Laki Senanayake, dressed in a maroon sarong, gazes at the pond in the heart of the forest that lies before us on his private terrace. With curly gray hair and kind eyes that look out from behind a pair of spectacles, his face is as tranquil as the large body of water surrounded by a thick cover of trees and bushes.
Hidden among them are astounding sculptures, big and small, created by the 82-year old Sri Lankan artist whose home and studio this is, with a workspace under the open sky, possibly as wild and free-spirited as his own creativity.
Senanayake is not an ordinary man- this is clear from what we’ve heard of him since we arrived at Diyabubula, a sustainable eco lodge in Sri Lanka, a jungle boutique hotel that is our home for two nights, just a few minutes away from the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the famous Dambulla Cave Temples.
So when we’re told that he is available and happy to talk to us on his terrace, just next door to the property, we’re grateful.
After all, it’s not ordinary, everyday talent that can make a nature paradise out of almost nothing, let alone build beautiful lodgings out of recycled materials- in this case, wood from 100-year old railway sleepers, to create spaces that can soothe the most restless of minds.
We should know.
That very morning, we’d opened our eyes to gentle raindrops falling onto the glass roof of our house in the eco lodge- Bamboo Grove- under a canopy of trees. Monkeys scuttled across the glass slope, perhaps trying to hide under thick branches from the rain. “This feels like a dream,” we’d agreed to the soundtrack of sweet birdsong.
His down-to-earth nature, at once, puts us at ease, and our conversation flows easily over many cups of warm tea. Senanayake, a respected multidisciplinary artist who has worked closely with Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa, grew weary of city life- so he moved to the countryside and created a lush paradise to inspire him as he continues to work and create his masterpieces every day.
He has lived in the area since 1971, after inheriting the now-transformed but once slash-and-burn agricultural land that he replanted, and spends his days and nights working, birdwatching, and teaching himself new skills.
He built the eco lodge that is now an art and jungle boutique hideaway run by Barberyn Resorts, a pioneer Sri Lankan chain of Ayurveda resorts (we also reviewed Barberyn Beach Ayurveda Resort) comprised of five unique accommodations- three water villas on stilts, a treehouse, and Bamboo Grove- a beautiful house with a glass roof, all tucked deep within a forest that is on the site of a natural spring- hence the name Diyabubula, which means bubbling fountain in Sinhalese.
In recent years, eco lodges and eco friendly hotels in Sri Lanka have become increasingly popular. While many are found in stunning locations, whether tucked away deep in a lush jungle, or by the beach with views of the mighty Indian Ocean, not all of them are popular or busy with tourist crowds, even in the peak tourist season.
At Diyabubula, locally-sourced recycled timber was used to build the houses that feature rustic design and digital art by Senanayake, who is a landscape designer, sculptor, painter, and digital artist- all of it self-taught.
We talk about his life, modern education systems, capitalist societies, the area’s birdlife, and the effects of the climate crisis- something he has observed closely in terms of population changes in birds and animal species in the area over the last decade.
Before we know it, an hour has gone by. Without the constant buzz of cellphone notifications or phone calls, in the refreshing absence of the need to check phone screens or take photos, and surrounded by such sublime natural beauty, the concept of time feels different, and conversations are more interesting.
When we say goodbye to Senanayake, we both know that meeting him is what we will think of as the absolute highlight of our stay at Diyabubula. Even if, in the absence of any photos from that evening, all we’d have to take away from it was our memory of it.
We’re picked up at Bandaranaike International Airport, having flown into Colombo from Dubai. This is my third time in Sri Lanka and Ankit’s second, but we’ve both agreed that we’re here to relax- to wander when we feel like it, without set plans and itineraries.
We’re also here to give our bodies and minds a week at Barberyn Beach Resort to detox and replenish, after our two-night stay at Diyabubula, a beautiful nature eco-lodge in Sri Lanka’s Dambulla area.
The three and half-hour drive from the airport to Diyabubula is in a comfortable, air-conditioned sedan. We take advantage of the cozy cushions in the back and drift off to sleep once the sun sets and we can no longer see the tall palms that sway over perfectly blue coastlines.
It’s late when we arrive at Diyabubula, just after 9pm. We’re given cool, refreshing towels and a mildly sweet juice, while staff get our suitcases to our room. We’re given a quick tour of our accommodation, and invited for dinner in the in-house restaurant where a four-course meal awaits.
An Inside Look at Bamboo Grove
Our glass-roofed house Bamboo Grove is spacious, quite luxurious, and air-conditioned, with a high, triangular, and transparent roof.
There’s a writing desk, walk-in wardrobe with safety deposit box, two chairs and a coffee table, mini-refrigerator, and a decently-sized ensuite bathroom with a shower area. Basic toiletries are provided. Incense and candles are placed in the room for use, as well as a kettle, some biscuits, and tea.
A private terrace overlooks a pond and is the perfect place to lounge, read, or talk, in the absence of a TV. WiFi works well in the property and we have no problems connecting to the internet.
There’s a comfortable king-sized bed that’s right out of an Instagram dream- and one that staff covers in a zip-up mosquito net just before bed time.
