Anchored in the local way of life

NST, August 16, 2013

By Yvonne Yoong

RUSTIC RESPITE: The traditional Malay architecture of Tanjong Jara Resort pays tribute to culture, custom and an everyday celebration of the local lifestyle.

“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” Amid the weekly slew of pressing deadlines and appointments galore, this comforting truth expressed in a quote by Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu exemplifying the wisdom of the ages - that sometimes, a breather - much like a momentarily pause in a great musical score - can add significance to the entire piece resounded with me.

So, somewhere along the lines of last month’s hurried and harried schedule, I made a conscious effort to slot in some time away at Tanjong Jara Resort in Terengganu, tucked in an enviable sweet spot overlooking the turquoise blue waters of the South China Sea.

It was, in a way, an assignment not strictly restricted to bricks-and-mortar, so to speak, but one which agreed with me, as I was glad for a brief respite from the recent past few months covering assignments in the bustling and skyscraper-filled Central Business Districts of Jakarta, Bangkok, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.

In truth, the effects of seeing one too many sleek, homogenous looking skyscrapers competing for the skies and being stuck in some of these cities’ infamous traffic for hours on end left me - one soul less convinced and more sceptical about the touted benefits of globalisation. Not to mention the repeated onslaught of same designer or consumer brands promoting what seems to me like a slew of uniformed products in the shopping malls around the world.
So, upon visiting Tanjong Jara Resort in Terengganu, I was at peace to learn that the local traditional way of life is very much alive, celebrated and treasured at the YTL luxury resort. In place of skyscrapers, Malay-inspired guest rooms peppered throughout the vast expanse of the resort take pride-of-place. And, instead of city traffic, acres of lush greenery permeate the grounds of the resort that offers a breathtaking view of the sea.

After a hearty lunch at the Nelayan (Fisherman) restaurant, the resort’s Captain Mokhtar Mohamad, or Captain Mokh as he is fondly known, a hale and hearty 75-year old Naturalist accompanied us on a tour of the resort’s grounds.

Captain Mokh who thinks nothing of meandering through the jungle perimetres of the resort, offered to follow us on the climb up the steps of Jara Hill for a panoramic view of the coastline and for sighting the sea eagle’s nesting ground - a physical endurance exercise which we quickly and gladly declined.

We were happy instead to discover facts about the local flora and fauna, plants and trees that benefit nearby villagers with their unique medicinal properties, and also saw the resort’s herb garden. During the tour, traces of natural life sauntered by, making their presence known. A monitor lizard almost camouflaged by the green grass passed us by. Walking further, we saw a group of Silvered Leaf monkeys perched atop one of the guest rooms - one obviously a mother monkey carrying its baby.

To our relief, Captain Mokh shared that these monkeys live on treetops and do not come down to the ground, enabling us to take their photographs.

And, as we made our way to the Teratai Terrace, we saw with our own eyes - an impromptu modus operandi to rescue a displaced nest of birdlets by staff of the Tanjong Jara Resort who didn’t hesitate to climb up the ladder to set the nest right - much to the relief of a few foreign guests who enquired about the success of the rescue operations.

Kampong life activities that are popular with inhabitants of local villages including games like congkak and sepak raga are held every Saturday at the beachfront of Anjung Garden for the benefit of guests. A monkey would also display its skill in scaling the coconut trees and selecting the ripe fruits to be enjoyed by guests.

It is also possible to watch the famous Terengganu Green Turtles return to lay their eggs by joining excursions to nearby beaches during turtle-watching season. Trips to Tenggol Island, known for its rich marine life such as sea turtles, black-tipped reef sharks and colourful corals can be arranged, so too activities such as snorkelling and discovery scuba diving trips.

A half-day cruise to Marang River to partake of the beauty of nature and wildlife, a visit to a Malay  village or embarking on an exhilarating hike through  the adventurous trail of a lush jungle to the base of the 200-metre (656 ft) Chemerung Waterfall are other possibilities.

A bicycle tour to a local fishing village, meeting the locals, enjoying kopi kampong (local coffee) and snacks are popular with visitors.

