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Sunday, August 9, 2009

An eco-hotel in Sri Lanka

It’s a nerve-wracking business, deciding what book to pack when travelling. The wrong novel in the wrong place can be a disaster, ruining either the holiday or the book – as I once discovered when I tried, and failed, to immerse myself in the snowy battlefields of War and Peace when baking on a beach in Greece.

The Heritance Kandalama in Sri Lanka, designed to merge with the surrounding landscape

It was by chance that I happened to be reading JG Ballard’s The Drowned World while travelling in Sri Lanka. Ballard, who died in April, is known for his novels depicting apocalyptic futures. That of The Drowned World is particularly nightmarish. Temperatures and sea levels have risen, and the few surviving humans, including the main character, Kerans, eke out a precarious existence in the penthouse suites of submerged hotels. Rendered almost catatonic by the heat, they are watched by packs of hungry reptiles – giant iguanas, monitor lizards, alligators and sea-snakes in salty lagoons – while an omnivorous jungle encroaches through windows shorn of their glass.

With this as yet unopened book in my bag, I blithely checked into the Heritance Kandalama in central Sri Lanka, the wondrous eco-hotel designed by the country’s best-loved architect, the late Geoffrey Bawa. A pioneering work of green architecture, the Kandalama is designed to merge with the landscape and rejects the usual segregation of inside and outside. Built into a dramatic outcrop of gneiss and surrounded by lush jungle and a large lake, it is a deeply sensuous place. Real boulders burst through the simple geometry of its walls, and the serpentine corridors are open to the breeze and the birds. Guests are encouraged to imitate the staff and walk barefoot on the soft, polished cement – either warm or cool depending on the time of day. Every so often on your travels you arrive at an exquisitely framed view, a Bawa trademark, with a table and chair positioned just so before it. The day begins and ends with a chorus of shrieks, beeps, croaks and hoots from the jungle, and there is little to do in between but sit by the turquoise infinity pool and let the heat and a Lion lager induce a state of lethargy.

Which is what I was doing when I opened The Drowned World. It turned my experience of the hotel on its head.

Beyond the pool, the vast and silent grey-blue lake was every bit as eerie as Ballard’s saltwater lagoons, and no doubt harboured similarly predatory reptiles. What’s more, bare, forked branches of dead trees stuck out of it, and birds of prey circled overhead. And then there was the hotel itself, so engulfed by jungle that it was impossible to tell where one ended and the other began: stringy vines dangled between each floor; grasses and succulents sprouted from the roof. Screeching monkeys ran amok.

The sun pounding the back of my head, I was projected a century into the future: mankind had been wiped out, and the hotel was a beautiful, terrible reminder of a lost civilisation, the jungle well advanced in its bid for repossession.

It was somewhat ironic, therefore, to discover that the Kandalama was doing everything it could to avert such an apocalyptic scenario. Guests are encouraged to relax in their Jacuzzis (there is one in every room) knowing that their dirty bath water will go on to irrigate the roof garden.

Since it first opened in 1994, the hotel has received a host of Green Globe awards, and embraced the “3 Rs” principle of “reduce, re-use and recycle”. Bawa did, in fact, design the hotel with the idea that the jungle would one day close over it.

This did nothing to dispel the disconcerting sense that I had slipped into the drowned world of Ballard’s book, however. Just as the novel’s characters are prone to heat-induced hallucinations and struggle to tell dreams from reality, I found myself strangely disorientated by the Kandalama. You arrive at what you believe to be the ground floor only to discover that it is the fifth, with several floors below you, down among dangling tap roots and dripping rocks. I spent a demented hour searching for an Olympic-sized swimming pool I had glimpsed from higher up, eventually concluding I’d imagined it (I found it the next day). And just as the inhabitants of Ballard’s drowned city are marooned in their high-rises, I soon became marooned in mine. Looking down on the canopy of the jungle from my balcony (on the ground floor, which is also the fifth), I couldn’t wait to go out walking. But my attempts to actually get to the jungle were constantly frustrated. Painted white footprints guided me gently but firmly back in a circle; when I ignored them, signs forbade me from going further without a guide. Imprisoned on my balcony, I resigned myself to listening to the ominous sound of branches being crushed underfoot, slowly and rhythmically, as some mammoth creature – an elephant, or a giant Ballardesque iguana – passed invisibly beneath.

What eventually poses the greatest threat to Kerans in The Drowned World is not the predatory reptiles, but other humans – namely the crazy Strangman and his thuggish entourage, who torture him and leave him for dead. When I heard that the hotel was expecting several government ministers for a political conference, I got nervous. The militant Tamil Tigers had been active in the preceding weeks. Surely the conference would make the Kandalama a target? I decided that the sensible thing to do was to leave the hotel for the day.

So it was that I spent peaceful hours gazing at great golden buddhas reclining in caves near Dambulla, 13km away. I forgot about Ballard, the heat, the lake – even the sun-dried corpse of a large, grinning monitor lizard I had stumbled upon in the hotel’s eco museum. By the time I got back to Kandalama, the politicians had gone.

A week to the day after my visit to the golden buddhas, I was listening to the radio in my kitchen in England when I heard the news: a bomb had exploded on a bus in Dambulla, killing 20 people and wounding dozens more. I sat down, shocked and tearful, as you are when you realise how close to danger you have come, and how others weren’t so lucky. It was only then, the powerful mood of the Ballard novel no longer exerting its hold, that I began to reconsider my stay in Sri Lanka.

Of all the places I had been, the Kandalama emerged as the refuge, exactly as Bawa had designed it to be – not a place where I was held captive, but a place where I had been allowed to experience the beauty of the virgin jungle without being allowed to damage it. It was the jungle that had needed protecting; the most threatening presence at the Kandalama had perhaps been me.

Heritance Kandalama, Dambulla, Sri Lanka; doubles from $146; www.heritancehotels.com

By Susan Elderkin
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009


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