A Glass House in the River – Kalundewa Retreat

Here I am, on a deck chair, in the middle of a flowing tributary of the Mahaweli, surrounded by jungle swamp, listening to a cacophony of bird call, and enjoying a little piece of nature’s best. I am at Kalundewa Retreat just off Dambulla. Surrounded by 100 acres of manicured paddy fields and spice gardens, this place is simply awesome.

About 4kms past the Dambulla turn off, down a dirt track is the Retreat. The recent rains have destroyed the little culvert bridge so we have to park our jeep in the next premises. With two of the staff of Kalundewa Retreat taking over our luggage, Anya, my daughter, and I got on two bicycles along with ‘SK’, our host for the weekend. The ride was about ¼ kilometre and the scenery along the way was breathtaking. After leaving behind the hustle and bustle of Colombo, the wind in my hair, the smell of fresh air, the sight of perfectly symmetrical lush paddy fields and the long and winding road was the perfect prop to what we were about to expect.

At the end of the long strip of road is the glass fronted reception under an awning of a huge tree. These tall glass windows overlook acres of paddy fields and offer a magnificent view of the surrounding mountains. Huge white clothed sofas looked extremely comfortable. The only other furniture in this room was a couple of tables and chairs which are meant for mealtimes. Some were strategically place near the windows, whilst others were placed outdoors. As we arrived we were offered a chilled thambili in tall frosted glasses.

But it is what lies across the road that is awesome. Amidst a veritable jungle is a chalet. Through the woods, we could spot tall glass windows with wooden doors, floors and a pier. A wooden raft was gently rolling on the water awaiting us to board. Anya and I were given life jackets before getting on. Then, gently and carefully, we made our way through this swamp to the chalet, which was located in the middle of the river. As we got closer, we realized the actual effort and style that makes this chalet. It is a double decked chalet with two rooms, one on each floor. The ground floor bedroom has a huge double bed, a LCD screen with cable TV, air conditioning, fan and phone line. The rest of the floor includes dining areas, indoors and outdoors, a private pantry and a small library. The walls of the entire chalet are made of glass offering a complete view of the river and swamp from all sides. The bathroom…ahhh…the bathroom! You have to see this for yourself!

After a quick lunch of rice and curry, we are back on our bikes, ready to explore. We ride past paddy fields and arrive at a ‘spice’ garden where the proprietors have planted various trees and plants as well as vegetables that are used for their daily consumption. Further down the road is a natural hot spring. A couple of builders were putting the finishing touches around this so that visitors can indulge in a refreshing bath. Dipping our feet into this was such a cool feeling! A tall deck nearby is ideal to sit at, sip a beer and watch the daily spectacular symphony of color as the sun sets over the mountains.

This evening, I sit on the deck chair and take in the sounds and sights of the swamp. Btw, don’t get the impression that this swamp is dirty and mosquito infested, on the contrary, it is clean, calm and completely bug free. A noisy pair of Malabar pied hornbills chatter to each other whilst the chorus of the tree frog provides the background music for this evening’s music of the swamp. The daytime chorus is provided by a multitude of Common Kingfishers, Stork-billed Kingfishers, Indian Pond Herons, White-breasted Waterhen and Indian Peafowl.

Thwack! We jolt from our reverie as an Orange-breasted Green Pigeon crashes into the window. We rush to its side but it is already dead. Sadly, the tall glass around this chalet is not fool proof for the birds that makes this swamp their haven.

The next morning Anya and I decide to climb the viewing tower which is literally sky-high! We crawl up steep and scary steps and finally make it to the deck of this tower. I dare not look over the edge. But across from us is the most amazing 360 degree view of Dambulla and its environs.

This review will not be complete if I do not mention the architect who designed this piece of paradise so all kudos to Architect Sanath Liyanage, who won the Geoffrey Bawa Award 2010-2011 for Excellence in Architecture for his creation of Kalundewa Retreat. This is an award that considers concepts like contemporary design, restoration, re-use and area conservation and in my opinion, he has got it spot on. Apart from that, if I may add, the website does not do justice to the Kalundewa Retreat.

Thwack! A beautiful Emerald Dove just hit the glass and tumbled into the river. It did not have a chance for survival. Anya pens a note in the visitor’s book – please do something to save these birds. Yes, please.

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