There was a time when, right up to the mid 1980s, Langkawi was a nobody of an island. Phuket had tourists and James Bond. Langkawi had monitor lizards, some pirates and seven generations of bad luck to ride out, thanks to ‘Mahsuri’s Curse’ – cast by a noblewoman wrongfully executed for adultery in the 18th century.
Coincidentally or not, with the birth of her seventh descendant and then-and-now Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad declaring the island a duty-free zone in 1986, its luck seemed to turn around. Word spread about how beautiful its beaches and natural scenery – ancient rainforest, prehistoric mountains, spectacular mangrove forests – were. Hotel and resort operators came knocking – then digging and excavating to turn Langkawi into one of Malaysia’s top resort destinations.
In 1993, possibly the first mover into the luxury resort scene was The Datai – with its vantage spot on the northwest tip of the island overlooking the pristine beaches of Datai Bay on one side, and the 10-million-year-old rainforest on the other.
The commissioned architect at the time was the late acclaimed Australian designer Kerry Hill who fell in love with the beach locale. And then he confounded everybody when he decided to locate the resort smack within the rainforest where mouse deer and dusky leaf monkeys roam, and people – somewhere else.
An eco-warrior before his time, Hill was adamant about not disturbing the neighbours (although the macaque monkeys may have lodged a protest), using only elephant-felled trees instead of heavy machinery and ensuring that the sprawling complex blended seamlessly into the forest. The resort is so understated that aerial views of the property barely reveal a glimpse of roofs peeking out of a thick green blanket.
Hill was somewhat influenced by his Sri Lankan friend Geoffrey Bawa – whose philosophy of nature dictating architecture and not the other way around he would repeat with subsequent Aman properties. But The Datai was special, and he left behind a legacy that is fiercely protected by those running the resort today.
The one leading the push to revitalize the 25-year-old property – which was starting to look and feel its age – is current general manager Arnaud Girodon, who set out to “refresh the spaces whilst maintaining the signature Datai DNA”.
The fruits of the 12-month, US$60 million complete makeover can now be seen in all its quietly resplendent glory as the resort welcomes guests during its soft opening phase that lasts till the end of January. All 121 of its rooms and villas – not to mention the expansive lobby, restaurants, spa and nature-watching facilities – are designed for relaxing and extended forest-gazing. Although you can still be dazzled by some of the man-made stuff – namely the massive 3500 sq metre Datai Estate Villa with five bedrooms, full butler service, private chef and two connected pools.
Besides making things new again, the refurbishment also marked a reunion of sorts – with several of the original Datai team returning to re-ignite the original magic.
The main man has to be French interior designer Didier Lefort, who can be seen right up to the wee hours carefully monitoring every last bit of drilling, sanding and furniture placement during this soft opening. He was Hill’s (who succumbed to cancer in August 2018) right hand man during the Datai’s original construction and is now recreating his role with the same passion as before. Fun fact: the giant wooden horse statues in the lobby were his idea 25 years ago, when he convinced the resort owners and PM Mahathir himself, that horses would be more elegant than the buffalos they originally wanted. Lefort found the horse statues by accident in a Mumbai market, and they’ve been guarding the lobby ever since.
Behind the physical beauty, what really makes Datai unique is its connection to nature. A walking personification of it is resident naturalist Irshad Mobarak – who left his banking job about 25 years and now devotes his life to the non-human residents of the rainforest.
Mobarak has also been at The Datai from the beginning, taking guests on nature walks (a must) and training their eyes to spot everything from geckos to flying lemurs.
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Experiencing nature in luxury
A simple night stroll with him is proof that outside of your luxurious air conditioned cocoon is a living jungle teeming with wildlife. It doesn’t take long for you to squeal at the sight of a flying lemur or colugo gliding through the air to a nearby tree for your entertainment. We can’t tell the difference between a colugo or a flying squirrel but the critters are certainly having an active night out. The geckos are out too – big fat lizards plastered to your villa roof, announcing its presence with a distinctive “Eh Oh” call.
In the daytime, you might encounter a mouse deer on your morning jog, spot dolphins in the bay, avoid a bunch of gangster macaques squabbling outside your window, or mistake a monitor lizard for a big rock. And why bother trekking through the forest to go birdwatching when you can find Oriental Pied Hornbills squawking for their mates from the trees flanking the main swimming pool while you’re having sunset cocktails?
The only drawback to all this is that you need to keep your villa doors closed if you don’t want anyone other than housekeeping to come in.
You can always find out more at the spanking new Nature Centre where you’ll find a library of reading material on local wildlife. And you can also make arrangements to visit the Permaculture Garden – the heart of the resort’s conservation activity where all food waste is composted and used to grow vegetables, and non food waste is recycled.
After which you can chill out with herbal teas designed by Dr Ghani – a well known local physician who’s also a leading expert in Malay herbal medicine. Also a Datai pioneer, the western-trained doctor has written books about the less well-known practice of Ramuan – the Malay version of Ayurveda or Chinese TCM – and is working with the spa team to incorporate these principles into its holistic treatments.
There’s an international option too, in the form of mani/ pedis by the famed Bastien Gonzalez, or Swiss-based, TCM-inspired skincare by Phyto5.
At The Datai, there is a lot to do, and there is also nothing to do, if you choose. But whatever you pick, there are staff with lovely temperaments to help you, well-executed cuisine to satiate you and an overriding sense of calm and joy to envelope you. If Mahsuri’s curse has really lifted, maybe The Datai magic had something to do with it.
The writer was a guest of The Datai Langkawi. For more information, visit www.thedatai.com. For reservations, email firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was originally published in The Business Times.