The Rebirth of Sri Lanka
Scott Eells for The New York Times
Traditional fishing technique on a beach in Galle, Sri Lanka.
Published: December 25, 2005
AT the opening of a boutique hotel and yoga retreat named Talalla Retreat Center, near a long stretch of white beach, an international crowd of stylish guests sips red wine and snacks on canapés. As evening wears into early morning, conversation shifts effortlessly from comparisons of the latest restaurants in London and Sydney to mutual friends burned out working for big investment banks, to high-end yoga teachers who charge $600 a lesson. One man says he’s just returned from his 57th trip to Bali
Scott Eells for The New York Times
An offering at the Temple of the Tooth. More Photos >
Scott Eells for The New York Times
Sunset in the hill country near Kandy. More Photos >
Only the subtle undertone of the conversation hints that residents of this area haven’t had much to celebrate this year. Late in the night, a Talalla guest mentions the manager of a hotel, now on another part of the island, far from the beach. “He moved because he lost his wife and child to the tsunami,” another guest says softly.
Just a couple of years ago, this kind of upscale gathering would not have been uncommon in Sri Lanka. After a cease-fire that halted civil war between the ethnic Sinhalese-dominated government and ethnic Tamil insurgents in 2002, the lush, gorgeous island – Sri Lankans compare their country to the Garden of Eden – seemed poised for mass tourism.
Vacationers began arriving from abroad; small luxury hotels were opening in towns and along untouched coastlines. “In 2003 and 2004, you couldn’t get a hotel room,” said Varini de Silva, owner of Ceylon Express International, a California-based Sri Lanka tour operator.
But one year ago, some 30,000 Sri Lankans died in the tsunami, villages were devastated, and weeks of news coverage showed the island’s coast in ruins. “After the cease-fire, there was this buzz here, because it was like a destination opened again – like Sri Lanka had been found,” says Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne, who owns a travel company there. “After the tsunami, people focused elsewhere. And now, to say, ‘Well, we’re open again …’ Perhaps you can’t get back that same excitement.”
Or maybe you can. I’ve come to the Garden of Eden to see the ruins of palaces and shrines of one of the world’s first Buddhist kingdoms, the stunning mix of mountain, jungle and beach. I’ve come wondering how Sri Lanka had been reborn in the past three years, as the brutal civil war seemed near its end and the country was opened to tourism again, revealing new details of its lost ruins and untrammeled beaches. And I’ve come to discover what happens to the next hot destination after disaster, whether the tsunami has brought together the island’s population or driven it apart-and whether the tourists will ever be drawn to return.
Colombo, Sri Lanka’s sprawling capital, had never really caught the buzz. The streets are choked with traffic; in fact, the narrowness of roads across Sri Lanka contributed to my decision to hire a driver and guide, Lalajith Manawadu. The pollution is an Oil of Olay executive’s dream. Rather than waking from jet lag, I rose with a moisturizer emergency, my face raw.
But as we drive out of Colombo toward Kandy, the precolonial royal capital and center of Buddhist heritage, and the beginning of Sri Lanka’s hill country, I begin to understand why the teardrop-shaped island could be mistaken for Eden.
The air becomes crisp, and the road climbs through thickly forested hills, past jungles crowded with so many jackfruit and teak trees that the plants create a canopy over the road. Sri Lanka has a long history of preservation – the ancient King Devampiya reputedly created a wildlife park more than two thousand years ago – and an enormous array of animals, plants and terrain for a country the size of Ireland. Often, it seemed I would be entering a new ecosystem just around a bend.
About four miles outside Kandy, at the Peradeniya Botanic Gardens, I strolled past a giant Javanese fig tree covered in roots that look like writhing snakes. As it rained, I took shelter in a greenhouse containing orchids in a bewildering array of colors: red, white, purple, purple with polka dots.
