by Dushy Ranetunge at Maalu Maalu
Pasikudah and Kalkudah are exotic beaches, where you can walk 30 to 50 yards into the sea. Waves are almost non-existent, making the sea look more like a lagoon
Its wide sandy beaches have attracted generations of Sri Lankans and the end of the war has once again begun attracting tourists in large numbers.
When our neighbours in Colombo suggested that we visit “Maalu Maalu”, a new “boutique” hotel in Pasikudah, we had no hesitation in joining them. But before we left, we started getting very negative reviews about the place from previous guests. One complained that the food was poor, and another that there was no hair dryer in the rooms.
Maalu Maalu had been publicised in a “flattering” article as a “boutique hotel” in a popular newspaper, perhaps resulting in misleading the public. It is unlikely that the person who wrote that article stayed at the hotel or obtained any reviews and feedback from guests.
To call Maalu Maalu a boutique hotel, would be to call a Toyota a Rolls Royce.
A Toyota is a perfectly good car, but it is no Rolls Royce, even if you try to sell it at an exorbitant price.
We reached Maalu Maalu at noon on Saturday 20th August. On our way, we decided to cancel lunch at Maalu Maalu and instead have lunch at Polonnaruwa rest house.
The rest house in Polonnaruwa has always been a favourite watering hole from my childhood. We usually sit at the other end of the rest house, outside on the patio under the araliya trees, overlooking the Parakrama Samudra with the wind in our faces. As a child I would run to this spot as soon as the car had stopped as there were no other hotels or places to stay anywhere around.
Now I do the same with my kids, who climbed down to the water to wet their feet, while we had some tea and ordered devilled pork. We were glad that we had stopped here as this place has an old world charm like the Green Cabin in Colombo, and now there is DEET to ward off the mosquitoes.
Maalu Maalu is situated on the Pasikudah beach spanning a 2-acre plot of land where 40 rooms have been squeezed in. There are only two mature trees on the entire two acres. These are both palm trees, and as a result, there is no shade and it is extremely hot. A large number of other palm-type trees had been newly planted, but these were at most 4 feet tall and offered no shade.
Being a 2 acre plot, the self-drive parking was also limited, but drivers had separate quarters with parking in a nearby property.
There are about 100 members of staff and most of them are locals, being a BOI project. They were trainees, and as a result, service was a struggle.
The concept of a “boutique hotel” has a sense of “exclusivity”. There is no exclusivity at Maalu Maalu except for the prices that are high as there are no other hotels in the area.
The whole street is like a construction site. Numerous hotels are being erected on this stretch of beach, but Maalu Maalu, which is owned by Connaisance de Ceylan, has beat them to it by being the first to open.
As a result, they are charging premium prices; the kinds of prices which will not be sustainable once the other hotels open their doors.
Occupancy was running at 30% and that might explain why some of the other hotel constructions seemed to have stalled. There were many concrete columns but no humans around.
Quality of Accommodation
The architecture is similar to that of Vil Uyana. The roof is thatched and the rooms are cladded in wood; there the similarity stops.
It’s as if the Vil Uyana room concept has been taken, and then squeezed, so that 20 units (2 rooms per unit, one on the top floor and one on the ground floor) could be fitted into 2 acres. Consequently, the site looks “crowded”, not what one would expect from a “boutique” hotel.
The other “boutique” hotel that is crowded into a small space is “The Fortress” in Galle. There again, the comparison stops.
This squeezing has resulted in strange architectural proportions. The best way to describe them is to say that each of the 20 units has the resemblance of a pitched roof on a double-decker bus.
The ground floor room had a standard-sized bedroom with a large bathroom to the rear of the room. There was a similar arrangement on the first floor, but the space created by the pitched roof had been utilized above the bathroom to create a loft space and two extra beds, with small steep stairs leading up to the loft from behind the bed.
So while the ground floor bedroom has a double bed and a bathroom, the first floor bedrooms can sleep 4, with 2 beds in loft space but still one bathroom. This makes all the 1st floor rooms family rooms, 20 in total.
Although an architect had designed Maalu Maalu, I was informed that Chandra Wickramasinghe, Chairman of Connaisance de Ceylan, had influenced the design.
One contractor, I was informed, was a local from Valachchenai and another contractor, known to Chandra Wickramasinghe, was from Matara.
The finishes were poor and reflect inexperienced, unskilled hands. The floor boards were cracked, badly fitted and poor in quality. The excessive use of cut cement made the rooms look dark, especially in the bathroom.
