Turtle Bunbury

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The following story is extracted from 'Living in Sri Lanka' by Turtle Bunbury and James Fennell (Thames & Hudson, 2006)

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Olivia Richli

Leyn Baan Street, Galle, Sri Lanka

Leyn Baan Street takes its name from the Dutch word for “rope walk” recalling a time when, under Dutch control, the street was populated by merchants involved in the manufacture of coir-rope for fishing vessels. During the 19th century, the north east quarter of Galle Fort became the demesne of a hard-working, largely Muslim community. They gradually acquired the villas of the disbanded merchants of the Dutch East India Company and converted them in their own fashion.

Born in South Wales, Olivia Richli had been working for Adrian Zecha’s Aman Resorts in Java for the best part of a decade when, in the summer of 1998, she made her debut trek to Sri Lanka. President Soeharto of Indonesia had just fallen from power and her future in the archipelago looked precarious. On arriving in Sri Lanka, she instantly made her way to Taprobane Island (qv) for a week. She then called in at the New Oriental Hotel in Galle Fort, a colonial hotel established in 1863. It was in serious disarray but the fundamental charm of its past wooed Olivia almost as much as its captivating owner, Nesta Brohier, a third generation hotelier. Zecha and Brohier were friends. Richli suspected that any day now, Zecha would take a keen interest in the ailing hotel.

Within a few days, Richli was sketching a map of Galle Fort, mastering its grid-work of streets and squares. On her next visit, she befriended the Edens (qv) and secured the assistance of the inimitable Charlie Hulse (qv). Hulse escorted her on a tour of Fort villas then up for sale. It was the sixth one, located in the Islamic quarter, which stopped Richli in her tracks. “The minute I walked in the front door I knew this was the house I wanted”. The villa was built for a Dutch merchant in about 1780. After the flight of the Dutch in the early 19th century, it was acquired by a series of Moorish families. The owner, Mrs. Thaha, an elderly Muslim widow, was keen to settle somewhere more suited to her advanced age.

“Our family had been wanderers for a long time”, says Richli. “I wanted something more permanent. I’d never heard of Galle before I came to Sri Lanka. Now it has become one of the most important parts of my life.”

Assisted by Hulse, Richli set about “rejigging” the property. “I was charmed the instant I saw it so I really didn’t want to change much”. A dilapidated garage was dismantled and converted into garden. A stone wall was erected to the rear of the property on what had previously consisted of odious open-drains, smoldering rubbish heaps and a corrugated shack. Storage rooms were turned into bathrooms, windows were refitted and the original doors stripped back to their original colour. Other than that, the lay-out remains effectively the same, right down to the cooker installed where Mrs. Thala’s open fire formerly stood.

The junk-covered rooftop was simultaneously transformed into an open sitting area looking out onto Galle’s lighthouse, the Indian Ocean and the rising headland of Rhumasala in the distance. According to the legends of the Ramayana, Rhumasala was created from herbs accidentally dropped by Hanuman while returning from the Himalayas to help his wounded lover Lakshmana. The headland certainly boasts an extraordinary eco-system, being home to trees, plants and herbs found nowhere else in Sri Lanka. The crackled granite rock also registers the third highest incidence of lightning in the world.

In 1998, the Aman Resorts acquired the hotel. In November 2003, Richli was appointed to oversee the renovation. The hotel reopened in December 2004 under the new name of Amangalla. In the meantime, Richli strolls the streets, acknowledging the greetings, fending off job-seekers and saying polite no’s to strange women who say “hallo, you like to buy a house?”

Click here to view James Fennell's Sri Lanka photographs.