Compared with Colombo, Kandy seems like a village. The line to enter Temple of the Tooth, an ancient shrine reputedly containing a tooth of the Buddha, is short, though Lalajith told me that on important festival days, it can stretch for three miles. We arrive in time for the morning puja, a ceremony in which men in sarongs and turbans pound drums to welcome offerings. As the drums sound, pilgrims, some in white robes, others in Armani Exchange T-shirts, prostrate themselves.
Sri Lanka’s colorful festivals, which drew both Sinhalese and Tamils after the 2002 cease-fire, are helping in the island’s recovery. Last August, when Kandy held the Esala Perahera festival, celebrating the tooth relic, local hotels were unexpectedly packed.
The first high-end boutique hotel in the area, the Kandy House, opened only in August. Former manor of a minister to Kandyan kings, the house has been restored to its glory. After sleeping in a four-poster canopy bed, I sat on the back veranda in the morning, recovering from a swim in the large pool.
The Kandy House is not so unusual: Sri Lanka features a new crop of stylish luxury hotels that keep it on the international travel map. There is a precedent. Geoffrey Bawa, a Sri Lankan architect who died in 2003, was one of the fathers of Asian modernism, which incorporates local motifs to create buildings that reflect traditional Asian architecture. Today, many high-end hotels are refashioned Bawa creations.
Somewhat surprising to me, neither the tsunami nor this fall’s violence in northern Sri Lanka, in which suspected Tamil insurgents killed police officers and other officials, has halted the hotel openings. “Hotel owners in Sri Lanka think we’re all sitting on a gold mine,” because of the undiscovered scenery and English-speaking work force, said Miguel Cunat of Sri Lanka In Style, a new organization designed to promote luxurious sites and services.
Politics seem far away as we climb away from Kandy and into Sri Lanka’s traditional tea-growing area, near the town of Nuwara Eliya, in the Hill Country 50 miles from Kandy. Created by British colonists, Nuwara Eliya still has gabled cottages that look as if they were airlifted from Dover. The winding road snakes past waterfalls and terraced plantations of tea and vegetables, which look like layered wedding cakes. The intense moisture has made the area the greenest, mossiest place I’ve ever seen.
When I open the window, the smell of tea wafts into the car, and I spy women plucking leaves into baskets on their backs. We stop at the Labookellie tea estate, where a guide, Christa, lets me watch the entire process, from plucking to drying to fermenting to tasting. I ask if America contributed to the tea industry. “They invented the tea bag,” she says, wrinkling her nose. “No taste. But it does go quickly.”
Though Kandy and Nuwara Eliya, being inland, were not struck by the tsunami, their tourist industries seem to have suffered from it. The beach areas apparently are drawing foreigners this year who came for tsunami relief, fell in love with the coast, and are returning for a holiday.
There is no crowd at the Hill Club, a British institution in Nuwara Eliya kept alive by upper-crust Sri Lankans. When I arrive in the early evening, the only person there is an elderly man in a white safari suit. I move from the long bar, which still has a men-only section, to the reading room, stuffed with books on World War I naval operations, to the formal dining hall. No nouvelle cuisine here: Waiters in crisp white suits serve heavy dishes like vegetable timbal.
As we descend from Nuwara Eliya to the southern coast, the scope of tsunami damage becomes clearer. Like the grim reaper’s accountant, Lalajith reads off the number of people who died in each beach town.
We reach the south coast, where we will drive between the towns of Galle and Tangalle. In contrast to Thailand, where I’d been during the tsunami, and where reconstruction has gone relatively smoothly, here, a year after the disaster, many villagers are still living in blue tents. We pass gutted buildings like Milton’s, an old hotel that was demolished, leaving only a line of toilets like a bizarre Duchamp sculpture. Even the sea turtles who come to the south coast, unflappable survivors, were affected, their egg-laying grounds destroyed.
Yet the south coast is also where the pre-tsunami buzz has come back strongest. The south coast tourist infrastructure has been rebuilt, and foreign residents have founded reconstruction projects like AdoptSriLanka, an aid organization started by Geoffrey Dobbs, proprietor of luxury hotels.
