Travel: Wet T-shirts are welcome here

The beaches of Sri Lanka are legendary. But Tricia Bowker went there to embrace glorious mud and rain
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The Independent Culture
No, really! This is the dry zone," insisted our guide as the rain beat heavily on the roof of the bus and our group drove inland, away from Sri Lanka's sunny coast. I would never have believed that a sun-worshipper like myself could enjoy a holiday during the tail-end of the monsoon but, wandering in the warm rain around the ruins of the island's ancient capital, Polonnaruwa, had me converted.

The 10 other people in my group felt the same way. We hadn't met before setting off on this organised tour of Sri Lanka. In fact, we discovered that we came from different parts of the UK and from all manner of professions and, in terms of age, we ranged from early twenties to early fifties. What we did have in common, however, was a mutual desire to spend our fortnight in Sri Lanka doing more than lying on one of its wonderful beaches.

When it rained again the next day as we cycled through the tiny villages surrounding our hotel at Giritale, we contemplated the beach and doubts about our choice surfaced. These were soon washed away, however. Soaked through and covered in mud, this was one of the most invigorating holidays I'd ever been on. The cycling was interspersed with regular breaks to take shelter under palm trees and drink from freshly opened coconuts. Along the way, we were greeted by smiling children and, further on, passed a hundred or so soldiers on a training exercise, face down in the paddy fields.

Back at the hotel restaurant that evening, Anna queried an item on the menu. The waiter explained that "Fish from the Tank" didn't mean the goldfish that we had passed on the way in, but the various fish that swam their way around the artificial lake opposite. Originally created for irrigation in the fourth century, the tank is still an impressive sight today.

Thanks to all the rain our boat trip on the "tank" was cancelled but the following morning we travelled on into "the wet zone" and, ironically, the sun finally came out. Now the coconut palms seemed taller and the banana plants more lush and green. Along the way, we stopped off at tiny, isolated fruit stalls to try out fruit never seen back in local Safeways: apple crumble-flavoured custard apples, pink, crunchy jambos, and slippery jakfruit, which you either love or hate.

We arrived in Kandy, the main town in the hill country, to find that the important Buddhist shrine, the "Temple of the Tooth", was covered in scaffolding following a Tamil Tiger bomb last year - though this was the only sign of any ethnic violence we encountered.

In fact, everyone we met during our travels was extremely friendly and happy, and keen to make contact. It was almost impossible to pass anyone without having to respond to the questions "Bonbons?", "School pen?" or "Married?", depending on the age of the person asking the questions (I think my travelling companion Ruth must have had at least 10 marriage proposals by the end of the trip). It seemed that the locals were as fascinated by us as we were by them. One evening, as we wandered outside the riverside rest-house at Belihuloya, spotting fireflies in the trees, we heard cheering from a restaurant. A large group of locals were gathered around a television set, jumping around in excitement as they watched a cricket match against England. The atmosphere was just like being in an English pub during the World Cup.

We had another, less pleasant, reminder of Britain when we arrived at the town of Nuwara Eliya. Our guide expected us to be impressed by this area he called "Little England", with its golf course and old-fashioned post office, but most of the group felt uncomfortable here and were glad to move south the next day to the Sinharaja Nature Reserve.

At 5am, we happily woke up for a walk through the virgin rainforest of the Reserve. The lush tropical plants and flowers were filled with black and white courting butterflies, a luminous gold and red insect which our guide had never seen before and the sounds of monkeys and strange birds - as well as the rather less lovely leeches.

Our walk led us to a jungle lodge where we helped to grind coconut and cut up bitter gourd, snake gourd, loofah and other unrecognisable vegetables. These were to be the ingredients for our delicious rice and curry lunch which we ate, as we had been told to, with our fingers.

Another 5am start beckoned and the group piled into jeeps to set off and look for elephants. A pregnant elephant is quite an amazing sight, and so were the peacocks perched on top of trees, basking crocodiles, water buffalo, monkeys and the dinosaur-like land monitor.

The next animals we saw were cows - strolling gently up and down as we lay sunning ourselves on the sand at Ahangama - well, we had to test out one of the island's idyllic beaches before we left for home.

Tricia Bowker paid pounds 895 for a 16-day `Hallowed Island' tour of Sri Lanka with Travelbag Adventures (01420 541007). The cost includes return flights from London Heathrow, all accommodation, some meals and the services of a group leader throughout the trip

Fact File

THE ONLY direct flights between the UK and Sri Lankan capitals are on Air Lanka (0171-930 4688), which has six non-stop flights each way every week. The lowest return fares are available through discount agents. Airline Network (0800 747000) is quoting pounds 417 for travel outbound on the Air Lanka flight on Wednesdays; on other days the fare is pounds 20 more. Trailfinders (0171-938 3366) has a fare of pounds 405 on Kuwait Airways, pounds 433 on Emirates; these require a change of planes in the Gulf.

Red tape: British visitors to Sri Lanka do not require visas for short- term visits.

More information: Sri Lanka Tourism, 22 Regent Street, London SW1Y 4QD (tel 0171-930 2627).

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