one man, a vision, an almost two decade-long commitment to a dream... terrapuri represents all that, and more. occupying a plot of land at the end of idyllic pantai penarik, terrapuri is so discreet - walled up like a fort - that people have driven past and missed it, not expecting anything more than a sleepy fishing village and a rickety jetty from where boats take visitors on fireflies tours along sungai penarik. the story goes that a local man, who had read about terrapuri in an inflight magazine while flying home to kuala terengganu, hopped into a taxi upon landing and directed the driver to help him locate the resort, because he simply did not believe that it existed there and that he, as a local, did not know about it.
dreams and destiny
terrapuri had very quiet beginnings - it had existed for close to two decades only in the mind of alex lee, founder and owner of ping anchorage travel & tours, the biggest tour operator in the east coast. as a young boy growing up in terengganu, alex had always admired the beautiful, intricate architecture of the traditional kampung houses that used to be everywhere. he also saw how they were being demolished to make way for modern housing. it's imperative that someone should keep the heritage alive, alex thought to himself, and that someone was him.
the self-taught entrepreneur left school at a young age and by 19 was running his own guest house (converted from his grandfather's sundry shop) near the marang jetty where tourists would board ferries to the nearby resort islands of redang and lang tengah. he may not have seen much of the world himself then, but through the guests travelling through, alex learnt all about what travellers want. from there he began sowing the seeds for his tour agency and when he had the money, he began to buy up the old wooden houses that families were abandoning. the structures were carefully taken apart and each piece dutifully marked to indicate their original placement. the wooden pieces were then kept in an open space, but protected by zinc coverage. few, if any, could understand what alex could possibly want with old houses broken down into lego-like pieces; most simply thought he was being eccentric or downright crazy. but what others didn't, or couldn't, see then was a vision that had already formed in alex's head: that of a heritage village, which would showcase the traditional malay architecture of terengganu and give visitors a glimpse into the days of yore while admiring the elaborate carvings and woodwork of old-time artisans.
after nearly two decades, alex felt ready to realise this vision - and make those who called him crazy eat their words - but one important thing stood in his way: he did not have a suitable location to build his dream village cum boutique resort. until one fine day, while driving along pantai penarik, a 'for sale' sign by the road caught his attention. sitting on a quiet stretch with plenty of coconut trees - standing tall but bent towards the south china sea and looking towards the resort islands, lining up along the crescent beach - the land was perfect. alex got out of his car, grabbed the signboard and stuffed it into his car boot so on one else would see it. there was nothing more that could stand in the way of him realising his half a lifelong dream.
rebuilding a palace
from that point on, it was another four years before terrapuri welcomed its first paying guests. while the process of getting there was not without its challenges - it was imperative to find the right tukang (craftsmen) who understand the ancient architecture and could reassemble the houses to their original forms - it also seemed that many things just fell neatly into place, as if they were meant to.
the name terrapuri, for example, is sanskrit for land of the palaces, an appropriate moniker given that, as it happens, most of the 20-odd houses that alex managed to salvage had once belonged to palace officials. correspondingly, the layout of terrapuri is modelled after that of a 17th-century palace but even more tellingly, before the village resort opened, an unexpected guest came knocking on its doors. although terrapuri was still a work-in-progress at the time (though near completion), they welcomed him in and subsequently, he hosted an event there, becoming the village resort's first ever guest. and he was none other than tuanku mizan zainal abidin, the sultan of terengganu and at the time, also the 13th yang di-pertuan agong of malaysia. a rebuilt palace for a current king - if alex needed any assurance that terrapuri would not be a wasted effort, that was it.
terrapuri was planned as a two-phase project; the first was opened in june 2011 with 14 guest villas, a courtyard pavilion and a swimming pool, the only modern addition. all the other structures were restored homes, at least 100 years old (some are as old as 250 years old), faithfully rebuilt down to the rituals traditionally performed by homeowners in the days of yore to bless the occupants of the house. alex and his team did all the necessary homework to find out, from each home owner, exactly what those rituals were - some included planting bottles of blessed oils under the house, others had conducted chants and prayers - and replicated them.
while staying true to the structure and facade, the houses have been given a contemporary uplift within, fitted with all the amenities you can count on a modern-day resort to provide: hot water, a soaking tub, air-conditioning, coffee & tea making facilities, rain shower and a fridge. the furniture though, still harks back to more olden times and then there are the little kampung-style touches, such as mosquito net (after all, you are surrounded by natural settings so yes, they are in abundant and are pretty vicious), sarong and pandanus house slippers.
each house is named after the kampung in which they were originally located and if they all look the same at a glance, that's because the wood had all been treated and polished to achieve the same silver sheen. one amazing fact about all these houses is that, true to the ancient architectural form known as pasak, not a single nail was used in their construction. instead, the wooden pieces were sawed and shaped to precise measurements so that they would lock into place securely.
in the middle of the village, a cluster of six similar houses have been repurposed into the sesayap courtyard, housing shared facilities for all guests - a reading room, a shop selling local arts and crafts, a dining pavilion - and underneath them were a motley antiques that included musical instruments, kitchen tools and other items you would only expect to see in a museum. breakfast is served on the verandahs of the houses and other meals at sesayap, where makciks from the nearby kampung dish up authentic, homecooked style dishes. another building is the boat house, and that sits outside of the resort, on the beachfront just a dash outside its main gates.
the landscaping offers interesting insights into local history and heritage as well: between sesayap and the pool is a water installation named kisaran semangat (the mill of will), which stacks traditional malay stone food grinders on top of cement columns to varying heights, and let the water cascade gently from each, to represent the cycles of life. it was created by celebrated malaysian watercolour artist and a friend of alex's, fellow terengganu boy, chang fee ming.
another small but appreciative touch of art is terrapuri's logo, by creative director onn soon - owner/founder of studio mmcmm, the creatives behind the current malaysian currency design - based on the langkasuka concept of gunungan (mountains) to reflect its palatial history, and references mount meru. it also symbolises high society, prosperity and graphically, is a welcome arch.
earlier this year, terrapuri launched its second phase, completing the picture with more villas (they now number 20) and also a spa. alex has plans to introduce more heritage experiences to his guests by having traditional arts performances on the grounds. as it is now, guests of terrapuri can sign up for ping anchorage's extensive list of tours and packages to explore terengganu's rich history, arts and architecture as well as that of neighbouring kelantan.
for now, first-time guests to terrapuri have enough to feast their senses on from the moment your ride reaches pantai penarik, after passing scenes of bucolic villages and that of a simple lifestyle. walk about the premises studying the architecture and details, soak in the lap pool to take it all in while listening to the soothing gurgles from chang fee ming's installation, feast on local delights and at night, retire into the comforts of a centennial villa in a modern-day palace.