In Galle, the elite-hotel operator Aman Resorts has turned the 17th-century buildings that made up the New Oriental Hotel into a masterpiece called Amangalla, all high ceilings and deep, rich teak floors; Amangalla plugged on despite opening just before the tsunami. One block away, two Australians have revamped a Dutch merchant’s villa into the Galle Fort Hotel, with rooms set around a courtyard pool surrounded by colonnades. The inspiration is catching: Around the corner, an 18th-century mansion has been restored into an even more intimate property, the Fort Printers, a five-room boutique hotel. “A lot of people who want to try high-end boutique establishments still probably haven’t been to Sri Lanka,” says Karl Steinberg, co-owner of the Galle Fort Hotel. “And there’s nowhere in the world that’s completely safe.”
At the coast, I establish a routine of T.B.F.E.: temple, beach, fort, eat. I spend mornings at fanciful shrines, which reflect all the hues of the island, as well as its demons, and which became truly safe only as violence across the island subsided.
One day, we drive to Mulkirigala, where Buddhists carved shrines out of a steep rock face. Inside the caverns, scenes from the Buddha’s past come to life in raw colors. Another morning, we head to Kataluwa, where four artists depicted the hells faced by Buddhists who stray from the path, surreal visions of sinners with axes cleaving their skulls apart.
Middays, I head to the ocean. On crescent-shaped Mirissa beach, south of Galle, the sand resembles fine dust. I share the beach only with men perched above the shallow water on stilts, a traditional Sri Lankan fishing style. In the afternoons, I always wind up inside the old fort in Galle, a Unesco World Heritage Site. First built by the Portuguese, the walled city was expanded by Dutch and British colonists and now is the center of boutique hotels, home to the Amangalla, Galle Fort and Printers. The tsunami spared those inside the 90-acre walled city.
Today, Galle is a warren of narrow streets reflecting the cosmopolitan heritage – Marco Polo supposedly landed here, and for centuries the town was a trading capital. Jumbled together are austere Anglican churches painted blinding white, Dutch merchant houses, Buddhist shrines and pastel Iberian mansions topped with orange terra cotta tiles, which give Galle the feel of an Asian Riviera.
The walled city is not a museum in amber. In Courthouse Square, a cluster of colonial buildings, I stumble across Sri Lankan lawyers poring over piles of papers in the hot sun. Later that day, I am nearly overrun by local children, in matching purple and white outfits, singing hymns in unison.
That cosmopolitanism is turning Galle into a nascent Ubud, on Bali, the type of place that draws artsy foreigners who work with locals to create a design community. Down the street from the Galle Fort Hotel, transplants and locals are opening stores like Suthuvili, where a young Sri Lankan artist takes traditional mask styles and updates them, creating long, narrow figures that resemble Asian versions of Modigliani portraits.
Each day I search for curries. Sri Lankan food is not well known, but it resembles South Indian, the curries hotter and coconuttier, the ingredients fresher tasting. At Wijaya Beach Cottage, southeast of Galle, I sample simple fare – grilled local seer fish. At the Sun House, a boutique hotel in the former home of a Galle spice merchant, I gorge on a curry feast. I down piles of string hoppers, the Sri Lankan version of dosa, wafer-thin sweet pancakes. Over the hoppers, I spoon mango chutneys, tamarind curries and pol sambol, grated coconut with a touch of lime and dried fish.
At the Sun House, reading a journal of reflections on the tsunami, I am convinced that Sri Lanka has an almost inexhaustible capacity to handle misfortune. For centuries, the small island survived waves of foreign conquerors. When blight destroyed the island’s coffee plantations in the late 19th century, planters desperately switched to tea, which turned out to be a gold mine. A rich international crowd is once again building homes along the south coast.
Better, despite rancor the Tamils and Sinhalese have cooperated on numerous rebuilding projects, an unprecedented change. Even the turtles are coming back; one villager near Tangalle proudly showed me flags marking where the massive reptiles recently laid eggs. Not for nothing does the island’s name mean “Lanka the Blessed.”
