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Wanderlust: East Coast of Peninsular Malaysia — a Case for Conscious Travelling

By Bianca Husodo

Situated in Dungun, on the eastern coastal state of Terengganu, West Malaysia, Tanjong Jara Resort’s tranquil, golden sand beach faces the South China Sea.
 
Tanjong Jara Resort
Situated in Dungun, on the eastern coastal state of Terengganu, West Malaysia, Tanjong Jara Resort’s tranquil, golden sand beach faces the South China Sea.

As the earth continues to crumble in favour of environment-taxing modernity, the global collective is increasingly pitching in with efforts to de-accelerate the inevitable destruction of Mother Nature. In this age of rising eco-consciousness, the notion of “sustainable travel” has gained traction within the tourism sphere.

The concept of sustainable travel has a green halo to it, suggesting environmental responsibility and eco-friendly undercurrents. In theory, being a responsible traveller seems and sounds simple enough: just go green. The truth is, the environment is merely one puzzle piece to the bigger holistic picture of sustainability. Another piece of it, as the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) pinpoints, should address the community impact, both on social and economic levels. A 2013 report from UNWTO noted that just US$5 (S$7) of every US$100 (S$135) spent in a developing country stayed in that destination. Yet, travel is, in fact, the first or second source of export earnings in 20 of the world’s 48 least developed countries— a vital source of income to developing nations.

Beyond the environment, sustainability means projecting a positive impact on the culture and the economy of the destination one visits. Conscious travelling is about respecting and perhaps extending a contributive effort into conserving the socio-cultural authenticity of host communities. Therein lies the question: How can a traveller interlace all these factors while on a holiday?

A brief stay at two Small Luxury Hotels sanctuaries situated in two neighbouring West Malaysian districts showed how the favourable ripple of conscious travelling can bleed beyond resort parameters.

Tanjong Jara Resort

“This is our first tree. It’s simple but it’s symbolic,” Qarl, the resident naturalist of Tanjong Jara Resort, remarked as he trudged ahead of me, gesturing towards a haphazard mangrove tree rooted in a small river running under the wooden bridge we were crossing on. Three peacocks, oblivious to our presence, lazed under the nearby shade of lofty palm trees. “It’s called Dungun, the name of this district itself.” 

Tanjong Jara ResortThe resort adheres to the ancient Malay philosophy of "suci murni", which underscores the purity and well-being of the soul.
The resort adheres to the ancient Malay philosophy of "suci murni", which underscores the purity and well-being of the soul.

I was in the middle of Tanjong Jara Resort. The coastal retreat is perched on the northern tip of the fishing port of Dungun, in Terengganu, on peninsular Malaysia’s east coast. Verdant and expansive, it sits on 17 hectares of grounds along the crescent of a quiet, golden sand beach. Tanjong Jara was formerly a 17th-century residential compound for the district’s royals, which was re-established in 1979 by the Malaysian government. Now a part of the YTL Hotels group, the resort’s fleet of bungalows, which accommodates 100 airy rooms replete with lavish woodwork fit for old-world Malay sultans, is fully renovated. The original design, preserved. Several shy wild faunae, from monkeys to sun-bathing monitor lizards, still cohabitate in the estate. 

Qarl was the guide for the day. The Terengganu native weaved through the resort’s forest-like trail, all the while sharing historic anecdotes of the vegetation (the Dungun trees in the area were once tributes to the reigning Thais, while large crocodiles, apparently, used to take naps under the palm trees) and artefacts that were scattered as the pathway’s sacred ornaments (some were ancient pottery remnants scavenged from a 300-year-old shipwreck). 

The trail led to a gentle climb up the steps carved into Jara Hill, a sloping terrain right by the resort, and at the peak, a scenic panoramic view of the coastline made for a visual reward. Sea turtles, Qarl said, would occasionally arrive in the hundreds to lay their eggs on the beach. Turtles are the state’s talismanic wildlife. “But their numbers have dropped significantly,” he said, morosely. He pointed down to the two shacks of turtle hatcheries parked by the ocean. “Which is why we’ve partnered up with the turtle team.” 

Lang Tengah Turtle Watch is a project to safeguard the turtle population that is run by volunteers, who have managed to secure the hatching of about 10,000 green sea turtle eggs last year, while keeping predators and turtle egg poachers at bay. Resort guests are invited to participate in the ocean release of the turtle hatchlings, which usually happens once a week between the months of May until September. Two nights prior to my visit, however, the hatcheries had released some 200 baby turtles — meaning, it would be unlikely to witness another on the following weekend. “Can’t control Mother Nature, can we?” Qarl said with a shrug. He then explained the reason behind the steep decline in turtle population. “For hundreds of years, gullible locals have continued to buy the myth that turtle eggs bring virility. It’s still legal here to sell turtle eggs in markets to be consumed. This conservation effort is a small step towards educating them that they’re pivotal to our environment.” 

Lang Tengah Turtle WatchIn partnership with non-profit organisation Lang Tengah Turtle Watch, Tanjong Jara Resort’s private beach is home to a turtle hatchery.
In partnership with non-profit organisation Lang Tengah Turtle Watch, Tanjong Jara Resort’s private beach is home to a turtle hatchery.

