Indigenous Food and Knowledge: The Healing Power of Borneo’s Rainforest

Clearing immigration at the airport, new arrivals are greeted with large indigenous wooden carvings on the walls and state travel tourism posters. Welcome to Mulu, UNESCO’s world heritage site. Driving down the road on a visit to Ayus Wellness, Sarawak’s new wellness experience centre located at the Mulu Marriot, it’s clear that nature-tourism is a key industry here: ancient rainforests and unexplored caves spread across the land.

This is the landscape from which Ayus Wellness at Mulu Marriot appears, the timber structure rising grandly by the riverside of Sungai Melinau Paku, cocooned by the lush tropical jungle. The setting is no surprise as the owner of the Mulu Marriot, Dato’ Robert Geneid had previously worked as a civil engineer for several property developments projects. It was in late 2017, though, that he met Harvard-trained public health specialist, Professor Gerard Bodeker and found that they shared common ideologies in wellness, nature, as well as indigenous culture. It was the beginning of a strong partnership that led to the establishment of Ayus Wellness, a unique centre that offers healing journeys drawing on Borneo’s indigenous knowledge of nature, nutrition and healing.

Surrounded by the wilderness. Image courtesy of Ayus Wellness and Mulu Marriot.

Kuih with a View

Entering the grounds of Ayus Wellness at Mulu Marriot feels like an adventure. Our driver drove in reverse onto a steel bridge that connected us to the hotel. We saw boats, neighbouring wooden buildings on stilts by the riverside and bats skirting the surface of the river. When we arrived, co-founders Dato’ Robert and Professor Bodeker along with their team were waiting to welcome us. Bag handlers unloaded our luggage. We were guided to the great hall for a briefing.

It was almost tea time and staffers dished out some of the region’s greatest delicacies: kek lapis, kuih cincin, kuih jala, kuih pisang, kelupis paired with a selection of fresh fruit juices and organic tea. The service was overwhelming but the food was delicious and it comes out at lightning speed. We were told that there are no processed foods or sugar. All meals are made from scratch with only the freshest ingredients.

Kuih was also served in our rooms. From right to left: kelupis wrapped in leaves, kuih pisang cut into squares, crispy kuih jala, homemade oatmeal cookies and round crunchy kuih cincin.

“Nature is the best healer,” began Dato’ Robert “This building is designed to treat people well in terms of light, fresh air, space and natural materials. It offers spaces that bring the inside and outside together. It is built like a Sarawakian longhouse so there are plenty of communal spaces. ” There is something visionary about the CEO and Ayus Wellness co-founder “…the experience of wonder in a primal rainforest setting is in itself transforming. We want to bring the wilderness into wellness experiences, and wellness journeys into the wilderness.”

Dato’ Robert at his welcoming speech. Image courtesy of Ayus Wellness.

It was easy to see what he meant. There are no walls in the great hall, and we were surrounded by nature. Butterflies, moths and birds can fly into the hall with ease. We felt lucky to be enjoying our kuih with the open-air breeze and views overlooking the surrounding rainforest. Natural materials including timber are mounted generously all around the hotel, from the beams supporting the roof of the light-flooded great hall to the warm wooden cladding of the gym room. The structure is built on wooden stilts, allowing the jungle flora and fauna to flourish underneath without much interruption. Combined with copious amounts of glass there is lightness and fluidity to communal spaces and a tangible connectedness to nature.

A New Generation of Malaysian Borneo Food

The dining area. Image courtesy of Ayus Wellness and Mulu Marriot.

The heart of the hotel is a large dining area. Its atmosphere fits the Sarawakian inspired ambience to a tee. At its entrance, a collection of Sarawakian wooden carvings and flowers greet guests, while the inner sanctum has a buffet-style spread of vegetarian, organic, local and international varieties. We talked to Ayus Wellness co-founder, Professor Bodeker about the menu.

“Regarding the food, we wanted to do a new generation of Malaysian Borneo food that wasn’t just a reiteration of vegetarian and vegan food around the world, all of which is delicious and innovative but with a lot of similarities. We felt that we are in Borneo, Malaysia, an ancient tropical rainforest with indigenous people who have their own knowledge, practices and understanding about local herbs, and we should attend to that,” explained Professor Bodeker.

