by Dick Dace
My spa holiday experience began the moment we boarded Malaysia Airlines. This holiday was about refreshing, rejuvenating and decompressing from the stress of the modern world. Traveling to Malaysia promised to be a step back in time to a quieter moment in the world of the beautiful Malaysia people and their culture. Flying first class is not just the hedonist, extravagant indulgency of Hollywood stars and the wealthy, but a necessity for those who must have their wits about them for that important meeting when they land. A good night’s sleep is possible in the space age-inspired egg-chairs that, with a touch of a button, morphs into a sleeper sofa that guarantees a good night’s slumber among the stars.
Before you sleep, there is pampering to be had, out-of-this-world pampering. The beautiful and gracious flight attendants welcome you to your celestial mini-cabin in the sky with a chilled washcloth to refresh your face and hands, while they rush to get you your beverage of choice – which they keep pouring for the entire flight.
Once aloft in the night sky, they serve you dinner on china with beautiful sterling flatware. Grilled shrimp in a ginger sauce, beef and chicken Sates with peanut sauce and fresh fruit with chocolate sauce.
For those of us who had to do some work before we arrived in Kuala Lumpur, the footrest/ottoman made a comfortable second chair, and the tray table was large enough to share with a colleague, as we crunched numbers at 30,000 feet. By the time breakfast was served, fresh fruit with an egg omelet, we were well rested and mentally prepared for our meetings. We took the KLIA Ekspres train from the airport to the Ritz-Carlton in downtown Kuala Lumpur. It was a high-speed train that takes only 28 minutes (while a cab ride would take more than an hour), designed especially for air travelers. One of the great things about the Ritz-Carlton Kuala Lumpur is that they are used to hosting time travelers (a reference to those who travel a great distance and who cross the international dateline) by offering 24-hour room service and a gymnasium that is open 24 hours, as well. One can swim, lift weights or use the treadmill anytime of the day or night. There is even a locker room with a steam room, sauna and Jacuzzi, to sooth the time-strained muscles.
For those who need a little help transcending time and soothing those muscles, the Spa Village at the Ritz-Carlton is just the thing. My previous spa experiences had consisted of a Swedish massage, a Jacuzzi bath, manicure and pedicure, a facial and haircut. At the Spa Village at the Ritz-Carlton Kuala Lumpur, all my senses were to be massaged.
The Spa Village experience began by slipping into the most comfortable silky-smooth lounge-wear. A cup of specially blended ginger tea was served to enhance relaxation, while sitting in a dark room listening to ethnic Malay music and watching a soothing video of scenes from the Malaysian rainforest.
My personal therapist explained the spa treatment she had designed for me was based on the timeless traditions of the Malaysian people, used to balance one’s physical, emotional and spiritual health. In explaining the treatment, she shared that the Malay word for woman is “princess” and the Malay word for man is “warrior.” All the oils, herbs and massage treatments for women were about enhancing a princess’ beauty, by cleansing her inside, beautifying her skin and by postponing menopause. The warrior’s treatment is about cleansing his inside and enhancing his stamina.
The therapist escorted me to a private spa room that was as larger than my hotel room with an outdoor private garden with shower and a in-ground Jacuzzi tub. The warrior treatment included a massage using an oil made of local herbs of turmeric, cinnamon, garlic, onion and citronella to invigorate the circulation. This teeny-tiny wisp of a girl asked about my preference for a soft, medium or strong massage. The warrior in me said strong, and before the massage was over, she had me crying, “Uncle!” (I have a bruise to prove it!) I had to ask her to let up several times, to which she just giggled. (At first, I thought she was making fun of me, but later I learned that her response was cultural, that the Malaysian people express embarrassment by giggling.)Following the massage was a body scrub, which consisted of soothing oils and herbs for exfoliation. I showered in my private courtyard that was beautifully landscaped with an impressive vista of the cities skyline before retiring to a milk bath with kaffir limes and rose petals. No wonder Cleopatra and Marilyn Monroe were famous for enjoying their milk baths, it was simply unbelievably relaxing. I even lunched al fresco while I bathed.
After my bath, I was anointed with special invigorating oil and enjoyed, briefly, a body steaming. With my after treatment herbal tea, I was given a honey, tea leaf amuse bouse to eat before I returned to my room for a short, restful nap. I was rejuvenated.
The best time to visit Kuala Lumpur is December through July. My spa holiday continued the next day with just a 45-minute flight to the east side of the peninsula to the South China Sea resort of Tanjong Jara Resort and Spa Village. General manager Adrian Chung, whom I soon learned was affectionately referred to as “The Mayor,” greeted us. With 200 employees to pamper 200 guests, Tanjong Jara is paradise in a little city.