Meanwhile, a heritage tour offers glimpses into the way local artisans work on their traditional creations.
These include visits to see a kris blacksmith, batik and songket makers, mengkuang and bamboo weavers at work, among others.

The outdoor cooking sessions taught at the Di Atas Sungei (Above The River) restaurant by the local culinary master offers insights into traditional Malay home-style cuisine. One can also explore the Dungun local morning market with the Menu Master from Di Atas Sungei acting as the local tour guide to source for seafood, spices and fresh herbs indigenous to the east coast.

Those interested in the history of Dungun, the first town in Terengganu to flourish due to iron mining activities, can also join in this special tour.

Although we weren’t there on a Saturday to experience village life played out in full, we nevertheless got to embrace the traditional elements of local architecture that was evident the moment we stepped into the entrance lobby, with a gong sounding to mark our arrival. The gentle lapping of the sea waves, the breezy and laid-back atmosphere and the fact that at least 90 per cent of the staff are locals contributed to the magic of the resort.

Taking a leaf of wisdom from what Lebanese American artist, poet and writer Kahlil Gibran must have meant when he wrote, “And forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair”, I did exactly that by throwing caution and care to the wind, to indulge in a few days of idyllic bliss in this secluded haven.

Celebrating Malay architecture
“The ‘Unmistakably Malay’ Tanjong Jara Resort is reminiscent of 17th century Malay palaces, (designed) with the modern traveller in mind at all times.

“While echoing the vernacular traditional architectural styles of Sultans’ residences, we maintain a sense of place that is unique to Tanjong Jara. Malay architectural elements are evident in (the) roof styles and especially in the main reception area,”said Kevin Eu, resort manager, Tanjong Jara Resort, YTL Hotels.

The high ceilings of the lobby area graced with patterned wooden awnings makes a striking impression while two horizontal water ponds teeming with  fishes envelope the area with a sense of serene calm.

“The aim was to create a luxury resort in harmony with the surrounding environment, inspired by the traditional Malay architecture of centuries past,” said Eu of the 99-room resort with an authentic feel of the region’s spirit embodying the gentle Malay art of service and hospitality.

Indeed. The realisation of the resort was preceded by extensive research into the historical architecture of the area, the Malaysian culture, climate, history, art, geography and other environmental factors.

Incidentally, the knowledge gained from the research, in particular about the east coast, its people and their heritage led to the “design of a resort imbued with the very essence of its locale”.

The basic design motif for the buildings was found in the elegantly crafted indigenous and leisure-oriented wooden Istana palaces of the Malay Sultanate of long ago which featured traditional artform and craftsmanship.

The most difficult challenge of the project, shared Eu, was to provide the resort “a much-needed update that would appeal to modern travellers and holidaymakers while maintaining the essence of Tanjong Jara.”

“The original plans for Tanjong Jara Resort (formerly known as Tanjong Jara Beach Hotel) were conceptualised by the Hawaiian architectural firm, Wimberly, Whisenand, Allison, Tong and Goo.

“A local architectural firm, Akitek Bersekutu Malaysia did the detail and construction drawings while the landscaping was done by Bert, Collins & Associates. Tanjong Jara Resort was designed from 1973 to 1975 and construction was completed by 1980. Refurbishments over the years were an in-house effort by YTL Design Group.”

Tanjong Jara Resort won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture (AKAA) for the second Award Cycle 1981 - 1983. The AKAA jurors had cited the resort for the “courage to search out and successfully adapt and develop an otherwise rapidly disappearing traditional architecture and craft to meet the demands of contemporary architecture”.

In keeping with the times, the resort was given a few upgrades and renovations were carried out as required along the way and over the years as part of its regular maintenance activities.

Recent renovation efforts included a refurbished block of rooms which were completed earlier this year resulting in the introduction of a new category of rooms represented by the Serambi Seaview and Bumbung Seaview. These complement the Bumbung Rooms, Serambi Rooms, Anjung Rooms and Anjung Suites. The Spa Village Tanjong Jara was also added to the original resort.

