COLMAR TROPICALE - The intensity of the monsoon rain is having a bad effect on the geraniums in the window boxes, making the flowers droop. A shutter slams shut on one of the half-timbered, tile-roofed houses on the cobblestoned street with its two burbling fountains.
In the "boulangerie" (bakery) you can have croissants, pains au chocolat and café au lait. Alsatian "choucroute" (sauerkraut) and "flammekueche" (a type of pizza with cheese, cream and onions) are on the menu at the La Cigogne (stork) restaurant.
Two young Asian women dressed in traditional Alsatian garb giggle as they greet visitors with a “Bienvenue” in French, followed by "Selamat datang" (welcome) the greeting of their native language – Malay.
"Incroyable!" says a French tourist about this cloned Alsatian village in the middle of the Malaysian jungle – in the Berjaya Hills, 50 kilometers from the capital Kuala Lumpur. And it’s by no means a cheap imitation – on the contrary, it’s an exorbitantly expensive copy, its roof tiles and building stones all imported from France.
During the monsoon season, there are short but heavy daily downpours and the Europeans are sweating from the 27°C temperature and 80% humidity. Malaysians on the other hand find the 800-meter altitude refreshingly cool compared to the searing heat of the city. Orchids grow like weeds around here, but vineyards like the ones around Colmar in France would never take here.
Just how did this bizarre bit of Euro-fakery come to be, 10,100 kilometers from the original Colmar in Alsace, France? Legend has it that on a trip to Europe, former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and his wife were so taken by romantic Colmar was that they persuaded a billionaire friend, Vincent Tan, ninth richest man in Malaysia at the time, to build a version of it in Malaysia. Led by French architect Jean Cassou, the result is a theme park with 235 hotel rooms. Every Saturday there is a market with a carousel and Chinese acrobats. Every night they have karaoke. And loudspeakers are constantly droning Asian pop.
Authenticity has its limits in other ways as well – for example, the "Tour de l'Horloge" (clock tower) is based on the one in the little Alsatian town of Riquewihr and so has nothing to do at all with Colmar. And what is that quaint German cuckoo clock doing here? Meanwhile the "charcuterie" that was supposed to sell typical Alsatian pork-based cold cuts was swiftly replaced by "Le Poulet rôti" selling roast chicken that was more in line with what Malaysians – who are Muslim – would go for.
Malaysia’s own medieval castle
Billionaire Tan also built a copy of the "Haut-Koenigsbourg" Alsatian castle on a hill nearby, but then again he can afford to – he is the founder of the Berjaya Corporation Berhad that has the franchise for McDonald's, Starbucks and Hyundai cars dealerships in Malaysia and also owns hotels, an airline, and a TV station.
Colmar Tropicale is a favorite destination for Malaysian families, who love the accommodation in the half-timbered houses – many rooms have four-poster beds with canopies. The still-powerful former Prime Minister likes to come for outings here with his family on weekends, and particularly loves the boulangerie. He told local newspaper The Sun that the Malaysian Colmar “is like a real French village, so to have that experience people in Malaysia don’t need to go to France.”
Meanwhile, the tropical Haut-Koenigsbourg with its towers and battlements last year became "The Chateau," Malaysia’s first “spa and organic wellness resort.” Children are not welcome here. The establishment has a salt-water swimming pool, Islamic prayer rooms, and a 2,000 square meter spa area. The restaurant has a French chef and serves French organic wines but also freshly squeezed fruit juices.
Asians particularly like "Le Chateau" but it’s also a hit with Middle Eastern guests. Jordanian Princess Yasmine was just here for a couple of weeks. The hotel guest-book also shows that a French family vacationed here – perhaps also drawn by the fact that speaking French is taken very seriously by the management.
Teh Ming Wah, the hotel’s CEO, worked for a long time in Europe and she insists that the staff learn at least some French. It’s about providing “European spa quality and Asian friendliness in a French chateau.” So once a week guest relations manager José gathers the staff together to run through some basics, such as bienvenue, bonjour, madame, monsieur, s'il vous plait and merci.
Curiously the products used at the spa don’t come from France. For relaxation, "Voya" algae products from Ireland and German "Sante" and "Logona Naturkosmetik" are used. And no matter how hard the gardeners in the Chateau garden try, the lavender – like those geraniums in the window boxes down in the village – just doesn’t do well in this climate.
Still: the tropical Alsace is so quirky it’s also a great place for Europeans to head for.