Nikola Sarbinowski finds a new kind of zen in Malaysia’s Jewel of Kedah.
We’re paddling between mangroves, sunshine toasting our legs and white-bellied sea-eagles swooping overhead, when our guide Fuad drops a bomb and tells us saltwater crocodiles stalk these waters. “And then, at night, we have hundreds of snakes coming out here. Especially the king cobra and pit viper,” he continues, as if the threat of salties wasn’t enough to shatter paradise.
In an instant, the plastic shells separating us from the water seem terribly flimsy. Each silver flatfish resembles a snout, and every mangrove root the ridge of a strong, scaly tail.
“So how do you know there aren’t any crocodiles here now?” I ask Fuad.
“Now? They’re here somewhere,” he replies, unfazed. “But so far, while paddling, we haven’t had any encounters.”
Before the 2004 tsunami hit Langkawi, hundreds of crocodiles swarmed Kubang Badak River. Apparently, fishermen observed floats of them departing after the big wave struck the picturesque archipelago, but even the thought of just a few lone rangers is enough to make me edgy.
Fuad dips his hand into the river, fishing out a mangrove seed shaped like a torpedo, and within moments his attention has returned to explaining the mysteries of the mangroves. Between rescuing a prawn that’s catapulted inside one of our kayaks and learning about mangrove seeds being propelled through the sea for up to two years, we do our best to appear inedible in case any crocs are eyeing us off.
With some trepidation we paddle on, passing what looks to be thousands of leaves waltzing on a black sandbank. Closer inspection reveals an army of fiddler crabs, each maniacally waving a single, beefed-up claw in the hopes of attracting a mate. Across the river a brown-winged kingfisher mocks their macho display. A mudskipper, one of the ugliest amphibious fish to ever wade onto land, pervs on us from the edge of the water with its eyes bulging and maw agape.
At high tide the archipelago of Langkawi consists of 99 isles that form part of the Malaysian state of Kedah. Most are uninhabited and promise ancient rainforests teeming with animal life, vast limestone rock formations, coves dripping with stalactites and plenty of attractive beaches. At low tide, when the Andaman Sea slurps out its brine, several more islands appear, knocking the tally up to 104. We’re paddling through an estuary in Pulau Langkawi, the biggest island of the lot, which at 320 square kilometres could fit into Tassie 200 times and still have room to spare. In 2007, UNESCO named this island South-East Asia’s first ‘global geopark’. The following year Sultan Abdul Halim bestowed the name the Jewel of Kedah upon the whole archipelago. For shoppers, it’s a tax-free haven; for those who love nature, it’s heaven on earth.
Crocs aren’t the only creatures to have skulked through Langkawi’s waterways. In 1821 the King of Siam swept across the Strait of Malacca and laid claim over the isles, until Datuk Kerma Jaya, the headman of Langkawi’s capital at the time, squeezed the invading armies out by poisoning wells and destroying the island’s granary. By the twentieth century the British Empire had wrapped its tentacles around the region and the Brits played tug of war with Siam – now Thailand – until Malaysia declared its independence in 1957. These days, a ferry zips between Langkawi and the Thai island of Koh Lipe, and the pirates that once lurked in Langkawi’s jungle and coves are consigned to the pages of history.
Our little group relaxes as we wend further into the estuary, and a couple of hours later we’re rinsing off the remaining jitters at Temurun falls, the island’s tallest waterfall. Although almost four million tourists land in Langkawi each year, few seem to have made it this far north and we share our swim with just a handful of travellers and a couple of local families. Fresh water crashes down the 200-metre-high, triple-decker cake of sandstone and shale, rushing beneath boys scaling enormous logs and filling pools where girls rest with hijabs draping into the deliciously cool water.
It seems impossible to remain wound up while surrounded by ferns and ficus, and we’ve forgiven Fuad for the crocs by the time we return to our villas at the Datai Langkawi. Wedged between the Andaman Sea and South-East Asia’s oldest mountain, Machincang, the five-star resort brings ten million-year-old rainforest right to its doorstep, and invites forest dwellers right inside. Day in and day out, macaques play out scenes from an action movie, scaling buildings and sliding down poles. When they’re not breaking into minibars in the canopy suites or pilfering fruit from the stilted rainforest villas, they’re scuttling across the private beach, chasing crabs out of burrows.
A French woman checking in at the open-air reception pivots a camera at a flying lemur clinging to a tree. “See the kicking? It’s got a baby inside! Like a kangaroo!” points out the concierge. Our “ohhhs” and “ahhhs” blend with the orgy of frogs panting in the pond by the lobby. Frogspawn foams at the edges until staff can spirit it away and tadpoles bellyflop from eggs hatching in the roof, their slippery bodies plopping onto lily pads in the pond. I’m told a monitor lizard sometimes perches on a rock in the middle, setting himself up for a feast. “Have you met Irshad Mobarak yet?” the concierge asks. “He’s our naturalist. He’ll tell you all about them.” I promise to seek him out and I set off into the forest.
It’s not just the concierge who’s eager to introduce guests to the local fauna. Staff tidying up after Mother Nature will draw you aside for a glimpse of a green- and red-checkered paradise tree snake or the stubby beak of a Malayan soft-shell turtle nosing for shellfish in the stream. Insect life is so thick on the ground you have to prance along the boardwalks to keep from squishing it. Fat caterpillars ooze along the footpath and teeny green snakes curl between rocks. In the Dining Room, fingernail-sized frogs have guests chatting across tables between courses of torched trout belly and barbecued sous-vide octopus. Cicadas rattle their tymbals like drums, creating a racket by the Gulai House, where award-winning local cuisine is served in a traditional Malay kampung-style house. Only the Pavilion, the Thai restaurant perched on stilts above the canopy like an enormous bird’s house, regularly plays music. The rainforest promises a symphony, and the Datai listens with open ears.
