A FORTNIGHT IN ULPOTHA - by MOYRA BREMNER
'Paradise' is the word guests most often use to describe this unique, mountain-ringed haven in the heart of Sri Lanka. It's a secluded hideaway where you live in elegant simplicity, close to nature, in adobe houses nestling among flowers and trees, swim in a lake half-smothered in tiny water lilies, and eat delicious food lounging on cushions like an emperor.
For me, the atmosphere was the highlight. It takes about 18-24 guests and seems to attract original and interesting people, of all ages and both solo and married, in the arts, media and professions. Some are paying guests, others friends of the owners. As everyone mixes and is treated like a friend, it feels like a very well run, and delightfully informal, house party where generosity comes naturally and one is cherished, not waited on. So it's a place with a lot of highs and very few lows.
Having been a place of pilgrimage for centuries the land itself has a profound, almost spiritual, tranquillity. It seems to invite you to let go and luxuriate in its gentle beauty - and in just being yourself, without the trappings and labels of modern life.
As a foodie one of the great joys of Ulpotha was its food. The main meals are eaten in a white, Sri Lankan manor house where jewel colours set off the carefully placed antique furniture and works of art. It was featured in 'The World of Interiors' and the elegant simplicity and use of colour make it look almost like a film set.
The dining room is an 'ambalama' - a large room, open to the breeze, its roof supported by pillars. You eat lounging, like a Roman emperor, on the wide, brilliantly cushioned, wall-bench which runs round three sides. Trays of mouth watering curries - perhaps green mango curry with coconut milk, garlic curry, or a stunning aubergine (egg plant) curry - are laid out with salads, sambals, appetisers, and side dishes, on a huge cream banana leaf mat which fills the floor. So you just help yourself, as often as you like.
After the curries there are luscious tropical fruits and buffalo milk yoghurt with kitul syrup - which is rather like maple syrup. There are also fruit juices made from some delicious wild fruit which you may taste nowhere else.
Breakfast is at the other end of the drive, in the kade - the little open-plan house which is Ulpotha's main chat room. You can breakfast from 7-12 on the best bananas I've ever eaten, tea, freshly baked Sri Lankan snacks and a tasty local soup -- oddly called porridge. In fact, in the kade, you can lounge around nibbling delicious Sri Lankan snacks all day long. For fresh nibbles appear in the afternoon and there's always someone there to slice the top off a king coconut, with a machete, and give you a glass of its water.
The other great chat room is the open-plan guest kitchen in the main house where you can make yourself coffee or English-style tea, at any time - and some guests spent hours round its table.
The one thing that isn't abundant is alcohol. Whenever there's a party there's more than enough - at no charge. Apart from that, it isn't usually provided. But nobody seems to miss it although, as there's no bar, some people do bring their own, or buy local beer or arrak.
A Room With A View
Ulpotha is a garden and a farm and in one but, with everything done the traditional way, there are no chemicals and no machinery. The bedrooms are little adobe houses in separate clearings among the lush mingling of tropical trees and shrubs, which produce the farm's fruit nuts. The sandy paths are shaded by coconut palms and fringed with brilliant hibisicus and the vegetable plots are bright with sunflowers and marigolds. So it feels rather like living in the Garden of Eden.
Each house is a double room with a difference. The furnishings are simple and thoughtful. Mosquito nets cover the beds. A curvaceous terracotta pot, topped with a coconut cup, provides pure spring water to drink. here are ample cupboards, piles of softly coloured floor cushions invite lounging beside a low table and every day there's a fresh bowl of floating flowers. The soft natural tones set off the brilliant 'wallpaper of the natural world. True to Sri Lankan tradition the immaculate and sweetly scented loos and showers are in separate buildings. For, the only wall is behind the beds, and privacy is provided by bamboo blinds and the low sweep of the palm-leaf roof.
My room looked out across brilliant green paddy fields. and at night I fell asleep to a frog lullaby. There's nothing quite like drowsing off to the sound of the velvety tropical night and waking in a comfortable bed to see to bullocks grazing gently in the distance and flowers and butterflies almost close enough to touch.
It is, above all, a place to relax and find peace and the only rule seems to be that there aren't any rules - unless you count an unwritten rule to treat everything and everyone with gentle respect and tolerance. Yet, there is a rhythm to the days. There are usually daily yoga classes in a big, breezy, open-sided, building with a palm leaf roof, or in the dappled shade beneath the trailing aerial roots of a huge banyan tree. Ulpotha attracts some world-class yoga instructors. So some guests go there for the yoga - and coil themselves into amazing positions. However, teachers set their own schedules, teaching one or two classes a day, according to what people want. Some also lead dawn or sunset walks in the surrounding hills.
I enjoyed the yoga and heard the walks were glorious. But they are both optional and, having overslept a few classes, discovered nobody is an outsider for missing them, for Ulpotha's main activities are swimming, walking, reading, snoozing and paddling about in boats. This is a place to unwind, be gentle with yourself, live close to nature and simply be, not a place where you have to exercise and strive.
One of the lovely things about Ulpotha was that it's equally easy to find both companionship and solitude. When you want to be alone there are the inviting hammocks slung around the grounds, two tree houses, or a secluded little ambalama overlooking the lake. . Best of all there's a romantic little house on stilts in the far side of the lake where privacy is guaranteed - there's only one canoe to take you there. All these hideaways have urns of pure spring water, oil lamps, mattresses and bedding. So they're perfect for a siesta or even a night of total solitude. This makes Ulpotha a great place for creative people to think - or even work. When I was there one Hollywood writer hid away in the lake house for days, emerging only for meals - blissed out and saying it was 'every child's dream'.
