There’s a lot of talk about escaping the toxicity of modern life, but there are few retreats or wellness experiences that truly fulfil that promise. Set against the backdrop of the 60 million-year-old rainforest of Gunung Mulu National Park, Ayus Wellness Retreat takes advantage of its beautiful natural surroundings and wealth of biodiversity to create a wellness experience like no other. Incorporating forest bathing, yoga and meditation for a full nature immersion and digital detox, Ayus Wellness retreat helps guests reset their natural state and take a break from technology and the pace of modern life. Compare Retreats Editor and Chief Content Officer Rebecca Cairns steps into the jungle to disconnect from the online world and reconnect to nature…
Touching down at Mulu’s domestic-only airport, you immediately know how far from urban life you are. Thousands of acres of lush jungle surround you comprised of the 52,000 hectare UNESCO World Heritage Site Gunung Mulu National Park. Mulu can only be reached by air, or a multi-day boat trip — there are no overland routes to this tiny highland village. Its isolation is one of its difficulties, but also one of its perks: in 2017, only 23,000 people visited the massive park, so you are well off the beaten track here.
Hosted at the Mulu Marriott Resort— first built in 1991, and renovated to its five-star status in 2014 when it joined the Marriott Group — the retreat is a short five-minute drive from Mulu Airport. Guests can take one of the daily flights from Kuching, Miri and Kota Kinabalu.
Temperatures varied from 15 degrees Celsius in the evenings up to 25 during the day, and as one might expect in a rainforest, it rained most days, usually only for an hour or two. Pack light, easy drying clothing, and bring a shawl or jumper for the evenings when it’s a little cooler. Flip-flops and fast drying trainers are a must. During the forest walks, there were a lot of mosquitos, so either cover up or bring a good mosquito repellant.
Mulu Marriott is a sprawling jungle estate of wooden stilted lodges and elevated walkways, surrounded by lush vegetation. On the banks of the Melinau River on the fringes of the Gunung Mulu National Park, the resort has direct boat access into the park. Mulu Marriott has grown up with and around the rainforest national park — the park and hotel work together on protecting and enhancing the experience, for Marriott Guests as well as backpackers who frequent homestays in the area.
The resort features a small outdoor pool, a gym, yoga studio, spa, restaurant and bar, along with extensive communal spaces filled with lounge chairs and sofas. These communal areas are the only place you’ll be able to access the patchy wifi — be prepared for an unofficial but probably much-needed digital detox. With amenities from Aromatherapy Associates and comprehensive treatments at the Mandara Spa, you’re well catered to on the beauty side of things.
Mulu Marriott’s stilted log cabins are a real jungle hideaway, nestled among the lush rainforest that defines this retreat. Connected by suspended wooden walkways, the rooms and suites are semi-detached, offering flexibility for families and groups. Renovated in 2014, the rooms are finished in dark-wood furnishings and marble en-suites, complete with all the luxury fittings one expects of a five-star hotel. For those who want the jungle experience without the bare-bones and basic camping, the Mulu Marriott provides a perfect compromise between nature and home comforts.
Accommodation is offered in five grades—deluxe rooms, premium rooms, premium suites, or the unique Melinau Suite and larger presidential suite. Rooms feature either one king bed or two doubles, with a writing desk, wall-mounted television with basic news channels, mini-fridge, coffee machine, wardrobe and safety deposit box. Rooms have a small balcony facing over the river or jungle, with table and chairs for those who want to enjoy the sounds of nature. All rooms come with air-conditioning as well as a ceiling fan. The en-suites feature large tubs and a separate shower area.
Guests should note that WiFi is not available in rooms, and the connection in the public areas is often weak—sending photos, downloading emails or music, or loading social apps like Instagram or Facebook is tricky, but basic messaging worked most of the time. It’s definitely not a place for remote working, and guests on the wellness retreat should embrace the accidental digital detox as part of the programme.
The Ayus Wellness retreat provides guests with three daily meals: a breakfast buffet, a set lunch menu, and a dinner buffet. All food is vegetarian, and most is vegan, though meat is available on request. The retreat is alcohol- and caffeine-free, though again, guests can request this at meal times (alcohol incurs an additional charge)—I still maintained my morning coffee ritual and discovered the baristas make a mean coconut latte.
Playing on nutritional qualities of the local indigenous cuisine, the Ayus wellness food menu centred around showcasing Malaysian dishes in a nutrient-dense, healthier way using ingredients readily available in the surrounding area. Bario rice, a food rich in proteins, vitamins, anti-oxidants and stuff, featured at every meal, and the local superfood pegaga (pictured below) was put into green juice shots, and even in the tempura, appearing at every meal.
The breakfast buffet includes a wide selection of bread and pastries, fresh fruit, cereals, muesli, as well as more traditional Asian dishes like the delicious ginger rice soup (congee), kitchery (Indian lentil soup), and bubur kacang hijau (a Malaysian sweet mung bean soup). Eggs were available, boiled, poached or sunny-side-up.
