Review: Berjaya Langkawi Resort
Langkawi in Malaysia has all the trademarks of a 'paradise island' and is becoming an increasingly popular alternative to the incredible but overcrowded and over-commercialised beaches and islands of Thailand, its closest neighbour. There are a handful of large resorts on the island, and Berjaya Langkawi, in an area called Pantai Kok on the west coast, is among the most popular. I recently spent nine nights at the resort.
A spectacular bay surrounded by limestone mountains and jungle, it took around 25 minutes to get to the resort by taxi from Langkawi Airport. We arrived at dusk during an impressively enormous thunderstorm, transported up the long palm tree-lined driveway to the resort's large open-fronted reception area. We were glad to have a place to shelter and gaze in wonder at the sheet rain pouring down before us. And I was mildly perturbed that my hopes of experiencing a sunny, relaxing beach paradise were diminishing fast - I'd only brought warm-weather clothes!
Check-in was efficiently swift and we went to await one of the vehicles to take us to our chalet. There are plenty of open-sided 'train-cars' that run throughout the day and evening, each carrying guests and luggage to and from different sections of the resort.
We'd booked a rainforest chalet, with breakfast each morning, directly through the Berjaya Langkawi website. Having done a lot of searching and comparisons with other websites, and also all of Berjaya's own varying offers, we found this was the best one to suit us. There is an all-inclusive option but we didn't want to begrudge going elsewhere on the island to eat, or to over-eat in the resort.
I should point out here that the resort itself is huge and can sometimes take half an hour or more to walk to places - so take a bag and pack all the things you think you're likely to need to avoid an arduous trek back to your chalet each time.
You can also book the vehicles at reception or from your chalet to save your legs. But I actually loved walking around the resort - there's a huge array of wildlife from packs of cheeky monkeys to komodo dragons, flying lemurs, hornbills and all manner of other weird and wonderful birds and creatures - all roaming around. You can hear plenty of wildlife at night and the resort even offers free weekly night wildlife tours. You're quite safe if you close and lock your chalet doors before going out, and it all adds to the excitement of staying in a rainforest. There are chalets on the water too - these are increasingly more expensive and looked nice, but slightly lacked the same ambience in my opinion.
My rainforest chalet was nice - entirely made of wood and on huge stilts to raise it up amongst the trees, it had a small front porch, bedroom/living room, bathroom, and a little balcony to the front. There was a connecting door, perfect for related families to book and stay next to each other, but this remained locked and the chalet next to ours was empty for most of our stay.
Staying in the rainforest section, I'd been slightly worried about bugs and mosquitoes but hardly noticed any in the chalet or even around the resort for the entire duration. Although we did always keep the net curtain across the patio door just in case. The only "problems" we encountered were on leaving the chalet a couple of times - on one occasion a pack of territorial monkeys seemed to be looking for a fight, and on another a huge komodo dragon was casually sauntering past!
During the following days walking around the resort, we came to realise that our chalet was very well situated - some were very close to the entrance, or much further out - and a few had car park views. As it was, we felt we got the full "rainforest experience", with monkeys and birds occasionally running across our roof and all manner of "jungle sounds" that we initially thought must've been some kind of recording because they seemed so authentically clichéd.
The room had a small safe and a fridge, plus a little kettle - with tea and coffee, as well as a bottle of water per guest, replenished daily when the rooms were made up. Bottled water is incredibly cheap in Malaysia so we also bought a big bottle of water on our first evening in Cenang and kept it in the fridge during our stay. There's a shop on site but the prices are slightly higher than elsewhere on the island. There was air conditioning and a ceiling fan which were both essential in the Malaysian heat, but if you're not used to sleeping with them on (which was definitely necessary) the noise can be irritating. In spite of the bed being really quite comfortable I had a couple of fairly sleepless nights with the heat and the noise of the fan and had to make up for it by napping on a sun-bed at the beach the next day. Such a hard life, right?!
One other thing it's worth noting about the rainforest chalets is that, because they are mostly deeper in the rainforest section of the resort, they can get quite dark. With only a kind of dappled light from the trees getting through, the shade can be a relief after a day spent in the heat of the blazing Langkawi sunshine. But it was also a daily morning relief to get out into full daylight and sunshine again.
