A Palace on Stilts
The East Coast of Malaysia is studded with many resort hotels along its beautiful sandy shores. While most of them are excellent hotels backed by world-class management, The Aryani must rank in a category of its own.
It starts with the welcome. Besides the colorful tropical cocktails garnished with pink umbrellas being offered as welcome drinks at many resorts, at The Aryani we were offered a plate of keropok lekor. A speciality of Terengganu, keropok lekor is a snack made of fish, flour, seasonings and water mixed into a dough, rolled into a cylindrical tube and steamed until firm. The beige, snake-like lengths are then sliced and served with a chilli sauce. The simple welcome is the first of numerous subtle touches to introduce elements of Malay culture to guests.
Located in the sleepy fishing village of Merang, 30 minutes drive from Kuala Terengganu airport, The Aryani sprawls over nine acres of lush tropical greenery. There are only 20 villas on the property, which are arranged to resemble a traditional Malay palace courtyard. What would have been an open space in the courtyard is occupied by a swimming pool whose deep blue water beckoned invitingly in the warm afternoon.
Rich Malay craftsmanship is evident throughout the property, from the intricate wood carvings that adorn doors and windows, to beautiful fabrics and traditional basketry which are widely used. All villas are air-conditioned as well as fan-cooled, and each has its own outdoor sunken bath.
The jewel of The Aryani is the Heritage Village. The owner of The Aryani is a local architect who is part of the Terengganu royal family. This made it possible for several 150-year-old wooden structures, including an original royal palace, to be dismantled, numbered, and then moved, piece by piece, to The Aryani grounds where they were re-assembled.
The cluster of wooden structures, called the Heritage Village, is set a short distance away from the other villas, facing the sea and a quiet stretch of the beach. A low stone wall about 3 feet high separates the grounds of the "village" from the rest of the resort. The Heritage Village comprises of the Heritage Suite, the Heritage Spa and several pavilions which are sometimes used for massage sessions. A loose fence made of wooden poles keeps away strollers from the beach while allowing an unobstructed view of the sea and a mountain in the distance, framed by lush spreading trees, from the suite.
The restored palace is a charming wooden house designed for the tropics. Standing on stilts that allow air to circulate freely under the building, the suite's steep thatch roof contributes further to keeping the interior of the house nice and cool.
A winding path leads from the gate of the village to the steps of the suite. A large earthern jar filled with water is placed beside the stairs, so that visitors can wash their feet before entering. A coconut shell ladle serves as a water scoop. Under the eaves, a bamboo wind-chime clunks out a low, pleasing melody when the wind is brisk. The steps lead to a platform, from which another flight of steps brings you to the spacious verandah which is furnished with teak chairs and a round table, on which a flat bamboo tray is filled with a generous assortment of tropical fruits, protected from pesky houseflies by a mesh food cover. A large day-bed with an elaborately carved wooden back invites you to while away entire afternoons just shooting the breeze amidst the rustling of the trees and the soothing sounds of the waves punctuated by birdsong and the lazy wind-chime.
Stepping over the threshold, one is transported back in time. Almost. The traditional furniture in the living room and the bedroom look like they have been there for over a hundred years. The wood is for the most part lightly lacquered, if at all, and the patina of the wood worn smooth by age and showing its grain is lovely to touch. And then one spots the airconditioning unit mounted on the wall, and the telephone set, and is reassured(?) that one is not lost in time.
It was a bit incongruous, walking barefoot across the wooden planks to the bathroom, which is a separate unit (also on stilts) linked to the house by a walkway, to be confronted by a room with a modern bath tub, slate floors, chrome fittings and hot and cold running water. Nice, but there is also the open-air sunken bath located several yards from the house, with a view of the sea and shielded, with walls on three sides, from the rest of the village.
Near the Heritage Suite is the Heritage Spa, a smaller house on stilts, where traditional massage and beauty treatments are offered. Guests who are early for their sessions wait on chairs on the veranda. When I was ushered into the little house, it felt like I was stepping into someone's home. Colorful batik fabrics create a bright, cheerful atmosphere.
An elderly lady, dressed in the traditional baju kurong, was my masseuse. Working with unhurried strokes, she kneaded and rubbed a wonderfully fragrant mix of oils onto my body. I could detect the smell of coconut oil, pandan (screwpine leaves) and lemon grass, besides other herbs and flowers. As these were ingredients often used in Asian cooking, the mouth-watering aroma was distracting. But it felt absolutely wonderful to succumb to the granny's strong hands, and I wondered if I would be able to stay awake until the session ended.
Granny was happy to learn that I could speak some Malay, and we had a pleasant little chat. She lived in a village nearby, she said. She gave massages on a free-lance basis. Whenever the resort received bookings for a massage, she would be called to come over. Her husband did massages for male guests.
As dusk falls, subdued lighting comes on throughout the resort, blending harmoniously with the natural moonlight. Just enough light for us to make our way along the curving paths towards the Serai ("Lemon Grass") restaurant for dinner. In the semi-darkness, nobody seems to want to disturb the stillness. Everyone speaks with unspoken agreement in hushed tones.
The restaurant offers a decent choice of meals. For those adventurous enough to venture beyond steak or grilled salmon, there is nasi dagang, a rice dish which is a specialty of Terengganu.
A group of musicians has taken over the pavilion by the pool, and during dinner, deep sonorous tones from the gamelan orchestra waft up to the second storey restaurant. Occasionally, the odd frog or two provided unexpected vocal accompaniment.
The small, cosy resort is a sea of tranquility. The whole resort invites one to laze around and let the tensions of modern day living slip away. The few children we saw among the guests looked quite bored, despite the attempts of the staff to entertain them. This is more a place for those seeking respite from the madding crowd, or a romantic getaway.
For those who must remain plugged in to the outside world, business services as well as conference and banquet facilities are available. The resort also arranges water sports, diving/snorkeling trips and boat charters for guests wishing to explore the nearby islands and the stunning marine life. There is also a gift shop and boutique offering local arts and crafts, at resort prices, as well as a library. Bicycles can be hired for exploring the nearby villages of traditional wooden houses nestled amidst miles and miles of coconut trees.
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How to get there
The nearest airport is at Kuala Terengganu, which is only 30 minutes by car from the resort. The Aryani provides transfers to and from the airport. Self-drive cars can be booked with major car rental firms like Avis and Hertz, and picked up upon arrival at the airport. The resort is off the main coastal road, and easy to get to with a decent road map.
To see more of the east coast, you can also fly to Kuantan, and drive up north along the coastal road to Kuala Terengganu (or vice versa). Many resort hotels and homestays are located along the stretch, with beach frontage. The nearby islands such as Perhentian, Redang and Kapas with their crystal clear water and teeming marine life offer great snorkelling and diving, or plain chilling out on the beach.
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