Four Seasons Kuala Lumpur and Langkawi: skyscrapers and monkeys in dynamic Malaysia
As a gang of dusky leaf monkeys swung through the palm trees towards my villa, I grabbed some mango, dragon fruit and plums from the fruit bowl. Soon the simian crew were hanging out with me and playing on the deck. A few even strolled into my living room for a guided tour, but the primate that learnt the most that day was me, as I discovered that if you want to make friends with monkeys in Malaysia, just offer them food.
Of course, connecting over food is a wonderful experience with people too. Malaysians are passionate about their cuisine: a common greeting is “Sudah makan?”, which means “Have you eaten yet?”. Malaysian food is a blend of the nation’s three main cultures: Malay, Chinese and Indian. Delicious, imaginative meals and magical encounters with nature were ever-present during my visit, which began in Kuala Lumpur.
The experience of visiting the Malaysian capital sits somwhere between that of a visit to Bangkok and Singapore: neither as intense as the party-happy Thai capital, nor as sterile as Singapore. In Kuala Lumpur, sleek skyscrapers tower over colonial-era buildings, outdoor markets wind around exclusive malls, and posh restaurants compete with street-food stands. A spate of luxury hotel openings is beginning to change the face of the Malaysian capital, which is currently the eighth most visited city in the world.
The Four Seasons Hotel Kuala Lumpur is in the Golden Triangle neighbourhood - the modern heart of the city. The 65-storey property is right next to the iconic Petronas Twin Towers, amid a cluster of super-structures. Its extremely spacious sixth-floor sky lobby has luxurious marble and a polished design that sets a business-style tone for the property.
Rooms have a warm, modern feel, with the gloriously soft beds and subtle luxury familiar to Four Seasons brand. I slept like a log and could have gleefully stayed in that cot forever, but bedside buttons allow you to sweep open the double-layered curtains to reveal floor-to-ceiling views of beautiful KLCC Park and the cityscape beyond. Seeing it all, you want to get out there.
A stroll around the city reveals its diverse identity: as Hindu devotees offer the aarti lamp to deities at Chinatown’s intricately-designed Sri Mahamariamma temple, Muslims are arriving for Friday prayers at the National Mosque. A poster on a cafe door tells patrons to “Drink coffee and smash patriarchy”. Stallholders on Petaling Street market offer imitation watches and clothes. Buddhists glide serenely by.
In the KLCC Park, head-scarved teens giggle as they pose for selfies in front of a giant Christmas tree. (Christmas is huge in KL.) The jewel-like facade of the Petronas Towers glimmers beguilingly at dusk. Exhausted shoppers drag their bags out of the posh boutiques, and pumped-up revellers arrive to party on the roofs of Traders and other towers. The Uzbek-inspired Masjid Asy-Syakirin mosque’s sublime call to prayer echoes beautifully around.
A less consolidating presence in the city is durian, an extremely pungent Malaysian fruit. Its odour is such that it’s actually banned on public transport and in most public buildings, including hotels. But some people absolutely adore it. As we visit a specialist store, a woman is cramming durian products into her suitcase, while passers by hold their noses.
Durian’s taste has been compared to everything from sweet custard to rotten sewage. Never mind Marmite, this is the truly polarising grub of our time. When I eventually plucked up the courage to try a small bit, it tasted to me like a blend of avocado and raw onion. I wouldn’t cross the road to eat it but neither would I flee in terror. I’d been warned that the flavour tends to linger in the mouth and that much I can confirm. It lingers. Boy, does it linger.
In the early evening we relaxed over drinks in the Four Seasons’ very own Bar Trigona. Hidden behind panelled doors, this mosaic-bar, rich with leather, bronze and glass, has been influenced by the trend for the modern speakeasy. It’s named after a native stingless bee, and several of its cocktails and mocktails feature the creature’s exclusive honey.
The hotel has six restaurants and the star of these is Yun House, which serves authentic regional delicacies. Its courtyard reception leads you into a dramatic, high-design interior. The vibe is modern, yet cosy. Catering for a vegan was no issue for the kitchen and the highlight of my meal was the Mock Chicken with Dried Chilli and Shallots, Kung Po Style - delicious, ethical ballast for the tropics to come.
