Free spirits: Sri Lanka

The raw, untamed beauty of Sri Lanka reveals itself on a journey from Colombo into the country's heartlands and lesser-explored north west, home to wildlife-rich reserves, artist studios and the ancient city of Anuradpura.

By Jini Reddy
Published 11 Oct 2011, 17:58 BST, Updated 14 Sept 2021, 10:58 BST

Everything's a little surreal. I've just met an elderly astrologer and received a monk's blessing. Gingerly chanting a mantra, he wraps a white thread around my wrist and secures it tightly, leaving me to wander back to my jungle retreat.

I'm sleeping in a traditional wattle-and-daub thatched house, part of eco-retreat The Mudhouse, in north-west Sri Lanka. With no electricity, kerosene lamps and candles provide lighting; my 'jungle' shower is cold water piped from a reservoir. But there's a four-poster bed, flush toilet, Zen-like flower arrangements, reading room, and a tiny dining pavilion with teak drawers full of exotic teas. I find it entrancing and cosseting, and I've come alone. Couples, I imagine, must reach nirvana here.

If I'm honest, I'd always naively dismissed Sri Lanka as an 'India lite'. On arrival in the former capital, Colombo, I'm struck by the relative absence of chaos and music blasting from loudspeakers at all hours — features of Indian life I happen to adore. But equally, unlike its neighbour to the north, there's no rubbish, little pollution, and no potholed roads. I don't see any beggars, either. This kind of 'lite' I could get used to.

On top of this, I learn, literacy is high at over 90%, and women enjoy a more elevated status than in many other developing countries, having avoided purdah and child marriage, for instance. Furthermore, a third of all Sri Lankan women work and, for the most part, Buddhists (who predominate), Hindus, Catholics and Muslims rub along just fine. As the horrors of the civil war between the government and the militant separatist Tamil Tigers recede, hope and stability are returning, and tourism is booming.

But I'm not here to sun myself or to follow the tourist trail. After meeting my driver and guide, the unflappable Mahesh, we head north-west out of Colombo to the rural and little-visited Puttalam district: a land of elephants, jackals, water buffalo, and whole kingdoms of birds and butterflies within dense forest. Here, the ancestors of the Sinhalese people first landed, dotting the region with hidden temples, mysterious rock carvings and ancient ruins.

We arrive at The Mudhouse, which lies seductively in a forest clearing adjacent to a lake teeming with birdlife. Ranjith 'Kumar' Kumaatunga, the retreat's engaging manager, opened the venture four years ago with sleeping partner Tom Armstrong, co-owner of UK-based tour operator Experience Travel.

Organic by name and organic by nature, the Mudhouse's culinary creations are a surprising highlight. Everything's based on local dishes, and the exotic vegetable curries packed with jackfruit, drumstick, snake gourd, mallang (shredded greens) and unusual herbal tonics from Kumar's large organic garden are supplemented by weird-looking carbs: kurakkan pittu looks like a Christmas pudding but turns out to be a rice-like grain, while eggs come in pancake cups called 'hoppers'.

Birdwatching expeditions here are incredibly rich experiences, even if you're not a twitcher. Set in Sri Lanka's dry zone, the hotel sits in a region scattered with a vast network of irrigation 'tanks', or man-made lakes. These help sustain local communities but also do a great job of nurturing populations of colourful birds and other wildlife. Water levels vary throughout the year and the resort's trips tend to be to the tanks with most water. The mighty Tabowa Wewa is a favourite, surrounded by elephant corridors and bordering the nearby Elephant Sanctuary, where these magnificent creatures are reintroduced into the jungle.

My trip offers time for a heavenly dip in a lake, followed by an equally celestial monk's blessing, then an impromptu consultation with a local astrologer. I am utterly enchanted; even more so when later I am ushered into a local family's hut. Here I am wreathed in smiles and offered coconut juice as the parents proudly tell me all about their five-year-old daughter, Ayesha, who hopes to become a doctor one day. Already, I'm itching to return.

To the mountains

I make my way to Anuradapura, Sri Lanka's ancient capital, which dates back to the fourth-century BC and is known for its well-preserved ruins — a history and archaeology buff's dream. Unfortunately, I don't fall into either category and am more intrigued by the fact the oldest recorded tree in the world is here. Apparently, it's a sapling from the original bodhi tree, under which Siddhartha, the founder of Buddhism, was said to have experienced enlightenment. Its presence — it's been enshrined and is a pilgrimage site — makes Anuradapura one of the most sacred Buddhist sites in the world.

