Sun, 15 Jun 2003

Rejuvenating in the lap of luxury

Megan James, Contributor, Pangkor Laut, Malaysia

So you want a break from Jakarta, but you're a bit Bali-ed out and you don't want a Phuket? You want something small and not too conspicuous, but not so insignificant it cannot provide you everything that makes a holiday a holiday.

There is one such refuge just off the west coast of Malaysia, in the Strait of Malacca. Barring monkey raids and the high-tide garbage, it provides a low-key but truly luxurious break.

When you first glimpse Pangkor Laut from the air, you'll think that for once the advertising blurb has it right: Pangkor Laut looks like the "archetypal Island Paradise of your subconscious dreams".

You see a small island that looks to be almost all rain forest, except for massive granite boulders which line the coast, alternating with beaches fringed with forest to the water's edge. Behind the beaches are steep hills covered in thick jungle.

Along one of the larger bays, tucked within a garden, or set tastefully into the hill behind, are small thatched villas. They all look inviting, but even more appealing are villas on stilts right over the water, joined to the shore by a series of boardwalks.

The five-star resort takes its name from the 120-hectare privately owned island, but the resort itself takes up only a fifth of the island. The rest of this continental island is unspoiled rain forest; save for a few rough walking tracks.

But that's one of the few rough aspects of your stay on Pangkor Laut. Most of what you will experience is deluxe; extremely good food, a good wine list, beautiful accommodation, indulgent therapies and a beach that makes travel giant Conde Nast's list of the world's top beaches.

The resort opened in 1985, and its been a regular on those best-in-the-world lists ever since. The current incarnation was opened in 1993, but there are regular additions and upgrades.

Once you're off the 40-minute ferry ride from the main island, just about everything is paid for in one package price -- most activities, and all your food and drink (except alcohol) at any of four fine restaurants and three bars. That's as often as you like, almost whenever you like.

As you are met at the end of the jetty with cooling hand towels and cooler drinks (a step up from the usual warm orange cordial), you get an accurate indication of the services to come.

The grounds are masses of palms, hibiscus, frangipani and endless beds of tropical flowers. Peacocks strut around the pools, open-air restaurants and bars, and large, exotic hornbills feast on palm seeds high in treetops. There is the occasional sea eagle and brahminy kite gliding on the rising heat, and water monitors on the coastal rocks.

Down a palm-lined path you will arrive at one of 123 garden, beach, hill or sea villas. The views vary, as the names imply, but all villas are much the same. They are beautifully made from local, termite-resistant timber with woven bamboo ceilings; Malay design, with a touch of Bali.

There's a decent-sized bedroom, most with king-sized beds, with a comfortable, single sofa bed. At the other end of the villa is a wonderful open-air courtyard bath. But between (my first of very few gripes with the resort) there's a huge no-man's-land of double basins, walk-in wardrobes and wasted floor space that would be much better as a sitting area.

And the need for indoor sitting space soon becomes apparent with the arrival of gripe number two, monkeys. The island has a very healthy population of crab-eating macaques. Too healthy, too smart and they appear to have well and truly broadened their tastes from crabs.

They watch new arrivals, knowing that there is a complimentary fruit basket to be had from each newcomer as soon as their backs are turned and they ignorantly leave the sliding doors of their villa unlocked.

That's unlocked, mind you, not open. As I began to unpack, a big male swung down from the roof, slipped his fingers between the doors and pushed them open as he slid down the glass.

In a much-practiced maneuver, he leapt straight on the fruit basket, ripped off the plastic and screamed at me. The kids didn't know whether to laugh or cry, but it wasn't until I got a curtain rod from the closet that he left, taking my best holiday undies with him.

While all this is a great party trick the first time, daily raids from monkeys are boring. Management sent local staff with brooms, but the monkeys continued to hang around and I couldn't leave the kids alone around the villa in case of a raid.

But once you're over the monkeys and unpacked, it's time to explore properly. Further down the paths are restaurants and bars, a 35-meter-lap pool and a children's "frog pool", an open- air library (limited collection of magazines, novels and CDs), complimentary Internet access on a single computer and a separate TV lounge (no TVs in rooms).

Deeper into the resort are tennis and squash courts, a reasonable gym and good spa and sauna. Walk around the coast by the boardwalk and you reach the separate "spa village", with its own extravagant yet peaceful gardens, beach, lap pool, restaurant and bar.

