There are certain travels that offer a lap of luxury — where you don't need nor intend to lift a finger, because well, you're on vacation mode.
Disclamer? This isn't one of those trips. On the other spectrum from pillow menus and velvet bathrobes with engraved initials, there are travels that broaden your horizons. They make you ponder, aroused, nervous, and most importantly, venture out of your comfort zone. Definitely rougher around the edges, if I could so delicately put it.
Sri Lanka has been the trending destination on everyone's lips recently. And it's easy to see why — in comparison to most tourist-clad places like Bali and Phuket, it's a breath of fresh air. Plus, it's only four hours away from Singapore. I embarked on my adventure with Amala Destinations (a bespoke travel service touted for creating itineraries for outlandish destinations like Bhutan and Mongolia), pulsating with anticipation. From there, we would travel to Gal Oya (via a seaplane ride and a three-hour drive), an unspoiled national park where signal is minimal and rivers run long. The entire 26,000 hectare area remains a protected area with local inhabitants and wild animals, including elephants, crocodiles, and leopards.
Unlike bustling Colombo, the sights of Gal Oya renders mostly calming shades of greenery, blue open waters, and dusty endless roads. There's nothing romantic about Gal Oya, unlike what Sri Lanka's other touted routes in Kandy and Galle Fort might seem to allude to. No signs of misty mountains and luscious tea plantations; your time here is one immersed in unspoiled nature without the wreckage of excess tourism.
Locals live simply, mostly by farming or tending to small provision shops. You might assume they have very little but their altruistic demeanour says otherwise — there are always warm smiles and forthcoming waves at the ready. While one might feel uncomfortably out of place upon arrival, my foreign disposition and clunky suitcase were readily accepted like I was one of them. It was also then that I knew, I was undeserving of this sacred place, and its infinite beauty looming within.
Nestled in a nature reserve, Gal Oya Lodge stands as the only hospitality abode in the national park. In this eco hotel, you're off the grid; yet another one of Gal Oya's charms. A short walk from the nondescript entrance led by warm, affable staff, I'm greeted by a breathtaking view of the outdoor pool's backdrop that is Monkey Mountain. While the lodge isn't exactly what you would label five-star, it stands as a formidable structure strung together with materials of wood, stone, brass, and bamboo. Replete with inviting sofas, a well-stocked bookshelf and a bar, there wasn't anything I was missing that wasn't already there. Having sustainability and conservation be the premise of the hotel, Gal Oya Lodge has seamlessly blended in, perfecting the balance between ostentation and commonality.
Our thatched bungalows weren't spared from the attention to detail. Made from teak beams, the spacious quarters house cosy beds with mosquito nets, semi-outdoor bathrooms, and a ceiling fan ready to combat the heat. The room even had functional spaces (which some luxurious hotels lack in) like a work desk, L-shaped couch, multiple power sockets, a luggage table, and counter tables made from tree trunks where glass water bottles could be found. None of any frivolous plastics or wasteful ornaments that one didn't need in a brief stay.
The food? Truly exceptional meals married with impeccable service, that could rival any five-star hotel. Whether it be Sri Lankan curries, local treats like hoppers, or even continental options, every plate was masterfully put together. The secret lies in fresh produce farmed in the vicinity and on-the-spot cooking. Orders are requested a few hours before, just so that prep work can start right away — all to make it in time for your meal.
In a place where the lines of humanity and nature are blurred, you'd be sorely mistaken if you believed Gal Oya Lodge to be a place to rest your head at night. The hotel has a couple of naturalists that have seen, caressed, explored every obscure inch of the area, and be your trusty companions for the rest of your stay. Point at any foreign plant or species and these guys will enlighten you immediately, like it was general information at the back of their heads.
Under the steady lead of Arun, our dashing dreadlocked naturalist, we set out on a boat ride to Gal Oya National Park. Sightings of animals usually happen here, but unlike a common Jeep ride in Africa, tourist routes aren't conducted at such a frequency in Gal Oya. Hence, there's a certain restraint when it comes to inching closer to the wildlife — which sets you up for a thrill of discovery.
Cruising through the still river, we sailed to discover a solo elephant grazing in the far distance, occasional muggers, and various species of birds and eagles, before landing in the heart of the national park. Huge boulders, looming mountains, and a still breeze — it was quite the perfect morning for a picnic.
It's time to activate your intrepid side.
Arun led us through a narrow walking path carved within the reserve, where our lunch awaited in the middle of the jungle. Or at least, the makings of it — laid out in a tiny cooking shack of wood-fired stoves reminiscent of the days before civilisation. Under the expert guidance of chef Premarathna, one of Gal Oya's first hires, we got cracking. From squeezing our own coconut milk to assembling the various ingredients, the final result was a piquant fish curry, half-cooked salad and lastly — a special millet paste that was a Sinhalese's staple. Hands down, it remains to be one of the best meals I had in my time in Sri Lanka.
Now that we were fed, it was time to continue the journey. Gal Oya's existing tribesmen — known to be the Vedda tribe — graciously took us on a jaunt in the neighbouring forest where they would forage. Along the way, medicinal herbs and various edible plants were picked and sorted through, as we also watched on while the tribe's chief quenched his thirst at a river stream.
If you had asked me a month ago if I could have ever imagined myself trekking through a jungle or shower in the company of tree frogs, the city girl in me would have shuddered at the thought. In fact, I still do. But the experience brought forth a provoking perspective at how vast the world is and the lengths people go to, in order to keep conservation and culture alive. Gal Oya certainly set the bar in that aspect — its people kept spotless from technology, animals protected from commercialism, and the land remaining just as it has always been.
The full itinerary in Sri Lanka extends to 14 days through Colombo, Sigiriya, Gal Oya, Kandy, Haputale, Tangalle and Galle. To book a trip with Amala Destinations, click here.