Langkawi, The Jewel of Kedah

Langkawi, officially named as Langkawi the Jewel of Kedah or Langkawi Permata Kedah in Malay, is one of the many beautiful islands in Malaysia. Situated about 30km away from the coast of northwestern Malaysia, Langkawi consists of a cluster of 104 islands in the Straits of Malacca. The islands are a part of the state Kedah, which is neighbouring Thailand. To commemorate his Fiftieth Birthday Celebration, Sultan Abdul Halim had consented to switch the name to Langkawi Permata Kedah on 15th July 2008. Today, the largest of the islands, the Langkawi Island has a population of about 65 000 while the only other occupied island close by is the Tuba Island. Other than functioning as an administrative district with Kuah as the largest town, Langkawi is also a duty-free island.

The name Langkawi is believed to have existed in the early 15th century. However, in the 16th century, the island of Langkawi was also labelled with different names such as Langa, Langka, Lansura and Langapura.

The suggestions for the origin of the name Langkawi varies. One of the famous legends interpreted that Langkawi translates to the island of the reddish-brown eagle in Malay slang. The word for eagle in Malay is helang – which is shortened to “lang”, while kawi is the name of a stone used as a chalk to mark goods. In accordance to this interpretation, the landmark sculpture of an eagle was built at Dataran Helang (Eagle Square) in Kuah.

There are some who believed that Langkawi is related to Lanka or Langkapuri mentioned in Indian sources. The name Lanka is found in an ancient Indian literature, Ramayana but the identification of the original Lanka is not verified. “Puri” or “Puram” means a town in Sanskrit. Langkawi’s name is also rumoured to be in relation to an old kingdom in Malay Peninsula, Langkasuka. On the other hand, in Sanskrit, the word langka means beautiful while wi means many. So some people believed that Langkawi means many beautiful islands.

Although Langkawi was only situated at the border of the territory of the ancient kingdom of Kedah, they had a strong affiliation. A myth proclaims about a great serpent ular besar, the protector of the Langkawi Islands, to which a new ruler of Kedah need to sacrifice an unsullied woman to when he crowned as king, or when another kingdom declared war.
There were historical records on the island of Langkawi by many people who travelled in the region. Langkawi was called Long-ya-pu-ti by a traveller from the Yuan Dynasty, Wang Dayuan while the Ming Dynasty commander, Zeng He marked Langkawi as Long-ya-jiao-yi in his map when he visited the area. Besides that, Langkawi was recognised by people from Aceh as Pulau Lada or Pepper Island in the 15th century because they went to the island the plant peppers. In 1961, Augustin de Beaulieu, a French general documented about entering the island of “Lancahui”, which is Langkawi, to purchase peppers and he needed to acquire a license from Kedah’s first successor in Perlis before the chief of Langkawi would sell the goods to him.

According to history, Langkawi was home to people who travelled by the sea, such as Orang Laut (sea people) who originated from the south of Malay Peninsula, along with fishermen and pirates. Langkawi was also believed to be cursed for a few centuries, based on a local legend. In late 18th century, a woman named Mahsuri was wrongfully accused of infidelity and sentenced to death, therefore she cursed the island for seven generations. Sometime after her death, Kedah was invaded and Langkawi was attacked by the Siamese army.

In the first attack, the people of Langkawi decided to put the barn at Padang Matsirat to flame to starve and force the invading army out. However the Siamese managed to seize Langkawi Island in May 1822 and executed its leaders. Many of the islanders were taken as slaves while others were banished from Langkawi.

In a campaign against the Siamese in 1837, the Langkawi Island was retrieved. In 1840, the Sultan of Kedah who was exiled during the invasion, was permitted to return. After that, the number of residents of Langkawi islands recuperated, mostly due to the Sumatera immigrants settling there. The Orang Laut who left Langkawi after the Siamese attacks on the other hand did not return.

The Langkawi islands were ruled by British under the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909. The middle of the passage between Tarutao and Langkawi became the Siamese border, with Tatutao being declared to be under Siamese rule while the islands of Langkawi in the south was to be governed by British. Then, in the World War II, the Siamese temporarily took control when Malaya was invaded by the Japanese army. Until the day Malaya finally achieved its independence, Langkawi was ruled by British.

As the islands lacked in activities, The fourth Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tun Mahathir Mohamad then decided to transform Langkawi into a tourist hot spot and helped to plan the development of the islands himself. By 2012, Langkawi had greatly improved as a tourist destination and received more than 3 million visitors every year.