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Why You Need to Visit This Dreamy Malaysian Island


Just three hours north of Kuala lumpur, Pangkor island is still unknown to many international travelers. MARCO FERRARESE explores the diverse culture and natural charms of this former dutch hamlet that appears to be sitting on the verge of change. Photographed by KIT YENG CHAN.

Published on Jul 19, 2019

 

FLOATING IN THE SHADOWS of Malaysia's more popular coastal havens like Langkawi and Penang, laid-back Pangkor Island has been slower to earn international fame. Located off the southwestern coast of Perak state, Pangkor swells mostly on weekends as a getaway for nearby city-dwellers, who come for its plentiful snorkeling, diving and fishing. But this sleeping beauty and its three smaller sisters—Pangkor Laut, Pulau Mentagor and Pulau Giam—played an important role in Malaysia's history. It was on Pangkor that the British Empire and the Sultan of Perak signed the Pangkor Treaty in 1874, officially starting their rule over Malaya. Besides early colonial politics, Pangkor's waters, rich with Indian mackerel, attracted Cantonese and Hainanese fishermen, establishing the island as a seafood hub. A Marine Industry Association was founded in 1930, sanctioning fishing and wooden boat–making as Pangkor's main trades. This reflects in today's cuisine, which abounds with fresh seafood like the local anchovies, ikan bilis.

Pangkor's seafaring history also makes charming sight-seeing. The coast is peppered with modest villages where residents still peddle these century-old trades, while Chinese shrines, mosques and an important Hindu temple all rub elbows in the island's two main towns, Sungai Pinang Besar and Sungai Pinang Kecil. Beyond the shore, Pangkor's seas offer good snorkeling near Coral and Mentagor islands, fishing trips at Pulau Dua, and colorful diving around the nine uninhabited and heavily protected Sembilan Islands, which also host a rare blue plankton that glows in the dark. Inland, the densely forested interior offers a safe haven to an army of squawky endemic hornbills, who often fly out of the thicket, gliding above the coastal road towards the sea.

Walking the jetty at Sungai Pinang Besar.
Walking the jetty at Sungai Pinang Besar.

But 2019 may be the year this peaceful isle could awaken for a different reason: Pangkor is set to become Malaysia's new duty-free port later 2019, with a mall complex expected to open at the main port in Pangkor Town. Though the tax-free status will only apply to food, clothing and souvenirs—not alcohol, to avoid affecting the local community and creating too much of a party atmosphere—this development means change is coming fast. Curious to check out the quickening pulse of this lesser-known island before commercialism transforms it for good (or bad), I left my home in Penang for a weekend at this other cultural haven, driving three hours down the coast to the fishing town of Lumut, the mainland port to Pangkor.

 

FRIDAY EVENING
Lumut marina's multistory car park is right next to the pier where a half-hourly ferry departs to Pangkor Town (40 minutes; RM14 round-trip). Mr. Mohan, the manager of Tiger Rock (tigerrock.info; doubles from RM1,380, including meals and guided round-island tour), was already waiting at the port, ready to chauffeur us to Pangkor's only boutique accommodation. The former secluded home of Penang-based visual artist Rebecca Duckett-Wilkinson and her family, Tiger Rock packs a cluster of charming eco-chalets on an old rubber estate now enveloped by lush rainforest. The family moved to Penang in 1999, but still own and manage the place, with Mr. Mohan taking the lead. "There is a good chance you'll see our local wild boars come to graze around [the property]," Mr. Mohan said as he escorted me to my room, while the creaky laughter of Pangkor's hornbills resonated high in the jungle above.

One of tiger rock’s two jungle pools.
One of tiger rock’s two jungle pools.

Dinner is served on an intimate veranda by Tiger Rock's alluring saltwater infinity pool, which overlooks a viridian wall of tropical plants. My meal was fresh local snapper marinated in handpicked local spices and lemongrass, and served with juicy fried chicken and a side of fried brown rice. I spent the rest of the night relaxing here, bright stars blazing in the sky, and cicadas and crickets serenading all around.

