Johnny Jet's Travel Blog

Travel blog featuring best travel sites, travel deals, travel guides, effective travel tips, daily stories with up-to-date travel information, travel pictures, travel webcams. For more, visit my travel portal, www.johnnyjet.com.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Gourmet-Inclusive


The food here at the resort is excellent! It’s gourmet-inclusive which means guests don’t have to worry about prices for food, drinks (including alcohol) and activities.

Monday, January 29, 2007

AZUL BLUE HOTEL + SPA


In Tulum I'm staying at the brand new, luxury, gourmet-inclusive:
AZUL BLUE HOTEL + SPA. Check it out

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Tulum Ruins

From the Cancun airport I drove 90 minutes south to Tulum, Mexico. Tulum is famous for its Mayan Ruins which I visited yesterday (pictured). What’s amazing about these ruins is that they are (so I’m told) the only ones built on the water. They are beautiful but crowded. To avoid the crowds arrive right when they open at 8am (they close at 5pm). Worst day to visit is on a Sunday because the 45 Pesos ($4) entrance fee is waived and it’s packed with locals and tourists.

Friday, January 26, 2007

WHERE I REALLY AM AT THE MOMENT

Okay, I’m going to start blogging for real now -- so no more posts of past trips (except in our weekly newsletter). Yesterday, I flew down to Cancun on Alaska Airlines from L.A. Flight time was only 4:30 minutes and I somehow got upgraded to First Class. The food was pretty good, as well as the service - they handed out DigE Players and I watched “Little Miss Sunshine”.

FOOD ON THE PLANE

The seats also come with a gigantic table. If I was traveling with a friend, she could dine across from me on my buddy seat (normally the foot stool). Instead I used that space for my laptop, which I plugged into an electrical outlet so I could work offline as long as I wanted. This leg of the flight offered some of the best airline service I have ever had. Not only did they fill my glass constantly, but when I finished any of my many food courses it was immediately picked up too. All of this was done without feeling rushed, watched and being addressed as Mr. DiScala (my real name) every time. I should mention the food. I started with chicken/beef satays, a mixed green salad, cheese-filled cannelloni, fresh fruit and tiramisu. It was all delicious! This was definitely not your typical airline food -- but then again, I was not in your typical first class cabin either.

FLIGHT ATTENDANTS

To top it off I was waited on hand and foot by the friendly and very attentive flight attendants, who kept bringing me more food and drink. I have never drunk so much water in four hours in my life. Every time I finished the tall crystal glass of aqua, she came by (often without me noticing) and filled it up again. It almost became a game. I also have never used an airplane restroom so much in that short time span. BTW: The first-class bathroom was one of (if not the) nicest I have ever seen. It had wood paneling, full-length mirrors, fresh flowers and L’Occitane soap.

MY BIG PHAT SEAT

There were 10 pod-like capsule seats with plenty of space in between. Only two of the other seats were taken, making it even more spacious. My private seat was along the window, with 81 inches of pitch. When passengers slide the seat into a 6-foot, 6-inch flat bed and drop the armrest, there’s 25 inches of width. How’s that for comfort? The first leg of the flight was only 4 hours and 15 minutes, so I did not sleep. I was too excited and busy, flipping through the endless entertainment channels that were displayed on a 15- inch touch screen monitor. There were 39 on-demand movies, from recent blockbusters to classics; 100 TV shows (including many American favorites); 55 video games, and 200 CDs (from which passengers pick their favorite songs, to make a personalized play list). There was also a live tracking system, which invited me to play with the remote-controlled window shades so I could enjoy the view outside.

KUALA LUMPUR TO TAIPEI

Of course, I spent too much time in the lounge. I was running so late, I needed a buggy complete with flashing lights and that annoying beeping noise to rush me to the plane. Like every passenger, I had to go through a secondary screening again at the gate (it was thorough, and comforting). Then I was escorted onto the aircraft. My earlier Malaysia Airlines flight from Stockholm to KL (here’s the link) was a Boeing 777 with only business and economy class cabins. There was no first class, so I had no idea what to expect. When I made the always-cherished left turn through the door, I was thinking, "BABY! This will be awesome!" And I wasn’t even referring to the hot flight attendant waiting there with a hot towel.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

MALAYSIA AIRLINES GOLDEN LOUNGE

I took the 28-minute KLIA express train to the airport (35RM [$10]), went through security in 2 minutes, and made my way to Malaysia Airlines’ Golden Lounge. This is for sure the largest (43,284 square feet) airport lounge I have ever been in, and one of the plushest. It features Moorish and local architecture, with separate seating for business and first class passengers. Both areas have plenty of food choices. There’s your typical lounge snacks and open bar -- but this one also had an American breakfast, noodle bar, free wireless, showers, a massage room, a kids’ place -- even a putting green.

