A fantastic nook from which to explore a vastly under-rated part of the island.
– Saskia, visited in April 2019
Named for the Thambu family, whose ownership of the land can be traced back to their great-grandmother, Thambu Illam is a relaxed heritage hotel on a quiet residential street in Jaffna.
Luxurious accommodation options are limited in Sri Lanka’s northernmost city, and Thambu Illam has hit upon a wonderful concept, reopening this ancestral home as a boutique offering in 2018, following an extensive restoration.
The pint-sized bolthole offers great service and lovely rooms in a traditional courtyard setting, creating an intimate and welcoming base from which to discover a fascinating part of Sri Lanka.
Four bedrooms open off a beautiful central courtyard, each uniquely configured and retaining elements of the design of the original house.
We stayed in the smaller back bedroom on the right-hand side, and a larger front room which included a huge fireplace space, part of the original house structure. The two rooms at the front of the hotel also have the best access to the little tables on the terrace – a stellar spot to chill out.
Bathrooms are small but functional, the focus very much being on big comfortable beds and restful sleeping areas with all the mod cons. Jaffna gets very hot at certain times of year, so the in-room air-conditioning is a big bonus.
Rooms are also equipped with tea and coffee making facilities, as well as desks and excellent storage space in big wooden wardrobes. Evenings here are quiet and, with only three other rooms on the property, you’ll be set for a peaceful stay.
Tea & coffee in rooms
Drinking & dining
Breakfast is served in an open-sided space through the back of the house, where guests are offered fresh seasonal fruit, as well as coffee and tasty traditional tea. The main dish changes daily, and we were served a selection of Sri Lankan specialties – from string hoppers to pittu – all of which were delicious.
Lunch and dinner are available for pre-order from a partner restaurant, and the staff are very flexible about organising this. They are also happy to recommend great local places to sample Jaffna specialties – including superb thosai and Jaffna crab curry.
The hotel does not have its own liquor licence, but they are happy for you to bring your own booze. You can pick up wine, beer and spirits from dedicated shops in the centre of town.
Thambu Illam’s charming courtyard is a fantastic feature of traditional Sri Lankan house design. Peer up at the sky between blue-painted columns and the red terracotta tiled roof, and perch on the big sofas nearby, to savour the airy inside-outside feel with a drink or a good book.
The hotel also boasts a small swimming pool, tucked away in the garden beyond the house. Cool off after hitting the sights and gaze at bright blue kingfishers flitting overhead as you paddle in the sunshine.
Jaffna’s attractions – from the Portuguese-era fort to the rebuilt Public Library and red-and-white Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil, are just a trishaw ride away. There are quiet leafy streets aplenty for ambling, too.
Staff are happy to arrange a car and driver for day-long excursions across the causeway to the sun-baked islands beyond, where fishermen wade through the shallows of the lagoons and cows hide under towering palmyra trees.
We spent a memorable day exploring Kovalam Lighthouse, Keerimalai Hot Springs and the famous KKS beach.
Things we love
• Lovely staff and wonderful management; Chandranathan, the hotel manager, took brilliant care of us when we stayed during the April 2019 terrorist attacks.
• Cosy vibe, friendly staff and plenty of local advice – this feels like a really personal stay.
Things to note
• Dinner is pre-ordered from a partner restaurant, rather than made onsite. Alcohol also needs to be bought from a local liquor store – not a problem if you plan a little bit ahead
• The location is calm, quiet and private, but it’s a fair walk into the town centre. Luckily, staff are always happy to organise a three-wheeler!
When to visit
The weather in Jaffna is generally very dry all year round. Sri Lanka is at its hottest in April and May, so visits during those months are not recommended unless you are used to the heat! The Nallur Festival (25 days from late July into August) is an annual highlight and an exciting time to be in Jaffna. Movie buffs should also enjoy the Jaffna International Film Festival, which runs in September.
Location & information
There are direct trains from Colombo to Jaffna (7 hours), as well as bus services from various points on the east coast and in the Cultural Triangle. The length of the journey means a private car with a driver is likely to be the most comfortable option, but the train journey does make for beautiful views – particularly as you rattle alongside the lagoon at Elephant Pass.