broadcaster Moyra Bremner came to Ulpotha for two weeks. We asked her
to give you her impressions.
A FORTNIGHT IN ULPOTHA - by
'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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
You aren't served, you are thoughtfully
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
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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