BAGS WRAPPED

I spent my last night in Malaysia at the JW Marriott in Kuala Lumpur (here’s the link to that review). In the morning I took a 10-minute ride to the Sentral Train Station, where I checked in for my flight (and checked my bags all the way through to Los Angeles). Because I bought so many gifts, and wanted to add one more layer of protection, I had my bags wrapped in plastic by one of those neat machines you see in many airports. In Europe it usually costs 7 euros; in New York it’s $8 -- but in Malaysia it was just 7RM ($1.98). Boy, it’s gonna be tough to go home and get used to paying top dollar for almost everything (huge sigh). (NOTE: I did not check anything of real value).

Cameron Highlands VIDEO

Here’s a 3-minute Johnny Jet Video of my trip to Cameron Highlands. It's also on YouTube, so it takes only a few seconds to load (though the quality is not as crisp). We also have all the JohnnyJet Videos ever made on their servers.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

BUTTERFLY FARMS

The last place my friends and I visited was one of the two butterfly farms. It cost only 5 RM ($1.40) for adults, and visitors see a whole lot more than just the hundreds of butterflies flittering around the greenhouse. They were so beautiful, but they live for only four to five days. However, the highlight of our visit was not the butterflies. It came when one of the workers showed us around the other part of the farm, where there are cages of other unusual insects and reptiles. I stayed far away from the poisonous snakes, but in the cages next to them the worker kept taking out crazy creatures like scorpions and walking leaves (Phyllium bioculatum). He put them in our hands before we could even say "no thank you." The funniest part -- which you have to see in the video (below) -- was when he put the funkiest looking frog on my friend’s arm. I just happened to have the camera rolling. Click here to see the 30-second clip of our special trip to the butterfly farm. (There is another 2-minute video below of this week’s trip.) VIDEOHere’s a 3-minute Johnny Jet Video of my trip to Cameron Highlands. It's also on YouTube, so it takes only a few seconds to load (though the quality is not as crisp). We also have all the JohnnyJet Videos ever made on their servers.

THE MOSSY FOREST

We then went on a short (20 minute) trek through part of a 200,000-year-old mossy forest. That was something! Part of the time we were walking on huge, thick tree braches. If we ventured too close to the edge, it would have been bye-bye. The forest was damp, dark and exotic, with deep jade green colors and the soothing sounds of cicadas and birds. I didn’t see any wild animals, because not many live this high up. Fortunately I did not run into the ones that do live there: cobras and pit vipers.

GUNUNG BRINCHANG TRAILS

From there he drove us to the Gunung Brinchang Trails to see what normally is a spectacular panoramic view from the highest peak in the Highlands (6,666 feet above sea level). It was cloudy, but that didn’t stop me from climbing five flights of the steep, rusty lookout tower to get the absolute highest vantage point.

HIRING A LOCAL GUIDE

The hotel hired us a guide for half a day. His name was Ahmad Zamri, but he goes by Bob. If you deal directly through him (tel.: 013-460-5631) he charges only 70RM ($20) -- much cheaper than what the hotel charges. The rate is not based on per person, but even if it were it would be well worth the price. Practically anywhere else the price of a guide would be 10 times that. He even picks you up in his own van. Bob was a fun, knowledgeable guy (and he’s the one who took us to the Boh Tea Factory).

VISIT TO A TEA FACTORY

No trip to Cameron Highlands -- Malaysia's largest tea-producing region -- would be complete without visiting at least one tea plantation. We drove 45 minutes to the Boh Tea Plantation. It was founded in 1929 by John Archibald Russell, the son of a British officer. Boh Tea, the first to be founded here, is supposedly the biggest tea plantation in Southeast Asia. The highlight is actually the drive. You climb higher and higher, up the narrow, windy mountain roads. With every turn the scenery became more spectacular. The lush green hills, neatly lined with row after row of tea bushes, was unforgettable. At the Boh Tea estate, guests get a free tour of the working factory. The owners realize once you’ve traveled that far, there is a slim chance you won’t buy anything from their large gift shop. I brought home 20 boxes of a wide variety of their teas. It was all inexpensive, including Gold Label -- their finest. TIP: Don’t go on a weekend –the traffic is insane.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

BUDDHIST TEMPLE

A short distance away in Brinchang is the beautiful Sam Poh Chinese Buddhist temple. It’s free to visit – including going inside. The attendant watching the door was very friendly, although he did not speak a lick of English. He gave each of my friends a little book about Buddhism, and showed us around – including where and how to place and light the incense sticks (a batch of 12 cost 3RM [84 cents]). Don’t quote me on this, but I believe you light three sticks at a time for each prayer stand. Then you are supposed to bow three times, toward each corner. It was hard to understand, because I don’t speak Chinese. All I know is, I’m glad I visited this colorful, peaceful temple.

