Kitulgala – A Little Slice of Heaven

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If I were forced to name my favourite town in Asia, it certainly wouldn’t be a sprawling metropolis such as Delhi, Shanghai, or Singapore. It would be somewhere off the beaten track, steeped in local culture, and surrounded by natural beauty. Somewhere like Darjeeling in India, Khasab in Oman, or more than likely, Kitulgala in Sri Lanka.

Kitulgala is a small town in the Sabaragamuwa Province in Western Sri Lanka. It has the onerous distinction of being one of the wettest places in the country. However, the amount of rainfall probably accounts for the town’s main attraction – white water rafting.

For those who haven’t tried it, white water rafting is an incredibly exhilarating sport. With the guidance and skill of a team ofexperienced rafters, the intrepid tourist can be thrown down a series of rapids within the semi-security of a large inflatable dinghy. The rapids themselves are graded (or classed) on severity from one to six. Class one describes very small areas of rough water and class six describes rapids that are generally too dangerous to be navigable.

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In the Kelani River in Kitulgala one can cover five major rapids and four minor rapids over the course of approximately five kilometers. The rapids are usually up to class three, but after heavy rain can reach up to class four. This may all sound wildly dangerous, but I was very impressed by the modern safety equipment, robust dinghies, and thorough safety briefing before I tackled the rapids in Kitulgala. Moreover, the experience itself, although fast and furious, always felt completely controlled. If you’re lucky enough to visit Kitulgala, this an activity you simply must pluck-up the courage to try. You won’t be disappointed.

However, Kitulgala is not only known for its heavy rain and white water rafting. It also has the distinction of being the film location for the Academy Award Winning movie, The Bridge on the River Kwai. If you haven’t seen it, the movie (although originally released in 1957) is still worth seeing. It’s a wonderful character-driven drama set in a Japanese Prisoner of War Camp during the Second World War. Directed lovingly by David Lean, the film really celebrates the Asian landscape. Still, I would challenge even the most ardent movie buff to locate any of the scenes from the 1957 film in modern-day Kitulgala – with the exception of the bridge itself, whose stanchions are still visible following the explosion at the film’s climax.

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However, for me Kitulgala is far more than heavy rain, white water rafting, and The Bridge on the River Kwai. Its calm environs, enchanting jungles, and endlessly flowing river combine to make a little slice of heaven. During my stay, when I wasn’t rafting, I awoke every morning in awe of the town’s natural beauty, sat with my breakfast over-looking the Kelani River, and spent my afternoons and evenings simply walking through the streets and enjoying the quaint coffee shops, restaurants, and boutiques. As such, I managed to strike a rare and wonderful juxtaposition between days of endless exhilaration on the water and days of blissful relaxation reading novels to the sound of the river and the jungle. I can hardly recall a week spent in any more heavenly contentment.

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Story | Andrew Roughton

Photographs | Danushka Senadheera

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