Sri Lanka is a well-established destination, with inspiring experiences like national parks, venerated temples, tea plantations and rose-gold beaches. But as a short trip, this was more about the quality not quantity, a focus on achieving an authentic starter-pack sense of the people and the place. So we stripped the itinerary right back to focus on just three things. First, to visit some of the iconic Buddhist temples and start to understand this powerful faith and its influence on three quarters of the population, Second, to see the natural and diverse beauty of Sri Lankan beauty (despite its relatively small size Sri Lanka in fact is in the works top five hot spots for biodiversity). And third, a powerful wish to get up close and personal with the extraordinary Asian elephants that congregate in vast numbers in July in Minneriya National Park.
With this in mind, we headed straight to the Cultural Triangle in Sri Lanka’s historic heartland, a concentration of extravagant ancient cities and cave frescoes with the rock fortress of Sigiriya in its middle. To the south the pilgrimage city of Kandy, built around the Temple of the Tooth Relic. A short drive into the cooler climes of the central highlands reveals the neatly-tended tea estates and swathes of forest. Then the hills drop sharply down to the national parks and rain forest below, which shelter elephants, sloth bears and, more elusively, leopards.
To reflect the back-to-basics nature of the trip, we dodged the more obvious beauty-parade hotels, instead staying at a unique eco-lodge called Diyabubla, in Dambulla, tucked away in five acres of dense forest. A blend of boutique hotel and private lodge, the creation of one man’s vision to build a low-impact intimate place for travellers to hideaway in a blissful sanctuary that connects guests to the abundance of surrounding nature.
Created by Laki Senanayake, one of Sri Lanka’s greatest living artists, the property was hand-built by a small team of local craftsman and celebrates the beauty of the Sri Lankan wilderness. Laki still lives close to the lodge and many of his exquisite sculptures are scattered around the property. The Trojan horse that greets guests in the drive is a powerful statement and a clear marker that the art is part of the fabric here. In fact, guests are often invited to share a glass with Laki in his private studio while he shares stories and his favourite pieces of work.
The main entrance, the dining area, and five beautifully-designed lodges have been crafted from 100-year old railway sleepers and other Sri Lankan natural materials, and the rest of the structures are largely glazed, allowing the trees to flood into the spaces, blending living wood with wooden structures.
The name Diyabubla means ‘water bubble’, a reference to the property’s location on the site of an ancient spring that feeds the scattered water pools from which our water villa rises up on stilts to sit loftily among the trees.
Each of the individually-decorated lodges (water villas, a bamboo house, and a tree house) showcase the artist’s own works, from large wall murals to extraordinary lamp sculptures and hand-painted shower tiles. It’s quirky but thoughtful.
Waking up in this forest, opening up the doors onto the terrace to be met by a jungle orchestra of birds and the impatient screeching of monkeys expands inner and outer space effortlessly.
The raised walkways that meander through the trees are like veins, all feeding into the central wooden and glazed feature which hosts the dining and relaxing gallery. This is where the incredibly attentive and friendly staff serve up another form of art with Sri Lankan-inspired dishes, all of which respect the traditional Ayurvedic principles of no meat and alcohol.
Though it was only a short stay, we got exactly what we needed. Diyabubla is perfect for sightseeing (especially getting up close to the most magnificent orphaned Asian elephant). The resort becomes your own natural bubble, a place to relax and unwind and feel part of the fabric of Sri Lanka and of Laki’s art. This is a wonderfully forest getaway, a powerful living expression of the creative talent of its architect, and the perfect antidote to sightseeing.
I’m only sorry that I didn’t get to meet the maker during our stay.
Top spots in the local area:
- Dambulla, a cave temple
- Sigiriya, an impressive rock fortress
- Ancient city of Polonnaruwa
- Rose Quartz Mountain
- Ritigala Forest Reserve
- Minneriya National Park