the few in the know, Ulpotha is the ultimate yoga holiday -but
there are insects and snakes in this Sri Lankan paradise, warns
Andrew Eames It takes an age to struggle free of the Sri Lankan
capital, Colombo. Eventually the traffic thins and the dusty
screen of urban sprawl falls away to reveal undulating countryside
sculpted by rice terracing and patched with pineapple fields.
vendors pile stalls high with regional produce: first cashew
nuts, then river fish, sweetcorn and coconuts as the scenery
gets progressively prettier and more rural.
this steady return to life in its rudimentary, oxen-ploughed
state, Ulpotha itself comes as a surprise. Billed on its website
as a "private hideaway open to guests", you'd never guess that
Ulpotha existed. No signs point to it from the roadside, or
even at the gateway. For all intents and purposes, it is just
another rural village, hard up against the shins of a rock-and-forest
escarpment. Few destinations are so spiritually close to the
land as this one.
beyond the outer gateway and you catch glimpses of oddly shaped
mud cottages scattered through a forest of mango, mee and kumbuk
trees, laced with a web of pathways. The cottages, daubed with
rich ochre swirls and figures, are open to the elements, but
sufficiently separate to be private.
has its own bamboo bridge over a surging stream, another stands
on a giant boulder and a third is on the edge of the rice terracing.
Further in, between a couple of ponds in a glade busy with butterflies,
stands a main building with a pillared portico. Beyond it an
ornate pavilion or ambalama -a traditional resting place for
weary travellers -in which a dozen or so barefoot people in
sarongs are helping themselves to a selection of curries prepared
from vegetables grown in local fields.
questioned, they may describe themselves as residents, but they
won't know one end of an ox from the other. As you may have
surmised, this is more of a spiritual retreat than a mainstream
tourist destination. Ulpotha is effectively a parallel pair
of villages, one local and one international, sharing the same
is the creation of a trinity of idealists: the late Sri Lankan
visionary Tennekoon; a Sri Lankan-born investment banker, Viren
Perera, who decided to get closer to his roots; and Giles Scott,
a British former property developer, who "came to Sri Lanka
to rediscover my soul".
original vision didn't include paying guests. The idea was to
create an organic community where Tennekoon could experiment
with traditional agriculture and Perera and Scott could go for
a weekend retreat. It wasn't long before news of this Arcadia
leaked out, and friends of friends wangled invitations to come
guests are friends of those friends' friends who want to share
in its idealism. Ulpotha doesn't advertise, nor does it sell
itself through tour operators. In fact, for half of the year
it returns to its natural state, refusing to accept visitors
-and the rest of the time it is pretty much full. It isn't,
though, everyone's cup of tea. There are no smart hotel managers
and no bar, although nobody will stop you from venturing into
the outside world to buy a few beers.
forest is heaving with wildlife, which means snakes in the trees,
monkeys on the roofs at dawn and plenty of insects in your bedroom.
Guests are advised to disturb unused clothing once a day in
case something is tempted to nest in it.
no electricity, which made my after-dark arrival, when all the
pathways were lit with hurricane lamps, all the more atmospheric.
Setting my lamp on the ground in my open-air bathroom, I turned
on the tap and had no idea where the (cold) water would come
from until it hit me hard between the shoulder blades. The resultant
cavorting shadow, projected against the tree above, looked like
something out of Shrek.
what do you do while you're here? In keeping with the spirituality
and the health-conscious regime, there are yoga or pilates classes
every morning and evening in a purpose-built pagoda on the edge
of the rice fields. There's also a hamlet of ayurvedic huts
opposite the main building, and guests are all treated to a
consultation with sleepy-eyed Dr Srilal Mudunkothge.
to my pulse, he said, I was a mixture of vata and pitta doshas,
which implied creativity and mental agility, so I quite agreed
with that. I wasn't so keen on the sound of some of his treatments,
though; there was talk of enemas, vomiting and blood-letting,
for a small extra fee.
other main focus is undoubtedly the giant pool behind an embankment
by the main house. Around its circumference are a secondary
ambalama, a waterfront lodge, a tree house, a couple of swinging
seats and several electric blue kingfishers, along with the
occasional passing buffalo.
in takes a moment of courage, but the water is warm and clean,
and any wildlife tends to keep well clear of visitors. As for
the social day, that revolves around meal times. The food is
vegetarian, and of great variety: spiced pumpkin, jackfruit,
breadfruit, manioc, snake gourd and papaya, with traditional
rice, followed by buffalo curd and jaggery, all washed down
with cinnamon tea and passion fruit juice.
are served in the ambalama, where guests linger for hours after
the dishes have gone, picking their way through such conversational
minefields as conflict in the Middle East and the realities
of yogic flying.
are hardcore mind-body tourists, inclined to mention their chakras
a tad too frequently for my taste, but most are here because
of the uniqueness, rather than the spirituality, of the place.
Among my fellow guests was Steve Leach from Edinburgh, the 37-year-old
chairman of Big Mouth Media, a marketing company, who'd gone
several years without a real holiday.
needed somewhere that had never heard of Google," he explained.
"Somewhere warm, with a good diet, no distractions and with
treatments available. My wife found Ulpotha during a web search
-and it is much better than I expected. I've slept better here,
with jungle noises, than I've slept anywhere in the past seven
a stressed-out high achiever like Leach, the key to relaxation
is overcoming the very Presbyterian affliction of guilt that
a normally industrious person feels at doing nothing. In Ulpotha,
it's easy. The place has a soothing appeal with no uncomfortable
guest-servant relationships. In fact, its genuine residents
move through the communal areas, going about their business,
as freely as the visitors.
other establishments that sense of harmony is usually replaced
by luxury and staff who have learnt how to smile. But Ulpotha
demonstrates that, for the right sort of personality, pampering
doesn't require a manicure and extra-fluffy towels.
it is also the sort of place that generates entertaining visitors'
book entries. I found everything from "bloody hippies!" to "Xanadu
without the need for opium".
acid test for a slight sceptic like me was that over the four
days spent here, I felt absolutely no need for alcohol. And
I am ashamed to say that, in my modern existence, that is a
very rare event indeed. Details: Sri Lankan Airlines (020 8538
2001, www.srilankan.aero) flies from London Heathrow to Colombo
with return fares starting at Pounds 520.
week in Ulpotha (0870 444 2702, www. ulpotha.com) costs from
Pounds 650 per person, full board, including twice-daily yoga
classes, herbal steam baths and excursions. Ayurvedic treatments