Langkawi’s Datai, the epicenter of natural beauty and breathtaking opulence

By Elena Koshy – September 19, 2021 @ 9:16am

IT seems like almost a lifetime ago that I was walking the pathways of a remote resort tucked in the middle of a 10-million-year-old, 750-hectare rainforest at the base of Southeast Asia’s oldest mountain, Machinchang in Langkawi’s Unesco Global Geopark.

It was an unforgettable lesson in nature with the much-revered naturalist, Irshad Mobarak. We looked at flitting butterflies, spotted his favourite pair of Great Hornbills and I learnt so many nuggets about nature, I felt a little accomplished (so many nature facts to impress friends!), a lot starry-eyed (rugged naturalists tend to do that to me!) and a healthy respect for a resort that has long been trying to shift the definition of luxury accommodation.

What was once all about infinity pools and seafood buffets is now focused on transformation, where the goal is to create a better you or a better world — or both.

One of the world’s most stunning resorts, The Datai Langkawi is situated on the northwest tip of the island of Langkawi in Malaysia. Overlooking the tranquil Datai Bay, awarded by National Geographic as one of the Top 10 Beaches worldwide, the iconic property enchants with mesmerising nature, visionary architecture, luxury and bespoke services, and most importantly, a devotion to honour nature with a pledge to preserve and strengthen the environment, ecosystems, culture, heritage and local communities.

“When was the last time you visited Datai?” asks general manager, Arnaud Girodon, during a recent Zoom call. “Not for a while,” I admit sheepishly. “That’s a long time ago! You should definitely come for a visit!” he retorts back. His French accent is a little hard to understand, but I don’t mind at all. Next to Irshad, here was another rugged-looking “Datai dude” that was easy on the eye.

I could have been having this conversation over cocktails by the expansive Andaman seas in front of me. Pandemic be damned. I’ve been dreaming of a luxurious getaway with rugged men telling me all about nature and recycling (or upcycling? Oh, whatever).

Instead, I’m here in my last nice unwashed blouse and manky shorts (the latter, thankfully, he can’t see), crouching over my laptop and trying in vain to keep a conversation going despite the buggy WiFi.

A lot have changed since my last visit to the resort, I’m told by Girodon. For one, the tropical resort underwent major renovations that began in 2018 and took around a year to complete. Datai closed its doors for an overhaul that Leading Hotels of the World called “the most substantial enhancement project since its inception 25 years ago”.

The massive overhaul, which cost an eyebrow-raising US$60 million, not only saw the addition of three new Rainforest Pool Villas to join the existing set of five and the all-new 325.2sq m, The Datai Estate as well as the expansion of the The Datai Spa, to name a few. It also unveiled the birth of The Nature Centre led by Mobarak and his team of naturalists.

“It began with an important question by Arnaud,” says Mobarak over a telephone call later. “He asked me one day, ‘Irshad, how can we make nature an important feature of Datai?'” The naturalist had a dream of creating a conservation-based educational platform for a long time.

“I want a Nature Centre,” he told the then newly-minted general manager. “I wanted a bigger team, a reference library, a laboratory — everything!” he admits, laughing sheepishly. “It was thanks to Arnaud that this vision came alive.”

“It was Irshad’s dream that started it all,” acknowledges Girodon. “We couldn’t do that if we didn’t ensure that the operations and the way we run our business adhere to the highest form of sustainability as well. We decided we couldn’t just stop halfway but we had to go all out and make it happen.”

It was daunting, he admits. “But I told myself, ‘step by step and focus on the things that you can change!'”

With rising sea levels, higher carbon dioxide levels and plastic bottles glutting landfills and oceans, the issue of sustainability has become a hot topic. Hotels and resorts have started to act by ramping up efforts to reduce or eliminate completely their resource and energy consumption. For The Datai, it’s been in their nature to conserve because they’re right out there — in nature.

“There’s a duty of care that we have about where we are. The revenue The Datai generates comes primarily from its location at the heart of a pristine rainforest. We must conserve as much as we can,” explains Girodon.

The theme for World Environment Day this year, celebrated in June globally, was “Ecosystem Restoration”. For Girodon, “restoration” has been a keyword in embarking on this sustainability journey that began three years ago.

“The Datai Pledge” was birthed with the aim of integrating conservation and sustainability into the business operations, company ethos and guest experience of The Datai Langkawi and future properties.

The idea of luxury has long been intertwined with profligate waste. But with green consciousness making its way to centrestage, some hotels are changing their ways. And in the case of Langkawi, The Datai is leading the way. “If a prolific luxury resort like The Datai can make these significant changes, the ripples can be huge,” attests Girodon, not without a little pride lacing his voice.

He continues: “Back in 2018 when The Datai Pledge was conceived, we embraced the precepts of interconnectedness and interdependence between community and ecosystems.”

Since then, The Datai Pledge has grown into a Private Trust with solid foundations. The Datai Pledge’s four pillars — Pure For The Future, Fish For The Future, Wildlife For The Future, and Youth For The Future — respectively focus on the resort’s business operations and ethics, the marine life, the fauna and flora, and the children of the community. Each pillar has a fully developed programme of initiatives.

