updated 6/30/2005 7:43:35 PM ET 2005-06-30T23:43:35

My expectations for visiting the equator were cinematic. I imagined glistening skin, searing sunlight, impossible humidity. Arriving in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's bustling capital city, delivered none of the above. But it was exotic. As my taxi slowed to pass through the narrow streets approaching the hotel, glimpses of bright tinselly decoration shot through the dark green vegetation – explosive colors in an urban landscape cobbled with glossy storefronts, sidewalk fruit sellers, and auto repair shops. A surreal air was setting in, greatly aided by massive jet lag and the nervous energy of arriving somewhere I'd never been before.

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KL, as those in the know call this city, embodies the blend that is Malaysia. The country's claim to fame as a harmonious cultural mix of Malay, Indian, and Chinese people practicing Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism is well established. It is a balance that stirs sidewalks alive with women in huge, bright head scarves, with short-sleeved office workers and surprisingly quiet street vendors, as well as completely contemporary twenty-somethings – cell phones pressed to their ears. I was told that the women I saw earlier in full black burqa (a stifling sight in the August heat) were not Malay, but were visiting from Saudi Arabia, in town to take advantage of the city's legendary designer clothing sales. Some passions are universal.

Shopping is an excellent distraction (my inaugural sandal purchase was made within hours of arrival), but I was here to spa. At my first stop in Malaysia, the Ritz-Carlton, Kuala Lumpur, the spa was a simple affair, beautifully appointed in wood and marble, its centerpiece a cobalt blue pool. Swimming outdoors in its cool waters is otherworldly, afloat in a cavern of city buildings and towering construction sites.

Checking in for my massage, I was surprised to find my therapist, Ana, clad in a light nylon jogging suit. It seemed a bit sporty for the occasion, but ten minutes into the treatment, the outfit made sense. After warming up my muscles with a directed determination, Ana hopped up on the massage table to press her knee (and maybe her elbows – who could tell?) into just the right parts of my back, shoulder blades, and wherever else she found the tension of 17 hours of air travel. My introduction to Southeast Asian spa culture was underway – and things were looking good.

It's quite easy to dash around Malaysia through KL's ultra-modern "designer" airport; shuttles to outlying destinations are plentiful. Terengganu, on the east coast of peninsular Malaysia, borders the South China Sea. I loved the sound of it – the South China Sea – a name full of romance and exoticism. The drive from the airport to the resort at Tanjong Jara was a tease – we just sped by its waters, catching only an occasional glimpse. But there was some compensation. En route, our van stopped at a marketplace in full swing, where the infamously foul-smelling durian fruit lay for sale in the sun, freshly caught fish glistened on tables with not a lot of ice, and dark brown men with furrowed faces grinned as I squatted among them to buy rings made of agate and local turquoise.

Arranged by the resort, lunch was with Tengku Ismail, a London-educated cousin of the sultan, whose personal home is a construct of preserved remnants of 18th-century Malay architecture, artfully assembled as a rambling homage to the culture – and his own highly cultivated taste. While wandering through this work of art and nature, I caught my first whiff of pandan, a plant that plays a large part in Malaysian health and beauty practices and smells surprisingly of cooking rice. The lunch was also a brilliant introduction to the country's exotic fruits; Ismail's generous mounds of deep purple- skinned mangosteen, hairy red rambutan, and sugar-sweet lychees were reduced to scattered ruins of peel and pits.

After an overheated engine, a dirt road detour, and lots of fascinating scenery in between, arriving at Terengganu's top resort felt positively luxurious: Tanjong Jara is neatly cut out of the jungle that surrounds it, its groomed entry a discreet transition to the openness of its grounds. My room was a peaceful teak cottage with a spacious bath – and a warm tub scattered with bright fresh flowers was drawn and ready. I chose a swim in the sea instead, needing to make contact with my romantic ideal. Salty and pale blue, the water stretched out into a horizonless sky and undulated in gentle swells. The sensation was soft and dreamlike with a dash of jet lag playing games with reality.