STRAWBERRY PICKING

Near the night market are strawberry farms, where visitors can pick their own strawberries. It cost only 5RM ($1.40) per person, which I think included the one kilo of strawberries that I took back to the hotel. Is that ridiculous or what?! Thousands of ripe strawberries just waited to be picked, in the huge warm greenhouse. At first I thought it was kind of a bummer that the strawberry picking I had heard so much about did not take place out in the fields. However, there were no snakes, and the workers are very friendly.

NIGHT MARKET

Just a mile down the road from the hotel is the night market (Pasar Malam). It takes place every Friday and Saturday, from 6:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Street vendors set up little stalls with a wide variety of souvenirs (I bought a fridge magnet for under $1). They also sell plenty of tea, honey, honeycomb, vegetables, fruits (especially strawberries), flowers and street food. While table hopping I ran into the girls from the hotel spa, who insisted I try the sweet corn on the cob. It was delicious and inexpensive – and so were the peanut pancakes.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

MY SPA TREATMENT

Being the man that I am, I had a traditional male treatment called Tok Batin. It takes three hours, and costs RM600 ($169). After taking off my clothes, I dove into a hot tea bath in an old-fashioned tub, where I soaked for 30 minutes. The attendant brought over a tray filled with kaffir limes and sugar crystals. Both were to be rubbed on my elbows. There was also a dish of ground-up tea leaves to rub on my face, a glass of iced tea and a refreshing towel. After doing my rubbing chores I was given a pillow, tea bags for my eyes and noise reduction headphones. I laid back and listened to soothing music. After 30 minutes I was escorted to the chill room, where the therapist placed a heated, heart-shaped rice bag on my chest. I waited patiently until my masseuse came to get me. Once in the massage room she handed me some paper underwear. Yes! I got to wear these things one last time (here’s a picture of how stylish they looked on me). It didn’t matter how uncomfortable they were, because my treatment was that good. It began with hot towels on my feet, then progressed to the best body scrub ever (not that I get very many). The main ingredient was – you guessed it -- crushed tea leaves. They did a fantastic job of removing all my dead skin. She then wrapped me completely in warm towels, as if I was a mummy. As I lay there with only my head exposed, she gave me a head massage. She then put me in a portable steamer. The last step was a shower. I didn’t want to leave, so I took my sweet time sipping hot tea and eating biscuits with different jams. I am now officially spoiled.

HOTEL SPA

Most guests who stay at the resort get a spa treatment – and so should you. At the very least, take one of the tea baths. Treatments at Spa Village Cameron Highlands feature healing therapies based on produce from the surrounding jungle, and ancient tea rituals. There are six treatment rooms, four tea bath rooms and two outdoor cabanas. In Asia, bathing rituals are an important part of physical as well as spiritual cleansing. What’s great is that before each treatment, every guest has a tea bath. These are supposed to relieve stress, refresh the skin and slow down the aging process. Women can take either a yellow rose tea, Cameron’s mint, strawberry or chrysanthemum flower bath. There are similar-sounding names for body scrubs and massages.

CAMERON HIGHLANDS ACTIVITIES

There are plenty of activities to keep guests busy, but many people come there just to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city (most come from Kuala Lumpur or nearby Singapore). This is a perfect place to relax, read a book or play golf. The 18-hole golf course across the street is public, and on weekdays costs only 56RM ($15). I didn’t feel like swinging clubs or using the hotel gym, so I just took a 45-minute walk around the golf course. Talk about being lazy! The course looked nice, and along the way I stumbled across a hotel called Ye Olde Smokehouse. If someone hit me over the head and I woke up on their doorstep, I would swear I was in England. Even without the red telephone booth out front, from the moment you step into this hotel – your nose and eyes make you think England, not Malaysia. However, I’d much rather stay at the Cameron Highlands Resort!

Saturday, January 20, 2007

DINING AT THE RESORT

Unfortunately, dining at the hotel did not compare to the tea. The food was okay, but nothing to rave about -- and I dined in every restaurant. I’m not a sushi or sashimi fan, so I didn’t appreciate Gonbei, the traditional Japanese restaurant located just four steps from my door. I loved the open-air design and colors, and they did serve some tasty tempura -- but you can get that anywhere. The Dining Room, which overlooks the golf course and is the other restaurant that serves dinner, has a wide variety of dishes, from local specialties to international cuisine. Breakfast is also served in the dining room, which is very elegant. I felt like I slob when I walked in with shorts on (though it’s totally acceptable during the day). Breakfast is not a buffet. The menu included a nice selection of fruits, pastries, cereal, yogurt, eggs, waffles, pancakes and local treats like chicken curry. In the Jim Thompson Tea Room a traditional luncheon English roast is served once a week. This large buffet has all the English delicacies, like shepherd’s pie and Yorkshire pudding. When there is no lunch buffet they offer a menu with a number of salads, soups, even burgers. Nightly rates begin at 700 RM ($197). Cameron Highlands Resort, 72, Pekeliling Tun Abdul Razak, 39 Tanah Rata, Cameron Highlands, Pahang Darul Makmur, Malaysia; tel.: 011-60-5-491-1100.

