The sublime environment of Malaysian Borneo invites total relaxation.
By Sue White, For most visitors to Borneo, it is tropical humidity that signals their arrival to the Sabah’s provincial capital of Kota Kinabalu. For me, it’s a gong. Stepping into the spacious, tropical lobby of the Shangri-La’s Tanjung Aru Resort and Spa, a smiling local strikes the giant metallic instrument with a flourish. It’s a welcome reminder of just how far my flight from Australia has whisked me away from the daily grind.
Given the adventures on offer in Malaysian Borneo, it’s tempting to say I dropped into KK (as it’s known to locals) after climbing nearby Mount Kinabalu, or following a week of exploring the jungles, rivers and islands of eastern Sabah. Not true: I’ve come to Borneo to simply chill out.
At 8am the next morning, I realise I’m not the only one seeking serenity. The resort’s gorgeous (and secluded) yoga pavilion is overflowing with people keen to try out the free yoga class, just one of many health and wellbeing options available to resort guests. Space limitations see my friend and I bumped out of the hardwood studio onto the adjoining deck. It may appear a hardship, but given the gentle offshore breezes and the lapping of waves below, I’m delighted with the happy accident.
Yoga at Tanjung Aru is taught by KK local Ms Ching, who leads a Sivananda yoga practice that is faithful to the style yet easy for beginners. “Sivananda yoga has five main points: proper exercise, proper breathing, proper relaxation, proper diet and positive thinking,” she says to the room of honeymooning Chinese couples, Malaysian families and European mother-and-daughter teams who make up our class.
The practice starts with a short relaxation followed by the abdominal pumping Kapalbhati (Breath of Fire) and Nadi Shodana (Alternate Nostril Breathing). It’s an excellent reminder that yoga is not just about the body, and the perfect holiday practice: the asanas are gentle; the mini Savasanas are plentiful; and explanations are forthcoming about the benefits of each pose. It’s an idyllic start to the day, however, it’s my next appointment that turns out to really flick my “chill” switch.
Leaving the yoga pavilion, I walk across the garden and enter CHI, the resort’s spa. Sinking into one of the dozen-plus ruby red couches scattered through the foyer, I prepare for my three-day vitality package via some serious form-filling.
CHI’s treatments are based on five elements (metal, water, wood, fire and earth), which balance with our yin and yang energies, so I spend 15 minutes answering a questionnaire about my favourite colours, tastes and weather preferences. The form also takes care of the myriad details which usually require an awkward conversation or (for the shy) a simple crossing of fingers with a new massage therapist.
Do I like treatments hard or soft? Do I prefer flowing, sweeping movements or acupressure style?
Preferences committed to paper, I’m guided through the garden to the private villa (one of eight, each beautifully appointed) where my tailored treatments will take place. It’s like stepping into the inner sanctuary of an already private haven: shoes are replaced by branded slippers; robes are fluffy and at the ready; and a foot soak in frangipani-filled water precedes every treatment.
It’s soon clear the vitality package will be the highlight of my stay, as I’m scrubbed, kneaded and oiled into blissfully relaxed submission. Day one sees my “earth” needs met with an hour-long cocoa pearl scrub; day two’s Borneo Therapy massage, a combination of sweeping strokes, gentle acupressure movements and warm herb-filled bundles to press away tension from my back and legs, is possibly the best treatment I’ve had anywhere in the world; and day three’s CHI facial leaves my skin feeling holiday happy.
Recovery from all this relaxation takes place in various locales across the resort. First stop is usually the large infinity pool, both for the optical illusion that it vanishes into the nearby South China Sea and the delight of ordering poolside drinks. (I’m sure Swami Sivananda wouldn’t be too pleased with the latter, but given the view, it seems a shame not to sip at least the occasional piña colada).
When the pool loses its appeal, I head for the tranquillity of our room. The space isn’t grandiose in size or style, but the generous balcony overlooking the ocean is perfect for dining from the 24-hour room service menu; the bathroom has a full bath and separate shower; and it’s out of earshot of the kids.
Ah yes, the kids. If there’s one surprise in my Shangri-La experience, it’s how kid friendly this resort is. While this makes it perfect for yogis wanting a family holiday—kids can hang out in the kids club or spend hours in the new (and visually unavoidable) water park, while adults disconnect in the spa or yoga pavilion—those sans little ones might find life poolside slightly more raucous than they’d hoped. On the other hand, such diversity is part of what makes KK an enjoyable destination for all comers.
While the food in Sabah isn’t as memorable as a destination like Thailand, the Malay and Chinese influences, combined with the Western offerings of such a significant tourist destination, mean you’ll eat well.
