Above: The bamboo-and-thatch yoga pavilion at Fivelements.
In the lush central foothills of Bali, a wellness retreat taps the island’s ancient traditions while putting a progressive spin on everything from eco-sensitive design to raw cuisine. Massaged kale, anyone?
By Isabel Esterman
Photographs by Morgan & Owens
Pak Dewa, a traditional Balinese healer, has been working furiously to balance my chakras and realign my energy, running his hands just above my skin, blowing, puffing, chanting, and leaping to the floor to cast out the blocked energy he says is connected with my various physical and psychic complaints—stress, fatigue, and an inner-ear infection that has been a persistent and sometimes painful nuisance.
Dewa is vibrating with effort and intention. He keeps looking at me so hopefully that I’m loath to report, time after time, that I feel nothing. Peaceful, certainly—we’re in a circular, bamboo-and-thatch pavilion with the sound of a rushing river below and the conch-like spiral of the ceiling above. And I’ve already been softened up with a flower-filled footbath. But of the anticipated tingling in my hands—nothing.
We sit cross-legged, facing each other, as Dewa gestures furiously above my outstretched fingers. I’m rewarded with a great, beaming smile when at last I announce that I can feel something in my palm. “Ahha, yes, yes … it is because you are really concentrating now,” he notes with approval. My left hand, alas, yields no such response, nor is one elicited by a crystal treatment in which I lie supine with stones placed along my chakra points. Finally, Dewa decides to up the ante by going hands on, vowing to release blocked energy from my chakras by exerting “maximal pressure” on the base of my spine. Now all I feel is a splitting headache. The healer beams again. This, Dewa informs me, is the result of all the unblocked energy being released from my body.
More than once, as the evening progresses and my headache slowly abates, I find myself wishing all that bad energy could have just stayed put in my coccyx —sorry, sacral chakra—where it wasn’t doing me any appreciable harm. Such thoughts, though, feel rather unworthy given my location. Set along the Ayung River in the foothills of central Bali, Fivelements Puri Ahimsa is designed expressly to be a place for open-mindedness, healing, self-reflection, and—to use the great catch-all term of the moment—wellness.
The retreat’s founders are distinctly global personalities, who have done their best to conform to the Hindu Balinese principle of Tri Hita Karana—harmony with god, with fellow humans, and with the environment. Lahra Tatriele, who possesses a studiously maintained aura of airiness, was born in Korea and raised across Europe, Asia, and North America by her adoptive Canadian parents. She pursued a career in international luxury branding until, she explains, “a life-change situation brought me to come here and start really living my path.” Chicco, her ebullient husband, was raised in Milan by a Neapolitan family, before spiritual and artistic pursuits led him east. He settled in Bali for good after an encounter with a local healer who, Chicco recounts, repaired a friend’s shattered collarbone so skillfully that the patient was pain-free and swimming in the pool just days later.
Chicco met Lahra on the island when she slipped in the mud outside his house, and was brought inside, soaked and filthy, by the guard. A year and a half later, they knew they had found the right place to construct their dream retreat when Lahra slipped in the mud yet again, this time while climbing through rice paddies to survey the land on which they eventually built Fivelements. “All of a sudden, I was up and she was down, looking up at me,” recalls Chicco.
“I was screaming, ‘it’s a sign, it’s a sign,’” Lahra chimes in. “Everything was quite organic,” Chicco adds. “It was a big coincidence, the whole thing—” Lahra interrupts: “We don’t believe in coincidence.”
“Actually, we do believe in coincidence,” Chicco continues gamely, explaining how everything from investors and local partners to permits from the village council quickly fell into place. Before long, they were in consultation with local priests, land healers, and dowsers—as well as a global array of architects, engineers, and environmental experts—about how to build a property that could live up to their lofty mission of creating “a space for life transformation and love in action.”
The result is a collection of rustic, curvilinear buildings crafted from sustainable local materials like bamboo, coconut wood, and thatch alongside recycled tropical hardwoods. Interspersed with stone pathways and lush gardens, the structures are clustered around an interconnected series of ponds, streams, and fountains that both cool the property and help filter reclaimed water. There are only five guest cottages, each named for one of the ancient Vedic elements— water, earth, fire, air, and ether—and appointed with local tapestries and objets d’art, with gorgeous garden showers in back and stone tubs on porches overlooking the river. Though equipped with mod cons like air-conditioning and iPod docks, the rooms are designed to keep nature close at hand—which has its pluses (misty green mornings, a soundtrack of birdsong and trickling waterfalls) and its minuses (what’s that gnawing through the thatch at night?).
Tucked away on a back road in the district of Mambal, Fivelements was never intended as a base for shopping or partying—the closest beaches are at least 25 kilometers away, and even Ubud is a 20-minute drive on a good day. Nor is the resort particularly sociable, with each cottage accessed by a private pathway and screened by a bamboo fence, and an activity menu focused more on bespoke treatments than group sessions. But in an age when all but the most shameless hotels tout green credentials, and on an island where authentic cultural encounters rank as de rigueur hotel amenities, the Tatrieles seem unusually dedicated to their stated aims. From super low-energy LED lightbulbs to ultra-efficient sycamore leaf–shaped ceiling fans, they’ve paid almost obsessive attention to detail. Staff must agree to practice Tri Hita Karana, and also Tri Kaya Parisudha—purity of mind, speech, and action—so even mosquitoes are warded away with nothing more toxic than a neem-based fog.
