Walk on Water in Penang

At Shangri-La's Rasa Sayang Resort in Malaysia, time slows down under ancient rain trees and at Batu Ferringhi beach.  
In Rasa Sayang, solitude and comfort are easy to find, in the company of old, lush rain trees in the gardens. Photo courtesy: Shangri-La's Rasa Sayang Resort and Spa
In Rasa Sayang, solitude and comfort are easy to find, in the company of old, lush rain trees in the gardens. Photo courtesy: Shangri-La's Rasa Sayang Resort and Spa

I wake up with a start, but am almost lulled back to my nap by the sound of waves swelling and breaking at Batu Ferringhi beach. I squiggle in my hammock in the garden of Shangri-La’s Rasa Sayang Resort and Spa, glimpsing boats and jet skis in the waters of the Strait of Malacca beyond the gate, a few metres away. Today, Penang Island’s largest beach (its name means “Foreigner’s Rock” in Malay) is uncannily quiet. I hear these waters teem with jellyfish. But what do snoozers like me, happy to loll in hammocks and rows of recliner chairs dotted across the garden, care?

It isn’t the sea that keeps me here; I keep returning to this spot for the rain trees. Eight of them lie sprawled across this 30-acre garden, stealing the thunder from the betel nut palms and ketapang trees. Too many hotels are strung along Batu Ferringhi, but only Rasa Sayang has these two-centuries-old trees, making me suspend time and disbelief.

Shores of Batu Ferringhi beach in close proximity to the resort. Photo courtesy: Shangri-La's Rasa Sayang Resort and Spa

Shores of Batu Ferringhi beach in close proximity to the resort. Photo courtesy: Shangri-La’s Rasa Sayang Resort and Spa

From the inside, Rasa Sayang’s well-oiled hospitality isn’t too different from other luxury hotels. There are the requisite plush rooms, a golf ground, swimming pools where kids perch on their fathers’ shoulders to play ball, restaurants and cafés overlooking the gardens and facing the beach. Yet, some details stand out, such as the hotel’s curved timber roof, a nod to the traditional architecture of Malaysia’s Minangkabau ethnic community; or the gamelan, a traditional Indonesian instrumental ensemble displayed in the lobby, played by a few talented staff for an hour every Friday evening.

The touch I like the most is a chunk of shat kek ma that awaits me in my room. A sweet-and-crunchy Malay snack, it is made of egg, flour and molasses and looks like chikki. The shat kek ma is placed under a tudung saji, a traditional conical cover Malays use to cover food in their homes. Like all others, the pink-green-yellow one in my room is woven from the strands of mengkuang (screw pine) leaves from the pandanus family. The leaves are cut into strands, dipped in colourful dyes, dried and softened to be plaited into geometrical shapes.

Spacious rooms offer a homely stay to the guests. Photo courtesy: Shangri-La's Rasa Sayang Resort and Spa

Spacious rooms offer a homely stay to the guests. Photo courtesy: Shangri-La’s Rasa Sayang Resort and Spa

For me, Rasa Sayang is a good break from walking around the UNESCO heritage city of George Town, a 20-minute drive from the resort. After three days of tracing murals and bingeing on some of Southeast Asia’s best street grub, I am here to do nothing and eat what is served. I barely scan the menu for breakfast, and order fluffy pancakes and French toast. My friend and I opt for a casual lunch by the beach, tucking into creamy pasta with strips of beef, onion soup, and Cajun-spiced fries. Dinner, however, is a larger affair. Served in the Spice Market Café, it is an array of sushi, cold cuts, Indonesian and Malay cuisine. I heartily tuck into oyster with tomato cheese, baked lobster with curry mayo, and fish head curry cooked in Baba Nonya style. My friend and I devote a lot of time to creamy cheesecakes, mousses and cakes because we find the pastry chef sweet, excitedly telling us about his kitchen experiments. Back in my room that night, I lounge in the balcony beside the giant open-air bathtub, making a mental note to soak in it the next morning.

When the sun is out, my friend and I decide to hit the beach. We skip the water sports in favour of exploring the strip beyond our own resort. I spot hills in the distance, which lie in the neighbouring state of Kedah. Batu Ferringhi is quite the tourist spot but it is only May and families from other Malay cities and from neighbouring Singapore haven’t arrived yet, so for now, the waters are ours. We flip our chappals off to trace shapes in the sand with our toes. When we stumble upon modest little shacks ahead, we spend hours chatting and sipping various combinations of soda, lemon, and colourful syrups.

The pool wing gives way to a relaxing retreat. Photo courtesy: Shangri-La's Rasa Sayang Resort and Spa

The pool wing gives way to a relaxing retreat. Photo courtesy: Shangri-La’s Rasa Sayang Resort and Spa

Back at the resort, we follow a winding, tree-lined patch that leads us to Chi spa. All sound, except that of trickling water from fountains around me, fades away. The spa offers regular massages, hot stone and acupressure treatments inside 11 private villas. Done up in wood and stone, they are flanked by artificial ponds dotted with glistening lotus leaves. Though the architecture shows Malay and Peranakan influences, the stone water basins and the odd shishi-odoshi (bamboo fountain) outside some villas make me think of lush Japanese gardens—every inch woody, covered in green, and punctuated with water bodies.

Later that evening, we attend the cocktail hour in the main lobby. By the time our little feast of canapes, cheeses, candied fruit and wine comes to an end, sunlight outside has dimmed and the sky is a candy orange colour. I return to my hammock one last time, but this time I pass the nap and tune in to the muzak of the waves.

Essentials

Shangri-La’s Rasa Sayang Resort and Spa is located in Penang Island in the state of Penang in Malaysia. It lies about 12 km/20 min northwest of Penang’s capital city, George Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Rasa Sayang has 304 rooms in two wings that overlook the gardens, the pool, or the sea (http://www.shangri-la.com/penang/rasasayangresort/; doubles from MYR550/Rs8,320).

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    Kareena Gianani is Senior Associate Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves stumbling upon hole-in-the-wall bookshops, old towns and collecting owl souvenirs in all shapes and sizes.

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