My original plan on moving to Malaysia had been to use my new home of Kuala Lumpur as a base for exploring the wider region – there is so much within one-to-three hours or so of flying time: Singapore, Bangkok, Phuket and the various other Thai islands, Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, Hoi An and Danang, Yangon, Jakarta, Bali… And those are just the ones that come to mind and are already on my list of places to visit (or in some cases re-visit) – I know there are many more that merit research.
Plus not forgetting Malaysia’s own islands, Penang and Langkawi, the states of Sabah and Sarawak, and so on. So much to explore.
But Covid-19 has made air travel problematic. Not impossible, but not something I’m keen to do right now.
Malaysia has extended its ‘Recovery Movement Control Order’ (RMCO) until the end of the year. In terms of day-to-day life, this doesn’t make all that much difference – certain procedures are still in place and masks are mandatory in ‘crowded public places’ (the definition of which seems somewhat open to interpretation, but most people are getting into the spirit of it). But the main effect is that Malaysia’s borders remain closed. There are a few exceptions – Malaysians and holders of certain visas (MM2H now included, finally) can enter, albeit subject to two weeks’ quarantine on arrival (unless you’re a certain government Minister returning from Turkey… but maybe the less said about that the better!). And it is possible to leave the country, though for non-Malaysians, getting back in again may be a bit of a hassle, by the sounds of it – forms to fill in and permissions to be arranged etc. I haven’t delved into the rules too deeply, but my take is that unless you really (really really really) need to go somewhere, international travel from Malaysia is not worth the bother for the moment.
But on the other hand, that provides a great opportunity to explore what Malaysia has to offer domestically. And after five months of ‘lockdown’ I was ready for a change of scenery. Plus, with the daily new domestic Covid-19 case numbers having been pretty much in low single-digits for a good few weeks across most of the country (just a couple of clusters in Sabah and Kedah and some imported cases amongst arrivals from overseas to spoil things) I felt the risk was acceptable.
Flying domestically is possible, and encouraged even – lots of promotions on offer. But notwithstanding the much-touted precautions and procedures, extra sanitation, and compulsory mask-wearing on board (except when eating or drinking though), I’m not ready to get on a plane yet. If I’m brutally honest, the airport and airlines can take all the precautions in the world, but the problem is other people. There’s always someone who thinks the rules don’t apply to them, who doesn’t wash or sanitise their hands before touching overhead bins, seat backs, door handles etc, or who coughs into open air while not wearing a mask – and being stuck in a metal tube with them for an hour or two is not my idea of staying safe, no matter what the airline may say about their state of the art HEPA filters in the aircraft air conditioning system.
So that leaves road or rail. Exploring by train those parts of Malaysia that have railways is on my radar, perhaps for next year – I quite fancy the ‘business class’ service northwards from KL to Taiping maybe. But for this trip – a long weekend getaway for my birthday – I planned to go by road over to the east coast.
Roughly four hours out of KL is Tanjong Jara resort, in the state of Terrenganu, just outside the town of Dungun. I visited once before, many years ago, and have fond memories of it, so I fancied a return, for some peace and quiet and their beautiful beach.
I don’t intend what follows to be a review of the resort (plenty of those can be found via Google), but rather to give a feel for how the coronavirus crisis is (or perhaps, rather, is not, particularly) affecting one’s ability to take a holiday within Malaysia.
Tanjong Jara was much as I remembered it, with really the only noticeable impact of the government-mandated Covid-19 ‘standard operating procedures’ being the temperature check on arrival and requirement to sign in (as per all malls, shops, restaurants etc throughout the country) and some minor changes to the dining arrangements (primarily the need to pre-select your preferred dining slot, and everything being a la carte rather than any buffet options – which suits me fine as I’m not a huge fan of buffets… 😉
Breakfast and dinner were at the Di Atas Sungei restaurant, where service and food are superb and the ambience lovely. Lunch is at Nelayan, which has perhaps been more affected by the lockdown requirements – I recall it being a superb fish restaurant, but it now seems to have morphed into more of a simpler, bistro-style, Western-with-a-few-token-Asian dishes affair. Hopefully temporary, and understandable under the circumstances. That’s not to say there was anything wrong with it as such; service was good and the food was fine, just a little too Western and not enough Malaysian for me (lots of fries, burgers, paninis, pasta and the like – but I gather that’s what Malaysians on holiday tend to want, so fair enough!).
Why didn’t I have lunch elsewhere? Lots of places to choose from within a few miles of the resort. Well, I didn’t fancy leaving the resort really – I was only there for three nights after all, and wanted to maximise my beach and pool time. Plus I was on the (previously unavailable to me, but now that I live here) ‘residents package’ which not only comes with a 30% discount on the room rate but also includes all meals… And besides, lunch is just lunch, no big deal – and more than made up for by dinner at Di Atas Sungei, where Chef Anne still runs the show and delivers the most amazing Malaysian dishes.
