Luxury getaways in East Malaysia: Why Mangala Resort and Tanjong Jara Resort should be your next escapes from Singapore
Confession: I'm Malaysian and I lived in Malaysia all my life, until I was shipped off to an exotic land far away called The United States of America for school. And in my first 18 years at the mothership, I never once ventured to the east of Malaysia. Nevermind the east peninsular (Sabah and Sarawak), I didn't even cross the Cameron Highlands border, which is smacked dead centre of the country I still refer to as home. That is, until last month.
Work brought me to not one but two luxury resorts, in Kuantan and in Terengganu — the new Mangala Resort & Spa and the much-loved, much-buzzed about Tanjong Jara Resort respectively, both accessible through a short flight into the Sultan Ahmad Shah Airport. The former getaway is a mere 20-minute drive upon landing, making it an ideal first stop of our trip, whereas the latter is located 160km north of Mangala, which takes 1.5 hours to arrive by car.
I mean this in the best of ways, but I was very surprised by my experience in both resorts. At Mangala, aside from its modern, chic interiors (and the amazing private in-villa pool I dipped myself in every chance I got), I was taken by how self-sustaining the hotel was in growing its own flora at its backyard. As well as the array of underrated attractions available in and around the property — from a river tour, to food trek, to a pre-war destination most Malaysians like I won't know existed. At Tanjong Jara, a five-star experience highlighted by its traditional Malayan architecture, turtle conservation efforts, and TDF spa baths just to name a few. There are hammocks scattered throughout the greens and plush day beds by the beach, on which I fell asleep until the rain woke me up one evening.
Choosing to visit either is a dirty task, for they each offer a unique take on the idea of a posh getaway, though at first glance, Mangala and Tanjong Jara (under Small Luxury Hotels and YTL Hotels in that order) seem aligned in their shared appreciation of the local life. Below, five dang good reasons to check out both the next time you can't deal with the city any more.
1. Nature trails for the curious
Mosquito attack aside (to be fair, I'm extraordinarily attractive to the insect), I thoroughly enjoyed the 8am nature walk at Mangala Resort & Spa. The on-site naturalist schooled me on the diverse species of flora and fauna found around us. Let's see... there were the fragrant coconut trees, planted for the fruit and juice I enjoyed during the welcome ceremony; the ambarella trees accompanied by wild mushrooms; and the jasmine trees, apparently nicknamed the Queen of the Night because their fragrance is most alive after sundown.
Towards the end of my journey, I was treated to mulberries (I could eat however much I was able to pluck!) and the infamous ghost peppers, which are decidedly less popular as a pre-brekkie snack. I was told that there's an emerald dove living amongst us, though rarely spotted. I was more upset the pythons which would sometimes make an appearance didn't grace us with their charms that day. Guess I'll have to go back. On that note, Tanjong Jara's nature trail is shorter, but far more adventurous terrain-wise, so bring proper shoes for a light hike in the wilderness. The panoramic view of the coastline I was awarded with at the climax was certainly greater than the calories burned.
2. Unexpected fun, even if you don't like the water
If all that cardio doesn't sound appealing, I don't blame you; productivity during a holiday can seem counter intuitive. An alternative: getting your daily steps in at the Sungai Lembing Tin Mines, dubbed the 'El Dorado of Malaya', in Kuantan. I think my people meant the 'El Paso of Malaya', but I digress. It used to be the biggest tin producer in Pahang, and was the site of the largest subterranean tin mine in Southeast Asia. Today, it's a humble yet intriguing tourist attraction — educational at the most and amusing at the least for those of us... history buffs. The Kuantan River Cruise at sunset was a big hit. Catching fireflies made me feel like a child again, even more so when I was given a flashlight to help find the local version of Tick-Tock the Crocodile.
Onto far less feral fiends, turtle watch at Tanjong Jara at the turtle hatchery by the beach. We were scheduled to view their great release in the evening, but because most of them have already hatched and set out for sea a few days prior to our arrival, we were out of luck. Still, it was cool to learn from the experts, the dangers the vulnerable creatures face (natural predators and ignorant poachers who are protected by the law) and the lengths they go to give the sea turtles the best chance the endangered species has at survival. Disheartening as it was to hear about the black market selling and consumption of sea turtle eggs, it felt hopeful knowing there are donors who give their time and money to the turtles' conservation, and they certainly have fun doing so — by giving the eggs they're sheltering epic names such as 'The Ninjas', 'Heroes in Half Shells', and my favourite, 'Cupcake Factory', because why not?
3. Local cuisine at every juncture
Major shout out to the good folks at Mee Sungai Lembing, for they made the crossing of the Sungai Lembing suspended bridge somewhat worth the scare. Word on the street is, the noodles at this 80-year-old mom-and-pop joint are so popular, they sell out every day. Plus, they have catering arrangements with Mangala (whereupon I had the noodles for lunch the next day — they were fragrant, oily perfection), on top of the best food haunts in town. Their tau fu fa, made from spring water, was pretty decent as well, but hailing from Penang where they have perfected their recipe for decades with brown sugar, my taste buds are understandably biased. For dinner, I sojourned to Ana Ikan Bakar Petai, Kuantan's most celebrated seafood spot. To this day, I'm not sure how we managed to consume everything we ordered, from the grilled stingray, to the garlic chili clams (my favourite) and the kangkung belacan. I'm sure however, that I gained weight upon returning home.
At Tanjong Jara, I got loads more hands on: I made my own home-style lunch — coconut curry chicken and sambal shrimp — under the coaching of the vivacious head chef Ann, who was just as spicy and entertaining as her cooking. While hotel guests are encouraged to begin their affair with the Malayan kitchen at the morning market, none of us rose early enough to pick out our produce and herbs. Oops.
Later in the day, I was summoned out of the sea by the music playing at what Tanjong Jara calls the Kampong Sucimurni Lifestyle. At the beachfront garden every Saturday evening, the resort holds a mini recreation of a traditional Malay village gathering, participated by the town's best hawkers. Keropok lekor and begedils are fried fresh, teh tarik and hibiscus tea brewed on the spot, while locals teach guests the rules of congkak and children take turns on the Tetek Alu bamboo dance. Threatening to steal the thunder are the baby goats we were allowed to feed with milk, along with the house monkey, trained by his master to pluck coconuts right out of the tree so they can be served immediately to slack-jawed guests. Your money is no good here, so come with empty pockets and an empty stomach.
4. Physical work of the good kind
Both resorts are holistic destinations, ergo, exercise options are aplenty should you be looking to "undo" the sins you subjected your burgeoning love handles to. Break a sweat at any tempo of your choosing; there's archery, kayaking, cycling, and more to choose from at Mangala Resort & Spa, if you think the morning walk to breakfast won't count (it doesn't). Once you get to Tanjong Jara Resort, the Sucimurni stretches are great to get your joints warmed up before your run by the beach or swim in the South China Sea. I spotted a tennis court and gym too if you're looking to push your heart rates right up. A guided jungle trek to Chemerung Waterfall is on the cards, as well as short dives around the nearby Tenggol Island reefs, conducted by the in-house diving school.
5. Inner peace to calm city dwellers
It's a vacation after all, eh? I harnessed my chi by working on my Sun Salutations on the patio and feeding the fishes at the Mangala pond. At Tanjong Jara, I got rid of any bad jujus I may have had in my life (one can never be too sure) by taking a floral bath at the spa, followed by the Urutan Gemalan, a folk Malay massage. If all else fails, I doubt a peaceful nap to the tunes of the waves on the beach beds will.