The first time I went to Pangkor Laut, a 300-acre private island off the western coast of Malaysia, was to celebrate the dawn of the 21st century. Together with my husband and our then-two-year-old son, we ignored dire predictions that some unspecified ill would befall the world as computers reset to the new millennium. Instead, we spent ten glorious days living at this luxury resort, situated at the edge of a two-million-year-old rain forest. There, and elsewhere, New Year’s Day passed without incident.
Our return two decades later, for five days last March, coincided with another world panic – over the coronavirus that had recently been identified as Covid-19. This time it was only the two of us traveling. Pangkor Laut was our seventh stop on a six-week sojourn through Southeast Asia, planned many months in advance. As we continued our journey undeterred, the virus, which many people hoped would be confined to Asia, developed new epicenters, in our own country.
Now, a year later, worldwide deaths from Covid-19 exceed two million, with more than 400,000 of those in the United States. We have spent the past ten months living mostly in isolation, wearing masks and “socially distancing” any time we have left the house. These developments seemed inconceivable when we arrived at Pangkor Laut on Leap Day of 2020. And memories of our blissful stay there have sustained us as the pandemic upended our lives.
The sojourn had stemmed from a 2019 file cabinet clean-out. It uncovered some long-forgotten correspondence about a rowdy 160-person tour group that had dominated the resort for half of our stay at the turn of the century. And though we’re not ordinarily ones to complain (and I travel incognito as a journalist), we made a note of it on the evaluation we submitted when checking out. That prompted a letter from the resort manager offering us three free nights on our next visit.
Fast-forward two decades. When we inquired about staying two additional days at the posted rate, YTL Hotels, which manages the resort, stood by its offer to make good.
As in the past, one arrives by boat from the port town of Lumut (about a three-hour car ride from Kuala Lumpur or Penang). But what used to be a 45-minute ferry trip now takes one-third the time by a resort-operated speedboat. The once floating dock has been secured with piling. For those who would rather travel as the crow flies, there’s a helicopter pad. Other conveniences added since our last visit included drinkable running water; an in-room coffee maker and kettle; and Wi-Fi and cell phone service.
Though Pangkor Laut is less rustic-looking in some respects, the best features have stayed just about the same: the chance to observe all manner of wildlife, from monitor lizards to sea otters, and to live in one of about 40 overwater villas, arranged to resemble a traditional Malaysian fishing village. For the past 20 years, staying in a so-called sea villa had been an item on our bucket list.
On the previous trip we had occupied a “garden villa,” situated at the edge of the jungle. It had its charms. Sliding doors led to an outdoor toilet and bathtub, where geckos, which are attracted to the light, congregated in the evening. A family of monkeys made daily visits to eye our toddler curiously and look for opportunities to enter our room.
The sea villa offered a completely different experience. Like most of the 18 others on the more developed side of the resort, ours measured about 200 square feet and was constructed of teak and bamboo, with a 12-foot vaulted ceiling and an ironwood roof. A large bathroom, with windows on all four sides, had an enormous marble tub that overlooked the water.
From a separate porch, about one-fourth the size of the room, we could see the sun rise over an adjacent island. Early morning was foraging time for the island’s heavy population of Oriental pied hornbills. While sitting at the desk in our villa, I could hear their laughing mating call and observe them flying in and out of the jungle – this is their breeding season. Other times they landed so close to us that we could see their eyebrow feathers. Visitors are warned not to feed them, since it shortens their life expectancy, which can otherwise be as long as 35 years.
At high tide, the water surrounding our villa looked like a tropical fish tank, with basket coral, sea cucumbers, schools of blue and yellow damselfish, and iridescent green trumpetfish. There’s no snorkeling at Pangkor Laut, to guard against human injury from sea urchins, and coral injury by humans. But the marine life visible from our windows was more abundant than what we’ve seen on many snorkeling trips.
By contrast, the water on the other side of the island is a tease. After a sweaty hike through the jungle, to Emerald Bay, we were ready for a swim on the island’s only beach designated for this purpose. But, unfortunately, the resort has not solved the pollution problem that we observed there, even 20 years ago. Though at first glance the crescent-shaped beach, just one-half-mile-long, with powdery white sand, is inviting, heavy commercial traffic in the nearby Strait of Malacca has taken its toll. The water has a slick, oily appearance, and we observed Pangkor Laut staff raking up all manner of debris that washes ashore. (Two enormous infinity pools offer an alternative to swimming in this water.)