TEA TIME


JIM THOMPSON
Two of the hotel’s three restaurants are downstairs near the lobby. There is also a bar there with a snooker table, and a fancy boutique shop just over a koi pond. The shop is called Jim Thompson, and features fashionable silk goods that its namesake was famous for exporting. To learn more about this legendary Chicago native who mysteriously disappeared, click here.

TEA TIME
One of the highlights of my three nights at this hotel was tea in the Jim Thompson Tea Room. At first I just thought it was neat that they kept the English tradition alive. After I ordered one of their wide selection of teas (many are locally grown; others are imported), out came a three-tier tray filled with English scones, pastries and finger sandwiches. But the bottom plate included regional treats, like egg rolls and dumplings. There was also homemade orange, grape and strawberry jam. There are strawberry fields all around, so dessert was a bowl of fresh-picked bright red voluptuous strawberries. They came with three kinds of dip (chocolate, fresh whipped cream and custard). This was far better than anything I’ve ever had in England. And the best part: It cost a quarter of the price (40RM [$10]). Tea time alone is worth coming to this hotel -- I’m not joking!

MY ROOM

The resort has 56 rooms and suites. Each room is spacious, with an elegant colonial design. My very comfortable room featured a cozy four-poster king bed, a flat screen TV (with satellite), telephone, mini-bar, coffee/tea machine and hairdryer. A balcony overlooked the golf course across the street. It was a joy to sit out there, marvel at all the pine trees and realize: This is Malaysia. The bathroom had black and white marble floors and the water pressure was just the way I like it: nice and firm. My only complaint about the room -- and I found this in all five of the hotels I stayed in in Malaysia was that the walls were thin. So in case you have loud neighbors (which I highly doubt), bring earplugs. It also would have been nice if the wireless internet reached the room, but I was grateful they had it at all (in the lobby), and that it was free. FYI: They are two computers for guests to use for free.

CAMERON HIGHLANDS RESORT

The Cameron Highlands Resort, just a few minutes from the town of Brinchang, is exclusive -- the only 5-star property in Cameron. But what shocked me most is that it’s only 40 feet from the busy main roadway. To my dismay there were no tea plantations to be seen. But when I learned they were just around the corner I relaxed, and came to enjoy the hotel’s hospitality. The Cameron Highlands Resort is an elegant traditional property. Had it not been for the Asians working there, I would have thought I was in England. The service is excellent. You notice it the moment you check in, when guests are offered hot chrysanthemum tea and a warm towel.

Friday, January 19, 2007

CAMERON HIGHLANDS

The Cameron Highlands are the highest area of mainland Malaysia. At 5,000 feet above sea level, the temperatures are quite cool year-round. They rarely go higher than 77° F (25°C) or lower than 50° (10°C). At night I wore a light jacket. William Cameron, a Scottish colonial surveyor, came upon the plateau in 1885 during a mapping expedition. Yet he did not mark his discovery, so it was not developed into a resort until 1925, by Sir George Maxwell. During the colonial era the popularity of Cameron (as the locals call it) grew, when British expatriates came there to escape the lowland heat. Soon after, British planters realized that the fertile mountain slopes would be perfect for growing tea, which back then was a highly valued commodity. As you will soon read (and see), the Cameron Highlands are still home to many tea plantations -- and much more. For more background info, including the history of the Cameron Highlands, please see this link.

WHAT I IMAGINED
When I first heard about the Cameron Highlands Resort and scanned some background information, I thought I was headed to a very quaint, quiet and exclusive part of Malaysia. I imagined a charming Victorian hotel in the middle of a tea plantation, miles and miles from civilization. What was I thinking? When we first arrived into town – yes, there’s a town; actually, three little towns: Ringlet, Tanah Rata and Brinchang, with approximately 7,000 people -- I was surprised. This is a tourist area, though not for Americans. I didn’t see any. However, you will find plenty of folks from Malaysia, Singapore, Japan and Europe. They typically spend just a couple of nights (I recommend a night or two).

GETTING TO CAMERON HIGHLANDS

Cameron Highlands are located 136 miles (219 km) north of Kuala Lumpur in Pahang, Malaysia. The fast road takes 2 1/2 hours. If you don’t want to drive yourself or take an inexpensive taxi, your hotel can hire a private car service for RM700.00 ($200) each way. There are two roads to Cameron Highlands from Kuala Lumpur: the Simpang Pulai exit (a newer, wider and less windy road) or the Tapah town exit (the old, much windier road, but 45 minutes faster). I took both (one in each direction) and I prefer the old road – not only because it saves time but it’s much more scenic. It is quite curvy, but I sat in the front seat and had no problems. A couple of friends who normally get carsick sat in the back. They took Dramamine, and also had no problems. The best part about the old road is that an hour from the highlands you come across an incredible stopping point that has public bathrooms (they charge 1RM [.28 cents]), outdoor souvenir stalls (ridiculously inexpensive), and a fantastic waterfall. Don’t miss out!

