After 30 years, this Aussie-designed resort is still one of Asia’s best

Travel News from Stuff - 22-05-2023
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A raucous, squabbling guard of honour lines the roadsides of Langkawi, welcoming me to Malaysia’s northern archipelago.

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With sharp eyes and sharper fangs, this army of athletic macaques swarm the branches above us, ambushing rubbish bins and lounging on parked cars at Langkawi’s popular beauty spots.

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They are the advance party for a parade of wildlife and nature experiences on the island.

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Through villages of red, purple, green and yellow houses, we drive north-west past rice paddies and beaches, until the 10 million-year-old rainforest stops being simply the backdrop and takes its rightful place as the jewel of Langkawi.

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We’re heading to The Datai, one of Malaysia’s top hotels, a title it retains even as it celebrates its 30th birthday in 2023.

A large part of its success should be laid at the feet of the late, great Australian architect Kerry Hill, a master of tropical architecture. Instead of carving up the jungle to accommodate the hotel, he wove the 121-room property into the landscape, so that the view from the foyer is of rainforest, with glimpses of a serene pool, a path to a spa, veiled villas and little roads plied by silent electric buggies running guests to the sea, to the restaurants, to the Nature Centre or the sustainability hub.

My villa is set in the mid-levels of the rainforest, so when I step out onto my balcony, I’m in a forest of straight, moss-covered trunks that glitter with raindrops. Steamy, dark and fecund, I know there to be eyes on me.

“Don’t leave anything on the balcony,” warns my butler. “And don’t leave your doors open.” The macaques, apparently, party like rock stars, and don’t clean up after themselves.

At first light the next morning, I take a dip in Datai Bay, sharing the tepid waters with Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins, who also swim this stretch of the Andaman Sea between Langkawi and Thai island, Koh Tarutao.

On the steep walk back up the hill to the lobby and its frog-filled pond, a giant, sunbathing monitor is on show, while the spa is hidden among palms, fig trees and tangled rattan vines.

A pair of endangered oriental pied hornbills flits past, settling in their favourite tree to preen. Do they choose this tree because everyone in the main restaurant can see them? Do they enjoy distracting us from our food, cameras whipped out to snap these vain, avian celebrities?

Dragonflies flash and dive, a violet butterfly hovers in a patch of sunlight to reveal his beauty to his mate. The rainforest sings to me; cicadas by day, crickets by night. I cannot but fall under the Datai’s spell.

That night, I meet conservation team member Dev Abdullah in the open-air Gulai House restaurant, hidden deep in the forest. We order roti, rice and Malaysian chicken curry and discuss the hotel’s aim to achieve carbon neutrality. It’s one of the Datai’s many conservation projects, guided by a pledge to protect the 750 hectares of rainforest the group has custody over.

Malaysian conservationist and naturalist Irshad Mobarak established the Datai’s conservation program, with its night walks, the 15-metre-high canopy rainforest walk and boardwalks over mangroves, where I spy walking fish, playful sea otters and flying squirrels.

And there’s so much I am yet to see: pythons sleeping in the sun, the colugos – big-eyed flying lemurs. One apparently was sitting beside the entrance of the Datai’s excellent Thai restaurant, The Pavilion, which keen-eyed wildlife photographer Peter Ong spotted while he was waiting for me and whose work is on display at the hotel.

Our conversation weaves between Malaysia’s shy dusky langurs, who were poached to near extinction for their enchanting golden babies, of rare clouded leopards and sunbirds, who on live sips of sweet nectar.

“Our last Sumatran rhino died in 2019,” says Ong, “and Malaysia has 26 primates that are largely undocumented. Most Malaysians can’t tell the difference between a hornbill and a toucan, so I’m trying to photograph and document our wildlife.”

The next morning, my car trip to the airport is sweetened by the soundtrack of birdsong recorded at the Datai. I can’t name any of them, and it reminds me of Ong’s rhetorical question last night.

“We’re so quick to send man to the moon, but what’s in our backyard?”

The moon or the Datai? I’ll take the Datai, thanks.

Wildlife photographer Peter Ong will display his work at the Datai as part of its 30th anniversary celebrations. See:

Join one of the guided nature experiences at the Datai or cruise through the Unesco-listed geopark with Junglewalla, headed by conservationist Irshad Mobarak. See:

Villa stays at The Datai Langkawi from $1181 a night. See

Malaysia Airlines operates non-stop daily flights from Auckland to Kuala Lumpur. Singapore Airlines operates multiple flights from Christchurch to Kuala Lumpur with a stopover in Singapore. It’s a one-hour connecting flight to Langkawi International Airport. See: ;

Flying generates carbon emissions. To reduce your impact, consider other ways of travelling, amalgamate your trips, and when you need to fly, consider offsetting emissions.

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