No, I decide, the buzz about Sri Lanka can return – but it will be a more intimate buzz, of a destination appealing to a small number of devotees, who will come back again and again. After all, memories of the tsunami may still turn off many travelers. People who want a stress-free sun holiday will worry about the tenuous political situation, and will head for less exotic destinations in the Caribbean or elsewhere. “We’ll get people who come here because they want to come to Sri Lanka, not just any beach,” says Christopher Ong, co-owner of the Galle Fort Hotel.
Can Sri Lanka adapt to being an intimate destination, rather than a place for broader tourism, which many locals saw as economic salvation? I don’t know. The day after the party at Talalla, Lalajith and I walk to the beach at Tangalle. To me, Tangalle’s beach seemed an idyll – we are alone, the kind of solitude virtually impossible to find in Thailand or the Caribbean. “There’s no one here,” I mutter in bliss.
I glance over at Lalajith. “Yes, no one here,” he mutters, frowning. “No one at all.” He tosses a rock into the sea and walks back to the car.
WHEN TO GO
Late December and January is high season, with raised prices to match. The hill country tends to be relatively dry from November to late March, with the west and south coasts generally monsoon-free from December to early April. In July or August (the dates vary), the Esala Perahera festival in Kandy brings together acrobats, traditional dancers, drum players and jewel-covered elephants for processions honoring the Buddha’s tooth.
Check the State Department’s consular information sheet (travel.state.gov), which lists the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam as a terrorist organization and advises travelers to avoid political rallies but also notes that a cease fire has been in place, or news about Sri Lanka on the BBC’s Web site, news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/default.stm, for information on the current political climate.
HOW TO GET THERE
Emirates operates a code-share flights with Sri Lankan Airlines from New York to Colombo, via Dubai; this is generally the quickest route, though Emirates’ flights tend to be booked well ahead. When I went in early November, I paid roughly $1,400 round trip. You can also connect to Colombo through Singapore on Singapore Airlines, and on British Airways, which flies to Colombo via London. Sri Lankan Airlines runs intermittent air taxi shuttles between Sri Lankan cities.
Because the standard of English in Sri Lanka is high, it’s relatively easy to arrange trips yourself. And since many of Sri Lanka’s boutique hotels are new, tour operators, who generally favor large hotels, may not be familiar with these smaller places. But some travel agents know them as well. Jetwing, (94-11) 2381201, www.jetwing.net, a local Sri Lankan operator, California-based Ceylon Express, 714-964-6896, www.ceylonexpress.com, and Carolanka, (44-1822) 810230, www.carolanka.co.uk, in Britain, are good choices. Jetwing also specializes in ecotourism. Sri Lanka In Style, (94-11) 2396666, www.srilankainstyle.com, also specializes in the boutique properties
American vacationers are issued a 30-day tourist visa when they arrive in Sri Lanka.
WHERE TO STAY
Some of these hotels set rates in U.S. dollars.
In Colombo, I stayed at the Holiday Inn, 30 Sir Mohamed Macan Markar Mawatha, (94-11) 2422001, www.lanka.net, a middle-range hotel near the sea. The rooms have satellite television, and there is a pool and health club; I paid 6,084 rupees (about $60 at 104 rupees to the dollar) for a single, without breakfast.
Roughly four miles north of Kandy, I stayed at the Kandy House, (94-81) 4921394, firstname.lastname@example.org. The finest hotel around, it’s for people who want to stay in a place that feels like someone’s home – you’ll wind up meeting the other guests, whether you like it or not. Through next month, rooms start at $110 a night, and are lower after that. Breakfast is included.
In Nuwara Eliya, I stayed at St. Andrews, (94-52) 2222445, 10 St. Andrew’s Drive, email@example.com, set in the center of town with plenty of colonial ambience but threadbare rooms. Singles start at $100, except for the period around the holidays, when they start at $125. Breakfast is not included. Other options in the area include Tea Trails, (94-11) 2303888, www.teatrails.com, a new boutique hotel in old bungalows of British tea managers, roughly 90 minutes from Nuwara Eliya. Rooms start at $330 a night for two, all meals included.