The set lunch changed day-to-day, but was predominantly Malay cuisine, and featured a choice of two things for each course: a salad, a soup, a main, and a dessert. The dinner buffet offered a huge variety, from Western to Asian dishes, and also a live cooking station which changed from pasta to ramen on various nights.
The hot buffet dishes included Malaysian curries, lasagna, pasta, moussaka, and rice. There was always a huge salad selection, as well as a daily soup, and the fresh tempura station was a big hit. The dinner buffet also offers up a tantalising array of desserts: as it’s the buffet for the main hotel as well, nothing is off limits, but the dessert was portioned into very ‘wellness’ appropriate bite-size morsels.
Ayus Wellness was co-founded by Mulu Marriott Owner Robert Geneid, and Clinical Psychologist and Global Wellness Summit expert Dr. Gerard Bodeker, and runs on set dates at Mulu Marriott. The five-day experience combines Geiheid’s intimate knowledge of the rainforest and local area along with Dr Bodeker’s expertise on mental wellness to create an immersive retreat which focusses on forest bathing and nature immersion.
Studies have shown that forest bathing — the Japanese art of Shinrin-Yoku which has gained popularity over the past few years — is effective in dealing with stress, anxiety and mild depression, as well as helping people improve sleep and increase energy.
The retreat programme includes yoga, meditation, forest walks and visits to notable sites inside the Mulu National Park. On the inaugural retreat, guest yoga teacher Shilpa Ghatalia led the majority of yoga sessions in her unique Integrative Yoga style, which combines elements of yoga, Tai Chi, and Qi Gong. The focus in these sessions was largely on breathing and meditation: movement was very minimal and gentle.
Often held outdoors or in the open-air common room, the Integrative Yoga sessions were well suited to the natural environment. Mulu Marriott’s on-site yoga instructor and wellness experience director Samin led two yoga sessions in her own Ashtanga style, which was much more energetic — as an active person I really needed these to burn out some of my energy.
06:00 Wake up
06:30 Boat to Clearwater Pool
09:30 Free time / massage / explore caves
13:30 Free time / massage / forest walk
20:30 Knowledge Exchange
Other highlight activities included a mix of wellness and cultural activities. The morning swimming at Clearwater Pool, a natural freshwater pool with underground water pouring in directly from the Clearwater Cave, was the perfect way to wake up in the humid morning air. Ishmail, one of the local Penan guides, gave our group a guided tour of the National Park Museum: he was a fountain of knowledge on the local area, customs and forest, and showed us the plants in the grounds that the Penan people use for traditional herbal medicine.
While not part of the programme, the optional walk through Clearwater Cave and visit to the village craft market are well worth making time for, and other guests raved about Deer Cave where lucky (and very patient) forest hikers can watch the nightly bat exodus at sunset.
Because of the remote location and lack of WiFi, this is a retreat for people who really are comfortable in their own company, or are looking to spend a lot of intimate time with a partner. The programme varied from being extremely busy to having large amounts of free time, which depending on your ability to amuse yourself could be a blessing or a curse. Personally, it gave me time to really unwind and catch up with myself: I finished two books, which I haven’t done on a holiday in years, and journaled multiple times a day for the first time since university. Because of the lack of digital distraction, it’s possible to pick up these analogue habits that so many of us have given up in lieu of scrolling through social media feeds or filling our time with busy work.
This retreat does put modern life under scrutiny. Time operates differently in the rainforest, and after a day away from your phone, you begin to realise that you don’t really miss it that much. It’s easy to fall into the flow of early mornings and early nights, and spending so much time outside without plugs and tech highlights just how much it has become a part of our everyday.
While I loved the intimacy with nature this retreat offered, I was ready to return to urban life by day six — sufficiently reset and re-energised, I felt that my new perspective on priorities and time was something that I could translate to my everyday life back in Hong Kong.
Although it wasn’t my goal, I also lost over a kilo during my time at the retreat, which surprised me as I felt I had done a lot less exercise than usual (gentle yoga instead of my usual five-kilometre runs) and had eaten heartily at each meal. The quality of the food and cooking techniques is probably to thank for this, and anyone consciously trying to lose weight could probably achieve excellent results here over the course of a week with the plant-based menu.
The ginger congee with unpolished bario rice was incredible. This breakfast dish was something I tried suspiciously on the first morning, and then ate every day after that (sometimes for lunch too, when it was offered). The sharp spice of the ginger gave this savoury comfort food a moreish edge, which I’m attempting to replicate this at home. Plus, using the unpolished rice it’s packed with vitamins, proteins, and trace elements that give you a nutritional boost, unlike its polished counterpart which is pure sugar.
The resort pool was great for the refreshing in the midday heat. Temperatures never got too high, but the sun could be particularly strong in the middle of the day and the swimming pool was a pleasant respite.
The Ayus Wellness Retreat programme runs for five days, but if you want to explore the park more, it’s worth extending your stay. Fit and adventurous explorers can look at doing the three-day hike to the hazardous Pinnacles, or the four-day hike to Mount Mulu. Make sure you book your licensed guide through the park, as both these trails are tricky and not to be taken lightly.