Family Magazine

Adventures in Duty-Free Shopping: Langkawi, Malaysia

By Behan Gifford @sailingtotem
adventures in kuah Life in Langkawi isn't all waterfall hikes and beach barbecues. This island is duty free, and while it's rustic, there are tempting offerings for our scant kitty. 
A day of hard-core retail action began when we were handed car keys by a stranger. For 50 ringgit (about $16), we now had 24 hours with a aging four door Proton sedan. The car's owner did not know our names, did not ask to see a driver's license, and there was no payment up front. Honor system. Welcome to Langkawi! This is the theme for getting around the island, and mental whiplash for the uninitiated, but just the way it works.
Before you hit the road, it's good to know about Langkawi's road hazards. There are the ongoing road repairs (which somehow have to be on the blind hairpin mountain curves, with inconsistently present flaggers... oh my nerves!). I personally find the monkeys on the side of the road to be extremely distracting and charming as road hazards go, as long as we stay on opposite sides of the car from each other. Jamie (de facto driver, I do not drive on the left side of the road, especially with a standard shift) is more focused on the *real* hazards. Moo.
road hazard
We start off pretty well focused on needs, not desires, but that gives us plenty to work with. The baseline for Langkawi shopping is that it's a scavenger hunt. Retailers are scattered in small, mostly family-owned shops. There's no public transportation to speak of, so rental cars are the way to go.
As a baseline priority, provisioning here is a little different. In "normal cruising Malaysia" life, I'm happy with whatever is at the local wet market and a corner store. Here, though, there are options and imports. You can get so many things that I  haven't seen in... well, over a year. Things like quinoa, or tortillas, or GOOD olives, cheeses from Europe, lamb from New Zealand. It's not easy pickings, though. Every shop has a slightly different selection, and you kind of have to visit them all to find everything on your wish list. Then there's still a crapshoot element. I mean, this is still a small island with an imperfect supply chain. Things are sometimes simply not available.
Next in the Totem priorities is finding bottom paint for our upcoming haulout. After five and a half years, we are overdue for a new bottom. Three gallons of ablative bottom paint plus primer, filler, and all the sandpaper, brushes, rollers, and safety gear we need, are a bargain. The sum is easily less than we spent on only two gallons of bottom paint in the states.
adventures in kuah
Edging into the 'want' territory, we went to look at dinghies. Our tubes are on their last legs, with steady leaks and many weak spots. We've been weighing the options between putting on new tubes, and just getting a new dinghy. Thanks to manufacturing in China, duty free imports, and low cost of living: a new aluminum-bottom hypalon dink in Malaysia sells for not that much more than re-tubing our ancient (90s) fiberglass Avon. It's been great, but... hmm. Every penny counts, and we might find a cheaper option to re-tube.
Then there's the booze. Well into the 'want' not 'need' zone, but at duty free prices, hard to resist as I think it's the cheapest we've seen anywhere. The selection is... well, it is what it is. But $15 for a liter of Mount Gay? Less for top-shelf gin? On a volume basis, the tonic will cost considerably more than the spirits.  This is the source, fondly known among cruisers as The Warehouse. Bonus: you get to dodge forklifts ferrying pallets while you track down a case of Tanqueray.
adventures in kuah
Truth be told, I love these excursions for one thing in particular: the food. Malaysian food is a fantastic blend of Indian, Chinese, and Malay - there is so much to try and it is all so good. Jamie tolerates my insistence on lots of "snack breaks" but we eat well. None of these plates were more than $3.
Roti. My personal favorite, especially roti canai with a spicy dahl. That's an apom manis (a kind of sweet crepe-like pancake) on the right.
roti 101
Hainanese chicken and rice. Doesn't look like much but WOW. Perfection of tender steamed chicken, mildly spiced sauce, and delicate broth. 
hainanese chicken
Barbecured pork. Bit tricker to find the non-halal around here.
malaysia is all about eating
Winner for presentation and sheer variety of amazing flavors: the Indian buffet that served on banana leaf plates. We'll be back!
indian buffet

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