But the absolute best bit about Tanjong Jara (for me, anyway) was the beach. Oddly, despite the hotel being at fairly high occupancy, about the only time I really saw anyone else was at the restaurants and, to a lesser extent, at the main pool (there is another, for adults only, which I don’t think I ever saw anyone using). The beach was practically deserted (maybe just five or six other people) the whole time I was there. Fine by me!
The beach is stunning. Long, sweeping, smooth golden sand (with some rocks at one end for clambering around on should you so wish), beautiful clear turquoise water that’s perfect for swimming or just lounging around in, and a pleasant refreshing sea breeze to take the edge of the tropical heat. You will need sandals or flip-flops though – the sand gets hot!
My room was at the far end of the resort, opening directly onto the beach at the rocky end (but only a matter of yards to the smoother swimmable bit) where almost no-one seemed to venture. I found a hammock strung between two trees just off to the left, so that became ‘home’ for much of the time in between meals – a wonderful retreat to relax, read, snooze and be away from the world. Exactly what I was after!
Perhaps the other lockdown-related issue to mention is masks. The government rule is that they must be worn in crowded public places. This being totally not crowded at all, one can move about the resort freely without feeling the need to wear one. I did put mine on when interacting with staff, however (and they always wore them) and when arriving at or leaving the restaurants. Not everyone did this but I have to say that, unlike being in KL, this did not feel like an issue – I didn’t find myself feeling unsafe or getting annoyed with anyone for not ‘doing the right thing’.
Perhaps I might have felt differently if we were indoors in enclosed spaces, but here the whole resort is very ‘open’ – roofed yes, but not enclosed: air can blow freely through the restaurants and public spaces. From everything I have read and heard, the scientific consensus seems to be that being outside, or inside but with plenty of ventilation and freely flowing open-air, hugely reduces the risk of coronavirus transmission – in that respect, Tanjong Jara was perfect, and it certainly felt far far less risky than walking around the streets of Kuala Lumpur, let alone being inside a mall or supermarket. Not that those are, I think, overly risky, just that there are inevitably more people around and less ventilation, and I find there’s always an element of “being on one’s guard” – which can become psychologically exhausting after a while, so a holiday away from it all is very welcome!
I did also very much feel that management were doing a good job of taking the Covid-19 crisis seriously (which isn’t a given everywhere) and implementing all the right precautions. It felt safe.
As did the journey there and back. It’s a long but fairly easy, if unexciting, drive across Peninsula Malaysia to the east coast, almost all of which is (if you want the fastest route) on the E8 East Coast Expressway (Lebuhraya Pantai Timur). This was relatively light on traffic (especially if you’re used to the motorways in, say, southern England) although what traffic there was didn’t seem to be overly concerned with speed limits or general rules of the road… But anyone who’s spent any time on London’s M25 in rush hour should find driving on the E8 a delightful experience in comparison 😉
There are tolls (if memory serves, it worked out at about 40rm each way) but note that not all of them recognise the new RFID system that Malaysia has been so keen to roll out in the last year or two – so you’ll need a preloaded Touch’n’Go card or SmarTAG device. Cash is no longer accepted.
Touch’n’Go cards can be obtained from, and topped up at, most Seven-Elevens and LRT stations, and some stores (Watsons pharmacy comes to mind) do co-branded versions. If you happen to have multiple cards, make sure you use the same one throughout the journey – it seems the system gets upset otherwise (think of it as tap-in-tap-out, as on the subway).
Despite the RMCO, interstate travel is allowed and there were no issues crossing state lines – no checkpoints or police roadblocks, and there is no longer any requirement to obtain permission in advance – though presumably that may change if the case numbers suddenly spike upwards, so do check before setting off!
There are rest-stops / petrol stations periodically along the route, most (but not all) of which have a food court and some basic shops, along with the toilets. They also have Touch’n’Go top-up machines, although the funds appeared not to get credited instantly.
Again, temperature check and sign-in are required (the MySehjatera phone app makes this easier and quicker) and seemed to be well managed and enforced. Except for once on the way back, there weren’t many people around, and even when there are, the open-air design makes it all feel pretty safe, and it’s easy enough to stay clear of the occasional non-mask-wearing cougher should you need to.
Four hours each way in the car is, I suppose, a fairly long trip. But it’s easy enough to stop for breaks along the way. And it’s not really any longer than you’d spend on a journey involving even a 45-minute flight, by the time you allow for getting to the airport at one end, checking-in and clearing security, then waiting around before boarding, and finally getting from the airport to your destination at the other end. Plus not having to worry about baggage weight, or liquids and carry-on restrictions, or having your checked luggage potentially go missing, etc etc, was a pleasant change.
Very much worth it for a few days away from the city, on an almost deserted beach!