Just further south lies Sigiriya, home to the 660ft-high Sigiriya Rock, Sri Lanka's answer to Australia's Uluru. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it was once the citadel of a fugitive king and dates back to the fifth-century AD. Visiting groups climb it and I'm no exception. Halfway up, I'm greeted by frescoes depicting alluring naked maidens (causing a bit of a bottleneck), and the cool breezes at the top make the sweaty trudge thoroughly worthwhile.

After my descent, I'm eager to escape the souvenir-hawkers and relieved when I check in to Vil Uyana. This is not your average boutique hideaway — rather, the first hotel in Sri Lanka to have constructed a wetland system, with lakes and reed beds, and the first to have rooms built within paddy fields. It's pretty luxurious and fast becoming an attraction to rival the rock.

I can almost do laps of the plunge pool in my villa's spa-sized ground-floor bathroom, which also includes a sunken bath and ornamental pond, while the sleeping space upstairs — 'bedroom' doesn't do it justice — is so vast I can imagine Rory McIlroy happily practising his teeing-off skills here. He could even helicopter over from Colombo, as there's a helipad on site — the one un-eco-friendly detail. There's also a gym, spa, smart restaurant, lounge stocked with wildlife books, and a daily menu of activities. I choose an elephant safari to Minneriya National Park. Pachyderm- spotting and pampering, however, can't compete with an unusual hill trek in the Knuckles Mountains.

In the heart of the country, this vast wilderness is home to waterfalls, rivers, misty peaks, leopards, civet cats, torque monkeys, wild boar, reptiles, and scores of flowering plants, though tourists often overlook it. But if you want a taste of raw Sri Lanka, you'll find it here.

We take a five-mile uphill hike, crossing mountain rivers, terraced rice fields and dense forest, all in the pouring rain with leeches sucking at my ankles. Fuelled by swigs of toddy from my guide, Sidantha Kumara, I reach Walpolamula, a remote mountain community in the northern Knuckles with a population of six. Sid, as he's known, runs the Abode, a community tourism project set up to sustain and preserve the village.

As a guest, a stay here is all about getting an insight into the lives of the remaining mountain dwellers while they earn an alternative source of income. My kindly hosts are a 60-year-old grandmother, Bisomeinke, and her 75-year-old husband, Wijerathna. After I've freshened up in a stream, they lead me to my room in one of two stone-walled houses: spartan but cosy, with a bed and a trunk full of books. The loo is the bush behind the house. Wijerathna, entirely honourably, wants to keep guard during my ablutions, as apparently there are cobras lurking, but, embarrassed, I insist on risking it alone.

That night, we enjoy a meal of roti, coconut rice, sambal (chilli-based sauce), dried fish and potato curry — the fish and potatoes were purchased on trips down the mountain — prepared by my hostess on the clay hearth. After dinner, Wijerathna sings a few folk songs in Sinhala and we chat. With the help of Sid's translation, I learn that Bisomeinke and Wijerathna are both Buddhist, but also practise animism (the belief that non-human entities are spiritual beings) and worship mountain gods.

As there's no doctor up here, the pair are also natural health practitioners — heated coconut oil, for instance, is a migraine cure, while the nuts of the mee tree are crushed and the extracted oil used to soothe wasp stings and joint inflammation.

The next morning, I walk with the couple to their paddy and wheat fields. While Wijerathna herds water buffalo, his wife harvests grain with a scythe. Briefly, I join her, and realise, as I handle the heavy implement, that though a frail-looking figure, she has the strength of an ox.

Back down the mountain in the blazing sunshine, after carefully plucking off the leeches amassed on the way down, I bid farewell to Walpolamula and prepare for a five-hour journey through hill country and lush tea plantations, to Nuwara Eliya. Founded by the British in the 19th century, this resort town is where well-heeled Sri Lankans holiday. As darkness creeps in, the drive along cliff-hugging roads to Warwick Gardens — the former tea planter's bungalow and my abode for the night — becomes a white-knuckle ride.

Tea time

Nosing around the next morning, it's clear why this territory is for the wealthy. Outside, there's manicured lawns, dizzying valley views, and tea plantations, while inside it's baronial splendour: five vast bedrooms, plush common rooms and chic furnishings — even a grand piano and chandeliers that wouldn't look out of place in a posh London pad.

The atmosphere is informal, though, and manager Mohammed Faris, a former veterinary surgeon with a PhD in forestry and wildlife conservation, is proud of his property's green credentials. Waste and toilet paper are recycled, air fresheners banned, toiletries organic, and produce from the farm, orchard and vegetable plots supply the kitchen. "Sometimes, guests like to come and pick their own herbs and leaves for a salad," he explains.