Thursday, January 18, 2007

OVERALL EXPERIENCE

What can I say about Pangkor Laut Resort besides that I will never get an Abhyanga massage from a man again? Seriously, this place is amazing -- but there’s room for improvement. If the government can clean up the plastic bags, stop Indonesia from burning its land and bring back clean air, it could probably be one of the best places on earth. The rooms and water are not as unbelievable as the over-water bungalows in French Polynesia but when you factor in the price (rates begin at $275 USD, a quarter of Tahiti’s), then throw in the incredible food, service and friendliness of the staff, this place blows most others away. To top it off, I have been home over a month, and guess how many times I’ve used my inhaler? Maybe four! I went to my asthma doctor just to make sure my lungs were clear and the first thing he asked was, "Have you been working out?" I said, "No, I just went to Malaysia." He told me my lungs sound better then ever. Can you believe it?! Dr. Jok-Keng Lee and Pangkor Laut have seriously changed my life. They could change yours too. Pangkor Laut Resort & Spa Village, c/o Lumut Post Office, 32200 Lumut, Perak, Malaysia; tel: 011-605-699-1100. VIDEOHere’s a 2-minute Johnny Jet Video of my trip to Pangkor Laut Resort. It's also on YouTube so it only takes a few seconds to load (though the quality is not as crisp). We also have all the JohnnyJet Videos ever made on their servers, as well including my 2006 video year in review (Here’s the YouTube Link).

ABHYANGA MASSAGE

I sat on the cold wood table, and noticed a pot of hot oil on the stove. I learned it was Ayurvedic herbal oil which supposedly strengthens the internal organs, nervous system, muscles and bones, and regulates the digestive system. It also supposed to delay the aging process. Well, I think I aged a few years in half an hour. The masseuse began by applying another special oil on my head, and giving me a really enjoyable scalp massage. Then the pot came off the hot stove, and was brought bedside. He dipped his paws in, and put handfuls of warm oil on me beginning with my arms. All I heard was Indian music in the back room, and his long, rapid strokes. After 10 minutes he lay me down on the hard table, and put more oil on almost every nook and cranny of my body. Warm oil feels good, and I started to relax. My eyes grew heavier. I felt myself letting go and then the nightmare began. My mind was starting to wander (for a second there I thought Scarlett Johansson was the masseuse). The long strokes felt almost too good, if you know what I mean. After what seemed like an eternity, it was time to flip over to have my back done. The next scene would be a perfect clip for America’s (or Malaysia’s) Funniest Videos. I was so excited to turn over on my stomach that I moved waaaay too fast. I flew off the slippery table like a fish from a fisherman’s hands. It hurt like you wouldn’t believe. I got up with my Tarzan covering halfway up my waist, and said I’d had enough. But of course I was not done. You can’t walk around the tropics covered in oil. By the time I reached my room I would have been covered with mosquitoes. To get the oil off, of he rubbed some cold greenish gob stuff that smelled and looked like crushed peas all over my body. At last, I took a shower.

AYURVEDIC HUT

The next day I met with an Indian doctor for a consultation at the Ayurvedic Hut. Ayurveda is an ancient Indian healing tradition, meaning "science of life." I did not hit it off too well with this doctor, but I did sign up for a 50-minute Abhyanga massage (cost 250RM = $70 ) as he recommended. I had no idea what an Abhyanga massage was, nor did I have any idea what I was in for. All I know is that I went into a poorly lit room in a hut in one of the tree villas. I was greeted by a friendly young Indian man. Behind him was a wooden table a few inches thick, with a lip around the edges so nothing would drip off. It looked like a place where people are embalmed. I did not have a good feeling about this at all. To top it off he made me strip down naked, and put on a homemade Tarzan-like covering – I’m talking skimpy! At that point I yearned for the paper underwear the KL Ritz provided.

TAI CHI QUAN CLASSES

That was not my only encounter with Dr. Li – he was also my Tai Chi Quan instructor. I did not realize how short, compact and fit the man was until I signed up for his class RM50 ($14). No one else showed up, so it was like having my own private class without having to pay the RM 250 ($70). Tai Chi Quan is supposed to develop inner stamina, and circulate energy. It also makes Westerners look like dopes. With a boom box in hand and Tai Chi music ready to roll, Dr. Li found a grassy area smack in the middle of the spa grounds so everyone could see how foolish I looked. Of course the doc was graceful, moving like a swan. I was the complete opposite. At times I felt like he was making me pretend I was the Karate Kid, as he showed short, swift moves that had me blocking and throwing punches into the wind. I tried to stay focused, but I couldn’t. I realized Tai Chi Quan is a lot harder than it looks, and I pick up things slower than I thought. The best part came 20 minutes into the lesson, when he asked if I wanted to take a break for tea. I wanted to break for my bungalow.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

