(By, Kate Allen) The Galle Face Hotel in Colombo must be the world’s bossiest hotel. Signs on every stairwell preach against smoking and sloth, or hector residents: ‘Don’t take the lift – for your health’s sake, walk down.’
In its cathedral-high marble lobby, an honours board brags a strange mixture of celebrity guests such as George Bernard Shaw, Lady Olga Maitland and Bo Derek.
But despite its pomposity, peeling plaster and Victorian plumbing, I wouldn’t swop the Galle Face for all the slick hotels in Asia. Built in 1864, it is that most endangered of species – an eccentric, fading colonial hotel, untouched by icy air conditioning or corporate colour schemes.
Barefoot waiters in white livery, some of whom have worked there since Sri Lanka was Ceylon, serve gin and tonic on the broad verandah while you recline in your Dutch planter’s chair, listening to the wind in the coconut palms and forgetting you are in a capital city.
Sleepy Colombo. It is not hard to imagine wild elephants wandering the city limits when British rule began in 1815 or the tangled forest which stretched from its central hills to the coast.
Today, it is still preposterously beautiful and unspoiled; so lush that Leonard Woolf – future husband of Viginia and then a colonial administrator – observed how the wooden props for his washing line would sprout green shoots.
Yet throughout the past years, the vicious civil war between the majority Sinhalese Buddhist community and the Tamil Tigers deterred tourists. Now the conflict is almost over and is confined to a small area in the north of the country, well away from the best tourist areas.
Indeed, southern Sri Lanka is as safe and as uninterested in its civil war as southern Ireland. We visited after a major battle and found little sign of strife beyond army road blocks which waved us through and white flags outside shops, a Buddhist sign of mourning.
So, surprisingly, what Sri Lanka offers is a sense of ancient tranquillity – it is, if you like, India without the hassle, a country in which the tourist can indulge in the Raj nostalgia without being daunted by extreme poverty or the sheer size of a subcontinent.
For the British visitor, there is a disconcerting combination of the bizarre and familiar. Taxis are ancient Morris Minors, bicycles are cast-iron pre-war Raleigh’s and railway platforms are frozen in the 1950s, brass-plated relics of when the station master was God.
Even the food has nostalgic echoes. Ginger beer, lashings of it, is delicious with ‘short eats’, a Sri Lanka meal of puff pastries and sandwiches, directly descended from the British high tea.
Yet Sri Lanka can be disconcertingly strange. Our first night in Bentota was disrupted by a weird cacophony. The following morning, we discovered our villa was next to a temple where Buddhist monks were celebrating ‘poya’ – a full moon festival – with singing, clanging bells and firecrackers. So much for silent meditation.
That same night, further along the moonlit beach, turtles came ashore to lay their eggs. Too many were ending life as omelettes until a conservation scheme started paying locals to bring them to be hatched and released back into the ocean.
From Bentota we travelled by train – 120 miles in comfortable second class cost a pound – to Kandy, a jumble of antique shops, gem dealers, hotels and vegetable markets around a vast artificial lake.
We stayed high above the town at The Chateau, the guest house of a retired English-speaking couple. While Mr Abeywickrema, an amateur poet, penned verses about nubile maidens tending paddy fields, his wife Doris prepared food to die for.
Unlike India, there is no great national cuisine, but Doris produced delicious string hoppers – steamed mats of thin rice noodles with plantain curry, spicy dhal and whole garlic cloves fried until caramelised.
Properly refuelled, we set off for the tourist magnet of Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage, about 20 miles from Kandy, where deserted or orphaned calves are raised freely. Their only penalty is to assemble every morning at 9am to meet fawning, cooing foreigners who pay to camcord each other feeding them with bottles.
After the last of the tearaway toddler elephants have been sated, the whole herd, followed by an equally portly herd of tourists, heads for the river to wallow.
We rented a driver and air-conditioned car to take us north to Sri Lanka’s lost ancient cities. The rock fortress at Sigiriya was built in AD473 to fend off the persistent South Indian invaders. But the reason most people climb 200 metres up precarious metal steps is to see the gorgeous, pouting temple dancers painted in the caves 1500 years ago.
At Anuradhapura, once Sri Lanka’s magnificent capital, pilgrims visit the sacred Bo tree, grown from the original under which Buddha attained enlightenment. Nearby are many temples and extraordinary ‘dagabos’ [stupas], domed structures around which devotees walk, always clockwise, in prayer.
But the ancient kings’ most enduring achievements were the ‘tanks’, huge reservoirs which still irrigate the dry northern regions. We cycled around the largest after a monsoon downpour at dusk, watching children play in the water meadows, when a double rainbow arched across the lake with such paintbox clarity that monks spilled out of the monastery to stare.
Sri Lanka is still quixotic and surprising, not yet smoothed into Westerner-friendly blandness. But there are bad omens; over- development threatens the beautiful west coast and, worst of all, the Galle Face Hotel will be revamped next year. Let’s hope the creaky waiters and bossy signs survive.