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'Sri Lanka is one of the most magical places on the planet — it’s a spiritual energy.’
Gems in this
Afdhel Aziz wants to tell the world: Sri Lanka is back, and it’s better than ever. The best-selling author, speaker and marketing thought leader grew up in Sri Lanka before moving abroad, and the South Asian island is a recurring source of passion and inspiration for him.
Despite the political and economic hardships it’s faced over the last several decades, Afdhel maintains that Sri Lanka’s people are “the world’s most amazing, welcoming, friendly, loving and kind people.” Afdhel returned to Sri Lanka, in December 2022, to direct and produce The Genius of the Place, an intimate documentary that, through the lens of five iconic buildings, tells the story of Geoffrey Bawa, Sri Lanka’s most legendary architect. We caught up with Afdhel to talk about why Bawa’s buildings make for the best accommodation on the island, how marketing can be a force for good, and everywhere to get to in his Sri Lanka Travel Playbook.
On the importance of telling Sri Lanka’s stories
Storytelling fascinates me and is the common thread throughout my career, from marketing for brands to personal projects. I really enjoy telling stories in different ways and mediums. I wrote a book of poetry called China Bay Blues and novel called Strange Fruit; both of them were about Sri Lanka, so it’s no coincidence that the first film I decided to direct was about the country and Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa.
On growing up in Sri Lanka surrounded by Bawa’s buildings
Growing up in Sri Lanka, I was surrounded by the work of Geoffrey Bawa, Sri Lanka’s most influential architect. I was familiar with his work but realised I knew nothing else about the man. This project started when I photographed five of his Sri Lankan buildings; I interviewed his collaborators, his clients and other influential architects. Looking at the buildings and hearing people’s memories, we constructed a portrait of who he was. I went to Sri Lanka to shoot the film in 2022. Now, I want to take audiences on this journey, teleporting them to Sri Lanka, the buildings, and their amazing gardens.
‘There’s a richness of experiences in a very small area — mountains, jungles, beaches, ancient cities, forests.’
On Bawa and ‘The Genius of the Place’
Bawa’s gift was that he never designed the same building twice. Every building was a direct response to the unique spiritual energy of its surroundings — the so-called “genius” of the place. Bawa would go there and look at the light, the shade, the sun — everything — before deciding what needed to be there. That’s why each Bawa house is so different, and why we named the documentary The Genius of the Place.
On Sri Lanka getting back to its best
Sri Lanka is one of those hidden gems in the world. It had a war for a long time, so it wasn’t on many people’s radars. And it has been going through a tough time economically. But I’m glad to say I was there in December 2022, and the country is open and safe; ready for tourists to go there again.
‘It has some of the world's most beautiful beaches, but culturally it's very special too.’
On the people, the energy and the sense of wonder
Sri Lanka is one of the most magical places on the planet. I’d put it in the same category as places like Bali, Maui and Ibiza — it’s a spiritual energy that’s hard to pin down. There’s a richness of experiences in a very small area — mountains, jungles, beaches, ancient cities, forests. You can go from swimming in the ocean to drinking tea on a mountain within a few hours. Sri Lanka also has the most amazing, welcoming, friendly, loving and kind people. It’s an addictive place to me. There’s beauty all around you!
On Sri Lanka in one word
Wonder. It's a combination of its incredible beauty with the spirit of the people, and it all combines to create something quite mysterious at times. That's why a lot of people travel; you want to get out of looking at screens and the same thing every day. And going to a place that is just magnificent, where you feel the scale of the world and the universe.
On your happy place on the island
I love Sri Lanka’s South Coast — that's my happy place. My father grew up and lived in Galle and Matara. And ever since I was a teenager, I've been going back there, swimming in the ocean and going to incredible restaurants. If you fly into Colombo, the capital city, you can get down to the South Coast in about two hours. It has some of the world's most beautiful beaches, but culturally it's very special too. Further down the coast, in areas like Ahangama, Hiriketiya and Dickwella, a really cool food scene is happening now.
On visiting Geoffrey Bawa’s houses
You can stay in all of the places we feature in the Bawa documentary. There’s the [Jetwing] Lighthouse Hotel by the beach in Galle and the Kandalama Hotel: an incredible, jungle-covered hotel in the middle of the country. You can also stay in the Red Cliffs House, a private villa. And also, at the Lunuganga, Geoffrey Bawa’s private 15-acre property, the architecture and landscape design reveal the country’s beauty in a profound way. It was such a pleasure to shoot in these places and spend time there. They really inspired me, and I know they'll inspire a lot of people too.
