The great hornbill is the heaviest member of the hornbill family. It stands over 130 centimetres high, has a wing span of 150 centimetres and when it flies it sounds a lot like a steam locomotive starting up.
When it cries out - which it’s prone to doing, often - the great hornbill sounds for all the world like a big dog barking. I know all this because I’m surrounded by these rare, endangered birds, they’re here in palm trees right beside where I’m eating breakfast. And beneath these palm trees, tiny white-tipped sharks feed amongst the reef; and by the pool, screams indicate that a monitor lizard (I saw one yesterday that looked for all the world like a crocodile) is using the resort’s lap pool to wash itself, again.
But I bet you’ve never heard of this island. Only a few of Malaysia’s islands receive any attention at all from Australian travellers, who fly right over in their bee-line to Thailand’s more publicised island resorts. And this tiny island – just five kilometres off the western coastline in the Straits of Malacca – barely shows up on the map at all. But this island resort was once rated number one resort on Earth by Conde Nast Traveller.
Arriving in paradise
I journey to Pangkor Laut Resort by boat in the last hour of the afternoon’s light. From where I sit I see deserted bays of white sand and blue sea beneath thick green forest. The island might be just 120 hectares in size, but because around 80 percent of Pangkor Laut is national park, it’s full of the sorts of creatures you’d only normally see deep within a tropical rainforest.
When I pull up to the island’s tiny marina, I see great hornbills and fruit bats arguing for squatter’s rights beside a resort nestled beneath, and amongst, ancient rainforest that’s about two million years old.
Overwater bungalows, villas and private estates
You can stay in Malaysia’s only overwater bungalows, or you can choose between forest and ocean villas. There’s also right private estates on the other side of the island, that come with private chefs, butlers and drivers, and have been frequented by some of the world’s biggest stars.
Exploring the rainforest
While Pangkor Laut might be a tiny island, there’s plenty to do. I walk right through the rainforest into the island’s interior with a naturalist, stepping over snakes, and studying the nests of oriental pied hornbills (the females of which stay in their nest for months while giving birth, while the male protects her and brings her food).
We make it through to the other side of the island to swim at the island’s best beach, Emerald Bay, set in a sheltered cove surrounded by fig trees. There’s restaurants here set right on the sand.
Another day I go with a chef by speedboat to the neighbouring island, Pangkor, to choose the freshest seafood from a bustling local market; then use it to create dishes in a cooking school at the resort. Later that evening, I take a slow boat ride around the island at sunset, passing flotillas of tiny local fishing boats out to feed their families.
Divine day spa
It’s hard, however, to drag myself from the day spa – it was once voted south-east Asia’s best spa, and I don’t doubt it, I could lounge all day on its chaise lounges by the pool. The spa’s treatments and decor draws on Malay, Thai, Chinese and Indian culture – though it’s the pre-treatment ritual of hot and cold water soaks, Japanese bathhouse body scrubs and foot rubs that are as significant as the treatments themselves.
And if I’m not being massaged, or exfoliated, or if I’m not swimming and lounging at Emerald Bay, I’m eating. There’s six restaurants on this tiny island, all set overlooking the sea. The perennial favourite is the resort’s most iconic eatery, Uncle Lim’s Kitchen, set in an octagonal outdoor restaurant overlooking the sea, featuring perhaps the best Chinese home cooking in all of Malaysia (a big call, I know, but try the food there and then weigh in).
Hundreds of kilometres north of here, Australians share space at island resorts along Thailand’s coastline. But here, on an island over-run by jungle with no public roads, where guests walk from restaurant to restaurant and beach to beach; I’m happy flying our flag alone.