A tale of two islands
Bon Ton Resorts: Penang and Langkawi, Malaysia
27 August 2015
There is a little marsh in front of The Nam Restaurant. It has a small inlet to the sea, but from the edge of the water, it is a world unto itself. Occasionally, birders come here to hunt for kingfishers. This evening, a large water monitor lizard takes a private swim, undisturbed.
Langkawi is a laid-back, sleepy island off the Northwest coast of Malaysia, famous for pockets of undisturbed natural beauty, scintillating sunsets and duty-free shopping. Residents here speak Malay, Thai and English, and the food has a distinctively Thai relish to it. Island life is best encapsulated in the twin resorts of Bon Ton and Temple Tree Langkawi.
Started in 1984 by visionary entrepreneur and all-round social muse Narelle McMurtrie, Bon Ton is made up of eight restored ‘kampung’ houses, all sourced from the state of Kedah. Raised above the ground, they are reminders of a bygone era. The furnishing and finishing allows space for the occupant to take in the ambience of the century-old timber, but also to revel in the luxurious four-poster bed, wooden bathtubs and carefully curated antique furniture.
Temple Tree, just two minutes’ walk away, derives its name from a tree that has been deified as a temple in the middle of the compound. A low wall surrounds it, and it provides protection to the collection of antique houses that have found a home here. From colonial bungalows to Chinese villas, the houses each contain two or more rooms, and offer a similar level of comfort to the Bon Ton houses.
Amenities include pools and restaurants in both resorts, although The Nam Restaurant has acquired a deserved reputation. Must-haves are the “Nyonya Signature Platter” and delicious desserts including gula melaka ice cream. All desserts and ice cream are home-made by the Nam chefs.
But, Langkawi is not just luxurious resorts. Outside, the island abounds with sleepy villages and a host of outdoor sports. Take a cruise to outlying islands and beaches, go up Mount Mat Cincang, Langkawi‘s second highest peak, on a cable car and take flight on a paraglider at Pantai Cenang.
MEET THE MANGROVES
I had the chance to take a three-hour boat ride to see the mangroves and other sights on Dev‘s Adventure Tours in the Kilim Karst Geoforest Park, a UNESCO protected site. The Kilim Karst Developed on the Setul Formation, some of the oldest limestone of the country, the park featured beautiful karstic hills along with narrow passageways through which we floated, taking in the twisting landscape of the mangroves.
Along the way, we spotted brahminy kites and sea eagles swooping and looping through the azure skies. And monkeys, of course. What’s a forest without them! It was a pleasant morning, even when it rained. We were fortunate, though, because we had just docked for lunch.
The former British colonial outpost heralded us with a quick ruffle of her skirts and a perfunctory kiss before she was off, running up the streets of Georgetown to get ready for her grand opening night as part of the annual Georgetown Festival.
We found our room ready at Straits Collection, a simply refurbished shophouse along Armenian Street. The mosquitoes bid us a very warm welcome to an experience of living as a minor towkay would have some 50 years ago; although truth be told, our living room would quite likely have been a shop-front selling rubber hoses or ceramic tiles!
DOWN ARMENIAN STREET
Armenian Street itself is pretty much a microcosm of the streets of Georgetown. It has a blend of local businesses, tourist hotspots and decent street food. And just off from Armenian Street is China House, a compendium of three heritage buildings linked by an open-air courtyard. Here you’ll find the requisite café, an art gallery and even the hip swagger of The Canteen, a live music bar. And cakes. Did we mention cakes?! China House has cake coming out of its ears. And the chefs are in a constant process of experimentation. Carol’s favourite was the pecan whiskey tart. Enough said.
There is so much to do in Penang. One could stumble upon a traditional Chinese opera performance in a temple, take part in an ongoing intervention to cover VW vans in bits of knitting and crochet or take snapshots of old-fashioned shopfronts. Oh, and eat, of course! Do not leave Penang without having sampled the holy triumvirate of laksa (rice noodles in coconut gravy), cendol (dessert made from coconut milk, palm sugar, red beans and jelly) and orh jian (oyster omelette).
GIVE ME SHELTER!
Writing about Bon Ton wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t mention the amazing work that Narelle and her team do for LASSie, the Langkawi Animal Shelter and Sanctuary Foundation, which aims to control the stray cat and dog population on the island and also increase public awareness of stray animals.
Funds from Bon Ton and Temple Tree Resorts and China House - along with generous voluntary efforts and donations from the public - facilitate the sterilisation of more than 3,000 cats each year. In fact, Narelle makes it a point to be back on Langkawi every Sunday, because it’s “her turn” to take care of the hundreds of dogs and cats that seek shelter there.