Malaysia’s beloved Langkawi archipelago, known as the ‘Jewel of Kedah,’ is best experienced at the ultra-private The Datai Langkawi resort, a five-star property surrounded by a vibrant, ancient rainforest.
Traveller: C. James Dale
Room: Rainforest Villa
Address: Jln Teluk Datai, 07000 Langkawi, Kedah, Malaysia
Date: February 2023
Price range: $1,050 per night for the low and shoulder season, $1,600 in the high season, and $2,500 during the Christmas/New Year period
Best for: A chance to connect with nature in a remote location that feels like another world – it’s a resort in such equilibrium that it quietly guides you to find your balance
Langkawi is one of Malaysia’s best-known holiday destinations. The archipelago – 99 islands at high tide and 104 at low tide – is located northwest of Peninsular Malaysia in the Andaman Sea, near the border with Thailand. The tropical getaway is Southeast Asia’s first UNESCO Geopark.
Within a short walk, you can find
All around you is rainforest, a 10-million-year-old ecosystem of 750 hectares filled with troops of monkeys, flocks of hornbills, and all manner of natural wonders. Stroll down a butterfly trail to the glorious beach, which stretches more than 1.6 kilometres. Nearby is the refreshing family pool, while the adults-only pool is perched on a hill by the main building and can be accessed by a charming (and challenging) grand stairway.
Claim to fame
The Datai Langkawi, owned by the Malaysian government’s investment arm, opened in 1993 and quickly built up a base of repeat visitors, some of whom have been visiting year after year for nearly three decades. The late, award-winning architect Kerry Hill brought his renowned touch to this 18.6-hectare property, setting the resort back from the beach so guests would feel enveloped by the lively jungle.
The resort underwent a year-long, US$60 million renovation in 2018 (led by original interior designer Didier Lefort) and threw open its doors from the end of 2018 until the COVID-19 pandemic slammed them shut. With travel back in full swing, new and old guests are back.
The rainforest itself is literally everywhere you turn. Guests can take guided tours around the property throughout the day to see creatures ranging from majestic white-bellied sea eagles in full flight, fruit bats feasting after dark under cover of large tropical leaves, and scorpions sequestered in stone walls.
Our Rainforest Villa captivated us even before we went inside, perched on a hill surrounded by trees. The 123-square-metre hideaway sits on stilts and is made of different types of balau wood. The bedroom walls are covered with jute, and a rattan hanging light fixture sits above the king-size bed, surrounded by more modern-looking mosquito netting. Nearby are two writing desks, while sconces on the walls nod to torches.
A daybed is placed against one wall, with enough room for two small children to sleep or one older child. The spacious bathroom has two vanities on the side walls and a deep tub against the back wall. The bathrobes are super silky, perfect to wear lounging inside or on the balcony overlooking the rainforest, the sounds of which can be heard even when the doors and windows are closed.
Rainforest Villa © The Datai Langkawi
The shampoo, body wash, and other products are part of the hotel’s ‘Calming’ line, designed by a Malaysian company using sustainable and organic ingredients. Juices, soft drinks, and beer are all included with the room charge, along with nature activities and non-motorised water sports equipment.
Beyond the rooms
Follow the signs to the beach area (or hail a golf buggy), and you may be reluctant to return. The Beach Club and Bar boast a casual atmosphere with a mixture of Asian and Western cuisine. During the day, staff will offer refreshing, fast-melting fruit sorbet in cones. After cooling off in the pool, you can sit in the sun on beach loungers and gaze at the shimmering waters that stretch to Thailand, just a short distance away. Burn off the calories by walking the long stretch of sand or grabbing a kayak to paddle out to a small, nearby island for a short escape.
The spa is hidden in the rainforest, just off the path between the villas and the beach. Various treatments are available, from hair styling to 90-minute facials to hours-long wellness journeys that tap into Malay wellness practices and involve rainforest walks, floral experiences, and herb-filled compresses.
Before my treatment, I sat in a chair sipping tea overlooking a winding stream, where a monitor lizard prowled the banks. I had limited time, so I opted for the famous ‘Kuat Massage,’ a relaxing, deep-tissue, sports-like massage designed to release toxins and improve circulation. I also decided against the usual spa music, instead listening to the sounds of the rainforest, from the chirping birds to the chattering monkeys.
Other treatments include manicures and pedicures, but with a difference. Under the guidance of podiatrist Bastien Gonzalez, the focus is on using products and tools to create a more natural look and avoid damaging nail polish.