Of course, this all makes for great marketing copy, especially when targeted at well-heeled, socially conscious travelers. But both Lahra and Chicco claim to have been deeply affected by their interactions with Balinese culture and spirituality, and seem genuinely eager to share this transformational experience with guests. Thus, their spa pavilions, collectively dubbed the Healing Village, offer not just the expected array of wraps, rubs, and scrubs, but also access to traditional healers like Pak Dewa.
Happily, not all the treatments here are as difficult for the uninitiated to appreciate as my energy-balancing adventure. Ketut Wena, a cherub-faced healer who was once a village headman, delivers an excruciating session of reflexology, along with a diagnosis of gastritis. (My stomach, let it be noted, seems just fine to me.) But when Ketut ends the treatment by holding my skull and singing a prayer, I feel like a beloved child in the very center of the world. And despite my initial skepticism, the aquatic “healing dance” turns out to be among the most soothing experiences of my life. For this, I strap on foam ankle floats and ease myself into a warm circular pool under the guidance of Michael Hallock, a lanky Californian whose open demeanor and steady gaze confirm long years of meditation and yoga. With my legs buoyed up by the floats and my face kept above water by Hallock’s cradling grip, I relax completely, and let him guide me through a fluid series of stretches and poses. I feel utterly free from care or responsibility, like a plant undulating with the current.
More earthbound spa offerings, like the signature Sakti Ritual, are downright sybaritic. All spa products are mixed up fresh on site from natural ingredients like brown sugar, pineapple, ginger, and turmeric. As with everything on Fivelements’ treatment menu, the ritual begins with a footbath on a riverside balcony. Diah, my diminutive therapist, then leads me back to the massage table for a rubdown with virgin coconut oil and a gentle salt scrub. After nearly an hour of long, soothing strokes, and having been thoroughly scrubbed and marinated with herbs, what’s left of my brain keeps drifting to Kenji Miyazawa’s The Restaurant of Many Orders, in which an unwary pair of hunters voluntarily submit to disarming, stripping, and rubbing themselves with cream and salt before realizing they themselves are destined to be the dish of the day.
So I barely restrain a giggle when I’m led off for the final stage of my treatment, a “revitalizing bath” in a big stone tub overlooking the river. Diah tosses handfuls of salt, ginger, pandanus leaves, lime, and orange into the steaming water, and I can’t quite shake the feeling that I’m lowering myself into a cooking pot. But it’s lovely—fresh and fragrant, and the tub is large enough to paddle around in. Legs fully extended, arms hooked above the ledge, and watching the river rush by into the darkness, I decide this wouldn’t be too bad a way to go.
In any case, I needn’t have worried about sharing the fate of Miyazawa’s hunters. Sakti, the restaurant here, serves no meat, and few ingredients are heated above 48ºC—the temperature beyond which certain valuable nutrients and enzymes are destroyed. Ingredients do get massaged, though, says chef Made Ranantha. In the absence of cooking, this helps soften up tough vegetables like kale or chard. Made learned this and other tricks during a 10-week course at the Living Light Culinary Arts Institute in Fort Bragg, California, perhaps the world’s most prestigious school of non-cooking. Born in nearby Tabanan, Made has cooked in hotels as far-flung as Poland and Abu Dhabi, but happily reports having had “no idea at all” about raw food before the Tatrieles offered him the opportunity to enroll in the course. After 30 years of conventional cooking, he had grown bored, and raw food was a change and a challenge. “It’s exciting,” he says. “Every day I can make something new.”
Chef Made’s boundless energy may be the ultimate advertisement for his cooking (he claims that he lost more than seven kilos within weeks of switching to a primarily raw diet). After tasting a few of his specialties, I don’t need much more persuasion. An amuse-bouche of rich, red, chili-sweet goji berry paste atop a jicama wafer is as lovely to behold as it is to devour; lasagna constructed out of zucchini whittled down to pasta thickness, layered with a zesty sauce of fresh tomatoes and creamy mock-béchamel, manages to feel truly rich; silky coconut cream and nut butters keep desserts luxurious. The only thing I feel deprived of is coffee, which, like alcohol, isnot on the menu. It would be easy enough to sneak into the village for a cup or two, but I’ve already decided to make do with black tea and to accept whatever all these nice people think is best for me.
In the same spirit, when Chicco tells me on my final morning that the healers want to have one last go at fixing my ear, I agree, though I don’t relish the idea of another reflexology session with Ketut Wena. Chicco laughingly informs me that Wena is actually considered a bit of a soft touch—but not to worry. So I sit on a cushion in the open meditation pavilion, while Pak Dewa, liberator of chakral energy, starts doing something with my ears and my neck. Ketut Wena, he of the kindly face and gentle singing, begins grinding the sorest parts of my feet between his fingers. A few other healers and holy men, hanging around after a blessing ceremony earlier that morning, look on, amused. All seems to be going well, until Chicco waves over another passing gentlemen. This, he says, is Pak Agung, the real reflexologist.
Swallowing hard, I remind myself that the ahimsa in Fivelements Puri Ahimsa is a Vedic injunction that loosely translates as “do no harm.” But as Agung approaches the pavilion, I can feel my resolve melting.
“This,” crows Chicco, “is going to be great.”
FIVELEMENTS, PURI AHIMSA
62-361/469-206; fivelements.org; doubles from US$425
Originally appeared in the February/March 2011 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“A Fine Balance”)