The white sands of Pantai Cenang in Langkawi, Kedah is blanketed by dark clouds. We are in the midst of monsoon season, the waves are rough, and I’m about to venture out to the sea on a jet ski.
Our guide, Shahrul, a sporty man with sun-kissed skin, assures us that weather would not be an issue.
“That will clear up,” he says, as he looks up at the gloomy skies. “Besides, you have nothing to worry about. Riding a jet ski is a bit like riding a bike.”
Ten minutes later, I’m riding in tandem with another travel writer; going about 50km/h through rough waters. All the while, my shrieks are muffled by the roar of engines and splashes. Every now and then, our vehicle swerves violently and propel into the air as it hits a big wave.
This is nothing like riding a bike at all.
Our group (comprising the media and Marriott International representatives) is on six jet skis; heading on a four-hour excursion across the Andaman sea. Fortunately, my companion has operated the watercraft in the past and graciously offered to pilot.
Riding a jet ski is perhaps best explained with a George Michael song – you got to have faith. For beginners, our guide says we need to trust that our transport will not fail us. There’s also a need for speed.
“The trick is to ride fast. If you go too slow, the strong waves will knock you down,” he says matter-of-factly.
Manoeuvring across tempestuous water in an arrowhead formation (to avoid the splashes from other jet skis) comes with an equal sense of dread and thrill. After about 30 minutes on open waters (and not capsizing once), my anxiety slowly ebbs away as I begin to enjoy the ride.
It helps that the sun is finally out, revealing endless glistening blue waters and lush foliage atop remarkable limestone cliffs. The scenery is truly spectacular.
For all the duty-free shopping, it’s easy to forget that the Jewel of Kedah is a tropical paradise. Langkawi is an archipelago of about 100 islands and islets; and a boat tour would be a good way to see some of them.
But for a more unique experience, a jet ski tour is definitely the way to go. A smaller vehicle means that we are able to glide gently underneath unique limestone formations and get in between rocky nooks and crevices.
However, our experience is spoiled by the sight of floating plastic bags and bottles that are strewn across the ocean’s surface. Shahrul makes it a point to collect the rubbish that he comes across and advice us to do the same.
“It’s a serious eyesore and is an embarrassment when foreign tourists comment about it,” says Shahrul, adding that the conditions have gotten worse in recent years.
Tourism in Langkawi took off in the early 1990s after it was declared a duty-free zone in 1987. Moving forward, the industry is slated for bigger growth with a number of glitzy hotels opening on the island.
However, critics caution that more needs to be done for the environment at the Unesco Global Geopark. Some practices, such as the mass feeding of sea eagles by boatloads of tourists, risk further exacerbating an already fragile ecosystem.
All is not lost, though. For the most part, the surrounding islands and islets are still pretty pristine. Highlights from our expedition include a stopover at Dayang Bunting and a visit to The Fjords, which is a cluster of islands. Dayang Bunting is home to a mythical lake that supposedly grants fertility to those who drink its waters.
After half a day of exploration, it’s finally time to head back to shore. I muster up the courage and take over the jet ski for the last mile of the tour.
Pushing down the throttle, I speed towards Pantai Cenang in a haphazard fashion much to the horror of my companion. I guess I’ll just stick to driving cars.