Full disclaimer: I’m a city girl at heart. I like my creature comforts and 'getting close to nature' has always equalled 'living without modern conveniences' to me, even though the eco-escape is all the rage these days. However, a visit to Mangala Resort & Spa in Gambang, Pahang soon changed my mind and proved to me that luxury and nature can indeed exist harmoniously side-by-side.
Mangala’s owner was initially given this 400-acre plot of land in Gambang, Pahang – then an ex tin-mining site – in a contra deal. Though he was not involved in the plantation business, he decided to restore the land by turning it into a garden full of palm and fruit trees, along with a lake. What began as a personal project soon grew into a passion with tourism potential, and thus, Mangala Resort & Spa was born. Mangala draws some of its inspiration from Bali in its extensive wood decor and water features, along with its Sanskrit names – the word ‘Mangala’ itself means ‘auspicious’.
By coach, it took us about two and a half hours to get there from KL. If you’re driving, undoubtedly it could be faster. You’ll know you’re on the right track when you turn off the East Coast Expressway and see the Universiti Malaysia Pahang campus. Do a U-turn here and you should see the Mangala sign soon after. We’re also told that Mangala tends to be a popular stop among those returning to KL from holidaying in the East Coast.
Stepping off the coach, we were ushered through a walkway over koi ponds through to the main clubhouse (no lobbies here, apparently) where we were given cold towels to freshen up and pandan coconut water to drink. The pandan coconut is a must-try as it is unique to Mangala – no flavouring is added to the coconuts. They grow naturally like that!
Mangala is still brand new, and it showed both in how pristine the facilities looked and how you could see ongoing work being done on the plantations. The current phase of the resort occupies about a third of the total plantation, with much more in store for future developments.
We were chauffeured via buggy to our villas, which would soon become the main mode of transportation around the resort – though you can also rent bikes free of charge for the duration of your stay to explore the estate.
All 31 of Mangala’s current villas (no rooms here!) are categorised by location: there are only four ‘Sara’ cottages, the earliest villas built that look out over a tranquil wetland; 11 ‘Vana’ villas in the jungle with an outdoor rain shower and bathtub (don’t worry, the walls are pretty high); and 10 ‘Jala’ Villas, perched over the serene lake with verandah and whirlpool bathtub. Add to that four larger Vana Villas with attached private pools, one family-sized Vana Suite with two separate bedrooms and a living area, as well as a Jala Suite on the lake with an extra bedroom.
Middle of a plantation or not, the villas – Vana in particular – were luxuriously appointed with all amenities imaginable. Complete privacy is a key selling point here, which is why Mangala dares to build open-air showers and bathtubs and use glass liberally in the bathroom – and really, once you overcome your innate shyness, it can feel quite freeing. I couldn’t come here and not give that open-air bathtub a whirl, so I dumped in a handful of bath salt crystals – thoughtfully provided by the hotel – and soaked a while before dinner. Yes, there were the odd insects and leaves or two that managed to drop in, but this is still nature after all – albeit nature made into a five-star experience.
Fair warning: since the Vana villas are set in the plantation itself, it isn’t uncommon for you to find wild visitors in your home. Mostly these will consist of various types of insects and common house lizards - not much different from what you might find at home. If at all necessary, though, you can call the 24-hour reception desk and they’ll get maintenance in to sort it out for you.
The Jala villas were my personal favourite. A little smaller than the Vana villas, I loved that I could wake up in the morning and just stand on my deck watching the sun rise over the lake, while birds sang overhead and fish splashed in the water. I liked the cosy feel of the villa and the whirlpool tub was rave-worthy all on its own. Personal Jacuzzi, anyone?
Note: It’s not recommended that you add extra beds due to the lack of proper space in the villas and the difficulty in transporting and installing the beds. The suites may be the exception to this.
There’s a large TV in all of the villas, but you wouldn’t go to Mangala to stay in and watch TV. Instead, we took a bike tour around the estate and ended up at the recreation area, with a stable at one end and an archery range-slash-kayaking centre on the other.
The stable currently houses four horses – one hot-tempered grey male (Hero) and the rest bay-hued females (Putih, Dara and Kurus). Though Mangala wasn’t offering horse rides just yet, white-faced Putih stood patiently by as we petted and exclaimed over her. We also met Lucy, an imperious goose that clearly rules the roost. Ask about their stories if you visit as the staff will have quite the tale to tell!
Animal attractions aside, Mangala set up a picnic for us at the kayaking area (you can request this too) with chefs frying fresh prawn and banana fritters, washed down with hot teh tarik and coffee or water. I tried my hand at archery with the staff supervising (shooting the best score of the day!) and enjoyed kayaking around the tranquil lake with a friend, passing through a hidden passage to circle a blossoming tree on an island in the centre. We even saw a bright kingfisher flit by, which is said to be good luck.
We also went on a tour of the orchards, umbrellas hoisted above us to keep off the blazing sun as we examined various trees, saplings and fruits – from passionfruit and lime to dragonfruit and coconut. The horticultural highlight of Mangala is seeing a huge dragonfruit flower in bloom, but it usually only happens in the very early mornings and only for a few hours. In the future, you’ll also be able to combine the tour with a fruit-picking session and a cooking class with one of the resort’s chefs.
Otherwise, you can also opt to go for a swim in the saltwater pool just beyond the clubhouse and attend a morning yoga session near the spa. If you want to go further afield, you can also inquire into a tour to nearby Sungai Lembing town (30 minutes away) and explore the mine, museum and visit a noodle-making factory on the other side of a suspension bridge. You can even ask about visiting the rainbow waterfall, but it’s quite a trip and seeing the rainbow at sunrise requires you to wake before 4am!
I was looking forward to the spa session the most out of all our activities, and it didn’t disappoint. I opted for The Spa Signature Massage, which combines a body moisturising treatment and massage in one go. First, they ask you to choose one of four types of massage oil, each with different properties. Then, you’re led into a room – either a single or a double room – where the masseuse will apply candlenut scrub on your body using Balinese long strokes and thumb pressure massage technique.
I’m not normally a fan of scrubs as they can be cold in air-conditioned spas, but the temperature was just right here as the spa was cooled through natural breezes. The massage was immensely relaxing without making you feel like you’re a tenderised piece of meat, which suited me just fine. I was told later that they actually get up on the massage table and use their body weight to apply pressure and work out the stress in your body. An hour passed by much too soon, sadly, and it was with reluctance that I got up to shower off the remnants of the scrub.
Food and Service
Since Mangala uses most of its own produce in its cuisine, everything is noticeably fresh and skilled chefs ensure that it is impeccably cooked. Buffet breakfasts are usually held at the Lakeside restaurant, but ala carte menus are also available and feature both a mix of traditional Pahang delicacies and contemporary Western-style fine cuisine. The fruit is the biggest difference for me: I’ve honestly never tasted a sweeter dragonfruit than those at Mangala, and I’m still thinking about the pandan coconuts.
You’d expect service at any five-star resort to be impeccable, but Mangala’s staff went beyond that – they were always enthusiastic, helpful and warm no matter the hour or what request you made of them, even leaving turndown gifts of fruit and food in the evening for us.
As you might expect, I left Mangala Resort & Spa with a heavy heart but a refreshed mind and body, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone looking for an eco-luxury experience that isn’t too far away from KL. Many thanks to Mangala Resort & Spa for hosting us and we look forward for the developments to come in the future.
Lebuhraya Tun Razak,
26300 Kuantan, Pahang
Tel: 09-505 7788