The menu consisted of fresh seasonal fruit, vegetables, roots, rice and medicinal herbs, from local ulam to bamboo shoots, all whipped into a variety of vegetarian dishes by their talented chefs. On the table stands, labels spell out local foods ranging from Sambal Terung Dayak, Paku Pakis, Sate Lilit, Rebung Masak Lemak, Nasi Lemak, Sayur Kari and Nasi Bario. Western vegetarian options like pasta, lasagna and baked potatoes were also available for those who want a different variety. Servers from Sarawak’s different ethnic communities race between the tables at the dining area and the shaded patio, where the melody of the sape played quietly in the background.

Freshly made Sayur Kari for those who enjoy curry. Image courtesy of Ayus Wellness.

What if someone wants to have meat in their diet? “We do have non-vegetarian options,” added Professor Bodeker with a smile. “We certainly don’t want to force our guests to adhere to a vegetarian diet.”

At the salad bar, a rattan tray holds a fresh selection of ulam, a traditional Malay herbal salad. Ulam has been extensively studied by Professor Bodeker and his colleagues for its powerful healing properties. “This is a fresh living medicine, it is herbal medicine that is taken as a salad. When you look at it nutritionally and pharmacologically, it makes lettuce and tomato look like blotting paper, you know… nothing,” he said.

Part of the Ayus Wellness appeal is the energetic staff that reflect the area’s welcoming characteristics. Fresh-faced Bibi, who serves the guests at the dining area, lives near the hotel. This young lady joined the organization without any prior experience – but feels that she has landed firmly on both feet. “The community in Mulu is friendly, I think that’s what makes this so welcoming for our guests,” said Bibi while putting the final touches to the Ayus Wellness’ signature drink: the Pegaga Shot.

Pegaga’s powerful medicinal properties served in glasses. Image courtesy of Ayus Wellness.

The Pegaga shot tasted potent and smooth: it is a drink to be consumed if you want a nutritional boost. “We’ve developed this like a wheatgrass shot, but made from pegaga and other powerful herbal ingredients so it’s really like a mega multivitamin in a little shot. And we are serving that with every meal during our Ayus Wellness retreat,” said Professor Bodeker.

Ayus Wellness has given the Malay ulam, pegaga, front stage. “It is our signature herb and the reason is that there is a whole generation in Malaysia, even within the Malay community, who don’t know about the benefits of Pegaga. It is used as a dried herbal brain tonic in Ayurvedic medicine and Chinese medicine. In Malaysia, it is a fresh ulam (salad) that is eaten daily as part of kampong life and diet,” said Professor Bodeker. He cites findings from his book, Health, and Beauty from the Rainforest – Malaysian Traditions of Ramuan: consumption of pegaga increases the length of dendrites in the brain and nerve cells, enhances the firing between the nerve cells in the brain and this translates into improved memory and learning ability. This humble herb also reduces the risk of dementia and memory loss. It also has anti-ageing properties that can repair skin, restore collagen and create new skin cells.

A good wellness menu gives nutrition and flavour full priority. Halfway through our meal, we noticed several Malaysian superfood ingredients in the local dishes like black pepper, ginger, coconut milk (santan) and turmeric. We asked Professor Bodeker to tell us more about the nutritional benefits of Tumeric. “Of course… tumeric (kunyit) is an essential ingredient in our menu. It is nature’s best known anti-inflammatory agent. Inflammation is the beginning of most chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and rheumatoid conditions. It all starts with inflammation, including Alzheimer’s, so if you can reduce inflammation in the body, the body doesn’t create a plaque to cover up the inflammation. See, inflammation to the body is like a fire, it is an adaptive response in the body, but it ends up that the body’s adaptation to inflammation becomes its own problem because the body closes up blood vessels and clog up the brain. Turmeric is an anti-inflammatory agent that reverses the trigger for plaque and oxidative stress,” explained Professor Bodeker.

Dishes to try:

Sambal Terung Dayak
Stir-fried Sarawakian sour brinjals, onions, vegetarian sambal and other spices go well with a hearty serving of nasi bario.

The Sambal Terung Dayak has a gentle spicy kick to it. Image credit: Butterkicap

Rebung Masak Lemak
Bamboo shoots, coconut milk, onions, tumeric, bario salt, Sarawakian salt and pepper keeps the body warm on rainy days.

Love that velvety, coconut-y goodness! Image credit: Butterkicap

Sayuran Bitten La’an Soup
Rice, ginger, choi sum and spring onions are delicious and comforting.

Comfort food at its best. Image credit: Ayus Wellness.

