Determined to shake off its association with the drawnout war, Sri Lanka offers much to the tourist eager for a new adventure. Sarah Rees was thrilled to discover a land much richer than she imagined.
VJ, our amicable Sri Lankan guide, didn’t really understand me. He dutifully pulled over on the side of the road when I shouted “stop,” but could only scratch his mop of loose curls in bemusement when I squatted in the dust to chat to a wrinkled man, dressed only in a lungi (sarong-like wrap), who was peeling jackfruit on the side of the busy, winding road somewhere between Kandy and Colombo.
VJ was happier when he had deposited me at the obligatory spice garden, a tourist trap where a well-dressed man points out a few weather-beaten plants before desperately trying to persuade visitors to purchase overpriced products. VJ may have been happy at this second, more conventional tourist stop, but I wasn’t; that wasn’t the Sri Lanka I was looking for. Thankfully, unlike the many countries all-too savvy to the tread of tourists, the real Sri Lanka was easy to find amid the beaming smiles of the local people, the curious foods, the cultural charm, and the contrast of architectural splendour and disorderly chaos that makes Asia so wonderfully exhilarating to travel through.
Legacy and Conflict
Sri Lanka has been off the main tourist radar for a while due to the brutal civil war that pitched Tamil rebel fighters against the Sinhalese government, and the 26-year struggle killed around 90,000 people. Although the locals I spoke to didn’t seem entirely convinced about their new government, all conceded that things were better now the bombing had stopped, and were pleased to feel that post-war development was starting to push Sri Lanka forwards in the wake of its mighty neighbour India.
Like many nations on the spice route, Sri Lanka’s growth was shaped by European influence, and while the Portuguese and Dutch also made their mark on the country, it was the British – who cleared out to give Sri Lanka independence in 1948 – who left behind two things that have impacted the nation extraordinarily: tea and cricket. Both are institutions to be taken seriously – the number of tea plantations and tea shops was rivaled only by the number of cricket grounds and matches I saw during my 5-day trip – and as a Brit myself, there was something marvellous about encountering such British traditions so far from home.
The British legacy is also present in communication, and while the curly, 54-letter alphabet of Sinhala used by 74% of the population is eye-catching if entirely incomprehensible, the standard and prevalence of spoken English was matched only by the locals’ eagerness to talk. From hotel staff to tuk-tuk drivers, spice merchants to tea plantation workers, everyone had a smile and a question on the tip of their tongue, keen to hear my thoughts on their country, of which they are clearly (and understandably) proud.
“You have only been to Kandy and Colombo?” Anwar asked, shaking his head sadly as he poured me a cup of spiced tea in front of his stall in the market. “That is not enough to understand Sri Lanka.” He was right, of course, but it was a good place to start, and highly recommended as a taster of this beautiful and intriguing island.
A Capital Place To Begin
Colombo is most visitors’ point of entry, and while the traffic is more maddening than KL, once visitors get off the road, this capital city has much to offer. It was easy to find the Sri Lanka I was looking for. Glorious, grand colonial structures line the streets of Cinnamon Gardens – so named for the spice that was grown here during the Dutch period – while Fort and the Pettah market areas thump with real life: bustling locals, tooting tuk-tuk drivers, rambutan sellers calling for attention, and tiny food shops with windows crammed with “short eats” to be gulped down with a glass of fresh soursop or wood apple juice.
I shook off my driver and took the train along the sea front in a rattling wooden carriage with the locals to admire, upon arrival, the internal architecture of Fort station, before spending the dusk hours with the throng on Galle Face Promenande: an unadorned strip of lawn where children fly kites and ladies let their sarees dance in the wind. Food stalls spring up like mushrooms as the sun slips away over the ocean, and freshly grilled seafood, hot paratha, and roti guzzled while squatting on the blustery pavement was far more enjoyable than an excellent but rather formal meal in one of the many hotels.
From one powerhouse to another: Kandy was the capital of the country in the time of the British, and despite being located just 115km north of Colombo, the trip along the one main road is slow with traffic. I broke the journey by jumping out to dirty my feet on the road side with the locals selling cashew nuts, fruits, or gaudy inflatable animals, but a speedier, more economical, and far more picturesque way to travel is by the train, which sways through the lush green undergrowth and offers superb vistas in relative comfort.
While the traffic is just as bad as that in Colombo, Kandy feels calmer thanks to the large, serene lake, and the deep green mountains to which most of the guesthouses cling, offering breakfast with a stupendous view. The must-see attraction in Kandy is the Temple of the Tooth Relic, an ornate, impressive shrine within a palace housing what is believed to be Buddha’s tooth. Visitors are afforded a glimpse of the golden casket containing said relic twice daily, providing they are willing to be shuffled through like cattle with the elbowing locals and the school children walking hand in hand, their white uniforms glowing in the gloom of the palace surroundings. I dutifully viewed the casket, and then lurked around until the crowd had dispersed back into the sunshine to admire the carvings, the wooden beams, and the air of spirituality that earns the temple a UNESCO World Heritage nod.
Religion is celebrated in all forms in Kandy – mosques, Hindu temples, Buddhist temples, and churches snuggle side by side – and the colonial legacy can be glimpsed in the gorgeous, lakefront Queen’s Hotel, where the old elevator and the wood-panelled bar hark back to its early days as a boarding house in 1860s. Kandy’s streets are narrow and packed with people, nowhere more so than the roads winding towards the market in which fruits and vegetables dangle in a rainbow of edibles and packets of Sri Lankan spices and tea tempt tourists as much as the buffalo leather wares and silk scarves.
Kandy strikes the perfect balance between nature, architecture, and culture, the latter of which is in abundance in one of the many traditional dance shows which culminates in wince-inducing firewalking by beaming, gnarled men, while culture of a different sort was to be spied in the hilltop hotel, Helga’s Folly.
“My Grandmother lived here,” explained Madame Helga as I stepped into the opulent yet deliciously gothic lobby of this truly unique hotel. “She opened it up as a guest house in the 30s.” The place is a maze of rooms, all painted in lurid, vibrant, swirling patterns of animals and trees, flowers and strangely leering people, while the furniture varies from grand armchairs to ancient gramophones. Immense candles drip with wax while black and white photographs cover the walls in history. Each guest room is unique and creatively adorned, right down to the dramatic bathrooms, and if you can’t find the US$200 per night it costs to stay, spend US$3 to take a tour and shiver in the creepy long corridors broken only by brilliantly coloured murals on the walls.
I’ll Be Back
A visit to a tea plantation is high on the attraction list if only to admire the rolling countryside and the luscious tea buds awaiting picking. The factory we stopped at was churning and fragrant, and a cup of tea was just the ticket to speed us on the way back to Colombo and, ultimately, the waiting aeroplane, although my heart told me I hadn’t yet seen enough.
Sri Lanka, as VJ informed me as we braked and honked our way through Colombo traffic on the way to the airport, translates as “Land of Fortune.” It seemed, at a first thought, an ironic name for a country still struggling with poverty and corruption. But as my mind traversed back through my five-day trip, I realized that this nation has a wealth to offer the open-eyed tourist in the form of culture, charm, natural splendour, architecture, and warm-hearted hospitality that makes you feel, no matter your nationality, that you are coming home.
Fly: Sri Lankan Airlines, the national carrier, flies from KL to Colombo daily. Visit www.srilankan.com.
Contact: 03.2070 1979
Train: The Colombo-Kandy train has various departure times and takes approximately 2 hours 35 minutes.
Car: Book a tour with a company such as Tropical Destination (www.lsr-srilanka.com) for air-conditioned car travel between the sights.
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Source: The Expat August 2012
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