Pangs for simpler times

By Christian Nielsen

Island retreats are like rich ice cream… lovely until you become lactose intolerant. One place has all the creamy pleasure and none of the hype.

11 February 2010

Feeding time for hornbills. ©Christian Nielsen

Before I became a journalist and before I'd done much globetrotting, reading features in magazines was a vicarious treat, filling me with a mixture of awe and envy.

But there are only so many ‘sumptuous dining experiences' and ‘blissful spa treatments' you can take. In hindsight, I'm sure I never believed the superlatives in these travel accounts but my cynicism was kept in check by the lack of proof to the contrary. Maybe it would be a sumptuous, blissful experience. Who could know?

Well, after a decade or two of travelling and writing – not always together – I think I‘ve got a better idea. What I've learnt is that simple is very often the best. And if the hotel or restaurant has more grand ambitions, it still needs to apply its brand of luxury with simplicity and honesty. People see through hype very quickly nowadays.

That's why it is such a treat to come across a place like Pangkor Island Beach Resort which has luxurious touches – tropical Malaysian location, dining by the pool, water sports, ocean views…- but seems to have dropped most of the usual pretensions. And a good thing, too.

Sure, there is no shortage of formal high-end guest handling ‘yes sirs and no sirs' by staff, but there are many unscripted gestures like giving my small boys hand-collected shells or taking us to visit the pet tortoises or participating in the nightly hornbill feeding (something between a magpie and toucan).

Monkey business

Cheeky monkey treatment

And even when guests start to believe the resort hype – getting their pina coladas and sculpted tropical fruit delivered to the beach – the resident monkeys soon bring it all down to earth, as they troop in en masse to scoop up leftovers.

Signs in the room warn guests to be vigilant around these hairy little thieves. At one point, I was enjoying a coffee in my room, with the terrace door slightly ajar, when a little grey hand came through the crack, followed by a curious nose honing in on the Marie biscuit on my saucer.

Some loud clapping sent the would-be cookie thief packing. Guests find the monkey business funny, but these native macaques lead hotel staff a merry chase from rooftop to poolside. And I suspect they could be partially to blame for the slightly dank smell in my room, as unattended airing would only be inviting trouble.

Not brand new, but who cares?

Pangkor Island Beach Resort may not be spanking new, but the well-worn look suits many people thus transforming a potentially haughty resort into a cosy island getaway for the family.

And the rack rates in the various room options reflect this reality. The very up-market and seemingly newer villas, for example, are priced appropriately for the exclusive level of luxury they provide, nestled in their own cove by the beach and handsome Aryani spa centre. Other wings, like the Ocean View section where I stayed, offer a range of comfort options with prices to match.

The rooms mostly have all the facilities you could ask for and a few more to boot, including a rather James Bond-like electronic safe for securing valuables, and in my room a surprisingly spacious bathroom complete with bath and separate shower, and a decent terrace overlooking the Straits of Malacca.

While many island resort-goers may yearn for a touch of celebrity lifestyle, in these difficult economic times, it is perhaps the simple things done well that makes all the difference. Give me a cone of great home-made vanilla ice cream over a tarted-up chocolate pastry any day.

The verdict: for frozen European travellers, Pangkor Island Beach Resort is an affordable entrée to champagne life on a well-aged-wine salary – of course the generous exchange rate helps.


Round the island by bike

For a change of scene, rent a bike from the hotel's recreation counter (10 RM per hour) and pedal to nearby fishing villages and beaches, or tour the island by bike. Straight out of the resort is Teluk Dalam which is a typical Malay village on the island. Here, you can head straight for the hill climb or turn right for a more leisurely coastal ride.

If you go coastal, you soon pass the aerodrome and after a few kilometres arrive in Teluk Nipah village. Here, I recommend Daddy's Cafés with tables set on the sand for a sunset drink or early dinner. Further around the head, the village gets a bit more lively, where fishermen share the beachfront with hostels and restaurants – and taxis share the road with man-held houses! (see picture cap: ‘Moving house was never this easy').

You can keep going along the coast in an anticlockwise direction until you reach the Pangkor village proper, which isn't much to write home about. But you can visit the nearby Dutch fort (ask the resort concierge for a simple map and ‘Round Island Tour' itinerary).

If you plan to do the full 20km round-island tour (clockwise), take water and check the gears change cleanly and the brakes, tyres and crank are in good working order because the steep climbs will test the bike.

The raucous jungle sounds as you take that first demon hill fill you with a strange, somewhat breathless, peace. It's you and that hill. Once you crest the final section it's a thrilling run down the other side (I had a race with a local rubbish truck), but this is really where you want the bike to be functioning properly. At the bottom, you pass the fish processing factories and a traditional boat builder a couple of kilometres before you hit Pangkor town. It is around here you enter a Chinese suburb which hides a fantasy-like temple called Foo Ling Kong (about 300m inland). Garish dragons, gigantic goldfish and a mock Great Chinese Wall watch over this temple, while children and monkeys play in the Tivoli-inspired grounds.

It is best to do this ride in the morning, as it gets too hot and humid later in the day. With short stops for snaps, it should take a fitter person 2 to 3 hours. At a leisurely pace, it could fill half a day.

Notes from your diarist:

Some services and info:

-Family friendly, with good toddlers' pool

-Sports and activities: short golf course, spa and tennis, water sports, forest trek and more

A la carte restaurant and an all-in buffet dining area

-Pandy Panda children's centre

-Free WiFi in the main public areas

-Medical staff on location

-Some wheelchair ramps, but consult the hotel's access policy

-Visit the resort website at or [email protected]


Hard to pin down. I had everything from tropical downpours to beautiful sunny pool weather. The consensus is Pangkor Island on the west coast of is a good winter escape Christmas-New Year while the east coast is experiencing monsoon-like weather.

Getting there:

You can fly to Malaysia on major national airlines and a few low-cost alternatives. Malaysia Airlines is reasonably priced and if you're continuing on somewhere else (say Europe to Australia or New Zealand), then the Malaysia trip becomes a free stopover and a good break.

To get to Pangkor Island, you can fly cheaply with Berjaya Airlines from the domestic airport which takes little more than half an hour, or get a taxi (under 500 ringgit) which takes 3-4 hours from the capital Kuala Lumpur or the international airport to the town of Lumut and then ferry over to Pangkor Island Beach Resort (19 ringgit return six departures a day).

Article published with author's permission. ©Christian Nielsen. All rights reserved.


  • Christian Nielsen

    Christian Nielsen is a journalist, copy writer and editor based in Brussels. He writes pretty much anything that takes his fancy, from the woes of travelling with kids to the dangers of antidepressants, but technology, EU affairs and science writing pay the bills.

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