As we rested on the beach, under the shade of the mangroves and coconut palms, I yearned to turn off the strains of music from nearby Chapman’s Bar. The natural soundtrack of the jungle was so much more appealing: lapping waves, birdcalls and monkeys with domestic disputes. In a conversation that seemed to echo one we had two decades ago, perhaps sitting under the same trees, a father in an adjacent chaise lounge encouraged his young son to release the snails he had captured into the sea.
For on-campus meals – and one is inevitably captive in a place like this – our favorite dinner choice was Fisherman’s Cove, which prepares expertly barbecued fresh fish. The best buffet we have ever sampled at a Southeast Asian hotel was the Saturday pasar malam, or night market, at Feast Village. Though pricey, it offered excellent quality and variety, including a station featuring grilled stingray and tiger prawns; and another serving beef and chicken satay.
While we helped ourselves to these and other savories, a monitor lizard made a meal of the koi fish in the reflecting pond beside our table. Once satiated, it emerged and, with tail held high in the shape of a question mark, sauntered back into the jungle.
To gain a deeper appreciation of flora, fauna and animal life, the free morning jungle walk with Aris, the resident naturalist, rivals a trip on the fictitious Ms. Frizzle’s Magic School Bus. In the course of it, Aris imparts fun facts about, among other things, the breeding habitats of hornbills, fruit bat housing preferences and which vine Tarzan used to make passes at Jane.
Those who prefer solitude can take the jungle walk alone, starting alongside the Spa Village part of the resort, which opened in 2002. Situated about one-half-mile south of our lodgings, it offers 21 overwater villas and what’s billed as a more exclusive living experience. Children under the age of 16 are not welcome, and it’s less heavily populated than the rest of the resort. Sadly, it has a direct, though distant view of an enormous pier with ships that service iron-ore mining on the mainland. The infinity pool in this section of the resort is open only to those who stay in Spa Village, or transact business there – for example, by eating lunch at the Jamu Bar or purchasing spa treatments.
While the former has only a limited food menu (daily salad specials are posted on a chalkboard), the offerings at the latter are extensive, including 11 different types of massage. The descriptive booklet and separate price sheet are hard to decipher and, for the most part, don’t correlate with each other. So it’s best to ask for whatever treatment you want and inquire about what promotions are available. This being Asia, many of the lotions and potions smell good enough to eat. My seven-step Malay facial, for example, included a scrub made of turmeric, galangal and rice powder; it concluded with warm pouches filled with pandan leaves and lemongrass.
An unanticipated pleasure is that each treatment at the spa begins with 45 minutes of bathhouse pampering. The five-step ritual includes a cool Malaysian bath, a warm Japanese bath and a Shanghai scrub. At the end of it, guests are wrapped in a Malaysian sarong, led through a butterfly garden, and served a cup of ginger tea while awaiting whatever treatment they have reserved.
Never before, anywhere in the world, have I booked spa treatments on two consecutive days. At the time it seemed extremely decadent and extravagant. But these experiences are out of range right now. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently ranks the Covid-19 risk in Malaysia at the highest level, and advises Americans to avoid all travel there. Malaysia, meanwhile, has closed its doors to foreign nationals and extended until February 4 a “movement control order” restricting the ability of its own citizens to travel between states. Though it’s possible on the resort website to make reservations starting after that, being able to get there isn’t a given.
With hindsight, I wonder whether my subconscious took the doomsday forecasts much more seriously on this visit to Pangkor Laut, and signaled to seize the moment. When we left New York, on January 26, there had been only one reported case of Covid-19 in the United States. By the time we reached Pangkor Laut about one month later, Seattle had become an epicenter. And New York went on lockdown less than two weeks after our March 10 return. Through the ensuing months of caution, confinement and shock at nature’s cruelty, I’ve been grateful for those five carefree days when I had nothing to fear – in the jungle.
Deborah L. Jacobs, a lawyer and journalist, is the author of Four Seasons in a Day: Travel, Transitions and Letting Go of the Place We Call Home and Estate Planning Smarts: A Practical, User-Friendly, Action-Oriented Guide. All her travel is self-financed.