In a Lenggong jungle retreat, Nature is the best medicine

Sunset over Lenggong, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012. – Photos courtesy of Permaculture Perak
Sunset over Lenggong, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012. – Photos courtesy of Permaculture Perak

LENGGONG, Nov 22 — It’s a bumpy drive uphill on a gravelly path that cuts through a forest, and is best attempted in a 4WD vehicle. Turning in from the main road that leads to Lenggong town and Lenggong Valley — designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site three years ago — there is little to indicate that any form of civilisation awaits. About 20 shaky minutes later, I am greeted by a zinc-roofed warehouse with a wooden plaque that says ‘Kilang’. Next to that is a small, single-storey house fronted by a small signboard with the word ‘Farmstay’ hand-painted on it. Surrounding these two buildings, a motley fruit trees and vegetables grow sporadically – and with no landscaping, freely – like a lush wild garden. The air is clean and crisp, and elephants and other wild animals may pass through in the wee hours of the morning.

This is certainly not your everyday getaway, but if you’ve always wondered what it’s like to live off the grid, then Permaculture Perak (Permaculture) is where you need to be. More than just a sustainable organic farm, it is home for Ladia Kuta, his wife Amy Tan and their two young children. Originally from the Czech Republic, Ladia was working in Kuala Lumpur as a structural engineer for a good decade, spending up to three hours daily commuting from home to project sites. “I knew it was exactly what I didn’t want, I also couldn’t imagine raising a family in the city... I wanted to create the right environment to bring up children, and do something meaningful with my life.”

Every meal will be a communal affair whereby participants help harvest produce and prepare the food
Every meal will be a communal affair whereby participants help harvest produce and prepare the food
Ladia will take you through a gardening session and teach you about medicinal herbs
Ladia will take you through a gardening session and teach you about medicinal herbs

He packed his bags and found this spot, eight years ago, and set about farming it by permaculture principles, which is based on mimicking nature as closely as possible. Anything that’s meant to grow will thrive and conversely, crops that are not suitable for the land will die off naturally. The soil thus stays fertile and hence, permanently primed for agriculture. Small as their plot may be, it produces enough to feed the family and the occasional guest or farm volunteers. They also have chickens, three cows, and a colony of stingless kelulut bees, which they bartered their goats for. Fresh water is channelled from the mountain, there’s generated electricity and WiFi, although the connection is mostly spotty.

In short, there’s everything the family needs. “People ask why I gave up my corporate job... I didn’t give up anything, I gained – more time, more space and a more peaceful existence,” says Ladia. “Spending my days planting trees and food is definitely better than what I was doing before. In the jungle, the only time there’s a traffic jam is when an elephant stops to munch on bananas by the roadside, or if the road is blocked by a fallen tree.”

Permaculture welcomes guests to experience that serenity year round, whether it’s city folks looking for a weekend away, volunteers who usually come through the WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) network, or agriculture students. Over the next two months, the farm will also be hosting several unique getaways that are designed to give you more than just a glimpse of farm life or a brush with nature.
The first is a 5D/4N Jungle Retreat conceptualised as an escape for the body, mind and spirit, with guided activities that are geared to that effect. At the same time, the itinerary is kept fairly free and easy to give participants ample time to reconnect with themselves.

You will have ample ‘me time’ to reflect, reconnect and recharge
You will have ample ‘me time’ to reflect, reconnect and recharge
This is just one small part of the gigantic tree that participants will attempt to hug (left). A short trek away, a small waterfall awaits (right)
This is just one small part of the gigantic tree that participants will attempt to hug (left). A short trek away, a small waterfall awaits (right)
Besides planned activities, participants are also welcome to help out in the other farm activities
Besides planned activities, participants are also welcome to help out in the other farm activities

In creating the retreat, Ladia and Amy drew upon their respective know-how. Amy splits her time between Permaculture and Kuala Lumpur, where she runs classes and workshops on movement therapies. A certified Pilates teacher and Rolfing therapist who trained in Germany, her interest is in helping people to live in harmony with their bodies and nature. She also specialises in infant development, specifically, the function and importance of movement in the cognitive and motor-sensory growth of children.

Morning at the farm, where the air is always fresh and crisp
Morning at the farm, where the air is always fresh and crisp

“Friends often wonder about this ‘crazy and strange’ lifestyle that we have in the jungle, which is such a departure from the life I grew up with in KL,” says Amy. “People think it’s tough to be away from modern comforts.” On the contrary, Ladia describes it as a piece of cake and highlights the ‘luxuries’ that one is blessed with in the jungle: Air-conditioning is provided by natural breeze, refreshing water is supplied by the mountains. “We’re not sleeping in a cave, or living backwards as some may think. We’re also able to harness the healing powers of nature, which is very good for mental health.”

The couple cites Japan’s forest therapy as an example, where trails have been marked out for stressed city folks to walk through. The activity level of their immunity cells are measured before and after, and the results show that spending time in the forest increases those levels. “When we’re stressed, the body is less resistant to ailments. In Nature, the nervous system calms down and immunity goes up, boosting overall health and aiding recovery,” Ladia explains, and adds that since moving to the jungle, he has had little need to see a doctor.