Locally Sourced Ingredients

Across Sarawak, communities cultivate rice, plants, fruits and produce food and drink, often using production methods unchanged for centuries. “They are natural, heritage food products with authentic value,” says Professor Bodeker. From the rice, salt and pepper produced in the Bario highlands of Sarawak to the organic pegaga cultivated and gathered by native Sarawakians, these communities are turning out food products that have buyers swooning.

Bario is famous for rice. Image courtesy of Sarawak Tourism.

“We identified that the Bario Hills of Northern Sarawak is a source of fresh produce and organic rice, which is very unique to the region. A lot of people have heard about beras bario, beras is, of course, the Malay word for uncooked rice. What we wanted to do was to source it from Bario itself, so we established contact there, and we now have black rice, red rice and whole-grain white rice that is organic and grown by the local indigenous people there. It is extremely nutritious, delicious and local… so this is one of the staples of our Ayus Wellness Menu,” stated Professor Bodeker.

In their early days, Professor Bodeker would travel to Miri where there are huge open-sided markets with roofs that have all the produce of Northern Sarawak. He met all the traders there and when they see him, they will call out to him, “Hello Professor, the best Bario rice has just come in and I’ve got some under my counter.” Professor Bodeker loves going grassroots. “I love it! You can’t imagine anything more exciting – it’s so much fun. It’s an adventure and I get to find out where to get the good stuff.”

Yoga and Tai-Chi in the Wilderness

Apart from the cuisine, part of the Ayus Wellness Experience includes exercises like Yoga and Tai-Chi in the wilderness. We were told that this would take us deeper into the forest immersion experience as we climbed onto a boat that would ferry us to a natural enclave called Clearwater Pool, just a few metres upstream from the hotel.

Our boat arrived and we disembarked onto a wooden platform with the help of our boatman. The jungle air was pristine and we walked towards an elevated timber enclave where we were about to try integrated yoga. Shilpa Ghatalia stood in front of rows of neatly laid out yoga mats and invites us to fill up the spaces. Shilpa is a guest yoga teacher at Ayus Wellness and the founder of Yogshakti School in Kuala Lumpur. She led us through a series of exercises from pranayama, qigong to yoga, before settling us into deep meditation. It was hard to ignore the presence of the jungle; the sound of the crickets, birds and rustling of the leaves certainly helped put our minds and bodies at ease.

Shilpa teaching us the pranayama. Image courtesy of Ayus Wellness.

It’s a wonderful place to unwind. The atmosphere was calm, yet convivial. The staff, dressed in neat uniforms, have laid out our breakfast spread – gluten-free bread, jams made with local fruit, a selection of nuts and granolas, boiled eggs, yoghurt, ginger porridge and of course, nasi lemak. We were famished after our exercise – and enjoyed our meal at the outdoor dining area overlooking Clearwater pool, and the entrance to an ancient cave.

Indigenous Knowledge

“We’ve worked with the indigenous community, specifically the Penan people to learn about the medicinal herbs that are local to this region,” said Professor Bodeker as he leads us to the entrance of the Gunung Mulu National Park. Today, we will be learning about medicinal herbs as part of the Ayus Wellness Experience journey.

Ismail shares his knowledge on jungle medicine. Image courtesy of Ayus Wellness.

The Penan Herbal Medicine
Ismail, the Penan elder who is also the local community’s medicine man, and park ranger at the Gunung Mulu National Park stood in front of us. He was about to lead us on the Ayus Wellness medicinal walkthrough on the park premises. “My knowledge of plants and medicine comes from my grandfather, and he got it from his grandfather,” he said as he led us along the path of the medicinal walk. He shared with us a myriad of herbs that the locals use to treat stomach ache, headache, fever, cuts, and even remedies to help treat poisonous bee stings. “The nearest hospital is very far away, so we had to rely on the wisdom of our elders to treat our family and friends.” We were taught how to peel bark, use tree sap and harvest a variety of leaves for different treatments. The depth of the Penan knowledge on medicinal herbs is surprising. We were told that when an international panel of scientists came to study the ancient jungle, they learned more from the Penan than any scientific publication.

We were taught how to extract the bark. Image courtesy of Ayus Wellness.

Indigenous Way of Life
The Penan are nomadic people who live in the jungle. “When we enter the forest, we are silent and we never communicate using human language, we speak the language of the animals,” said Ismail. He proceeded to mimic the call of a jungle bird. It was a powerful and humbling experience listening to him. This indigenous respect for the jungle, coupled with the study of shinrin-yoku, is the core of the Ayus Wellness Experience (AWE). We entered the jungle with the Professor and Ismail in total silence. In just half an hour, our senses grew sharper as we took in the sights, sounds and smells of the jungle. After our walk, our mood was visibly improved, we felt less stressful and definitely experienced better sleep that night.

