Beyond almost anywhere else I’ve ever travelled, Sri Lanka ranks as the place to which I would most like to return. A legendary island, it’s known as the Teardrop of India thanks to its shape and location. The narrow strait in the Indian Ocean that separates it from India’s southern tip, has ensured Sri Lanka developed a unique identity from its larger neighbour. Perhaps its other name, Pearl of the Indian Ocean, is more fitting.
The island’s unimaginable geographic diversity is matched only by its biodiversity. From tropical beaches to the rolling hills and tea plantations of the interior, from elephants and leopards to a plethora of bird life, the island has an abundance of natural riches. It is also home to the oldest known human-planted tree, the Maha Bodhi dating from 288 BC. Its natural wealth is complemented by a cornucopia of historical and cultural glories.
It was only a decade ago though that the country emerged from a prolonged and bloody civil war. Starting in 1983 amid rising tensions between the majority Buddhist Sinhalese and Hindu Tamil minority, the war only ended in 2009 with defeat for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the Tamil Tigers. Not long before that, the 2004 tsunami brought a different kind of devastation to Sri Lanka.
Arriving in Colombo eighteen months before the war ended, we experienced military roadblocks the whole trip. Yet it was the deep physical and psychological scars of the tsunami that we noticed most. Sri Lanka’s modern history has dealt it terrible blows. Sadly, post-conflict governments have undermined democratic norms and pushed a nationalist Sinhalese agenda to the detriment of the Hindu and Muslim minorities.
On my flight from Hyderabad in India, I was seated with a large group of Indian men en route to jobs in the Middle East. One of them had never flown before and was teased mercilessly by his companions. The nadir of which came when they convinced him to add sachets of sugar, salt and pepper to his coffee. I felt bad because it was obvious he was worried and a little overwhelmed by the whole experience.
We parted ways in Colombo, they to get another flight, we to spend the next ten days being guided through the highlands to the southern coast, where we’d spend a week beachcombing along the palm-fringed sands of the Indian Ocean. A Sri Lankan friend in London had arranged everything, including a car and driver and a few days at the Kandalama, a remarkable eco-hotel close to three UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
When I say extraordinary, I mean waking up in the morning looking out over a lake and spotting elephants, swimming in an infinity pool with a view of the Sigiriya fortress in the distance, and having monkeys swing past the large glass exterior walls while you’re showering. Architect Geoffrey Bawa created an eco-friendly masterpiece landscaped into a hillside so that it’s invisible until you’re almost in it.
We spent a few days visiting nearby ancient wonders of the 5th century Avukana Buddha statue, the ancient rock fortress of Sigiriya, the 2,000 year-old Dambulla Cave Temple, and the 10th century Sacred City of Pollonnaruwa. It’s an amazing area. We could have spent weeks here, but the coast called and we went south into the hills to Kandy and another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Temple of the Tooth.
Kandy was almost a washout thanks to horrendous monsoon rains. Afterwards we headed further into the highlands around Nuwara Eliya, an area known as Little England where tea plantations stretch as far as the eye can see. A few days spent in a tea factory converted into a hotel ended with a drive to the coast via Yala National Park, and a week of exploring the coast to reach the Dutch colonial city of Galle. A journey worth a trip down memory lane!
This is a lockdown blog based on recollections of my 2007 visit to Sri Lanka.