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Is This Malaysia's Moment?

The rain ended just as we pulled into the Datai, the kind of resort that makes architects and interior decorators salivate. Parts of it are reminiscent of a Japanese castle, with pagoda-like roofs; designer-furnished rooms face the island-dotted Andaman Sea. Nearby, waterfalls thunder down mist-shrouded, jungle-covered mountains. A 10-minute walk through virgin rain forest leads to a crescent beach, where the owners of the Datai recently built a 188-room resort called the Andaman.

It is easy enough to confine oneself to the Datai. During my stay, I spent hours floating in the pool on the terrace overlooking the sea, and training the hotel-supplied binoculars on the red flying squirrels soaring between the trees just beyond my balcony.

But most of the time I resisted temptation, and with good reason. Along much of its northern shore, Langkawi is still a naturalist's dream. From December to March, it is a stopover for hundreds of bird species migrating from as far away as Siberia. Three-foot-long black monitor lizards-- sharp-toothed survivors from Cretaceous times-- dash along its pure-white beaches. From the sky above, skittish Brahminy kites and majestic white-bellied sea eagles plunge into the turquoise waters offshore, emerging with fish in their talons.

Granted, there are some human blemishes hidden among the orchid fields, monkeys, and hornbills. Mahendra Dev, the Datai's naturalist, took me on a boat tour of the coastal mangroves with six other passengers, from Pittsburgh, Melbourne, and Osaka. He pointed out an island once famous for its bat cave. A hotel developer decided it would be more appealing if the dense mangroves were replaced by pine trees, stone benches, and picnic tables. This resulted in an ecological domino effect: the long-tongued bats, which fed on the mangrove flowers, have starved or moved elsewhere. In the absence of bats, wasps have infested the cave. The pines don't have the mangroves' extensive root networks, which protected the beach from erosion, so the waves have shattered the benches and tables.

Before leaving Langkawi I wanted at least a glimpse of more traditional Malay society. Malays call themselves bumiputra, or "sons of the soil." Driving through the mountains, I could see thousands of acres of green rice fields stretching across much of the central part of the island far below. Surely, there were still plenty of bumiputra villagers living in their airy wood houses on stilts.

At a local café I met Shukri Shafie, who grew up in Langkawi and had recently built himself one of those traditional-style Malay dwellings. We drove through the jungle, then along a clearing of rice paddies, and finally up a hill to Shukri's house. It was a wonder to behold. Shukri explained how carefully he had followed local custom and architectural style. He had hired a religious shaman to approve the location of the land and decide the most propitious day to begin construction. From his ancestors' plot, Shukri had brought earth in a coconut shell and buried it with a gold coin under what would be the central pillar. On the sides of the house, artisans had carved wood panels with traditional Kedah motifs, such as spice plants, flowers, and animals. The high roofs and open windows provided natural ventilation even during the hottest part of the day.

Perhaps it was indiscreet, but I couldn't help asking Shukri how he could afford to build this residence worthy of a sultan. He had spent much of his adult life, he explained, as an advertising executive in the United States and Europe. "I once handled the Coca-Cola account in Malaysia," said Shukri, who had set aside enough savings to enjoy a simpler, more provincial existence.

Enlightenment, it seems, can take many shapes. And so, at journey's end, I had finally come across somebody able to effortlessly sort out and balance the conflicting strains of traditional and modern life in Malaysia.


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