In Sri Lanka they call it “rustic”. I call it cheap.
Our clothes hanger in the shower area was not fitted properly and it was hanging on one screw.
There was no iron or hair dryer in our “suite”.
This was clearly extremely poor service for the premier suite of what is claimed to be a “boutique” hotel, charging Rs 88,000 for the suite, for 4 members of our family in a “family room” for two nights.
The safe in the bedroom was faulty and bleeped intermittently the whole day and night. We had to call reception and they had to open the safe with a master key, every time we wanted it opened.
We were, together with our neighbours in Colombo, in one of Maalu Maalu’s premier suites – first floor rooms No. 18 and 20, also labelled the Panorama suite. They were identical in size to ordinary first floor rooms described previously, with the exception of a super view of the beach, as these rooms were the closest to the beach. A plunge pool had to be shared between 4 rooms, which were all classified as “suites”, in the up and down two-unit cluster. A small balcony was accessible from the bathrooms, which had to be shared between rooms 18 & 20, and the “suite” bathrooms had a standard bathtub with a Jacuzzi.
In our opinion, to call these rooms “suites” was as ambitious as calling the place a “boutique” hotel. We would call them superior family rooms.
Health & Safety
The Jacuzzis in the bathroom had a serious health and safety issue. The Jacuzzi was plugged into the wall less than 6 inches from the ledge of the bathtub.
An ordinary plug point inside the bathroom less than six inches from the water-splashing Jacuzzi poses a serious risk of electric shock. In addition, directly above the plug point, fixed to the wall, is a chrome cage for soap etc., which will result in water dripping onto and into the ordinary plug.
No European health and safety inspector would have authorised such an installation, as it would be considered a serious violation.
But here, in Sri Lanka, there is no such awareness.
The solution is for all these to be replaced with plugs and lights with an IP rating of 44 or higher, which offers protection against splashing water.
Once I brought it to the attention of the manager, he accepted the risk and gave assurances that action will be taken.
The two electrical lights inside the shower, covered only with wooden board, glass and white paint, are also a health and safety risk. Rising steam from the shower will in time make its way into electricity, exposing the person using the shower to electric shock. European electrical standards require only special sealed light units of IP44 or similar to be fitted in shower areas.
Special regulations exist for lighting in bathrooms to maximise protection.
Although we had received complaints about food from previous guests at Maalu Maalu, we found the food to be above average. Food was served as a buffet. This has its own limitations, as food being warmed up continuously on a buffet is neither fresh nor of quality, but “popular” in Sri Lanka.
On Saturday night there was a BBQ in addition to the buffet.
On both nights we ordered Lobster Thermidor and seafood platters that also had lobster to enhance our experience, and the food was above average. We were introduced to the chef and it was claimed that he had won awards in the Maldives. There was chilli crab for lunch as part of the buffet.
The mojitos served at the pool were too sweet and tasted funny and is not recommended. The Margaritas were small, but good, and I had 6 over two days. The best Margaritas I have had were in Port Douglas in Queensland, Australia, and it is yet to be beaten.
A European couple had a special dinner on the beach and had paid premium rates for set up, including kerosene lamps etc. for a romantic setting. But their tranquillity and experience was spoilt because busloads were bathing at the other end of the bay with dance music blaring out. After a while the dance music stopped and I felt happy for them. But within half an hour, dance music was replaced by Sinhalese bajaw music booming out. There are noise pollution laws in Sri Lanka, but the law is busy looking for grease “boothayas”.
Staff first talked of champagne and how expensive it was for dinner on the beach. When I asked for the wine list, there was no champagne. In fact most of the wines on the wine list were not available. They offered me a sparking Australian wine, not on the wine list, and charged me a ridiculous Rs 8,000 – almost USD70.
The following day they revised the wine list and I ordered a South African chardonnay at Rs 4900 – almost USD 40.
We were in South Africa a few weeks ago and for the same bottle of wine in a much better hotel, we paid less than half price.
A lot of the imported crockery on the table was chipped.
Sri Lankan manufactures have rolled edged tableware especially manufactured for hotels so that they are less prone to chipping.
I think the problem that this hotel faces of one of ratings. When inquired we were told that they expect a tourism board rating of 4 star plus and that they hope to get rated within 6 months. We think the Sri Lankan tourism board needs to revise their ratings as most of us gave Maalu Maalu a rating of 3 star plus and a few, lower end of 4 star.