Some of the best options lie within the Shangri-La itself. I eat hearty vegetarian salads poolside, noodles on my balcony and bypass the Asian options like Chinese dumplings on the breakfast buffet for good, old-fashioned omelettes and cereal. Meals in-house hold their own (expect Aussie cafe prices for restaurant experiences), but I earmark the evening meal as an opportunity to head into KK proper. Each night, just a short (AU$5) taxi ride delivers us to various night markets where we fill up on fresh fruits or fried noodles at rock bottom prices.
The small cluster of islands in Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, just 10 minutes offshore, make for an enjoyable afternoon of snorkelling.
Of course, you don’t need to wait till nighttime to explore KK. Shoppers will find bargains galore in the local malls. Cultural buffs can hit the Sabah Museum, while the small cluster of islands in Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, just 10 minutes offshore, make for an enjoyable afternoon of snorkelling.
But although I dabble in all of the above, both the spa and the resort’s classes conspire to keep me huddled up within the walls of Tanjung Aru. A complimentary morning tai chi class provides a chance to learn how to ji (press); li (draw back) and pung (ward off) Chinese style; my friend and I happily natter our way through spa and sauna sessions in the well-equipped health club; and I realise I’ve got no time to jam Pilates, tennis or indeed too much sleeping into my daily schedule.
To maximise the opportunity of using the yoga pavilion’s world-class setting, we book a couple of private sessions to supplement those on the public menu. At only AU$30 an hour per person, this proves a great investment, as private classes offer a chance to ask tailored questions about your practice. For my friend, newer to yoga than me, this quickly pays off, as Ching’s tips help her glide through Sun Salutations in the open classes following our private ones. I welcome the chance to do inverted poses (like Shoulderstand and Headstand) in our private sessions—these are key to a Sivananda practice, but not taught in the open classes on site.
Booking the private classes at around 5 or 6pm also proves a winning move; the slot gives us solo access to the yoga pavilion for the stunning Sabah sunsets. If there’s a downside to this strategy, it’s that watching the sky turn red as I take on Triangle Pose becomes slightly distracting, as I fight the urge not to grab my camera.
By the time I hit my last private yoga class at the end of day three, I’m happily exhausted. We’ve done yoga twice a day during our stay, and despite the gentle practice, our bodies are feeling it. We ask Ching to tone down the asana and focus more on pranayama and relaxation. It’s a good plan. As the sun sets, the wind breezes in through the pavilion and I lie down so Ching can guide me through a long, languid final relaxation. “Relax, reeelax, reeelaaaax,” she says. And while the sky turns red over the South China Sea, I do.
Catching a glimpse of Borneo’s most famous resident, the orangutan, is high on most visitors’ to do list. It’s true: the only ape in Asia is super cute, but unless something is done about deforestation and palm oil plantations they won’t be here for long.
As spotting orangutans in the wild isn’t easy (try Kinabatangan River or Danum Valley in eastern Sabah for that), many visitors jump on a plane and take a daytrip to Sepilok, Borneo’s most famous orangutan rehabilitation centre. But there’s an easier option (with half the crowds)—an excursion to the nature reserve at Shangri-La’s remote Rasa Ria Resort, about an hour’s drive from Kota Kinabalu.
The reserve’s positioning at the edge of a resort lead many to imagine it must be a zoo, but it’s not. Instead, this 64-acre haven is the first home for orangutans rescued on the west coast of Sabah—if they do well here they might end up at Sepilok for the next stage of their rehabilitation.
Your chance to see orangutans comes at one of the twice-daily feeding times. After screening an informative nature documentary, rangers guide visitors on a short walk through the jungle to start a sweaty wait by a feeding platform; orangutans appear from the trees in their own sweet time, but it’s worth the wait.
Regular shuttles travel from Tanjung Aru to Rasa Ria’s nature reserve. AU$10 for return shuttle, plus AU$21.50 entry (Tanjung Aru guests pay less).
Accommodation: Shangri-La Tanjung Aru Resort room rates start at around AU$200 per night, including buffet breakfast. Keep an eye out for flight and accommodation packages through your travel agent, and deals on travel websites, as these may prove cheaper. www.shangri-la.com/tanjungaru
Wellbeing: You can enjoy the resort’s health and wellbeing menu without extra cost, as it offers two classes a day of either yoga, tai chi or Pilates, plus myriad other activities. However, private yoga sessions are highly recommended (AU$30 an hour, per person), book in advance and ask for the session around sunset.
CHI spa is worth the investment. You’ll pay Western prices for the Vitality package, but get the experience of a top-end spa that would cost twice the price at home. The three-day vitality package (AU$300) offers a scrub, massage and facial, and works superbly, but if you’re on a budget you won’t regret taking the Borneo Therapy massage treatment (AU$133)—it’s superb.
Getting there: Malaysia Airlines flies daily from most Australian capitals to Kota Kinabalu via Kuala Lumpur (or direct from Perth). Expect to pay AU$900-$1200. www.malaysiaairlines.com
Sue White is a freelance writer and hatha yoga practitioner based in Sydney.