Dusky leaf monkeys chatter among frangipani as the tropical rainforest wakes. Pied hornbills swoop in the dim light, silhouetted against a pagoda on Langkawi’s north-eastern shore. Eka, my therapist, is working her magic in the jungle pavilion, my Zen den for the afternoon. Thanks to some expert tutelage from local shamans, she is taking me on a journey into the past, a ceremony that at various points will have her dousing me in oil, pummelling my legs with bamboo, placing healing coals on my back and spraying pungent, if calming, fragrances into the air.
Sound strange? Perhaps. I’m investigating this year’s hot trend for indigenous spa rituals, and it’s led me to Malaysia’s five-star Four Seasons Langkawi, a resort flanked by a 550-million-year-old rainforest. The spa is full of head-scratching treatments: a new age crystal energy massage, Japanese reiki, Tibetan singing-bowl therapy and Malay mandi bunga to dispel buang sui or bad energy. Of course, by now, medicine-man “shamans for hire” therapies are everywhere. Still, while it might seem odd in New York, there’s form for this sort of thing in South-East Asia. Shamans have long been known to practise rhythmic long strokes with bamboo to dispel bad energy, while heat-retaining basalt stones are commonly used for healing. The combination of both, preceded by a cranial massage, is meant to result in entry to an elevated existential plain.
Does it work for me? Yes, I suppose. I may not have splashed out $300 for a face-to-face medicine man appointment, but practised in the arts of indigenous Malay ceremonies, Eka’s soul-cleansing ritual takes me by surprise. I’ve drawn on 5,000 years of shaman knowledge and the ancient energies of Langkawi, she tells me; and, if only for a fleeting moment, I feel like I’ve been completely untethered. For want of a better word, it feels like a “woosh”.