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. In 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.
For 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.
Roadside 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.
Despite 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.
Move 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.
One 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.
When 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 turf.
It 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”.
The 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 and stay.
Today’s 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.
The 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.
There’s 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.
So 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.
According 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.
The 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.
Diving 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.
Meals 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.
Some 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.
“I 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 years.”
For 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.
In 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.
Inevitably, 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”.
The 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.