Malaysia: Monuments and monkeys

By Elizabeth Binning

A Malaysian resort is a great place to recuperate after a nerve-jangling encounter with a cuddly local, writes Elizabeth Binning.

The Banjaran Spa Resort near Ipoh, Malaysia. Photo / Dean Purcell
The Banjaran Spa Resort near Ipoh, Malaysia. Photo / Dean Purcell

Being kissed by a monkey, dodging incontinent bats, exploring a haunted castle in an old rubber plantation, eating a catseye and even checking out a 25m tower that leans dramatically sideways was no problem. And I certainly didn't mind spending four days at a luxury resort on an island off the Malaysian coast. It was the podiatrist fish that I couldn't handle.

Then again I have to admit I have never been good with fish. I don't like eating them and I definitely don't like being in the water with them. So my stomach was churning at the mere thought of putting my feet into a pool full of the slimy little things at the otherwise delightful Banjaran Hot Spring Retreat.

The theory behind the pool, aptly named Dr Fish, is that you dip your legs into the pool of garra rufa fish, which then nibble on the skin cells on your feet and toes.

The treatment, which originated in Turkey, is meant to alleviate psoriasis and other skin complaints. It's also aimed at getting rid of all the dead skin cells - the hungry little fish eat them - leaving your feet feeling fresh and rejuvenated.

I've read the material and know the benefits but despite spending a good 15 minutes on the side of the pool, watching while the fish fed on everyone else's feet, I just couldn't bring myself to take the plunge.

Don't get me wrong, I wanted to do it - even if it was just so I could say I'd conquered my fish fear - and I even managed to get a few toes into the water. But it was like the fish could smell fear because in seconds they were all swimming towards me en masse, including one that was twice the size of his mates.

In the end I just couldn't let them feast on my feet and instead opted for a walk through the nearby reflexology pebble walk pool.

The pools are just a small part of what's on offer at this luxury wellness resort, located at Tambum, about 15 minutes from the city of Ipoh, and about two hours north of the Malaysia capital of Kuala Lumpur.

We stopped there for a night on a quick tour of the highlights of Malaysia but the reality is a night is far from enough if you really want to take advantage of everything the retreat offers.

The geothermal site, which opened early last year, is situated in a 7ha valley nestled within a cluster of amazing limestone jungle clad hills and neat caves.

Several of the caves - one of which is 450 million years old - have been incorporated into the resort including one used for meditation and another which is geothermally heated and used as a sauna.

Everything about this resort is centred on well-being, from the lemongrass drink we were welcomed with at the reception, through to the gardens which are planted with an array of herbs and plants that are used in cooking and for natural remedies.

Even the wine is organic - not that drinking is really encouraged in a place dedicated to "health enhancement and new lifestyle" - and as well as my friends the fish there is everything from massages and facials to anti-ageing body treatments and harmony bathing.

Unfortunately we didn't have time for it all on our short stay but I could have done with the "fat reduction massage" after three days of non-stop eating on the privately owned Pangkor Laut Island, home to another five-star resort dedicated to decadence and relaxation.

It's hard to do anything but relax on this island which is mostly covered in virgin jungle and offers a restful holiday away from everyday life, made easier with 500 staff on hand to cater to every whim.

Emerald Bay, the island's private beach, with its white sand and warm turquoise water, is the kind of place where you feel like no one else exists, even when other tourists are lounging lazily nearby. As soon as guests arrive staff rush up and provide fresh towels and water - or drinks from Chapman's bar - so there's nothing to do but sink back into a hammock and enjoy the experience.

There's no shortages of places to eat, either, as the resort has five restaurants, including one called Uncle Lim's, which is run, yes, by Uncle Lim, who has been at the resort since it opened nearly 27 years ago.

Yip, the resort's naturalist, is another of the island's long-serving employees. He's 75 but far from retiring and spends his days taking guests on jungle tours - he describes himself as "a gramophone grinding away" - and writing books on the natural history of the island. His down-to-earth descriptions add humour to the fascinating wildlife on a two-hour jungle walk. While pointing out bats, for instance, he laughingly describes how they "pee" upwards while hanging upside down.

"The pee shoot up and must come back down again," he says. "It helps cool the body - not for you or me though," he adds with a grin.

The tranquillity of Pangkor Laut was a dramatic contrast to Kuala Lumpur, where we started our Malaysia experience with visits to the National Monument, National Mosque, King's Palace, the Petronas Twin Tower and the Chinese markets where desperate vendors beg you to come into their stalls and even chase you down the alleyway in the hope of making a quick buck.

But for me perhaps the most remarkable thing in this busy city is its exceptional motorway system. Even at peak hour there were no queues and everything was still flowing well. The driving, on the other hand, was not so good and there were several knuckle-clenching moments.

We did a lot of driving in our week exploring Malaysia and it proved a good way to see the country. On most of the tourist routes there are plenty of things to see and surprisingly few tourists.

On the hour-long drive between Lamut and Ipoh, for instance, we were able to explore a fairyland of amazing ancient caves, some used as temples, others glittering with towering stalactites and stalagmites.

In the small town of Teluk Intan we took a quick break to see the Leaning Tower of Teluk Intan, Malaysia's equivalent of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Built in 1885 as a water tower, it really is on a lean but unlike the huge crowds in Italy we were pretty much the only tourists there to see it.

It takes several hours to drive from this part of Malaysia back to Kuala Lumpur but along the way there are numerous villages and plantations - mostly fruit, rubber or palm - with lots of markets and stalls offering the chance to try some unusual fruits.

Mahendran, our driver, encouraged me to try one he called "the catseye". Having chickened out on the fish I felt I should at least give the fruit a try and popped the translucent "eye" into my mouth to find it surprisingly nice, rather like a grape but with a large dark stone in the middle.

We also stopped at Kuala Selangor to visit some wild and free-roaming Silver Leaf monkeys. "There is a tree with silver leaves around here and these monkeys like to eat the leaves and that that's the reason why their fur is silver," Mahendran explained.

Around 3pm daily the monkeys apparently entertain huge crowds but we were a little early and, like the rest of our stops, found ourselves the only tourists around. The vendors who sell bags of green beans - monkey treats - quickly raced their trolleys over to us.

They worked a treat and within seconds I had curious little monkeys all around me... at which point I couldn't help asking just how friendly - or safe - they were. After all, we had been warned at one of the resorts that monkeys were best avoided, as they tend to snatch anything not nailed down.

But Mahendran said these ones were safe enough and even liked cuddles, although he did add it was best to stay away from the brown ones because "they will bite".

So, throwing caution to the winds, I held out some beans and before long I was being cuddled and even kissed on the cheek by a group.

I may not have been brave enough to take on the fish but at least I can leave Malaysia knowing I've got up close and very friendly with the monkeys.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Malaysia Airlines operate non-stop from Auckland to Kuala Lumpur six days a week.

What to do: Asian Overland Services runs a variety of tours in Kuala Lumpur and wider Malaysia.

Where to stay:

* In Kuala Lumpur: The Shangri-la Hotel.

* In Pangkor Laut: The 5-star Pangkor Resort.

* In Ipoh: The Banjaran Spa Resort.

Further information: See Tourism Malaysia's website.

Elizabeth Binning visited Malaysia as guest of Tourism Malaysia, Malaysia Airlines and Asian Overland Services.

- NZ Herald

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