Stuff to do
Beach & pool: Berjaya has an exquisite pool with mini waterfall and swim-up bar, made all the more amazing by its stunning mountainous, jungle-covered backdrop.
Behind the pool is one of the most beautiful beaches I've ever stepped foot on. Lapped by the Andaman Sea, the only downside is that guests must swim in a roped-off section, presumably because it's safer - and I still got continually stung on the legs by tiny jellyfish while I was in it. It wasn't very painful though. Beach towels are free to hire and yes - there was the usual reserving of sunbeds with towels going on, although definitely not as bad as most other hotels I've been to. We were there during a quiet period so we never had a problem finding sunbeds, either by the pool or on the beach. This isn't a pool games or loud music kind of place - there's one main pool, with a shallower one and a jacuzzi, but it's more about chilling out.
Tip: Take a waterproof wallet to keep your money, room key and small valuables in for getting in and out of the pool or sea, and a small bag to keep other possessions in by the beach or pool. There are plenty of thieving monkeys roaming around who, given half a chance, will quite readily take your smaller belongings, and we witnessed them running off with people's stuff on a number of occasions.
The beach is idyllic, with a little beach bar to one side and a long stretch of sand to walk across, with a fabulously placed tree swing at the far end for some amazing holiday photos. There's a small island which can be reached by crossing some big rocks, and water chalets stretching into the distance in the sea. And you're completely surrounded behind by jagged mountains covered in lush green jungle. The sand on the beach is very hot underfoot so I'd recommend taking something to wear on your feet.
Excursions: There's a team of staff in the reception area to help out with things like booking tables at the resort's restaurants, as well as picking and paying for excursions. The excursions team do try hard to sell to every interested customer so it takes determination not be pressured into one straight away. It's undoubtedly also better to shop around for the best deals. We found that most of the excursions were available at a much cheaper price if we booked them independently in Cenang, which is how we booked our Eco-Park trip. You can also hire bikes and book taxis from the reception area. Taxis have a set price for each destination on the island, so you'll always know what you're going to be paying in advance, and we found the fares surprisingly cheap.
Fun, games & relaxation: It wasn't until the last day in the resort that we spotted a big noticeboard detailing all of the free (and a few paid-for) activities that were going on. There weren't loads, but it was a bit annoying to have missed out on some tours and things like kayaking around the bay - we felt that some of the communication could have been better. There were also massages and all the inevitable relaxation stuff on offer.
Fitness/other stuff: There's a small gym, a couple of tennis courts - which we never saw in use, possibly because they're located a little way from most of the action (and it was always sweltering!), and a strange, dingy kind of "British pub"-type place that we walked into once and it was entirely deserted.
Entertainment: Evening entertainment was really lacklustre. Having eaten, our first evening was partially spent sitting in the lobby listening to two Malaysian ladies trying hard, but essentially ruining, countless classic and cheesy songs. And on some evenings there didn't seem to be a thing going on. I'm not sure whether Berjaya saves the best entertainment for the high season, but we quickly realised that if we were staying on the resort the best option was to eat dinner as late as possible and to take our time over it - otherwise there really was nothing to do except sit and drink, and stare at other guests doing the same. This is also what inspired our decision to head out of the resort on most evenings.
Oriental Village/SkyBridge: As mentioned in my Langkawi Scoop post, this was a very short walk from the resort and a must-do for any guest.
Food in the resort was fairly expensive and we filled up at our (included) breakfasts to save ourselves having to buy so much. On our first evening we ate at Dayang Cafe which is the main eating area attached to the reception (and was also the place to go for breakfast each morning). We were a bit shocked to find that the buffet meal, with drinks, came to around £35 - it certainly wasn't worth it, and particularly as one of us is a vegetarian and the options were limited. The room itself was a bit lacklustre too, mainly because it had that familiar buffet 'un-special' feeling about it.