The Jungle Retreat will let you experience those healing effects in more ways than one. The couple decided to limit it to just six guests to enable a more personable approach and for participants, an intimate commune with Nature. Upon arrival, guests will be eased into the pace of the jungle with a mandi bunga-style ritual, picking their own flowers from the farm and then soaking in a gurgling brook nicknamed Jacuzzi.

Breakfast on homemade breads, and learn to bake them too
Breakfast on homemade breads, and learn to bake them too

In the days that follow, there will be a mixture of individual and group activities. Mornings will begin with a sunrise meditation where each person finds their own space to observe the sunrise and tune in to the environment. “It will not be a guided meditation, as the objective is to withdraw into oneself. Find your own solitude while accompanied by Nature,” says Amy.

Everyone then gathers for breakfast, usually homemade bread or granola mix. Other meals are just as wholesome and are communal affairs, with guests participating in every aspect, from the harvesting of farm-fresh produce to food preparation. Guests will learn to bake bread as well as cook healthy versions of traditional Malaysian favourites including nasi lemak and nasi ulam.

“Food is a way of connecting to the land. Nourishment is not only what’s on your plate but starts from the source – the farm,” says Ladia, while Amy emphasises that “You will realise not only the importance of but also the quality of food that you put in your bodies. It will make you question your habits and daily lives, especially for those who don’t usually cook for themselves.”

Nourish your body with wholesome meals cooked from farm-fresh produce (left). A variety of local herbs grow on the farm (right)
Nourish your body with wholesome meals cooked from farm-fresh produce (left). A variety of local herbs grow on the farm (right)
Enjoy healthy versions of traditional Malaysian favourites
Enjoy healthy versions of traditional Malaysian favourites

In between meals, guests will be led on a variety of activities by either Amy or Ladia. One morning, Amy might guide a workshop on understanding the human anatomy and how our bodies function, touching on topics like heart exploration and embryology. Did you know, for example, that a foetus’ heart develops outside the body and in front of the mouth? As the hands grow and extend, the heart moves inward but at the same level as the former. Our hands and hearts are thus closely linked, and that explains why gestures like touching and writing are connected to one’s emotions.

After an afternoon siesta (or relax at the Chillout corner, on the ground floor of the Kilang), you could be joining Ladia for an hour of gardening. As you plant, weed or prepare a garden bed, you are actually grounding yourself as you experience a tactile connection with the land. Ladia will also share his knowledge about plant identity, healing herbs, and how to concoct tinctures and salves. Think of it as an introductory course to becoming a home herbalist.

If you identify with being a tree hugger, you will get to be one literally, as one of the highlights is a trek to a 60 metre-tall tree and attempt to encircle its humongous trunk. “Even if there are twice as many of us, there is no way that we can hug the entire trunk. It’s a good way to put us in our place,” Ladia elaborates. “In our usual environment, we are ego-centred but when met with a massive tree, it puts things in perspective and sets us straight. In nature, we are nothing... we are no more important than an ant.”

A short trek away, a small waterfall awaits (left). After the Jungle Retreat, there will be two Nature Schools where children of all ages are welcome (right)
A short trek away, a small waterfall awaits (left). After the Jungle Retreat, there will be two Nature Schools where children of all ages are welcome (right)

The activity is thus an ego trip of sorts, or perhaps ‘ego strip’ is the more appropriate term for it. After all, living in Nature requires having an open and flexible mind. “You don’t always know what to expect. If your car gets stuck, you get down and walk. In a city, everything is so structured and controllable. In Nature, you let go of that control.”

There will also be a silent morning, where everyone will go about their tasks without speaking, as a way to understand the importance of being present in the moment. There are other benefits to it. “We’re so used to talking that we forget there are other ways to get our messages across,” Ladia explains. “This is a chance to take a break from our own voice, and discover that we can co-exist and communicate. When you don’t speak, you’re also taking a break from thinking.”

The final evening wraps up with a bonfire ceremony symbolic of letting go and giving thanks. The retreat will end at lunch the next day at a Malay restaurant at nearby Tasik Raban that’s known for its grilled fish and more than 50 types of dishes, and which Amy and Ladia say is the best local restaurant in Perak.

Camp indoors at the Kilang and wake up to this view in the morning
Camp indoors at the Kilang and wake up to this view in the morning

From mandi bunga to ikan bakar and all that soul searching and nourishing in between, the five-day retreat aims to help you gain a different perspective on life – whether you’re a nature lover, are looking to de-stress or figure out your life, burned out from rushing through the rat race, or dealing with health issues. The Jungle Retreat will take you back to the basics, to a kampung lifestyle away from the Internet and hot water on tap. Most of all, it’s about you. As Ladia puts it: “It’s a chance to be yourself, while being among like-minded people who will support each other.”

The Jungle Retreat will be held from December 2-6, 2015, and is priced at RM800 per person inclusive of all meals. Accommodation is based on twin-sharing basis at the house, and you are welcome to pitch a tent and camp indoors on the upper floor of the Kilang next door. They can also arrange for private retreat groups with a minimum of six persons. For enquiries and to book your spot, email [email protected].

Other upcoming activities are Nature School (a 4D/3N camp for parents and children to bond through hands-on experiences like baking bread, making soap, farming, and waterfall treks, with Nature as the classroom), Xmas Celebration Weekend, and Jungle New Year Weekend. For more information, go to www.permacultureperak.com.

Every now and then, Vivian Chong feels the need to be a Jungle Jane. Follow her adventures at thisbunnyhops.com