Within less than a day a giant black squirrel has been sighted by one of the pools, a couple of loved-up hornbills have soared past the lobby and a family of dusky leaf monkeys have passed an afternoon tossing fruit onto the bar near the beach. Nicole, the Datai’s marine biologist, tells me that only last week a pod of 40 dolphins swum by on the hunt for anchovies. I keep my eyes glued on the emerald water whenever I visit the beach, hoping to observe one of the whale sharks, finless porpoises or sea otters that frequent the bay.
In the afternoon, bruised clouds roll over the treetops. Raindrops smack the canopy, quashing the scent of ylang-ylang. The Strait of Malacca transforms into a bowl of fizzy drink and the nearby Thai isle of Koh Tarutao is no longer visible under the haze. Yet only a couple of hours later the water is glassy again, and I join my fellow estuary explorers to paddleboard out to Anak Datai, another little island in the bay. None of us spy any of the dugongs or long and slender Bryde’s whales that sometimes cruise these waters, but I do spot a pillowy jellyfish billowing past my board.
While we’re on Anak Datai, peering back at the beach and Mount Machinchang rising from the forest, I realise just how unusual the Datai actually is. When Australian architect Kerry Hill designed the hotel in the early 1990s, he decided to set it back from the coast’s perfect sand to deepen its connection with the rainforest. Traditional construction methods and elephants trained to move timber were used to minimise disruption to the precious flora. The unorthodox design turned out to be a winning combination, with guests returning time and again. In fact, families who visit the Datai five times or more find a plaque engraved with their surname shining above their villa door. There’s an entire store room full of them.
“Have you met Irshad yet?” seems to be the question on everybody’s lips. When I finally meet the banker-turned-naturalist, it’s easy to see why he’s so well regarded; the man’s a natural born storyteller. As we potter along on one of his guided walks through the Datai’s 750 hectares of forest, he introduces us to the black and white Helen, one of more than 500 butterfly species that lives in Langkawi, and weaves biology with tales of sex and sin from the animal kingdom. The usually kid-friendly metamorphose from caterpillar to butterfly becomes a gripping and gruesome transformation, where organs are digested into a DNA soup before becoming the flighty things we see tussling in the bushes.
Irshad’s knowledge isn’t limited to animals on the island. During an evening walk he shines his torch on a rengas tree and warns us not to stand too close during rain because damaged leaves release an acid that will blacken and burn our skin. He sidles up to a tongkat ali tree and tells us that Malaysians carefully dig for the precious roots and boil tiny shavings to extract its potent properties. You’ll find tongkat ali steeped and consumed with coffee all around the country. Perhaps it’s been soaking in my morning brew and that’s why I feel so revived here.
“Malay people say, if a man drinks this tea, it’s a powerful aphrodisiac,” Irshad chuckles. “Malay people say, if a woman drinks this tea… for her, it’s a contraceptive. Which explains why we only have 30 million Malaysians surrounded by 67 million Thais, 100 million Filipinos and more than 240 million Indonesians!
“One cup a day, daily, for only two weeks, records a 480 percent increase in testosterone in a man. A 480 percent testosterone increase in a man will drive him nuts. A 480 percent increase of testosterone in any woman will not only interrupt her egg production, but it will also give her a beard. And a beard on a woman is powerful contraception.”
I make a mental note to check my coffee consumption.
Beneath the chorus of cicadas a different sort of energy vibrates through the Datai, as the hotel prepares to undergo its own metamorphosis after 24 years in the forest. When it unfurls its wings in September this year, its villas will be refreshed and the hotel will be even more integrated with the rainforest. Irshad tells me of his plans for a dedicated Nature Centre and for 20 camera traps that he hopes will capture images of the island’s most elusive animal: the clouded leopard. But it’s the theory of mandi embun, which he plans to introduce into his nature walks, that really captures my attention. Translating to ‘bathing in the forest dew’, it is achieved by simply walking in the forest atmosphere. Malays have been abiding by it for centuries, Irshad explains, and it’s key to their longevity. “All the Malay people that live to 90- or 100-plus, many of them practise this.
“After a weekend in the forest you’ll see blood pressure drops, stress level drops, and NK cells increases – the natural killer cells in the body that fight cancers.”
On the plane back to mainland Malaysia I politely decline the coffee offered by the friendly stewardess. Not because I’m overly worried about sprouting a few fuzzies, but because I’m trying to eke out every last drop of mandi embun-induced calm. In my chilled-out haze I promise myself I’ll return to Langkawi soon. Even if it doesn’t add extra years to my life, I’ll be one stay closer to seeing my surname shining on a plaque above my villa door.
Malaysia Airlines flies from Melbourne and Sydney to Langkawi, via Kuala Lumpur. Return flights in business class cost US$2156. malaysiaairlines.com
Suites at the Datai Langkawi look out over the Andaman Sea and Tarutao Island, and a collection of villas abut the beach. Best of all, though, are the villas that stand on stilts above the rainforest floor, which start at US$505. The resort will reopen in September 2018, following refurbishment. thedatai.com
Contrast your island getaway with an extended stopover in Kuala Lumpur. Find out what to see, where to stay and what to eat with Malaysia’s official tourism website. malaysia.travel