Ulpotha: The perfect yoga hideaway in the Sri Lankan jungle
Domini Kemp unwinds with no electricity, no meat, no wifi and four hours of yoga per day
Ulpotha’s rave reviews and gushing fans had us reaching for our credit cards and booking flights before we could say, “Namaste”, but as soon as I scrutinised the fine print, panic set in. Especially as my sister smugly informed me that we had already paid the deposit. “There’s no turning back now,” she said. Cue evil laugh.
No phones or emails, approximately four hours of yoga per day, no electricity, no wifi, the possibility of sharing a room – with a stranger – and no en suite loo. Are you mad? Throw in a week of vegan food and, worse yet, no booze, along with insects galore and wildlife to beat the band. I felt sure it was going to be a disaster and started plotting my escape. Losing my deposit seemed like a small price to pay for avoiding the hell I was about to endure.
But it wasn’t hell. In fact, it’s such a special place we went back again this year. Ulpotha is not a hotel. It’s a small village built around a magical lake – lovingly referred to as “The Tank” – where you can bathe and swim, or simply lie in a hammock gazing out onto the shimmering fresh water, which nourishes the surrounding fields providing food for the villagers and guests. Accommodation consists of mud clay huts, dotted around the property, which are simple and sparse. And perfect. The mattresses are comfy and the cotton sheets are crisp and vital mosquito nets hang above your bed. Loos are Western, but shared and possibly located a short walk away from your hut. Again, it sounded like my worst nightmare (in a holiday context), but it’s beautifully simple and brings out the best in everyone.
The food in Ulpotha is some of the tastiest food you can imagine and so perfect for the climate
I don’t know if it’s the heat, the digital detox or the amazing yoga teachers – who do two-week stints on a rotating basis – but after a couple of days, shoulders become un-hunched. Strolling to dinner along pathways through the jungle, lit by lanterns, and listening to the sounds of nature is pretty magnificent. The beautifully lit pavilion where we eat our lunch and dinner is also lit by oil-lamps, giving everything a wonderfully ethereal glow. A large mat is rolled out and beautiful copper and clay dishes and bowls of locally grown, organic, freshly made salads, dahls and curries are put out for guests to help themselves. Initially, everyone is polite and shy, no one wanting to go first. But after a couple of days, you crouch down beside each other discussing how delicious everything is. There are no fridges in Ulpotha, which is why the food is so spanking fresh. The village elders thought it was just a way of keeping old food for longer. How wise of them.
I could happily live a vegetarian life, but predominantly vegan? Not for me. But the food in Ulpotha is some of the tastiest food you can imagine and so perfect for the climate. Eating communally is another of my ideas from hell: sometimes you just don’t want to talk or be polite. But frankly, you don’t have to. Most evenings, my sister Peaches and I zoned out into a zombie-like, postprandial vegetative state, ruining the Irish reputation for whiskey and singing. The guests are often travelling alone and are mainly women although there were one or two couples. But to be honest, unless your other half is really into yoga, I would leave them at home. Going with a friend or sibling is perfect, but it’s definitely an ideal holiday for travelling solo.
Nights here wind down early. We’d usually float back to our hut by 8.30pm (party-on!), through the darkness, very grateful for our torches. We’d slink into our beds ensuring every inch of the mosquito net was tucked in before switching on our headlamps to start reading with just the magical sounds of the jungle in the background. Sleep is deep, but earplugs are good if you aren’t used to hearing monkeys, elephants and birds throughout the night.
After class, the sheer pleasure of an outdoor shower of cool water falling from bamboo pipes makes you giddy
At the very civilised hour of 7.30am, we rise early for a light snack before yoga, although most go straight to class. The yoga teachers are world class and well able to cater for everyone from 20-something bendy yoga teachers to 70-year- olds who only practice once a month. Practicing for four hours every day in such warm weather – such a luxury – means everyone really starts to improve. Shoulder, back and knee injuries are declared by most of us at the start of the week. But by day five, pain starts to ease. We all feel taller and leaner.
After yoga you get to head down to the caddy hut to enjoy freshly poured coconut water. A savoury Ayurvedic porridge – made with garlic and lots of herbs – sits bubbling away in a witch’s cauldron. Sometimes, there are snacks such as the deep-fried date and coconut cakes that have to be tightly secured or the monkeys will get them. People slurp on herbal teas and relax, enjoying that special post-exercise endorphin buzz. In the evenings, monkeys and their young stop by as they head to the rocks. Keeping your concentration in tree pose can be taxing when 15 monkeys are walking past sniggering – I am sure of it – at our human clumsiness. After class, the sheer pleasure of an outdoor shower of cool water falling from bamboo pipes makes you giddy. You will feel like you are in your very own Bounty Bar ad.
Taking some time for health, good food and exercise is an important part of life and I am extremely grateful to have discovered Ulpotha’s magic
There is also an Ayurveda clinic where you can have set treatments or have a consultation with the doctor who decides what treatments would best work for you. It’s pretty amazing. The “sauna” is a hut with hot coals smouldering underneath and the steam room is a coffin-shaped wicker lid over a cauldron of bubbling water. The women who work in the clinic are the most wonderful therapists and we point and smile our way through the language barrier. My favourite treatment was getting slathered with a turmeric, gooseberry and honey scrub before “cooking” in the steam coffin.
After a week, everyone is glowing and looking more and more relaxed. Rinsing off the scrubs is the best treat though. You sit on a large flat stone in the sunshine, hidden by a stone wall, and using a giant ladle you pour hot water on yourself to rinse off. It is glorious and so luxurious in comparison to the cool evening showers.
Will I go back next year? I really hope so. It’s incredible value and the only real downside is getting there. I would recommend going to Colombo, staying a couple of nights on the coast and then heading up. They’ll organise one of the locals to pick you up from wherever, so there is no need to rent a car. Most people stay two weeks, but I would have been divorced if I’d stayed away for that long and a week did me perfectly well. Taking some time for health, good food and exercise is an important part of life and I am extremely grateful to have discovered Ulpotha’s magic. I love the fact that guests and villagers are on equal footing. It’s a true community. As I was leaving, one of the villagers gave me a big hug and said, “Have a nice life.” It was a gorgeous thing to say: simple, and so valuable.
How to get there:
Etihad and Emirates have daily flights with one stop and fares start from €600 round-trip. Ulpotha is about a three-hour drive from Colombo. Suzi Scott and her team , who run the retreat, will organise one of the local drivers to pick you up from the airport for approx $100 (€93) each way. Prices start from $2,940 (€2,734) for a two-week stay, or $210 (€195) per night, including accommodation, all meals and yoga teaching plus two massages or treatments.