TUINA-ANMO MASSAGE AND MOXABUSTION

It turns out Dr. Jok-Keng Lee is not the resident Chinese doctor – he is the hotel’s consultant, who flies in once a month. The everyday Chinese Doc gave me the Tuina-Anmo Massage (50 minutes, RM 250 [$70]) and moxabustion (50 minutes same price as the Tui Na… what ever). Dr. Li spoke very little English, and my Chinese is nonexistent. He normally uses an interpreter, but did not with me. That made things interesting (lots of hand signals). Dr. Li had unusually strong hands, and his fantastic massage focused on the acu-points of my body to restore the joints. Speaking of joints – next came the Moxabustion. The doctor used an herbal stick the size of a Cheech and Chong fatty, burning mugwort close (I’m talking VERY close) to specific acupuncture points. At times I said, "Damn, doc, you just burned my ass" (fortunately he had no idea what I was saying). I allowed this moderate torture because it’s supposed to be highly effective for stimulating the immune system. He also used a cupping technique, in which cups remove heat and wind in the body. I know you’re thinking "whatever" and "this stuff doesn’t really work."

CHINESE HERBAL HUT

Next on my spa list was an appointment with a Chinese doctor, at the Chinese Hut. I was curious to learn more about traditional Chinese healing, which sees the body as a "harmonious whole." Some of Pangkor Laut’s traditional Chinese healing sessions are rarely practiced anymore. I learned this in my meeting with Dr. Jok-Keng Lee, a 43-year-old doctor who has been practicing medicine since he was 12 (!), and holds a master of arts in Eastern philosophy) from the University of Iowa. Speaking perfect English, he began by asking me questions like how I was sleeping, and did I have pain anywhere? He then took my wrist, and used three fingers to take my pulse. It got eerily quite for about a minute (it felt like 20). With those three fingers on my pulse, he was checking my liver, kidneys, heart and lungs. He said everything was strong, but my lungs were cold. "Cold?" I wondered. He asked me if I use my asthma inhaler a lot. I nodded yes (I use it up to seven times a day). He told me I need to get off it -- cold air is not good for my lungs. He said I should cover up whenever I’m in the cold (including exposure to air conditioning). He recommended I use natural remedies to in place of my inhaler. He suggested that whenever I have the urge to hit my inhaler, I should drink ginseng tea or strong coffee, or eat chocolate. I thought he was crazy, but I liked his alternatives and kept an open mind. Before I left, he recommended I arrange for a Tuina-Anmo massage, and moxabustion. I had no idea what they were, but I took his advice.

BATH HOUSE

Spa Village treatments all begin with the unique bath house ritual. This 50-minute treatment RM250 ($70) includes bathing traditions from across Asia. I was greeted by a soft- spoken Balinese therapist, who was the sweetest thing ever. Everything she said was preceded by the quiet words "Mr. John." After handing me a welcome cold towel, ice water and a refreshing lemongrass drink, she began soaking my size 13 feet. In her soft voice she said, "Mr. John is the water too hot?" As I tried to figure out how to propose marriage to her, she gave me an invigorating Chinese foot pounding (in feudal Chinese times this was enjoyed only by concubines). She then escorted me to the male bath house, where I put my clothes in a locker and donned on a colorful sarong and was led to the traditional Malay "circulating" bath (based on villagers’ custom of bathing in streams or rivers). After I threw a coin in the wishing well, she instructed me to awaken the senses by breathing deeply in four different sweet-smelling steamers. Next it was time for a Japanese-style bath, where I could wash myself with a "goshi-goshi" cloth on a small stool (just like my trip to Kinosaki, Japan last year). I then took a dip in the heated Rotenburu pool and was served green tea. The grand finale was a Shanghai scrub. She gently exfoliated and washed my body in a private scrub house. In Shanghai this is traditionally offered only to males, but at the Spa Village both men and women get it done.

SPA VILLAGE

Staying in the Spa Village is a treat. Not only do you walk through their peaceful gardens every day, and swim in their private lappool, but the spa itself is just a short distance away. If you stay at Pangkor Laut Resort, it would be almost a sin not to get a treatment. This is by far the nicest spa I have been to in my life. Spread over four acres between the sea and the rainforest, it comprises a collection of low-slung buildings that are mostly open-air. Everything here is designed to soothe and refresh the senses, including the herb garden and reflexology path. I wanted to sample everything. I couldn’t, because of time and money -- but I spend two afternoons indulging.

