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Sri Lanka

Catherine de Boer

Taprobane, tea leaves and a tragic tale in Sri Lanka

December 26th is the anniversary of when a tsunami claimed thousands of lives in Sri Lanka. This catastrophic event came without warning hitting the southwest coast- a region where I recently visited. 

Sri Lanka is still only just recovering from the civil war to the north driven by the Tamil Tigers, a recent history that ended only in 2009. But on 26th December 2004, a tragedy struck of such magnitude to bring the country to its knees.

First stop of our tour is Colombo- two hours in the traffic from the airport: the chaotic Asian capital of Sri Lanka.
It is teeming with cars, tuc-tucs, animals, the vegetables and fruit markets at Pettah- the central market district, shanty towns, noise, dust and oppressive tropical heat.

Hidden within this metropolis are also serene sanctuaries- boutique colonial hotels, temples, and shopping places to visit that excite the designer in me.  

The textile manufacturing industry spawns beautiful cloth, in amazing colours and weaves. 

Designer homeware,artifacts and antiques are to be found, and on this trip I source a number of antique lanterns to bring home.

We stayed at the historic Galle Fort Hotel: a colonial hotel on the foreshore. We loved K.Chattu Kutta: he had worked as a valet in this establishment his entire working life.

From Colombo we wind our way up into the Hill Country, dodging traffic on blind corners, potholes,wildlife, domestic  animals.  Sri Lankan drivers are notorious when it comes to ignoring traffic rules, including speed limits- lane markings are merely a guide to weave. On several occasions my heart was in my mouth, in the face of oncoming traffic on the wrong side of the road. There is a code of beeping horns and local custom in driving etiquette, which our driver seemed to understand.

My car sickness is nothing that a good cuppa tea couldn't fix. Two and a half cups later, my health restored, we embarked on a tour of an old tea factory in the heart of this tea plantation region. Afternoon tea is taken at The Grand Hotel at Nuwara Eliya, a delightful resting place.


We drive on to Kandy, the country’s former historic capital of Ceylon, and its most visited temple, The Sacred Temple of the Tooth, a Buddhist temple on the lake : it is staffed by saffron robed monks. Lit by candles, it made a spectacular sight, when we visited it by night.

The next day we drove to Sigiriya Rock, rated UNESCO’s eighth wonder of the world.  This serene heritage site rises out of the earth as a rocky fortress 200 metres above the ground, bearing amazing rock paintings of women with amazon figures, bare breasted and with hair piled high: this could be contemporary graffiti, but these are from about 1500 years ago. The lush greenness of the gardens at its base is so very tropical.

We visited Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage near Kandy, established by the government to take care of elephants orphaned or the victims of war.

Men, women and children aren’t the only victims of war: the animals suffer as well. One animal we saw had only three legs, the fourth was blown off by a land-mine.  Their mahouts take them to bathe in the river each day. We enjoyed seeing the elephant herd engaged in this daily ritual.

Driving back down to the south-west  of the island, I stayed within the walled Unesco World heritage town of Galle Fort, at the Rampart Street home of my brother, architect Justin Hill; a beautifully restored sanctuary.

Our house manager, Amila, recalls to me a number of his family lost to the tsunami so matter of factly. He speaks well of Australian cricketer, Shane Warne and his generosity to the local community in aiding the restoration- post tsunami, of the local oval greens. 

Amila also spoke of the exploitation that occurred immediately after the event, with unscrupulous developers buying up plots of land from those affected.

Our housemaid makes us superb Sinhalese breakfasts to start each day, comprising a delicious curd yoghurt, cooked eggs,fresh papaya and mango, and pots of Ceylon tea. 

Of an evening, we dine on Sri Lankan fish curries in a rooftop restaurant under the stars, only a stone’s throw from the lighthouse. These are magical evenings!

From Galle Fort we journeyed back up the coast to visit the region where the tsunami’s devastating impact was felt: religious crosses line the side of the palm fringed white beaches and roadside. But there is not just one, but in some places several, signifying the loss of a complete families who once resided there. 

The site of the railway train, that was now a bronze monument, sculpted with figures depicting the turmoil of Sri Lanka’s worst rail disaster. it is sobering to imagine the thousands of lives lost when the train was hit by the massive surge. A huge Buddha statue is sited there to also mark the catastrophe.

Nearby we visit my brother’s charity- the Peraliya Community Health Centre. We meet Dr Dezoysa, a practitioner of natural Sri Lankan medicine. It was established in partnership with Dr Thomas, a German surgeon, after the wake of the disaster.  

We watch smiling children learning in the small basic classrooms, and meet the doctors and staff who are providing essential health care for the local people.

The centre appreciates any donations of wheelchairs for its many children, who don't have access to this form of mobility, spending their time on the floor of their own homes.


The work of Geoffrey Bawa

We roamed through the magnificent gardens of Geoffrey Bawa’s country estate- Sri Lanka’s most famous architect and export. I can’t help but be touched by the enormity of his legacy that he has left behind. His work in tropical architecture is legendary, and we visit a number of his signature projects.

The highlight is his garden country estate of Lunuganga, where he lived and worked, with its lush green outlook to the river beyond, its viewing platforms, sculptures, and expansive peaceful views. As we turn for home, we take in another of Bawa’s legendary projects, The Villa, at Bentota.

The highlight is his garden country estate of Lunuganga, where he lived and worked, with its lush green outlook to the river beyond, its viewing platforms, sculptures, and expansive peaceful views. As we turn for home, we take in another of Bawa’s legendary projects, The Villa, at Bentota.

Taprobane Island

A drive down the Southern coast leads us to the private and uniquely accessible island resort on Taprobane Island -only accessible at low tide. This luxury neo-palladian mansion, was originally built here in the 1920’s by Count de Mauny-Talvande. It has played host to many famous visitors over the course of its history.

On this tour of Sri Lanka we relished the culture, colonial history, and a diversity of sights, tastes and smells. As the tragedy of the tsunami are wiped away, Sri Lanka now forges its way into a brave new period of hope- eclipsing the tears of the past.  We hope to return again soon to see this renewal and growth continue.


Catherine leads design tours
to Sri Lanka

Donations to Peraliya Community Health Centre: contact

23 Ramparts Villa, Galle Fort, reservations: