As I closed my eyes and inhaled the hot steam, the aroma of fennel seeds and cloves filled my senses.
‘Take a deep breath and explore the others’, my therapist said, stretching out her arm. As I breathed in the vapours from three more bubbling cauldrons, I was engulfed in captivating scents of native herbs.
Each had its own healing properties. Frangipani blossoms and pomelo peel induced calm; patchouli and citrus uplifted the senses and Chrysanthemum blossoms and peppermint detoxified the body.
‘Do you have a favourite?’ she asked.
‘The first one,’ I replied opening my eyes. And engraved into the wooden plaque was the word ‘Passion’.
As she lured me past trickling water pools and lush tropical surroundings, passion seemed the perfect way to describe my feelings towards this stunning Malaysian retreat.
I was in the spa village of Pangkor Laut – a privately owned tropical island, along the Straits of Malacca.
Pangkor Laut – a haven of unspoilt beauty
We’d arrived at this 300-acre retreat from Marina Island in Pangkor. After a three-hour drive from Kuala Lumpur’s city centre (KLCC) we’d taken a half hour journey by speedboat. Over nine days, we’d explore two very iconic resorts – the prestigious Pangkor Laut on the west and Tanjong Jara in the east.
We sped over the emerald green water marvelling at tiny islands passing by and eagles gliding above. It was like a scene out of The Beach but mistier and wild. We watched in awe as a green oasis appeared.
Dozens of staff greeted us on the jetty wearing Cheshire cat grins and as we walked along the jetty to the open air reception, we were handed cold scented flannels and fresh fruit punch – a greeting that became customary throughout our stay.
There are eight estates on Pangkor Laut, each with their own butler. Rumour has it, authors have penned their novels there. I could see why. High up in the island’s two million-year-old jungle, these hilltop hideaways offered true escapism. Joan Collins honeymooned on Pangkor Laut and native Malaysian Jimmy Choo claimed two weeks here made him ‘a new person’. We were in for something special.
There are 140 luxury villas which span over just four acres of the resort. Some perch on the hillside and glow like fireflies at night. Others are set amidst the lush tropical gardens surrounded by winding pathways.
We arrived at our signature spa villa – one of 22 stilted bungalows that ‘float’ on the water.
That evening, I watched a deep red sunset from our villa’s giant marble bathtub. Silhouettes of local fishermen in their kayaks punctuated the horizon and I could make out the shape of their terendak hats.
That night, we heard the high-pitched call of the island’s bat population and as we slept, our hut was engulfed by the sounds of an angry storm taking over the sea. It was eery, but exciting. I was ready to fall in love with this place.
One person who did, was Luciano Pavarotti, who developed strong links with this island. We had the privilege of viewing the ‘Pavarotti Suite’ – a plush hilltop abode where the late tenor used to stay.
Framed caricature scribblings and family snaps still hang from the walls. On entrance to the prestigious spa, a black marble plaque marks the day he officially opened it in 2002. He once said Pangkor Laut was ‘paradise’. As I embarked on my ‘Malay Day experience’ I could certainly see why.
Malay Day at Pangkor Laut spa village
It began with the bathhouse – a 45-minute cleansing tradition involving a Chinese footbath and invigorating ‘foot pounding’ ritual. I was beckoned to close my eyes and throw a penny in the wishing well before wading through a cold herb-infused ‘circulating’ bath. Four steaming cauldrons awaited me before I scrubbed my feet with a Japanese style ‘goshi-goshi’ cloth and I enjoyed a ‘Shanghai’ body scrub. I then stepped into the hot Japanese Rotenburu pool where I sipped on herbal tea and listened to the sound of cicadas and hornbills in the jungle.
My bespoke spa treatment was the ‘Lapis-Lapis’ body wrap of lemongrass, galangal, camphor and ginger. The therapist applied a coconut-crème hair treatment while I lay wrapped in this aromatic blend. Twenty minutes later an intense heat filled my body and I was eager to shower.
She alternated between intense Thai massage, long kneading ‘Lomi-Lomi’ strokes and a vigorous body buffing known as ‘Campur-Campur’.
After a luxurious milk bath filled with tropical flower petals, I floated out thinking of Jimmy Choo’s words. I certainly was a new person.
Nature and cuisine
We spent that week exploring the island’s charm. Our jungle trek with expert naturalist ‘Uncle Yip’ was rained off due to rainy season downpours. But we decided to dismiss the chauffer-driven jeeps to brave our own mosquito-heavy ramble through the forest.
It paid off. Because after negotiating a course of wooden bridges, ladders and woodland paths, we emerged to find the beautiful Emerald Bay.
From our swinging hammock we became mesmerised by a monitor lizard, majestically pacing into the sea. It was the epitomy of ‘paradise’ – peaceful, unspoilt and wild. We enjoyed an array of traditional ‘banana leaf’ curries – a traditional Malay dining style which allows the banana leaf flavours to infuse into the food. We returned to Emerald Bay many times and one day scoffed at the waiter who greeted us with a gourmet picnic, complete with a ‘monkey stick’. The picnic was divine. But the waiter wasn’t joking. We didn’t need to go on Uncle Yip’s jungle trek, because the wildlife here isn’t shy about stealing your lunch. I found myself uncomfortably close with a Macaque monkey – no animals were harmed, but thank goodness for the stick.
