Fads in wellness and sustainability are as cyclical as other fashions. For decades, we have embraced a widening array of practices — Ayurvedic therapies, sunrise yoga and spiritual awakenings — but the ambition of improving our mind, body and spirit has remained a constant. If owning things was once the yardstick of security, the very lack of it — be it clothes, emotional attachments or even errant thoughts — is the new aspiration. Travelling with just an overnight suitcase and a battered body, we journeyed to the northern state of Kedah with the hope of returning to our life more whole.
The slow, and sometimes anguished, passage of time during the pandemic has transformed our travel experience as social distancing demands have fed trips of self-reflection and betterment. In other words, most luxury hotels and resorts are not reverting to their old, profligate normal but are responding to the lifestyles that many people have adopted at the height of lockdowns, including making home-cooked meals and taking virtual fitness classes.
Hence, Ambong-Ambong Rainforest Retreat, which has pivoted to curate more wellness options through its new spa brand, Amaala, offers its guests a chance to fall back into serenity as they seek new ways to feel better.
Upon our arrival, the boutique resort embedded in a rainforest was awash in a honeyed morning glow, conjuring up an enticing scene to fulfil almost everyone’s post-pandemic fantasies. The property is erected to follow the natural sway of the land and expanded in a way that would do the least possible damage to the jungle animals’ habitat. Just as how accommodations here have been elaborately engineered and carefully conceived in relationship with nature, the resort’s latest amenities promote pampering with a clean conscience.
Amaala — named after the Sanskrit word, amala, which means pure and clean — is a salient example of how healing is an integration with nature, not a separation from it. Today, spas are updating the virtues of ancient healing as the present-day search for wellness has reinvigorated the desire for their timeless sedative effects. For example, Amaala’s Berjalai therapy is inspired by the cleansing and blessing rituals practised by the Iban tribe also known as the Dayak Laut. This age-old wandering act of berjalai — which requires a man or headhunter to leave his village to acquire new knowledge and wealth — now celebrates a person’s good fortune and success in life. So ubiquitous did this custom become in Borneo that its philosophy even found its way into a spa menu. In fact, Amaala’s director Suzie Adrina Ahmad, who designed most of the treatments, is descended from a line of indigenous shamans and healers called bobohizan.
We were ushered into one of Amaala’s six treatment rooms, where soaring ceilings, exposed wood beams and dim lighting were all defining elements of a space in which time does not exist. Instead of an exotic fragrance that evokes faraway places, the smell of crushed pandan leaves wafted across the room, triggering a fond memory of our grandmother’s sun-kissed garden. The scent also perfumed the warm water circulating between our toes during a relaxing soak, during which both feet were loosened, rubbed and probed for sensitive spots to stimulate blood circulation.
As the sun dipped below the horizon, questions of modesty or embarrassment quickly vanished as we settled down for our massage. In what felt like a choreographed dance, dainty hands swept in unison up and down our backs in search of painful deposits, to relieve knots and tight muscles. Gliding strokes were aided smoothly by a concoction of blended oud essential oil, tuberose, ylang ylang, rose, neroli, geranium, amyris, bergamot and patchouli. Oud is given top billing in Amaala’s Berjalai journey, whether in the form of a bath bomb or scrub, as the “liquid gold” (particularly prized in the Middle East) touts anti-inflammatory and anti-ageing properties. Also one of the most expensive fragrance ingredients in the world, the dark and rich oud settles on the skin and leaves a subdued musky and mysterious trail.
A deep exfoliation ensued, and we turned beet red — not from the satisfying scrub that sloughed off dead cells but the neglect that reared its ugly head: How did our calluses get so thick? Relief came when we were swaddled in a body wrap to reap the curative benefits of oud, walnut powder, salt, aquilaria malaccensis powder and vanilla planifolia powder before being whisked away for a flower bath. Amaala’s outdoor tub is on a stone-clad platform, suggesting a restorative ceremony that even the sheepish could not resist. Ten minutes of lolling in a bubble bath surrounded by a potpourri of ixora and jasmine petals seemed woefully inadequate, but the isolated session offered an opportunity to indulge in the ultimate luxury: taking time for oneself.
Simple tools can impart a rested, youthful effect, as evidenced by the cooling jade rollers that reduced puffiness under the eyes when our session moved on to our face. Frankincense, hailed as a fragrance and medicine capable of soothing and smoothing, had been combined with lavender and clary sage to create an essential oil for the anti-ageing facial that tackles toxicity and impurities head-on. Muscles that had been bunching up under our jaw felt relaxed following a sculpting massage that temporarily softened lines. Outside, the soundtrack of rustling trees and raindrops put us in a dreamy state of consciousness between waking and resting as our therapists worked their fingers deep into our hair and scalp, banishing stress.
Harried travellers make their way to Ambong-Ambong Rainforest Retreat to escape the rigours of the real world but they may get more than what they bargained for. Resetting the body is not the only way to help pilgrims find refuge; Amaala prioritises the mind too by advocating the rejuvenating properties of a floating meditation or a sound bath therapy, which puts a person’s body in harmony with sound waves and vibrations that enable deep contemplation. A chorus of objects that resonate, be it bells, chimes and Tibetan singing bowls, populate this sonic session, which realigns or focuses one’s healing on specific chakras.
Hotels are keen to trumpet their green cred, but Ambong-Ambong Rainforest Retreat truly has something to show for it: It is slowly turning its 11-acre land at the foothill of Gunung Raya into a farm to not only cut down on food miles but also fuel its kitchen with local produce such as sawi, spinach and kangkung to nourish diners. Plans to turn the farm into a sustainable attraction, as well as upgrades around the premises to further the resort’s eco-causes are also well underway. For those who are seeking to put more meaning into their future travels, the bijou resort’s regenerative amenities will serve as a healthy change of scenery.
This article first appeared on Mar 7, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.