An evening rain shower sent most everyone undercover for dinner, though all of the restaurants are open-air. A look around the room and some casual eavesdropping revealed visitors apparently from France, Japan, and Germany (though many, I learned later, stream in from the very international – and nearby – Singapore). The food was largely Malay or Chinese in style, fragrant with both familiar and exotic spices, and fresh with the local catch. But the spa here was pure Malay – simple, friendly, and to my mind, near perfect.

The spa has only two treatment pavilions. These are simple glass and stone boxes, each one tucked behind a tall gate and surrounded by high walls, leaving the tops of trees, minimal landscaping, and sunlight as the view. A faint smell of jasmine incense lent mystical airs to the space, lovingly decorated right down to the blossom-bedecked cassette player. In this elegant glass pavilion, I had a most memorable massage, one as pure as the surroundings. Though the Campur Campur was described on the menu as a traditional Malay massage, it did not mention that my therapist, Pak Yayha, was an authentic healer from the village. One of the few to make the transition to resort spa practice, this magical man channeled his years of practice and tribal wisdom into an unforgettable, cathartic experience. More than a massage, he used warm herbal pouches to ease stress and emotions from my frame. The scent of the gently heated lemongrass wrapped in pandan leaf matched the lightness of his effort – and of his smile. As I left with the crisp cotton batik that had been my drape – and a gift – I inhaled its fragrance, searching for the essence of the carpet ride I'd just come down from.

Spa village at Pangkor Laut Resort, a half-day journey from Tanjong Jara to the opposite side of the peninsula, has an entirely different flair. While honoring the traditions of Malaysia, it does equal justice to the Chinese and Indian cultures that thrive here and so needs more bells and whistles to make its varied points. A new addition to this luxury resort, the spa was designed to deliver different levels of the spa experience – from single treatments to 7- or 14-day healing journeys. Most significantly, its offering of complete Ayurvedic or traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) programs is unique in this type of setting. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Pangkor Laut sits about 11 miles off the western shore of Malaysia, in the Straits of Malacca. The elegance of the place – besides its towering jungle and famed Emerald Bay beach – is defined by guest villas that sit perched over milky blue waters. Huge boulders hug its shoreline – ideal camouflage for the large gray monitor lizards the island is famous for – and crab-eating monkeys roam the edges of the resort, prowling at twilight for easy food.

Spa Village is a separate enclave of guest villas and treatment pavilions. Among them, my personal favorites were the nap pavilions, small shaded huts with silk cushions where guests can zone out after treatments. The communal waiting area is genteelly referred to as the library; set in the heart of the garden that stretches along the beach, it is pleasantly filled with such appealing reading material – on everything from yoga and jamu to Balinese gardens and Indonesian textiles – that one almost doesn't want to be called in for treatments. But that would be a mistake, of course.

Treatments here begin with a curious series of rituals including a Chinese concubine foot pounding, a symbolic waterfall rinse, cleansing herbal steam pots, and, finally, an outdoor Japanese furo (an off-theme concession to the owner's fondness for onsen and justified by the number of Japanese visitors to the resort). I imagine it would be a relaxing experience if repeated every day, allowing one to develop preferences and ways to use it, but the initial buzz through felt busy, making it a relief to be rescued by the Wrap House attendant for my treatment.

Sylvia Sepielli, the spa's designer and consultant, is a pioneer in the field and a true optimist. She designed the Wrap House as a communal gesture, a place where friends could have a treatment en masse. I suspect it's perfect for some cultures, but for Westerners more accustomed to their spa privacy – and being the center of attention – waiting in a large, albeit beautiful space, for the body wrap of the day felt more assembly line than lap of luxury. But there are many, many more options for finicky spa-goers to enjoy.

