Rainforest Dreams

LANGKAWI, malaysia

The picturesque island of Langkawi, located off the western coast of mainland Malaysia, is famous for its 10 million-year-old rainforests, white sand and pristine turquoise waters.

Photographed written by William Watt & Rosie Giles


When Didier Lefort first visited the site of the proposed Datai Langkawi resort in 1989, there were no buildings, no services and no roads. In fact the only way to access the site was by boat from the exquisite white sand beach of Datai Bay. Lefort, founder of French architecture and interior design agency D.L.2.A, along with renowned Australian architect and project lead Kerry Hill, trekked up through the jungle to reach the elevated site where the main pavilion of The Datai Langkawi now rests.

While the beach at Datai Langkawi is incredibly beautiful, it’s the surrounding Machincang Cambrian Geoforest Park that makes this resort truly unique. The decision to locate the main building away from the beach was unexpected and inspired, and something that Kerry Hill felt strongly about. “So we exchange ideas and he told me ‘I would like the hotel to be set back’,” Lefort recalls. “It sounds simple but it was not at all obvious. Immediately I thought it was a fantastic idea! For me, it’s the most important decision which has been taken in this project.”

The Butterfly Walk connects the main pavilion with the beach-side areas

Situating the main building and neighbouring villas in amongst the canopy away from the beach allows guests to feel like they are part of the rainforest, rather than mere observers. With its abundant and active array of wildlife, the rainforest provides its own soundtrack – the chatter of monkeys, birds, bats, insects, squirrels and colugos (gliding mammals not dissimilar to possums) is constant yet soothing. Lefort recalls that during his first trip to The Datai the hubbub of the rainforest was “like the subway – only much more pleasant”. 

From the crystal clear waters of Datai Bay, only The Beach Club and The Beach Bar are visible, with the main resort almost completely concealed by the lush rainforest. Approaching from the beach through the rainforest and along the aptly named Butterfly Walk, the main pavilion slowly reveals itself amongst the canopy, and looms like a fortified castle raised upon the hill. From here the main building and pavilions can be accessed via the grand staircase – and it is indeed grand. At the top, guests are rewarded for their many steps with spectacular views over the rainforest, out to the Andaman Sea and across to Thailand beyond.

The Architecture of The Datai 

Before starting work on the project Lefort spent several weeks in Malaysia immersing himself in the culture and learning about local traditions. The time spent in Malaysia would prove formative and the combined influence of the Malaysian, Chinese and Indian cultures can be seen throughout the resort. 

The main building is constructed on a basalt stone base. This lower level serves a dual purpose in protecting the structure from the encroaching rainforest flora as well as housing the significant services and back-of-house areas of the resort. Other smaller buildings, such as the rainforest villas, are raised on stilts to protect the structure and minimise the impact on the forest floor below. Above the stone and stilt bases rests a lighter layer inspired by the traditional ‘rumah’ (meaning ‘house’ in Malay) post and beam structure, with infill walls and charming timber shingle roofs. 

The detailing of the architecture at The Datai Langkawi is meticulous – every finish and junction has been considered. A particular highlight for architecture nerds is the balustrading around the resort, using traditional Malaysian building vernacular to create a beautiful play of light and shadow. Whether by design or happy coincidence, the architecture reflects the layers of the surrounding rainforest with the dark, dense understory opening up to the lighter, more permeable upper levels. 

The detailing of the architecture at The Datai Langkawi is meticulous – every finish and junction has been considered. A particular highlight for architecture nerds is the balustrading around the resort, using traditional Malaysian building vernacular to create a beautiful play of light and shadow.

Where possible the original buildings were located and orientated to minimise the disturbance to existing vegetation. Inevitably some vegetation had to be removed to make way for the larger buildings, many of which utilise the sacrificed trees in their timber structures. In a time when environmental footprint and conservation are front of mind, Datai Langwaki is acutely aware of its obligation to protect and champion the rainforest in which it resides. As such, the resort recently invested in The Nature Centre. The centre is managed by a team of naturalists and marine biologists, who keep a close eye on the local flora and fauna. The centre offers guests the opportunity to participate in environmental activities such as guided walks, and to engage with research being undertaken by the Nature Centre team.

