all starts with a note in the letterbox in the morning.

notice from MPPP

A neighbour kindly translates.  The local council will carry out one of its periodical “fogging” operations.  They will come sometime today and spray vast amounts of insecticide to kill mosquitoes, and thus hopefully reduce or eliminate malaria and dengue fever.

The first thing you hear is some strange sound.  Like a deep roaring annoying engine.  And you go and look outside to see an encroaching fog.

the fog comes

The smell is not too bad – but you imagine that it’s toxic, so you race around and close all the windows.

Dengue busters

They will come in and spray your garden, too.

Take that, mosquitoes

Despite closing the windows the spray seeps in.

visibility reduces

and they disappear into the fog

zero visibility

N.B. I like to wash the plants down a while later, as I think they don’t really like the spray.

Living with (or even better, without) mosquitoes

Living in the tropics unfortunately means year round mosquitoes.

Of course, the main danger with mosquitoes is that they are a vector (I’ve always wanted to use that word) for malaria and dengue fever.

If a mosquito of a certain type  bites someone who has either of these they will become a carrier.  Then if they bite someone else the person bitten may contract the disease.

Most carriers are apparently illegal immigrants who brought it with them to Malaysia – it’s actually quite unlikely you will stay or go to the same places as them. A possible exception is construction workers building a condo near where you are.  Nevetheless, mosquitoes do not travel very far.

So, how to avoid mosquitoes.:

  • Live in a condo on the 8th floor or above
  • Close your windows around 6PM and don’t open them again until 8AM
  • Alternatively, have insect screens on your windows
  • Buy a mosquito attracting device –   a UV light and fan that attracts them and then traps them.
  • Do not leave water in containers that will allow them to breed
  • Cover your skin with long sleeves etc. in the evenings if you are outside and there will be no breeze
  • If you suspect none of the above will be sufficient, use an insect repellant wipe – much more effective than a spray.
  • And if this is still not enough you can buy an electric  mosquito killing racquet.  It’s rechargeable and much better than using a spray if you can see the mosquito.
  • Mosquito netting for your bed would work, but is overkill for Penang.

And, inevitably, you will get bitten.  I apply a collodial silver gel, which I make myself – in a few minutes the itchiness is gone, and a little later so is the lump from the bite.  I will cover colloidal silver in a future blog, but you can google it.

It is very unlikely that an expat will contract either of these diseases, but I always keep MMS on hand in case I contract either dengue or malaria.  MMS will be the topic of a future blog, too, but you can see

Malaysia is experimenting with genetically modified mosquitoes to make it difficult for disease carrying mosquitoes to breed – so far all genetic modification has been a disaster with food.  Doing it with mosquitoes in the wild is scary to me.

Unsurprisingly, there are male and female mosquitoes.  Males are vegetarians all their lives and will not bite you.  Females will only bite you at the end of their life cycle to lay eggs, because they need extra protein, and will bite on average four times to get the nutrition they need – this last figure being contentious.  Females’ probiscus is much bigger than the males’ – that is how you can tell them apart – at least after you have killed them.  They like blood type O best.

So, sleep tight, and don’t let the mosquitoes bite.