Marco Polo’s favourite island, Sri Lanka, is a bus stop in the Indian ocean. Everyone came by to spend some time here. Each of them left their own religious, cultural, political and military footprints, often on the same hilltops. It is a dizzying place to visit as a result, palm fringed beaches and some of the holiest spiritual sites in the world, accidental dining where the celebrity is the food (not the chef), and attractions that belong in the top drawer, all within 200 miles of each other and the brochure beach resorts around Bentota, each worth seeing and worth travelling to see as well.
A varicious westerners, of course, came to make their claim, Sri Lanka had150 years each of Portuguese, Dutch and English rule, but it is as if they never had to worry that they would hang around. Nowadays they are probably condemned to 150 years of hotel guests each with their own demands. Sri Lanka wears its cricket legacy and Portuguese-style baila music as casually as the ancient snake deities and Buddhist traditions that seem to lurk around each corner of the narrow roads. And, delightfully, the roads are narrow and the traffic occasionally chaotic.
“Some countries drive on the left, others drive in the left, ours is optional,” said our driver, and gave that slightly scarey grin suggesting he meant it. In the fields around the plants are fighting for space, Sri Lanka is a garden, a work of flora in progress. The entertainment area of one of our hotels was built around a 20-year-old banyan tree. Fruit bats hung from the trees around the swimming pool at another.
All seem to be thriving: plants, philosophy, people, wildlife. All are inseparable. How can they ensure people come to help the Sri Lankan government meet its impossibly ambitious tourism target? Let’s start with the food. Every meal here is a festival. Every dish is an individual work of art, the antithesis of standardized menus that other cultures mistakenly call fine dining. “Every home has their own kitchen,” “the blending of spices varies from kitchen to kitchen.” Food can be expedient as well. Watercress is anti diarrhetic. Kanda curry leaves are useful in diarrhoea dysentery and piles.
No, I didn’t know either. Our host hotels outdo each other in palatepleasing philanthropy: banana milk, sweet lassi, papaya and banana yogurt, avocado smoothies, guava and sugar cane compotes, potato masala curry, white curry, fish ambultiyal, sambaru string hoppers (red and white), and that is just breakfast. A well-fed holiday maker is a happy holidaymaker.
The spices are sold at the tourist traps, but the best stuff is in local supermarkets at a quarter of the price.
At Kandy we sat for the folk opera: part folk dance (Bulgarian sideways in costume) part folk dance (Irish, high stepping), part circus act with cart wheeling Sinhalese warriors and spinning rabans on sticks all with a discordant whine for all the world sounding like a bag pipes that had been left out in the tropical sun for an hour or two too long
We went to see the dramatic but necessarily expedient fire walking and fire dancing, like the tourists that we were, And then on to one of the spiritual centres of the east, where one of Buddha’s canines is kept locked away form view but that did not stop us., the sacred temple of the tooth, queues of pilgrims in white sarongs and bare feet, all clanging gongs like the opening of the old cinema newsreels and rare reminders of more modern influences such as the sign by the stairs saying: “the service of the elevator is available for disabled devotees.” There is something awkwardly tourist about the way to approach these endless temples and caves, the hundreds of statues. A spiritual selfie? (“you cannot have your face shown with the Buddha you have to be sideways”), or a prayer. The Buddhists are one of those religions which doesn’t mind.
The ubiquitous Buddhist flag of five colours seems dramatically contempo- rary in the rainbow age. “Is Buddhism a philosophy or a religion,” tour guide Susantha Jotila asks. “It started as a philosophy for the intelligent man.” Later, it became a religion, and that we even ask the question nowadays is a reflection on how successful it was. Philosophy mattered
when Sri Lanka hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons. The Tamil campaign and the extermination of their partisans was ruthless. It was raised in conversation, but nobody professed to have any real information.
How many died in the St Stephens Day Tsunami of 2000? It was once said 50,000, now 38,000, but it does not matter: the memories are real and some of the individual incidents were major world tragedies in their own right such as the 1,500 who died when a single train was swept away. On the coastline there are some memorials The past is not a foreign country as LP Hartley claimed, just the past. Sri Lanka has more of it than almost anywhere else on the planet.The trouble with bus stops.
THINGS TO DO PLACES TO SEE
- Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, nursery and captive breeding ground for wild Asian elephants has the largest herd of captive elephants in the world. In 2011, there were 88 elephants, including 37 males and 51 females from 3 generations, living amid waterfalls and elephant coloured rocks
- Kandy, last capital of the ancient kings’ era of Sri Lanka in the midst of hills, the 6th-century Lion Rock of Sigiriya built by King Kasyapa, fearful of his brother’s revenge for killing his father, and decorated with glowing frescoes of bare-breasted nymphs.
- Galle Fort a well preserved example of 17th century coastal fortifications started by the Portuguese,e finished by the Dutch and then passed to the English.
- Kandy Cultural Show performed by the traditional Kandyan dancers on a daily basis with some firewalking to finish.
- Habaraduwa Turtle Hatchery has released 4m turtles in 35 years. Baby turtles in hordes and tanks holding injured turtles, including a couple of impressively large specimens, swimming about their tanks, recovering in the hatchery until they could be re-released. They come with human names, Monica is taken out of her tank for selfie. There is a pattern of casualties: motorboat, shark and the turtle who lost her two front flippers in the 2000 St Stephen’s Day tsunami.
- Temple of the Scared Tooth Relic is the fifth holiest site in Buddhism. The annual pageant (Esala Perahera) attracts thousands of pilgrims A neat place to people watch (pilgrim watch?).
- Habarana, popular tourist destination for safari lovers and starting point for safaris in
the nearby jungle and Minneriya National Park which is heavily populated by elephants.
- Golden Temple of Dambulla, largest and best-preserved cave temple complex in Sri Lanka towering 160m over the surrounding plains. The action is spread over five caves of contain statues and paintings with a total of 153 Buddha statues, 3 statues of Sri Lankan kings and 4 statues of gods and goddesses. Murals cover an area of 2,100 square metre including the temptation by the demon Mara, and Buddha’s first sermon.
- Sigiriya geological formation with, with numerous temples and shrines set around a tranquil lake. and stunning views of the surrounding countryside as you climb.
- Hamabantota, a coastal town that is close to four national parks
- Anuradhapura, the ruined capital of the old Singhalese kingdom, famous for its massive Buddha temples