While The Datai has expanded slightly since it was originally completed in 1993 – a new fitness centre, Rainforest Pool Villas, The Nature Centre and The Datai Estate Villa have been added – the underlying design philosophy is  is unchanged: ‘a design DNA’ as Lefort refers to it. Natural materials are fundamental to this DNA and are ubiquitous. Basalt stone, timber roof shingles, timber post and beam structures are all integral parts of the design. When Lefort was approached by the resort to undertake the recent refurbishment, maintaining the Datai DNA was central to the brief. As with any architectural project, Lefort was excited to see how the resort had evolved over time and was keen to understand which areas were thriving and which could be improved. During the year-long renovation much of the resort was stripped back to its bare bones including all the rooms, villas, restaurants and guest facilities. The brief was to refresh and modernise the resort while maintaining its distinctive character. The overall layout and guiding principles of the resort were retained and new finishes, fixtures, fittings, technology and services installed throughout to meet the needs and expectations of modern day guests.


The Datai truly is a special place. One of its great successes is the sense of understated luxury. In many cultures luxury is imbued through the use of ornamentation and decoration, however the design team for The Datai steered away from unnecessary embellishment. Instead luxury comes in the form of spaciousness, a sense of calm, quality of materials, solidity, exceeding expectations and, most importantly, celebrating the amazing environment in which it is located. 

There are 121 rooms, suites and villas at The Datai Langkawi but such is the sense of space and tranquillity that even when the resort is fully booked it never feels busy. Every room is its own private sanctuary, each with a sitting area, balcony, enormous bed and palatial bathroom with soaking tub. But to simply list the amenities does not do this place justice – it is so much more than the sum of its parts. The four on-site restaurants all deliver excellent and unique dining experiences, while the level of service across every facet of the resort is simply impeccable. Staff retention is extremely high, stemming perhaps from the fact that Datai paid full wages during the year-long renovation, and offered training courses for staff to improve their skills and knowledge. The result is an effortless operational efficiency combined with a relaxed charm. Like the complimentary mini waffle-cone gelatos that arrive daily while you lounge on the beach or poolside, this resort anticipates what you want before you even realise you want it. Then there’s the breakfast buffet. It has to be one of the world’s very best and even includes a Bloody Mary station, with pour-your-own Grey Goose vodka and associated garnishes – a treat for those in the mood for a hedonistic breakfast. 

Maybe it’s the oxygen pumping out of the towering trees of the Machincang Mountain rainforest, or the heady delight of selecting which of the many gins to try every evening at sundown, or the pool water that feels somehow silky to the touch, there is something magical about this place. When a destination sets up such lofty expectations, the reality rarely lives up to the promise. Usually there is some element found wanting, a moment that lets you down ever so slightly. But at The Datai Langkawi the experience eclipses even your dreamiest imaginings, surprising and delighting at every turn. 

The Golf

Just ten minutes through the winding rainforest road, we reach The Els Club Teluk Datai, the standout of three golf courses on Langkawi.

Framed by the same rainforest system that envelops the The Datai Langkawi resort, Teluk Datai (meaning ‘Datai Bay’ in Malay) is orientated in a V shape, pointing from the water’s edge to the impressive Machincang Mountain range behind. Originally constructed in 1992, not long after the original Datai Langkawi resort, the course was reworked by Ernie Els and his design team in 2013. Els opened up some of the sightlines, adjusted elements of the routing in parts and, somewhat controversially, removed all the bunkering, which was proving difficult to maintain during monsoon season. Echoes of the old bunkers can be seen on most holes, but in truth they are not missed. The short grass instead opens up the chance to bump and run if you find yourself out of position. The course also makes the most of a meandering natural creek system that runs throughout, which provides a green-side test on several holes, particularly on the back 9, and features regularly off the tee.  

