The story begins in Colombo, when your plane touches down and suddenly the world seems to dial back decade by decade like a movie flashback, until it stops somewhere circa 1970s/80s by Singapore’s time-keeping.
Culture shock takes over when you enter the arrival hall. It looks like a duty-free version of Mustafa – a washing machine wonderland of top and front loading Samsungs and LGs. That’s not even counting the LED TVs, vacuum cleaners, fridges and ovens gleaming everywhere, overshadowing the motley selection of booze and confectionery. If you never thought candy could look depressed, look here.
We make a mental note to buy a mini bar fridge on our return leg, but no such luck. The departure hall is filled with predictable duty-free items – happier-looking chocolates and cosmetics, not to mention tea shops, tea shops and more tea shops.
If the earlier sea of household appliances feels disorientingly haphazard, it also gives you a sense of Colombo with its anything-goes vibe, where urban planning seems to take a back seat to ‘build anything anywhere – whatever’ derring-do. It’s a reminder of a country still picking up the pieces from a devastating civil war that only ended in 2009, slowly creating commercial opportunities wherever it can.
OLD WORLD CHARM
Despite the push forward, much of Colombo’s colonial past remains, in the form of well-maintained heritage buildings, and the conversion of many old homes into boutique accommodation.
There is no house more famous than that of Geoffrey Bawa, the late architect who introduced ‘tropical modernism’ to the world. No doubt he also had full time staff to clean up rain-splattered floors or sweep away the dust that flies in as freely as light and air through the well-ventilated home, with its clever use of courtyards and other openings.
”We have to mop twice a day,” confides one of the current staff of Number 11, located in the upper class neighbourhood of Colombo 7, as our group of barefooted tourists are led around like property buyers at a show flat.
You enter through the garage, where Bawa’s beloved vintage Rolls Royce still stands, before heading to the visibly aging rooms filled with his eclectic collection of art and furniture – all rich with stories about his life and work. There’s even a couple of rooms that you can stay in, like a posthumous Airbnb.
Meanwhile, his old office nearby has been converted into Gallery Cafe – where you can browse through art and dine in leafy, breezy surroundings. Just go for the ambience because the food is forgettable. For authentic Sri Lankan cuisine, Palmyrah at the hotel Renuka is a much better bet.
There are options to experience a colonial home stay too. Maniumpathy, for one, was the home of a multi-generation wealthy Jaffna family for over 100 years. Recently, its younger members refurbished it as a proper boutique hotel with rooms facing a large indoor courtyard, complete with a pool and restaurant that serves very decent hoppers for breakfast. The rooms are small but well-appointed, with a large semi-outdoor bathroom.
It sits in the heart of the city on Kynsey Road, but if you want a taste of countryside colonial living, Wallawwa in Kotugoda offers a huge, low-rise bungalow in a sprawling 200-year-old garden that’s close to the airport. If you need a place to hang out or get a spa treatment before your flight, this is a stress-free interlude.
JOURNEY TO THE EAST
Every trip to Sri Lanka starts in Colombo, after which there are myriad directions to head in to discover more of the country’s stunning natural vistas. For newbies, you either go the daunting research route or rely on bespoke travel operators like Amala Destinations to design a holiday beyond the tried and true.
Which is why we’re sitting in a seaplane – a tiny six-to-eight seater propeller ‘toy’ juddering in the air as we fly east towards Kandy, shaving a good 3.5 hours off a four-hour car ride. The two-man Cinnamon Air cockpit crew confidently navigate the plane through immense pillowy clouds as we enjoy breathtaking scenery for 30 thrilling, if slightly unnerving, minutes.
But that’s the whole point of Santani Wellness Resort in Werapitiya – to welcome frazzled souls and send them off nicely relaxed and unwound. Even if not, this former tea estate boasts some serious scenery from each hillside chalet that looks out to mist-covered mountains and down to a deep forested valley. You can even see tea pickers from a plantation in the distance, completing a view that makes Santani one of the highest-rated spa resorts in the world.
It’s a half-hour drive from Polgolla reservoir airport – hence the seaplane – which ends with you sipping on sweet Ambarella juice, a native fruit, in the resort’s double-storey restaurant and lounge. It’s like the command centre for your stay – where you’re fed nutritionally sound meals according to your dosha (Ayurvedic body condition) and where you mingle with other guests (or not). It’s not rabbit food either, as some dinners feature full-on Sri Lankan meals comprising five or six different curries with chutneys and sambols.
Do yoga, or sign up for a consultation with the resident Ayurvedic doctor who will have a long chat with you to determine whether you’re a Vatta, Pitha or Kappa and devise a health guide for you to follow. Even if the lure to stay in your minimalist chalet is strong, force yourself out on an easy hike to the nearby Hulu River. Your guide will take you down a 2.5 km walk past plenty of local flora and an army of wild monkeys that seem less annoying than the macaques back home.
Our guide has an assistant too – a sweet brown dog who was rescued by the resort’s staff after being attacked by a wild boar. The dog – named, well, Brown – knows the route so well that you can leave the guide behind and let the little guy take you through the right shortcuts to the river, where he rewards himself with a good long drink of fresh water.
Quite a few guests are solo women travellers, taking time off away from their spouses and children to detox and recharge. It may be a cliche but if fresh air, exercise and good food are what you need to get back on the right track, imagine getting that with a view that’s almost close to paradise.
GAL OYA LODGE
There is no WiFi in Gal Oya Lodge. Zip. Zero. Zilch. No phone service. You will be completely cut off from the outside world. No begging. If the elephants don’t need it, you shall not have it.
