Bentota is a very cool beach town. Quite possible to see all of it in a day or you could spend more time on the beach and spread out the attractions across two days. There was one wide road along which many of the hotels, resorts and restaurants were located.
This was our first actual hotel and I’m ashamed to admit how excited we were to see the TV (in our defense, we didn’t actually see much on it). Our balcony looked out at the river where people whizzed on banana boats and jet skis all day and evening, and if we walked out of our door there were wide windows facing the sea. The beach was beautiful, the sands a lovely shiny sandy golden yellow, and the water a deep blue, not too different from our Karachi beaches (when they’re not blackened by oil spills and garbage).
After the breakfast buffet (the only buffet that I actually enjoy is breakfast. Definitely my favorite meal time), we took a boat to the reception (I’m not sure if we loved the idea of always having to wait for a boat to be able to exit the hotel. Even though the boat service was 24/7 and fairly efficient but it’s just a little disconcerting that we couldn’t just walk out when and if we wanted) and then made a deal with a tuk-tuk driver to take us around the town.
Our first stop was the turtle sanctuary. Its walls were cutely painted with sea life drawings (the kind third graders do with bright colored fish blowing blue bubbles). It was right by the beach and the caretaker told us he rescued turtles before they even hatched. Since poachers often stole eggs from the beach to sell (even though turtle eggs were illegal they were apparently quite a delicacy), he would walk the sands and pick up the miniscule eggs, bury them in sandboxes in his sanctuary and provide them the right temperature. Not all of them hatched, of course, but those that did were transferred to a shallow pool. There were several cemented tubs in which turtles were grouped according to size. I picked up one of the tiny ones, trying to keep my fingers on the shell and avoid the slinkier head and legs that waddled in the air indignantly. The little critters calmed down if you petted their heads.
Fahad petted all of them. He even managed to grab a hold of one of the bigger turtles – which he says must have been around 4 lbs. or so.
That was a good photograph, which our friendly guide snapped: I remember the wind in our hair, the golden light of the sun on our faces, the beach just behind us; Fahad’s kindred connection with the turtle (which he held like you’d hold a baby who had just peed) and my happiness at my husband finally genuinely smiling for a picture. There was a small fee that you paid and which was meant to keep the turtle home going, and if you were feeling more generous you could buy some of the roughly hewn turtle toys or jewelry from a shack inside the same premises.
Our next stop was the Lunganga, or Number 11 (I had to google the local name again). Lunganga was Geoffrey Bawa’s home in Bentota. Geoffrey Bawa is Sri Lanka’s most famous architect. He led an illustrious, solitary life and towards the end, he came to live on his estate in Bentota. The house and its gardens were now turned into a hotel but it seemed as if all efforts were maintained to keep its original aura intact. Even if you’re not a staying guest at the hotel, you can visit the gardens and take a tour with a very helpful, knowledgeable guide.
Our tuk-tuk driver whizzed down a dirt road and stopped in a small clearing in what appeared to be a forest with tall, thin trees grazing the sky. There was a huge rusted gate in front of us, bolted from the inside. A mysterious path dappled in shadows behind the gate led up and curved away. There was no one in sight and the driver didn’t have any ideas.
Now if I hadn’t researched we would have probably swatted a few mosquitoes and eventually left – but since I had, we saw that a small old-fashioned bell hung on top of the gate and a rope hung down from it. We grabbed the rope and rung the bell a couple of times, waited and finally a man dressed in the white button-down of a hotelier came down the path. We told him we were interested in a tour and he unlocked the gate and led us in.
There were huge trees all around us and a beautiful carelessness about the gardens, so artfully maintained that you couldn’t sense the planning at all. Instead as we walked through the place, we felt as if we were strolling through a natural, wild garden.
I loved the living space we saw, with its railway sleeper doors, wide windows, rough teal paint and bronze statutes that Bawa collected from all over the world. Bawa and his brother, who was a famous landscape artist, had planned the estate beautifully. A heavy wrought iron table and chairs stood by the edge of the first terrace, looking down at the rice paddy fields, trees, and wetlands. A bell hung on a tree close by and the guide told us Bawa would sit here with a friend or two and ring the bell for a cup of tea – or a shot of whiskey.
Hedged green arches, romantic gazebos and lonely statutes were subtly scattered around the gardens, so that you would come across something cool or strange every now and then.
There was a set of small rooms and a lovely open porch with a giant chandelier (Bawa merged sophistication and nature in this really surreal way), apparently Bawa’s workshop and now a set of more private guestrooms. Later we climbed up a hill to the main house. Although you couldn’t go in, if you stood by the front door, the back door was perfectly aligned and at Bawa’s height (he was taller than most!), you could look out at the lake on both sides from this spot.
The architect was actually buried at the base of a lovely tree in these same gardens and we said a little prayer for him as we passed it by.
It was sticky by now and the mosquitoes and gnats were having a feast till I put on a wrap. I’d rather feel hot than be devoured!
After our tour we stopped at Diya Sisila, which was on our way. It was a very late lunch and the place was empty but the service staff was very welcoming. The restaurant was right by the lake with a few gazebos and lights at night. We sat in the golden afternoon light and had seafood. Excellent quality food, even though I’m not a seafood fan.
Back towards our hotel, we went the other side to the Big Buddha on the hill, walked around to enjoy the weather which was more pleasant with a wind now. Our driver took us down the backside of the hill where a beautiful elephant was chained in a small clearing at the bottom of the temple. There was a male and a female, kept separate, both tragically sad and we told our driver no, we didn’t want to get any photographs with the poor elephants.
As we start to travel more and more, integrating social media into our travels and spreading more and more information, it is essential to equip yourself with the knowledge of what is good tourism and what is bad for the environment, animals and/or the local communities. Most animal-related spots and sports like elephant trekking, tiger petting, etc. is a serious infringement on animal rights. So please do your research before you snap that picture.
We finally went back to our hotel to rest our feet up and soak in some air-conditioning. Before poor Fahad got much of that, I caught the sight of the sky outside. The sun had gone on a painting spree, swirling yellows, golds and oranges in the sky. We walked down to the beach and waded into the water, the waves were choppy enough to give us a bit of a whipping but we love the water.
The sunset was absolutely gorgeous – the sky in front of us was clear with the sun able to collapse into its cloudy bed right above the horizon, but to the left was an army of dark rainclouds, vertically piled up like several scoops of blackberry ice cream, and slowly it swept across the sky towards us.
We bade a hasty retreat into our hotel right behind us and it started to drizzle. I opted for a swim while Fahad decided to read his comic in the outdoor café, which had been promising live music for the night.
The hotel pools were lovely, the water comfortably warm. When it started to rain harder, the cold water from the sky fell on my upturned face while the warmth of the pool snuggled around me and I swam in the rain for a while.
That night we listened to some reggae music which turned into Christmas songs very soon and after three or four of those, we bade good night and went up to our room. Fahad won the battle for food and it was ordering in the room.
An incredible storm shook the hotel for hours that night, purple streaks of lightning like webs sprawling across the sky and clouds thundering so loudly it felt like the gods of the sky were right above us, racing their horses and cracking their whips in the clouds. A beautifully terrifying storm that eventually faded into a drizzle and lulled us to sleep.