The soft voice of Charles Trenet sounds from loudspeakers, past colorful half-timbered houses with bay windows and turrets. "La Mer..." sings the singer. People stroll over the cobblestones, the scent of crispy croissants wafts from a boulangerie. Typical France, one might think - if it weren't for the monsoon rains and the jungle all around. The solution to the riddle lies in Malaysia. An hour's drive northeast of the capital Kuala Lumpur is a replica of the World Heritage town of Colmar in Alsace. The apt name of the clone in the rainforest: Colmar Tropicale.
Malaysia's ex-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (97) had the bizarre idea. After a trip to Europe, he was so enthusiastic about the town's charm that in the 1990s he persuaded his friend, billionaire and property developer Vincent Tan, to bring the idyll to Asia and finance a "little Colmar" in the jungle of the Berjaya Hills.
A kind of theme park with restaurants, cafés and a resort with 235 hotel rooms was created according to the plans of the French architect Jean Cassou. A replica of the famous Alsatian castle Haut-Koenigsbourg, which in real life is a good 25 kilometers from Colmar, is enthroned on the next hill.
Reproduction down to the last detail
From the patterned gabled roofs to the wooden balconies, from the colorful pastel facades to the decorative window shutters, from the flower boxes to the bistro tables, from the babbling fountains to the original French pastries - Colmar Tropicale is anything but a cheap imitation . And it's not some sort of Alsatian Disneyland either. Apart from the balmy equatorial air, the France illusion is almost perfect. At least for visitors who have never been to Europe.
"For us, this is a way to experience a different world without having to travel to France," says Nor Atikah Omar, a teacher from the southern state of Johor. She is there with her husband for the first time, on the recommendation of friends. There is a lot to see and the food is fantastic. "It's really a great tourist attraction," enthuses the 43-year-old.
But of course not everything is true to the original - that would have burst even the financial limits of a billionaire. "We tried to import material from the Adamswiller quarries, but that was too expensive," architect Cassou told French magazine L'Express during construction in 1998. "We had to be content with stones from India." The interior fittings were also mostly made in Malaysian homework.
Copy but don't compete
The then project manager Daniel Leong emphasized to "L'Express": "Our wish is not to compete with Alsace, but simply to copy Colmar as well as possible." Or in short: to conjure up the flair of the medieval occident in Malaysia. "For us, castles are a kind of myth," he said.
In 2000 the time had finally come: the Colmar imitation opened its doors and has been attracting visitors from near and far ever since. Political veteran Mahathir and billionaire Vincent Tan also travel from time to time to walk through their vision that has come true.
"At first I really felt like I was in France," says Al Fatah, who has been serving guests at the boulangerie for a year. He skillfully operates the lever of the coffee machine and conjures up a café au lait in the glass, accompanied by Edith Piaf's voice. And how is he feeling today? "As if I were in Malaysia," he laughs. "Colmar Tropicale is a one-off visit for most people and people love it," he says. About half of the guests come from Malaysia, the other half mostly from Arab countries as well as China and Russia, he says.
If you don't know the original, the copy actually seems coherent. On closer inspection, however, it becomes clear that something has been cheated: the makers decided to integrate several well-known sights from other Alsatian communities into tropical Colmar, such as the clock tower from Riquewihr and the watchtower from Kaysersberg.
At the entrance, just after the drawbridge, two motley parrots are crouching and waiting to be photographed with tourists. That doesn't really go with Alsace. It may also come as a surprise to find a "Starbucks" sign emblazoned on a half-timbered house with pink shutters. But that makes sense. And not only because there is also a branch in the real Colmar - but above all because the extremely wealthy Vincent Tan and his "Berjaya Group" have controlled the entire US café chain in Malaysia since 2014.