Sleep for me is not always a relief. When my mind abstracts itself into a mess of stress, my body simply wants to shut down — no reflection or resolution, just fatigue and bad dreams. At home, I’d been having trouble oversleeping. I was even missing alarms to do things I usually enjoy, my needs divided from my actions.
In Bali, from the backseat of the sedan, I lose a train of thought to the sounds of my friends crunching lemongrass-turmeric cashews, barking bright-eyed stray dogs and muffled car horns. It doesn’t bother me, because we are headed somewhere I should finally be able to escape disruption. COMO Shambhala Estate is a resort in a nine-hectare pocket of land between two mighty rivers: Bayad and Ayung. Impatient and easily agitated, I reveal myself as the youngest in our group when I childishly ask Arta, the driver, ‘Are we there yet?’
He smiles at me in the rearview mirror as he assures us it is ‘Just around the corner’. It becomes a running joke as we turn many more corners, weaving deeper into the island interior, and still don’t arrive. ‘Soon, soon, very soon.’ chuckles Arta. By the time our stay ends, I’ll understand the strength of a slow reveal — a secret eager to be told, but at its own pace.
Upon arrival, the General Manager, Suteja shows us the Estate view from a lookout point 150 metres above the Ayung River. It is a dense overstory of tropical trees. Leaves and vines converging in a green tumble towards the obscured riverbank, with birds weaving between jungle and sky. Suteja gives us a moment to stand in awe before reminding us, ‘The Estate extends all the way down. It is very special. You will see tomorrow, at Kedara.’
The next day’s breakfast is brief and filled with anticipation. To reach the Kedara Water Garden, we set off on an Estate Walk, which is humbly named for its 2,200 stone steps cut into the hillside. The path winds down into the heart of the jungle and eventually back up out of it.
We wave to strangers rafting down the river rapids. We rest in the occasional dark-wood ‘lumbung’ (an elevated barn). Chatter fades as we descend further, as we focus on placing our feet on each stair. Our guide points out where the whole Estate team has laid planks across uneven rock and explains how they manicure the overgrowth by hand — working together, in thoughtful service of nature.
Kedara is a hidden water garden of three limpid pools, untouched by chemicals. Each pool is rimmed with smooth river rocks and a tinkling waterfall descends from an ancient spring of sacred water called The Source.
The Source is on estate grounds, but the water belongs to the Balinese people. Special paths to a collection point have been kept clear for Hindu villagers to retrieve water for holy occasions, or conduct a spring blessing. This is what we now prepare for, from an invited priest.
We make our way up to the mouth of The Source. My friends and I are dressed in vivid batik sarongs and brought to cleanse ourselves – mind and body – at three taps of flowing water. We are told to wash the head three times, then our face, three times. We are told to cup the water and cross our arms over our chest to wash our body – three times. Repeating thrice at each tap. ‘The more water touches you, the better,’ says the priest.
Soon we are drenched and kneeling in a row facing rock with ‘canang sari’ (offerings) in front of us. Our guide talks us through Bali’s animistic beliefs – these offerings give thanks to the water, the light and the life that nature sustains. Following his instructions, we raise colourful flowers to our crowns in sequence. We press rice grains soaked in spring water to our foreheads. Then a moment of silence.
Thoughts behind closed eyes stay between us and the spring.
After the blessing, we are given young coconuts to sip as our minds adjust back to the present. Down by the pools again, we are treated to a picnic lunch full of colour and crunch served in woven baskets on the deck. Meals here have been an experience of their own, a warming clarity. I still think about the aromatic free-range chicken soup (‘Kuah Be Siap Base Rajang’) infused with local spice and anchored by a bed of silky spinach. Like the picnic spread in front of us, every dish is so clearly prepared with skill to nourish from the inside, to supplement the day like spoonfuls of the best-tasting medicine. Despite my black coffee for breakfast, my heart is beating more evenly now.
Red dragonflies skim the sunlit pool surface as we swim. When we sit on underwater ledges, they land on our outstretched fingers as if rewarding us for being still. But stillness of the mind is a separate matter.
My room at COMO Shambhala Estate is part of a Residence named ‘Wanakasa’, Sanskrit for ‘Forest in the Mist’. We sleep in a treehouse of interconnecting suites around an enormous banyan tree, with leaves brushing right up against our windows. From my bed, I can hear rushing water, chirping cicadas, croaking frogs and more that I can’t recognise. But this is not why I have trouble falling asleep.
The sensory power of this place demands a connection to the body as it moves through nature: the cacophony of wildlife, sweat on skin, bold flavours from the garden, every shade of green the eye can perceive. After days of yoga, walks, swims, and massages – I’m more present in my whole self than I’ve been in a long time. At night, it seems harder to lose consciousness and in the morning, easier – and more exciting – to return to reality. Despite fewer hours of sleep, I don’t feel as lethargic as I do back in my high-rise home. The alertness is restorative. You can only begin to unravel your mind’s knots if you’re cognisant enough to do so. The Estate knows. The secret waiting to be told is this:
Wellness at COMO Shambhala Estate is elemental. The unsullied air you breathe, the mineral water you soak in, the light without pollution, the land that is tended to by careful hands. True change requires surrender to the effects of these forces, which the Estate stewards with the utmost grace. The time it takes to make tectonic internal shifts that last will vary between people and their pains. Here, there aren’t any empty, quick solutions to address problems that run deeper than the rivers, but you are promised a place like no other that helps you begin trying.