1. The Banjaran Hotsprings Retreat – Perak, Malaysia
Time from Singapore: 1 hr 40 min flight + 20 min by car
The day before I’m due to check in to the luxury wellness retreat, I consider cancelling. For three weeks, influenza has debilitated me; even antibiotics seem futile. The retreat’s brochure promises rejuvenation in a “sanctuary of holistic wellness”. I reconsider; perhaps Banjaran can heal me?
Tropical rainforest blankets 260-million-year-old limestone hills, which surround the geothermal hot spring lake at the heart of the retreat. Steam rises from the water. Due to the unique mix of minerals, there’s no smell of sulphur. I take a deep breath, I’m glad I came.
Aside from a brief trip to nearby Ipoh, to view street artist Ernest Zacharevic’s eight murals, I don’t leave the resort. Body aches are massaged away at the spa. I explore the jungle path, and visit the granite-and-limestone cave for a yoga session and a sound bath, during which “healing” sound is created using crystal bowls – all fuelled by Pomelo restaurant’s healthy and varied meals, and organic wine.
Each afternoon, I retreat to the privacy of my villa for a ritual I wish I could take home: a soak in the hot geothermal Jacuzzi, followed by a dip in the plunge pool and an outdoor rain shower. I drink cup after cup of water from my villa’s Labu Sayong, a gourd-shaped carafe native to Perak. Minerals in the clay they’re made from are believed to cure ailments like coughs and fever.
Some may say it was time and antibiotics that brought me back to good health but I believe it was Banjaran.
2. Telunas Private Island – Riau, Indonesia
Time from Singapore: 50 min by ferry + 1 hr 30 min by speedboat
Lush isles covered with misty mounds stretch out over the serene sea, like the limbs of a napping giant. I’m on one of these mangrove islands a stone’s throw from Singapore’s urban jungle, but couldn’t have felt more sequestered. From the dining area perched on a cliff, I gaze at my dreamy surroundings through a light drizzle, tuning in to the lilting sounds of waves lapping against the shore.
There’s no check-in procedure at homely, laid-back Telunas. I’m led along a boardwalk to a rustic fan-cooled wooden villa sitting on stilts over the sea. Inside, the briny breeze dances through doors leading to a generous balcony. Through the spaces between the wooden slatted floor, I glimpse azure waters. Bounding to the living room, I feel the cool, uneven floorboards creaking under my weight – a tactile pleasure. I climb up a ladder to the attic/kids’ bedroom, the captain of my own ship. Telunas’ co-owner Michael Schubert later tells me that the rooms were built with local techniques, while some furniture was constructed from old boats.
For two idyllic days, I relish simple pleasures like lunching on wholesome Indonesian cuisine and devouring a novel by the beach sans distractions – the island is Wi-Fi free. Guests are, however provided with a Kindle loaded with volumes like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
I make an absurd attempt at paddleboarding, but amuse myself (and probably guests by the pool) by tipping into the sea. The genial staff members aren’t disdainful. They constantly engage guests –young and old – in conversation, putting us at ease. For the restless, the resort conducts short trips to the neighbouring island and kayaking excursions.
In the evening, I circumnavigate the island, through foliage quivering with life. Hearing a grunt from the forest, I sprint back along the trail. Met by the guttural growl of a generator, I’m relieved to find the mess hall, and stop for a chat with the staff who are winding down with guitar music. They say that I’d probably heard the resident wild boar, which had swum over from a neighbouring island.
If pigs can swim, then impatient me can fish. Beneath stars glimmering in the night, I plop a baited line (provided by the resort) into the still, inky water. At the gentlest tug, I reel in a multi-coloured fish. Releasing it back into the water, I’m delighted to see ripples form as it darts off. Simple joys do matter.
3. The Sanchaya – Bintan Island, Indonesia
Time from Singapore: 45 min by ferry + 15 min by car
A wicker hamper waits near my in-pool sun lounger when I emerge from doing 50-m laps in the saltwater. Within, chilled sparkling and still water – house-bottled, and available freely – and also all I need to stay cool: slices of lime and tumblers, a facial spritz, cold towels, wipes for sunglasses and a flag for service.
At the library, glamorously eclectic with gilded birdcages and English colonial influences, I digest tomes on 19th century to street photography on the deep, button-tufted leather sofas, and Burmese folk tales on the domed chairs. Later, while poring over an atlas on coffee on the rocking chairs outside, an observant artisan (as the British Butler Institute-trained staff are known) – with the grace of a host – enquires if I fancy a brew.
Given such thoughtful care in such luxury, I only need to decide where to daydream within the elegant black and white colonial-style estate – Bintan’s first new resort in 10 years.
Under my curtained sunbed on the private white sand beach, a smiling therapist from the spa approaches and offers a five-minute massage. Her fingers hit the right spots. I find myself abandoning plans to laze on the cane cribs nearer the waves, and I end up at the spa asking for a Balinese massage.
Retreating to my spacious suite – of tasteful grey and South East Asian art – I wonder where’s better to nibble on my veggie chips, chocolates and juices (compliments of the in-room bar): in the clubfoot bathtub – or beyond the white shuttered doors, on the wicker sofa on the verandah? Sweet treats are also laid out before bedtime, along with a traditional wooden game.
Breakfast is easily my favourite meal at The Dining Room. I enjoy the soft-boiled egg with crab meat, black caviar and yuzu Hollandaise parsley, as well as jams (like banana pineapple) with yoghurt pumpkin-seed bread, but find myself gravitating to the regional offerings like the Malaysian stir-fried noodles. I also look forward to the jamu lady who, from a basket, pours traditional herbal tonics like tamarind and turmeric with a dash of black pepper into shot glasses – a good kick to the immune system and the morning.
4. Gaya Island Resort – Sabah, Malaysia
Time from Singapore: 2 hr 20 min flight + 15 min by car + 15 min by speedboat
“M’am?” I crack open an eyelid to the gentle voice of my spa therapist. The sun has set outside the glass-walled private spa cabin. “I hope you enjoyed the treatment.”
I had just finished a three-hour Unduk Ngadau treatment – consisting of a body scrub, hair masque, massage and facial, all featuring local ingredients like red rice, corn, coconut and cinnamon. It is fitting that I emerged feeling like a queen, for the treatment is named after the beauty pageant of the indigenous Kadazandusun people.
This was the most relaxed I was going to feel during my stay at Gaya Island Resort, for the next day was packed with activity. A nature walk in the morning with resident naturalist Justin Juhun. Juhun opened not just my eyes, but senses of smell and hearing as well, pointing out fragrant plants (some edible) and asking us to listen out for calling macaques.
A simple cooking class – where this kitchen novice proudly churned out her first chicken curry, ever – and a visit to the Gaya Island Resort Marine Centre at nearby Tavajun Bay, where I saw rescued turtle hatchlings, filled up the rest of the day.
The cloudy skies meant that we had to skip the sunset cruise on a yacht. But the lavish barbecue dinner more than made up for this. As we feasted on tender meats and fresh salads by the beach, resident wild boar Timmy made an appearance.
I was sorry that I didn’t get to spend more time in my luxurious room on the hilltop, but didn’t feel too bad because it involved an uphill trek. The resort firmly believes in the beauty of walking (buggies are only used for transporting luggage). And deservedly so – for it is by strolling that I truly appreciated the tranquility and lush greenery.
Adapted from SilverKris.