This beach is for the birds
Get back to nature in Malaysia on a beach-based bird-spotting break
Sunday Express, 2012
Reclining on a poolside sun lounger, a smiling waiter offers me a slice of frozen watermelon and an ice-cold flannel as a vibrant Blue-winged Pitta flits nearby. Now >this< is my kind of bird watching. With its rainforest-meets-the-sea setting on the sunny Malaysian island of Langkawi, birding doesn’t get any beachier than at The Andaman hotel.
Floating in the bath-warm Andaman Sea, Langkawi has a laid-back holiday feel, with miles of beaches and a dozen or so villages that cater to tourists as well as locals. But unlike some of its overdeveloped Thai neighbours, Langkawi isn’t about Full Moon parties or high-rise resorts. Instead, it’s filled with lush rainforests, wetlands, waterfalls and hills – and more than 200 species of birds, including three types of Hornbill. Add in temperatures that hover around 30°C all year, and it’s a slice of tropical paradise.
Hidden away on the island’s quiet northwest coast, The Andaman, a Luxury Collection Resort, sits amid pristine rainforests, yet right on a beautiful sandy beach with its own small coral reef. Apart from the 186 air-conditioned guestrooms, designed in breezy Balinese style with daybeds and teak furnishings, the hotel is open-air, from the vast colonnaded reception to its corridors, three restaurants and two bars.
Before luxuriating at The Andaman, I want to kick-start my trip with some hardcore twitching, which means heading into dense jungle. After arriving at Langkawi Airport, my husband Tim – a non-birder – and I hop on a half-hour flight to Penang, then drive two hours to the unspoilt Belum-Temengor Forest Reserve.
Along with 300 species of birds, thousands of endangered and vulnerable mammals live here – tigers, rhinos, sunbears and more – but the reserve’s 2,000 sq km of rainforests are so uncharted, chances of seeing any of them are slim as there are so few paths into the forests (although, tragically, poachers are having better luck hunting them down).
Thankfully, the reserve’s 10 species of Hornbills are easier to spot, flying over Temengor Lake at dawn and dusk. Similar in appearance to the toucan, these black-and-white beauties have huge bills topped with a horn-style casque that acts as a built-in megaphone for their calls.
We’re spending two nights exploring the reserve, with Belum Rainforest Resort’s houseboat as our home. Pushing off from the resort’s jetty, we wave goodbye to civilization and hello to the amorphous 152-square-kilometre lake, surrounded by virgin rainforests older than the Amazon.
Joining us on the houseboat are guide Irshad Mobarak from Bird Malaysia, a pair of birders from The Netherlands, the boat’s captain, a chef and the resort’s trekking guide. With electricity, running water and four guestrooms on the top deck – one en suite, the other three with a shared bathroom – we won’t be roughing it, but it’s far more basic than The Andaman.
At midday, the lake is eerily quiet. The resort quickly disappears in the distance, and with no sign of other boats or lodgings, it feels like our own private wilderness.
After two hours, the captain pulls over to a small patch of sandy shore. Hopping out of the boat, the blue sky quickly vanishes as we’re enveloped by a jungle of 50-metre-high trees.
We venture deep inside, traversing small waterfalls and streams, and clinging to vines and ropes as we manoeuvre along a narrow, muddy path, catching occasional glimpses of wildlife - the peacock-like tail-feathers of a Great Argus Pheasant flying away, a bright-green ratsnake slithering up a tree.
Tumbling out of the rainforest back onto the lakeshore, we’re startled by the revving of a motorcycle engine. The nearest road is hours away, so I’m thoroughly confused until Irshad points to the sky.
Back on the boat’s rooftop, we recline with beer and binoculars as dusk falls and the lake springs to life, a symphony of birds, frogs and crickets. The chef barbecues fresh-caught fish behind us and serves it up with fried rice and chunks of mango and papaya.
After trekking and birding the next day, we’re in for a surprise. In the forest by the boat, a line of trees starts disappearing, and we’re wondering if it’s an earthquake or a mudslide when a huge trunk suddenly sticks out from the edge of the forest. A small family of elephants tramples down to the shore and spends the next hour stripping branches and nibbling on shrubs just a few metres from the boat.
The sandy beaches of Langkawi beckon, so we kick the mud off our hiking boots after two days of trekking and fly back, picked up by The Andaman’s chauffeured car for the half-hour transfer to the resort. Sunbathing, snorkelling, sailing and sleeping will take priority on our stay at The Andaman, where Irshad’s bird-watching company is based, but we also plan in a few nature excursions.
Wildlife viewing is so easy on Langkawi that it’s mostly done from car or boat trips around the island. As it happens, we see plenty of animals while relaxing at the resort – a harmless two-metre-long Monitor lizard ambling along the beach, adorable Dusky Leaf Monkeys swinging in trees outside our room, Colugos and Flying Squirrels gliding through the rainforest canopy at night by the poolside restaurant.
Our first morning on the island, I head out with Irshad, two other hotel guests and, unexpectedly, Tim, who seems to find tropical birding more appealing than scoping out Britain’s Little Brown Jobs. Within two minutes of our stop at a sleepy mangrove, we’ve spotted three Kingfishers – the Common, the White-collared and Langkawi’s unique Brown-winged. We watch these iridescent beauties as they flit across the still inlet, blithely passing over dozens of bizarre Mudskippers, a fish that walks on land.
The fast-paced Kingfisher sightings set the stage for a week of oh-so-easy birding in mangroves, rice paddies, rubber plantations and on the island’s tallest hill, the 881m Gunung Raya. Blue-tailed Bee-eaters, Greater Flame-backed Woodpeckers, Chestnut Munias and Brahminy Kites make plentiful appearances.
It’s on Gunung Raya that we finally see the enormous and gorgeous Great Hornbill, perched in a tree barely 20 metres in front of us. Its beak is so vast, you wonder how it manages to lift its own head, much less fly.
By the end of the week, despite his professed lack of interest, even Tim has become entranced by the island’s wildlife. As we’re flopping on The Andaman’s beach, a large bird circles overhead, and I nearly choke on my guava juice as Tim casually says, ‘White-bellied Sea Eagle.’ When it comes to birding, it looks like I might have a new wing man.
Virgin Holidays (0844 557 3859, www.virginholidays.co.uk) has seven nights at The Andaman, a Luxury Collection Resort, from £1,835pp, half board, including flights from Heathrow to Langkawi. Guided bird-watching with Bird Malaysia (+60 12 584 6184, www.bird-malaysia.com) from £217pp for five half-days on Langkawi; and from £606pp, full board, for two nights on Belum Rainforest Resort Houseboat, with flights Langkawi to Penang, transfers, guides and all excursions.