Chinese cuisine at the much talked-about ‘Uncle Lim’s’ and exquisite octopus salad at Jamu Bar revealed the real mix of influences in Malaysian cuisine. Local grouper fish wowed us under a starry-sky at Fisherman’s Cove and the wonderfully charismatic waitress, Devi, served us a hot-pot style ‘steamboat’ soup in the atmospheric Lantern Courtyard. Le piece de la resistance? It’s impossible to say. But the coconut Tom Yum soup and barbeque-grilled lobster served on a moonlit Emerald Bay were incredibly high contenders. How could Tanjong Jara ever live up to this?
The answer was, it did – in many ways. After a one-hour internal flight from KLIA to Terengganu airport, plus a one-hour transfer, we were greeted at this eastern coastal resort by the boom of a large gong.
Tanjong Jara – Unmistakably Malay
A local man dressed in Baju Melayu – a traditional Malay outfit – greeted us with a nod of the head and a beaming smile. We later learned he was ‘Pak Sah’, had worked at Tanjong Jara since its birth and amazingly, was into the eighth decade of his life.
We encountered Pak Sah many times during our stay and he entertained us in broken English with stories of meeting the Queen during a royal visit when he was a boy. He’d subsequently visited London as a grown man and the madness of the city had overwhelmed him.
The only overwhelming factor in Tanjong jara was the tranquillity and warmth. We passed majestic water features, footbridges and leafy paths before arriving at our seafront ‘Anjung’ villa. I opened the veranda doors to reveal an orange-yellow sandy cove that stretched for miles. The room epitomised colonial-style décor and was beautifully furnished in dark wood. The ‘wow’ factors were the huge outdoor bath adjacent to our shower room and the spaciousness of the gardens which surrounded our villa.
Tanjong Jara embraces the ethos of spiritual health and well-being and they pride themselves in offering guests an insight into the traditional Malay way of life. They call this ‘Sucimurni’.
The philosophy was present in many ways. We snorkelled with turtles in the nearby Tenggol Island in the South China Sea and enjoyed a Tai Chi session with former army officer ‘Captain Mokh’, embracing the animal ‘chakra’ of the cat. We also drank Kopi Kampong (sweet coffee) in the local Dungun market and cooked our own Beef Rendang curry with the incredibly fun-loving Malay ‘Chef Ann’.
Every day, local villagers visited the hotel to engage guests in traditional ‘Kampong’ or village activities, such as congkak (a form of board game) and sepak raga (kick volley ball). They even served a range of local delicacies.
The food here was devine. Impressive squid ink risotto and more-ish chicken satay served on banana leaf were just a fraction of the culinary delights we enjoyed at the seafront Nelayan restaurant.
Chef Ann invited us to embrace her ‘open-menu’ philosophy and served us Malay food, cooked to our taste in the ‘Di Atas Sundai’ restaurant (meaning ‘above the river’).
I felt like we’d experienced the pinnacle moments of our stay until one morning, while my other half and I ate breakfast on the Di Atas Sundai decking – a rather surprising group of villagers arrived to see us. There were six or seven of them and they were there to invite us to a ‘Mandi Bunga’ or ‘flower bath’ ceremony. Enticing us by their banging drums and covering me in flowers, they walked us through the resort, collecting water from ancient pots along the way. Some originated from shipwrecks and plaques explained the water’s property – from ‘happiness’ to ‘longevity’ and ‘sincerity’ to ‘health’. We arrived at the spa village and dressed in sarongs, the collected water was poured over our heads. It was somewhere between bewildering and captivating. The traditional Malay ‘blessing’ was complete and marked the beginning of our spa indulgence.
Tanjong Jara Spa village
The spa treatment combined traditional Malay massage with a luscious hair mask derived from coconut oil and pandan leaf. I was intrigued by the ‘Ukup Wangi’ – a scented steaming treatment where I was ‘zipped up’ in a steam-filled bag. The treatment ended with a luxurious soak in pandan leaf and milk in a private, outdoor bath. The signature Tanjong Jara massage oil – an aromatic blend of eucalyptus, cloves, citronella, kaffir lime and pandan leaf – was too irresistible not to buy – an aroma that will evoke memories of this magical place forever.
Tanjong Jara was an enchanting place. Had we stayed longer, we’d have embarked on an exhilarating hike to the Chemerung Waterfall and spent more time on the beautifully set beach that overlooks the South China Sea. The setting here is so unspoilt, it’s no wonder A-listers like Michale Shumacher have come to experience what the resort poignantly call their ‘ Unmistakeably Malay’ charm.
As we left for Terrengannu airport, we were sad that our tour of these two beautiful retreats were over. Sadly, it was Pak Sah’s day off, but the Tanjong Jara staff banged the gong three times to mark our departure – ‘Goodbye,’ ‘Good luck’ and ‘Come back soon’. Oh we will.
ITC Classics (01244 355 527; www.itcclassics.co.uk) has prices from £1,799 per person based on 2 adults sharing a Garden Villa for 7 nights including daily breakfast, return economy class flights with Malaysian Airlines from London Heathrow and transfers.
ITC Classics (01244 355 527; www.itcclassics.co.uk) has prices from £1,419 per person based on 2 adults sharing a Bumbung Room for 7 nights including daily breakfast, return economy class flights with Malaysian Airlines from London Heathrow and transfers.
by Lucy McGuire