From the Native World of Beetlenuts, Pinang

Marred by the unignorable jelly-fish warning.

There’s something magical about pioneers.
Part of that magic, if you’re a guest, is in the attention to detail. From the fresh green apples they bring you in the Jacuzzi to everyone knowing your name to the restaurant manager remembering my endless fatal food allergies to the endless complimentary services and consumables. In having a kid-free, treated salty water pool – none of that over-chlorinated nonsense. Or in the mystical magical book, ‘The Lost Horizon’ on your bedside to the bookmarks with quotes from it in the turn-down service.

Yes, we chose to stay at the first 5-star property in Malaysia. Also the first to be ISO 14001 certified – way back in 1995, when few people had heard about the environmental certification industry. The Rasa Sayang Resort & Spa is also the first resort built by the Shangrila group. Or, perhaps that magic is in the combination symbolized by the resort’s breath-taking, modern architecture. It incorporates not only cultural heritage, such as the palatial deep timber Minangkabau roofs that laze across the resort, but also features nature’s unrivalled masterpieces, with several majestic trees on the grounds well over a century old. Almost every experience a guest will have is culturally defined and enriched: ranging from the orchid stems we’re gifted at check-in, to the all-out Chinese and Himalayan Chi Spa village, to the rather limit-pushing beach taichi classes to the very English, yet traditional, afternoon tea affair! (The only thing I’d change?: put in Muslim showers in the toilets everywhere!)

The Responsible Guest?

And in return, how do we respond?
To be honest, most of us, particularly those paying the rates for ‘the best of the best’, have a sense of entitlement – towards extravagance. Fair enough, you say. But we often don’t factor in the hidden costs of our oft-wasteful attitude, especially those borne by the environment…

And that formed the primary message to guests from Suleiman Tunku Abdul Rahman, Director Communications of both the Shangri-La’s Rasa Sayang Resort and Spa and the adjacent Golden Sands Resort:

“The only thing you should leave behind is your footprints – on the sand, just like at the beaches” he emphasized. “When they leave the hotel, guests should be able to take everything back with them,” he said. And how?

“Just bring your clothes, nothing else,” Abdul Rahman urged. The resort provides most else you could dream of. And that’s a cue for us to perhaps question our over-consumeristic, materialistically indulgent
existences too, isn’t it? We don’t often think about all the garbage we generate: the chocolate boxes, the plastic bags, the endlessly packaging of our overly physical lives.

Footprint Management

Abdul Rahman, whose worked with six of the Shangri-la’s 50+ properties, was kind enough to indulge our curiosities about running this giant machinery so seamlessly.

He admitted that the very size of the resort, 30 acres, spells out perhaps its single most significant challenge. And, in its environmental stewardship battle, as with any other form of change management, the resort’s biggest challenge lies in educating the people that will be its frontline stewards: the staff. Helping change daily work habits is no small feat, as many of us know.

They have put together over 100 best practices that help bring that change in mindset – they include simple things like ensuring all taps are fully turned off to simple energy-saving steps.

Housekeeping staff, meanwhile, is trained to segregate all room-generated waste into colour-coded bags for recycling or otherwise – channelled through the extensive, on-site recycling centre, including on-site compost facilities.

To channel all the reading materials guests inevitably leave behind, the Resort has a library and book exchange program.

To minimize food wastage (prevention is the key!), the hotel uses smaller serving dishes while remaining food in the dishes goes to the staff cafeteria. We know that often food goes straight in to the bin in other hotels. Food wasted by guests in their plates, on the other hand, goes into the wet garbage section which is in turn collected by other vendors – most often pig farms! So next time you order or make your plate, please remember, the chefs didn’t go to all that trouble to feed pigs or the compost heap!

Snorkeling with reef sharks - the only real remaining attraction at the Pulao Payaar snorkeling & scuba diving destination. While the destination remains much recommended, the corals have long ago wilted and died.