The facilities are joined by narrow roads, with regular pick- up points for the minibuses that do circuits of the island's popular points -- from spa village to beaches to bars and restaurants. Rarely do you wait more than five minutes once you've requested transport.

You can have breakfast in your room, but a much wider choice is the breakfast buffet at the Palm Cove cafe. Each morning, until nearly midday, there are piles of good pastries, fruits, breads, yogurts and cereals and a hot buffet with a chef to cook your eggs any way you please.

Then there's the option of the daily "jungle trek". It's actually an hour's stroll with a few small hills, but the trek leader makes up for the lack of real adventure.

Elderly Mr. Yip Yoon Wah, naturalist and one-time forester, is one of the resort's characters. With his stout walking stick, he leads you through what's said to be a 130-million-year-old rain forest.

He turns it into a stroll by stopping every few minutes to expound on the beauty and wonder of it all: the majesty of the rain forest giants covered in strangling figs, the ancient cycads, the carnivorous pitcher plants, ferns, as well as rare species -- orchids, butterflies and dragonflies.

He'll point out the secondary vegetation on the lighter forest fringe, where short-lived but fast-growing flowers and fruits more often are found, adding to the forest food chain. There is fauna too; 44 species of birds, nocturnal pangolins, scaly anteaters, flying foxes, the occasional sea otter and dolphins as well as the ubiquitous macaques.

His enthusiasm is so infectious it will take some time to realize you should have brought insect repellent. Whatever the time of day, the two meters of rain on the island (well distributed across the year) keeps the forest wet and warm.

The trek ends at the most beautiful beach on the island, Emerald Bay, which is said to be one of the top 100 beaches in the world. It's true that the water is a wonderful emerald green, but for an Australian (and recognizing that this is a blatantly chauvinistic note), it's nothing to gasp about. It's probably just as well the rest of the world, including Conde Nast, hasn't realized the top 1,000 beaches are all in Australia.

It's here that the one highlight of Pangkor Laut's history occurred. In May 1943, Col. Spencer Chapman, top British commando and winner of the Distinguished Service Cross, spent 36 hours on the island before escaping by submarine from Emerald Bay, just before the British carried out a major military offensive against the Japanese. He wrote of his three and a half years fighting the occupying Japanese in the jungles of Malaysia in The Jungle is Neutral.

Chapman probably didn't notice the occasional sea lice (bites itch but don't sting much), the visibility too poor for snorkeling, nor would he have cared that the snorkeling gear supplied by the resort is sparse and old. And he might have been glad to miss the waves of garbage from neighboring islands that wash ashore with each high tide.

Every day, you can mark the turn of the tide by the sudden arrival of dozens of staff with wheelbarrows, who then shovel away the thick line of plastic and garbage.

At first, my response was to knock the beach even further down my personal "best beaches" list. But my attitude softened over the week. I've had many holidays on remote beaches where you can pretend you're not part of a consumer society. But in this part of the world, even on the luxurious Pangkor Laut, there are inescapable reminders that eventually we all reap (or swim in) what we sow.

That said, you can still spend many a pleasant morning or afternoon lying in the shade in big comfortable reclining lounge chairs, which the staff from the beach-side Chapman's bar and restaurant have already adjusted and lined with huge fresh towels as you arrive.

They'll then serve you a long cool drink and let you chose from a menu of delicious snacks and light lunches, including satay and salads -- all included.

There's a volleyball court just behind the beach, or you can borrow a kayak to circumnavigate the island, or there's a catamaran or water skiing. There's reasonable snorkeling at nearby islands and fishing trips can be arranged.

Fact File

* Hot days, up to 35 degrees, cooler nights, about 20 degrees. Expect daily downpour of rain for one or two hours, umbrellas provided.

* Drive from Kuala Lumpur, 3 and a half hours to Pangkor Main Island

* Fly from Kuala Lumpur to Pangkor main island with Berjaya Air (48-seat Dash 7 aircraft), 40 minutes

* Ferry from Pangkor island to Pangkor Laut Resort, four times a day, 50 minutes each way

* Contact: Tel: Malaysia + 05 699 1100; fax: Malaysia + 05 699 1200; e-mail:;