These are high ideals indeed. And something few hotels have embarked on as part of their green initiatives. I mean, for about 10 years now placards and door hangers have adorned hotel rooms with vague requests for greener behaviour from guests: Please hang up your towel to conserve water; consider the planet with this don’t-launder-my-sheets card. But how that has made strides in sustainability is a question that begs to be answered. Simply not washing sheets and towels doesn’t cut it.

Girodon bluntly agrees that hotels aren’t doing enough to address climate and wastage concerns. “More often, it’s ‘lip service’ rather than honest efforts to mitigate waste and water usage that hotels are often guilty of,” he laments, adding: “We wanted to do more than that.”

Like many tourist islands, infrastructure-related issues such as the disposal of waste has had a negative environmental impact in Langkawi. Data indicates that approximately 100 metric tonnes of rubbish are produced daily by tourists and the residents of Langkawi, rising to 150 metric tonnes daily in the high season.

There was an urgent need to do more than merely talking about it.

Doing “more” is never easy, he admits. “Recycling, for example. When we started, we wanted to achieve the goal of ‘zero-waste’. You can’t imagine how hard it is. Now when hotels talk about ‘zero waste’, they’re referring to organic waste. Organic waste is fairly easy to recycle. But to recycle plastic, glasses, cans, the computer waste? It’s madness!”

When they embarked on that journey and saw how complicated it really was, the journey to try and break it down and make it simpler has been to Girodon, “… a helluva ride!”

Two years on, they’ve yet to achieve a complete zero-waste but a solid 93 per cent is something, the Frenchman insists, that he’s intensely proud of. “It’s so complicated, but we’re closer to the achieving that now.”

Five new centres were designed and set up to achieve zero-waste in their operations, as well as for education and collaborations: The Lab, Upcycling Centre, Sorting Centre, Bottling Plant and The Garden.

The Lab, where guest workshops and upcycling initiatives are held, was constructed using 6,465 bottles and 280kg of upcycled plastic. The Upcycling Centre was set up to crush glass and shred plastic for upcycling.

The Sorting Centre is where wet and dry waste are separated, and where food waste is compacted for composting. Still water is purified through reverse osmosis and bottled in recyclable glass bottles at the Bottling Plant.

The Garden comprises multiple components, including the Permaculture Garden, where food waste is transformed into valuable compost to grow herbs, spices and fruits for the resort; the Wetland Filtration System, to further purify waste water; the Bee Farm; the Composting Farm; and an outdoor classroom, among others.

“Did you ever think at any one time that you were way over your head while embarking on this green quest?” I tease. “You know Elena, I didn’t show it!” he replies, eyes twinkling, adding: “I did portray some level of confidence, but let me tell you, I’ve had many sleepless nights!”

Continuing, Girodon says: “I mean, at the same time I was also overseeing the resort’s major renovations. I did ask myself what the heck I was doing! But then, I also asked myself why I’m doing it. And that’s good. You need to ask yourself that. The answer was because it’s a good thing to do. So you just have to move forward, one step at a time!”

The Datai’s pledge also includes working together with local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in order to achieve its lofty mission of sustainability and zero-waste objectives. Partnerships with NGOs, believes Girodon, can lead to sustainable change in the whole tourism sector.

The Datai has selected several local NGOs and social enterprises who that are undertaking important conservation and sustainability research projects and developed bespoke activities to achieve the objectives set by the pledge of each pillar.

Under the Pure for the Future pillar, the resort has forged a partnership with NGO Sahabat Alam (SALAM) Langkawi that is dedicated to environmental conservation and sustainable tourism on the island.

The Fish for the Future programme aims to preserve and strengthen the precious marine ecosystems of Teluk Datai. Their NGO partner is MareCet, the only NGO in Malaysia dedicated to marine mammal conservation and the protection of their habitats, particularly the research and preservation of dolphins and porpoises.

With nature being such a prominent feature at The Datai Langkawi, there have been huge concentrated efforts to regenerate the vital ecosystem that surrounds the resort. Their social enterprise partner is Gaia, that is dedicated to the conservation of wildlife and specialises in the welfare of hornbills and the preservation of their habitats.

With today’s youth viewed as the bringers of change, Youth for the Future is helping to instil appreciation for wildlife and nature in schools and within the community through strategic partnerships with Green Growth Asia Foundation(GGAF).

“There’s no way Datai, however big it is, can tackle sustainability and conservation by ourselves,” Girodon explains simply. “We need partners.”

The Datai Pledge is the resort’s contribution to nature and the community. “For our guests, we aim to create experiences which are immersive and educational, and to inspire them to make a difference in their own communities,” explains Girodon. Nature, is after all, a gift that keeps on giving. And The Datai intends to spread that message through its sustainable operations and conservation-backed activities.

“There’s so much to talk about. You have to be here!” Mobarak exclaims over the phone. “You just have to be here!” echoes Girodon, grinning. “You can’t get the ‘feel’ of what we’re really doing without actually being here.”

Well, that’s an invitation I intend to take up once the lockdown ceases. After all, nature and The Datai’s enthusiastic champions are enough to get me starry-eyed over recycling and upcycling in the middle of an ancient rainforest!