The World’s 100 Best Spas
Submerged in the jungle heartland of Sri Lanka, Ulpotha is so
remote that, by the time you bump your way down the dirt drive
(three long hours from the airport), you could be forgiven for
doubting its existence. You soon discover it is most definitely
mud-between-the toes real. Living with nature is what the brochure
said it was all about, and in Ulpotha they take that literally.
It takes a while to get used to the lack of electricity and hot
water, not to mention the absence of solid doors to lock out the
inevitable bugs and jungle sounds. But by the end of the first
day, this rusticity seems like paradise. Perhaps this is due to
the allure of diving through lotus leaves into Ulpotha’s
glorious mountain lake, or showering in waterfalls, or making
your barefoot way back to your mud hut in the sultry night, along
a trail through paddy-fields that is illuminated by a multitude
of glow-worms and oil lamps.
Meals are taken in the ambalama, a saffron-coloured, open-sided
pavilion where dinner is heralded by the ceremonial arrival and
unrolling of a large square woven mat. Dish after dish appears,
carried from the kitchen by an entire family in procession, from
the eight-year-old Sakunthala to the chef, Bandara,
who proudly explains the names and ingredients of some of the
more exotic delicacies that are grown on the estate. Every conceivable
vegetable and fruit appears, in healthy curries and salads –
jackfruit, breadfruit, manioc, snake gourd, papaya, mango, rambutan
and tiny sweet bananas. All of these are placed with deliberate
care around a large earthenware bowl of Ulpotha’s unique
strain of delicious, rare organic red rice. This not only feeds
the village and the guests, but is also exported throughout Europe.
For several months of the year, this self-sufficient estate and
working village becomes a retreat that attracts world-famous yoga
teachers. Lessons are conducted in a wooden-pillared pavilion
beside either the rice paddy or the lake, and guests can also
practise their sun salutations alone, atop a polished boulder
or rocky hilltop.
And there is so much more than yoga to the Ulpotha experience.
There are magnificent walks in the surrounding hills, and rickety
old bicycles to take you around the nearby villages or further
afield, to even more spectacular lakes for swimming. There is
also the wedegedera, or native treatment center, presided over
by Senanayake, the wizened medicine man, who will grind up various
herbs into pastes to cure ailments from headaches and colds to
jet-lag. Lying in a steamer covered in sandalwood paste is an
unmissable daily ritual; suspended on a woven mat anchored across
two boiling cauldrons of herb-infused water, you stew like dim
sum beneath a basket dome.
The fact that your ayurvedic cure and your dinner probably grew
alongside each other in the garden indicates a simpler approach
to looking after the body – a traditional way we have long
forgotten in the West. Nature is the cure, and Ulpotha reminds
us of a more holistic approach to life and health. Here, you are
living according to the natural rhythms and ancient rituals of
the land. There is not a fluffy towel in sight, but you leave
this hedonist’s Shangri-la feeling as pampered and relaxed
as if you had spent a month in a five-star deluxe hotel.