Aimee Fordos visits a beautiful private island resort on Pangkor Laut, off the west coast of Malaysia to enjoy two types of R&R: not just resting and relaxing, but running and remembering too. While there, she had the chance to embark on the iconic Chapman’s Challenge.
Covered by a tumble of dense jungle and fringed by smooth granite rock, soft sand and emerald water, Pangkor Laut is an ideal place to flee the travails of our busy modern lives. In World War II, however, it was the setting for an entirely different kind of escape.
Frederik Spencer Chapman D.S.O. (1907-1971) was a top British commando, famed for his exploits behind enemy lines. In 1945, after three-and-a-half years in the wild jungles of Japanese-occupied Malaysia, he made contact with British forces and a rendezvous was set: destination Pangkor Laut. He travelled to the island disguised as a Chinese tradesman, the risk of discovery a constant and very real danger. On the 13th of May, he and a compatriot made their final escape, stealthily crossing the island’s heavily forested hills to Emerald Bay, and swimming out to a waiting submarine and, eventually, safety.
You would think, under such circumstances, one would not be inclined to take note of the extraordinary beauty of one’s surroundings, but the 36 hours he spent on the island made quite an impression on Chapman. A self-described naturalist, he extolled the wonders of Pangkor Laut in a book, The Jungle is Neutral. Today, the island is home to a luxury resort and spa, and great pains have been taken to maintain those many wonders in their natural state. There are 140 villas scattered across the island, some dotting the hillsides or set among lush gardens, others sitting gracefully over the sea, their stilts a playground for schools of tiny fish.
The Pangkor Laut Resort and Spa is proud and protective not only of its natural heritage, but of its dramatic history too. That’s why, on 13 May 2016, it launched the inaugural Chapman’s Challenge, a unique biathlon consisting of a 3.8-kilometre run around the resort, followed by 2.4km of steep jungle trails and a 1,000-metre swim in the placid waters of Emerald Bay. I was lucky enough to be one of the 108 competitors to take part in the event, and to spend the weekend discovering Pangkor Laut.
Our long weekend began with a lunch at the resort’s Feast Village, followed by a preview of the jungle trail part of the race: a taste of what was to come early the next morning. The steep slopes and uneven terrain would be a challenge run, and, as the resort’s General Manager Ross Sanders pointed out in the briefing later that night, “Unless you’ve been trained as a mountain goat, it’s best to go slowly!” Steep climbs, however, often make for stunning views, and this was no exception, with breaks in the trees exposing beautiful vistas down below.
That evening, we cruised around the island on the hotel junk, drinking in the sunset as the captain regaled us with anecdotes of famous guests and love-struck staff, and a family of sea otters frolicked on the rocks. Dinner was Peranakan and Chinese cuisine at Uncle Lim’s, which stood out not only for the excellent food (the stir-fried squid is not to be missed), but also for its unusual architecture. Sitting atop a giant rock overlooking the sea, it’s built in the shape of a giant parasol and is bedecked with lanterns.
Ready, steady, go!
The next morning was Race Day. The jetty was abuzz with excitement as participants discussed what lay ahead. There were a handful of serious, professional athletes, but most were enthusiastic amateurs or weekend warriors. The general consensus about the course echoed my own feelings: fairly confident about the run (despite the hills), but a little apprehensive about the open-water swim. There was no time for nerves though, and, after a short speech from the guest of honour, Freddy Chapman’s son, Chris, we were off!
We wound our way up and down the undulating roads of the resort, then worked around to the jungle trail. By now the pack was well spread out, and one by one the runners made it over the treacherous hills to Emerald Bay, where they switched their trainers for goggles and hit the water. It may have been the beautiful setting, the buoyancy of the salt water or the confidence-boosting sight of the bay filled with boats, but our fears proved unfounded: all the competitors made it back to dry land, safe and smiling, to complete the challenge.
A gentle recovery
I passed the rest of the day in a state of well-earned relaxation: a little lazing on the deck of my gorgeous spa villa, followed by a blissfully easy afternoon by the Royal Bay Beach Club pool. Here, my only distractions were a gripping novel, a tasty Cajun shrimp po-boy and a mischievous group of oriental pied hornbills.
At 4pm, it was spa-time. Any remaining traces of the morning’s exertions were soon washed, scrubbed and massaged away in a blissful 2.5 hours at the Spa Village. First came the signature Bath House Ritual, with its many different Asian bathing traditions; then a Campur-Campur massage, featuring a blend of Malay and Thai techniques. The scent of lemongrass and pandan filled the air as my therapist, Laila, worked her magic. A restorative cup of ginger tea was a gentle transition back to reality and, after a few minutes under the pounding waters of the massive rain-shower back in my villa, I was ready for the post-race party: a celebratory beach barbecue at Emerald Bay’s appropriately named Chapman’s Bar.
On Sunday came the time to say farewell, but not before enjoying an indulgent buffet breakfast and a waterside tai chi session. Under resident Chinese specialist Dr Zhang Xin Hong’s gentle instruction, I was able to follow at least some of the elegant and controlled movements. Despite my lack of finesse, the simple act of being there, with the fresh ocean breeze and the soothing sound of the waves, left me feeling thoroughly rejuvenated and ready for the journey home. As we climbed aboard the speedboat that would whisk us away to the mainland, I looked back at this little slice of paradise and could not imagine why – unless there were hostile enemy forces on your tail, like there were for Chapman – anyone would ever want to leave.
Get there: Firefly flies direct from Singapore to Ipoh. From there it’s a two-hour drive in a hotel car to the coast and a 20-minute speedboat ride to paradise.
Stay: I stayed in a spa villa, a 55-square-metre bungalow on stilts over the sea, with direct access to the Spa Village and its lap pool. Other options include garden, hill, sea and beach villas, two sea suites and one hill suite named for its most famous occupant: Pavarotti. For those looking to splash some serious cash, there are also eight private luxury “estates”.
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