Island full of surprise
Go Sri Lanka:Sri Lanka gave us the word serendipity. Now back on the tourist map at the end of two decades of strife, it’s a place where a short train journey brings you from ivory beaches to lush hill country, writes TOM FARRELL
IT IS TEMPTING to think of Sri Lanka as little more than an island offshoot of India. It appears as such on the map: a precious stone in the Indian Ocean, just east of the point where its huge neighbour tapers into the tropical seas.
But Sri Lanka (traditionally Ceylon) looks, smells and sounds different. I have been making trips there since the 1990s, and for me, it retains a profound sense of otherness. Moreover, it has never taken me more than two or three hours on a train or bus to exchange ivory beaches, fringed by coconut palms, for the damp lushness of the hill country with its spice gardens and rolling tea estates.
On most of my flights to the capital, Colombo, usually with Qatar Airways or Air Lanka, arrival has been just ahead of the dawn. Sadly, time is no deterrence to the touts who congregate around Bandaranaike International Airport. If a hotel has been booked, a few extra dollars is worth paying for a taxi. Otherwise, head for the public buses and avoid “bargains” being hawked around the terminal.
For a long time, thanks to the now defeated Tamil Tigers, Sri Lanka had been largely off the tourist map. After 26 years of civil war ended in May 2009, the checkpoints and searches meant to protect Colombo – not always successfully – from Tiger suicide bombers, are just a memory.
The British departed Ceylon in February 1948 but amid the snarl and smoke of Colombo’s streets, an architectural facade will often evoke Victorian Manchester or Liverpool. With the end of the war, much of the old city is likely to go before the wrecking ball, as foreign investment pours in. One place, however, where the ghosts of the Raj won’t be exorcised is the Galle Face Hotel.
In all the time I have been visiting Colombo, KC Kuttan, one of the world’s oldest hotel doormen, has been at the main entrance. A diminutive man who sports a bushy Colonel Mustard moustache and almost weighed down with the badges guests have pinned upon his white uniform, Kuttan has escorted them all up the steps: kings, politicians, artists and photographers.
Indeed a nearby plaque names a few of the more illustrious guests: Emperor Hirohito, Richard Nixon, Roger Moore and Yuri Gagarin. “There used to be just the Galle Face in the old days,” he has told me, “now many hotels.”
But not many hotels have a colonnaded courtyard where you may dine on rice and devilled crabs. Or witness a multicoloured sunset while the turbulence and spray of the Indian Ocean flings itself against the nearby sea wall.
As in Ireland, one of the major challenges facing the country has been the peaceful co-existence of two cultures. In the south, west and centre of the island, the Sinhalese predominate: tall, relaxed and Buddhist. The northern and eastern fringes of Sri Lanka are inhabited by Tamils: shorter, darker and industrious.
Although easily reached by public bus, I took a hired car out to the north central province. Sigiriya, a rock fortress built during the later fifth century AD, was visible from miles away, as if Ayres Rock/Uluru had been set down amid the tropical flatlands.
We came to a halt near the crowded entrance and nearby, I spotted a western family perched atop a slowly plodding elephant with a mahout at the rear. According to legend, the Sinhalese king, Kassapa, had seized power in AD 473, walling his own father up alive and forcing his half brother and the legitimate heir to flee to India. The rock fortress was conceived and built as a kind of castle cum penthouse, looming 200 metres above the ground.
Passing through the ticket booths, I acquired a guide for a few extra dollars, the approach passing the crumbling remnants of royal water gardens.
We detoured up a spiral stairway and into a protected gallery, where the Sigiriya damsels reclined across the rock wall. There were once nearly 500 of them but the roughly two dozen that remain are vivid in their colours and details, their languid sensuality at odds with the ascetic character of Buddhism, Sri Lanka’s majority religion.
Sigiriya means “lion rock” and the visitor will discover the reason why at the northern end: a stairway rises towards the summit, flanked by two huge stone paws. Sadly, the lion’s head and gaping maw through which the summit was reached, crumbled away centuries ago.
