A visit to Tanjong Jara Resort on the east coast of Malaysia has Winnie Yong convinced that heaven has a new name.
Imagine this: a seafront lawn dotted with tables laid out with keropok lekor (deep-fried fish sausages), pancakes and other local snacks; the air, a mixture of sea breeze, strong local coffee and the sweet scent of roselle tea. A game of sepak takraw is in full force at one end and a game of congkak at the other. Cheers can be heard along with thuds as coconuts fall to the ground.
As the monkey scampers down the trunk of the 80-foot tree, its owner cuts up the fresh coconuts and passes them out. I think I see the monkey grin but that’s probably just in my head. A few days in syurga will do that to you.
Syurga is what they call “heaven” in Malay. I’m not sure what heaven looks like but I think I may have found a slice of it, with an ancient Malay twist.
I’m on the verandah of my seafront Anjung Room, taking in the scenes of idyllic kampong life playing out on the lawn. This is one of the highlights at Tanjong Jara Resort every Saturday at 5pm – it’s what the guests come for. Correction, it’s one of the things guests come for. They also come for the private beach facing the South China Sea, the famous Tenggol Island – a world-class dive site 45 minutes away, the award-winning Spa Village and the taste of home-styled Malay cuisine. Just eight kilometres away from the sleepy fishing town of Dungun, Terengganu on the east coast of Malaysia, Tanjong Jara Resort is a living example of the rapidly vanishing traditional Malay way of life. First built in 1979, the 22-hectare property is a cosily knit maze of complexes, lush gardens and pools that underwent a major refurbishment when it was bought over by YTL Hotels in 1999.
With architecture inspired by the royal Malay palaces of the 17th century, Tanjong Jara Resort is a soulful structure of stone, rattan, chengal wood and teak. The resort’s 99 rooms include the one-of-a-kind Anjung Suite that’s fashioned after a traditional fishing village home on stilts overlooking the river. The staff too are a relief from the impersonal and sometimes brusque service we get in the city. Relaxed, friendly and genuine, they’re quick to assist without that perfunctory stance of over-trained employees.
A big part of Tanjong Jara Resort’s inimitable appeal lies in the people you will inevitably meet during your time there. Many of them have been with the resort since day one (which means you’ll likely meet them again when you make a repeat visit, which I can assure you, you will). Within my first few hours in Dungun, I meet driver-cum-storyteller Aziz whose lively chatter makes the 90-minute drive from the airport to the resort fly by. He shares that he’s been with the resort for the last 13 years. An hour-and-a-half later, I’m greeted by Pak Aksah the doorman, a spritely 74-year-old who’s been with the resort since it opened in 1979. I’m then welcomed by Peter Neto, the affable Portugueseborn general manager of the resort; Sijer Maliun, assistant spa manager; and the livewire Chef Ann whose market visits, cooking classes, home-cooked dishes and energetic personality has made her a hit with the guests.
My itinerary at Tanjong Jara is comfortably full, designed to immerse me in the ancient Malay way of life. One of the highlights is the luxurious Spa Village where I can be found every afternoon on the dot. Inspired by the tenets of traditional Malay practices that emphasise purity of spirit, health and wellbeing, the spa is soothingly ritualistic. The Spa Village’s menu of treatments is extensive and one of the stars is the 100-minute Assam Roselle massage. A heated mixture of carotino and roselle oil is massaged into the skin with long deliberate strokes, followed by a fragrant scrub made of roselle, rice powder and nutmeg. The roselle is a hibiscus introduced over 300 years ago from India, which contains powerful healing properties and has long been used in traditional medicine and local delicacies.
Daytime at Tanjong Jara can be as leisurely or as packed as you wish, what with a whole list of activities for you to choose from. From golf excursions to batik painting, half-day cruises on the Marang River to guided jungle walks, it’s up to you.
While one is spoilt for choice as far as food is concerned, for a more romantic rendezvous, there is the French-inspired seafood restaurant Nelayan, which means “fisherman” in Malay. While relaxed and informal, Nelayan is more upscale than the family-friendly Di Atas Sungei and perfect for a candlelit dinner for two. For those who want to kick it up a notch, private dinners can be arranged right on the beach too.
The dinner at Nelayan is delicious – there’s seared tuna with black and white sesame on slices of beet root, the rich and hearty signature Nelayan Bouillabaisse with generous slices of fish, mussel and squid and an unforgivingly decadent dessert in the form of iced nougat swimming in sweet red sauce and berries. As with all good things, they must come to an end and so too must my time at Tanjong Jara. The transition from syurga back down to earth is not one I look forward to but I take solace in the fact that, just like the resort’s many satisfied guests, I can always come back.
Images courtesy of YTL