Tea and sympathy in the heart of Sri Lanka

On a journey to the heart of the troubled nation of Sri Lanka, Sophie Lam finds serenity amid ornate temples, ancient reservoirs and fields of emerald green
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The Independent Travel

A distant rumble cut through the chatter of birds as I lay by the pool of the serene Park Street Hotel in Colombo, prompting a hasty avian exodus from the trees above. My companion looked up from his book; we exchanged uncertain glances then returned to our lounging. The notion that it could have been a bomb felt so incongruous in the gracious surroundings of the 250-year-old mansion-turned-boutique hotel that we swiftly dismissed the idea, until an hour or so later when the crackle of what sounded like gunfire again rattled us from our repose.

The start of 2009 heralded what might be a pivotal period in Sri Lanka's decades-long political struggle. A year after withdrawing from a ceasefire, the government's military forces were closing in on Tamil Tiger strongholds in the far north of the country and had just captured the Tigers' de facto capital, Kilinochchi. A suicide bomber retaliated the same day outside an air force camp around 2km from our hotel, hence the explosion we'd heard. But we later learnt that the gunfire was in fact firecrackers being let off by civilians celebrating the capture of Kilinochchi. As we ventured out of the hotel that evening there was eerie quiet on the streets; our tuk-tuk – a motorised three-wheeler – had to backtrack and slalom through a concertina of road blocks to reach a restaurant that was just a couple of hundred metres away. Yet the faces we encountered expressed warmth and openness rather than fear.

It wasn't the most auspicious start to our trip, but we comforted ourselves with the knowledge that we were journeying away from the capital and the battle-scarred north into the interior of Sri Lanka.

When Marco Polo visited in the late 13th century, he described this place as the finest island of its size in all the world. And while the only other island of its size in all the world is ruggedly beautiful Tasmania, which Marco Polo never visited, his praise is nevertheless understandable. Sri Lanka is pendant-shaped, and ringed by over 1,340km of Indian Ocean coastline, of which only a relatively small proportion is developed. You can drive alongside endless pristine beaches where teal-coloured waves froth on to completely vacant sand. Political strife feels a world away.

I could quite happily have trickled down the coast from Colombo for the duration of my stay. The temptations include the Tropical Modernist architecture of Geoffrey Bawa – which many cite as a blueprint for Balinese style – at the Hotel Serendib, the Bentota Beach Hotel and Lighthouse Hotel, as well as the beautiful Portuguese-Dutch fort of Galle, with its cutesy porticoed houses, immaculate whitewashed churches and lighthouse. But instead we turned east, into the heart of the country.

Our guide and driver, Nishantha, collected us from the hotel. We chugged out of the capital towards the city of Kandy, the fresh sea breeze dwindling as the road rose into the hills. Where we had been flanked by urban sprawl and buffered by cars, now palm trees began to gather, with emerald-green rice fields spread out beyond. Villagers displayed their wares by the roadside – at Yakulla we stopped for one of the sweetest, juiciest pineapples I've ever tasted, sprinkled liberally with an acquired-taste combination of salt and chilli.

Each community we passed catalogued our ascent from sea level: at a 30-metre elevation road sign we passed through cashew and cane fields; 200 metres further up we were amid corn fields and mango trees. Intense human activity began to give way to a tranquil, pastoral landscape of red earth that seemed to absorb the sunlight tumbling through the tree foliage. Roadside stalls selling fish – and, curiously, inflatable toys – provided shade for sleeping dogs that twitched as we sped past.

We turned off at Kegalle, an unattractive city that, for tourists, serves as a focus for visits to the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. The sanctuary was founded in 1975 to protect five injured and orphaned elephants. Since then it has mushroomed into a home for up to 80 of them. The elephants spend their days roaming around the park with their mahouts and are led down to the Maha Oya river twice a day for a two-hour bath.

A poignant reminder of the political conflict came in the shape of Sama, a female elephant whose front leg had been partially blown off by a landmine in the north. Depending on their adaptability, some of the animals will later be released into Uda Walawe National Park in the south.

The next leg of our journey required us to veer north, pressing on to Habarana. This town is at the heart of the so-called Cultural Triangle, in the centre of the island. Its three points are Sri Lanka's ancient capitals: Anuradhapura in the north west, Polonnaruwa in the east, and Kandy in the central highlands. The word "habarana" roughly translates as jewellery; halfway between Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura, it was here that Sri Lanka's ancient rulers are said to have hidden their treasures when their kingdoms were captured. "Habarana's riches are underground," Nishantha informed us. But there is wealth, too, in the handful of luxury resorts located here. Ours, the Cinnamon Lodge, lay on an idyllic lake where the water crept up to the springy lawn to settle in lily-clustered pools around trees. Rooms were scattered in low-rise chalets among over a thousand trees, including ebony, mahogany and palms. As dusk fell, a cacophony of chirrups, bleeps, trills and cooing echoed around the lake as scores of birds sloped off into the disappearing sunlight.