Along the south coast, between Tangalle and Galle, there are numerous new hotels, and it makes sense to bargain, even if only for a modest discount. In Tangalle, I stayed at the Eva Lanka, (94-47) 2240940, www.eva.lk, where small bungalows have gorgeous views over the sea. I was able to knock down the price of a bungalow from $100 per night to $70, without breakfast. Talalla Retreat Center, (94-41) 2259171, www.talallaretreatcentre.com, primarily aimed at yoga enthusiasts, is north of Tangalle. Rooms start at $70 a night.
Near Galle, I stayed 1.2 miles west of town on the Galle-Colombo Road at the Lighthouse Hotel and Spa, (94-9) 12224017, www.slh.com/sri_lanka/dadella/hotel_dadlig.html, a Geoffrey Bawa creation perched atop a rocky beach, allowing for sundowners on a gorgeous veranda. Rooms start at $250.
If you prefer a more intimate experience, try the boutique hotels in Galle. Inside the Fort, the Fort Printers, 39 Pedlar Street, (94-9) 12247977, www.thefortprinters.com, offers five suites. Rates start at $100 in low season and $125 in high season, including breakfast. Down the street are the Galle Fort Hotel, 28 Church Street, (94-91) 2232870, www.galleforthotel.com, with rooms from $150, and the stately Amangalla, 10 Church Street, (94-91) 2233388, www.amanresorts.com, which offers rooms starting at $450 a night.
For a Galle boutique hotel outside the fort, the Sun House, 18 Upper Dickson Road, (94-91) 4380275, firstname.lastname@example.org, has rooms from $150.
WHERE TO EAT
Outside Colombo, Sri Lanka’s restaurant scene is just beginning to develop. In the capital, the buffet dinner at Curry Leaf, at the Colombo Hilton, 2 Sir Chittampalam A. Gardiner Mawatha, (94-1) 12492492 , offers a good introduction to the range of Sri Lankan cuisine, from mild, coconutty fish curries to fiery stews of exotic bitter gourds. Dinner for one cost me roughly 1,500 rupees. The Mango Tree, 82 Dharmapala Mawatha, Colombo, (94-11) 5379790, a chic bar and bistro, serves up some of the best Indian food in town. Lunch for one cost about 1,110 rupees.
In the Hill Country, 8.5 miles east of Nuwara Eliya, the Tea Factory, (94-52) 2229526, www.aitkenspencehotels.com/teafactory, serves up solid curries. Dinner for one, with drinks, cost 1,015 rupees. The colonial ambience of the Hill Club, 29 Grand Hotel Road, (94-52) 2222653, email@example.com, compensates for its food – British rations from an age long before London’s culinary revolution. Dinner for one costs about 1,500 rupees; jacket and tie required for men.
Traveling from the highlands to the south coast, be sure to stop at roadside vendors for coconut juice and wood apple, a tasty fruit that resembles a sweet-and-sour custard inside a hard shell.
Galle has the best range of restaurants on the south coast. Dinner at the Sun House, with drinks, cost me 2,700 rupees; upon request, the Sun House will pick you up in one of its classic cars. Wijaya Beach Cottage, Unawatuna beach, south of Galle, (94-777) 903431, does simple grilled seafood, like crabs, lobster and seer fish. A crab and fish feast, with drinks, cost about 1,600 rupees.
The Rough Guide is one of the best English-language guides to Sri Lanka, while the Luxe City Guide booklet offers a sassy, funny take on the country, particularly on luxury hotels and shopping. Since Sri Lanka has a large English-speaking population, it possesses several English-language newspapers. The Island and The Daily Mirror are considered more independent than the others. The small country also has produced a wealth of talented writers. Michael Ondaatje’s “Running in the Family” is a memoir of his Sri Lankan family, while his novel “Anil’s Ghost” is a somber chronicle of the effects of the civil war.