When I was at school I read Utopia, the book by Thomas More that tells the tale of an imaginary society, through the travels of an explorer to what he considers to be the finest country on the planet. Unfortunately, I don’t remember much else, but the word ‘utopia’ (an ideal place or state) is an apt one too for The Datai Langkawi. I visited this magical resort in Malaysia last month, just as the dry season was drawing to a close, and as the rainy one was about to begin. The surrounding rainforest is said to be ten million years old, a number so enormous that is in equal parts both bewildering and humbling,
I stayed in a rainforest villa, a short walk from the Andaman Sea, and also from The Beach Club, where day after day I returned for its beautifully grilled salmon. The days are long on an island: the birds wake early, and as everyone who comes to The Datai finds out for themselves, so do the monkeys. They walk, run and swing their way across the estate (a reminder that we, not they, are the interlopers). On my first morning, I went on a walk with Ishard Mubarak, the ‘Resident Naturalist’ whose manner and knowledge makes him more ‘Gentleman Naturalist’. Starting at eight o’clock, we wound our way round the front of The Datai, as he pointed to the trees, calling out to the birds as they also seemed to be calling back to him.
The breakfast that followed was at The Dining Room, where traditional Asian fare like soup noodles and roti prata sit alongside eggplant salads, and freshly selected dragon fruit. From there, you can have a quick swim, sit under the canopy, or of course return to your villa where a pre-loaded iPod (Mozart to Enya) or a soak in the bathtub brings you onto lunch. The culinary range at The Datai is second to none: aside from The Beach Club and The Dining Room, there is also Gulai House, a kampung-style structure that mimics the village dwellings and buffalo farmland that dot Langkawi. They have the finest lamb I have probably tasted, Otak Otak, and Kapitan chicken curry. But my favourite restaurant was The Pavillion. The kitchen doesn’t attempt to overly reinterpret Thai and Indian cuisine, but instead hones and refines them to excellence. If you only have one dinner at The Datai, please have it here.
The architecture enhances every experience at The Datai, designed more than two decades ago by Australian Kerry Hill. But apart from being truly magical and aesthetically beautiful, it is also a model of meaningful sustainability. When the resort was created, great care was taken to re-use many of the trees that had to be cleared, including the trunks that support The Pavilion, as well as the pillars inside The Beach Club. The villas too demonstrate that same sensitivity, built on stilts in tribute to the fishing huts that stand tall and proud over the sea water beneath them. The Datai is no imaginary utopia, but a ten million year old one.
Photographs by James Chau; The Datai Langkawi, www.thedatai.com