It's a tranquil place, ideal for those caught up at the business end of Sri Lanka's problems. I spoke to one notable fellow guest: Ranil Wickremesinghe, the former prime minister of Sri Lanka and now opposition leader. Wickremesinghe's UNP party agreed to a ceasefire with the Tamil Tigers in 2002 that helped boost the country's economy: tourism took a leading role in the process. Now tourists are staying away, a fact he lamented. "People are coming less, despite the fact that we have everything here – the coast, the cultural triangle, hill stations and seven Unesco sites. They just aren't aware of it all."

What I hadn't been aware of was that we'd stumbled into the country's "dry zone", where rain falls for only around two months a year. There aren't many clues in the scenery. On the road to Polonnaruwa the following morning, we passed several of the large, man-made lakes that are scattered through the region, and drove through greenery that would make the Grinch blush. But Sri Lanka's ancient rulers created these reservoirs to irrigate their kingdoms. At Polonnaruwa – capital from the 11th to the 13th centuries after the fall of Anuradhapura – the vast "Sea of Parakramabahu" was created by the first monarch of that name. It's almost twice the size of Windermere.

The city itself fans out north around the water's edge and is home to some of the finest Buddha statues in the country, as well as astonishingly well-preserved buildings set among ancient, planned parkland. King Parakramabahu's one-time seven-storey royal palace stands defiant, with three-metre thick walls; his audience hall is intricately carved with elephants. The site has been re-colonised by toque macaques, which scamper around the ruins, comical pudding-bowl hair crowning their pink faces.

Polonnaruwa's most impressive site is the Gal Vihara, a group of four Buddhas carved from one long slab of granite, including a seven-metre-high standing Buddha that has long been controversial because of its unusual crossed hands and sad expression. The 14 metre-long reclining Buddha next to it depicts his entry into Nirvana, the pillow imprinted with a depression where his head lies.

But even these statues are overshadowed by the bizarre geological formation underpinning Sigiriya.

An hour's drive west of Polonnaruwa, the ancient fortress was built in the late fifth century on a giant rock outcrop that sprouts 200m skywards from the plains like a large cumulonimbus cloud of red, ochre, black and brown. It was used as a stronghold by King Kassapa, who must have had some stamina, given his reputed harem of 500 women, who lived at the summit.

You can trace King Kassapa's pilgrimage towards female companionship via a series of stairs, ladders and walkways, although these days you're rewarded with stunning views rather than carnal gratification.

Halfway up – with a vertigo sufferer already in tears behind me – we arrived at the mirror wall, a corridor made of porcelain so polished that the king was said to be able to see his reflection in it. Vanity aside, the corridor at least shields you temporarily from the sheer drop to your left. A spiral staircase winds up to a small cave above, decorated with flawless frescoes of the king's concubines, the curves of the caves accentuating their voluptuousness.

The last stage of the ascent brings you to a huge pair of lion's paws carved from the rock, at which point you edge up on a series of steel stairs, the wind whistling past you on one side. The summit not only affords spectacular views of the central plains of Sri Lanka, but reveals how elaborate the planning of the site was, with ornamental gardens and a moat laid out in perfect symmetry below.

We later admired Sigiriya from the watery bliss of Vil Uyana, a hotel set among rice fields, lagoons, mangroves and forest, with the majestic rock in the background. The hotel suggests that to stay here is to experience life cultivating rice, but you'd have to be a farmer with a lucrative hobby to live like this.

Our stilted, thatched hut came with a plunge pool and stone bath big enough for two. Birds swooped in formation over the infinity pool; the jarring cry of a peacock was followed by its clumsy landing in a tree overhanging a lagoon. Crocodiles and wild elephants were said to stalk the peripheries of the resort, but with such sublime views available in our immediate vicinity, we ventured no further than our balcony.

We made rather more of an effort the next morning during a trek up to the Dambulla Rock Temple, a series of five caves that lie 150m above the road and were used as temples during the first century BC. The garish modern temple and huge gold Buddha at the foot didn't bode well. Nishantha shook his head solemnly when we enquired about its provenance. But the caves were well worth the hike: they contain around 150 statues of Buddha, and vibrant paintings using natural dyes cover the interiors, from dainty mosaics to geometric and floral patterns.

