The Malaysian Luxury Rain Forest Retreat That Guests Return To Again And Again: The Datai Langkawi

Ann Abel | Senior Contributor

Apr 12, 2023,08:51am

Thirty years ago, when Asian super-luxury resorts were first being developed, it was all about the beach. The unspoken rule was to maximize the waterfront, knock down some trees, give everyone a water-sparkly view.

The developers and the designers of the Datai thought beyond that. The luxury resort in Langkawi, Malaysia, has a perfectly lovely little beach along Datai Bay, but that’s almost beside the point (even though National Geographic called it one of the best in the world). The 121-room hotel is integrated thoroughly into one of the world’s oldest rain forests, with its freestanding villas surrounded by towering trees. In some cases, floor plans were changed to ensure that no trees would be cut down.

(To be honest, the constant squeal of crickets could be a bit much for a former rock ’n’ roll journalist who suffers from tinnitus. Sometimes the quiet of my rain forest villa came as a welcome relief.)

Sensitive ears aside, that intimate connection with nature is what drives the Datai. Thirty years after Kerry Hill created the original biophilic architecture—way before anyone used the word biophilic—in collaboration with Didier Lefort, the hotel has gone on to become one of the most awarded in Southeast Asia. And now, thanks to a recent renovation by M. Lefort, it’s better than ever.

The Datai wears its age well. In some ways, it’s an old-school resort, with a weekly printed newsletter, activities calendar, and musings “signed” by longtime, charismatic general manager Arnaud Girodon. The staff—many of whom have been there 20 years or more, and all 500 of whom were retained during the closures of 2020 and 2021—is beyond attentive and detail-attuned: After I drank all the small refillable glass bottles of water in my villa, they were replaced with larger ones. A colleague mentioned that she liked roti, and it magically appeared for her at breakfast.

About those refillable bottles: Sustainability is one of those terms that have become as keywordy as experiential and authentic were a decade ago. And too many hotels brag about their LED bulbs or reduced housekeeping (both of which save them money!) in hopes of getting some green cred.

The Datai doesn’t muck around with those games. It’s the real deal. Nothing leaves the resort bound for a landfill. Meticulous sorting programs assure that anything that can possibly be donated, recycled or upcycled is, and whatever is left is incinerated in a state-of-the-art machine called the asher, which produces only steam and neutral ashes, which can be left on the forest floor or mixed with concrete for the inevitable repairs that island resorts require. The person who showed it to me thought that Singapore’s Changi airport possibly has one; otherwise it’s unique in Southeast Asia.

The engineering nerd in me was delighted by all of this, and the staff is only too happy to show it off to guests, along with the permaculture kitchen garden and the upcycling lab, where people can make craft projects using leftover coffee grounds, candle stubs and other waste. In fact, all of the sustainability-related activities, for children and adults, are offered for free or at cost.

These include things like forest bathing with a meditation teacher and sustainability adviser Irshad Mobarak (“the David Attenborough of Malaysia,” who has been featured on the BBC), bird-watching with an ornithologist and traipsing through the rain forests to watch monkeys with another naturalist, Chin Wen. She’s a graduate of Jane Goodall’s international Roots & Shoots program, one of the many organizations that the Datai supports with its Datai Pledge. The details are a little wonky, but the frequent 100-page impact reports prove that the commitment is real.

Yet for all its sustainability bona fides, the Datai doesn’t compromise on luxury. (And we should all know by now that the two have never been incompatible, provided some smart decisions are made.) Tea is served on pewter from Royal Selangor, the company that supplies royal families around the world. The house Champagne is from Michel Roux. (Girodon has some connections.) The boutique features all the best brands in Malaysia, and there’s an “atelier” of artisans in residence, producing contemporary renditions of traditional crafts.

There are five restaurants, from a Michelin-adjacent fine dining room that serves a ten-course tasting menu to a Thai restaurant perched on stilts in the treetops, some 100 feet above the ground.

One evening, while I was enjoying a Malaysian curry at another restaurant, the Gulai House, an enthusiastic couple approached me. No one from the resort put them up from this, they assured me. But they had heard that a journalist was on the premises and wanted to make sure I knew how much they love the place. This was their 20th visit or so, and sometimes they thought about trying other resorts, but in the end, it was the forest villas of the Datai that kept calling them back.

Check out my website.