Panama, Sri Lanka

Pronounced “pah-ner-mer”, Panama is without a doubt one of my favourite places in Sri Lanka. In December 2015, le family travelled (literally) across the island to the East Coast – a road trip that did not pan out the way we expected it to but turned out to be quite the adventure!

 

Panama is also quite close to Arugam Bay (the next town, actually). So in case you’ve already got Arugam Bay planned, this would be a mere 30 minute drive from there. It’s a cross-country drive from Colombo which usually takes 6 1/2 to 7 hours – there’s domestic flight service available too and a train. If you’re not much of a sit-and-wait person, this can be a little tiring but you can always break journey along the way in Kandy or Kataragama.

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Our humble abode for the next three days was the Panama Lagoon Cabanas, run and managed by the Sri Lanka Navy. You can call them up to make a reservation. I worked in the travel and hospitality industry so I’ve had the luxury of staying at some great hotels – but this really took my breath away!

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Random fun picture: the infamous resident elephant on the bund of the Udawalawa tank

The resort is right smack in the middle of a Strict Natural Reserve (thus, the military involvement in the management), not a lot of signal coverage which is a good thing, and the cabanas spring out from a long wooden deck – an aerial image will make it look like those chalets in the Maldives.

These cabanas are along the Panama lagoon – it was so peaceful that you completely switch off to the rest of the world. The rains though, had preceded us – a very good thing that we were in a 4×4!

We were clearly in for a very wet holiday. The cabanas are built on stilts on the lagoon. With heavy rains (we were there at the wrong time during the North East monsoons), the lagoon fills up – it’s truly a beautiful sight.

This time though, it was a different story. I don’t have pictures of the rooms, but they were spacious, modern and with all the facilities and amenities required. The chalets have been built so that they’re nice and cozy amidst the forest and trees, giving you enough privacy from the neighboring rooms. The walls were glass and had tats for privacy. The back door opened out to an outer deck that went around the cabana and out into the lagoon… with my love for reading, you can guess where I was every time the sun decided to shine!

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It was a beautiful day and after a refreshing wash and a cup of warm tea, I spent the rest of the couple of hours lounging here, reading a good crime novel. Dinner is served in the main building which is a short walk on the deck from the cabanas.

The rains continued that night – Sri Lanka was experiencing an unusually high level of rainfall that year. We were woken up around 4am by a couple of Navy guys who manage the place and were told we needed to leave out as the water was filling up and the roads in the town were already inundated. So much so, that there was no access to food or water!

As we were full-paid guests, out of sheer curtesy and desperation, they led us safely to the Navy Base in Panama. Two Naval officers were on leave so their cabin was spruced up and makeshift beds were prepared on behalf of us as we had to spend the next couple of nights there until the water receded. Plenty fun that was!

Military food – IS TO DIE FOR! The staple diet for all Sri Lankans – urban or not – rice, dhal curry and coconut sambol. With no dry rations or water, food and supplies had to be stretched to the bone throughout the entire Naval base but we were treated like their own.

The holiday kept getting better – at breakfast the next morning, we had a rather unusual visitor…

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…just another full grown male tusker. That’s all.

…and another and another!

They were of course completely ignored and left alone – it was almost as if they knew the officers! With all the excitement, we almost didn’t notice the skies clearing. Only to hear that the main road to Panama town had broke for the currents during the floods the previous night. Being a sailor, of course my father wanted in on the action and so we all packed up to drive as close as possible to where the Navy was trying to block the partially broken road with sand bags so that dry rations and food could be transported to the villagers.

It was truly heart warming to be there, experiencing what we would otherwise see on TV. The Naval base which hardly had any food for their sustenance, cooked and packed packets of rice and took them all on a boat for the villagers who were taking refuge at the nearest temple.

All’s well that ends well. We were en route back home, a journey with plenty of chaos and stories to relate once we got back home.

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