On my first full day, I was scheduled for Ayurvedic immersion, and so the morning began with a private yoga lesson with Dr. Kumar. I loved it. Having practiced Bikram yoga for a dozen years in packed classrooms, it was a true luxury to have a private session filled with energizing new asanas to practice on my own, not to mention a knowledgeable teacher to answer my questions about alignment and intent.

After the hour, I discovered that Kumar was also my Ayurvedic consultant, though we moved from the yoga hut to the Ayurvedic pavilion to make it official. It was a fascinating process; he asked simple questions about my health, my aches and pains, my dietary and elimination habits. This was directed toward identifying my dosha, or body constitution in Ayurvedic parlance. We are all composed of three doshas, though two are usually predominant. The healing art of Ayurveda is directed toward creating balance between those tendencies through exercise, nutrition, and prescribed treatments for optimum health. So is the spa's Ayurvedic program. As I was only on the whirlwind sampling tour, all I could grasp were my new yoga postures and suggestions for adjusting my diet before I had to head straight into the spa services he had recommended.

Kumar's nurse, Beena, led me into a dedicated Ayurvedic space whose central element was a long massage table made of naturally antiseptic neem wood. No cushions or towels here. Using oil infused with herbs to suit my dosha, the massage was vigorous, rejuvenating, and real. Without any padding to lie on, Beena took care of my back while I lay first on one side, then the other, all the while wearing only a thin cotton loincloth she had tied me into. I loved the exoticism of it all – the smell, the filtered light, Beena's small, beautiful feet on the polished wood floor. There was much to savor, even in haste.

Chinese treatments begin with a consultation in the Chinese herbal hut. Mine was with Dr. Lee, who received his doctorate in philosophy in the United States, spoke perfect English, and possessed the calm demeanor of a physician from another era. Thinking I had no real health issues to speak of, Lee was soon reading my pulse, my wrist resting on a small white brocade pillow while I gazed past him through a sparse bamboo hedge to the ocean just beyond. How exactly did he know that my eyes are frequently itchy (they weren't while I was in Malaysia) or figure that singing lessons (which I'd been fantasizing about) would be good for me? I was sold. My Chinese spa "prescription" was to include a t'ui na massage and cupping, but Lee first conducted an energy clearing ritual, passing smoke up and down my body, acknowledging the forces of the East, West, North, and South. Then he sent me on my way.

I'm familiar with acupuncture and understood that t'ui na massage focuses on energy meridians. However, the reality of not following the musculoskeletal lines of my spine initially made me wonder just how effective this, my first t'ui na massage, was going to be. Well, when I woke up, I felt like a new person – so much more clear, energized but calm. Then we were on to cupping, which, I confess, still has me puzzled. For this treatment, the therapist fills a small glass cup with smoke from a bundle of herbs; the suction created between the warmed edge and the skin is said to aid circulation and increase energy flow. I think I was already going with the flow by this point, so perhaps this was unnecessary icing on the cake. Lee had invited me back for a chat when my treatments were complete, and so I visited briefly, having a cup of his chicken soup to round out my afternoon.

Soon after, my new calm took a hike as I set out with my traveling companions for a last-chance jungle trek. Our guide was a lovely Balinese massage therapist (all of the spa personnel seemed to have multiple tasks) who gamely followed a path she had never been on but that had been arduously groomed by the resort for guests. Good thing. In this dense setting, it seemed like anything that hit the ground sprouted instantly to begin its vigorous quest to reach the sunlight above the high canopy of trees. We safely arrived at our destination, the beach at Emerald Bay, in time for a quick swim before dinner, hitching a ride back to our rooms in one of the many Land Rovers roaming the property.

That last night, strolling the quiet grounds of the resort and along the water's edge, the harmony of Malaysia came to mind. For the entire trip, bows and gestures from the heart had welcomed us as strangers, day and night, and smiles greeted at every turn. Life was everywhere – growing, changing, and sharing its gifts, reaching up into the sky and swinging from its branches. What a great place to spa.

© 2013 World Publications, LLC


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