“Throughout the whole resort, the idyllic spirit of Terengganu can be sensed. Paired with the lush landscaping of the resort grounds, majestic architecture of the room blocks and traditional spa concept available at Spa Village Tanjong Jara, this is the ‘Unmistakably Malay’ experience that Tanjong Jara Resort presents,” observed Eu.

Steeped in natural remedies
“Spa Village Tanjong Jara was designed in 1999 when Tanjong Jara Resort was acquired by YTL Hotels. The addition of a spa was in line with the refurbishment (exercise) and a Spa Village was a natural complement to the resort. Three years ago, in addition to the existing three rooms, we added four more treatment rooms in line with the rising demand for treatments at Spa Village Tanjong Jara.”

“Pure refreshment and relaxation are the ultimate aims of any spa. At Spa Village Tanjong Jara, where Sucimurni is incorporated and practiced in every aspect, guests at the spa will conclude their experience feeling rejuvenated both physically and spiritually,” concurred Eu.

Sanctuary of well-being with Sucimurni at Spa Village Tanjong Jara
Just like the saying, “Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage”, spas too are forming an integral, inseparable union with resorts. The appeal of spas, according to Chik Lai Ping, Vice President Spa Division, YTL Hotels continues along an upward trend.

“Spas, representing relaxation and revitalisation, have played an essential part in not just Asian history but across the world, in the history of the Romans, Greeks and Egyptians. Today, it is recognised as a necessity in the modern traveller’s quest for a relaxing, well-rounded holiday experience. Within YTL Hotels, Spa Villages represent completion to the myriad of experiences which we offer our guests.

In line with the group’s local and international Spa Villages, the tradition of the area surrounding the spa has a strong influence on the design concepts and spa treatments. In Malaysia, the Spa Villages are represented in Pangkor Laut, Cameron Highlands, Malacca, Gaya Island and Kuala Lumpur.

“The continuous popularity of spas, especially our Spa Villages located within Malaysia, Indonesia and now China, demonstrates an innate desire among people to seek out a state of relaxation. Especially appealing are spas based on natural and traditional healing methods. A day at the spa is a true retreat, considering the hectic lives led by most of us today,” she reflected.

Looking forward to my spa treatment after a scrumptious breakfast of authentic and aromatic Nasi Dagang Terengganu at the resort’s Di Atas Sungei restaurant (so named by virtue of the fact that a small meandering river runs underneath it), I made my way to the spa.

 The pebbled pavement that connects the Spa Village Tanjong Jara with the Nelayan restaurant fronting the sea and the pool area, continues into the spa treatment space where smaller pebbled slabs can be seen. 

The pathway leading to the spa proper is a sight to behold - teeming with water features and ponds, Brazilian carps and water hyacinths, dazzling in purple. Amidst this complex of structures and gardens, the therapy centre recommends various programmes for relaxation, reinvigoration and stress relief based on traditional healing methods.

The flooring of the spa treatment rooms comprising light coloured reddish local Nyatoh wood is also used extensively in the main structural elements and wall panels of the treatment rooms. The main walls are made of bricks and dressed by stone walls for visual variety.

Since guests are known to even make the spa experience the complete focus of their holidays here and pre-book their spa treatments in advance, I gamely agreed to try the Dandan Puteri Tujuh half-day treatment based on ancient Malay traditions. This comprised a traditional Malay massage (Urutan Gamelan), hair cream bath (Ikal Mayang), facial and body scrub (Boros Puteri), fragrant milk bath (Bersiram), scented body steaming (Ukup Wangi) and drinking a herbal tonic beverage (Ubat Periuk). Soon, I started feeling all anew.

“Spa Village Tanjong Jara’s embodiment of the philosophy of Sucimurni - meaning wholesomeness, is evident in each and every one of our spa experiences. This philosophy is the unifying concept behind both the spa and resort.
“Guests are fascinated to learn about our use of traditional ingredients, techniques and bathing rituals derived from local Malay healing customs, and some even swear that our treatments have finally helped alleviate aches which Western medication has not helped.”

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