Marathon spa treatments on Pangkor Laut

Sunday Times
Published: 26th February 2012

Prone on my massage bed, I see a monitor lizard stomping up the road. It’s at least 5ft long, tongue flaring, shoulders gangster tough — a thuggish reptile, snarling a reminder that Pangkor Laut Resort is no tepid paradise.

It is a paradise, all the same. As I often under the tender hands of my Balinese masseuse, a warm ocean steals over the whitest beach I have ever seen, and my mind drifts away on the breeze whispering through the palms. But there’s a problem: Pangkor Laut is too much like heaven for me to keep my mind on my worries.

My massage is part of a 225-minute marathon — plenty of time, or so I’d imagined beforehand, to sift through myriad past and future hassles from home. Where better to take stock of life’s difficulties, weigh them in an objective balance, than in a private-island tropical resort?

Cast away in the Strait of Malacca, off Malaysia’s west coast, three hours north of Kuala Lumpur and a couple of hours south of Penang, Pangkor Laut is essentially one big raft of relaxation, with guest villas in the hills, on the beach, in the sea. There are multi-bedroom states to rent here, each with their own infinity pool, currying butler and currying cook, dining pavilion, sitting pavilion, outdoor Jacuzzi, and day beds surrounded by sparkling blue canals that flash with koi carp. Keira Knightley has been here; Elle Macpherson, too.

It’s wild, mind you. Across the island’s 300 acres, jungle grows exuberantly through the balconies, butterflies dip into the pools, and monkeys swing from the trees. Earlier, I breakfasted on mango, papaya and Vietnamese soup beside my pool, watched by a family of naughty long-tailed macaques that coveted my feast. Not far away, two hornbills preened each other at the summit of a tree. It seems Pangkor is a honeymoon destination for hornbills as well as humans. The latter choose the stilted villas built in Thai-pavilion style, their shutters opening on three sides to the ocean. The hornbills favour the treetops.

As a prelude to the massage marathon, I am led to a locker room, where I’m dressed in a short sarong tied at the waist with my locker key. From there, my therapist leads me to a foot-dunking station, where the bowl of hot water is garnished with a scarlet hibiscus flower. Next, to their intense surprise, my feet are battered with a wooden stick, a treatment formerly enjoyed only by Chinese concubines. Apparently, this pummelling gave them relief from the pain of their tightly bound feet. “Good for the circulation,” explains the therapist, when I wince. My peripatetic experience continues inside another pavilion, where I stroll through cold waterfalls, still in my mini-sarong, then to a washroom where ladles of water are sluiced over my hands and feet. A few minutes later, I am lying on a sheet, being washed and scrubbed.

Finally, I’m allowed to emerge from my drab brown chrysalis and step into a brightly coloured batik version. The therapist wraps me in my new coat of colours, and it’s off to the next pavilion to meet Twiwi, the Balinese masseuse. After I’ve been given a coconut hair treatment and a herbal wrap, Twiwi begins the real work. She doesn’t say a word, but seems to know how to manipulate every nook and cranny of my body. All the time, though, my brain tries to fight against the ministrations of her hands. It wants to use this lovely, free mental space to grapple with problems it insists I should try to resolve.

No, I keep telling my mind, you must not think about your mother’s health. This is not the time. Achieve a higher state of metaphysical contentment, listen to the lapping water, and (later) settle down to a sensational lobster dinner beside that gorgeous beach. While the anxieties won’t disappear, you will go home ready to tackle them with grace and a fresh sense of proportion. After all, one reason people travel is to change their state of mind, to move from distress to peace, and few places can be more peaceful than here.

The massage is a mix of Malay and Thai movements — and, at last, little by little, my warring mind is subdued. As usual, I fight against the calm, but eventually it comes. And that night, for the first time on the trip, I have some fine dreams — including a rather satisfactory meeting with the Queen, who commends my work. And I can no longer worry. I really try, but something stops me. Twiwi’s massage has worked. 

Need to Know

Sally Emerson travelled as a guest of the Ultimate Travel Company.

The Ultimate Travel Company (020 3582 1282, can arrange a week in a garden villa at Pangkor Laut, plus two nights at the Shangri-La in Kuala Lumpur, from £1,860pp, including flights from Heathrow with Malaysia Airlines, breakfasts and private transfers. Or try Trailfinders (020 7368 1200, or Tropical Sky (0844 332 9371,

More spa islands

Cambodia’s Song Saa, a brand-new private-island resort in the remote Koh Rong archipelago, features two pristine, jungle covered tropical islands joined by a footbridge. One houses 27 over-water, jungle and beach villas and the other will accommodate a spa. What more do you want? Bridge & Wickers (020 7483 6555, has a week from £4,460pp, full-board, with flights.

Pulau Gaya is another jungle-covered, monkey-occupied paradise of tropical flowers and azure seas, off the coast of Sabah, the Malaysian bit of the island of Borneo. The Gaya Island Resort, which opens in July, is the only property on the island and is the kind of place Ernst Stavro Blofeld might have called home. And there’s an impressive spa, too, for Mrs Blofeld. A week in July costs £1,799pp, B&B, including flights, booked through Destinology (0800 072 2227,

Petit St Vincent (00 1 954 963 7401,, in the Caribbean, has just undergone a facelift, and the 44-year-old, 115-acre private island looks better than ever. While the 22 ever-so-secluded rooms now have air conditioning and smart bathrooms, they still blissfully lack wi-fi, phone signals and televisions. A week here costs from £4,000, full-board, for two. Flights to Barbados are from £614pp return with British Airways (0844 493 0787,, and the puddle-jumper to Union Island is about £260pp.