Hotels & Resorts

The Datai Langkawi

The Datai Langkawi has reopened after an extensive renovation and the astute realization that the modern traveler’s greatest luxury is learning to commune with nature. On a wellness sojourn, Jeninne Lee-St. John finds the best of intentions under the rainforest canopy.

By Jeninne Lee-St. John

Mar 17, 2019

PERHAPS YOU’VE HEARD OF Masaru Emoto. The Japanese alternative-medicine guru believed in the effect of human consciousness on water. He claimed that when he exposed water to positive ideas (the word “angel;” a photo of dolphins) then froze it, the molecules formed beautiful crystals. Water exposed to negative ideas (“you disgust me;” heavy metal music) and then frozen became ugly blobs. You can find his microscopic photographs online, and—since our bodies are about 60 percent water—they seem to make a compelling aesthetic argument for all of us to think happier thoughts.

Emoto’s theory has never been scientifically proven and plenty of skeptics call him a crank. But the idea of the power of intent pervades the wellness industry. Sankalpa is a yoga term for a solemn vow, a resolution of the heart and mind, an ideal way you want to be; references in Sanskrit date back 3,000 years but it has burst into the mainstream recently. That meditation app on your phone? Those elementary school kids in mindfulness class? That’s all about intention.

The Pavilion serves Thai cuisine up in the trees

The Datai Langkawi has intention in its DNA. When it first opened 25 years ago, the resort was ahead of its time in environmental responsibility. Original architect Kerry Hill is said to have been so awed walking in its pristine rainforest he wasn’t sure he sure he should move a single stone. For every tree they felled to build the property, they immediately planted a new one, and they set the main building up on a bluff away from the beach to show off the view, emphasize the mystique and, most importantly, preserve the virgin land as it had been for 10 million years. Langkawi’s original grande dame closed in 2017 for renovations. When it reopened in December with redone villas and suites and a new five-bedroom estate villa for your group travel needs, plus a new nature center to encourage forest-bathing, a permaculture garden to promote sustainable eating, and a wellness program all about living your best life by listening to your body’s needs and imbuing your cells with good intent, well, it was clear that this Datai is using even deeper sankalpa than before.

The Datai occupies an enviable swath of land on northward Datai Bay, a deep cove protected from the open ocean. This white parabola with its flat, pale-turquoise waters is an easy layup for the sundry best-beaches-in- the-world lists on which it ranks. It looks like the gods built it for paddleboarding; I teach my normally timorous mom to stand and soon she’s zooming so far out to the depths that I wonder if she’s heading for the Thai islands in the distance. Facing shore, I admire not only the lushness that envelops the property (you can barely pick out any buildings among the brush) but also the hustle and laze of a beach resort completely in its groove. It’s a healthy living organism. The hotel has barely reopened, but everyone is behaving like they’ve been playing their roles for a generation. Which, I find out, they have. Many of the familial staff who deliver my iced lattes in mini- chillers or make the rounds with complimentary cocktails have been here from the beginning. And while I find it easy to make myself at home on the elevated daybed I claim every day, for many, this place truly is their (second) home. Thirty-eight percent of guests are repeats, and the average number of visits among them is five.

So, when sprucing up their ecosystem, The Datai was intent on evolving organically. Their greening efforts go far beyond the new nature center with its resident naturalist and the coral-preservation and -rehab program. They bottle their own water (infused with happy thoughts), they buy their seafood direct from local fishermen (who, when they cruised up one afternoon, had all the chefs actually skipping down to the beach), and they’ve created a permaculture garden to work towards zero-waste food production. Permaculture, said Bill Mollison, one of the Tasmanian environmental scientists who came up with the idea, “is a philosophy of working with, rather than against, nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system.”

Spot normally shy dusky leaf monkeys throughout the property

Take that holistic perspective and apply it to the human body and that is The Datai’s phytobiology- and inner truth–based wellness philosophy. It’s an effort to Masaru Emoto your insides. Is this new-age kookery dressed up as science? I don’t know. But the diverse experts the resort has brought in to fix my body, mind and soul certainly have me happy to drink the Kool-Aid.