The Spa © The Datai Langkawi
Dish to dine for
Daily breakfast is served in The Dining Room, with many options from granola and crepes to Southeast Asian and South Asian cuisine. As for the must-try dishes, it would have to be the melt-in-your-mouth beef rendang at The Gulai House, which is designed as a traditional Malay kampung house (and actually was moved entirely at one point during the resort’s history, piece by piece, from one part of the property to another).
Another meal worth ordering is the flavourful vegetarian massaman curry at Pavilion, the understated yet gorgeous Thai restaurant. The steamed snapper is a close second at that establishment, which is so beloved it’s been on the menu non-stop since 1993.
Aside from the pool and beach, we spent much time exploring the surrounding rainforest. We started with a walk at night with one of the resident naturalists (much better than the morning tour). In one corner of the property, we saw a troop of dusky leaf monkeys, also known as spectacled langurs, leaping from tree to tree as they headed home for the evening. Watch for the orange/yellow coats of the newborns, who are this colour for the first six months of their lives as an adaptation for survival.
Predatory birds such as eagles can’t distinguish between orange and green, while mothers can easily keep track of their vulnerable offspring. Elsewhere in the rainforest, you’ll spot small flocks of hornbills gliding across the post-sunset evening sky and, if lucky, a wild pig or two. If you’re looking for some inside time, head to the resort’s boutique, packed with an impressive collection of bright clothing and unique craftwork from Langkawi, other parts of Malaysia, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.
We were still determining what to expect when we embarked on the rainforest canopy tour, but the excursion led by the resort’s knowledgeable and enthusiastic naturalist Chin Wen was well worth signing up for. She taught us about the island’s history, why it emerged relatively unscathed from the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, and helped us understand the complex rainforest ecosystem in real time as we hiked through it. One minute she pointed out a sleeping python wrapped around a branch hanging out over a creek.
Next, she showed us cicada shells on tree trunks and explained this insect’s fascinating life cycle. Along the way, we passed several strangler fig trees until we reached the one that supports the 15-metre-high Canopy Walk, giving us a better view of the surrounding rainforest and some of its inhabitants.
Other tours include a kayak journey to see the mangrove trees, considered crucial to the fight against climate change yet still under threat. A refreshing swimming spot known as Crystal Creek is a short drive and then a trek from the hotel. And then, about a 20-minute drive away is The Els Club Teluk Datai, an award-winning, 18-hole, par-72 golf course designed by former World No. 1 player Ernie Els. The chance to play a round on a championship course surrounded by rainforest and tropical seas takes a lot of work to pass.
The family factor
The Datai Langkawi is quiet and not an obvious choice for people with young kids. There’s no kids’ club, but there are many enriching experiences for children to enjoy. Aside from the rainforest tours, young ones can head to the Naturalist Lab to participate in marine exploration activities and help build artificial coral reefs.
Another go-to place is the Upcycling Lab, where my daughter and I turned half-used candles from villas and rooms into new ones, but funkier thanks to the addition of colourful dyes. We also melted wax onto old pieces of a sheet to turn them into plastic-free, reusable food wraps.
As the Datai staff told me, taking care of the place is a seven-day-a-week job, with crews protecting all the wood from termites and the elements. With that in mind, be sure to ask about any construction underway so you avoid being in a villa or room close to noisy, dusty work. The villa next to ours was being renovated, sometimes making our time inside less relaxing. A bridge was being built elsewhere, forcing guests to take time-consuming detours (and exposing some to frequent clanging and banging).
The resort has a very helpful app that is a must-download. You can view menus, get information on activities, and even receive alerts about nature sightings (sometimes dolphins depending on the time of year).
If you are using the daybed in your room, make sure you request extra padding. It makes it much more comfortable for the little ones. Finally, look out for the ‘Pay 5 Stay 7‘ and ‘Pay 7 Stay 10’ deals during the low and shoulder seasons.
…I could have sampled some of The Datai’s rum or whisky, which will be released later this year. They already have their own lines of gin and vodka, which are both pretty good.
I wish I could take home
The experience of listening to a living and breathing rainforest. Its sounds are captivating throughout the day and relaxing at night, invigorating and soothing for the nervous system. No recording or nature app could genuinely recreate it.
Signature expert rating
9/10 – The Datai Langkawi is more than just a resort or hotel. It’s a feeling, a vibe, an escape in all senses of the word. And it’s one not to miss. As one guest told me, a British man in his mid-70s who’s been visiting the property for 25 years (sometimes for weeks) said, “They’re going to bury me here.”