EMERALD BAY

Once through the jungle you arrive on the other side in beautiful Emerald Bay (there is a free shuttle back). Emerald Bay was chosen of the Top Ten Beaches in the World by the London Daily Telegraph in 2003. I might have agreed, except it had recently rained, and the 80-degree water was littered with plastic bags. The resort has a special sifter boat to pick up the bags, but unfortunately it’s not enough. Villagers just throw their garbage and plastic bags in rivers, and after a storm the plastic bags make their way out to the island. I think the government could rectify this problem by putting nets at the mouths of the rivers, and of course educating the villagers about the importance of not littering.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

ACTIVITIES AT PANGKOR LAUT

Most people who come to Pangkor Laut want to relax. But there plenty of activities to keep guests busy: tennis and squash courts, two swimming pools, a workout room, a TV room (there are no television sets in rooms), yoga and tai chi quan (scroll down for more on this), and a popular daily jungle trek. Don’t let that term scare you – it sounds a lot more strenuous and adventurous than it really is. Yip Yoon Wah (people call him Uncle Yip), the resident naturalist, is retired and loves to talk. The 2-kilometer path he uses takes his group 2 ½ hours to complete, though it could actually be done in 15 minutes (there is also a much longer trail). But if you go through the rainforest on your own you will miss Uncle Yip’s informative talk. He explains everything -- and I mean everything -- pointing out interesting wildlife like the macaque monkeys (I saw 20 at one time), a wagless pit viper (see the video below), and a tropical monitor lizard the size of me. I actually thought it was a Komodo dragon, but Uncle Yip set me straight. There is no charge for the walk.

SUNSET CRUISE

Guests can also arrange for a quiet, romantic four-course sunset dinner at sea aboard the resort's teak wood boat (called a tongkang). Another great way to spend the evening and meet other visitors: Every Thursday the resort takes out its other boat. Honeymoon couples and returning guests can travel around the island to watch the sun set.

DINING AT PANGKOR LAUT

There are nine different places to dine at the resort. At the Samudra, guests get authentic Malay and traditional Chinese cuisine at a restaurant built on stilts over the sea near the lobby. The Palm Grove Café, also near the lobby, is where the extensive buffet breakfast is served with tropical fruit drinks (these guys make the best and most unusual banana pancakes). Oasis Bar, next door, has drinks and snacks. Uncle Lim's Chinese restaurant was my favorite – not only for the open-air design, with dark wood and colorful red lanterns throughout the interior, all atop a rocky outcrop overlooking the sea -- but because Chef Uncle Lim made the best honey crispy chicken I ever had. Below Uncle Lim’s is the Sri Lagenda Lounge, where many people meet for pre- or post-dinner drinks. Sri Lagenda Lounge and Fisherman's Cove are the restaurants folks must walk through to get to Spa Village. Fisherman's Cove serves fine (and the most expensive) dishes, including fresh seafood, steaks (the beef is from Australia), and Chinese and Italian cuisine (this is the only restaurant with a dress code, which means no shorts or flip-flops). The Royal Bay Beach Club is located next to the lap pool in the Spa Village, and offers light breakfast, lunch and snacks throughout the day. Then there’s Chapman's Bar. Located on the other side of the island at Emerald Bay, it serves sandwiches, salads, local dishes and traditional satay. It’s the perfect place to go to after the jungle trek (more on that in a minute).

UNEXPECTED BUNGALOW GUESTS

The resort is so beautiful that I filled up an entire 1 GB SD card in the first couple of hours. As I sat on my bed downloading the pictures and videos to my computer, I heard a noise outside. I got up to see what all the ruckus was about. Guess who was on my doorstep? The monkeys! They were cruising along my balcony — I couldn’t believe it. I thought one of my colleagues had put fruit on my doorstep as a joke, but no one did. The monkeys were just checking out their neighbors.

Monday, January 15, 2007

MY OVERWATER BUNGALOW

This was my first time staying in an over-water bungalow since the island of Taha’a in French Polynesia (near Tahiti) a few years back. My room at Pangkor Laut was similar: spacious with high ceilings, dark wood floors, a large balcony with deck chairs, a bathroom with an oversized tub, and windows that open onto the sea. The shower head too was oversized, though neatly hidden in the ceiling, and provided excellent water pressure. All the rooms have air-conditioning, a comfortable king bed, a desk, telephone, large toiletries, hairdryer, mini-bar, coffee/tea machine, a CD player, and an electronic safe.

ROOMS

We were served a non-alcoholic fruit drink made of roselle (it has a cooling effect like lemonade), and given cold towels and the usual paper work as we watched peacocks roam the lobby. We were quickly briefed on Pangkor Laut’s 148 Malaysian-luxury-style villas. Later we saw a couple of the eight estates in a nearby secluded cove. They belong in Robin Leach’s homes of the rich and famous. In fact, many celebrities have stayed there, including Pavarotti and Joan Collins. However, I was staying (and couldn’t have been happier) in one of the 22 over-water bungalows standing elegantly on stilts over the sea in the new Spa Village section of the resort (they are known simply as the Spa Villas). Twenty-one other villas -- basically the same but a few years older and a bit cheaper in price -- are called Sea Villas. If you’re worried about being over the water, that’s okay; there are also 105 Beach, Hill and Garden Villas.

