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Malaysian Persuasian

At the opposite end of Langkawi's northern shore, the Datai, the island's other luxury hotel, plays the ecology angle even harder. The 112-room, four-story resort is built right into the rain forest, with views over the jungle canopy to the ocean beyond. From my suite, which looked out onto the treetops in three directions, I could lie comfortably on the divan by the window and scan the skies for birds using a pair of hotel binoculars left on the table. (I could also scan the swimming pool, if I preferred.) A laminated sheet provides pictures and names of the more notable species. Elsewhere in the room I found a handy guide to other living things of the forest—printed on unbleached paper, of course—and a schedule for the hotel's complimentary guided rain-forest walks.

I also found the Monkey Rules. A good thing, too. I had scarcely lain down for a well-earned nap—okay, not well-earned, but desired—when there came a rattling at my door. "No need to turn down the bed!" I called from beneath the rumpled sheets. But the doorknob kept on rattling. Groggily I raised my head. There, beyond the glass door to my balcony, sat a rather pissed-off-looking macaque. As per the Monkey Rules, I had latched the doors and stowed the fruit bowl out of sight in a corner. That wasn't fooling the monkey, though. He kept glowering at me. I glowered back (a look I rarely get to use, except with monkeys, some dogs, and my girlfriend). Finally he went away.

If the Tanjung Rhu made me want to spend all my time exploring the resort, the Datai made me want to spend all my time in my room. The architecture is a kind of soft-focus cross-cultural fantasy of Mayan temples and Balinese pavilions, the sort of place Indiana Jones might retire to if he made a billion dollars in Internet stocks. On the rare occasions my increasingly sluggish metabolism allowed, I padded barefoot over the glistening hardwood floors of my suite, draping myself in succession over the various couches, chaise longues, and other upholstered surfaces. Forget the beach—that was down a hundred or so steps and through a sweltering stretch of jungle. I had a fruit basket to work on (and no help from the monkeys).

Eventually even I had to admit that this was getting ridiculous. I was on a rather large island; surely there had to be something more to do than lounge around an extravagantly comfy resort. "How about a restaurant?" I asked a helpful-looking staffer. He stared. "A restaurant?" I insisted. He gave me the address of a place called Barn Thai, billed as the world's only restaurant in a mangrove swamp.

As soon as I arrived I realized that there is a good reason the world has only one mangrove-swamp restaurant. A mangrove swamp, essentially, is a large waterlogged ditch. It does harbor a vast array of wildlife, mostly insects. To get to the restaurant, you cross the stagnant, muddy water on a 500-yard wooden walkway. Floodlights illuminate the straggly trunks of the mangroves, and draw even-larger-than-usual swarms of flying bugs. Every hundred yards or so the walkway widens to accommodate a set of benches, where those so inclined can pause to enjoy the gloom.

Still, my spirits lifted once I arrived at the dining room. For one thing, I was alive, and second, the place was cheery, well-lit, and air-conditioned. As I worked my way through a serviceable bowl of tom ka gai (a soup made with coconut milk, chicken, and Chinese parsley), the manager, Eidy, sat down for a chat.

"So whose idea was this place?" I asked.

"The prime minister's!" Eidy replied. "He was in Turkey, and they took him on a tour of a swamp where they'd built a restaurant. He loved it. He said, 'We have lots of wasteland back home. We should build one ourselves.' " Eidy smiled at how prescient the prime minister had been. "Tourists love this place. It's unique."

Unique, yes. Personally, I'd prefer a private barbecue on the beach at Tanjung Rhu, reclining under an umbrella as the sunset transforms the evening clouds into a palette of indescribable colors. There's nothing unique about a sunset, or a beach, or a good meal—but under certain circumstances those elements can come together in a wonderful way. I'm not alone. A few months ago, Jodie Foster was on Langkawi for the filming of Anna and the King, a movie based on the story that inspired The King and I. Location shooting took place at a replica of the Thai summer palace built on the western shore. Though Foster was staying at the Datai, she came to Tanjung Rhu repeatedly for alfresco dinners on the beach.

Ironically, Anna is being released this season by the same studio that's making The Beach. But unlike The Beach, which was filmed in Thailand and caused a ruckus over supposed environmental destruction by the crew, Anna came and went rather quietly, leaving warm feelings all around. Still, I wonder if the seeds of trouble have been planted. Pristine movie locations have a way of becoming not-so-pristine tourist magnets. Could such a fate befall Langkawi?

Possibly—but probably not. More likely, most moviegoers will think Anna was shot in Thailand, and they'll start booking flights to Bangkok. The rest—the sort of people who stay around long enough to read the movie credits—may be exactly the minority who would appreciate Langkawi's orderly vision of paradise. For those who fall into that category, my advice: Bring plenty of sunblock and a good book, and prepare for life in low gear.

It's hard at first, doing nothing. But you'll get used to it.


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