Nevertheless, struggling with my vertigo, I joined the sluggish train of bodies making their way up the metal steps. The 1.6-hectare summit has a surviving bathing pool and foundations: I sat down and gazed across the humid jungle canopy as Kassapa must once have done.
The relative smallness of Sri Lanka (slightly smaller than Ireland but with a population of 20 million) makes travel between its historic sites an easy matter. After Sigiriya, I drove to Polonnaruwa. One thousand years ago, a city flourished here. Bleached by the tropical glare, the ruins of its many palaces, temples, shrines and bathing pools survive.
When I made my first visit to Polonnaruwa in 1995, I hired a bicycle and made a more leisurely tour of the ruins. Although the stinging sunshine and adrenalin boost gave that trip an extra edge, my latest visit in an air-conditioned car made things a little easier.
And on my latest trip to the stone Buddhas of the Gal Vihara shrine, I found myself amidst pilgrims as a monk in orange robes chanted incantations. Whatever blessings he conferred upon me were unexpected. Then again, the very word “serendipity”, the faculty of a chance lucky discovery, is derived from serendib, the name given to Sri Lanka by Arab mariners during the Middle Ages.
On my last visit, I took one of the spartan but punctual trains to Kandy, a city of around 100,000 people nestled within the misty hills of the central highlands. This area was the last part of the island to fall to the British in the early 19th century. Low caste Tamil labourers were imported from southern India to work on tea estates. Some of the tea factories are open to visitors and on the slopes around the buildings, female labourers, baskets tied to their backs, still pluck away at the bushes.
Overlooking the lake in the centre of Kandy is the Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Tooth), said to house an incisor of the Buddha himself in a casket. If a visit to Sri Lanka coincides with the August full moon, it is all but mandatory to get to Kandy in time for the Esala Perehera festival.
As evening descends, lines of drummers, acrobats and jugglers will traverse a specially cleared route, blowing into conch shells, pounding drums and twirling wheels of fire. By night time, up to 60 elephants, adorned in capes studded with electric lights, will plod along after them.
Each elephant resembles a shuffling Christmas tree on four legs. Watching them pass, with the air smoky and shimmering and with the drums roaring, there is a sense of having dropped out of the 21st century and into a place of dark, primordial exuberance.
THE COASTLINESof the island, lashed by the December 2004 tsunami, are again alive with tourist activity. The east coast, once out of bounds, is earmarked for post-war redevelopment. The eastern port city of Trincomalee, encroaching upon seven scallop-shaped bays, was called “the finest natural harbour in the world” by Horatio Nelson.
I took a train to Trincomalee, my first visit since the end of the war. A decade ago, confined to one of its few guest houses after evening curfew, I listened to the thump and rumble of artillery as the navy retaliated against a seaborne attack by the Tamil Tigers.
Now, with new hotels and guest houses appearing, it is perfectly possible to drive out of the town to expanses of ivory beaches, indulging in some snorkelling later on. Wherever you go, there are bound to be surprises. Such is the way of an island that gave the English language the word serendipity.
Sri Lanka Where to . . .
Where to stay
The Galle Face Hotel in Colombo (gallefacehotel.com) and Queen’s Hotel in Kandy (queenshotel.lk) offer a colonial atmosphere.
The Colombo Hilton (hilton.com), Lanka Oberoi (oberoihotels.com) and Taj Samudra (tajhotels.com) are top range hotels in Colombo but most major towns in the country offer budget hotels and guest houses. Accommodation becomes more basic the further north and east you travel.
The Middle Eastern Airlines offer the best deals on flights, usually via the United Arab Emirates. Etihad (etihadairways.com) and Qatar Airways (qatarairways.com) offer flights to Colombo starting from €890. Also try Cathay Pacific (cathaypacific.com) and Sri Lanka Airlines (srilankan.aero).
Malarial prophylactics are advised for travel to Sri Lanka, as are insect repellent and sun cream.
The wet season alternates between different regions of the island with rains in the south and west during the summer months and in the north and east during the winter months.
Vaccinations against typhoid, tetanus and hepatitis A are recommended. Consult your doctor before travelling.