Key Points:

The stingray felt like an old rubber spatula, smooth, soft and slippery in the warm water, but when I mistimed the release of the fishy tidbit I was holding, he nipped my thumb hard before sliding back into his pen.

I still have the thumb - fortunately, rays don't have big teeth like sharks.

I wouldn't have got off so lightly with the ray's neighbour at the floating fish farm, a sinister barracuda which our guide, Ravi, said was more than capable of taking a chunk out of me.

In pictures of this island, the biggest of a cluster of 99 off the northwest coast of Malaysia, the sea is always a translucent turquoise speckled with rocky islands, the sand white and fringed with palms.

It's classic tropical scenery that has long lured visitors to the better-known beaches of Thailand, a short boat-ride away, and Penang further south.

Both destinations are now victims of their own success, as constant crowds dilute the local flavour.

But Langkawi is still thoroughly Malaysian. Even in the November to January monsoon season - with grey skies and low clouds hovering over the steep limestone highlands - there is plenty to enjoy.

The Mangrove Safari hadn't originally appealed. Living in Auckland, mangroves are hardly a novelty.

But in Malaysia's hot and humid climate the mangroves grow into towering trees.

Monkeys swing in the mangroves and then wade into the muddy river after the peanuts we throw, before clambering boldly on board our boat - not a regular occurrence back home at Lucas Creek.

Chugging further along the river we came to a cave crammed with hundreds of fruit bats hanging one-footed to the roof.

Revving the outboard summoned the eagles that give Langkawi its name - it is said to mean "reddish brown eagle" in old Malay - which soared in lazy circles just below the clouds.

Closer at hand, Brahminy kites swooped for fish scraps, brown and white blurs as they flashed past to snatch the food in their talons.

As a Kelly Tarlton's regular, I hadn't expected much from Underwater World - certainly not to be draped with snakes.

Having dutifully inspected the rainforest exhibits, faced down the massive Amazonian arapaima, which can reach an impressive 3m in length, and inspected the whale display, I came across the most unlikely scene of a 2m black and yellow striped snake being washed, dried and moisturised with Johnson's baby lotion.

The many roadside fruit stalls are an amazing mix of vibrant colour. As I stood on the photo-spot, the tongue-flicking monster was wound around my neck and another creamy-brown number put in my arms where it writhed gently, its muscles strong under the cool, smooth scales. A freaky first-time experience.

I'd never dipped a finger in boiling oil before, either, but inside a health shop _ with Ravi's encouragement - I cautiously touched the simmering surface of a huge wok full of sea-cucumber oil, or gamat, which is highly prized for its curative properties. And even though it was very hot it wasn't painful.

Another big seller is Tongkat Ali, also known as Malaysian Viagra. It is reputed to boost the circulation, and its bitter taste is apparently no deterrent.

But I should have expected no less in a country where the durian is king.

In the fruit season the many roadside fruit stalls are an amazing mix of vibrant colour - piles of fuzzy red rambutans, yellow watermelons, rose-pink dragonfruit and shiny brown mangosteens.

But above them hangs the hideous durian, its thick spiky skin hiding the foul-smelling, slimy fruit inside.

Sweet and peppery, it's an assault on the senses and officially banned from public buildings.

But it's so popular that you can even buy durian-flavoured iceblocks and chocolate.

It's not to my taste, though.

I far preferred the huge selection of delicious, spicy local dishes on offer at stalls and in the many excellent restaurants.

I reflected smugly that night - when in one of those restaurants, eating braised ray's wing - that what goes around comes around.


IF YOU GO
Getting there:
Malaysia Airlines flies to Kuala Lumpur with connections to Langkawi (www.malaysiaairlines.com).

Where to stay:
The Pan Pacific Hotel, within walking distance of the arrivals hall at KL Airport, is a convenient overnighter and offers an astonishing breakfast buffet (www.klairport.panpacific.com). In Langkawi, the Westin Resort, close to the main town of Kuah (www.westin.com/langkawi), offers a range of accommodation that includes beach bungalows with private pools. The northern Andaman resort, beside Datai Beach, (www.theandaman.com) has three excellent restaurants and was given a top rating on Discovery Channel. The Tanjung Rhu Resort offers total luxury in a setting where the sun sets between nearby islands (www.tanjungrhu.com). Budget hotels are plentiful.

What to do:
Go sightseeing by road, river or sea, ride the cable-car up to 708m, play golf, watch batik being made, enjoy many water sports (although there are no waves for surfing), see fish, birds and crocodiles, shop duty-free or indulge in luxurious spa treatments. For more information, visit www.tourismmalaysia.com

Pamela Wade was a guest of Tourism Malaysia.

- Detours, HoS