Next to an empty fountain across from the community centre, village toughs hang out astride their idling hogs, diesel fumes rising into the sweltering darkness. Two girls on a cherry-red Vespa ride around the boys in ever-narrowing circles, their beautiful, intent faces framed by crimson selendang, the head scarves Malay girls and women wear.
Welcome to Kuala Medang, population 1,200, a Malay village a three-hour drive and a half-century of development away from the future-forward towers of the nation's capital, Kuala Lumpur. This village is the first thrust of a two-pronged experience here: a rural homestay, and a luxurious escape to the Shangri-La Kuala Lumpur. I decided to start in the country.
Kuala Medang is the kind of place where the jungle is the nearest neighbour, where they would roll up the sidewalks at 5 p.m. – if they had any. You won't find a cinema, a mall, any restaurants or bars, either. In fact, there's nothing to do here at all, and the humidity makes doing that – nothing – an onerous activity. So why am I so busy?
From the second I arrive, I eat, watch food being prepared, ogle food at the morning market and, when I'm not eating, dream about food I'm going to have when I wake. In Malay culture, food is key. Malays eat six meals a day: breakfast, morning tea (plus snack), lunch, afternoon tea (plus snack) and, confusingly, dinner followed by supper (Nescafé, plus cake).
And what meals! My host family serves up yellow noodles fried in garlic, salt mackerel with rice, banana fritters by the platterful and bottomless cups of pulled tea, made by pouring equal measures of tea and condensed milk back and forth until froth forms. And that's only breakfast.
My hosts are part of the Malaysian Homestay program, a government initiative to spread tourist dollars to the hinterlands. Like the rest of the village, and half of Malaysia's population, they are Muslim, so there's a red plastic ewer and basin on the table where we wash our hands before and after every meal, forsaking the Western world's fastidious cutlery. We, too, will eat with our right hands only.
The Malays, I discover, are a warm and sociable people. After breakfast, we call on the neighbours, a jungle tribe living nine kilometres up the mountainside. Pantos Village, home to 100 members of the Semai tribe, sits high above a swift river and is a collection of weathered wooden houses half-obscured by palms and flowering trees. We've come here for lunch, which a tribal woman prepares, stuffing lengths of bamboo with rice and tapioca root and baking them over an open fire.
Village children scramble everywhere, shy and inquisitive, helping with the cooking, practising their English on the ungainly white newcomer in their midst. The meal is delicious, tasting of river (salted fish), jungle (broad green leaves serve as dinner plates) and wood smoke.
Soon, the Semai people will move across the river to a new, more hygienic village the government has built for them – row upon neat row of identical white shoebox houses laid out in the harsh sun with no vegetation to shade them.
As I leave, the village kids come racing across the suspension bridge spanning the river, shouting their goodbyes.
My homestay house back in Kuala Medang is opulent in contrast to the Semai village ones, richly coloured inside and out, with a tree densely hung with rambutan fruit in the garden. The house belongs to the head of the village. He and his wife have seven grown children who have all left home to work in Kuala Lumpur, so there's no shortage of bedrooms. My room is airy and simple, with a bed, armoire, dressing table, a rack hung with prayer rugs and a combined toilet and shower.
My hosts treat me like family, even though we can't communicate with more than smiles and nods – they have had homestay visitors before, and so their attitude toward me is, in the much-honoured Malay phrase, “free and easy.” I can hang out in the family room watching M-Pop on TV, or slip out for a late-night walk. No one fusses over me, or mentions the word curfew. There's no air conditioning, but the slowly revolving ceiling fans in every room fill the house with breezes.
Homestay in Kuala Medang was so relaxed and yet full, so unusual and yet strangely familiar, it took me back to a place I had thought irretrievable. Its heat and slowness, the constant throb of cicadas, the long evenings passing languidly on verandas – it all reminded me of my grandparents' neighbourhood on a hot Midwestern night. On my nocturnal rambles, I found myself half-expecting them to wave at me from the next veranda.
Leaving the village and arriving in Kuala Lumpur makes for a fast fall from a soft place into a hard and honking one. But as the doorman ushers me into the bustling, glittering lobby of the Shangri-La Hotel, I was immediately cosseted in the cushiest of urban retreats. The Shangri-La Kuala Lumpur offers luxury on a grand, cosmopolitan scale. The lushly upholstered lobby lounge looks onto a lavish garden. Ladies in silk, emeralds and tiny hats are sipping tea.
Check-in occurs over a cup of Chinese tea delivered in a satin-lined wicker basket in the privacy of my Regency-style room on the 21st floor.
