Wicked Wellness: Inside Pangkor Laut, Malaysia's pampering palace
This five-star is one of the top spa resorts in South East Asia, says Jillian Bolger
Having been soothed and smoothed, poked and pummelled, in some of the best spas in the world, I rock up at Pangkor Laut feeling somewhat curious.
For over 15 years, this five-star, private island resort on the east coast of Malaysia has enjoyed a far-reaching reputation as a destination spa - which, by my calculations, is no mean feat.
South East Asia is rife with competition, after all - from the traveller's favourite, Thailand, to the north, to Bali's fragrant (and spa-dotted) landscape to the south. Malaysia often gets overlooked by everyone from backpackers to luxury seekers, but Pangkor Laut has always managed to seduce.
My mission? I want to know why.
Set along the Straits of Malacca, three miles off the coast, this leafy island is textbook tropical, its rocky outcrops and pristine white beaches fringed by virgin rainforest that dates back over two million years. It's a pretty spectacular sight for sore (and jet-lagged) eyes, and a far wilder setting than the Maldives could ever muster. Home to colourful hornbills, cheeky long-tailed macaques, monitor lizards and fruit bats, the resort has been created with minimum impact on nature, its luxury accommodation set into the hills, lush gardens and over the water.
It's here I'm billeted, sleeping in a room on stilts above the emerald ocean. My spacious room is accessed by a boardwalk, with a large private balcony and bathroom that allows me throw open the windows and watch the waves from an oversized bathtub. It's an idyllic spot for sunrise or catching a few rays as the waters lap below.
Malaysia is an intriguing mixture of three distinct cultures: Malay, Chinese and Indian, and these manifest themselves joyfully in the country's fragrant cuisine. It's a mystery why Malaysian food doesn't have the same profile as Thai food. It's easily as interesting and delicious... think Chinese-style deep-fried soft shell crab with Kampung Koh chilli sauce, or perhaps Char Kuey Teow, a Malay favourite using prawns and handmade rice noodles from neighbouring Pangkor island.
The country is over 60pc Muslim with Buddhists the next dominant religion - a day trip to Pangkor island, where many of the resort's friendly staff live, offers a colourful window on local life. We join a cookery trip, where our chef takes us to the little harbour, spice shops, a small noodle maker and fish market to select local produce for a cookery class back at the resort. With a little guidance I realise I'm quite adept at folding fish fillets with sambal into glossy green banana leaves, a skill I've yet to showcase back home.
I've been here three days when I finally make it to the Spa Village, a waterside retreat of elegant low slung buildings, pools and leafy gardens. Three days of sunshine, seafood, swimming and sleeping over sparkling waters have me more than a little relaxed, so I slink into the spa believing that half the Pangkor Laut spell has already been cast, before a therapist ever gets to lay a hand on me.
Before my massage begins I'm treated to a Bath House Ritual, a 45-minute whirlwind of Asian practices that starts with a smirk-inducing Chinese foot pounding, once the preserve of concubines in feudal China. Next, I'm bobbing about in a traditional Malay circulating bath before entering a bath house to wash with a Japanese goshi-goshi cloth.
Each ritual flows into the next, before I'm led to a heated pool outdoors - a steaming Rotenburu based on the Japanese practice of bathing in hot springs. Lying back against smooth pebbles, hot water swirling around me, I breathe in the ocean breeze and look skywards. Palm fronds stir above me, and, for a moment, the world is still. Before the masseuse works her magic, I have found the answer to my question.
Somehow the spa's Bath House Ritual has unlocked my stress valves, and brought me to the kind of blissed out state life rarely affords. The ensuing exfoliation, tea and massage are still to come, but I'm already spellbound. If this is magic, Pangkor Laut-style, I've never been happier to surrender myself to a spell.
Jillian travelled as a guest of YTL Hotels, overnighting in Hotel Stripes in Kuala Lumpur (€82 per night, stripeskl.com). Transfers from Kuala Lumpur International Airport to Pangkor Laut (pangkorlautresort.com; B&B from €315 per room) take 3 hours 15 minutes. Fly to KL with Turkish, Qatar, Etihad or Emirates.
CHIVA-SOM: The original destination spa
Destination spas might seem like a new thing, but they've been around for thousands of years, minus the slick marketing.
The Greeks were known to take to thermal waters, for healing purposes, but it was the work-hard-play-hard-Romans who popularised the ritual. Building opulent bathing houses over thermal springs, they introduced a social aspect to the practice of therapeutic soaking in mineral waters. Roman bath houses and medieval spas existed all over Europe, but it was 1990s' Asia that perfected the destination spa as we know it today.
The original, and still considered one of the very best, Chiva-Som opened in Hua Hin on the Gulf of Thailand in 1993, quickly becoming a hot spot for A-listers looking to de-stress, relax and rejuvenate. A luxury wellness resort set in tropical gardens by the sea, it offered travellers a new experience - the chance to enjoy a break based around a mind-body-spirit approach to good health. Blending Western practices with Eastern philosophies, word soon spread about the pioneering spa which offered an integrated, custom programme of complementary treatments - think holistic therapies, spa health and beauty rituals, medi-spa, physiotherapy and fitness - wrapped up in a glamorous package.
Despite massive regional and global competition, the Thai spa still wins awards for its innovations, which includes new rooms, suites and programmes in 2018.
Three-night rates start from around €1,946pp including daily treatment, full use of facilities and a programme of activities. See chivasom.com for more.