Water, Water Everywhere…

And there are many water-related issues they must have to tackle: If you’ve been to the famous Batu Ferringhi beach stretch in Penang recently, you might remember, with disappointment, that the water is hardly fit for bathing. If the murky waters didn’t keep you at bay, the numerous jellyfish warnings certainly did. Abdul Rahman analogized jellyfish to be like the cockroach of the sea – indi-cators of a dirty, polluted sea.

The sources of its pollution are endless: ranging from jet-ski fuel spillage to untreated waste water dumping. A group of hotels are working together to see what can be done. Among the primary problems is the emergence, around 1970 or so, of illegal restaurant operators (100 of them along the Batu Ferringhi beach stretch alone). Operating a business without a license means that your drainage is no longer linked to the city’s common drain or treatment plant. The businesses save the water consortium fees and merrily dump into the open sea. Enforcement, clearly remains a weak link.

Of course politics are at play here, Penang’s government is formed by the party not nationally in power currently, and so the state locals say its infrastructure remains underfunded.

Leading from the Front

But, we must play as positive a role as we can, within whatever sphere of influence we may have. The Rasa Sayang is not shy to play a lead role socially, environmentally or ecologically.

One of many centuries-old tree on the grounds.

For instance, the resort started its Magical Mud Ball campaign along with its sister property, the Golden Sands. The fermented organic waste mixture used to make them contains an enzyme that clears algae-ridden waters – such as the Sungai Emas almost adjacent to the Golden Sands. Learning from the Japanese founder himself, the resort set up an R & D Centre two years ago. Every December, when the most number of returning guests stay here, the resort organizes a mudball-making competition with the group that makes the most getting perks.

In addition, the resort supports a turtle sanctuary at the 20-minute boat-ride away Penang National Park.

The resort also worked with the My Wish Foundation to give a seriously-ill 16-year old boy the wish of his lifetime – the simple desire to stay at a five-star hotel (makes one think of how much we take for granted).

And, at the Light House Project where 100 – 120 beggars from different countries and faiths drop by, hotels in the area take turns to prepare monthly (and in the near future, more frequent) feasts for them. Some share amenities such as towels, gently-used soap bars, slippers with them – and perhaps most importantly, also provide vocational education programs. And in turn, provide employment opportunities: at Rasa Sayang, a few work now as gardeners or in the resort’s medical clinic for instance.


We were pleased (and relieved!) to discover that entrance fees in Malaysia are quite reasonable. My last vacation was in Sri Lanka, where fees for locals were close to nothing and foreigners paid up to thousands.

Part of the reason we chose Penang for our six-day vacation was for its beach/heritage combo.

Yet for all its fury and marketing, our entire tour of the fabled historical sites of the state’s capital, Georgetown, was over in one morning – all conducted by our almost-chain-smoking trishaw driver.

It felt a little like, much ado about – well, a lot of drama. Thank God the Rasa Sayang made it worth our while, truly. Else we?d perhaps have left thinking we picked the wrong destination out of the plethora Malaysia has to offer.

The Feeling of Love

And did you know there was a song by the same name? I came home to find that my mom remembered a childhood song whose chorus included ‘Rasa Sayang e, Rasa Sayang Sayang e’ ‘Ok then!’ was my first reaction. ‘All my research and I didn’t pull up this famous folksong?’ But now I know for sure that ‘rasa sayang’ does mean ‘to feel love’, as some of staff tried explaining to me. And that kind of joy is a sentiment the resort Rasa Sayang does indeed bring to the fore.

As one of the Chi Spa posters claimed: it “may be a language you don’t understand, but it’ll be an experience you won’t forget”.

The Point of a Holiday

And just like that, in a flash of beach and luxury, it was over. But light on my conscience too. Usually such flashes have costs that manifest themselves in various ways – but this one, not so much…

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Khadeeja Balkhi is a Sustainability Consultant who finds great joy in her work, whether it's strategizing, hands-on implementation, field-based stakeholder engagement or documentation and monitoring.

One Response to “From the Native World of Beetlenuts, Pinang”

  1. Makes me want to go to Penang and stay at the Rasa Sayang and be pampered too! And not have to worry about treading too heavily on the environment either…

    February 16, 2011 at 8:06 pm Reply

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