“But I don’t want to go among mad people," Alice remarked.
"Oh, you can’t help that," said the Cat: "we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad."
"How do you know I’m mad?" said Alice.
"You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn’t have come here.”
Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
Great candlesticks heave under the weight of decades of dribbling wax. The happy, fat Buddha watches over our crawling baby. Music from another time floods the ornament-strewn room as our beer arrives, cold and very, very welcome.
Kandy had been a weird one. After the bliss of the Octagon, we’d driven 45 minutes into the big, drizzly, traffic-choked smoke and off to the worst hostel in the world. After being cheerfully introduced to our private room, which had a collection of jail-like bunk beds and a bath not dissimilar to that episode of Breaking Bad, our host whispered conspiratorially that “when you’re not here, I stay in this room with my woman, and we have our own special mosquito net. I’m going to put it up for you.” That vision, coupled with what we nicknamed ‘the net of love’ resulted in the four of us using our sleeping bag liners for the first time on this trip and not sleeping very much at all, while continually mumbling at River to not touch anything. I found Lori apologising sincerely to Olivia for “bringing her to this disgusting place” as she brushed her teeth. We woke up at 6am and got the hell out of there.
We wanted to get as far away as possible. But first, there was one pitstop we needed to make. Because there’s a hotel, or an ‘anti-hotel’, nestled up in the Kandyan hills. It may be described as gothic horror meets Hollywood glamour, but nothing could have prepared us for the surrealist oddity that we found.
We thought that downstairs was mad as a hatter, all tiny silhouette cinemas, broken mirror ceilings, weirdish characters scrawled over windowpanes and yes, those candles . But after the beer, came the real adventure. We were invited to take a look upstairs.
The house belongs to Helga De Silva Blow Perera, a true eccentric with a wild imagination. Depressed after the suicide of her first husband and divorce from her second, she was given some advice by her father: “Why don’t you paint? You don’t need any shrink, you just need to get it out of your system.” So paint she did. The seemingly uncontrollable decorating process began in 1988 and continues to this day.
Photos of her life and her family, including her son Detmar Blow and fashion maven daughter in-law Isabella, dot the hallways. Her wedding at St Paul’s cathedral is there. Her family tree. Her celebrity guests, from Vivien Leigh to Laurence Olivier. So far, so artistically aristocratic. But then the madness kicks in.
The place is enormous, a labyrinth of grand dining rooms, elegant lounges and long dark corridors that seem to go on forever. The sheer volume of stuff is staggering, not a centimetre left untouched by a taxidermy head, antique sculpture, plate collection or plastic skeleton. There are unicorns and elephants. Real live monkeys show off their gymnastic prowess on the trees outside. Festive baubles glitter away in their thousands, not caring whether it’s Christmas or not. And then there are the walls, where a clash of children’s literature and a healthy burst of hallucinogens appear to have taken hold. Toad and Mole from Wind in the Willows chase each other up the stairs in their cartoonish car. The caterpillar slouches louchely along a landing, his hookah pipe clearly still doing the trick. Narnia turns a space into a frozen fantasy. The Mad Hatter himself smiles proudly down from his spot next to the bedroom of someone brave enough to stay there. We keep going and going, our eyeballs dilating, until suddenly we land, blinking in the daylight by the rooftop pool, and wonder where on Earth we’ve just been.
The official website for Helga’s Folly states that “If expecting a regular hotel experience, best look elsewhere. Thank you.” It’s probably the most accurate description of a hotel we’ve ever read. You can sleep here. You can come for dinner. You can swing by for a drink. But whatever you do, you won’t forget it. As Alice herself once said “I can’t go back to yesterday. I was a different person back then.”
70, Rajapihilla Mawatha, Kandy, Sri Lanka
+94 812 234 571