 

SATURDAY
After an early breakfast, I took advantage of Tiger Rock's guided round-island car tour with Mr. Mohan. Beginning just below the resort, we stopped at the ruins of the Dutch Fort (Kota Belanda). Built by the colonialists in 1670 to store supplies and control the tin trade in Perak, it was destroyed by locals in 1690, rebuilt by the Dutch in 1748 as a military garrison, and finally abandoned in 1748. Across the road is the island's legendary boulder that the resort takes its name from. The 10-meter-long Tiger Rock carries an enigmatic carving: to some, it's a tiger mauling a child—a memorial of the death of a Dutch dignitary's son; to others, it's an obscure lion from the Dutch coat of arms, holding a quiver of arrows and a sword. What is unmistakable is the "VoC" engraving, a symbol of the Dutch East India Company.

The Tiger Rock's chicken curry.
The Riger Rock's chicken curry.

The next stop was Pangkor Town, a grid of lanes where mom-and-pop shops sell dried fish and daily essentials, and locals play a game of haggling for the best price. Loaded with packs of dried shrimps and anchovies, we drove along the western flank of the island to Pasir Bogak, a long stretch of fine sand backed by tall and thin coconut trees. Along the road leading to the beach is Restoran Ye lin (+60 5 685 1881; mains from RM45), the no-frills, pioneer Chinese seafood joint that's famous island-wide for butter prawns, soft-shell crab and steamed catch of the day. Less than 200 meters away in the midst of the bay is the tiny islet of Pangkor Laut, the secluded home to upscale Pangkor Laut Resort (pangkorlautresort.com; doubles from RM1090). With a private beach and a series of thatched villas, it's Pangkor's most luxe accommodation, but it casts guests away from the main island—boat transfers are not included.

Up next to the north are Teluk Nipah and Coral Bay, Pangkor's most alluring beaches. I went for a quick stroll along the shore, and promised myself I'd return in the evening to enjoy the island's best sunset views. We looped around Teluk Dalam, Pangkor's empty northernmost bay, and down the east side of the island to Sungai Pinang Besar. This Chinese fishing village has most of Pangkor's famous shipyards, an industry that thrived in the 1980s. I walked along a picturesque series of rickety wooden jetties where local boat-makers mold the bows and flanks of newborn vessels, some of which will be sold to Thailand and beyond. Other moored boats floated next to the jetties, waiting to fire up their engines for one last anchovy hunt for the evening.

On the way back to the resort, we peeked inside the newly renovated Kali Amman temple, one of Malaysia's most sacred shrines to the fierce ten-armed Hindu goddess, rebuilt in January 2019. We skirted past Pangkor's old abandoned cinema and the orange pagodas of Chinese temple Fu Lin Kong, which are scattered on a nearby hill.

Fu Lin Kong temple features a miniature Great Wall of China.
Fu Lin Kong temple features a miniature Great Wall of China.

After a much-needed poolside siesta at Tiger Rock, I caught one of Pangkor's iconic pink taxi vans back to Coral Bay to watch the daily hornbill feeding organized by budget hotel Sunset View Chalet at 6:30 p.m. A group of 20-odd hungry birds patiently wait on the powerlines, descending upon any brave tourist who dares lift a slice of fruit up in the air. It was fun—though slightly scary—to see the birds glide down to snatch the coveted, sweet pineapple from my fingertips.

Nipah Deli (fb.com/nipahdeli; mains from RM25), right on the beach, is a simple choice for a tasty Chinese steamboat dinner where you can tuck your toes into the sand and watch the sun paint the horizon copper orange. Next door, Daddy's Café (+60 5 685 1744, mains from RM25) is another beachside favorite for fresh seafood, Western-style comfort dishes and cocktails with a view.

Hornbills are common.
Hornbills are common.

 

SUNDAY
Before catching the ferry back to Lumut, I embraced Pangkor's wild side on the back of the four-wheelers at ATV Pangkor (fb.com/atvadventurepangkor; from RM80 per person). The two-hour ride leaves from Coral Bay and snakes through the interior's rugged paths, climbing all the way to Pangkor's old, defunct airstrip—though it is expected to resume flights to Kuala Lumpur in September this year.

As I ended the ride at the shoreline of the deserted northern beach Teluk Dalam, I felt like I finally understood the charms of Pangkor—all-natural, rugged and still untouched. For now, that is.

Exploring the jungle on four wheels.
Exploring the jungle on four wheels.

 

 

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Candy colored skies above Pangkor’s floating Al-badr Seribu Selawat mosque.
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