Journey to a Culture of Kings

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I’ve heard Will Self describe flying First Class as indulging in the heroin of travel: once you’ve experienced the warm, sweet buzz of airborne supremacy, nothing else will do and there will be a miserable, inevitable cold turkey to deal with. I have an endless journey ahead of me. I know where I need to be, but getting there will be a struggle whichever way I look at it. A dear friend offers sage advice before wandering off on his short journey home. He says, “If you want an upgrade you must look the part; you’re a travel writer, and you’re heading to one of our former colonies. Wear linen, don a panama hat, they’ll love you”.  This is bad advice. I can tell you with emphatic certainty that they do not love me. They loathe me.

I arrive at Heathrow, hot, bothered and a little jaded after the first lengthy leg of my journey. King’s Cross to Heathrow on the Piccadilly line is longer than it looks. Get the Heathrow Express, don’t scrimp and try to do it on your Oyster, especially if you’re wearing a tired linen suit. Commuters in Hounslow West treat men in tired linen suits with nothing but contempt; even the children give me bilious looks. I approach the Gulf Air check-in desk, struggling inelegantly with an oversized suitcase and a suit that evokes emotions ranging from disgust to derision – I swear I hear a fat family muttering something about “the man from Del Monte”. Thankfully the fat family is not my mistress; my mistress is Sharon on the Gulf Air desk and the possibility of that upgrade to First.

I’m ready with a press pack and a story about my important upcoming journalistic endeavours in Sri Lanka; I look the part – surely? Evidently I do not. Sharon looks me up and down and a half-smile hovers on her lips. She shakes her head and looks bored. She’s seen eager men in linen suits before; she’s probably seen a few that day. She knows the drill. She says something about head office, the Kingdom of Bahrain, no access, working visa etc. I’m beaten, I know it; I’m not going to degrade myself any further. I’ve fallen at the first hurdle and all notional ideas of deep seats that fall into beds, Egyptian cotton pillows and half bottles of Krug go out of the window. The time for me to become a travel junkie is yet to come.

I must admit that travelling Economy with Gulf Air isn’t actually too bad. There’s a small synthetic blanket to help cover my sartorial shame, and the air stewardesses seem to treat me with a modicum of respect. A four-hour stop in The Kingdom of Bahrain is a little arduous at five o’clock in the morning, but we manage to freshen up in duty free and drink ‘coffee’ in Costa, and before long we’re off again. The second leg of the journey is far more entertaining. While Sarah sleeps soundly, the gentleman to my immediate left starts confiding in me about his vices. He’s a Sri Lankan who’s been based in Saudi for the last eight months, and prior to our conversation, I watch him nail four whisky and cokes. He suddenly turns to me, winks and admits that he has a deep and enduring thirst, which his wife and mother fear will kill him. When I mishear his name, he starts spelling it out with a rage that comes from nowhere. He’s terrifying me. Just as he starts writing his contact details in the back of the book I’m reading, and making me promise I’ll visit his mother who has a heart condition, the plane starts its descent and relief puts a smile back on my face.

We’re in Sri Lanka to visit the Jetwing Vil Uyana Hotel and Spa in the World Heritage Site of Sigiriya, one of Sri Lanka’s ancient cities. The problem, or beauty depending on the way you look at it, is that we have a long way to go before we’ll be in Sigiriya.  Colombo is caught in sheets of rain as we arrive into town from the airport. We’ve been warned that the west coast of the island might be a little wet, which is why we plan to head east.

Fort is the main train station in Colombo. Its frontage is ancient and beautiful; there is a sense of crumbling splendour that appeals to the romantic in me. The activity below in the ticket office is frenetic in the extreme. Street vendors approach with huge bowls piled high with freshly fried snacks: pakora and bhajis alongside greasy bags of Bombay mix and roasted chickpeas. Rogue tuk-tuk drivers weave in and out among the eagle-eyed and highly officious railway staff, desperately vying for business. We trundle through with our ungainly bags and manage to sidestep the throng. Sri Lanka’s railway systems are very old yet majestic, seemingly unmodernised in half a century. Tickets are absurdly cheap at around 80p for a two and a half hour journey. The carriage is busy, but not overwhelming, we have the luxury of seats, and noisy fans line the roof of the train providing some well needed ventilation.