One morning, we tagged along with Chef Ann to the Dungun wet market to see the fresh fish and vegetables she bought for the resort directly from the areas fisherman and farmers. The vast selection of fish was astonishing, most of which were still alive as she poked and prodded them. Chef Ann was gracious in her explanation of all the new and wonderful herbs, vegetables and spices we spied.
At midmorning, we boarded the resort’s boat for an excursion to Tenggol Island for snorkeling and diving for the few Padi-certified open-water divers among us. The tiny island was deserted, except for three diving camps, each with their own selection of cabins on the beach. While a few of us lay out on the beach and snorkeled, a few of us dove in to explore one of the world’s most beautiful coral reefs.
Huge rainbow-colored parrotfish darted among pristine millennia-old coral formations as we swam among them. Giant sea turtles munched away while a grouper that looked the size of a Volkswagen cruised along beside us.
The dive master and his crew were focused on our enjoyment, pointing out small, beautiful fish and sea life we might have missed. To the delight of the group, they picked up sea slugs and sea cucumbers for us to hold. They even utilized our leftover lunch sandwiches to teach us how to hand feed the schools of fish that a little bread attracted.
Tanjong Jara Resort and Spa Village is known for its’authentic Malay health treatments first made popular by the Malaysian royalty. The goal of the resort, which is built in the refined and intricate woodwork style of the Malaysian Sultans, is to preserve the cultural heritage of the region, including the local health and beauty treatments by using the indigenous natural oils, fruit extracts and flowers.
After a wonderful bath in my own private, outdoor tub just off the bedroom of my chalet, I walked to the Spa Village for my first treatment. The village had its’ open-air treatment rooms tucked around pools and fountains with private hidden gardens. My treatment, Syurga Tujuh or Seven Steps to Heaven, was just that, heavenly.
My therapy started with a special Malay cocktail made of herbs found in the nearby rainforest and consumed for their vigor and vitality properties. My therapist told me she had learned the art of the massage from her mother, who had learned it from her mother before her. My treatment started off with a hand and foot soak, followed by a Malay hair and scalp treatment. Next was a very relaxing massage with long kneading strokes that concentrated on the muscles and pressure points. The oil she used was fragrant and made with herbs to stimulate my circulation. She said I would start sweating in about an hour, and just about an hour later, as I was walking along the deserted beach picking up seashells I began to sweat profusely. To cool off, I dove into the brilliant emerald South China Sea for a quick refreshing swim.
All day long, I had noticed that the staff was setting up something on the beach. There were torches stuck in the sand encircling chairs and a table, and what looked like the makings of a bonfire. Little did I know, GM Adrian Chung had arranged for us to enjoy a traditional five-course Malaysian dinner just a few feet from the surf. We feasted on grilled prawns, mango soup and grilled beef. How he arranged the full, burnt-orange harvest moon, is anyone’s guess. Mr. Chung shared with us the inspiration for the evening. Not only is Tanjong Jara about pampering, it is also about exceeding expectations and making memories. Usually, dinners on the beach are reserved for couples celebrating their honeymoon. When Chung joined the resort almost two years ago, he decided that memories and romance were for everyone, dinners on the beach included, and set about creating a memorable honeymoon package.
Each honeymoon couple has a private, torch-lit dinner on the beach, a couples’ massage followed by a flower bath, and a private dinner on their balcony. The couple also receives traditional Malaysian gifts and they get to select a tree that will be planted at the resort in their honor. A beautiful wooded marker identifies the tree and includes the couples names and date. As a special treat, each year on their anniversary, a photo of their honeymoon tree is sent to the happy couple.
The best time to visit Tanjong Jara Resort and Spa Village is April through July. A short three and a half hour drive northeast of Kuala Lumpur is the island resort of Pangkor Laut Resort and Spa Village. It really is a whole island devoted to pampering. The traditional Malaysian fishing villages we passed on our boat ride from the mainland inspired many parts of the resort’s design. With land being precious for farming, many native villages are built over water.
In the Spa Village section of the resort, rooms are actually chalets built over the water on stilts, which afforded privacy and luxury. Be sure to take a bubble bath in your room and look out the windows into the emerald green waters that frequently host fishing boats plowing the waters for tonight’s dinner. Above the tub, in the middle of the ceiling is a rain showerhead, for that safe, rain forest shower experience.
The island resort has many beautiful locations. To view the perfect sunset, trek through the virgin rain forest that covers most of the island to the beach at Emerald Bay. Seeing the emerald water from the treetops is a breathtaking sight. Once on the pale pink beach, all one has to do to get something to eat or drink, is raise ones hand. One of the gracious staff members is more than happy to bring you your heart’s desire as you lounge on the beach.
My first day on the island started with a yoga session. The stretching was a salve for my travel-worn muscles and it also woke up my appetite. Breakfast at the Jamu Bar overlooking the swimming pool and the sea inspired me to go jungle trekking with Uncle Yip, the resident floral, fauna and wildlife expert.
