WHERE ISLAM GOES WESTERN; Harry Thompson Finds Malaysia's Religious Code No Barrier to Cricket, Pretty Girls and the Odd Furtive Beer

Article excerpt

Byline: HARRY THOMPSON

WITH its firm views on so many aspects of life, Islam conjures up a plethora of distinct images in the Western mind. But a family holiat the seaside isn't usually one of them.

day But then Malaysia isn't your average Islamic country. To begin with, there's Malaysia's British heritage to consider.

I'd actually gone to Kuala Lumpur as part of a touring cricket team. What could be madder than throwing yourself into physical exertion in the kind of melting heat and humidity that saw each member of our side lose 8lb a game?

How very English, I thought, standing sweating at mid-on, until my reverie was interrupted by the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer.

After a few days of this, we were all ready for the beach. Correction, we were all desperate for the beach. And so we flew to the island of Langkawi, Malaysia's showpiece seaside resort, in search of relaxation. Langkawi is less well known in this country than Tioman, its east coast rival.

But Tioman has a rainy season - it pours down throughout our summer - which was no good for us in early September.

Kuala Lumpur, the capital, has a rainy season every afternoon, if our experience was anything to go by.

Malaysians know that on Langkawi you might get a splash or two in the summer, but you're guaranteed a lot of sunshine too. At least, that's what the brochure said.

The initial omens were not good.

Our plane landed in the sort of rainstorm usually associated with TV disaster appeals and the array of Malaysian Airlines umbrellas laid out in racks at the arrivals hall suggested this was no isolated thundershower. But as we drove to our hotel on the west coast, a curious feature of Langkawi became clear.

It can rain cats and dogs in one part of the island while just down the road they can be having a marvellous day. At our hotel, the Burau Bay Resort, all was blue skies and sunshine.

A couple of us lay sunning ourselves on the beach, others went jetskiing at [pounds sterling]5 a go. And when the rest of the party returned drenched and bedraggled from an inland golf course just two miles away we could tell them that the thunderstorm which had flooded out their afternoon had completely passed us by.

The west coast, and in particular Burau Bay, is the most scenic part of Langkawi - a lovely, broad, sandy, palm-fringed beach under looming green mountains, the water a brochure blue.

Here are the island's upmarket hotels (although they're hardly expensive) and, although it probably isn't strictly legal, you can skip from one to the other to sample their better points. We soon became regular visitors to the beautiful landscaped pool of the Berjaya Hotel further up the beach and to its elegant thatched restaurant, complete with excellent wine list. The Datai resort around the headland is reputed to be even better, but we never got that far.

Langkawi is up near the Thai border, close to Phuket and other such famously hedonistic resorts; but Malaysia's Islamic society ensures that the island remains a quiet, sedate place, ideal for families.

There's nothing here remotely identifiable as a fleshpot. …