The jun­gle nook

Malaysia’s sur­pris­ing is­land hide­away

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - SU­SAN KUROSAWA

THERE are horn­bills and fruit bats in the sea al­mond trees and crabs scut­tling ev­ery which way along the sand. What sounds like a tril­lion ci­cadas have set up a rack­ety old cho­rus and the sun is high and beam­ing. Sur­vey­ing the scene is a gim­let-eyed mon­i­tor lizard that looks at least 1m long.

The beach is all ours, a pri­vate arc of gold-meets­blue, and the wa­ter is warm and buoy­ant so we bob about like beach toys un­til but­ler Suresh an­nounces lunch. We would have been con­tent with, say, a ba­nana and a cool drink, but af­ter two days we know Suresh well enough to re­alise that any­thing less than a fully dec­o­rated ta­ble and a mul­ti­tude of cour­ses would not suf­fice.

Suresh is very keen on fold­ing, be it ta­ble nap­kins or tow­els, and be­side my bed last night was a coathanger sus­pended from a lamp and on it hung a tow­elling mon­key, its long arms flop­ping, tail rolled crisply to at­ten­tion. I took a pho­to­graph of the perky lit­tle chap to post on Face­book and Suresh has been keenly in­ter­ested in how many con­grat­u­la­tory ticks it has at­tracted. He is crest­fallen when I show him a snap of a top-to-toe tow­elling per­son, with in­flated rub­ber gloves for hands, and wear­ing my sun­glasses and hat, made by cabin at­ten­dant Lu­cre­tia aboard the cruise ship Se­abourn Odyssey last year.

I make ex­tra ef­fort to com­pli­ment him on his origami lunchtime nap­kins, the bow­ing pen­nants on bam­boo poles and the scat­tered flow­ers and glass beads that have turned a pic­nic into a fes­tive ban­quet.

This mer­ri­ment is tak­ing place at Pangkor Laut Re­sort on the north­ern side of this pri­vately owned and op­er­ated is­land about 5km off the west coast of Malaysia along the Strait of Malacca. The larger sis­ter is­land of Pangkor is nearby and many of the re­sort staff live there in its fish­ing vil­lages and small towns. We have come here from thor­oughly mod­ern Kuala Lumpur, driv­ing for just over three hours up the ef­fi­cient North South High­way to the jetty and ma­rina com­plex at Lu­mut, where we hopped aboard a sleek white cruiser for the 30-minute cross­ing. The lo­ca­tion is about 270km north of Kuala Lumpur and 180km south of Pe­nang, and it’s pop­u­lar for week­end­ing lo­cals as well as hon­ey­moon­ers and fam­i­lies from Asia, Aus­tralia and be­yond.

Malaysian-owned YTL Ho­tels group is the op­er­a­tor and its brochures de­scribe Pangkor Laut Re­sort as a ‘‘one is­land, one re­sort’’ desti­na­tion. But there is an ul­tra-re­sort tucked away here in the guise of eight MUSE Pangkor Laut Es­tates at­tended by a brigade of but­lers (in­clud­ing Suresh); this is the prop­erty’s top ac­com­mo­da­tion cat­e­gory: self-con­tained com­pounds of vil­las on se­cluded coves or amid rain­for­est on daunt­ingly high head­lands; in­cluded in the tar­iff is an ex­clu­sive chef, car and driver and myr­iad ex­tras such as beach din­ners with, say, grilled lob­ster and fish cur­ries.

The likes of Tony Blair, Keira Knight­ley, St­ing and Martha Stewart have hung up their sarongs here in priv­i­leged iso­la­tion and, per­haps, have en­joyed the min­is­tra­tions of Suresh with his daily cargo of buds and petals, ever at the ready for strew­ing.

Each es­tate has its own pool and feels like the ul­ti­mate in trop­i­cal hol­i­day homes. Sim­i­lar prop­er­ties with this sense of en­clave and an ar­ray of ar­chi­tec­tural styles in­clude Como Shamb­hala in Bali.

Stay­ing in one of th­ese pala­tial fol­lies on Pangkor Laut feels like be­ing in­side the fab­ric of the jun­gle and, de­pend­ing on how far you choose to roam, you may need to ne­go­ti­ate an ob­sta­cle course of boul­ders, tree roots, wooden bridges, ferny de­files and ponds. Flagged stone path­ways bor­dered with rough gran­ite walls con­nect sleep­ing, din­ing, loung­ing and sea-view­ing pavil­ions. Birds are con­stant com­pan­ions on my wan­der­ings; pea­cocks ap­pear in sud­den flashes of blue.

Ours is Es­tate No 4 by the beach and my trav­el­ling com­pan­ion and I have neigh­bour­ing cham­bers with high ceil­ings, enor­mous open-plan bath­rooms, chirrup­ing geckos and beds that sit high on wooden plat­forms. Evey­thing is lov­ingly main­tained but decor is a tad tired and there’s no ex­cuse for the in­stant cof­fee and pow­dered milk; main­te­nance must be a night­mare of sorts, given the re­lent­less en­croach­ment of the jun­gle.

The whole re­sort has a ver­ti­cal feel. Ac­cess to No 4 re­quires ne­go­ti­at­ing mul­ti­ple flights of stone steps and some of the re­sort proper’s hill­side ac­com­mo­da­tion juts at ver­tig­i­nous an­gles. In the main­stream cat­e­gories, there is a choice of 140 vil­las in weath­ered tim­ber that look like rus­tic lit­tle Malay-style houses with jaunty roof spires, perched amid tall trees or atop stilts over the rocks and sea, con­nected by me­an­der­ing walk­ways.

Ev­ery­thing looks and feels com­pletely or­ganic and deeply grounded, al­most the an­tithe­sis of what we have come to ex­pect of a con­tem­po­rary, stream­lined re­sort. Na­ture rules here, from the great pied horn­bills ( Buceros bi­cor­nis) with wings so huge you can hear their whoosh long be­fore you see the birds, to gangs of macaque mon­keys ca­vort­ing like cir­cus per­form­ers.

PIC­TURES: YTL HO­TELS; SU­SAN KUROSAWA

Clock­wise from top, MUSE Pangkor Laut Es­tate No 7; scenic spot for a daybed; main re­sort’s in­fin­ity pool; pri­vate cove at Es­tate No 4

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