Uncle Yip, while a spry man with a happy smile, seems to be one with the jungle itself, and knows its’ inhabitants like they were his children. He shared his knowledge freely and even challenged us to think about what we were seeing. Like the prehistoric spiky palm tree, why did it have such razor sharp spikes up and down its trunk — to protect its young shoots from being eaten. What were the big black bag like things hanging in the trees — fruit bats with a two-foot wingspan. For the chocolate lovers among us, he opened a cacao pod to show us the green seeds, which first have to be dried before they can be roasted and ground into chocolate. Showing us the abundance of the forest, Uncle Yip shared with us why there are still native aboriginal Indians living in Malaysian rainforests because all they have to do is walk outside their homes and find all manner of incredible foods.
After a lunch on the beach, it was spa time. The first treatment was Pangkor Laut’s unique Bath House Ritual, exercising various Asian bathing customs. After changing into a Batik sarong, a soothing footbath was followed by a Chinese Foot Pounding that had been enjoyed by the concubines of Chinese Emperors to keep their feet tiny.
The Bath House structure itself features a large stonewalled courtyard blooming with gingers, with a brilliant blue pool at its’ center. On the edge of the pool are four large urns from which water bubbles and cascades into the pool. This could be the most romantic pool on earth and I had it all to myself.
The Bath House complex is made up of several private, open-air gazebo-like treatment rooms, tucked inside hidden gardens. The next treatment was a traditional Japanese-style cleansing with a “goshi-goshi” cloth. After my skin was exfoliated from head to toe, came a dip in a heated Rotenburu pool that was made of rounded river stones. I could have stayed there until I wrinkled up to nothing while I enjoyed a calming tea — and my treatments continued. Up next was an Ayurvedic treatment, an ancient Indian healing tradition that strengthens the internal organs, nervous system, muscles, bones and regulates the digestive system. Before lying on a wooden table for my treatment, I had to trade in my sarong for a loincloth, (my first and very unlike what Tarzan wore!) Suitably dressed for the occasion, I was laid out and basted in medicated oils and herbs, from head to toe. A traditional Indian rejuvenating massage followed. The masseur ran his hands in rapid strokes the entire length of my legs, arms and torso. I felt like a greased pig at the state fair. To remove the oil after the treatment, I was vigorously rubbed with an herbal paste made with tea leaves, followed by a warm shower and a nap.
The best time to visit Pangkor Laut Resort and Spa Village is December through July. A short boar ride to the mainland and a three-hour drive up the highest mountain in Malaysian, we arrived at Cameron Highlands Resort and Spa Village. The resort is located near one of the oldest rainforest on Earth, where wild orchids and lilies bloomed beside the road. We were greeted by Scotsman Ross Sanders, the guest relations manager of Cameron Highland, which was appreciate, since English gentry in search of tea settled this part of Malaysia, and everything about Cameron Highlands is about tea, high tea, hot tea, and tea baths.
The ever gracious Sanders hosted us to High Tea, with a Malaysia twist. After gorging ourselves on fresh strawberries the size of goose eggs, and scones three inches tall, we feasted on Sates and little purse pockets filled with spicy chicken.
My Cameron Highlands spa treatment started with a tea bath. A large, footed white porcelain tub filled with hot water and rose petals, kaffir limes and tea leaves turned into my favorite place to nap. With headphones, neck pillow and the soothing waters, I caught 20 z’s. The massage that followed was primarily Swedish, except for the part where I had to sit up so he could massage my back.
I got the giggles when he had me turn over onto my stomach, and after placing a warm towel on my back, he brought out some wooden dowels. They squeaked like mice as he ran them up and down my back. My masseur said “laughter, good for you.”
Sanders also hosted us to cocktails later that afternoon, and asked us to participate in the Fire Lighting Ceremony in the Highlands Bar. As tradition holds it, Jim Thompson, the legendary silk tycoon who disappeared on a walk one Sunday afternoon, never to be heard from again, used to invite his guests to light the evening fire. Cameron Highlands reintroduced this tradition nightly as another way to enhance the guest experience and to create memories.
After two weeks of pampering, massages and feasting on delicacies, I was refreshed, rejuvenated and decompressed and ready for the modern world. Now, where is that Blackberry?
The best time to visit Cameron Highlands and Spa Village is December through July. To see the wild orchids in bloom, visit April through May and have the concierge book you a day with local guide Bob, for a tree climbing exploration of all things flora and fauna.
Trip Resources: Malaysia Airlines (www malaysiaairlines.com) flies to Kuala Lumpur daily from Los Angles. Houston is the second busiest gateway to Malaysia. All resorts are part of the YTL Hotels & Properties Group (www ytlhotels.com). Mr. Dace was a guest of Malaysia Airlines and YTL Hotels & Properties. Mr. Dace is the Epicurean Publicist. He does lunch for a living.