Run to Paradise

There’s a real buzz about Sri Lanka right now, which leads those in the know to make a beeline to coastal resorts south of Colombo. Dubbed India-lite, Sri Lanka is a polite place to holiday, delectable in every way, a place they once called Serendib – a place you never know you were looking for but will be very glad you found.

When our friend, veteran Sydney landscaper Michael Bates, took a holiday and garden study trip to Sri Lanka, it changed his life – and his garden. Today we catch up with Michael about his recent travels and look into how they informed his subtropical garden in leafy North Sydney.


Temple of the Tooth, Kandy. Shutterstock/SurangaSL


How did you come to visit Sri Lanka?

When my wife has insomnia, she likes to look for fabulous hotels we might stay in. One night she found three magnificent hotels in Galle, in the south of Sri Lanka, all within a few hundred metres of each other. Last year we spent 10 days there, which gave us a chance to study the Geoffrey Bawa gardens, as well as go off the beaten track and look at some other gardens.


Why the interest in Geoffrey Bawa?

He’s the architect’s architect, really. I have all his books and I’ve worked with so many architects who are fans of his work. He created these spaces that have been globally influential. Sri Lankans have been creating temple gardens and sanctuaries for centuries, but the Bawa period was the golden era for the country once known as Ceylon. Bawa took a European aesthetic and blended it with his subtropical style to create these fabulous pleasure grounds.


Michael has an annual ‘Study Tour’ – this one explored Sri Lankan gardens


The risque entrance gates to the Brief Garden.

If you head to the coast north of Galle, you’ll find two Bawa gardens.

Geoffrey Bawa’s home in Lunuganga, on the shores of the Bentota River, has a verdant effortless charm, with a series of dramatic vistas. We sat on the edge of Bawa’s studio and the scent of cinnamon was intoxicating! Jungle pathways wove through rubber and rice plantations, giant frangipani trees, diverted waterways, the scale of these gardens is mind-bending. Meanwhile, the rice and curry feast was the best we had on the island. It’s a discreet country house hotel – if you can handle the lack of swimming pool!


Giant frangipani trees, statues and staircases, Lunuganga garden.


Geometric staircases, Lunuganga garden.

Secondly the Brief Garden, seven kilometres inland from Aluthgama, belonged to Bawa’s eldest brother Bevis. Another unmissable garden, apparently Bevis put more money into the embellishment of this sylvan refuge that he did into his largely ceremonial role as aide-de-camp to a succession of British governors of Ceylon.


A moon gate portal through Bevis Bawa’s Brief garden, Bentota. 


Bevis Bawa’s tropical explosion Brief garden, Bentota. Photo credit – David Crookes/

This is where we found decorations by Australian artist Donald Friend, who came for a week and stayed for five years. There are green rooms perfumed by the flowers of cannonball and frangipani trees.

4-brief garden

Stunning staircase, Brief garden, Bentota. Photo –


So how did visiting the Bawa gardens influence you at home?

It really did shape how we live now. Visually, I changed the planting in the garden and introduced more textural contrast in the foliage, added feature pots and art in the garden, made a water feature, and hung bits of found sculpture on the walls.


Michael’s subtropical Sydney garden with Sri Lankan style water feature and pot

We also changed the way we use the garden. Relaxation is not on the list of things I usually do, but there was something about these Sri Lankan spaces… they just made you want to sit down with your wife and read a book! The big eaves and verandas, the day beds and pools – they just invited relaxation. When we came home I really looked to activate the relaxation spaces we already had here. All the verandas now have hanging eggs chairs, café tables, day beds and squatter chairs.



Michael’s garden now has more areas for entertaining and interesting stepping stones surrounded by lush foliages.

We use the fire court and brazier more and really enjoy those indoor-outdoor spaces where you are almost in the garden, but feel protected and snug.



What are you looking forward to showing people on your tour?

In a sense, it’s the experience of how all these creative people lived in the ‘60s and ‘70s – the houses are held in suspended animation. Donald Friend’s murals are right there, and you can almost hear someone call for the next pitcher of gin and tonic!


Bold foliage colour and shape was next on Michael’s list to inject some Sri Lankan style

The funniest thing that happened was playing croquet on the front lawn, sipping gin and tonic under the watchful eye of a monkey eating a banana in a nearby tree, who whizzed down the tree to gallop through our game!

Sri Lanka is such an interesting place because of all the cultural influences: the Portuguese, the Dutch and the English, on top of these cultures that already built beautiful gardens and pleasure grounds. After you experience that life you want to bring it home. And we should live like that. We can!


Now every balcony has an egg chair or a hammock, and everything is as it should be!


Michael Bates is leading a tour to Sri Lanka for Ross Garden Tours in 2016. 

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