Respite in the village

Brigid Delaney stops for yoga, fresh food and shared dining at a retreat that sustains the local community.

Ulpotha, a village in central Sri Lanka, could have been dreamt up by Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose writing combines magic and reality.

The mud-brick rooms of the yoga and meditation retreat where I'm staying are almost entirely open to the elements. There's only one supporting wall, where a bed sits with a tightly tucked mosquito net. Lamps glow low around the huts and monkeys run past. Down the neatly swept path is a shower with an open roof and a snail-shell shaped wall made of sticks. Cold water pours out. Some monkeys swing from the branches and look down with interest.

Never has a place felt so foreign.

Then I hear a voice from outside the shower's twig walls, an English voice: "Oi, excuse me miss, I 'ate to be a bother but did I leave my watch behind a rock?" The other-worldliness spell of Ulpotha is broken.

Ulpotha is a retreat and working village. Though inhabited for 5000 years, it opened to foreign guests when a group of friends bought some land in the area. One of the founders, Giles Scott, an Englishman, says it started as a place for the friends to hang out. It opened to others about 15 years ago after visits by yoga groups from Britain. One visitor describes Ulpotha as being most comparable to the community of idealistic travellers in Alex Garland's novel The Beach.

Ulpotha has a communal and highly social aspect (all meals are taken together) and guests are all of a certain sensibility - open, nature-loving and well-travelled - and drawn from around the world.

During my stay there are 10 others, from Britain, France, Israel and Norway.

But the backbone of the place is a community of villagers who have been in the area for generations. They live in similar huts to the guests', worship in the nearby temples, farm the land, cook the food and help run Ulpotha during the tourist season.

The money raised from tourism helps to keep the village sustainable. This takes a number of forms. One is organic farming with ancient techniques, such as threshing crops using buffalo, and another is a medical centre dispensing traditional remedies, often cultivated in the area.

After breakfast one morning I cycle to the clinic where more than 50 villagers are crammed in the waiting room to see Dr Srilal Mudunkothge. He also tailors programs for retreat guests.

Some of the treatments involve bloodletting and vomiting ("purging" as it's delicately described in the literature) - others involve steaming in a cane coffin-shaped basket or lathering yourself in oil. I submit to a steam in one of the cane coffins but don't enjoy the experience.

Each guest at Ulpotha has a consultation with Dr Mudunkothge. I expect some esoteric Eastern wisdom but instead he looks at me, shrugs and says, "Lay off the carbs after lunch."

If you aren't on the ayurvedic program, there is still lots to do (or rather not do - which is the beauty of the place, its utter indolence). There are massage therapists on hand, yoga sessions twice a day, walks, swims and a library.

The wattle and daub huts - designed by the villagers - have featured in some of the world's glossiest interior magazines. There is a clay pot with fresh spring water to drink from and an area of cushioned seats to relax during the day.

And then there is the food - vegetarian and delicious - also prepared by the villagers. Breakfast, after yoga, is taken in a snug hut: fresh bananas, unusual juices and coconut pancakes. There are pots of tea over an open fire, made from leaves picked at Ulpotha.

Lunch and dinner are visual as well as olfactory feasts and most of the produce is grown in the village. Curries - mild and hot - dhal, salads and buffalo curd with honey for dessert are laid out on the floor of the beautiful pavilion. There is no real need to leave Ulpotha: in the hammock overlooking the lake and mountains I feel about as relaxed as I can remember.

I swim in the lake most days. On the water's edge in the morning, villagers beat their clothes on rocks. At night we gather by it - to swim or sit in a large, open tent to talk, then chant.

A word on the chanting. This place is referred to as a retreat - but it's as "spiritual" as you want to it to be. It's not an ashram and although I'm not here for any of the regular parties it seems Ulpotha can do hedonistic with as much gusto as it does healthy.

With some of the best yoga teachers in the world visiting in rolling residencies, it's easy to fall into the twice-daily yoga routine in an open pavilion looking onto rice paddies.

Although Ulpotha attracts a number of yoga devotees, our teacher is able to accommodate all of us, teaching the newer students and challenging the more experienced ones.

Ulpotha is an almost other-worldly place - and I think it's partly because there is no electricity. This means the food is fresh as there is no refrigeration and at night there's no reading, watching television, surfing the net or talking on the phone (there is no mobile signal here). Instead, we play backgammon, play guitar, sing, dance, swim in the lake and talk.

Now I am back in Australia I wonder if the whole thing was a dream. Though Ulpotha is not quite heaven, it's not quite of this Earth, either.

Brigid Delaney travelled courtesy of Ulpotha.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Malaysia Airlines has a fare to Colombo for about $1070, flying to Kuala Lumpur (about 8hr), then Colombo (3hr 30min). Fare is low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax. Australians obtain a 30-day visa on arrival; you must have a return ticket and comply with general appearance standards. Ulpotha staff will organise airport transfers for about $US100 a vehicle (maximum four people). Security warnings for travel in the region have eased, see smartraveller.gov.au.

Staying there

Ulpotha is in the heart of Sri Lanka at the foot of the Galgiriyawa Mountains. It's an hour's drive north from Kurunegala, or two hours north-west from Kandy and three hours from the international airport. The huts at Ulpotha are allocated on a twin-share basis. There are a maximum 19 guests at any time and no single huts are available. Food at Ulpotha is almost entirely vegan, wheat-free — and delicious. Alcohol is not provided but you may bring your own. It costs $US1250 a person a week, including accommodation, all food, yoga and meditation classes, initial doctor's consultation and sightseeing. You only need to bring a small amount of money for temple entry and souvenirs.

Phone 0406 595 033, email maria@ulpotha.com, see ulpotha.com. Ulpotha is open from November 7 to March 27 and June 12 to August 21.

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