Sri Lankan's are good at sleeping wherever they are. So, in keeping with this tradition, guests are encouraged to spend the occasional night in one of hideaways, so they can experience waking to sunrise on the lake - or simply a new freedom.
One of the special features of Ulpotha is that, . if you want to be pampered massages, ayurvedic herbal or hot oil treatments are free. The health centre offers an interesting combination of east and west, modern and traditional for, though the herbal treatments are Sri Lankan the massage is by Europeans.
Ulpotha sits in the oldest continually inhabited area of Sri Lanka, which is a treasure house of traditional remedies. So its soothing steam baths and hot oil treatments use the ancient ayurvedic herbal remedies still found in local village medicine and made from herbs that are grown at Ulpotha or gathered in the surrounding woods. unfortunately I visited Ulpotha too soon to experience Ulpotha's latest innovation. I hear it's an appointment with, Mr Chandrasekara - one of the region's most respected ayurvedic experts. That must be fascinating. For the ayurvedic tradition sees a unity in mind and body and reads' them in a totally different way from Western medicine.
The Birds And The Bees
Although indolence is Ulpotha's keynote it's also a nature lover's and walker's dream. The energetic find endless hills to climb and woods to walk, and a garden designer among the guests seemed entranced by the plants. For wildlife, as for people, the area is a place of safety so, just walking to breakfast, I watched a monitor lizard sunbathing while exotic birds landed only feet away.
However, the restless spirits not interested in wildlife borrowed Ulpotha's bikes and cycled the deeply rutted path to the nearest village to buy a few - very few - bare necessities and phone their loved ones from the public phone. For one of few problems at Ulpotha is a complete lack of phones, and surrounding mountains which make most mobiles fail.
A Touch Of Magic
The most magical evening of my stay was when we all sat in the darkness, watching buffalo thresh the new rice crop in the cool of the night. I felt like a time traveller as they slowly circled, treading it under their hooves, as they had for thousands of years, lit only by flickering candle light.
Ulpotha keeps alive the traditional rituals of seed time and harvest, and I watched, next morning, as rice was ritually cooked and spread on flower-decorated banana leaves, in thanks for this God-given harvest, before being shared round the village in celebration.
Such things are part of the fabric of Ulpotha's life, not a show put on for tourists. Here tradition is lived, celebration and gratitude seem to come naturally, and the practical and the spiritual are deeply interwoven. So respect for nature, and everything that lives, is a daily act of reverence - and you can feel it in the whole atmosphere of the place and the thoughtfulness with which you are looked after.
Pleasures And Pastimes
Party nights are nights to remember. The owners seem to sense when everyone is in the mood for dancing and suddenly say, 'How about a party tonight?' By nightfall, bottles of arrak have been mustered and rugs and cushions laid out on the flat rocks by the lake, or under the enormous banyan tree. Dancing in the moonlight is to the music of a remarkably talented village band, or CD's powered by a car battery.
Some of the great sights of Sri Lanka are within reach, among them Dambulla and a Buddhist monastery with some of the oldest archaeological remains in the country. So, at least once a week, there's a spur of the moment picnic or a visit to a historic site. These outings are free, apart from the admission fee to wherever you visit. But whether you pile into the minibus and jolt off - over the less than wonderful roads - or stay and savour the even greater quiet when others have gone, is entirely up to you.
I arrived at Ulpotha intending to see all the magnificent sights within reach. But the place soon worked its magic and the 'shoulds' fell away, leaving only a desire to relish the peace around me. So don't be surprised if you find that your desire to sight see melts away, like mist in sunlight. After all, there's always next time. Some of my fellow guests were on their third visit and it's a place that's hard to visit only once - if you've a taste for magic.
Ulpotha is unique. It neither teaches nor preaches yet, for some, just staying there is life changing
One of things I like enormously is that everything within Ulpotha, from the moment you arrive till the moment you leave, is included in the fee. You don't even pay for treatments at the health centre - and there's no tipping. You are even given a sarong on arrival. If you take the right flight transport to and from the airport is also included. So, once there, you hardly need money - except for shopping. For Ulpotha sell the most gorgeous sarongs I've ever seen and there are hand weaving centres not far away and an irresistible shop, called Barefoot, in Columbo which, if you overnight in Columbo before flying home, is ideal for buying presents.
The gentle, easygoing, house-party atmosphere, and sense of being among friends.
The delicious and abundant food.
Its remarkable combination of luxury and simplicity.
The tranquillity of living without electricity, telephones, mechanical noise, or the media.
The embracing spirit of the land.
The opportunities for solitude.
The endless delights of living so close to nature.
The wildlife and plants.
Watching the traditional agricultural rituals of seeding, threshing and blessing.
The velvety tropical evenings .
The magic of meandering paths lit only by flickering oil lamps.
Moonlight parties beside a lake cradled in mountains.
You aren't served, you are thoughtfully looked after.
The amazing freedom of forgetting about money because there are no extras and no tipping.
The atmosphere of gentle tolerance.
Night creatures singing one to sleep in a comfortable bedroom almost without walls.
Above all, its profound peace, beauty and luxurious simplicity.
The price of total tranquillity is no electric sockets and no hot water. (I found cold showers blissful in the heat but others may not).
Lack of telephone communication. Ulpotha purposely has no phone. The surrounding mountains block mobiles - except on a rock whose very steep approach is a mud-slide in rain - and it's a rough bike ride to a public phone.
Sounds travel between huts - snorers and noisy lovers, be warned.
Copyright © Moyra Bremner
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