Colombo

Ayurveda, Buddhism and nature: Why Sri Lanka’s now a top healthy travel destination

Looking for a new wellness destination? Sri Lanka brings together magnificent landscapes, rich culture and, most importantly, millennia-old philosophies on how to find a better you. Photos by MIKE PICKLES

My doctor has just broken the news, and it’s worse than I had feared. ‘I would recommend that you don’t eat dairy, eggs, meat, deep-fried food or wheat products,’ Dr Fernando tells me, deadpan, seemingly unaware that he’s listed literally everything good in the world. ‘And definitely no alcohol.’

I was under no illusions that I was in prime condition. Slightly overweight? Perhaps. Drink too much? Definitely. Generally living free of pain? Not exactly. But Amangalla’s resident ayurvedic expert had just delivered a prescription that had shocked me out of the super relaxed disposition I’d found over several days of this wellness holiday. It’ll help, he insists, but we’ll see. More on that later.

I should back up. I’m on day four of an expedition to discover Sri Lanka through wellness. Mindfulness, wellness and the like, I keep hearing, are things that everyone is doing nowadays, in particular on holiday. Bali and Thailand are well-established as wellness destinations. But what about this Indian Ocean island nation?

‘Sri Lanka is different to other wellness destinations. We have Buddhism, amazing culture, beautiful landscapes, and we can connect all these things together with wellness,’ Nilusha Kodithuwakku tells me. She is the founder of Ayurva Traveller, a new Sri Lanka-based wellness concierge service that has arranged my trip and that was voted World’s Best Wellness Travel Agency at last year’s World Spa Awards. ‘The energy of Sri Lanka is so different from other destinations around Asia. When you come to a temple, to landscapes, nature and other special places, you’ll find the energy of the place is so different. It’s unique.’

Indeed, Sri Lanka, while small, is incredibly diverse in its landscapes. A couple of hours’ drive can take you from rugged beaches to magnificent mountains, from sweeping tea fields to rainforests.

Sri Lanka, Saman Villas

It’s something I notice as I leave Colombo’s maze-like urban landscape and head to my first stop, Bentota Beach, 80 kilometres south of the capital. Soon, it all becomes green, the highway flanked by tea plantations, rubber trees, skinny palms bending to the whims of the wind. Signs for seafood restaurants and sea turtle sanctuaries appear, too, until I arrive at Saman Villas, a resort sitting elevated over the beach.

‘A lot of places in Sri Lanka have amazing spaces and views, but they might not have a wellness component. We can bring any practitioner to any property, to provide that wellness experience in these magnificent places,’ says Kodithuwakku.

At Saman Villas I meet Tajmilan Chinthakan, a young, hipster-ish local who is one of the country’s foremost wellness practitioners – and yoga teacher to the country’s former president, Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Yoga in Sri Lanka, like the rest of the world, has seen a surge in recent years, but it’s not part of the country’s tradition. Sure you can do it here, but as Chinthakan tells me, if you really want to connect with the country’s spiritual philosophies, it’s all about Buddhism. ‘Sri Lanka is mainly Buddhist, so the most traditional meditation is Buddhist,’ he says. ‘Meditation is good for a healthy body. When you meditate, you can see your self. You see the good things. Even the bad things are good. Buddha’s language doesn’t have any bad words.’

I’ve tried meditation before, to varying levels of satisfaction. But on the grass at Saman Villas – sun setting, waves crashing, breeze wafting, coastline being rugged, etc – it’s a different mindset. We do breathing and mind clearing exercises over a couple of days and, remarkably, I’m at peace. ‘You tamed the jumping monkey,’ says Chinthakan. Sitting and breathing has never been so rewarding.

The historic fort city of Galle is just 60 kilometres down the coast. It’s majestic, with 17th-century colonial Dutch buildings at every turn. And one of them houses Amangalla. It’s here that I meet Dr Fernando, who comes from three generations of ayurvedic doctors.

Ayurveda is often thought of as an Indian philosophy, but it’s also been practised in Sri Lanka for thousands of years, with its own identity: Lanka Ayurveda. It’s part Indian ayurveda, which is based on body balance philosophies and herbal cocktails, but it also incorporates traditional medicine of the Sinhalese (the majority ethnic group of Sri Lanka) and the indigenous system Desheeya Chikitsa. In some ways, it’s a little like traditional Chinese medicine, involving herbal remedies and body treatments.

Sri Lanka, slow down in Galle

‘Ayurveda is still very popular in Sri Lanka. It’s preventative and keeps people healthy,’ says Dr Fernando. ‘Now, more people are going from Western medicine to Ayurveda, a much more natural alternative.’

It all starts with determining your body type, or dosha, and whether it’s in balance. There are three doshas (pitta, kapha, vata), with each corresponding to a combination of various elements such as wind, fire, water, earth and ether. Me? I’m kapha, imbalanced (of course) and in need of some help.

Dr Fernando’s suggested treatments involve more meditation (I could still relax more), ayurvedic massage treatments (aching joints and back), detoxification (he needn’t remind me) and Shirodhara, which is perhaps ayurveda’s most powerful treatment, only to be done on doctor’s orders. It involves warm herbal oils – all made from local Sri Lankan produce, formulated for my body type and ailments – slowly drizzled over the forehead, balancing your body and relieving stress in the process. It’s fascinating and hypnotic.

And then there’s the food. I have an aversion to the idea of detox diets but, fortunately, Amangalla’s Sri Lankan ayurvedic diet doesn’t involve juices or raw foods. Take, for example, some of my designated meals: green curry made from pennywort and Joseph’s coat; a version of Sri Lanka’s finest culinary gem, the hopper, made from brown rice; daal with coconut milk. They were all made according to my dosha and my needs, and yet none of them lacked in satisfaction for my taste buds.

So did any of it actually help? At the end of the programme, Dr Fernando delivers his verdict: ‘Your blood pressure has gone down. Your dosha is more in balance. Yes, you’re basically good.’

It’s good to hear. But now I’m really craving some fried chicken.

Start planning‭ ‬

Amangalla

aman.com

Located within the colonial fort walls of Galle, this resort is housed in a building dating to 1684.

Saman Villas

samanvilla.com

This retreat is set beside the sea in Bentota, with fiery sunset views and an extensive spa programme.

Ayurva Traveller

ayurvatraveller.com

This wellness concierge can tailor trips based on both the destinations you would like to visit and your wellness objectives.

Cathay Pacific Holidays

Book a six-day package to Sri Lanka, inclusive of flights, hotels and a tour.

Cathay Pacific flies to Colombo from Hong Kong seven times a week

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