HOW TO SPEND IT.
By Steven Cole.
The brigadier’s eyebrows went up and a smile crept across his face when I told him I was thinking of visiting the Langkawi archipelago, a group of more than 100 mainly uninhabited islands off the north western coast of the Malaysian peninsula.
He said he’d just had his best‑ever holiday there, and advised me to stay at the Datai on Pulau Langkawi: “As a rest cure for the jaded it’s a sure‑fire winner.” We were talking in Hong Kong and as my advisor was Brigadier Christopher Hammerbeck CB, a tank commander in Gulf War and now executive director of the British Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, I reckoned that if he recommended somewhere I was ready and willing to obey.
On closer investigation, the Datai turned out to be the first true luxury resort hotel in Malaysia, and one that continues to set the pace for five star hotels in the region, with a reputation for Aman resorts‑style luxury at below‑Aman prices.
I duly beat a gentle retreat across the South China Sea to Langkawi (its full name is rarely used), otherwise known as the island of sea eagles. It is one of those rare places that faithfully marry ecological responsibility to luxury tourism. A fact recognised by its 2001 Aga Khan Award for Architecture, which praised the way the hotel is so successfully integrated into the surrounding rainforest and ecosystem of swamps, streams and wildlife.
Indeed, the island’s incredible flora and fauna are at such close quarters at The Datai that even the pianist in the open-sided cocktail bar finds her Frank Sinatra repertoire must do battle with a group of loudly croaking outsize frogs. She told me it’s easier to try to keep in beat with the frogs. To me, though, the strange noises I heard coming from the rainforest were like siren calls. I had to take a closer look, and sought the advice of Jamie Case, the hotel’s Canadian manager, about exploring the noisy, verdant forests. “Of course: there’ll be leeches, but they’re nothing to worry about,” said Jamie, comforting. “Just wear lone sleeves, walking shoes and tuck your trousers into your socks.”
I wasn’t doing this solo though. The Datai’s resident naturalist, Irshad Mobarak, was coming with me, which meant I was going with a walking talking encyclopaedia of the rainforest. We were already on the brink of the forest when he pointed out the serunai leaf for its admirable blood clotting and wound closing properties. As we entered the gloom I made a mental note to remember this. A blue‑winged pitta bird sang a welcome. As we walked along the trails Irshad told me that the wildlife included many wild pigs, whose only real enemy is the reticulated python, which grows up to 10 metres long: “They’re seen here quite often.” I tried to hurry the pace.
Welcome distraction came from the wild orchids that thrive thanks to the island’s off‑shore ecosystem. I was stopped in my tracks by the magnificent inflorescence of the tiger orchid, as were some of the island’s 500 species of butterfly that fluttered by. I was pretty honoured when Irshad showed me the Tongkat Ali plant, which is both a natural aphrodisiac and contraceptive. Irshad rarely reveals the exact locations of these plants because people, often steal them, prizing them for their high levels of testosterone.
After we emerged from the rainforest we carried out a leech cheek; Irshad immediately producing one bloated specimen from between his toes (contrary to advice, he trekked in sandals). I had a sudden urge for a shower and an inch‑by‑inch body inspection. But instead, I strolled through the hotel gardens towards the beach bar, where I fell to chatting to two bankers from Singapore who were there solely to play golf at the nearby 18‑hole championship Datai Bay golf course, which was cleverly integrated ‑between rainforest and hotel. A few beers later I felt what I thought was a cat licking my ankle and looked down to see a huge, black, slightly shiny object clamped to my heel. My cigar did the trick, but the bleeding didn’t stop for an hour.
That night at dinner I couldn’t help overhearing a London couple discussing the stresses of working in the City. The man turned to his partner and declared, “I tell you, it’s a jungle out there.” I couldn’t have agreed more.