Feature Story by Kamila Delart

Read also Short Portraits of:   Bon Ton   Temple Tree

Bon Ton & Temple Tree… Two boutique resorts so unique, they have been repeatedly featured in glossy lifestyle magazines across Asia, Australia and Europe. And once you get to hear the story of these enchanting properties, it’s impossible not to be intrigued!

It all began rather innocently. Narelle McMurtrie, an Australian Interior Designer and owner of the famous Bon Ton Restaurant in Kuala Lumpur, fell in love with an idyllic coconut plantation during her many trips to Langkawi and decided to expand her business. With a lot of space around the newly built island restaurant, it made only sense to add a private residence and another one or two houses for visiting family and friends. 

It would have been probably easier to build from scratch. But touched by the fading beauty of a few abandoned cottages in neighboring villages, Ms. McMurtrie had them dismantled and lovingly reassembled next to the Bon Ton restaurant. The houses were not even completed yet when the first enquiries from travelers started to come in - inspiring the idea of a resort with an authentic flair of a traditional Malay kampong… 

With only eight houses, the Bon Ton Langkawi was soon far too small to accommodate all the booking requests. So when the opportunity arose, Ms. McMurtrie acquired the neighboring land and built together with her business partner, Ms. Elison Fraser, a sister-property. Embracing the multicultural heritage of Malaysia, the second resort features not only traditional Malay houses from various parts of the Peninsula but also Chinese, Indian and Eurasian estates. To pay tribute to the Taoist shrine located on the grounds, the property carries the name Temple Tree…

As I drive towards Bon Ton, I picture local artisans thoughtfully reassembling numbered planks like a jigsaw puzzle, patiently restoring the original features to bring the antique houses back to their former glory. And once I enter the premises, I silently applaud their prowess!

I feel like walking through a Malay kampong some hundred years ago. Perched at the edge of wetlands with a lagoon overgrown with sea roses and water hyacinths, the beautifully restored timber houses exude an atmosphere of times gone by. There is a fisherman’s house, a beach cottage, the residence of a former village head, a Malay nobleman’s house… Each of them with a distinctive feel, carrying poetic names like Black Coral, Yellow Orchid or Silk. 

Walking up the stairs of my Palm house, a charming 120 years old cottage overlooking a pool, I slowly open the door and take in the dreamy atmosphere. 

Light falling through the beautifully carved panels above the windows creates enchanting patterns on the wooden floors; there is a baldachin bed, large wooden lounger with silk pillows in turquoise and green hues, and the spacious bathroom lures with a free standing wooden bathtub.  

I make myself comfortable in a low chair, enjoying the idyllic kampong sight famed by a window - for the first time realizing that the windows must have been placed just slightly above the ground to make sure the locals have a lovely view when sitting cross-legged on the floor according to Malay custom. Raised on stilts, the house is not only safe from floods and wild animals feared in the past, but I also notice the natural airflow from underneath the house that makes it superfluous to turn on the air conditioning. 

Although I have been living in Malaysia for quite a while now, I never really asked myself why the kampong houses were built in this distinctive way, assuming it was more or less a question of style. The realization that there is a purpose behind all the unique architectural features it’s enlightening! Not only do I have new appreciation for the wisdom of local builders, I feel somehow closer to my Malay friends, able to better understand their heritage, traditions and lifestyle…

I stroll across the grounds, admiring the ancient trees with knobby trunks and entangled branches. Reaching the wetland, I watch swarms of egrets and herons leisurely circling above. And when I see a few cats lazily sprawling in the afternoon sun, I surrender. Embracing the slow-paced atmosphere of this place, I spend the rest of the afternoon loafing around the pool, thinking twice before I make the effort to turn a page in my book.

The sun wanders across the horizon, turning the sky above the lagoon into surreal landscapes bathed in golden and orange hues. Taking in the breathtaking scenery, I listen to the evening serenade of frogs, inhale the earthy scent of Water Hyacinths and indulge in a delicious cocktail with frozen strawberries, Bacardi, contriue, sugar syrup and lime juice.

Already in a dreamy mood, I follow the flickering candle lights to the Nam Restaurant, curious to sample some of the signature dishes the place is famous for.

I begin with a delicious seafood antipasto plate with prawn cakes, seafood satay on lemongrass and char-grilled rock lobster, followed by the signature Nyonya Plattter with nine dishes of Malay and Chinese fusion cuisine relating back to the Spice Trade Era.  Served traditionally on a banana leaf, there is a fish in tamarind, beef with peanuts, prawns in pandan leaf, pickled lamb curry, ladies finger sambal, chicken with lime leaf, pineapple acar and eggplant in a coconut curry accompanied by mango & cashew nut rice. A symphony for the taste buds! Leaving barely any space for a dessert. But when I spot on the menu a cinnamon - almond cheese cake served with vanilla ice cream, pistachio - honey sauce and fresh mango, I cannot resist…  

It’s not even 10pm yet. For a night owl like me usually the most creative and productive phase of the day. But my internal clock seems to have attuned to the kampong time. Smothering a yawn, I fill the antique wooden tub with warm water, and enjoy a relaxing bath prior to diving into the soft cool sheets.

