KUANTAN - There was no Santa on a sleigh but rescue workers on a helicopter. That, to a family of French tourists, was the best Christmas present as they were airlifted to safety from the severely-flooded Taman Negara.
Valentine Pons, 17, is not likely to forget her family's nerve-wracking yet heartwarming experience at the inundated Mutiara Taman Negara Resort, with electricity out and tables and chairs floating around.
The teenager said she arrived at the park for a vacation with her brother Max, 12, and parents Jerome and Dominique Blariaux on Dec 22 and they were scheduled to return to Kuala Lumpur on Christmas Eve.
"The first sign of trouble came when the road to the hotel was flooded.
"However, with the boat the resort provided, we assumed this happened often during the monsoon season.
"It was the next morning when the hotel's mini-market was flooded and the restaurant in critical danger of being so that we and other guests began to worry.
"The real panic started about late morning when there was a clear metre of water in the restaurant and the kitchen was declared unusable. Tables and chairs started to float around while gas canisters and bags of litter passed by," she said in an interview via e-mail yesterday.
Pons said the hotel then decided that an evacuation was necessary as there was little food left and with the electricity out, the generator would not last forever.
Unfortunately, the Fire and Rescue Department could not make it that afternoon as Pons later learned that they had been evacuating those in the villages nearby.
"The next morning, everyone was worried. The mini-market was almost submerged and the water was now reaching the rooms. We had no food left and the generator was showing signs of stress.
"Tourists and the hotel management got organised and called the fire brigade to request to be evacuated.
"At lunchtime, they arrived with food for everyone and a plan of evacuation; everyone would be taken by boat to a nearby boarding school where there would be enough space for a helicopter to land and airlift us out," she said.
Pons said hope returned as they were all taken safely across the river to high ground but the helicopter was unable to fly due to weather conditions.
She said the school principal allowed all 103 tourists to sleep in the boarding rooms while the Fire and Rescue Department and the school staff provided them with food and water.
"My family slept in a room alongside another family of four with the promise that we would all be evacuated by helicopter the next morning - Christmas Day," she said.
The next day, anxiety hit the group as another 50 tourists had been evacuated from another hotel and they feared that it was unlikely that some 150 people could leave in one helicopter.
"The fireman in charge reacted swiftly. The arrival of a second helicopter mid-afternoon, a military helicopter able to carry more people, truly reassured everyone.
"My family was so happy! This was the best Christmas present ever!" Pons said.
She said seeing the devastation from the sky saddened them and highlighted the goodwill and excellent work of the department in such difficult conditions.
Blariaux said their experience would not deter them from visiting Malaysia again.
"The help we received made us feel safe and welcome so we will come back," he said.