It is said in Kuala Terengganu that when partaking the most English of customs, afternoon tea, your peace is guaranteed. This might be because the tea, picked 200 miles away in the Genting Highlands and served from an old brass kettle is strong and soothing, but it is also because of the wonderfully relaxed way of life here.
This northeastern province, that looks out onto the whispering South China Sea, is cut off by mountains and jungles from modern Malaysia. This natural barrier has protected a place where old, storybook Asia still exists in its heritage and scenery; other parts of Malaysia and Thailand must have been like this before the tourist invasion. Today, Kuala Terengganu’s only tourists are Australian backpackers or select Europeans in the know, yet the tourist facilities and activities are varied and of high quality.
Getting here from Malaysia’s capital is simple. Air Asia (www.airasia.com) fly from Kuala Lumpur in 50 minutes for just £10 return. After the glitz of Kuala Lumpur, expect something rudimentary on touchdown. Grass grows on the runway and behind Arrivals stands a man with tribal markings on his eyelids who shakes my hand and welcomes us to “KT”, as it’s often shortened to.
This intense warmth of welcome was repeated throughout the 8-day trip: schoolgirls on a river bridge calling “Good morning”, smiling and collapsing into flirtatious giggles, or the lady wearing a purple tudong who stopped to tell us that her father owned the banana plantation off to our left and we could help ourselves.
That same evening, as the sun went down, we were aroused by the smell of cooking ginger and pungent curry powders wafting from the spice merchants’ stalls of the night market. Steam rises above strings of lightbulbs, illuminating hundreds of hawker stalls thronged with locals. We crunch on keropok, the local fishcracker speciality, greyish brown but heavenly when dipped in chilli sauce (remember to always eat with your right hand), followed by ayam percik which is lightly-cooked chicken served with a creamy coconut sauce.
Malays are Muslims, but the ethnic mix also consists of Chinese and Tamils. It is this mix which makes the night markets – and the food – so enjoyable. The cost of the meal won’t set you back more than 66 Ringits (£10). Afterwards, we stumble into Chinatown and enter the incense-shrouded Chinese temple where a man rings a bell as we enter.
Eco-tourism comes naturally here on the east coast, but it hasn’t always been able to match the quality of accommodation compared with the west coast. However, there are two possibilities: the Aryani and the Tanjong Jara. We chose the Aryani (www.thearyani.com), a small boutique spa, 15 miles north of town.
The Aryani is the creation of a cousin of the local sultan, and with its pagodas and lily ponds, it looks like a royal palace. We stay in the Heritage Suite, a 100-year old house-on-stilts with rich carvings, original Malay antiques and a day-bed outside on the verandah, from where we watch dawn break and turn the sky powder-blue. The Aryani hides away on a secluded beach of creamy sand with the atmosphere of a desert island. There are only 17 other discreet villas, each with their own garden and outdoor bath.
The gardener, Cheng’hai, wears a conical straw hat called topi, and she shows me the trees bearing vivid-pink paper lantern flowers, called the pon-pon tree. Many of the ingredients used in the Aryani’s spa treatments are taken from the garden – coconut milk, the bark of the rambai fruit tree, kefir leaves, jasmine, hibiscus, ginger and sand from the beach. These treatments were practised by princesses in ancient times. I have a fruit body lotion massage and puteri wangi facial, great for relieving jet lag.
Both the Aryani and Tanjong Jara run day trips. We choose a boat trip up the River Merang with Captain Mok, an engimatic naturalist who works at Tanjong Jara, and who spent 6 months living with aborigines in the remote Australian jungle. Driving to the river, we pass rural kampungs of stilted houses with a wakaf or square, where villagers play Gamelan instruments, believing their music wards off evil spirits. We see the ancient art of making wau (kites), some in the forms of a cat or a peacock. Wau were used as a means of long-distance communication and as a sport.
In a shady clearing, an elderly local puts coconut shells on a fire at her feet, the smoke releasing a heady incense. She sells honey in beautiful bottles sealed with red beeswax. As we are buying three bottles, a fisherman pushes his way out of the jungle, with a monkey on his shoulder. He hawls a net of fish. Catching our eye, he grins and the monkey darts up a tree and throws down a coconut. The fisherman slices the top off with a machete and offers it to us. It’s sweet and refreshing.
The boat trip passes mangrove swamps where we see iguana, crocodiles and mud-skipper crabs. We pick the Chinese rhodedendron which you crush in water and pour over your head to cure a fever. We land at a tiny settlement and meet a local man who show us his herb garden from where you can pick more magical herbs.
Days later, we trek with Captain Mok to the Cemerong waterfall through rainforests older than the Amazon. It is an easy, 3-hour trek, and the waterfall is a spectacular sight.
But no trip would be complete without visiting one of the fifty islands scattered in the South China Sea. From Kuala Besut, we take a fishing boat 30 minutes across to Pulau Perhentian Kecil, a textbook paradise of white beaches and turquoise seas. Locals are playing drums when we arrive. The accommodation is mostly basic, in A-frame huts lit by hurricane lamps, but one of the best places to stay is Aur Beach chalets. You don’t need to book – just turn up.
There are no roads, only tracks through the jungle, so we explore by kayak. This being May, the dry season, the sea is crystal-clear and we snorkel through coral gardens. Afternoon is spent on a castaway beach named Adam and Eve beach, and thickly carpeted with broken coral that tinkles like a bell when you walk over it. We’re completely alone. In the jungle behind, a 6ft monitor lizard crosses my path and I duck as a flying fox sails past.
Later that evening, we discovered the nightlife, consisting of rustic beach bars, lies on the east side of the island. If you stay on the west side, be well prepared for the 10-minute walk through the jungle: bring a torch. Others, who weren’t prepared, were a group of German girls who burst screaming from the pitch-black jungle, armed only with their camera’s flash to illuminate the way through the beetle-infested undergrowth.
This trip wowed us with great scenery, warm people, rich cultural heritage and a wonderfully relaxed way of life.