The culture shock of Gal Oya Lodge – loosely translated as Boulder River and the name of the national park it’s situated just outside of – is strong but lasts just one night. After you are completely exhausted by the four-hour drive from Santani, and a final stretch of bumpy off-road track in the dead of night, interrupted suddenly by a cry of ”Elephant!” and a screech of the brakes as we just miss the sight of a small pachyderm that was apparently in the thicket.
The dirt track ends with a flicker of lights signalling welcome signs of hospitality in the form of men in polo shirts bearing glasses of cold lime juice and towels. You’re led to your bungalow – a simple thatched hut, not luxurious but very clean, spacious and with a huge outdoor bathroom. Turn on the tap and a small frog jumps out to welcome you and give you a heart attack.
Gal Oya is an eco lodge set on 20 acres of forest land, next to the Gal Oya National Park and within trekking distance of some heart-stopping scenery in the form of Monkey Mountain. It’s a two-hour pre-dawn trek up some difficult terrain to reach its peak just in time for the sun to rise.
We prefer to sleep in and just look at the photos.
When we do venture out, it’s to take an exhilarating boat safari along the Senanayake Samudra reservoir, named after the country’s first prime minister DS Senanayake. It’s like a really huge lake created by damming the Gal Oya river in 1949 for irrigation and hydro electric power. It’s now home to massive crocodiles camouflaged along the embankment, who are too lazy to swim out to your fibreglass boat to eat you.
You can safely sit in the boat and watch Brahmini kites gliding overhead; a white bellied eagle glaring from a dead tree stump; and egrets, grey herons and cormorants nesting on a grassy slope.
None of which we would pick out ourselves if not for Gal Oya’s resident naturalist Anuradha Hareth – a gentle bearded soul passionate about wildlife and with the eyes of an eagle spotting its prey. When we’re caught in a raging thunderstorm while on the water, he’s the one who insists we head for shore, not to go home but to climb up a slippery slope where in the grassy distance, a grey boulder, stirs about 500 metres away. ”He can smell us,” says Anuradha of the lone elephant who stops feeding to look in our direction.
Gal Oya is part of a corridor connecting the smaller Madura Oya National Park in the north and the larger Yala National Park in the south, which the elephants use as they travel. That’s why you won’t see them as frequently as you do at Yala, but you also don’t compete with hordes of other jeeps speeding to the same spot to catch the magnificent animals.
In fact, travelling by jeep through the park proper will yield you clues of their presence – trampled grass here, maybe some poop there – if not their physical selves. But somehow, perhaps to comfort ourselves as well, just being deep in the jungle with no human activity is awe-inspiring in itself. Especially when you reach Gal Oya river itself, gaping at the mountain high boulders lining the river bed that give this area its name.
If you stay a little longer at Gal Oya, you get to visit one of the last Vedda tribes of Sri Lanka – indigenous people who live on the land and sell special wild honey that’s said to have medicinal properties. You can even taste it at breakfast in Gal Oya’s restaurant. A jungle cooking class is also a thrill, as it takes place in the forest, where a simple lunch of fish and vegetable curries is prepared over a wood-burning hearth and eaten with balls of millet ‘bread’.
Your heart literally sinks when you leave Gal Oya and your phone signal flickers back to life with the incessant pings of three days’ worth of missed texts. By the time we take off in our seaplane from Betticaloa Airport to Colombo, we’re no longer afraid of the juddering craft – just thankful for a welcome respite from the modern world, and the chance to travel back in time when we could, and hopefully will again.
When you’ve had your fill of the likes of Colombo or Kandy, head for the southern coastline, an emerald-hued cloak of monsoon forests, grass plains and wetlands that stretches from Yalla in the east to Bentota and Tangalle and to Galle in the west – a perfectly preserved Dutch fort and town that dates back seven centuries.
At the top of the list is Udawalawe National Park. Though not as famous as Yala National Park at the south-east tip of Sri Lanka, it has the advantage of being considerably less crowded – its 31,000 hectares home to over 400 Asian elephants, crocodiles, peacocks and wild birds. Our tip: have the hotel organize a safari, which involves joining a convoy of open-sided jeeps that rock and dip through grasslands and forests that line the Walawe River.
If you’re traveling with children, the nearby elephant orphanage is worth a visit during feeding time as wave after wave of adorable pachyderms come trotting out of their enclosures and trumpet happily towards staff who wait with milk hoses.
Equally captivating is the 2000-year-old Mulkirigala Rock. Built by King Saddhatissa directly into the enormous looming boulders, the Buddhist shrine is largely hidden from view at the street-level. The pay-off comes gradually as you climb the steps, passing along the way, prayer rooms and caves filled with luridly coloured frescoes, relics and statues of the sleeping Buddha, up past crumbling white stupas and bodhi trees, till you reach the summit, 673 feet up for an unnervingly beautiful panorama of green palms, coconut groves, lakes and rice fields. Not too far away is Lunuganga, the weekend retreat of the late great architect, Geoffrey Bawa. For archi-fiends, the house itself is a masterclass in proportion and technique, but the greater pleasure lies in the surrounding garden of shaded lakes, skillfully placed greenery and statuary, and water features. A few minutes away in Kalawila Village, hidden at the end of a narrow dusty lane that twists through ricefields and jungle, is Brief, the home of Bawa’s brother Bevis – an equally covetable estate filled with gorgeously designed room sets and intimate water gardens.
And for an art show with a difference, drop into Mirissa Hills – a wonderful private home whose rooms are also available for booking – for a superb lunch of rice and curry, and a meander through the owner’s modern art collection.
This article was originally published in The Business Times.