Once through the urban sprawl of Colombo, the train begins to snake its way through rural Sri Lanka on our journey north east. We have chosen a route that takes us through the hill country, an area with a very different outlook to the lowland coastal areas. The lush, verdant landscapes of Sri Lanka’s famous tea plantations fall away on either side as we make our winding ascent towards Kandy. The plantations shimmer and shine in the dying afternoon light and we look out of train windows to see thrill-seeking young Sri Lankans hanging out of train doorways. Throughout our journey, there is a wonderful sense of contradictory, ordered chaos that permeates through everything and seems representative of Sri Lanka’s strange relationship with order and discipline. Our tickets are printed on beautiful card and checked by men in uniforms that wouldn’t look out of place at a formal gathering of the army’s top brass and they carefully check our seating reservations to make sure we’re sitting in the correct seats. At the same time men hang out of doors and windows and between stops vendors dive on and off the train, rushing down the corridors hawking their wares – these paradoxical and at times comic characteristics give our journey a wonderfully surreal edge.

From Kandy it is travel by bus, a stinking, packed bus that rolls and careers down the pothole-strewn roads. The sun sets early in Sri Lanka and by 6.30pm it is pitch black outside and, as we know this bus will not deliver us to our final destination, instead leaving us 50km or so from Sigiriya, we start to worry. This unwelcome unease isn’t helped when rain starts hammering down, prompting our cavalier driver to progress with a wild sense of abandon, slam on the horn with even more force and regularity and overtake with a terrifying sense of purpose.

Finally we pull into the final bus stop – 58km from Sigiriya. I’d expected a row of taxis there to meet us, their drivers bartering for our business and then slipping quietly into the most luxurious car, before sailing off into the sunset. There are no taxis in sight, there are no cars. This is a tiny, tiny village – more of a hamlet, really – and it’s dead, people hiding away from the battering of the rain. Eventually a solitary tuk-tuk chugs towards us. It’s certainly not ideal, but we have no choice and clamber aboard, attempting to fit between our heavy baggage and ascertain whether the driver knows the route to our hotel. He’s nodding, but I’m sure this is bravado. The tuk-tuk splutters to life and we’re off, off into the unknown.

Fifteen minutes into our journey, our driver swerves viciously to take a call. I can see immediately that all is not well; his young body flinches and tenses and he stops driving. I question him as he switches on a bright light to the side of the machine. “Elephant light!” “Danger danger!” he squeaks. Sarah and I look at each other and I see the colour drain from her sun-kissed cheeks. “What do you mean?” I ask. “Jungle, elephant crossing, babies, danger, danger!” he shouts. I will struggle to successfully bring to the page the feeling of being warned that your lightweight tuk-tuk is in imminent danger from marauding two-tonne elephants trying to protect their young. Our driver starts to giggle nervously whilst fiddling with the engine and turning on the ‘elephant light’.

The tuk-tuk starts up again and we continue on what will remain the most terrifying taxi ride of my life. The light helps bring everything into focus – we’re driving through dense jungle and the roads are empty, the rain has started again and apart from the amateur chug of our ride, all is silent. Then suddenly from nowhere a rumble and a four-by-four marked clearly with ‘Safari’ down its side overtakes us, throwing up mud and sand. I start to notice the signs now, big signs in black and red. There’s an ominous picture of a baby elephant following a mummy elephant and then a ‘WARNING ELEPHANTS CROSSING’. Our driver’s head constantly moves from left to right, right to left. I think to myself he’s checking the roadsides for elephants and then consider what a surreal notion this is. I remind myself of a lyric from Baz Luhrmann’s 1999 hit Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen), “Do one thing every day that scares you”. I repeat this to myself again and again in a rough monotone, whilst closing my eyes and pleading for the journey to come to its end.

The journey does end eventually; we arrive and it is paradise. We’re wobbly and emotional as we leave the tuk-tuk. We overpay our driver by a considerable amount as we guiltily realise that he will now have to face the return leg of the journey alone. Whilst we’re trying to process these feelings of shame, a fresh-faced young man hands us cold, wet flannels with which to wipe the red mud from hands and faces – we’ve arrived at the Jetwing Vil Uyana, and he’s quietly telling us to clean up our act. On arrival by chauffeur-driven golf buggy at reception we are handed more treats, juice of lime and green pear, or cold coconut milk. It’s all a bit much; we hug and mutter something about stories and grandkids and make our way towards our ‘dwelling’. This is the beginning of an extraordinary episode in our journey.

The Jetwing Vil Uyana is part of the Jetwing Hotel Group – one of the leading luxury hoteliers in Sri Lanka. Jetwing was established by Herbert Cooray, initially as a single small hotel in what was then a sleepy fishing village of Negombo. This was in the early 1970s, a time when the Sri Lankan tourist industry was in its absolute infancy. In the subsequent decades, tourism in Sri Lanka grew and Cooray’s business developed into a flourishing, internationally-renowned company. Jetwing now has 11 hotels that are part of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World group and employs over 2000 people, a far cry from the beach front hotel and 12 staff three and a half decades ago.