Qarl was an obliging chronicler. It was through his tales that I was pulled in to the Dungun way of life that was so removed yet somewhat ingrained into the luxury resort. Throughout the stay, this poignancy of storytelling lingered. And the staff, mostly hired from the surrounding local villages, assumed the role of earnest storytellers.

On a warm Saturday afternoon, guests were invited to join a kampong party. Hosted weekly at the resort’s beachfront gardens, the convivial fete ushered in stalls of Malaysian delicacies — including apam balik, a local rendition of pancakes, and sirap bandung, an iced drink made from rose cordial syrup — prepared on-site. 

A flurry of traditional entertainments was rallied in: a coconut seller arrived with his trusty baboon, which deftly swung high up the trees to pluck and drop the coconuts for him to then slash open; a herdsman came with his pet kid, stashed in a tote before releasing it for guests to play with; two local women held two bamboo poles, clapping them in a rhythmic movement, for guests to try out a Malaysian equivalent of the Double Dutch skip. On the grass, rugs were laid for the guests to lounge on, while a percussion band from the village entertained them with local tunes. 

Tanjong Jara ResortEvery Saturday, locals from a nearby village gather to cook delicacies and teach traditional pastimes at a kampong party hosted at the beachfront garden.
Every Saturday, locals from a nearby village gather to cook delicacies and teach traditional pastimes at a kampong party hosted at the beachfront garden.

The resort’s mission, as its running dictum suggests, is to provide an “Unmistakably Malay” experience. What it entails are full-fledged immersive programmes that are steeped in age-old traditions; preserved and condensed in one recreational ecosystem.

“We try to bring the culture closer,” said Tanjong Jara’s general manager, Frank Motzkus. The pancake man they commissioned to open his stall at the fete was the second generation of Dungun market’s best-selling pancake maker. “The best pancake in the whole of Terengganu, so they say.”

Tanjong Jara Resort, Batu 8, Off Jalan Dungun, Terengganu, Malaysia.

Mangala Resort & Spa

Two hours of drive away from Terengganu is the Mangala Resort & Spa. Set on the remote edge of an oil palm plantation in Kuantan, the capital city of the state of Pahang, the resort is a secluded paradise. An unlikely origin, however, lies behind the lush tropical landscape.

Two decades ago, the hilly 26-hectare land was nothing but barren land. Once a tin mine site, from the ’30s until the ’70s, then a sand mine, from the late ’70s until the early noughts, what was left behind from almost a century of extensive land extraction were deep ravines and murky ponds. Caked with clay, most of the land lost its layer of topsoil. There was hardly any sand; vegetation was sparse and, naturally, so was its wildlife — a forgotten desert.

In 2001, property developer Datuk Franky Chua Goon Eng took over and visualised an oasis-like ecosystem for the abandoned land. Soon, a 15-year rejuvenation project was set in motion.

Mangala Resort & SpaOnce a tin mining site, the Mangala rejuvenated its barren land into a man- made reservoir with a flourishing ecosystem.
Once a tin mining site, the Mangala rejuvenated its barren land into a man- made reservoir with a flourishing ecosystem.

Fast forward to a warm clear-skied afternoon last June, my car pulled into Mangala’s meandering driveway, passing a troop of oil palm trees, lightly swaying in the wind and flanking the driveway. A flock of sunbirds flew into view, before the car turned and stopped by the main pavilion area where the reception is located.

Wandering further into the core of Mangala, a panoramic view emerged in greeting: What was formerly a sun-baked wasteland had transformed into a haven to 61 villas and cottages. Some were nestled in the thick of the wetlands; others were dotted around a sweeping, serene lake. The man-made lake was, as the resort staff told me, vital to at least 100 types of birds, including rare and endangered species the likes of the stork billed kingfisher. Albeit man-made, Mangala has metamorphosed into a thriving ecosystem of its own.

In Sanskrit, the word Mangala means “auspicious”— a running theme for the low-lying resort that brings quiet Balinese getaways to mind. Far removed from the urban hubbub of nearby cities, the conservation site perpetuates a calm retreat for men and nature to co-exist in slow-paced harmony.

I was escorted in a buggy to my small-scale pavilion, called the Amani, which are newer villa additions to Mangala. These villas sit on slightly terraced land built around an orchard of mangoes and durian trees. The allocated villa has an attached balcony with a private saltwater plunge pool, which provided an unobstructed field of vision of the flourishing topography and the setting sun. Not too far off, I sighted on-site farms where local farmers grew food produce for the kitchen, and often for the local markets too.

Although the resort is set a fair distance from the heart of Kuantan, Mangala advocates off-site excursions. One was arranged for me. One of the stops, Sungai Lembing, is a quaint tin mining town dubbed the El Dorado of the East, and just an hour’s drive away from the resort. On foot, crossed a bridge, suspended above the town’s main river, which led me to what used to be the living quarters of the tin miners.

There, it appeared like time had come to a standstill — in the ’70s — paused in its simple, archaic mores; almost untouched by modernity. One of the riverside buildings housed the city’s oldest noodle factory, from which the resort, in one of its initiatives to support endangered family-run businesses, sources the kitchen’s noodle requirements.

The evening ended with a cruise down the Kuantan River — a local boatman sailed a group of us through a firefly forest — before I returned to the villa. Spent, yet fulfilled.

Mangala Resort & Spa, Lebuhraya Tun Razak, Kuantan, Pahang, Malaysia.
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