The road almost directly south of Dambulla starts to rise more sharply, twisting between the satin sheen of rice fields and sporadic Buddha statues until you reach the outskirts of Kandy. This hill town was Sri Lanka's capital until the British captured it in 1815 and Colombo was given primacy. The concrete tangle of the city spills out towards Kandy Lake, beside which sits a huge temple housing a relic of one of Buddha's teeth. Here we paused to join the steady trail of pilgrims offering water lilies at the temple complex; we processed up to the two-storey shrine, with its gilded roof and elephant tusks (the tooth itself is kept locked away in a series of six caskets, each opened with a different key).

Beyond Kandy, the road continued to meander skywards; mist began to creep across the cobalt sky. Paddies were exchanged for tea plantations, like an eiderdown of electric green covering every surface in each direction. As we climbed higher still the temperature dropped (we passed men in woolly hats and ski jackets, even though the temperature never fell below 15C). We peaked at 1,868m in the hill town of Nuwara Eliya, once the hub of Sri Lanka's tea plantations and still an English pastiche complete with mock-Tudor houses.

We dipped down again via country roads. All at once, in a theatrical scene change, the daylight disappeared and rain-heavy clouds drew in. Visibility dropped to just a few metres. Nishantha had to edge the car along the single-track road, a sheer drop on one side. We came to a standstill when a tractor approached us from the opposite direction; luckily, its driver decided to embark on a brave passing manouevre while we waited.

Our final destination was Warwick Gardens, a former tea estate-owner's bungalow tucked into the folds of precipitous fields of tea. The old-fashioned British décor of the hotel was in keeping with the colonial atmosphere of the region, but the setting was extraordinary. We were enveloped in a sea of green, with just the odd red-roofed house or farm building in the distance. In the morning, the still air was interrupted only by the rustle of tea-pluckers.

Of course, the best way of getting to grips with local geography is from the air. We'd arranged our transfer back to Colombo with Simplify, a charter helicopter outfit. Our transport awaited us in Norwood, in the dusty bowl of a school playing field. After a celebrity-style send-off from the schoolchildren, we lifted into the air, gliding over the bumps of green tea leaves, over the thrashing water of St Clair's and Devon Falls, past the conical spire of Adam's Peak and over lakes so green they looked unreal, until the land started to even out, the haze of the ocean appeared once again and Colombo drew near.

Marco Polo may not have had all the facts at his disposal, but he got one thing right: of Sri Lanka he said, "All their things are different from ours – more beautiful and better."

Getting there

The writer travelled as a guest of Sri Lanka Tourism (0845 880 6333; srilanka.travel) and Luxury Holidays Direct (020-8774 7290; luxuryholidaysdirect.com), which offers similar itineraries from £1,175 per person, including return flights from Heathrow, seven nights' accommodation with breakfast and private transfers with a guide.

SriLankan Airlines (020-8538 2001; srilankan.aero) flies direct from Heathrow to Colombo. Airlines such as Qatar, Emirates and Etihad fly via their Middle Eastern hubs.

To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; www.reducemyfootprint.travel).

Getting around

Simplifly (00 94 77 770 3703; simplifly.com) offers tailor-made helicopter trips around the island. Trips from Norwood to Colombo cost US$1,700 (£1,214) for up to four passengers.

Staying there

The Park Street Hotel, 20 Park Street, Colombo (00 94 11 576 9500; taruvillas.com). B&B starts at US$281 (£201).

Hotel Serendib, Bentota (00 94 34 227 5248; serendibleisure.com). Doubles from $86 (£61), half board.

Aditya Resort, near Hikkaduwa (00 94 91 226 7708; aditya-resort.com). B&B starts at $225 (£161).

Cinnamon Lodge, Habarana (00 94 66 227 0011; cinnamonhotels.com). B&B starts at $100 (£71).

Jetwing Vil Uyana, Sigiriya (00 94 66 492 3584; jetwing.com). B&B starts at $230 (£164).

Jetwing Warwick Gardens, Ambewela, Nuwara Eliya (00 94 06 02 53 2284; jetwing.com). B&B starts at $156 (£111). The hotels are part of the Secrets of Ceylon collection.

Visiting there

Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, near Kegalle. Admission is Rs2,000 (£12.80).

A ticket covering combined entrance to the cultural sites of Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya and Anuradhapura (cultural.gov.lk) costs US$50 (£36). Single admission to each site is Rs2,700 (£16.20).

Dambulla Rock Temple, Dambulla (00 94 66 228 3606; goldentemple.lk). Admission is Rs1,100 (£6.60).

Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, Kandy (00 94 81 223 4226; sridal adamaligawa.lk). Admission is Rs500 (£3).

More information

The Foreign Office (0845 850 2829; fco.gov.uk) warns: "There is a high threat from terrorism in Sri Lanka. Fatal attacks have become more frequent. They have occurred in Colombo and throughout Sri Lanka, including places frequented by foreign travellers... We advise against all travel to the north and east of Sri Lanka, and to Yala National Park and the areas around it."