A couple dozen people who have flown in from all over the world are sitting in the nature center sniffing unmarked vials of serum. We are each asked which of the five most appeals to us, and then are given a bottle of it without explanation. I’m feeling a bit like a rebel and a bit left out when the blue bottle I’ve selected seems so unpopular while the red bottles are nearly all snapped up. Then Camille Blardone, CEO of Laboratoire Gibro S.A. in Switzerland, which makes the Phyto 5 skincare line, says, “The five scents are calibrated to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) elements, and address our individual physical and emotional needs.” He goes on, wiping the sweat pouring from his brow, “Here we are on this beautiful island. Of course, many of you picked the fire serum. Hot climates unbalance your fire energy. We need to cool you down.” Glancing around the room, I realize that nearly everyone who has come here from the European winter has a red bottle in front of them. The handful of us who live in Southeast Asia have bottles of other colors—presumably because we are already acclimated to the tropics.

Camille shows us Emoto’s water photographs, and says the water forming the base of his Phyto 5 products—a plant-based amalgam of TCM, ancient beliefs and modern tech—comes from a pure spring in Switzerland’s verdant, unpolluted Jura mountains, where their lab is and where his family has a fairytale cottage in which they can immerse in the change of seasons. Abdul Ghani Hussain is a Western-trained doctor who helped create The Datai’s new wellness program. His grandparents were traditional Malay healers, but he only dove deep into the subject when he realized his wife was allergic to many medicines in his clinic. He allies Camille’s Swiss experience with the tropical island we’re on today. The Internet may tell you that forest-bathing began in Japan in the 1980s, but rainforest- dwellers have been doing it from time immemorial. Back in the day, Dr. Ghani says, Malays rose at 4 a.m. to perform stretching and breathing rituals to activate their earth, water, fire and wind elements within. They’d say prayers and then go into the forest for their mandi embun— literally, bathing in the morning dew. “The dew helps strengthen the body and the skin. After years of doing this, warriors would not get cut in battle,” Dr. Ghani says. “We are trying to recreate that environment.”

My indoor/outdoor treatment room in The Datai spa feels like an equatorial onsen combined with a scenic-vista rest stop. There is no fourth wall; the soundtrack is birdsong and a bubbling stream. My bespoke Phyto 5 facial is built on my scent selection (metal), my desired emotional state (picked from a set of sankalpa-style cards: “confidence,” “zentitude,” etc.), and the therapist’s assessment of what my skin needs. “Treatments are only effective if they’re made for you,” Camille had said. The Phyto 5 line has more than 100 products, and each person uses no fewer than 24 per multisensory spa journey that includes biostimulation and light therapy.

“The treatment tries to put you in a state of happiness to receive the healing properties,” Camille told me —which puts a lot of pressure on the other person in the room. “Yes, it’s also a journey for your therapist. So, they need to have a strong chi. In training, they spend a lot of time learning to stimulate the magnetic field of the body. We teach them how to maintain a positive state of mind.”

Sitting on the porch under the tree canopy, sunlight peeking through the leaves, a monkey paying witness from a high branch, I receive my mandi embun. “The simple ritual of the flower bath is about releasing bad spirits out of your system,” Dr. Ghani had told me. “We believe in the effect of thought on water.” My therapist asks me to close my eyes and consider my intention—what is it I want to be? Then he solemnly pours petal-filled water on me. It is so soothing, almost meditative, and for some reason when the water washes down my right arm I shed the tiniest of tears. Goodbye dystopian nightmare-scape negative-thought water. Here in the heart of the rainforest, I feel awash in exquisite snowflakes.; rates from RM7,500 for a double room to RM90,000 for The Datai Estate villa. Malaysia Airlines flies to Langkawi from Kuala Lumpur with many daily connections to other cities in Asia;

Hotels & Resorts

How to Be a Swish Survivalist Without Needing to Hunt for Your Dinner. (Hint: Just Check In)

Want to cultivate life skills and still retire to your fluffy four-poster at night? Try the experiences at these luxury hotels.

Hotels & Resorts

These Five-star kids’ activities in Langkawi’s UNESCO wilderness are next-level

In the tropical wilderness of Langkawi, on the fringe of Southeast Asia’s first UNESCO Global Geopark, an evolved breed of kids’ club is burying its peers in the sandpit.


Asia’s Best Awards 2022: Malaysia’s Top Hotels, Restaurants, Bars and More

From KL to Langkawi to Penang, your votes have been counted!

Hotels & Resorts

The Datai Langkawi

The Datai Langkawi has reopened after an extensive renovation and the astute realization that the modern traveler’s greatest luxury is learning to commune with nature. On a wellness sojourn, Jeninne Lee-St. John finds the best of intentions under the rainforest canopy.