The Wellness Experience At Mulu Marriott Resort Is The Stuff Of Poetry

Starve Instagram. Rejoice
in the exploding silence of unmanifest creation,
nothing nowhere,
mirage on the event horizon,
immortal amphitheatre,
slips your senses, rocks
gently the seat of your being.
What is this place
empty and replete
ancient and alive?


Like something the cat dragged in, I gingerly decant myself from the plane at Mulu airport, sniffing at precious sunlight. I flew long-distance for this short flight, withering in the fake air of the 99 percent plastic cabin, life evaporating across time zones while a virus tried to finish the job. I could yet expire fatuously in the jungle.

Or be resurrected in the lap of creation. With initials that spell “awe”, the Ayus Wellness Experience promises deep healing from sympathetic resonance with nature; wilderness sparking wonder, enkindling wellness.


The immersion begins at Mulu Marriott Resort and Spa, within running distance of impossible Mulu National Park, gazetted in 1974 and, at last, inscribed on the Unesco World Heritage List in November 2000. Just maybe, the afterglow of a spa escape can last longer than the flight home. “Ayu” is the Malay for a quality of feminine grace conducive to healing; “ayus” is the Sanskrit for “life” that is the study of Ayurveda. Ayus Wellness draws on the indigenous knowledge embedded with a 60 million-year-old rainforest, calibrating it for the bereft urban soul in controlled doses.

“Nature is the best healer; the experience of wonder that guests feel in the beauty of a primal rainforest setting is in itself transforming,” Professor Gerard Bodeker, co-founder of Ayus Wellness, says to me. “The brain changes with wonder – and wellness follows.”

Bodeker is the sage narrator of the user’s manual you never knew you had. By connecting traditional medicine, culture and geography with epigenetics (we inherit experiences as well as genes), he illuminates how the benefits of local diets are grounded in their provenance. Diet is a bigger health risk factor than either physical inactivity or a high body mass index, according to the Global Burden of Disease Study. It follows that land is fundamental to human well-being because it is where we grow our food. We can only be as healthy as the land.

Bodeker’s experience of working with remote Aboriginal communities in the 70s set the tone for his vocation: from Ayurveda and Chinese medicine at Harvard and Oxford University, to epidemiology in Columbia; from Africa to Southeast Asia with the World Bank, FAO and WHO. He chairs the Mental Wellness Initiative of the Global Wellness Institute. Ayus Wellness, is Bodeker’s foray with his co-founders Dato’ Robert Geneid and Datuk Raziah Mahmud-Geneid into a novel therapy based on deep respect for the land.


Mulu National Park is the first tropical rainforest where Shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing” therapy is being applied. Ayus Wellness has partnered with Dr Qing Li of Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, whose research shows the eye-opening benefits of forest bathing, says Bodeker. The list includes enhanced immune system function, accelerated recovery from surgery, mental acuity, improved focus, even in children with ADHD. Dr Qing Li’s work has helped to set up 62 designated forest bathing therapy centres in Japan used by five million people a year.

Elsewhere, the Harvard School of Public Health has found that American adults spend less time outdoors than they do inside vehicles, or less than five percent of their day. With car ownership now globalised, surreal traffic congestion is a universal experience. Cue the rise in “lifestyle” non-communicable diseases – cardiovascular, cancers, respiratory, diabetes – all of which can be demonstrably alleviated by a quiet walk in the park. It gets better: the University of Glasgow has found that even those who don’t exercise, but live near parks, benefit from nature’s proximity.

Mulu trips up even mountaineers who’ve conquered Everest, but its upsides are just as breathtaking. The Ayus Wellness Experience includes expert guidance and five-star creature comforts to buffer culture shock. “Quality accommodation, carefully curated wellness cuisine, and thoughtful, well-structured wellness programmes are our hallmark,” says Bodeker. Ayus Wellness cuisine, especially. It’s luscious, locally sourced and light years ahead of superfoods that derive their nutritional value from social media.

* * *

The trickiest task is to establish a conducive atmosphere for guests consonant with AWE. Shortly after we arrived yesterday, we were each bubbling over, under or flattening in our own heads, like tired beer. Then Shilpa Ghatalia showed us how to gather our energies into a cocoon, with fluid, circular motions, and direct them inwards and downwards, where it collects at the lower dan tien, a reservoir of qi, three-finger widths below your navel. A master yoga teacher, her effusive presence buoys and calms in equal measure. In her brand of Integrative Yoga, classical Taoist movements and yoga asanas flow surely, softly, one into the other.

It works. Today, I’m barefoot in the park, hoping to be struck by lightning and brought fully back to life with yoga on Clearwater Pool’s postcard-perfect deck. Starting out at dawn on the Melinau River is as wondrous as the KL rush-hour commute is savage; Clearwater Pool is striking in its stillness. I wonder about the lives of those in the wooden houses by the banks. (Do they have Netflix? Do they dream of the city?) Then I realise I can’t even begin to imagine. The only plastic I spotted from the boat getting here were several bottles used to float fishing nets.

