Malaysia sunset cocktail cruise: Sailing the Andaman Sea on a hand-made schooner

Alas, it could have been a classic case of "red sails on the sunset", except that the spinnakers on the Naga Pelangi, whistling in the gentle breeze wafting across the Andaman Sea, are more the colour of salmon, faded, clearly, by the unrelenting south-east Asian light.

But those once-red, unmistakably Asian spinnakers, do lend some agreeable authenticity to this hand-built junk schooner as she passes across a narrow channel between northernmost Malaysia and southernmost Thailand. In a few hours the colour of those sails will begin to merge with the first pink puffs of dusk, though in the meantime, they offer a strident contrast to the blue sky, unblemished by cloud, above us.

I'm aboard this 30-metre replica Malaysian schooner, known in Malay as a "perahu besar", meaning "big boat", on a sunset cocktail cruise. Sunset cocktail cruises, of course, are a dime – make that ringgit – a dozen but this one is special. The boat was crafted on Duyong Island in the Islamic sultanate of Terengganu on the country's far north-east coast, a part of Malaysia known for the country's most famous traditional boatyards.

The Naga Pelangi ("rainbow dragon") was built in 2009 by a German, Christoph Swoboda, eager to bolster a dying craft in this part of the world. It's chartered each year for pleasure cruises between December 1 and April 30 by the Datai, the premier resort on Langkawi, archipelago just shy of 100 islands in north-west Malaysia.

The Datai was designed more than two decades ago by the Australian architect Kerry Hill. This refined, five-star resort is nestled inconspicuously in a 10 million-year-old rainforest. From the airy, open-sided lobby of the resort, high on a jungle-clad hill, you can see Thailand and its farthest-flung islands scattered along its southern extremities with the nearest Thai island being seven kilometres from the coast of Langkawi.

Below the resort, as it cascades down to the sea, is a crescent-shaped bay considered by many to contain one of the finest stretches of sandy beaches in all of south-east Asia. Many a resort claims to be eco but the Datai is the real deal, as they say, thanks largely to the integrity of Hill's original design which sought to preserve as much of the existing jungle as possible.

The Naga Pelangi, therefore, is a logical extension of the Datai's commitment to its setting and environment, with the resort also offering a selection of world-class nature tours, many of which are conducted within the richly biodiverse confines of the Datai itself.

Schooners of the Naga Pelangi type have been sailing these waters for centuries. It's fashioned from chengal, a hard, heavy and durable wood found only in Malaysia with the Naga Pelangi one of the last boats of its kind to emerge from the Terengganu shipyards.  With most of the craftsmen now in their 70s, their skills are likely to soon die with them.

It will be the end of an era spanning centuries. When Malacca, the now World Heritage-listed maritime city in southern Malaysia, became the centre of the spice trade, the Malay Peninsula become a seafaring epicentre, drawing Europeans, Chinese, Arabs and Indians to this corner of south-east Asia and providing a major boost to the Malay's boatbuilding industry.

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The Naga Pelangi and boats like it are a marvel of construction. It contains not a single nail with wooden-boat building in Malaysia boasting a pedigree of thousands of years. Each boat crafted at the Terengganu shipyards was built without plans, the shipwrights relying only on the knowledge passed through the generations with the hull made first followed by the frame and the rest of the vessel.

Back on the boat, after an hour or so sailing close to the mostly uninhabited islands of southern Thailand, interspersed with imposing karst-like rock formations rising up from the sea, drinks and canapes are served by white-suited waiters who have come aboard from the Datai. There's little more to do than sit back, relax and watch as the setting sun gradually transforms into a giant flaming wok on the horizon.

When we eventually return to Datai Bay the last light of the day has been all but snuffed out, those salmon-coloured sails now an inky silhouette against the darkness enveloping us. I'd really have loved to spend the night aboard, were it possible, even if meant forgoing the luxury of my salubrious Datai beach villa back on shore.

But it's time to disembark as I marvel one last time at the virtual invisibility of the resort, just as Kerry Hill designed it. All I can see are the first twinkling lights, like oversized fireflies, of the evening emerging home to a menagerie of primates, reptiles and birdlife (and a whole lot of contented human house guests).

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

tourismmalaysia.com.au

STAYING THERE

Doubles start from MYR1400 plus taxes in a Canopy Deluxe Room in the main wing of the resort. Phone +60 4 9500 500; see thedatai.com

CRUISING THERE

Cruises on the Naga Pelangi, booked through the Datai, start from RM450 per adult for the featured sunset cocktail cruise from 5 pm to 8 pm. Deluxe private charters from 10 am until 8 pm start from RM7000 per charter. Cruises continue until the end of April and resume thereafter from December 1.

GETTING THERE

Malaysia Airlines operates regular flights from Sydney and Melbourne to Kuala Lumpur. See malaysiaairlines.com. Air Asia operates frequent connecting flights from Kuala Lumpur and other airports, including Penang, to Langkawi. See airasia.com

Anthony Dennis was a guest of Tourism Malaysia, The Datai, Malaysia Airlines and Air Asia.

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