Datai hotel and RuMa hotel review: monkey business in Malaysia
One of country's most beautiful islands brings nature into sharp focus, contrasted with the country’s buzzing capital, Kuala Lumpur
The sign by the twisting, cliffside road on the way to our destination, The Datai hotel on the northwest coast of the island of Langkawi, reads, "drive slowly; animals at play". Moments later, we spot some: a troupe of dusky langur monkeys, native to Malaysia, scaling the wire attached to a telegraph pole, en route to some treetops. There are around six or seven adults, all with glossy black fur, and one anomaly: a female carries what looks like a bright orange baby under her body – is this the monkey equivalent of being a ginger?
Actually no, my boyfriend and I are told later by one of the Datai’s highly knowledgeable naturalists: baby langurs are born with orange fur so they don’t become targets for the eagles which patrol the island. As it turns out, this is just one of hundreds of fascinating facts we are to learn over the next few days, and it’s also just one of dozens of animal encounters.
The next one occurs just after we’ve checked in to our pool villa, set deep into the lush, jungly rainforest in which the Datai resides. This handsome property dates from 1993, and was one of the first luxury resorts on Langkawi, but it has just undergone an impressive $60 million renovation. Rooms and public spaces have been spruced up, and the original designer, Didier Lefort, has overseen the addition of some impressive artworks and antiques, such as the huge wooden horses from India which greet guests in the open air lobby.
As I go to unlock the front door of our villa, I get the sense someone, or something, is watching me. And they are; perched on the roof, sizing me up, is a smooth-furred macaque monkey, its eyes fixed on mine. It darts behind an eave, and I don’t encounter it again until a couple of minutes later, when I throw open the glass door which lead out onto the deck, where the small pool is. "It’s got its eyes on your bananas," explains the valet who’s bringing in our bags. And indeed, there is a generous fruit bowl just waiting for me – or a monkey – to plunder it. "They’ve learned to recognise when new guests are moving in," he elaborates, "thanks to the movements of the housekeeping staff; they like to scope you out to see if you’re the type who’ll leave your windows open so they can run in and steal whatever you’ve left lying around." I hastily shut the door, just in case I end up being outwitted by a cheeky monkey.
Blessed with its own private stretch of golden beach, which gives out across to Thailand, the Datai is exactly the kind of place where you could just lounge on the sand, or by one of its two sizeable pools, doing nothing more strenuous than raising a hand to summon another cocktail. But while you can do just that, or even some more energetic activities – from waterskiing to paddle-boarding or mountain biking – it would be a crime not to explore your immediate surroundings further, and learn about the creatures which call this ten million year old rainforest home. The resort is lucky enough to have respected naturalist Irshad Mobarack, who’s been described as Malaysia’s David Attenborough, in charge of its nature centre, and he heads up a team of equally knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff, including his own niece, Shakira.
Between them, they host a series of guided walks around the property at different times of day, and the contrast between what you can see at night time or otherwise is significant. For example, on a twilight stroll through the grounds, the first thing we come across is a small, furry, bat-like creature asleep, upside down, in the crook of a tree. It’s similar to a flying squirrel, but is actually a colugo; these little animals communicate sonically, like bats, and are great gliders. We leave it to its slumbers, and move on, stopping every so often to spot (or hear), minah birds calling from the trees above, scorpions ensconced in cracks in a stone wall, and then a massive lizard just hanging out, vertically, on the front door of one of the villas.
"This incredible creature inspired a key scene in a movie," reveals Shakira, who’s leading the walk, explaining that the gloves Tom Cruise wears to seemingly scale the Burj Khalifa in Dubai in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol were based on the gecko’s feet. The reason it can adhere to vertical surfaces is not because they are covered in suction pads, but because the attraction between the surface and the sole is caused by molecules pressing together, a phenomenon known as the Van der Waals pressure principle. Who knew?
After a few blissful – and highly educational – days, it’s time to leave the actual jungle behind, and head to the urban one. Capital, Kuala Lumpur, is less than a 90-minute flight away, making it ridiculously easy to twin your experience (depending on how much you like your nightlife, you might want to do this the other way around so you can relax after a hectic stay). This time, there are – somewhat disappointingly – no monkeys on check in at our next hotel, the slick, stylish new RuMa, the third property from the Chinese-owned Urban Resort Concepts Group.
Beautifully designed by Brit architect Andy Hall, its concept is to reflect Kuala Lumpur’s history in tin-mining and rubber plantations. To this effect, he’s made good use of copper, both as a material and as a colour, from the small entrance foyer to the impressive lobby. Below the soft, glimmering copper ceiling is a an audacious, double staircase, which Hall wanted to recall mining drill bits (trust us, it looks better than that sounds), with a spot-lit, glittering gold sculpture of a kebaya – the Malay national dress - by Malaysian designer Bernard Chandran in between. RuMa’s showstopper, however, has to be its sixth floor pool; glass-edged, and tiled in glittering gold and black, it’s sliced into a corner of the building. To swim in here is to feel dwarfed by a forest of skyscrapers.
Tearing ourselves reluctantly away, however, we head to the nearby KLCC Park, a vast green space in the concrete sprawl, home to the iconic spikes of the Petronas Towers which rise from within it (jogging highly entertaining memories of Sean Connery drooling over Catherine Zeta Jones in a catsuit in the 1999 film, Entrapment).
Beyond is the ‘entertainment district’ of Bukit Bintang, stuffed with 21st century shopping malls, but we go in search of a bit more authenticity along Jalan Alor. Informally known as ‘food street’, it’s lined with dozens of street food stalls and restaurants where you can get a few courses and a beer and still have change from a tenner. We round it off with a few cocktails and a spectacular view on the 59th floor of the recently opened Banyan Tree; an electric storm raging outside only makes things more exciting.
On our last day, we have another animal encounter, at the Batu Caves temple complex. This is a collection of Hindu temples built into naturally-occurring caves, located at the top of a set of 272 steps. Last year, these were painted in an Instagrammable array of rainbow colours, adding to the area’s natural beauty. Any brave visitor scaling them has to also run the gauntlet of the residents of the caves and the surrounding areas: the incredibly cheeky macaque monkey.
They throng onto the steps, looking for any unwitting tourist who does not have a firm grip on his or her bottle of soda (they are patently uninterested in anything as boring as mineral water). Once they’ve dislodged it from unsuspecting, slow-to-react hands, they unscrew the top, pour the contents onto the ground, and lap away to their hearts’ content. And as for anyone who’s been foolish enough to bring their own fruit or sandwiches…well, I can safely say there’s no sight funnier than that of a monkey scaling a tourist’s legs like a tree and divesting him of his food parcel like the Artful Dodger would a pocket watch. For monkey business like this alone, Malaysia is well worth the visit.
BA flies from London to KL from around £446 return; ba.com.
AirAsia flies between KL and Langkawi from around £33 return; airasia.com.
Rooms at The Datai Langkawi start from around £463, including breakfast; thedatai.com.
Rooms at The RuMa, Kuala Lumpur, start from around £155, including breakfast; theruma.com.