When guests from Colombo, drive 300km paying exorbitant rates expecting a “Boutique” hotel arrive at Maalu Maallu, they are clearly disappointed. The air-conditioned glass room that has the entire buffet (starter, drinks, mains, dessert) is only slightly larger than the air-conditioned glass room that displays ONLY the desserts at the Habarana Lodge.
So, visit Maalu Maalu expecting “boutique” hotel or even 4 stars plus and you are guaranteed to be disappointed.
But if you visit, expecting to pay exorbitant rates for a 3 star plus because it’s the only hotel on a superb beach, then you will have a great time as we did.
Since we had already received poor reviews, we visited Maalu Maalu with low expectations. The service was a struggle, but the staff were pleasant and the beach and sea were great. We had a great time, despite the faults. But it was clearly not value for money.
Frequently in Sri Lanka they charge ridiculous rates without a corresponding improvement in service and quality. It is, I suppose, a form of highway robbery, but not one that could be sustained for long.
It’s extremely hot during the day and you cannot go to the pool or the beach/sea between 9am and 4pm. Unlike Trincomalee, there is no Pigeon Island, snorkelling, hot springs, fort or any other attraction to keep you occupied. Batticaloa is 30km away. Two nights at Maalu Maalu is more than adequate. During the day you hear construction noise from the adjoining sites.
My 19-year-old British born daughter felt uncomfortable with young men hanging around dark ally ways between the two bedroom units. I had not noticed; but after she pointed it out, I realised that they were builders – further building work was going on in the site near the car park. It was not an issue, but might be of concern for some.
The sea was wonderful and during day we drove around and explored the area.
For our bedroom (they called it a suite), which accommodated 4 members of our family ( 2 in the loft) for two days, the cost was Rs.136,000. This included Rs 88,000 which covered full board for two nights, and the balance was extras such as wine, lobster etc. That works out at about USD 600 per night, for essentially a 3 star plus, family room.
About a kilometre from the hotel is the railway station and all around are landmine-warning notices. We inquired from two soldiers and they informed us that landmines are still being cleared.
Since the land mines zones seem to be around a Sri Lankan army camp, it is possible that the army, to protect their camp from LTTE attacks, has laid these land mines. I am familiar with the area since I had visited these camps and Batticaloa during the LTTE occupation of the area, and stayed with the General in Minneriya. There is less of a military presence now and the main roads are in good condition, but the minorities are still hostile.
On Sunday morning I visited Valachchenai, a Tamil town, and the adjoining Muslim town of Oddamavaddy. I was alone and started talking to some men who were standing outside Abu Bakar’s shop. One was a prawn farmer.
There was hostility towards the government and the security forces. He said that “Ranil” was more intelligent than “Mahinda” and that the economy in the area was down. He went on to say that the economy would perform much better if “Ranil” was in power because his party “understands” business. He said “Mahinda’s” lot are only interested in filling their pockets. He says the ethnic problem will return because everyone needs to be treated equally and “Mahinda’s” lot are only helping themselves.
He claims that the “grease” men are security force personnel. He described a situation where several grease men had been chased into police or navy posts; but when the police and navy were questioned about the whereabouts of the grease men, they denied that they had seen anyone running into their camps. He said that as a result, the people are not handing these grease men to the security forces, but instead, they are killing them. He said that several bodies have been found.
According to him, there was a serious incident a few days ago in Oddamavaddy and tyres were burnt on the street. In an adjoining area a police post had been attacked, he said.
That afternoon we drove a few miles towards Batticaloa and there was a heavy police/army presence along the main road. We inquired about the deployment and were told that it was necessary to tackle the grease men.
The police and the security forces said that it might be “opposition” troublemakers, naming the JVP as being behind the grease men phenomena. They also say that Tamils in the area are hostile to them, although polite on the surface.
The TNA won in this area.
Mental health or behavioural issues
I told them that some are pointing towards security force involvement in the grease men phenomena. They asked me if I thought it is possible for the police and the security forces to be involved after the same forces had rescued the country from terrorism at great cost.
Mental illness and psychological issues among combatants in Sri Lanka, Iraq, Afghanistan etc. was discussed.
They said that as far as they are aware, there is no one in the police or the security forces with mental health or behavioural issues.
A French teenager was swimming in the pool at Maalu Maalu and our two children started talking to her in French.
The French teenager told our children, in French, that Sri Lanka is a beautiful country, but that the politics was bizarre.