Off the well-trodden tourist trail winding its way to Angkor Wat, Siem Reap is attracting visitors for another type of pilgrimage. Hariharalaya Retreat and Meditation Centre offers visitors a place to disconnect from the daily grind and bend body and mind in a traditional Khmer village.
We joined a tuk tuk convoy from the city centre, leaving the bitumen behind for the dusty roads leading to Hariharalaya, 15 kilometres away. The crowded morning markets, traffic jams and frenetic energy of Siem Reap soon fell away, replaced by villagers on push bikes, others tending to cattle or manning small stalls by the side of the road. Each was ready with a shy smile in passing.
A parade of warm faces welcomed us at the door to the main house. Shoes off, we wandered into the living room, crouching on cushions around low, wooden coffee tables. Freshly made popcorn and ginger tea was awaiting our arrival. Quick introductions between guests were made amid comments about how cute and comfortable the space was. The excitement in the room was palpable. Above us, fans worked hard to disperse the heavy humidity, a library nook sat off to the right and a large open-plan kitchen took up the far left corner of the lower level of the house. It really felt like a big, unpretentious family home.
The centre was founded by Joel Altman in 2010 and has been growing ever since. They have had more than 3,000 guests since then. Many return and others have felt so at home they became part of the team. Managers Sean and Maike spoke through the six day schedule, stressing that the only mandatory activities were the morning yoga practice, twice daily meditation sessions and meals. The rest was a matter of choosing your own Vedic adventure; if you want to lose yourself in a good book, swim or swing yourself to sleep in a hammock, the free time is in your hands, as long as your smart phone isn’t. It is a technology-free zone. So I broke the spine on my journal and began to scribble instead of swipe.
Set over two acres of jungle gardens, the eco-village features a number of cosy indoor and outdoor spaces where guests can be found reading, playing guitar, sipping on a smoothie and many instances napping in a far-off corner (all the yoga wears you out). The staff comes from all corners and is a major factor in creating a fun, positive and inclusive environment around the village. Bikes rest by the front gate for those who want to explore. You find local markets in one direction and the Ancient Bakong temple, built when the area was the centre of the Vedic empire (800-1000AD), in the other.
This isn’t a luxury resort. It’s something entirely different, but that’s all part of the experience. There is a dorm, private rooms, open air bungalows and traditional bamboo huts. Bathrooms are all shared. We stayed in a hut on the back edge of the property, waking to the sounds of roosters, cows, and the gaggle of geese that waddle around the grounds like they own the place. Our hut had a double bed with mosquito net, a fan and light, a little front porch with a hammock.
The village is strictly vegan so if you’re missing your usual fare from home, you’ll have to wait until you finish up the week. You can’t bring it with you. All meals are prepared using local, fresh produce. They’re served family style and eaten together in the communal area. From a traditional Cambodian vegetable broth, fruit and a smoothie for breakfast to a salad bar at lunch and a warming curry for dinner, the food was filling, delicious and varied, with the buffet table seeing return visits by guests at each meal. Meal times often merged into free time with guests busy chatting for hours, something not often seen when mobile phones are around.
Whether you’re a full-blown yogi or you’re coming to the mat for the first time, the retreat caters to all. Each morning begins with a 7am class for an hour. A team of instructors, led by Mary Tilson, took us through the how, why and when of each asana or pose. As a reluctant yogi who returns sporadically to it, I decided to throw myself in. I did the morning practice, the extra classes, a 3-hour alignment workshop and a private class with Mary. It was a lot of yoga for someone who would prefer to run around the block all night. But, by the end of my time at the retreat, I understood yoga better, I was more flexible and I took away a short personal sequence so I could get bendy on my own while travelling. If you’re new to yoga, don’t feel the need to go full-throttle. I was very sore by the end of my extreme yoga run. I do encourage you to book a one-on-one session with Mary though. I found it extremely helpful.
We’ve all read about the innumerable health benefits of meditation. That’s what kept me going during the twice daily 30 minute silent meditation sessions. It was a challenge, sitting cross-legged, eyes closed, searching for silence in my busy mind but it didn’t get a little easier each time; just a little. I was grateful that I had recently been doing ten minutes of meditation per day which warmed me up slightly for the longer pauses.
Massages are offered at the on-site spa. I indulged in a Shiatsu massage by a local blind masseuse and it was unlike any spa experience I have had before. He was fantastic. There is also a Four Hands Massage where two therapists work in concert, easing aches and pains and challenging the senses.
My time at the retreat stretched my body and mind. I was uncomfortable at times, but that’s what Hariharalaya is all about; stepping beyond your comfort zone. No doubt, that is what keeps corporates, students, backpackers and people from all walks of life coming back to Hariharalaya.
Learn more about Hariharalaya or book a retreat at www.hariharalaya.com.
About The Fit Traveller
Skye is a journalist and wellness wanderer -- Travelling the globe to discover the best in health, wellness, food and luxury travel.