The proof of a great hotel room is whether you want to stay in and luxuriate, or go out and investigate. Like an updated accommodation in a gentlemen's club, the room is all Venetian chandeliers and burled wood, but the big window revealing the skyline washes everything with tropical light, and the soaking tub in the marble bath is calling my name.
But I have appointments to keep, so I forcibly eject myself from the room.
A five-minute walk away, shoppers stream through Starhill Gallery, its silvery façade so shiny and faceted it looks like an enormous diamond. A salesperson invites me to try on a Ulysse Nardin timepiece with a polychrome enamel dragon rampant on a midnight blue face (price on request). Across the street at the Pavilion Mall, the Royal Selangor boutique features the Monsoon 1.5-litre pewter water pitcher, which slants forward as though leaning into a strong wind.
A 10-minute taxi ride transports me to the splendors of the Islamic Arts Museum, a serene white marble complex with restful courtyards and garden vistas. The Islamic tradition of avoiding figurative representation has meant that Muslim artists have specialized in the language of geometry as a metaphor for order. The museum offers artifacts of stunning richness – from 10th-century ceramic bowls whose bold patterns make them look like they were thrown yesterday, to medieval manuscripts with spirals of gilding worthy of Klimt.
I decide to dispel a lingering headache with a 90-minute Ayurvedic Shirodhara treatment ($116) at the Anggun Spa in the newly built Hotel Maya. For 20 minutes, oil flows over the third eye area of my head, leaving me rubber-limbed and beyond care. At first, the oil feels soft and soothing, then strangely heavy and annoying, and finally like it's pouring inside my head. Back on the sidewalk, I feel dazed and trippy and weirdly transparent. But my headache is gone.
It's hard to eat badly in Kuala Lumpur, whether at a night market or a gourmet restaurant. After a week of hearty homestyle Malay cooking, the subtle flavours at Shangri-La's in-house Japanese restaurant seem just the thing. Tucked away behind a massive glass-walled wine cellar, Zipangu's menu offers exquisite simplicity – grilled eggplant with a hidden burst of ginger or, a meal in itself, crabmeat, seaweed and egg soup. Dinner over, in good Malay tradition I now have to find a nice place to have supper...
I'm an urban creature to the core, but I wouldn't have missed the Kuala Medang Homestay for the world. There's nothing arm's-length about the experience. You're embedded – you're doing and tasting and giving a wide berth to the black cobra hooding in the middle of the road.
A stay in the boonies recharges your batteries, leaving you more than ready to roll in the bustling megapolis.
WHERE TO STAY
Homestay Kuala Medang: A three-day, two-night Homestay Package starts at $84 and includes lodging, all meals and tours. go2homestay.com/homestay-kuala-medang
Shangri-La Hotel Kuala Lumpur: This five-star hotel caters to high-end travellers. The newly renovated health club includes an outdoor pool and tennis courts. Rooms from $140. 11 Jalan Sultan Ismail, Kuala Lumpur; 60-3-2032-2388; shangri-la.com
WHAT TO DO
Islamic Arts Museum: With more than 7,000 artifacts, it's the best Islamic art museum in Southeast Asia. Open Monday to Sunday. Jalan Lembah Perdana, 50480 Kuala Lumpur; 60-3-2274-2020; iamm.org.my
Starhill Gallery: A multistorey mall featuring international luxury brands and an entire floor given over to spas. Jalan Bukit Bintang, 55100 Kuala Lumpur. starhillgallery.com
Pavilion Kuala Lumpur: Across the street from Starhill Gallery, this posh mall carries all the usual suspects, from Bottega Veneta to Yves Saint Laurent. pavilion-kl.com
THE INSIDER’S ADVICE
Helmi Yusof, 37, is a Singapore TV executive who travels to Kuala Lumpur frequently:
“ Jalan Bukit Bintang is a shopping stretch peppered with designer coffee bars, perfect for people-watching. You'll find some of the best restaurants along the stretch, too. Le Bouchon [ lebouchonrestaurant.com] serves superb French food and has many times nabbed the Best Restaurant in Malaysia title. Go to the delightful Shook! with a group [Starhill Gallery, 181 Jalan Bukit Bintang] which boasts four open kitchens – Japanese, Chinese, Italian and Western Grill. Just doors away is Enak KL, a terrific Malay fine-dining restaurant. For a night out, No Black Tie [ noblacktie.com.my] is the perfect bar and bistro with good live music.”
Special to The Globe and Mail