Penan Traditional Massage
Back at the hotel, some of us rested in our rooms, while others had indigenous massage lined up at the spa. “We have a Penan traditional massage expert working with us. It’s not like Malay culture, where massage is deep in the culture, because these are nomadic people who only recently settled. There are people in the community, one or two in each generation, whom if someone breaks a bone or injure themselves, they’ve been taught by someone older on how to heal that, reduce the pain and so on. We have one of those people working with us. We identified this person through our community links and network,” said Professor Bodeker.

At the spa, we were asked to choose from a range of oils that were specially blended and infused with local ingredients. A cup of delicious ginger tea was served to help soothe our nerves and relax the body before the massage session. The indigenous massage was a pleasure, it was as if the masseuse knew where all the aches and pains were, and how to soothe them.

Ginger tea is served before massage sessions. Image courtesy of Ayus Wellness.

Wellness Backed by Science

“What we have tried to create here is not really new… Professor Edward Wilson from Harvard developed the concept of biophilia in 1984 and Nippon Medical University has been researching forest bathing for more than 20 years… so this is not really new but embedding the forest immersion experience with indigenous knowledge, local foods, healing massage, local fragrances in our oils and soap that we had specially made, this whole package is new” explained Professor Bodeker. Mulu’s panoramic views of the landscape, and the fact that it receives full sunlight and generous rainfalls daily certainly help. “We know people today tend to be sedentary in closed indoor spaces but by immersing them in an environment where they are constantly exposed to nature, it becomes a transformative experience”

Professor Gerard Bodeker. Image courtesy of Ayus Wellness.

Little expense was spared in realising this unique wellness experience, which was designed by co-founder, Professor Bodeker’s knowledge on creating optimal wellness. It’s not simply another retreat getaway: this is a programme backed by strong medical evidence from the Global Wellness Institute that lists heavyweight authorities like Dr Qing Li from Nippon Medical School and a leading world expert in the art of shinrin-yoku or ‘forest bathing’, Harvard Medical School’s research on nutritional psychiatry and yoga, among others.

Professor Bodeker proved that nature, nutrition and healing create better mental and physical health. He has the research listed on the Global Wellness Institute and testimonials of guests who have already been through the Ayus Wellness Experience programme. There is a consensus among guests that they looked and felt better after the programme. Many of them remarked that there is something special about Mulu’s 60-million-year-old primaeval rainforest.

Of course, the other reason for having one of Sarawak’s most unique experience centres is to have the ultimate showroom for indigenous cuisine, medicinal herbs and knowledge. The centre welcomes a modest amount of visitors annually because co-founders Dato Robert’ and Professor Bodeker are conscious about reducing carbon footprint and damage to the environment. A smaller number of visitors also meant that each wellness experience can be maximized for optimal results.

The Verdict

The Ayus Wellness ethos of vigorously promoting health and balance through the design, nutrition and amenities of its programme can be at times challenging for urban folk. Yet talking to staff members here and seeing an environment where indigenous community involvement, good nutrition, exercise and immersion in nature are encouraged, it’s clear that the brand ethos is contagious and the people value its nudges.

Too many wellness retreats veer off in a less holistic direction, focusing solely on yoga or acupuncture, neglecting other aspects that make a wellness experience effective. By comparison, the Ayus Wellness Experience feels invigorating as well as thoughtful and considerate. Moreover, it clearly serves a purpose: to align with nature’s rhythm and movements by using the jungle and indigenous food as the pathway, for people to re-balance, renew and transform from within.

Book in minutes

Contact Ayus Wellness at ayus@ayuswellness.com or WhatsApp +6019 825 9988 for enquiries. Use the Butterkicap code “BAYUS” to get a discount.

Website: http://ayuswellness.com/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ayuswellness/
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/ayuswellness/

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Shiuh Wei
Shiuh Wei

Co-founder, butterkicap.com

Shiuh Wei spent her childhood playing in an orchard and roaming the streets of Kuala Lumpur in equal measure. She has an incurable wanderlust, a heartfelt passion for fresh produce, herbs and an enthusiasm for home-cooked food made with love. Being a vegetarian for almost two decades now, she enjoys an intimate connection with plants, vegetables and fruits, which keeps her inspired and nourished in her quest to get to learn from Malaysia's best cooks and find lost cultural practices.

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