Breakfasts were a bit better, with egg and pancake stations, and a vast array of weird and wonderful options (chicken curry for breakfast, anyone?) The fruit juices tasted watered down, but there was plenty of choice overall. Just the nature of it made it feel a bit dismal - constant guests coming and going, and that buffet "help yourself to the best stuff before the next person gets it" kind of attitude. We ended up paying a little extra (about £1.85 each) each morning to eat breakfast in the slightly more exclusive Beach Brasserie overlooking the beach where we were given a special table and waiter service. The service and experience were vastly better.
There are a limited number of restaurants in the resort and lots of guests all wanting to eat at them so we found it best to book each one we wanted to eat at as early into our stay as possible, and then change the booking if we realised we weren't going to make it. Every guest staying for seven days or more gets a free meal in the resort's Pahn-Thai restaurant - we ate there one evening just after they opened and had a lovely table on their long jetty where we enjoyed three fab courses and watched the sun set over the horizon. This really was a great experience and the memory will stay with me for some time.
In stark contrast, we also ate at the resort's Chinese restaurant, Oriental Pearl, and found it pretty awful. Sitting outside, the service was terrible and the food didn't even really taste of Chinese food - the portions were small and it was greasy and sinewy. We both felt sick afterwards.
We ate dinner at the Beach Brasserie on our last evening and found that it wasn't just good for breakfasts. With a glass of red wine, sitting in a secluded corner right next to the beach, hearing the sound of the waves washing against the shore, watching the sunset and seeing a baby praying mantis make his way across the floor near us, was a lovely way to end our stay. And the food was pretty tasty too! By this stage of the stay I'd got used to the prices, and converting Malaysian currency to British in my head, so it was much more acceptable. The restaurants all generally offer some kind of deal in their extensive menus too, so there's usually something to be found.
The only other place I ate in the resort was the Boat House beach bar - it was a barbecue chicken wrap and it was surprisingly filling, tasty and affordable. The beach bar often had happy hour or drinks offers going on too, and was a nice place to hang out for a while, post-sunbathing.
Oh, and there was a kind of pop-up Starbucks cart in reception. Initially it seemed quite out of place, but the menu is worth looking at as there are a couple of really nice drinks exclusive to Malaysia/SE Asia.
I arrived at the resort in a torrential downpour and increasing darkness, feeling exhausted and sweaty. I couldn't see much, went to the awful buffet restaurant for dinner and paid over the odds for food I didn't enjoy at all. Then I sat in the lobby listening to badly sung Malaysian cover versions wondering what the hell I'd done and wishing I'd stayed in Kuala Lumpur. I went to bed early-ish feeling a bit down.
And then it all changed.
The next morning I stepped out of my chalet into warm, bright sunshine and I properly saw the place for the first time - and, my goodness, it looked like some kind of paradise.
Berjaya has been designed really well and fits into its natural surroundings with ease - yes, it's vast and takes a while to get anywhere but that's part of it's charm. It feels like there's the space to relax with some astounding views and genuinely lovely touches here and there. You feel surrounded by exotic nature of all kinds, leaving no doubt that you're in a completely different part of the world. And there's almost nothing lovelier than that feeling of wondering whether you should spend your day by the beautiful pool or the exquisite beach - bliss! I've been to resorts quite a few times but never one quite so stunningly attractive - to look at, in parts, it really feels like something out of a travel calendar or magazine.
Generally I prefer not to stay at resorts or big hotels when I'm travelling - I prefer a more authentic experience and not to feel so cocooned. But if, as in this case, a resort is my only option then I need to experience it on my own terms.
After my first night woes I mixed up my time between staying in the resort, soaking up the best it had to offer, and getting out and experiencing the rest of the island. And I'd recommend the same to anyone else travelling here. Yes, Berjaya's incredible and yes, you've probably paid quite a lot to be here - but try not to go all-inclusive. By all means, eat at the resort restaurants some nights, but force yourself to go out and eat and experience the true culture of Langkawi on others.
Overall, I really enjoyed my time here - I felt like the communication could have been better and most of the food was expensive, but the location of the resort was great, and its natural beauty was almost incomparable. To get the most out of it I had to be in control of what I did and where I ate, but I left the resort with some truly amazing memories, intermingled with and enhanced by my time on the rest of the island.