The jungle nook
Malaysia’s surprising island hideaway
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.
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