Kirstie Bedford puts one of the latest wellness travel trends to the test in a seven-day personalised program in Sri Lanka’s south.
Monkeys bound overhead as we breathlessly climb the 500 steps to the top of the 2,000-year-old Mulkirigala rock temple and monastery in Sri Lanka’s south.
It’s 35 degrees, but the humidity makes it feel twice that. “Nearly there,” our guide Sampath calls out effortlessly as he races up the practically vertical climb.
At the top he points to a track to the right and we scramble down a short, steep incline that opens up to a 180-degree view of vast green countryside.
Sampath points to a small yellow house in the distance, “That’s my house,” he says proudly. “Not far to work then,” we laugh. He’s lived here all his life and worked as a guide for more than 15 years, he tells us. It shows in his detailed explanation of the working monastery and its seven naturally formed caves featuring 350-year-old paintings and huge reclining Buddhist statues.
“Sit,” he says, pointing to the edge of the sheer cliff. Noticing my apprehension, he takes my hand and guides me to a small flat ledge right near the edge. There are no barriers or signs warning of the danger, and while the view is breathtaking, it’s not for the faint-hearted.
“I’ll be back soon, take your time,” he says then disappears up the track. We look at each other and back out to the view. It’s little wonder this is part of my personalised wellness experience at Anantara Peace Haven Tangalle Resort. There’s an undeniable sense of peace up here as we gaze across Sri Lanka’s southern plains, where a river winds its way through rice paddies towards a distant mountain range.
Back at the resort, Anantara’s sixth-generation Ayurvedic specialist, Dr Preethika Gamage, explains why visiting a temple is so vital to the program.
“Temples and monasteries are calming places,” she says. They force you to stop and breathe. It’s a place of relaxation, and it’s very good for the heart and mind.”
Undergoing a personalised wellness experience, not surprisingly, means getting personal, and my first consultation with Dr Preethika began with talking through my medical history followed by my toilet habits.
She then told me about Ayurveda, explaining how it’s a balance of life and science, where you need to balance the internal (what you eat and drink), external (how you treat your body) and spiritual needs of your body for a long, healthy life.
The key is determining your body type, which relates to your body shape and size, skin (oily or dry), energy and nervous levels. There are three of them: Vata (air), Pitta (fire) and Kapha (water), and once your type is established, a personalised programme is created to suit your needs.
A physical examination follows where Dr Preethika looks at my tongue, takes my blood pressure, feels my pulse and asks about any pain I have. I tell her about various muscle aches, which I imagine are from my intermittent gym use more than anything else.
On a bed, she feels my stomach, while I run through all the food and wine I’d indulged in the days preceding.
My diagnosis is that I am a combination of Vata/Pitta and my treatments are to be mostly relaxing (besides a firm traditional Thai massage that will bring tears to my eyes).
In the days that follow I have everything from Pinda Sweda, where warmed medicated herbal bags are pressed over my body to relax my muscles and help circulation; the meditative Shirodhara, where warm oil is gently poured over my ‘third eye’ to release stress; and Udwarthanam where herbal powder is used as a natural scrub over my body to increase circulation.
If you don’t often have treatments, there is an intimacy with a therapist you’ll need to get used to, particularly when you’re having multiple treatments a day, but it’s helped when you have such experienced spa therapists as those on hand here.
After one of my first treatments my personal spa therapist Thushari says to me, “By the end you’ll feel like a fly.”
I looked at her a little confused.
“Light, like a butterfly,” she says flapping her arms and laughing as she hands me my cool lemongrass tea and bowl of raisins.
I laugh with her, but I’m not yet convinced.
State of Mind
Every day I meditate at sunrise then take part in a yoga session, where we are talked through various stretches to the sound of the waves, swaying palm trees and chirping birds.
Meditation isn’t something I’ve actively practised, but by day three I’m starting to enjoy the calming effect and even promising myself I’ll continue to do it, in some form, on my return home.
Following yoga is breakfast (where exercising restraint in the buffet is somewhat a challenge given the array of dishes available) and often an activity, all carefully curated by Dr Preethika.
A few days in, I am met by a local artist in the perfectly manicured grounds of the resort. I don’t tell him I dropped art at the first opportunity during high school and haven’t picked up a brush since, and I’m certainly not expecting great results, but the quality of the artwork isn’t what it’s about.
Instead, it’s another example of being forced to stop – a type of meditation, Dr Preethika later tells me, that forces you to slow down and focus on what’s in front of you.
Later that day we venture out on roads where tuk-tuks rule over cars and buses, to visit a temple. On arrival, a resident cow and a few street dogs greet us.
Kadurupokuna temple is built around a ‘bo tree’ – a sacred tree central to Buddhism. Our guide tells us every evening up to 1,500 locals come to pray here. Nearby is a building where there’s another hugely oversized Buddha statue and, as we’re about to leave, a practising monk – a boy no older than ten – peeks out from the door of the onsite monastery.
After a quick conversation and a few photographs, we hand him a $1,000 Sri Lankan Rupee (about AU$7.60) and he runs back whooping with joy.
“I think you just made his day,” our guide tells us as we drive back to the resort via a tour of Tangalle township, which is one of the largest towns in the southern province and an important local fishing port. Here you’ll find a combination of souvenir and clothing shops, a weekly market and a bustling seaside vibe that’s common in this part of Sri Lanka.
Food for thought
Later, when we’re relaxing by our plunge pool with views to the ocean, our personal butler Tharanga comes by to make sure our every need is met. Dinners are booked, and he’s there with his shiny tuk-tuk at any given opportunity to give us a ride around the massive resort.
There are multiple restaurant choices here and all combine fresh, local ingredients from the onsite garden. Our favourite dining experience had to be in the purpose-built treehouse built among the property’s rice paddies. Here, a local fisherman rows up the inlet next to the garden and offers you a basket of fish to choose from, which is then cooked in a nearby mudbrick house, housing the kitchen. All dishes include herbs and plants you pick onsite with the chef and are served with organic wine while you sit perched in the tree-house, in what feels a world away from a five-star resort.
Verala restaurant, built to replicate seashells, comes a close second. Here, the teppanyaki chef flips food and throws knives, and fireballs rise in the air. “He wants to be the best teppanyaki chef in the world,” our waiter tells us, and by the food I’d say he’s not far off.
But for a ‘casual’ fine-dining experience, stunning views and mouth-watering Italian dishes, you can’t go past Il Mare, which sits on the clifftop and includes dishes such as Mirissa tuna tartare with orange-fennel salad, and house-made Angus beef ravioli with a saffron parmesan cream sauce and red wine demi-glace.
I am wondering if Dr Preethika approves as I sit at Il Mare and sip my second (or maybe it was my third) glass of wine to the sound of waves, as palm trees sway in that consistently warm breeze. But who’s going to tell? Plus, it must surely all be part of the overall relaxation.
On our final day, I am given a detox scrub, which was probably planned, and I have to say goodbye to Thushari. When she’s giving me my last cup of cool lemongrass tea, she says,
“You’re leaving today aren’t you?” and tears well in her eyes.
I stand to hug her and then turn to her with a sudden realisation.
“I get it!” I say.
It’s her turn to look confused.
“I feel like a butterfly!” I tell her. And that’s exactly how it felt. My body is lighter than I have ever experienced, there are no aches, and I concede that this personalised wellness concept might just have worked.
There are flights to Colombo from all major Australian cities.
SriLankan Airlines has direct flights from Melbourne to Colombo using its A330-300 aircraft, which feature fully-flat beds in business class and Wifi.
Anantara Peace Haven Tangalle is about three-and-a-half hours drive from Colombo.
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