By SeeFoon Chan-Koppen
Magical, whimsical, stunning, creative, and certainly Happy, are words that come to mind when one is called upon to describe the Happy 8 retreats in Perak. Even these descriptions fail to convey the sense of awe and wonderment I felt on arriving in Kuala Sepetang in search of the Happy 8 Retreat.
In search was the operative word as there is no signage, no arrows, no indication whatsoever as to the location of this wondrous retreat but as Kuala Sepetang is such a tiny village, it wasn’t long before I spied the eagle perched on top of a brown wooden building with a large number 8 sign beside its feet. Manager Shirllay Cheong had given me clear instructions to look out for it.
Meticulous planning, careful orchestration and creative flair
Then the confusion began. The large banner emblazoned across the front said Makanan Laut Kang Kao and underneath across the open entrance…a sign saying…Fish Dealers! So I called Shirllay again for help, only to be told to walk straight through the Fish Dealer’s entrance.
Hesitantly, I proceeded and as I passed a fisherman on my left cleaning a tank full of freshly caught squid, Shirllay came out and led me into the lobby lounge of the Happy 8 at Kuala Sepetang, relieved that I had passed my obstacle course of sorts.
Alice in Wonderland Setting
Once inside the Happy 8 Retreat which was opened early this year, I felt like Alice in Wonderland, as everywhere I looked, there were wonderful sights created by a team of artisans from the stand alone pieces of art like the fish chandeliers made from wooden fish traps; to the handpainted walls, doors and even floors, all painstakingly created by hand and almost defy word descriptions.
Perched on the banks of the Sungai Sepetang, the Happy 8 Retreat has 34 rooms, each uniquely themed, nestled in the midst of the well-known fishing village of Kuala Sepetang. Here, the retreat can arrange eco-tours to watch the fireflies of Kampung Dew, dolphins around the Matang area, visit the Matang Mangrove swamps and watch migratory birds or even feed the eagles which abound in a nearby location. A charcoal factory, fish and cockle farms nearby provide more tourist activities. For couch potatoes like myself, the retreat itself provides ample options to chill and relax. One can sit on the terrace and enjoy the magnificent sunsets, watch the fishing boats unloading the catch of the day or simply admire the artefacts dotted around the retreat. The night I spent in Kuala Sepetang, I had the pleasure of sleeping in a room where the bed is a converted old fishing sampan, reinforced to support a comfortable mattress.
Passion for Wood
The same sense of wonder is even more prevalent in the other two accommodation options in Ipoh, the one in Old Town on Jalan Market and the other in Pasir Putih in Jalan Shah Bandar in Taman Happy. Only pictures can convey to the reader how winsome and appealing these individual pieces of art and design are, calling for attention from the moment one steps through the portals of these three places.
Owner and proprietor Tan Kai Lek, a most unassuming man and almost media shy, who owns and runs one of the largest wood work and furniture manufacturing factories in Ipoh, called Bukit Merah Wood Products Sdn Bhd, told me that he had been collecting old wood for a very long time. Added to his passion is the serendipity of having skilled Nepalese paint artisans and Indonesian wood carvers in his factory and the idea for the Happy 8 retreats was born.
Happy 8 at Pasir Putih
The first of these is a 5-room guest house in Pasir Putih, which opened in 2012. Situated in a quiet enclave in Happy Garden in Pasir Putih, Tan put his creative mind to work and with his team of artisans, painted, carved and developed an enchanting hideaway that is as tranquil as it is exciting. Two horses in Bas Relief greet one just inside the main gate. Inside the converted bungalow, painted art murals adorn the walls (including the air conditioners!) exuding a tropical ambiance; while outdoor showers in the en suite bathrooms provide a connection with the elements in total privacy. In one bathroom, painted tropical foliage adorn the walls while a wooden bathtub carved from a solid piece of wood, takes centre stage. Wooden doors, intricately carved in bas relief and finished in paint for spectacular effect lead into the bedrooms. Small groups of up to 15 people (with additional mattresses which can be arranged) can be accommodated here for meetings. According to Shirllay, this retreat is very popular with foreign guests who fall in love with the pictures they see of the retreat online, as I’m sure some of our readers will do so here on this page.
Happy 8 at Old Town
Happy 8 in Old Town with 13 rooms each with its own unique theme, opened in the third quarter of 2013, in a converted shophouse on Market street, in the area known for its heritage buildings. A giant painting of a fat fish on the floor greeted me as I stepped through two magnificent slabs of highly buffed natural wood which frame the entrance. The legend on the fish is a very quaint one. The fish is named ‘Yasoh’ a term Tan had picked up in China which is used often when one is happy. The fish symbol was developed for the Yasoh expression by Tan and his team and the ‘mother’ fish greets guests at the entrance while the ‘father’ fish guards the rear of the building. Guests are also invited to pick up a souvenir of their stay by taking one of the small baby ‘Yasohs’ which are miniatures of the same fish, hand painted on seeds of the Ipoh Tree. Who can resist a happiness souvenir like this? And a memento of Ipoh to boot.
Treasure Trove of Delights
Happy 8 in Old Town is a treasure trove of delights. Recycling has been done with verve and flair, from using the old zinc roof slabs and converting them into dazzling works of art to painting exhaust funnels in colourful stripes to become part of the decor; to stand alone art pieces made with old wood and banister handrails made with gnarled roots from trees felled in Falim. Even the old banister from a 200-year-old house has been framed on the wall in the lobby to become part of the decor.
The decor is totally eclectic, with everything hand hewn, etched, carved, painted and created with great care and attention. And it all pulls together. Not a single item feels out of place; every eccentricity charming and whimsical and every piece tells a story.
Visitors and guests can spend hours just looking, touching and feeling the ambiance of this hospitality charmer, sitting right smack in the middle of Old Town Ipoh. And to top off the experience, to sit in the cafe and sample the many delectable sweet and savoury treats on offer.
Happy 8 rates for Old Town and Pasir Putih begin at RM288 per night during the week and increasing by RM100 per room category on weekends and public holidays while rates at Kuala Sepetang begin at RM268 for the rooms with no view and with the same weekend and public holiday surcharges. Rooms with balconies and views go for higher rates and family rooms sleeping four are also available. All rooms are en suite, have tea and coffee making facilities, satellite TV, free Wi-Fi and rates are inclusive of breakfast.For reservations:Ipoh Main: 05 243 8388GM Shirllay Cheong: 016 5214 353Happy 8 @ Kuala Sepetang (N 4° 50.117’ E 100° 37.655’): 05 858 2188Happy 8 @ Pasir Putih (N 4° 34.835’ E 101° 4.744’)8 Jalan Shah Bandar, Taman Happy, 32650 Ipoh.Happy 8 @ Ipoh Old Town (N 4° 35.731’ E 101° 4.707’)46 Jalan Market, 30000 Ipoh.