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Nostalgia Trip

When my old Sri Lankan flatmate told me he was going back to Sri Lanka for 10 days, and suggested I come with him, I made one of those reckless decisions that some of the best experiences start with, and booked a flight to revisit old friends.

After six years away from a country I had made my home for two years, would I find the once palm-ridden cityscape clogged with skyscrapers, the once ramshackle beaches fenced off for gargantuan resort hotels? Greeted at the airport by a smiling taxi driver holding up a cardboard sign reading “Mr Heathr Tyrrell”, and the racket of crickets singing in the humid night, things looked good for the shabbily chic Sri Lanka I had known and loved.

A few hours later my friend and I were jostling our way through the morning rush hour traffic (Sri Lanka’s unique highway code apparently involves following the dotted lines along the middle of the road), looking for a roadside stall selling Thambillis, or King Coconuts, for breakfast. Pulling over at a dusty shack hung with clusters of the orange globes, my friend whispered urgently, “Keep your head down, or the price will go up!” But of course the novel sight of a sudu (whitey) in the Colombo backwaters didn’t go unnoticed, and the price went up from ten Rupees to an extortionate fifteen (12p or 20 cents)

After a breakfast of coconut milk drunk from the shell came an evening of cocktails on the veranda, in a familiarly Sri Lankan switch from simplicity to high decadence. On my first ever night in the country eight years ago, I was taken to the sleepy Galle Face Hotel, where white jacketed, sandaled old waiters padded about under creaking ceiling fans, and cockroaches discreetly scuttled along the skirting board. Coming back nearly a decade later, I steeled myself to see my old friend refurbished into anonymity, having heard of ominous plans by Raffles of Singapore to take it under its wing. But I might have stepped back in time six years or even 60, as the same waiter I remembered served us cocktails at his own, measured, pace, while the sea crashed on the rocks at the end of the garden, and the building crumbled genteelly around us.

Sri Lanka is a safe haven from the passage of time; after all, when simply walking a few metres in the sun bathes you in sweat, who wants to rush? For me, the chance to play at living the high life again, instead of having to carry my own drinks all the way from the bar to my table, was a shot in the arm that banished the drab of a British winter.

Up-country from Colombo is Sri Lanka’s old royal capital, Kandy, where ancient temples and monasteries nestle around a tranquil lake 3000 feet above sea-level. Driving high into the Kandyan hills, we happened upon the Chalet Hotel, aka Helga’s Folly, painted a lurid red with huge murals of Kandyan dancers on every door, and either grotesquely ugly or divinely kitsch depending on your perspective. The garden terrace with blissful view over the lake and mountains decided us. A vast salon filled to bursting with divans, antiques and curiosities led to a staircase decorated with framed articles about Helga’s London fashion designer daughter Selina Blow and her society wedding, and up to a candlelit restaurant and veranda. Checking out replete after a sumptuous dinner and garden breakfast, we met the hotel’s plummy Sri Lankan owner, Helga Perera, who glided past in giant sunhat and glasses to invite us to sign her gargantuan visitor’s book.

On a mission to revisit my old beach haunts, I took a careering train journey along the coast past shantytowns, mangrove swamps, and palm-fringed beaches, to the Dutch sea fort of Galle. I watched the sun set over the grassy ramparts along with Sri Lankan courting couples modestly flirting under umbrellas, and schoolboys playing cricket, while hawkers waved pillow-lace under my nose. At the heart of the fort’s quiet, ancient streets is the Dutch colonial New Oriental Hotel, where washed-out portraits of the Dutch and British Queens stare down benignly on dinner guests, and where I could only dream of staying as a teacher earning £35 a month, but where now I can manage $35 for a night in a vast, high-ceilinged room that seems made for a giant, with its huge wooden floorboards and four-poster beds. For old times’ sake I took a swim in the garden pool, under the stars, where the frangipani tree still drips flowers into the water, just the way I left it.

10 minutes trishaw ride up the road is the Lighthouse Hotel, built in 1998 by Sri Lanka’s legendary architect Geoffrey Bawa, now in his 80s, and responsible for the simple, tropical chic that makes Sri Lanka’s luxury hotels some of the most glamorous in the world. The Lighthouse staircase, a raging battleground of wrought iron soldiers, greets your entrance with an extravagant theatricality that continues with corridors and doorways peeling like ancient temples, and a swimming pool teetering over a cliff top.

Life is somehow bigger and brighter this much closer to the sun, and Sri Lanka’s lazy, dilapidated loveliness has a way of getting under your skin that makes me realise I can never spend so long away from it again.

The Facts

I travelled to Sri Lanka with Sri Lankan Airlines for £440, booked through Trailfinders. Rooms at the Galle Face Hotel start at US$55, and for $75 you can stay in a suite with a sea view. A double room at the Chalet Hotel in Kandy cost $50. Rooms at the New Oriental Hotel, Galle, start at $35. The 5-star Lighthouse Hotel, Galle, charges $100 a night, but you can use the pool for the day for only 200 Rupees. The Lonely Planet guidebook to Sri Lanka provides comprehensive information for the independent traveller.

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