Undiscovered idyll
Tanjong Jara: Mark Irving at Malaysian cooking school with chef Ann. Supplied picture

For Australian travellers, the east coast of Malaysia is something of an unknown quantity compared to its western counterpart.

More Malaysia:
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Langkawi, Penang, Malacca, Pangkor Laut, the nation's capital, Kuala Lumpur - all the most popular destinations seem to be on the western coast of the Malaysian peninsula.

The eastern coast is characterised by its relatively undeveloped economy, its social conservatism and its monsoons.

Yet it shouldn't be quickly dismissed by travellers, for it is well worth visiting for those seeking to uncover another aspect to the country.

I travel to eastern Malaysia to visit a resort owned by YTL Hotels, an offshoot of one of the country's biggest conglomerates.

We take the short flight (less than an hour) from Kuala Lumpur to Kuala Terengganu, the capital of the State of Terengganu, and then make the 90-minute drive south to Tanjong Jara resort.

Tanjong Jara is one of YTL's four luxury resorts in Malaysia.

Designed to resemble a traditional Malaysian village, we are told the architecture was influenced by 17th-century Malay palaces.

Invariably, that means lots of dark timbers - teak, mahogany and a local hardwood called chengal - and they give the buildings a solid feel.

The ambience is apparently based on the Malaysian concept of "sucimurni", a national lifestyle and philosophy which emphasises purity of spirit, health and well-being.

Pulau Tenggol is a popular snorkelling and diving spot. Picture: Mark Irving/The West Australian

All in all, the combination makes for a serene resort with the chance to experience life as it used to be lived throughout the country - except we enjoy air-conditioning, heaps of pillows upon a massive bed and wi-fi in the bedrooms, along with some first-rate modern Malaysian cuisine. So perhaps it isn't quite like the Malaysia of eons ago.

However, across a big expanse of lawn from my room is the South China Sea, over which dawn breaks spectacularly as it no doubt has for millennia. There's a big range of activities at Tanjong Jara, both inside and outside the resort. They include trips such as a half-day cruise up the Marong River and a hike to the Chemerung Waterfall.

Our first activity is a cooking class with Chef Ann where I continue a woeful record in learning to cook Malaysian.

Those seeking more relaxed pursuits might want to explore the resort's renowned Spa Village (a key feature of YTL Hotels) and while away the stress with a traditional Malay massage.

The most popular activity for many western tourists, however, will be the diving, as Malaysian waters harbour some world-class coral.

Just make sure you go at the right time. The monsoon season lasts between November and February; the diving season starts in March, and finishes at the end of October.

We arrive smack bang in mid-season, mid-June, and take a cruiser to Pulau Tenggol - an idyllic tropical islet known for rich marine life - for some snorkelling.

There are lots of brightly coloured fish, too, in the tropically warm waters.

But I am disappointed on our short snorkelling trip by the extent of degraded coral I see close to the beach.

Richard Smith, Tanjong Jara's dive instructor, says it was due to a huge coral bleaching a couple of years ago when water temperatures shot up to 34C at 30m deep.

Temperature changes cause corals (which are basically white) to expel the algae (which gives the corals the wonderfully varied and vibrant colours).

"Some 70 or 80 per cent of coral died two years ago," Richard says.

A lot of that bleached coral has come good again and temperatures have fallen to 28, 29C, he says. But, he adds: "We probably lost 10 per cent." He says at present, scuba divers are seeing the best of the coral.

"The coral is as good as you'll find anywhere in the world," says Richard.

"It's untouched and pristine."

Pulau Tenggol has accommodation and you can also lunch there. We do, and then we spend a lazy hour or so lounging on the picture-postcard beach and then getting back into the water.

During my snorkelling sessions, I don't see any of the black-tipped reef sharks that abound, but I am lucky enough to spot a sea turtle nibbling at some coral. It is a lot more graceful than the one I observed a few nights later during another of the resort's activities - watching female turtles laying eggs at a nearby beach.

It is at dinner when we get the call that a turtle has been spotted laying its eggs on a beach close to a huge oil refinery. Invariably it happens at night when the female turtles return to the beach they were born on.

Egg-laying by turtles is no quick act; but then if you live until 100 and you're capable of laying for 50 years, what's the hurry?

Typical accommodation at Tanjong Jara set amid the lush rainforest. Picture: Mark Irving/The West Australian

Anyway, we have time to pile into a people-mover and make the half-hour journey from the resort to the beach and still catch the big event.

It is a greenback turtle and she is half-buried in the sand. With her front flippers, she digs a hole in the sand and buries her eggs in another, deeper chamber. Then she covers the eggs with a strong sweep of her flippers.

These turtles can lay up to 100 eggs a session, four or five times in the laying season, from April to August. On this occasion, the turtle laid 61 eggs - soft-shell eggs that are carefully scooped out of the sand by the volunteer turtle-watchers and spirited away to be buried in a safe patch of sand under lock and key. Apparently, if left to hatch naturally, they are in danger of being stolen by predators - animal and human.

When the eggs hatch after 55 or so days, the baby turtles are let loose on the beach. We watch fascinated as the conservationists release seven baby turtles ready for the big bad world. They flap and flounder around our feet before they scurry off to the water's edge, attracted by torches held by the guides.

Females will return aged 25 or thereabouts for the start of decades of laying eggs.

Another activity is a guided bicycle ride with the resort's knowledgeable Captain Mokh, who takes us down to a local fishing village on the mouth of the Dungun River where brightly coloured boats are moored.

Over a cup of traditional Malaysian coffee he explains how the fishermen earn 80 ringgits (about $25) for their 12-hour shift at sea, plus another $60 ringgits or thereabouts as their percentage of the catch - not a huge wage, especially as monsoons mean they only work eight months of the year.

It makes for a sobering insight into another culture on this little-explored part of Malaysia.


Up the pointy end

I'd flown AirAsia X from Kuala Lumpur to Perth on its night flight previously. It's near enough a midnight departure, arriving in WA at 5.25am, and that makes it a perfect time to arrive and make an early start to the day.

But if you get no sleep on the flight, you arrive cactus and the early arrival is no benefit. The answer could well be an AirAsia X premium seat and on this trip I make my debut on this budget airline's version of business class. There are 12 such seats (all occupied) at the pointy end of my Airbus A330, arranged in a 2 - 2 - 2 formation across the width of the aircraft.

The seat comes with priority boarding and baggage delivery, and a free meal - which I don't need as I am out like a light for most of the trip. Although the seat expands into a flat bed, it is at an incline rather than a true "lie-flat" bed. But that doesn't affect the quality of my sleep and the seat is plenty long enough for someone of my height (170cm).

It also comes with a socket for laptop and personal reading lamp. Plus 20kg of free check-in luggage. All in all, a business-class type of seat at a reasonable price.

Moreover, I notice in the onboard literature that passengers could upgrade to a premium flatbed on the Australian leg for 600 RM - a bit less than $200.

It's subject to availability, of course, but it does give you an extra chance to think about making the move.


FACT FILE

• Rooms at Tanjong Jara Resort start at approximately $163. Snorkelling at Tenggol Island, including lunch, costs $90.60 (8.30am-4pm).

• Guided bicycle tour with Captain Mokh: $16

• For more, visit tanjongjararesort.com

Mark Irving travelled courtesy of YTL Hotels and AirAsia X. For more, visit airasia.com.

The West Australian

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