Banyan Retreat, Hambegamuwa
Having stayed at Galkadawala Forest Lodge in Sri Lanka, we got a bit of a taste for the back-to-nature eco lodges so booked into Banyan Retreat close to Udawalawe National Park.
With no electricity, no en-suite and our open-plan tree house bedroom – open plan as in no walls, no windows – built from recycled materials, harvested timber and a Palmyra leaf roof, Banyan was even simpler, but no less wonderful, than Galkadawala Forest Lodge
The owner Souhaine found this 15 acre plot on the edge of lake Hambegamuwa when the Sri Lankan civil war was at its height. He spent those dark years building his unique camp with the ever-present threat of terror raids. Today it is a tranquil sanctuary for animals and birds. We identified some 25 different species: herons, egrets, hornbills, bee-eaters, flashing blue kingfishers and the wonderful Indian Paradise Flycatcher. We watched macaque and grey langur monkeys swinging in the trees, iguanas lumbering pre-historic-like in the undergrowth and on a memorable canoe trip on the lake, paddled for us by local fishermen, we spotted a giant squirrel, elephant tracks and traces of crocodile
At dusk the night herons and cormorants flew in by their hundreds to roost on a favourite tree and paddling home in the dark we could make out the mellow glow of candles and kerosene lamps of Banyan Retreat with Souhaine and his partner VJ on the shore to meet us.
While the other guests – my partner, Henk and Rinie, an intrepid Dutch couple who at 70-odd were still backpacking round Sri Lanka – chilled out on Singhalese Lion beer, I sneaked into the kitchen to watch dinner being prepared. No measurements, no utensils, everything done by hand and eye. Shredded coconut (from a hand-cranked shredder) steeped in water and squeezed out, the coconut mixed with flour and water to make a sort of crumble before steaming in a cylindrical tube and sliced to make puttu. The coconut water was not wasted but used for a potato curry with sliced potatoes, onions, chopped tomato, lots of garlic, green chilli, curry leaves and spices taken from jam jars on a little wooden shelf: turmeric, chilli powder and curry powder.
With no electricity and thus no refrigeration the food was forced to be simple, but none the worse for that. We ate well on rice and dhal, roti and home made cheese, deep fried lake fish, local vegetable curries, puttu and coconut curry with fruit and buffalo curd to follow and Ceylon tea. coffee, and Singhalese Lion beer always available.
With an abundance of wildlife, countless birds, good food and good company Banyan Retreat made a memorable stay in Sri Lanka. Glad to say after years of war and tsunami we were very happy to make our very small contribution to the tourism revival in such a special place.
You can book Banyan Retreat through Airbnb at £37 per night.