I wake up to the cheerful chirping of birds, delighted about the prospect of a leisurely morning ahead of me. Since the ‘breakfast fairies’ filled my fridge the evening before, there is no need to rush. I switch on the kettle and put a few slices of home-made olive bread into a toaster prior to jumping into a shower, and enjoy an unhurried breakfast on the sun-lit verandah, with my wet hair still wrapped in a towel. What a bliss!

In the mood for a walk, I set out to explore the surroundings of the resort. Following the main road, I enjoy the view of paddy fields with herds of grazing buffalos, reaching some fifteen minutes later the lively Pantai Cenang. I stop at a few shops with ethnic accessories and leisure wear, collect some Spa brochures and enjoy a bowl of the traditional Asam Laksa in one of the tiny local eateries.

Heading back to the resort, I take a side road and find myself soon in a fishermen’s village with colorful boats docking along a river stream, waiting to be taken to the open sea at night to lure with bright lights squids.

When I reach the resort’s premises, I head straight towards the Temple Tree reception to collect a key for my new residence. 

Located in the Strait Club House, a ninety years old estate from Penang that houses also a library, private dining room and a restaurant, the sun-lit reception with walls in the color of butter is warm and inviting. Furnished with an antique desk, wooden bench with colorful cushions and a large birdcage, it has this dreamy feel of an old study room. I can just picture Karen Blixen behind the desk, working on one of her novels… 

Leaning back against the pillows, I take in the enchanting colonial atmosphere and savor the refreshing pineapple-mint flavor of a welcome drink prior to being escorted to my new house.  

Dating back to the 1940s, the Black and White House is so large; I wish I was accompanied by my entire family. There is a spacious porch, living room, dining area, oversized bedroom with a wooden bath tub, separate bathroom and even an adjoining mini gym! 

The ambiance is simply stunning, giving away the owner’s passion for interior design. Period pieces and antique accessories are mixed with contemporary furnishings in such a harmonious way; the red designer chair seems to be built to complement the historic wooden chest utilized as a coffee table. And the colorful silk cushions with modern patterns only highlight the patina of time the entire space exudes.

I stretch out on the blue plush sofa and indulge in some daydreaming, picturing the people who used to sit around the dining table, the conversations they had. I wonder whether the wooden chest used to store the daughter’s dowry, and what treasures may have been kept in the round antique box placed on the windowsill. Each of the antique pieces carries a story. It’s so fascinating…

As much as the unique blend of the Temple Tree houses I have yet to see! Closing the door of my beautiful ‘Black and White’ estate, I set out to explore the rest of the resort. There is a stately ‘Colonial House’ built by wealthy goldsmith traders, contrasting with the ‘Estate 5`’, a traditional long house that used to serve as accommodation for Indian rubber plantation workers. And overlooking the pool, with verandahs offering breathtaking views of the mountains, is the opulent ‘Chinese House’ with a wooden exterior painted in turquoise and crimson hues. Each of the houses has such a distinctive feel, it may seem surprising to find them grouped together. And yet, the arrangement is completely harmonious, perfectly capturing the Malaysian reality, the exciting mixture of cultures and backgrounds that make our peninsula so special!

Just when I am about to turn around, I notice an old stony wall with an open door, and when I enter, I discover the myth enshrouded ‘Temple Tree’ with a small red Taoist shrine in front. 

According to local legends, in the tree resides ‘Datuk Kong’, a guardian spirit worshiped for generations for spiritual healing powers and for bringing good fortune when it comes to picking lucky numbers.

There are a few burning incense sticks and an offering of shredded tobacco, areca nut flakes; betel leaves with lime paste and fresh fruits - a clear sign that the locals continue to come, accessing the shrine through the tiny backdoor that opens to the wetlands.

Raised in the Western world ruled by scientific proofs, I‘m rather skeptical when it comes to spirits and ghosts. But looking at the countless colorful ribbons tied around the branches as expression of gratitude, I wonder… And so, just before leaving, I gently press my palms against the bark, sharing with the tree spirit a little prayer of mine. One never knows...  

As I walk back to my house, the sky begins to darken, and I feel a few rain drops brush against my cheeks. I hurry up and the moment I reach the last step of my stairs, the heavens open up, making my heart jump with joy. I loooove tropical rain! Making myself comfortable on the verandah bench, I listen to the thunder, inhale the fresh air and watch the streams of water fall towards the ground, nurturing the surrounding trees and plants. It’s so beautiful! And when an adorable black kitten curls up in my lap, looking at me with her large green eyes, curiously sniffling at my fingers, I feel pure joy!

Once the rain stops, I head to the Straits Club to enjoy my last dinner. The tropical seafood cocktail with slipper lobster, prawns, spiced coconut and basil is out of this world! Topped only by the sea bass on roasted potatoes with spicy carrot and coriander salad I order as a main course. The dessert of apple and guava crumble with cinnamon custard and vanilla ice cream just melts on my tongue. Leaving behind an aftertaste so sweet and delicious, I somehow manage to make peace with the fact that I have to leave tomorrow…