On the surface, Ulpotha appears to be nothing more than a simple yoga retreat, the type of destination where style matters more than substance and stressed middle class professionals and privileged youth come to assuage their soul with whatever alternative or Eastern therapy happens to be in vogue, but in reality this community was far, far more than that.
Despite its accolades as the best yoga retreat in the world, Ulpotha is not specifically a yoga retreat, nor is it an Ayurvedic centre, although both of these disciplines are practiced and taught there. It is the ultimate in destination tourism for those who want to escape life for a bit, yet at the same time the very antithesis of it.
Ulpotha is in fact nothing more than a community, where local villagers work and live alongside the travellers who decide to spend time with them. This is a village where locals and like minded travellers simply exist in whatever state is comfortable for them. In fact, for six months of the year Ulpotha doesn’t even accept guests and reverts back to the rice producing village it actually is.
In an age where the gap year has become a fully fledged corporate industry and newbie backpackers themselves are more akin to conventional tourists than they are independent travellers on a ‘hippy trail’ of discovery through Asia or south America, Ulpotha is an absolute breath of fresh air.
With a warm greeting and a cup of herbal tea, our host was as eager to learn about us as she was to show us around her village, for this truly is a village as opposed to a tourist complex, where local homes are amongst those where travellers sleep. For those who visit Ulpotha, the experience is as important as the destination or any specific traditional art studied there. Here, tourism isn’t just about taking from a destination and then returning home, it is about truly living the experience and giving back at the same time.
Being shown around the village I was struck not only by the sheer beauty of the surrounding area and the simple, back to basics elegance, but also by the laid back and positive paradigm that my host was practically exuding. In many ways it reminded me of what backpacking used to be like, and before you switch off to the reminiscent ramblings of a grumpy old man like Uncle Albert on a sugar rush, just hear me out.
Arriving in Ulpotha reminded me of what it was like to turn up to an almost deserted island in Thailand 15 years ago. It reminded me of what it was like to travel to a destination that was in no guide book, that had no major tourist attraction and certainly no tourists, just to see what was there.
It reminded me of what travel should be like.
There was no brochures filled with promises of organised tours, no cafe selling western food and banana pancakes, there wasn’t even any electricity save for a lone solar panel so a phone could be charged in an emergency.
There was just the village, and the community, and you could interact with either however you liked.
Want to learn yoga and rejuvenate your body? That option is there. Need some traditional Ayurvedic therapy? You can get that here. Need to simply be somewhere where you can clear your mind and heal your soul away from society for a while? You’ll be left alone to do just that.
The point is there is no one specifically prescribed path to follow here.
Many travellers do come here to do a specific course of Ayurvedic therapy, which can traditionally take anywhere between a week and a month or more to complete dependent on the therapy itself, or to learn yoga under a specific visiting instructor such as Nigel, who usually runs the Awayoga yoga retreat in London, whenever they happen to be teaching there, but there is no strict rule or timetable for you to do that.
In many ways a visit to Ulpotha can be seen as a ‘health and wellness’ destination. Many people do come here to heal or to improve their body and soul with traditional arts like yoga or Ayurveda, and my own trip here wouldn’t have been complete without a little yoga practice of my own – despite the fact my aging, out of practice body was screaming to get back on one of the relaxing swing hammocks by the lake after it!
Even my free time there was spent swimming in the stunning surroundings of the lake, an activity that was for me as relaxing and rejuvenating as anything else!
But that isn’t all it is.
Ulpotha itself places no expectations or demands on the traveller. You get out of the experience precisely what you need, not what you are told you need or are sold through a package tour. The village is all about making travel itself the experience, not the destination, whatever you need at any given time is the focus.
Ulpotha makes travel all about travel, not tourism, and moves away from the consumerism and consumption of the travel industry.
The type of travel experience that Ulpotha offers is nothing new, in fact in many ways it feels very akin to how a lot of backpacking and independent travel used to be, but after decades of consumerism and tourism industry norms infecting backpacking and independent travel, many people are rediscovering the roots of switching off to travel and it is fast becoming a popular way to travel again.
This independent, no expectations ‘dropping out’ type of travel is increasing in popularity within a Western society that is increasingly and in many cases unsustainably burned out and stressed, with high levels of students, young people and professionals simply unable to handle the demands and the burdens placed on them by Western norms and among the highest levels of professional and normative stress that there has arguably ever been in modern society.
Of course the gap year has always had elements of this paradigm, especially for those who travel long term with no fixed plans, but the truth is consumerism and the travel industry has tainted the gap year experience with a prescribed, pre booked mentality that has changed the way many people perceive the whole gap year experience.
This ‘drop out’ type of travel is coinciding with the rise of the digital detox holiday, a holiday not to any given destination or for any specific activity, but an enforced time away from any and all digital media or technology. With studies starting to link our modern digital lifestyles with insomnia, stress, narcissism and a whole ton of other physical and mental ailments, is it hardly any wonder that a specific term has been coined for the practice of trying to get away from all that?
People have a deep and growing desire to get back to basics, to relax and simply exist without any demands placed on them, and that is what Ulpotha offers in spades.
Ulpotha is all about slowing down and reconnecting with yourself. It is about nurturing and healing your mind, body and soul in a completely holistic way. And for many travellers that is far more than a simple hippy platitude in a new age magazine, it is a necessity. For some it is perhaps one of the primary reasons they were drawn to travel in the first place.
That is why it is important – whether you end up visiting Ulpotha or not – to learn from its example when you start your travels. Don’t make your gap year all about ‘doing’ a specific country or rushing to see a variety of different landmarks and tourist attractions. Slow down. Make it all about the journey. Revel in the fact that you are travelling and take the time not only to enjoy the journey but the place you happen to be in too.
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This article was written in partnership with the Sri Lankan Tourism Board. There is no personal or business relationship with Ulpotha. The views and opinions expressed are entirely the authors own based on personal experiences when travelling and are honest and factual without any bias.