Madam Helga herself just wrote me a couple emails answering a question I had regarding a “deliciously” (her word) -scented flowering plant she had showed us in her garden that I’m hoping to find for my home in Bangkok; she wrote back right away and told me it’s called night-blooming Camellia or Queen of the Night, gave me some pointers for growing it, and offered to give me a cutting from her plant. I don’t think I’ve ever heard from the owner of a hotel again after I’ve left, except in the form of a promotion, much less gardening advice, but that’s the kind of experience Helga’s Folly is. And it is an experience. It’s not really just a place, but rather a journey through the looking glass to another world, an eccentric, quirky, gracious, sometimes weird, and strangely enchanting world. She asked me to write a review here and say exactly what I thought of that world, “warts and all”, emphasizing the “warts” as if it were a matter of pride. She also mentioned that she has recently monkey-proofed the hot water system. She was concerned during my stay that I found the sometimes cold showers annoying, but I actually thought it rather amusing to have to wait for the mischievous monkeys I could hear running around above me on the roof to stop playing with the pipes before I could step under the shower head again. I suppose some would think Helga’s resident troupe of monkeys to be one of the warts, but to me they were great fun. I saved my bananas from breakfast for them every morning, feeding them out on the terrace whose balustrade is decorated with metal monkey mask reliefs. Everyone has a different sense of fun, and because Helga’s Folly is all about fun and has such a peculiar and unique way of expressing and enjoying it, I can understand why some people might just not get it. Some people don’t even like real funhouses. Hence the few negative reviews here. All in all, I am of Helga’s perspective that when you take it as a whole, the warts are part of the fun.
I arrived at Helga’s folly at 4AM after a long flight and drive. The driver had to honk the horn a couple of times to wake someone up to let me in out of the rain. A sleepy and slightly alarmed-looking man in a rust-colored sarong appeared and took my suitcase, showing me directly up the stairs (a large green frog perched on the banister croaked as I climbed by) to my room. The halls were dark and damp, and a couple of old baby cribs were stored on the landing, as if in an old abandoned maternity ward. The dim hanging lamps illuminated the dozens of murals on the doors and peeling plaster walls along the hallway; the life-sized man painted directly opposite my room was later to startle me more than once by staring back when I opened the door. I entered my bright green room painted with butterflies, seagulls, and another life-size man, this one in a turban and playing the flute under an enormous tree that spanned two walls. Shiny bright red, orange and purple satin curtains woven with gold thread covered the French doors onto the balcony. At that hour of the morning, half asleep, it was overwhelming. I wasn’t sure yet whether I liked the place or not, but I was too exhausted to care. I pulled back the black lace mosquito net and collapsed onto the four-poster bed.
It wasn’t until the next day that I got to have my fun exploring the house and grounds. While I liked the “management cannot be responsible for the monkeys” sign and the direct link on my phone to “Managing Director, Helga de Silva Blow Perera”, I think it was the fairies protecting the swimming pool that really won me over.
Exploring the whimsically and sometimes crazily decorated rooms and halls is an adventure in itself, and the highlight of my time in Kandy. I felt like one of those wide-eyed kids in Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory and could hardly wait to discover the delights to be found down the next dark corridor. It turns out the colorful and occasionally zany murals on every wall were a bit of art therapy for Madam Helga during a difficult time, and created by her and an art student intern during a few months’ fit of creative energy. Although I enjoyed Kandy and the local sites such as the Temple of the Tooth (or the “dental temple” as my friend insisted on calling it) very much and found the people friendly and engaging, I looked forward to returning back “home” every evening eagerly. I liked hanging out at Helga’s more than just about anything I did while in Sri Lanka.
I loved the evening there as it grew dark and the candles shimmered in the dozens of mirrors, relaxing in the lounge to the songs of Frank Sinatra with an arrack and soda. There’s an enormous scrap book that guests are encouraged to draw in or leave a message. People were incredibly creative, and some clearly spent serious time on it. I spent a whole night looking through that book after dinner.
It was the best restaurant I tried in Sri Lanka. The red curry was delicious, and the coconut soup served in its own shell was among the best dishes I’ve ever tasted. I didn’t know soup could be that good. The service, all performed by men clad in rust sarongs, some of whom have worked there for decades, was courteous and affable. “Smiley” is how one guest correctly described them. The glowing candlelit atmosphere is something between Ann Radcliff and Lewis Carroll. Someone in an earlier review here mentioned Miss Havisham, and I think that’s about right. You do expect some crazy old spinster aunt in a faded ball gown to be haunting the halls, though someone with Miss Havisham’s tragic scheming nature could never live in such a living, happy house.
In fact, Madam Helga is delightful. From the photos I’d seen of her beforehand, I had expected a somewhat bizarre over-the-top theatrical character dramatically blowing in and out of rooms to make a noisy scene, but she’s actually quite soft-spoken and, though she makes a nightly habit of conversing with her guests, she seems even a little sweetly shy. If she weren’t wearing an exotic kimono and oversized sunglasses at night (how does she see with such dim lighting?), she would seem rather modest and unassuming. She has the manner and manners of the best kind of unpretentious royalty who know that real politeness is about making people feel comfortable and not about putting on a grand show. It’s no wonder she has so many true fans, even people writing rock songs about her. One evening she told me she had just returned from a talk about conserving elephants and had a laugh at how she had absent-mindedly worn just the wrong family heirloom, showing me her large ivory bracelets. People who enjoy poking fun at themselves always win me over.
“Helga” has become a new adjective for my friend and me, as in “that is very Helga”: fun, offbeat, colorful, charming, eccentric, creative, alive. And a few dozen other words, all affectionate.
Yes, the house possess a few cobwebs that add to the gothic feel, and the continual rains in Kandy make the place a little musty. Some of the facilities are faded or in disrepair, some of which so strange that I couldn’t imagine what their original use ever could have possibly been. But that’s how things are in Kandy. A friend of mine who lived in Kandy for years said he had a staff of three continually fighting off the mold and mildew in his tiny house, and only just barely managed to keep the place from completely collapsing. Sri Lankans seem to take a more casual attitude about cleanliness than some people might be used to. Just don’t look too close and enjoy the big picture, and it will be just fine, as well as beautiful and interesting.
I must admit that after three nights there, I was looking forward to staying in my next hotel, a nice “normal” understated place, but when I got there, I found the gleaming marble walls and floors and the stark modern décor extraordinarily cold and dull. Where were all the candles? What happened to the family portraits and newspaper clippings? Why wasn’t the toilet cabinet covered in glazed-over fashion magazine clippings? Why did I have to eat mediocre warmed-over buffet breakfast instead of my freshly squeezed fruit juice and made-to-order omelet with extra chilis? How come Hindu gods didn’t leer at me in the halls? And where were all the monkeys turning my shower on and off? I had been gone from Helga’s Folly only one day and was homesick already. I still am a little bit.
But I took some of Helga’s Folly with me. I light more candles than I used to, and I listen to a lot more Ink Spots and Edith Piaf. I’m also Helga’s newest Facebook friend.
- Official Description (provided by the hotel):
- HF is just a Sri Lankan’s home with some history and color, backed by jungle, and if expecting a regular hotel experience, best go elsewhere.... quite a different concept to a normal hotel. Please be assured that you should be interested in our hospitality, we will be delighted to assist you..Thank You ... more less
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- Also Known As:
- Helga`s Folly Hotel Kandy
- Helgas Folly Kandy
- Helgas Folly Hotel Kandy