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Up in the trees

At a holiday home among the treetops, a city-dweller becomes acquainted with the denizens of a Sri Lankan forest

A tree house at Back of Beyond Jungle Hideaway. Photo courtesy Back of Beyond
A tree house at Back of Beyond Jungle Hideaway. Photo courtesy Back of Beyond

But where is the bathroom?"

My pictures of our tree-house hotel in Sri Lanka were met with gasps of admiration and envy on my Facebook feed. My sister, however, had a very basic question.

She could see the tree, the bed with its mosquito net, the quaint writing desk overlooking the forest and the rustic staircase, but she could not spot a bathroom.

Bengalis are creatures of nervous stomachs. They need the almost umbilical reassurance of knowing a bathroom is always close. My family worried that my jungle adventure meant I had to do my business behind the rocks.

The tree house did come with a bathroom. It was on the lower level. A Ceylon ebony tree grew next to the shower. Part of the roof was open. A monkey could have come in but I only saw a squadron of very determined ants dragging away a piece of my dental floss.

Pidurangala rock. Photo courtesy Back of Beyond

The eco-resort I was staying at, Back of Beyond Jungle Hideaway—Pidurangala, was built amid 4 acres of forest without felling a single tree. It is located near the world heritage site of Sigiriya, an ancient rock citadel. It has both tree houses and cabins, but, for me, there was no question. It had to be the tree house. It was probably a residue of some old Enid Blyton fantasy where little children ran away into the forest and lived in the hollow of a tree, picnicking on potted meat sandwiches and ginger ale. I wanted a tree house experience of my own. I could just see myself sitting at that desk overlooking the rustling forest and starting on that long-stuck novel. In hindsight, I realized that Blyton, a non-Bengali, omitted any mentions of the bathroom arrangements.

Luckily, Back of Beyond seemed idyllic. We woke up to bird calls at dawn; swayed on a hammock in the afternoon, lulled into siesta by the ebb and flow of an orchestra of crickets; tucked into piping hot plates of string hopper pulao and devilled chicken for dinner. While in-room brochures in other hotels talk about their spa packages, this one exhorted us to take plastic waste back with us; talked of the deliberate choice to have no air conditioning to protect the 70 varieties of trees in the forest; and informed us that here, the animals come first.

Elephants at the Kaudulla National Park. Photo courtesy Back of Beyond

The first dent in the romance came when I finally sat down to write at the desk, slathered with citronella mosquito repellent. I felt a sharp sting on my toe. A large flying ant was biting it viciously, completely unprovoked. Bishan, my partner, said he had seen a tiny scorpion in the bathroom. When he tried to get rid of it, it scuttled and hid inside the toilet roll. Later, we saw a large dun-coloured rat snake swiftly crawling up a wall of one of the cabins. They are not poisonous, ever-smiling Tusitha, the in-house naturalist and manager, reassured us. But I promptly had visions of stepping on one as I fumbled my way down to the bathroom in the dark. We decided to control our bladders till daylight broke.

There were other things we had to get used to in getting this close to nature. Like a social media detox. The website had warned that Wi-Fi was available only near the resort’s lounge, and that this too could be weak and intermittent because we were right next to two giant rocks—Sigiriya and Pidurangala. But at least the rocks came with their own lovely legend. Once a giant was carrying two heavy loads on a pole and stopped for a nap. When he woke up, he could not budge the pole. His loads had ossified into two giant rocks while he slept.

A trail for hiking and cycling. Photo courtesy Back of Beyond

For someone raised in a city as bustling as Kolkata, it was strange to sleep without solid walls and hear the thrum of a forest at night. It changed my dreams somehow, making them more vivid. Tuck the mosquito net tight, the in-room brochure told us. And keep the bedroom light off, it draws all kinds of bugs. The darkness was almost palpable, rushing in from all sides to reclaim what was its own. Waking up in the middle of the night, the forest seemed startlingly loud. Some creature kept calling, its voice clucking and insistent in the moonlit night. When daylight broke, the sounds changed. Birds chirped. Monkeys whooped and crashed through the branches. Doves picked at seeds and bugs in the red volcanic soil of the forest floor.

Most exciting of all, though, was the prospect of seeing a slender loris, a resident of the forest around. At night, we strapped red lights to our head and Tusitha led us through the trees. We spotted a green lizard hanging upside down. It was cute but no loris. There was a moment of excitement when I spotted a pair of eyes gleaming in the dark. It was a cat, a domestic one to boot. “Never mind," said Tusitha. “We can try tomorrow."

Alas, that night two young elephants were seen on the road outside the resort minutes before we came down the same path. We were advised to stay in because male elephants can get rambunctious. So we did exactly that with the help of a bottle of arrack and some tangy ginger beer. At 9, dinner was served. By 9.30, we had put in our breakfast orders for the next day and were under the mosquito net, listening to the forest breathe around us.

A grey slender loris. Photo courtesy Back of Beyond

At daybreak, I heard a rustling noise outside the tree house. Monkeys? Maybe a loris heading home? A stray elephant? I stumbled out of bed and stood on the balcony. Two creatures with big bushy tails were chasing each other up and down the trees. Oh, squirrels, but big ones, said Bishan.

Later, we found out those were no ordinary squirrels. We had just spotted Sri Lanka’s national animal, the grizzled giant squirrel, from our tree-house perch. For city-slickers like us, it was the perfect footnote to a tree-house adventure.

Utterly lovely as it was, I have to admit that on the next leg of the trip, we did enjoy having a room with real walls. But as we daydream about our next vacation, perhaps in northern Thailand this time, Bishan says: “Can we go to southern Thailand as well? I found this lovely tree house there."

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