There's a working tea factory on the estate, too, and the walk up there, along a path strewn with wildflowers, is beautiful. If I'd had more time, I'd have borrowed one of the many mountain bikes, or taken a day-long hike.

Before long, I double back down the winding roads to Kandy, the last royal capital of Sri Lanka (the rule of Sinhala kings ended with British occupation in 1815). I spend my final days here, at the mad, magnificent Helga's Folly, in the hills above the city.

Helga De Silva Blow Perera, part posh caretaker, part creative genius, patrols the premises of her 'anti-hotel' as she calls it, in trademark Jackie O sunglasses, with a pet Dalmatian by her side. All of which could give rise to Cruella de Vil jibes but for the fact Helga is a warm and caring hostess. Her mother, from whom she inherited the hotel, was an artist; her father a diplomat; her grandfather a politician who helped to secure independence for the then Ceylon.

The guest rooms and lounges are flooded with colour. Buddhist and Hindu murals, monumental, dripping candles, hanging baubles and fluorescent cushions cast their glow on gramophones, heirlooms and walls lined with photos of former guests — Sir Laurence Olivier, Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru among them. I'm rooted to the spot and don't want to leave. Ever.

Helga knows everyone who is anyone. The contents of her little black book, which she generously shares, send me on a tailor-made tour that makes my morning's sightseeing efforts — the glittering Temple of the Tooth, Kandy Lake and The Botanical Gardens — pale into insignificance.

Through Helga, I meet Waruna Jayasinghe, an artist and the city's top antiques dealer. Waruna's treasures include a blue sapphire pendant (worth around £4,000, if you're interested), paintings by the late George Keyt (a famous, late Sri Lankan artist of mixed European-Asian parentage), and delicate Kataragama scrolls.

But Waruna also runs Samadhi, a retreat centre and organic farm an hour's drive from Kandy. It's a peaceful spot, with ayurvedic treatments, hikes and yoga on offer. There's a brass foundry, and a carpentry and antiques restoration workshop, and guests are welcome to have a go. The 10-dish lunch I have here has me hankering for a full-on retreat.

Another of Helga's friends, Rahju, a half-Norwegian, half-Sri Lankan artist takes me to his studio in Gunnepana, a pretty village a few miles from Kandy. He paints in acrylics and specialises in dramatic Hindu and Buddhist imagery and Sri Lankan nature scenes.

Conveniently, he lives close to the Kandy House, a mansion transformed three years ago into a boutique hotel. Wrapped around a courtyard are nine airy rooms named after butterflies, and there's a pool in the garden overlooking paddy fields and jungle. It's an every-wish-is-your-command kind of place. "We cater to the individual," says manager and writer Tania Brassey, who authored the Insight Guide to Sri Lanka and has a novel in the works.

Here, as in the other places I visited, there's no wi-fi (though that has since changed). But after a week or two of Sri Lankan-style roaming and resting, I really couldn't care less.


Getting There
Sri Lankan Airlines flies daily from Heathrow to Colombo. Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways fly via the Middle East.  
Average flight time: 10h.

Getting Around
Although public transport is cheap, a more popular alternative is to hire a car and driver.

When to Go
Sri Lanka is a year-round destination. Most tourists visit December- March, the driest seasons for the west coast, south coast, and hill country. The dry season in the east and north runs from April- September.

Need to Know
Currency: Sri Lankan Rupee (LKR). £1 = 174 LKR.
Health: Consult your GP about vaccinations before travel.
International dial code: Sri Lanka: 00 94. The Maldives: 00 960.
Time difference: Sri Lanka: GMT +5.5. The Maldives: GMT +5.

How to Do it
Experience Travel offers three nights at The Mudhouse, two nights at Vil Uyana, one night at the Abode, two nights at Warwick Gardens and two nights at Helga's Folly, including international flights from £2,199.
Sri Lanka is often twinned with the Maldives as a popular honeymoon or couples package. Travelbag offers five nights in Sri Lanka followed by seven nights in the Maldives from £1,299 per person.

Published in the Nov/Dec 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


Explore Nat Geo

  • Animals
  • Environment
  • History & Culture
  • Science
  • Travel
  • Photography
  • Space
  • Adventure
  • Video

About us


  • Magazines
  • Disney+

Follow us

Copyright © 1996-2015 National Geographic Society. Copyright © 2015-2023 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved