It was a bit of a tropical symphony. The air outside my room buzzed with the calls of insects, birds, and monkeys. These sounds merged with the drips of millions of water droplets falling on the leaves after the rain to create a cacophony of tropical music. Despite the luxury around me, I felt as if I was indeed staying in the forest, in a natural experience that was connected to the unique environment surrounding me. Most resorts fall into one end of the spectrum or the other — either rustic and full of compromises, or overly manicured, set apart, and wholly disconnected from the local environment. Not The Datai.
Situated on the northwest coast of Langkawi Island, Malaysia’s answer to Thailand’s Andaman Sea islands, The Datai is reachable via a winding two-lane road that leaves behind most vestiges of development, entering a pristine tropical forest that’s separated from the rest of the island by steep-sided limestone mountains and a rugged coastline. The resort has done an impressive job of blending into the surrounding landscape, with a terraced design that enables it to feel unified with the rugged forested terrain. If there is a such a thing as feng shui, The Datai Langkawi has it.
Many tropical beach resorts take over the coastline, transforming a once-pristine stretch of sand into a noisy playground that feels both commercialized and unnatural. Instead, The Datai ownership was forward-thinking in the development phase, setting the main property well back from the beach and up the hillside. From there, resort guests can amble down to the beach via stairs and a beautiful boardwalk forest pathway, or simply catch a ride on an electric cart. At the beach, guests can still take full advantage of the beach club restaurant, bar, and pool deck, but at the same time experience, the beach in its natural state — clean, empty, and with water as warm and clear as anyone could want.
One afternoon the sun broke out in between an intermittent downpour (it was the rainy season after all), and I took advantage of the weather window to take out a kayak and paddle to a nearby island just offshore. The water was calm, the breeze was light, and I fell into a rhythmic paddling stroke where the land, water, and sky all seemed to merge into a single entity. Paddling around the backside of the small island, out of sight of the resort, for a short moment I felt like I might be the only person on the planet — an incredibly rare luxury in this day and age. I slipped off the boat and swam in the bathtub-warm water, pulling the boat alongside for a bit. It was pure heaven.
Of course, at The Datai offers a wide variety of activities, ranging from rainforest nature walks to cooking classes and spa treatments. It also provides several on-property dining options, including a Thai restaurant, a Malay-Indian restaurant, and western cuisine choices. On several occasions I dined at the Pavilion, an airy outpost rising on massive stilts above the surrounding forest, and I was impressed with the quality and variety of Thai cuisine — not just your standard pad thai on offer, but robust flavors with a diversity of options, many of which I had not even seen at the myriad Thai restaurants in my home in San Francisco.
Likewise, The Gulai House, offering traditional Malaysian dishes alongside Indian choices, provided an excellent contrast in dining environment and cuisine, though with a similarly creative twist. Needless to say, one will never go hungry at the Datai. However, while you might be happy spending a week at the property and never leaving, Langkawi is worth exploring more broadly in its own right.
Just a 20-minute drive away is the cable car taking visitors to the top of a high peak above the tropical forest, part of the Langkawi UNESCO Geopark, designed to protect the world’s oldest tropical karst limestone formations along with one of the earth’s oldest rainforests. While the base area (and the entire experience frankly) is quite touristy and often overrun with school groups from Kuala Lumpur, it’s still worthwhile to get an incredible bird’s eye view of the island, if the weather is clear.
Nearby, I walked up along the Seven Wells, a series of perfect natural swimming pools in the jungle, separated by a series of spectacular waterfalls. Leaving the tourists behind at the top, I hiked several miles up a trail through dense vegetation, impressed by the quality of the all-too-rare undisturbed rainforest.
The Kilim Karst Geoforest Park was a highlight of Langkawi. About 30-40 minutes from the resort near the northeast corner of the island, the park encompasses fantastic mangrove forests alongside towering karst limestone formations and brackish lagoons harboring a rich set of wildlife including raptors, fish, reptiles, bats, and more. Instead of joining the crowds and taking a motorized boat, I joined a small group kayak tour, which was absolutely the right move.
Leaving the hordes behind, we paddled deep into narrow channels through the mangroves, passing snakes sunning themselves on rocks and eagles soaring overhead, while our guide from Dev’s Adventure Tours expertly narrated the story of the area’s natural history and the state of the current ecosystem—like many of the world’s unique bioregions, it’s most definitely under threat from mass tourism and development.
On my last day at the property, after a leisurely poolside breakfast, I headed back to the beach. Wading out into the Andaman Sea and seeing only forest and mountains surrounding me, I imagined that The Datai was the last outpost of natural beauty and escapism in a world that is increasingly hyperconnected, mechanized, and stressful. Even if that feeling is fleeting, it’s rare enough to be worth a trip halfway around the world.
Langkawi is an easy 90-minute flight from Singapore, and an even shorter one from Kuala Lumpur, with a number of low-cost airlines offering relatively frequent service to the island. I traveled there on a 3-hour high-speed ferry from Penang and then flew to Singapore on my return.
The Datai is an excellent choice for couples, family groups, and friends, with a wide variety of activities on offer. Golfers will appreciate The Els Club Teluk Datai, with a stunning backdrop of rainforest-clad mountains beyond the fairways. Breakfast includes western and Asian options, while guests have the choice of a variety of on-property restaurants. Prices are quite high, likely reflecting the remote location and luxury clientele.
The concierges at The Datai are helpful and willing to book any activity on guests’ behalf. However, their specific knowledge may be limited, and that fact, combined with some language barrier issues, means that visitors would be advised to do some quality research about the island’s attractions beforehand, especially if you’re hoping to get off the beaten path. The Langkawi Gazette offers a complete guide to the island.
Article and photos by Josh Steinitz, originally written for NileGuide