On the jewel of Lunuganga
One of the most remarkable architectural stories is about this jewel of a Sri Lankan house built in 1962, The Ena De Silva House, which is now part of Lunuganga. When it was in danger of being demolished, Bawa's trust completely deconstructed the house; they took it apart, brick by brick, and numbered every pebble and stone. Then they built it about three hours away, in the gardens of Lunaganga, precisely the same as before. It's a remarkable labour of love.
On the pristine northeast beaches
The northeast part of Sri Lanka, such as Batticaloa, has pristine beaches. They're not crowded, and now great hotels are cropping up in that region so people can stay there and explore it.
On an exceptional experience
Smoke & Bitters — it's on Asia's 50 Best Bars, and it's one of my favourites. It's a bar on the beach, placed in the middle of nowhere, serving the most amazing cocktails. The people who run it make delicious food and a great experience.
On discovering new places back home
Hiri, Hiriketiya, is now becoming a big surf town as well. I call it Tulum before Tulum became Tulum — before it became so crowded. Hiri is a new discovery for me, and I'm excited about going back.
On a sound you hear everywhere in Sri Lanka
There's a style of music that people should check out: Baila. It's infectious, raucous music you can't help but dance to. And it's what you hear at weddings, parties, and cricket matches. Baila is the sound of Sri Lanka to me.
On living and working abroad
I was born in Sri Lanka and left when I was 17. I went to London to study and ended up living there and working in marketing for 15 years, for companies like P&G, Nokia, Mixmag and Kiss 10. Then I moved to New York, where I worked for Heineken and Absolut Vodka. Throughout my jobs, I connected these brands to ‘the cool’ — to pop culture, music and art. I had a wonderful career in the first couple of decades of my life, but I got sick of the winter in New York. Because I grew up in a tropical country, you can imagine how it was very different to me. So when I started my own company, I realised I could do it anywhere in the world and convinced my wife we should move to Los Angeles.
‘We’d show up at an airport and pray there were seats available. It was a gift to be able to land anywhere and instantly feel excited and curious, wanting to explore — I’ve never gotten over that feeling.’
On leaving corporate life to pursue personal purpose
Personal purpose is really thinking about why you’re here on this planet. It’s natural to ask who you should work for, and if your work helps improve the world. That’s the journey I went on, leaving corporate life to focus on this idea of business as a force for good. I’ve written books, one of them is called Good Is the New Cool, about the idea that brands needed to think about doing good as they thought about cool. That led to my companies Conspiracy of Love and Good Is the New Cool, which are in the purpose and impact spaces. We help companies like Sephora and Coca-Cola unlock the power of business as a force for good.
‘Travel is the closest thing to teleportation, waking up in a whole other place.’
On how brands can put purpose at their hearts
We worked with Adidas to help them see which social problems in the world they could help solve — and profitably. We realised they had the superpower to change lives through sport: a billion people on the planet don’t have access to sports — people below the poverty line, usually women, girls and people of colour in countries like Sri Lanka. Why not help these people by giving them access to places to play and training equipment? We constructed an idea about investing in accessibility. Not just because it was the right thing to do but because it’d also create the next generation of customers. What would all these people need when they start playing sports? Shoes and clothes. That’s an example of inclusive growth — finding the company’s ways to grow by being more socially impactful.
On the power of travel
I was lucky to have parents working for airlines, so I travelled everywhere as a kid. They’d call it ‘space available’ — like, free flights — and we’d show up at an airport and pray there were seats available. It was a gift to be able to land anywhere and instantly feel excited and curious, wanting to explore — I’ve never gotten over that feeling. It’s the closest thing to teleportation, waking up in a whole other place. My wife and I like to take my son around the world and expose him to as many cultures as possible. The world is incredible, and I want to see as much of it as possible before I die.
‘You follow the randomness of the traffic lights, and you’re getting lost in the most glorious way in a city. It’s serendipity in action.’
On a window or an aisle seat
Aisle, because I hate bothering people to get up and go to the bathroom.
On your favourite way to get lost in a new city
Everywhere I go, I like to put on music on my headphones — usually movie soundtracks, ambient or electronic music — and I play a traffic light game — you should try this. The rule is when you’re out walking and get to a traffic light crossing, you have to go whichever way the light is. It’s not up to you — you follow the randomness of the traffic lights, and you’re getting lost in the most glorious way in a city. It’s serendipity in action.