* * *

Integrative Yoga focuses on the spine to avoid the injuries rife among fitness buffs who do yoga like gymnastics. Stability assured, it can be done by beginners and seasoned meditators. More to the point, it draws the attention inwards, to experience ourselves as a microcosm of the universe that makes us more inclusive of life around us. Some of us seem slightly confused by the seeming absence of physical exercise, but carry on gamely. Eventually, it feels like we’ve started to entrain our personal rhythms with the quietude of Clearwater, if not yet one another. Later, our sessions will be led by the lithe and quietly observant Samin Pourkhalili, Ayus Wellness Experience director.


It looks like it’s just thawed from the last ice age. And I need goggles. Fabulous Paloma from Taiwan overhears my dithering from the deck and tosses her pair into the who-knows-how-deep end. Something in me snaps. Last chance to see!!!

A sharp, electric coolness disappears almost instantly, revealing water of extremely fine texture and definition that washes over lightly. A kind of curiosity, not undercurrent, pulls me inexorably across Clearwater Pool, towards its mysterious source that hovers around what looks like a cave entrance. But my monkey mind kicks in: Jeff, ex-Olympian swimmer, was headed there when I last looked. Not anymore. Has he been bitten by a lost dinosaur from the depths?

Back safely on the deck, I’m being told I have a new aura of glowing wellness. (Jeff, intact, has gone caving on foot.) The last time this happened was after a roll in sub-zero Arctic snow in my birthday suit, pre-climate change. That snow, this water, share an unmistakable character of pristine energy that is revivifying. Recall that water is extra-terrestrial in origin, and there is evidence our emotions influence its molecular structure. In other words, water, which comprises some 72 percent of our bodies, carries memory.

In the city, rivers are channelled into treatment plants and pumped with great force through endless piping under rumbling tarmac, shooting upwards into our homes. It’s a feat of civil engineering and prerequisite for urban life. Now, I think we simply take the sacred for granted.


Walking through a fraction of the immense Clearwater cave system leads to a small epiphany. These mountains were once deluged by water that coursed through and shaped the caves. Mountains contain and channel the flow of water across land. Ah, so this is why “earth controls water” in wu xing, the Chinese five-element cycle that informs feng shui, the study of land and its relation to qi. Interestingly, wu xing also informs Chinese medicine and finds equivalent principles in Ayurveda and Vastu (“Indian feng shui”), reinforcing the nexus between land and human health.

As in western geomorphology and hydrology, feng shui considers surface land features to be shaped by forces above and below them. Mountain and water formations can indicate a “meridian spot”, where the earth’s yin (mountain) and yang (water) energy pathways meet in a concentration of pure qi thought to be the size of a pinhead. Is there a meridian spot around Clearwater Pool? Was it that which almost seduced me towards its source? The implications for the therapeutic benefits of forest bathing – conservation and public health – must be worth investigating.


How smart is a Smart City? How about we leave it to its own devices for 60 million years to find out. Mulu rainforest is run by a peerless intelligence of unparalleled self-organisation. Zero-waste lifestyle? Closed-loop economy? The organising principle of life is ecology, not the economy.

In June 1977, 154 scientists and officers of the Royal Geographic Society boated up the rapids for three days to get to Gunung Mulu National Park. Comprising locals and foreigners of many nationalities and specialisations, they stayed until September 1978, looked after by the Berawan and Penan people who cooked their meals and protected them in the jungle. Many would return again and again, to relive “the most fulfilling and exciting time of their lives … an enchanted time,” wrote expedition leader Robin Hanbury-Tenison prior to another pilgrimage in 2017. Some of the scientists later said they had learned more from the indigenous people in months than in their entire research careers.

Ismail Balang is a Penan elder, Ayus Wellness medicinal plant expert and licensed park guide. He remembers the RGS expedition and points to “my best home in the bush”, a photo of his jungle hut at the visitor centre. Ismail’s astonishing knowledge encompasses Mulu’s flora: what insect to look for, where, and what parasite is in its abdomen to cure your ailment. His indigenous knowledge is entirely oral. Will it go extinct?

Bodeker tells me the Sarawak Biodiversity Centre largely flies under the radar in its invaluable mission to document and preserve indigenous knowledge. SBC is creating an inventory of biological resources for research and commercial purposes, pre-empting the coming wave of biopiracy that will go unreported for being legal under robber baron trade deals.

However, indigenous knowledge is an oral tradition that is symbiotic with its provenance. It thrives and discovers as part of a living culture – in the awesome places the keepers of its flame can still call home.

The Ayus Wellness Experience could be a portal into a whole new dimension bigger than anyone of us knows. Cue AWE.

Ayu Wellness

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