Can a luxury rainforest resort ever be truly eco?

By PA/TPN, in Lifestyle, World, Travel · 17 May 2023

Malaysia’s Datai Langkawi has its work cut out, but it’s doing its best to nurture its little slice of paradise, says Josie Clarke.

It’s 6am and I’m cocooned in absolute luxury amid the trees in a 10-million-year-old rainforest. Quietly sipping a coffee high on the balcony of my villa, all I can see is every shade of green, shot through with the occasional riot of feathered colour swooping past.

I can hear the dawn chorus, gently backed by the sound of a stream at the bottom of the valley below. Relaxation drifts down like a soft blanket.

Playful dusky langur monkeys lark about high overhead. Less than 50 metres away, an oriental pied hornbill flies to and from its nesting partner and chick, supplying figs plucked from a tree near the hotel’s main pool. There’s a suspicious rustle in the leaves below but I keep my eyes up.

Nestled under the forest’s ancient canopy and edged by white sands, the Datai Langkawi resort is a haven for nature lovers, just an hour’s flight from the concrete metropolis of Kuala Lumpur. And while the Datai prides itself on its “unparalleled luxury”, it unapologetically places the well-being of the jungle and the creatures that live in it first and foremost.

Nature comes first

Even before they enter through the sleek gates, guests are politely warned that they will be sharing the space with a wide array of enigmatic animals and are advised to keep the doors and windows of their rooms locked at all times or risk a cheeky monkey helping itself to the minibar.

The lily and frog-filled pool in the lobby – that bursts into a noisy cacophony when night falls – is the first indication that this is to be no ordinary hotel stay. From there, the main pool and its fig tree bustling – particularly at dusk – with birds and monkeys lead on towards the beach, via the resort’s open-air “grand staircase” – a title that somewhat underplays an experience that surrounds you with the smells and sounds of the jungle.

Further down, the path leads through the Butterfly Walk, bordered with specially-chosen nectar plants to attract more than 530 species of butterflies on the island down from the jungle canopy.

The resort’s purpose-built nature centre houses a team of naturalists and marine biologists where resident – and renowned – naturalist Irshad Mobarak developed the resort’s responsibility for protecting its environment into “The Datai Pledge”.

Sustainable future

The programme of practical initiatives aims to create a sustainable future for the resort, while offering guests a variety of experiences, in order to better understand their fascinating but fragile surroundings.

The resort has partnered with local NGOs and social enterprises, including marine mammal conservationists MareCet, whose scientists take us out for a morning on the waters around Langkawi, to observe their research work into the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins and finless porpoises.

MareCet guide Sherlynn Ng describes Datai’s efforts as “really impressive”.

“Nine in 10 Malaysians probably wouldn’t even know we have dolphins out here, but the Datai is giving its guests the opportunity to find out about them and spread the word that they’re here and they need protecting.”

The resort is also working to regenerate the bay’s reef with five large artificial steel frames “planted” with rehabilitated corals from the resort’s nursery within the nature centre, where they are cared for until they are healthy enough to be returned to the sea.

It is working with Malaysia’s Department of Fisheries to reach local people and encourage them to fish sustainably, with the hotel operating a buy-back scheme for their catch.

Healthy forest

Back on land, we join an evening walk guided by nature centre manager Dev Dass, serenaded by cicadas so loud that guests have mistaken them for car alarms. Dev halts a few meters in and says: “Hear that! That’s the sound of a healthy forest.” A great hornbill calls out above us.

Another 100 meters in, though, and he stops again. He points out an aquilaria tree, highly prized for its use in perfumes, although most of its resinous agarwood has been scraped away by poachers. “We’re not going to be able to save this one,” he says, crestfallen.

The Datai now employs 35 rangers to secure the perimeter of the resort’s 1,800 acres from poachers.

It has also heavily invested in cutting the resort’s waste, with its own glass water bottling system. Single-use plastic is practically outlawed, and even the boutique’s assistant apologetically refuses to let me keep the manufacturer’s plastic wrapping on a shirt that I’m by now ashamed to say would have been quite handy for the flight home.

Nothing leaves the resort bound for landfill. Food waste is sorted, drained of liquid and donated to local chicken farmers and dog homes. Crushing machines turn glass into fragments to be mixed into concrete and polystyrene into filling for bean bags, while the team’s pride and joy is “the Asher”, an incinerator producing only steam and neutral ashes, which can be used to improve the forest floor.

Guests can tour the permaculture kitchen garden and pick herbs and vegetables to use in a cooking class, or participate in craft sessions using leftover coffee grounds from the kitchen and burned-down candles from the rooms, to create their own unique memento.

The focus on a gentle, relaxing stay at one with the environment extends to the evening when you might catch the sound of the piano floating from the bar. This is no party resort, and the lights are kept as low as possible overnight because the forest’s nocturnal creatures need it to be dark.

Irshad, who is guiding us, speaks of his pride at the Datai’s efforts to turn a guest’s stay into a lasting appreciation of the glories of nature.

“When you’re breaking new ground, you can see other hotels tucking their shirts in, pulling their socks up.

“May this be the start of something bigger.”