As we flew over the archipelago of islands of Langkawi, it was clear that we had a treat in store. The reception area of the Four Seasons Resort Langkawi includes a stunning lotus pond, with palm trees mirrored by the still waters. As soon as I sat, a cooling towel was passed to me by a staff member - the first of trillions of such towels in the days ahead. I could already feel my shoulders relaxing and my forehead softening.
The heavenly resort stretches along a private, mile-long beach on the island’s north shore. It is the sort of landscape I usually see in movies, or during the judges’ houses round of The X Factor. As I trod the cool, white sand, taking in the deep blue sky and turquoise sea, I kept looking around for a camera crew, so I could say: "Winning this show would mean more to me than anything."
The gloriously spacious villas have high ceilings, bold contemporary interiors and tasteful design features with a Malay influence. They’re fronted by full-height sliding glass doors, so you remain bonded to the beach.
My pad included a living room, two bedrooms, three bathrooms and an outdoor shower. Alongside my deck at the front was my own plunge pool. I began to understand why a lot of guests rarely venture far from their villas. Indeed, even at full capacity the resort felt quite serene: enough guests to provide a bit of cinema at meal times, but there was always a peaceful, retreat feel.
I was housed at the far end of the resort, where the surroundings become quieter and more lush. A few steps outside the front door was the beach, and a few steps outside the back door was tropical rainforest. What could be more agreeable?
A divine start to the day can be found with the Sunrise Yoga sessions at the Geo Spa. Held in a peaceful ‘floating’ pavilion, beyond Moorish arches and tranquil pools, the private morning session takes place as the sun rises over the Andaman Sea. Some hotel spa yoga sessions are watered-down inanity. This was closer to the real thing, but still accessible for a newcomer. As we stretched and breathed in search of divine union, hornbill birds and butterflies frolicked around us.
The resort has three eateries: the Mediterranean-influenced Serai, the barbecues and seafood of the Kelapa Grill and Malaysian dishes at the magnificent Ikan-Ikan. Creative vegan options abound: at Kelapa I had a plant-based barbecue in which the chef had used grilled pineapple, eggplant and tofu to magically mimic the mainstays of an omnivore barbecue. My meat-munching travel companions were equally blown away by their food, including the Pasembar Padang Kota platter of starters and Red Snapper curry at Ikan-Ikan.
The service throughout the resort feels intuitive - you’re looked after like royalty but it never seems like they’re making a fuss. The waiters are impeccably professional and simultaneously chilled and human. I enjoyed rewarding chats with them about everything from the Nusantara form of Islam, to the Hindu goddess Kali and Arsenal’s chances of silverware under their new manager.
Hard as it was to prize myself away from the resort’s comforts, I joined the Mangroves and Eagles Safari tour, anchored by the naturalist Aidi Abdullah. He has conducted this boat safari tour everyday for 17 years, but his enthusiasm and charismatic irreverence make it seem he has waited all his life just to take you on it. He’s a compelling speaker: enthusing about the co-operative element of mother nature, he gazes in wonder at the shrubbery and praises the “socialism of plants”.
As he weaved us round the Unesco-endorsed Langkawi Geopark, we passed soaring sea stacks and ancient geological formations, including a maze of 550-million year old cliffs. The Geopark houses 221 species of birds, including eagles, which soared and dipped as we watched. Aidi also showed us flirty crabs, swimming monkeys and walking fish - there are many surprises in Langkawi.
On the final day, I took a bike ride in search of the island beyond the resort, pedalling through the traditional kampung villages. Almost every local I passed smiled and waved. The front doors of the island’s homes stay open all day and kids play in the streets without a care. I fed grass to the sad cows that were tied to trees alongside the paddy fields, and chuckled at the wild chickens that strut around with enviable self-confidence.
But it was my afternoon visit from the dusky leaf monkeys that will linger longest in my happy memories. I’m told they spend their mornings swinging around the rainforests and in the afternoons they move nearer the beachfront. Then, in early evening, they usually gather in a square of trees between the GeoSpa and the restaurants. Such wise monkeys: their daily itinerary is astute, and their choice of resort is impeccable.
Deluxe Beach Villas at Four Seasons Resort Langkawi start from £695 a night. For more information visit fourseasons.com/langkawi.
Room rates at Four Seasons Hotel Kuala Lumpur start from £180 a night. For more information, please visit fourseasons.com/kualalumpur.