Travel

Deep in the jungle lies this hidden getaway gem: The Datai Spa

Between captivating tales Mobarak delivers an important lesson: that we can choose our relationship with the earth to be mutualistic, commensal or parasitic
 

There is something magical about The Datai Langkawi – we know this as soon as we set foot on the resort grounds. There aren’t grand marble halls or any extravagant displays; instead, you pass through a green ‘tunnel’ – a driveway shaded by towering trees – to arrive at a hidden clearing where the quaint main building stands. A gong is sounded, and we are led straight to The Lobby Lounge for check-in, passing by a lotus pond as we make our way to the back of the building.    

Set on a forest ridge 40 metres above sea level, the main building, like the rest of the resort, was designed to honour the pristine surroundings and local heritage. Elements of traditional Malay culture abound, as antique torches, spears, iron brackets and two giant sculptures of war horses at the lobby take you back to a bygone era; while the open-air design invites nature in, literally – don’t be surprised to see a tree frog hopping around.

The Lobby Lounge faces the main pool and the Datai Bay, a private crescent beach that’s 300 metres away. Between the blue and turquoise waters, verdant jungles cover every inch of land. As we take in the postcard-perfect view while sipping a fresh honeydew juice, a chorus of frogs begins to echo the distant bird cries, setting a relaxing mood.

The Datai Langkawi is a haven built to encourage relaxation and reconnection with Mother Nature. It isn’t near any major tourist attractions, but the seclusion offers peace and quietude – a rare luxury if you’re from a city of seven million. The resort provides cars for guests who wish to go out although there is really more than enough to do within and around the property if you’re only staying for a few days.

 

Jungle Home

At first glance it’s hard to tell the hotel is already 23 years old; on closer inspection, though, you will find it has aged gracefully.

When world-famous architect Kerry Hill discovered this magnificent location, he visualised a multi-level complex that would blend seamlessly into the prehistoric rainforest. His vision was realised in details such as unpolished railings designed to weather naturally with age, walls with a space for wild creepers and moss, and instead of an enormous modern hotel building, a moderately sized main building and numerous villas built from wood and rocks.    

Our villa is part of the Rainforest Collection, which boasts more than 40 villas created for those seeking a thoroughly immersive experience. On the outside it resembles a rustic cottage; on the inside, however, is a charming home in warm wooden tones, fitted with a well-stocked mini bar, a balcony and a remarkably spacious bathroom. The AC has to run 24/7 to keep the humidity and heat away, but there are windows on all sides to make you feel encircled by nature, while the traditionally inspired decors and furnishings add a sense of place.

Chance Encounters   

For a chance to get up close to the wildlife here, grab a cool drink and a book – if you haven’t brought one, there are a few in the room and a wide selection in the Library – and lounge outside on the villa’s balcony that’s surrounded by native trees. Alternatively, take a walk around the property or join a guided walk.

Luck, patience and a keen eye are required for any wildlife sightings. We were eager to meet a fluffy dusky leaf monkey or two, but we didn’t see so much as a fly in our first afternoon here. As the sun sets, though, our first visitors arrive – a group of playful black and red squirrels sprint through the balcony before leaping onto a nearby tree in a game of hide-and-seek. The following days we are visited by more of the forest’s inhabitants: colourful tropical birds, pairs of dancing butterflies, nervous geckos and lizards, and a caterpillar taking a leisurely stroll on the railing.

Monkeys are known to be frequent visitors too; we’re told that they can even turn doorknobs and let themselves into rooms that are left unlocked! But fortunately (or rather unfortunately for an animal lover like me), no monkey tried to barge into our room; although we did have a few close encounters with families of dusky leaf monkeys and the more defensive macaque monkeys at the resort.

 

Sweet Indulgence    

Indulgence at the resort comes in the form of mouth-watering delicacies. Executive chef Richard Millar oversees five dining venues, each specialising in different cuisines so guests can enjoy a variety of flavours. Your day will typically begin at The Dining Room, where the buffet breakfast includes everything you could possibly wish for, from authentic Asian dishes to salads, pastries, fresh fruit and eggs. In the evening, this place is transformed into an international fine-dining restaurant that serves a scrumptious  six-course menu. On a clear night, opt to dine al fresco and bask in the Milky Way, while the mesmerising music from The Lobby Lounge above creates an easy, romantic atmosphere.

Other dining options include the Thai restaurant The Pavilion; The Beach Club and The Lobby Lounge for casual dining, cocktails and light snacks; and The Gulai House – a personal favourite, it was designed in the style of a traditional Malay village house. Gulai means gravy or curry in Malay, so it’s no wonder Malay and Indian curries are the signatures here.

Another way to indulge is to book a treatment at The Datai Spa, which is headed by spa director Angeline Lim, who introduced the concept of a journey from consultation, foot polish and the main treatment to refreshment post-treatment, to prepare the mind, body and soul for complete relaxation. The four open-air treatment villas are set along a quiet stream and hidden by mangroves, so as you’re getting pampered, a natural soundtrack of birdsongs, flowing water and tides from the ocean plays in the background, while gentle breezes cool the skin.

On the spa menu are nail services, Kerstin Florian facials and body treatments inspired by traditional Malay ramuan healing. The Tungku Batu therapeutic massage is a must-try; a ritual with its roots in ramuan, it alternates between a herbal pouch massage using ingredients from the rainforest and warmed lava stone, and an oil massage with a blend of herbs like ginger, lemongrass, cinnamon and star anise. The therapist can vary the techniques to stimulate blood circulation and either calm and relax or energise.   

Into the Woods   

 

The rainforest that The Datai calls home is estimated to be over 10 million years old. What better way to get to know this mysterious jungle and its diverse range of flora and fauna than with a walk with an expert who has lived here and studied the subject for more than two decades? The resort offers tours and excursions, such as kayaking, trekking, beach walks, photography tours and adventures to other islands in the archipelago of Langkawi, and the nature walks with resident naturalist Irshad Mobarak should be on everyone’s itinerary.

The Datai Langkawi, Malaysia Images by Mott Visuals. Hotel and Resort photography and films by Mott Visuals. www.mottvisuals.com Photographer | Justin Mott

A dedicated conservationist and humorous storyteller, Mobarak makes the complimentary Rainforest Awakening and Rainforest After Dark walks memorable and educational for both kids and grown-ups alike. Wildlife encounters are about being in the right place at the right time, which is why these outings take place when diurnal and nocturnal animals – think bats, flying squirrels and colugos – awaken.

During the 90-minute guided tours, we explore the jungle while he identifies medicinal plants, animals so well camouflaged that we would otherwise miss, and birds simply from their calls. Between captivating tales of swifts that can spend years in the air without landing, the rare courtship flight of white-bellied sea eagles, and the mutually beneficial system between squirrels, monkeys and greater racket-tailed drongoes, he delivers an important lesson: that we can choose our relationship with the earth to be mutualistic, commensal or parasitic. A butterfly stops to sip nectar from a flower near Mobarak – a fine example of mutualism; it’s unlikely anyone of us will ever forget this lesson.      

Back in Hong Kong as I listen to the morning birdsongs and wonder which species of birds have produced them, I realise I’ve discovered a new fascination for life – and perhaps this is the magical something the rainforest harbours, a gift to anyone who’s entered its realm and seen its beauty.

 

Article first published on AsiaSpa