We learn from experience that it’s important to leave your doors tightly shut after sunset to prevent bugs and mosquitoes from coming into your room, especially during the rainy season. And mosquito oil or insect repellant is a must here while wandering through the grounds of the property.
Our room is spotlessly clean, the shower is blissfully hot, and in the heart of nature, we sleep soundly and peacefully like we haven’t in a while. Come morning, the sunlight filtering through the forest canopy is gentle and kind, just like we’d hoped.
Other Accommodations at Diyabubula
Other than the air-conditioned Bamboo Grove, the property has three water villas and a treehouse suited to a family or group. They’re well-spaced, sufficiently far enough from each other to offer plenty of privacy. Raised walkways connect these to each other and to the central water villa that houses the restaurant.
In each of these, the design aesthetic is one that borrows from and is heavily inspired by the surrounding nature. Often, it seems, the forest seeps into the dwellings.
Sculptures are seen around the property, hand-painted tiles brighten up bathrooms, and large murals and paintings remind us that here art and nature intertwine and often, one cannot say where one ends and the other begins.
The water villas are two storied and are built on stilts a few meters over a pond. On the ground floor is a living area while you’ll find a bedroom with king-sized bed, ensuite bathroom with a rain shower and toilet, and a private balcony on the top floor. Note that there are no ACs, but there are fans to keep cool.
The tepee-shaped tree-house, located on the ground unlike the conventional form of a treehouse, has a small living area (with a sofa-cum-bed), walled courtyard, and a single bed and bathroom on the top floor. It’s perfect for families with children. The roof of the tree house is living; the rafters are living Arcunut trees that have been trained to grow at an angle, building the structure of the roof.
Dining at Diyabubula
There’s an in-house restaurant housed in a water villa that serves Sri Lankan and international cuisine. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served in the dining room, and you can inform the staff of your preferences in advance or choose to go with their set menu.
As we’re the only guests when we visit in November, our dinner, by candlelight, is quite romantic. Our dinner, on both nights is a four-course meal of a soup, appetizer, main, and dessert, along with fresh juice and herbal tea.
On the first night, we enjoy broccoli soup, a vegetable dumpling, spicy tandoori fish with a side green salad, and sweet banana fritters. On the menu on the second night is stuffed egg, sweet corn soup, stir fried vegetables with couscous and coleslaw salad, and chocolate pudding.
The food is good and the portions are just right.
It’s good to know that just like at other Barberyn Resorts, meat and alcohol isn’t served in the restaurant. Fish and other seafood is available.
Breakfast begins with a generous plate of delicious local fruit- mangoes, pineapple, watermelon, papaya, sweet melon, and bananas, along with fresh juice and herbal tea.
We’re served eggs prepared as we like them- we go for the Sri Lankan omelet with onions, tomatoes, and chili. Toast and an assortment of jams are also served.
Finally, we’re served Sri Lankan breakfast dishes such as string hoppers with dhal curry or puttu with a mildly sweet curry and sautéed onions. It’s all delicious and keeps us happily full until lunchtime.
There’s a lounge area on the first floor of the restaurant building that has a TV, books, magazines and newspapers to pass the time.
Activities at Diyabubula
If you’re an avid birdwatcher or wildlife photographer, you’ll be happy to know that the forest here is home to many bird species and often sees a lot of migratory birds from the northern hemisphere. Birdwatching is among the top things to do here.
When the artist Laki Senanayake is available, you can also meet with him in his studio and see his works, or simply have a great conversation. You can ask the staff at the hotel to arrange this during your visit.
Diyabubula offers a quiet base to explore the Dambulla Cave Temple (where you can see massive Buddha statues and fascinating ancient cave paintings) that are about 30 minutes away. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is the largest and best preserved cave temple complex in Sri Lanka and features on most Sri Lanka itineraries. In fact, the town of Dambulla is just a few minutes’ drive from Diyabubula.
The Sigirya Rock Fortress, also known as the famous Lion Rock, is another UNESCO World Heritage Site that is an hour away. Diyabubula can arrange trips to both sites that can be visited on a single day.
You’ll be taken there by private car and don’t have to worry about figuring out your own way by public transportation.
Who It’s For
If you enjoy being in nature, even in somewhat secluded spots, and like the idea of waking up in a forest to the sound of birds chirping, enjoy birdwatching or are simply looking for a night or two away from the stress of modern life, then you’ll love staying at Diyabubula- it truly is a retreat that can help city-dwellers reset their balance.
However, if you can’t imagine not having a TV, or don’t like the idea of alcohol and nightlife not being available at the property, or cannot stand the idea of a bug or two (this is a forest resort after all), then this is probably not the place for you. In such a case, look for other options in Sri Lanka here.
The facilities here outside of the rooms are basic. So it’s best if you enjoy doing nothing, can plan your own entertainment or plan to spend the day sightseeing in the area.
That being said, we think this is the perfect jungle hideaway for couples celebrating an anniversary, birthday or special occasion, or for honeymooners. If you’re visiting Sri Lanka for the first time, you might find these Sri Lanka travel tips useful.
We stayed at Diyabubula as guests of Barberyn Resorts. All opinions as always, are honest and independent.
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