PANGKOR LAUT RESORT

It was raining, so the boat ride was not as pleasant as I imagine it normally is. But it was still special, and pulling up to the island -- seeing all the bungalows sitting patiently above the glistening water -- was memorable. Pangkor Laut is a 300-acre, privately owned island in the Straits of Malacca three miles off the west coast of Malaysia. The resort has developed only a fraction of the unspoiled two million-year-old rainforest, where some trees reach 150 feet high. This island is both lush and exotic! When we stepped off the boat an army of porters grabbed our bags, and a greeter walked us to the lobby. Along the way our mouths dropped open in amazement. From that short walk alone we could tell this place would be like Fantasy Island -- and the three nights we had there would be far too short.

KUALA LUMPUR TO PANGKOR LAUT

We headed to Pangkor Laut Island. It has won all kinds of awards, including Number One In The World (Conde Nast Traveller UK’s Top 100 list) and Top 10 Most Luxurious Spas (Tatler U.K.) Getting there is difficult, unless you have deep, deep pockets and hire a helicopter ($5,000 -- one way). Most guests drive three hours from Kuala Lumpur, then take a 30-minute boat ride. We hired a van and driver through the resort, for RM850 ($240). To pass time my friends and I played perverted car games, and stopped along the way to raid a gas station convenience store. We bought almost every different type of unusual potato chip flavor we could find (each bag cost only 45 cents). Surprisingly, they all were tasty! When we arrived at the Marina in Lumut, the island’s 60-foot private yacht was waiting for us. Each way costs $200. Another option, a public ferry, costs RM 50.00 ($14) each way for adults, RM 25.00 ($7) for children 2 to 12 years old.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

TANJONG JARA RESORT

There were no Americans at the resort. Most guests were Europeans, from Britain, Germany or Holland. Many were honeymoon couples (the resort does a tree planting ceremony for them, complete with a plaque). But there were a number of families with children of various ages, all appearing to have a great time. If you go to Malaysia for the first time, I definitely recommend a stay at Tanjong Jara. But spend only 2 or 3 nights there; then travel to other parts of the country. (Next week I will show you a resort with overwater bungalows that will blow you away – but not your wallet.) Room rates at Tanjong Jara begin at $200 USD a night – and that’s a bargain! Tanjong Jara Resort, Batu 8 Off Dungun, 23009 Dungun, Terengganu Darul Imam, Malaysia; tel: 011-60-9-845-1100. VIDEOHere’s a 2-minute Johnny Jet Video of my trip to Tanjong Jara Resort. It's on YouTube, so it takes only a few seconds to load (though the quality is not as crisp). We also have all the JohnnyJet Videos ever made on their servers as well.

SPA VILLAGE

I was sitting on my deck reading a book when all of a sudden I heard a banging drum grow louder and louder. I looked up and saw a large group of people dressed in traditional Malay costume slowly marching through the resort. When I realized it wasn’t a coup, I decided to follow the friendly crowd. They made their way into the resort’s spa, and performed a traditional ceremony (which I later learned takes place every day at 11:30 a.m.). It was beautiful -- as was the spa. In fact, this spa is so nice that in 2004 Conde Nast magazine named it one of the top 100 spas in the world! It offers relaxation and stress relief programs, based on Malay medicine and therapy. In fact, this is supposedly the only spa in the world that features all-Malay healing treatments. They have been handed down from generation to generation, and the resort’s spa consultant, Sairani Mohd Saad’s, comes from one of those exclusive healing families.

MY MASSAGE
Unlike at the KL Ritz, I was not asked to wear paper underwear (thank God!) Instead I was offered a colorful sarong to wear while walking from the open-air locker room to one of the four treatment huts (guests can take it home, too). I had a "Tauam Pasir" treatment, which took 100 minutes and cost 255 RM ($71). The first half included a Malay massage -- a relaxing, deep tissue massage with long, kneading strokes. The second half got really interesting. The masseuse took out miniature heated sandbags. They were so hot that at times I had to mentally trick myself into thinking they weren’t painful (it worked for me). She then applied these bags to different pressure points around my body to help with circulation. Fortunately, I can take hot stuff. But if you’re like one of my colleagues who can’t (he hated it), you should consider another treatment. Note: For women they don’t use sand. Instead they apply less-hot steel or stones. Even though at times my treatment was really hot, I loved it. In fact, I found it so relaxing I even fell asleep twice.

DUNGUN MARKET

Guests can also accompany Chef Ann to the local Dungun "wet market." Dungun town is 10 minutes away, on the Dungun river. I went with her to check it out and see some of the local delights (like hot dogs with mayo). It’s similar to the Terengganu central market, but much, much smaller. If you go to the Terengganu market you can skip this one; they have the same tropical fresh fruits, vegetables and seafood. The locals here were also very nice -- not pushy, and I got the impression not used to seeing many Westerners.