The ancient rainforest is a constant and welcome companion throughout the routing, providing a vibrant, flourishing backdrop, as are the birds and monkeys that regularly appear on the expansive playing surfaces. With five holes also making the most of the Andaman Sea waterfront section of the course, there is great variety on both the front and back nines. The clever inside-to-out routing means ocean- and jungle-side holes feature on both nines, which isn’t obvious looking at the course from the air. This means that the first few holes take up the most sedate land on the property, where a couple of fairly straightforward par-4s and a long par-3 let you ease into things. This is, after all, island life, and there’s no need to exert yourself too much. The par-4 4th is where the course really starts to elevate itself from a typical resort course. Here the entire right side of the fairway is framed by the rainforest, the fairways feature surprisingly steep undulations, and a strategic green complex offers a glimpse of the ocean beyond. 

It’s on the 5th tee that we first bust out of the forest and into the steamy tropical sun, with the par-3 asking for a 6- or 7-iron straight at the ocean, and the Thai islands, beyond. Out here on the double green, surrounded by tropical waters, and with two thirds of the round still to go, life on Langkawi feels wonderful. To follow, the back-to-back par-5s on the 7th and 8th are two of the strongest holes on the course. The 7th features a peninsula green-site and requires a strategic layup to avoid a deep hollow left of the pin that would require a testing up and down. The 8th crosses the creek twice – first on the drive over to a flat fairway, then on the approach to a narrow green – and again a strategic layup is required. The creek also features along the inside of the dogleg-left fairway, making this one of the riskiest holes on the course to take an aggressive tack.

While the seaside holes might draw most of the attention in photographs and tourist books, it’s the inland holes, on the mountain side of the road that splits off the 10th through 13th from the rest of the course, that are truly unique. These holes do appear a little ‘out and back’, but given the tight confines of the walls of rainforest either side, combined with the more acute land movement on this side of the course, it’s likely there weren’t a lot of options for Els to mix up the angles. The 10th is the first of these mountain side holes. Looking up at the clouds swirling around the nearby peaks and hearing the deep hum of activity of the rainforest, it’s hard at times to concentrate on the hole at hand. Again it’s a carry over the creek off the tee, before an uphill approach into a green that sits at the foot of the mountainous rainforest. The 11th heads back down the hill with an undulating par-4, before another impressive par-5 on the 12th perfectly frames the mountains and forces some fun shot shapes. The drive on 13 is also a delight, with a huge bank on the right encouraging you to let it rip and try to hit the speed slot, which can bring a short iron into play to hit a generous green.

Back over the road, the 14th through 16th are some of the tightest holes on course, with ancient trees framing every shot, and accuracy becoming critical. The dogleg-right 16th is a great example of this, with the forest pinching in around driver length and a beachside green making approach distances deceptive. The 17th is one of those truly memorable holes, playing a short iron over a small sandy beach to a green where anything right is in the ocean (though the prevailing breeze off the water might help you out a little). Then, the par-5 18th back inland sees the final appearance of the creek, forcing a little extra out of your second shot, and potentially causing some havoc in any matches that have come down to the last. 

As we putt out on 18, a private helicopter lands on the practice fairway and drops off some guests for a hit, a reminder that this is one of Asia’s most desirable islands. But Teluk Datai is refreshingly welcoming and doesn’t present as being ‘luxury’. Much like the nearby Datai, the enjoyment here comes from letting the setting speak for itself, and just getting out of the way. The lack of bunkers is an example of this – with surroundings like these, it would almost be impolite to compete for your attention with bold features and hazards. Instead the course allows you to soak in every backdrop, every moment of interaction with the natural environment, and every well-struck shot. The Els Club Teluk Datai is a reflection of, and an ode to, the beauty of Langkawi and the rainforest that it calls home.   

Learn more about The Datai Langkawi at

The Els Club is a 5-10 minute drive from The Datai.

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