Vil Uyana is perhaps the most intriguing and ambitious of all the Jetwing ventures. Set around 25 acres of nature reserve adjacent to the World Heritage Site of Sigiriya, this is a hotel that defies simple description. The hotel doesn’t have rooms, it has dwellings. There are beautifully designed, luxurious huts that are placed carefully around the hotel’s grounds. There are three categories: Water Dwellings, Paddy/Marsh Dwellings and Forest Dwellings. We’re in luck; Water and Paddy/Marsh dwellings have the same layout and dimensions (which are in themselves heavenly), whereas the Forest Dwellings have more space, are set out over two floors and, best of all, have their own private pools – this is the ‘room’ that we’ve been upgraded to.

We arrive at our dwelling feeling a little tawdry, the sweaty stresses of our long journey weighing us down. The building is superb and totally secluded from the neighbouring houses. Once inside, the beauty of the structure hits us; we feel like imposters at a very grand party. The downstairs floor of the dwelling is an open-plan ‘vanity room’, complete with a bath carved into the stone, huge sinks and mirrors and a walk-in wet room. Our man then takes us upstairs to the bedroom. We open the door and crystal-cool blast of conditioned air hits us for the first time on this trip – it’s a shock to leave the humidity behind. The bed is vast and soft like never before, the room is stunning and the view across the hotel grounds is impressive even in the dark of night. We know it can only improve with the rising of the sun. Our man leaves us to breathe in the scent of freshly picked jasmine flowers that cover our bed and to pull back the covers – the end of a long, long day.

We sleep like the dead and awake in a state of blissful comfort. We have a packed day ahead. Breakfast of delicious fresh fruits and Sri Lankan breads is taken in the hotel’s main restaurant which overlooks the lake (complete with crocodile!). Afterwards, the morning is spent enjoying treatments in the island spa. I indulge in the very macho pleasure that is the Elemis facial, whilst Sarah chooses a full body massage. I lie there with mud on my face and marvel at the contrast between this morning’s activities in the spa and last night’s terrors in the tuk-tuk.

As a Londoner and a food writer, I feel I’m pretty au fait with the subtleties of Asian cuisine; that is, perhaps, with one exception: the food of Sri Lanka. It’s a style of cooking that we are not exposed to a great deal in the UK. Thankfully, the management of the hotel have arranged a cooking demonstration with the chef, who is a purist and champion of the traditional national cuisine. He explains some of the distinctions while one of his sous chefs cooks one of the finest chicken curries I will ever have the pleasure of eating. Sri Lankan food bears similarities to the cuisine of various Asian countries, but has a very specific nature of its own. There is not a great deal of regional variation, perhaps more meat in the far north and, of course, more fish in the coastal towns. One marked characteristic is the dry, aromatic intensity of the herbs and spices that are roasted at high temperatures. This leads to a dramatic sense of heat and a robust savoury character to many of the curries.

Interestingly though, the structure of the curries is fairly light. Coconut milk is used, rather than fresh cream or ghee, and the element that will stay with me the most is the crunch of fresh vegetables that is present in most dishes – they are essentially healthy dishes. Some traditional recipes have the added complexity of combining Aryuvedic ingredients and technique, making for some extraordinary dining. As Sigiriya, the setting of the hotel, is synonymous with a culture of kings, we are treated to the Raja Bojun – or banquet of kings. The hotel also happens to have one of the island’s finest and most extensive collections of wine, so be assured we drank and feasted in an appropriate manner.

After a journey of a lifetime to get to Jetwing Vil Uyana, I could not have been more charmed by my time at the hotel. The levels of quality and professionalism were outstanding, nothing fell short, everything met or exceeded my expectations. The setting and accommodation is superb and worth a visit alone, but then you arrive and start immersing yourself in the complexities that come with the rich culinary tradition, or the bounties of nature that are explored and celebrated here – there’s a chance you’ll lose your heart to the place. Sadly, just as I have acclimatised to the buzz of the air conditioning and the sweet, heady aromas of jasmine on my super king size bed, we are off once more to board the trusty tuk-tuk and travel south with the hot wind in our hair.

South to the surf, south for the sun, south to sarong-wearing Gan and his meat cleavers, the ‘Why Not’ restaurant and endless plates of Kothu Roti….we’ll come to that later…later there will be time for another story from this beautiful island.

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