Just up the road from Borobudur, one of Indonesia’s most fabled monuments, a retreat in the Central Java countryside provides a glimpse of an ancient world.
Sitting cross-legged in a grassy clearing next to a terraced field planted with corn, tobacco, and shallots, I did my best to follow Patrick Vanhoebrouck as he guided me through a series of yogic meditation techniques. A sonorous mantra played on Patrick’s iPhone — Om Brahma astra pasupati, Visnu astra pasupati, Siva astra pasupati. Down at the edge of the field, a group of village kids flew homemade kites high in the morning sky. And beyond the tree line, hidden out of sight now, crouched the distant bulk of Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist monument, smack-dab in the middle of the world’s most populous island.
We’re on the grounds of Amanjiwo, where Patrick, a Belgian who has spent 15 years in this part of Java, serves as the resort’s resident anthropologist. A student of the island’s spiritual and occult tradi – tions, he lectures on pre-Islamic history and religiosity, teaches meditation, and leads tours to sacred sites here in Central Java and in neighboring Yogyakarta, including hermit caves and temples like Candi Plaosan and Prambanan, which have stood for a thousand years or more. He talks a lot about “mystical landscapes” and “spiritual topography” and the fusion of Shaivism, Mahayana Buddhism, and animism that underlies the ancient Javanese worldview. With his auburn hair and blue eyes, Patrick may not look like the most obvious conduit to the esoteric wisdom of this land, but guests seeking to glean something meaningful from their stay would do well to spend some time with him.
Better still, they should book Amanjiwo’s Ancient Wisdom of Java retreat, which is what brought me here. The three-night experience includes meditation classes as well as lectures, a consultation with a dukun (traditional healer–cum-shaman), spa treatments, and all the jamu (herbal tonics) you can drink. It’s about picking up on age-old mindfulness techniques and forging a deeper connection to the 36-suite resort’s surrounds; and even clientele from Jakarta and Surabaya — who during the current crisis make up the majority of the guests — seem to be paying attention.
After a pijat deep-tissue massage delivered with steamroller intensity by a deceptively delicate-looking masseuse in the spa, I joined Patrick again for a meeting with Mas Joko Triagung, an old friend and guru of his who is among the most respected dukun in Yogyakarta. Fans of Keeping Up With the Kardashians might recall him from a 2019 episode of the show, in which he gives Kim and Khloé Kardashian a reading in Bali. A master of tenaga dalam, or “inner power” (known in other traditions as prana or chi), he did the same for me, wrapping his fingers around my wrist, staring into my eyes, perceiving my aura. There was something impeding my blood circulation, he finally concluded: I should drink more water, spend more time in nature, and practice maintaining inner calmness. In the meantime, he bid me to lie down and put a straw to my abdomen. In between low chants and the ringing of a small brass bell, he sucked on the straw and then spat into a cup. Patrick explained this was to rid me of unwanted sekresi (secretions). I’m dubious, yet when I snuck a look at the cup, the spittle was inexplicably red.
The retreat includes three daily meals from an Immune Support menu that delivers vitamin-rich dishes like galangal-spiked fish soup, quinoa-avocado salad, and spice-marinated grilled fish, complemented by a selection of potent jamu recipes. It’s all delicious and no doubt good for you, though by my last night I couldn’t help but go off-piste with an order of lamb-ragout pappardelle. At least it was nut-free.
I enjoyed another healing massage and a picnic breakfast on the banks of the Progo River, which flows into the Indian Ocean some 40 kilometers to the south. I also climbed into the hills behind the resort in the company of Poyo, who has worked at Amanjiwo since it first opened in 1997. Poyo is from the village of Majaksingi, right outside the resort’s gates, so he knows the mountain well; it was his playground as a boy. He points out clove trees and wild turmeric and ginger, and the silver fern, pakis keperakan, whose leaves have an undercoating of fine white powder that kids use to print frond-shaped tattoos on their arms and legs.
As we followed the ridge higher and higher above the fertile, volcano-flanked plain that Amanjiwo and Borobudur call home, I told Poyo about my session with Mas Joko and asked what he, a modern Muslim man, thought about Java’s old ways. He just smiled and said, “It is a part of our culture, just like our food. Whether you believe in it or not, the important thing is that you have a taste, yes?”
Amanjiwo’s three-night Ancient Wisdom of Java Retreat is available through 2021 and is priced from US$3,000 for two people (62-293/788-333; aman.com).
This article originally appeared in the December 2020/February 2021 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Spirited Away”).