Spell-binding Sri Lanka: Ancient temples, holy shrines and Elephants

From glorious white sand beaches to dense jungle, Sri Lanka is littered with palaces and tea plantations… What more could you want?

White sand: One of Sri Lanka's many beautiful beaches
White sand: One of Sri Lanka’s many beautiful beaches

Sri Lanka? Isn’t it just India designed by the Swiss?” asked my most travelled friend.

He’s the sort who’s never happier than when snacking on aged yak butter while perched precariously mid-way up a mountain.

Whereas I’m pretty happy lounging by a pool, especially if there’s a pleasing vista of palm trees and beach to gaze upon. Sri Lanka – shaped like a teardrop in the Indian Ocean – has a magical quality.

Improbably lush (put a stick in the ground and it’ll probably take root), packed with ancient temples, tea plantations, elephants and deep trendiness, it’s a delightfully intoxicating mix, with the odd legacy left by British colonialism – not least the devotion shown to cricket and cricketers.

Capital charms

Until now, it’s been tricky to reach, but a direct flight from Gatwick with British Airways means it’s just a 10-hour flight away (and returns via
the Maldives if you want a two-centre holiday).

Colombo, the capital, has its charms, particularly the newly-restored Dutch Hospital, home to trendy restaurants and shops, but the treats start coming thick and fast as we start the journey to Kandy.

Elephants in the river, Pinnewala, Sri Lanka Elephants in the river, Pinnewala, Sri Lanka

High in the hills, surrounded by banana and tea plantations, plus the famous elephant orphanage of Pinnewala, this city was once home to Sri Lanka’s kings.Our hotel for the night, the Mahaweli Reach (mahaweli.com), has full-on tropical charm – an extended villa with verandas, whirring fans and gardens that reach down to the river.

Kandy’s lake is still lined by white-stone palaces, and in the evening we head to one of Buddhism’s holiest shrines – the Temple of the Tooth.

Welcomed by monks, we join hundreds of Sri Lankans – all of us dressed in white – and head into the inner sanctum to glimpse a sight of a golden casket that encases one of Buddha’s molars.

It’s a simple ceremony, just groups of people filing past in silence, but hugely moving.

And when you stop to think that thousands of people visit the temple each day, it’s conducted in a breathtakingly efficient way. Almost Swiss in fact…

 

Ruinas Sigiriya Sri Lanka
Ruinas Sigiriya

If Kandy is calm, Sigiriya stuns. Looming out of the landscape, this vast rock – known as the Lion’s Rock – is the most visited site in Sri Lanka.A world heritage site with the remains of a first-century fortress on top, it’s crowded with Sri Lankans and other visitors, all determined to
reach the top.

For the terminally lazy, just as interesting are the network of reservoirs and moats that kept kings and later Buddhist monks fed and watered.

It’s a wonderfully tranquil way to wander through the site and admire the earliest form of town planning in Asia.

The real reason Sri Lanka is booming is that it’s reaping the peace dividend. After the civil war ended in 2009, all its energies have been geared towards prosperity.

 

Fortress resort and spa in Sri Lanka
Fortress resort and spa

There are luxury new hotels and gleaming highways, none more so than the new express road from Colombo to Galle.

This coastal resort is a popular escape for posh Sri Lankans – you can zoom along it in just two hours. Our hotel, the Fortress Resort and Spa (fortressresortandspa.com) was originally built to house Dutch and Portuguese soldiers.

Perhaps the beach and the palm trees weren’t what drew them there, but it’s a huge bonus for the modern-day visitor.

And with the vast infinity pool between the hotel and the beach, it’s the perfect place to flop.

Above all, and this might be behind the analogy with Switzerland, there’s a calm sense of purpose that runs alongside the tropical temperatures and the tuk-tuks that ply the roads.

Swish and glamorous

In 2004, Galle was all but destroyed by the tsunami, but you’d never know it now. Glamorous villas hug the coastline, and hotels range from the budget to the deeply swish.

At its heart is Galle Fort – a walled city developed by the Dutch in the 16th century – and later appropriated by the British. Go through the gates and there’s a church on the corner and cobbled streets – boho expats have taken over from the soldiers but it still feels thoroughly European.

There are trendy design shops (few people leave without jewellery made from precious stones).

Why, you could be in Switzerland – if it had a coastline – until you feel the heat of the afternoon, the smell of curry and clamber into a tuk-tuk back to the beach.

Travel file

When to go – December to March is ideal basking in temperatures of around 27C. It’s also when there’s the least rainfall. Kandy is usually cooler, at around 20C.

Eating out – Curries are top of the menu. In Columbo, it’s hard to beat Ministry of Crab in the Old Dutch Hospital, which is owned by the cricketers Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara.

Top tip – If you start to climb Sigiriya, start out early because the temperatures soon rise. It takes around an hour to reach the summit. Local guides will offer (for a fee) to help you.

Don’t miss – When visiting the Temple of the Tooth it’s easiest for foreigners to buy tickets, around £6, in advance.

[Via Mirror.co.uk]

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