Sri Lanka land of smiles
Indian Ocean tsunami a fadingmemory, there is a new
sense of optimism in Sri Lanka and its gracious people
have reason to smile again.
It was 4am on a late October morning and I was being driven from Colombo Airport by my guide, Janaka, after the 10-hour flight from London. It seemed everyone in this
south-western corner of Sri Lanka was slumbering as we passed through town after deserted town en route to my hotel at Hikkaduwa beach resort.
Then, as we rounded a bend it was as though the whole island had come alive.Hundreds of people were lining the roadside and, in their midst, a procession was snaking
its way past them and swaying to the beat of drums. Despite the blackness of the night, the costumed participants were clearly visible as many of them were holding flaming torches and lanterns, lighting up the crowdas well.
Driving slowly past the fiery human chain, Janaka explained that this was a procession to mark the start of Deepavali, or Diwali as it is also called - the Hindu festival of lights. At the front, several dancers were twirling large, wooden six-pointed stars, the extended points of which were alight so that as they span they resembled giant Catherine wheels.
It was a breathtaking way to arrive on an island I had long wanted to visit, my desire fuelled since childhood by images of golden sandy beaches, lush tea plantations, exotic wildlife and rich culture.
My anticipation was tinged with apprehension, too. Less than two years earlier, the island's south-west had suffered unimaginable devastation and more than 30,000 lives had been lost in the infamous 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. Violence had also started to flare again in the long civil war which had ravaged northern and eastern areas.
It seemed fitting that Sri Lanka was teardrop-shaped; so many tears had been shed by and for its people in recent years.
Yet what I encountered as I toured the island was far removed from my fears. I did witness some of the horrific aftermath of the tsunami, including the twisted wreckage of the Queen of the Sea train, in which 1,500 died when it was engulfed as it passed through the village of Peraliya just 2.5 miles north of Hikkaduwa, making it the world's worst-ever train disaster. I also saw the shells of wrecked homes in the village where another 1,000 people had died - and where, unbelievably, a rebel Tamil Tiger suicide bomber blew up a bus and killed nine people just weeks after my visit.
But I also saw the revitalisation of beach resorts and rebuilding of shattered communities under programmes funded by international governments, aid agencies and charities. Indomitable spirit And I was deeply touched by the indomitable spirit of the island's people. They showed an unshakeable resilience and optimism to matchtheir gracious hospitality, legendary friendliness and warm smiles. I found it quite disarming at times; even those I spoke to who had lost family members and homes in the tsunami were confident Sri Lanka would bounce back from that and from its bloody civil war. That optimism has proved correct.
With the conflict ending this year, peace has now returned to this enchanting island and while the tsunami will never be forgotten, the regeneration is helping to heal its scars. The islanders have reason to smile again.
The new era of peace is now bringing tourists surging back to its beautiful beaches and historic cities, and Sri Lanka's tourist office is promoting the island with a rebranded image and slogan - "Sri Lanka, Small Miracle" - highlighting the island's - highlighting the island's easy accessibility and amazing diversity.
I saw much of the island's diverse attractions during my action-packed visit, which also included taking part in the annual two-day Sri Lankan Golf Classic tournament at Victoria Golf Club, in the hilly, green interior.
I walked barefoot on stunning beaches in the south-west, their beautiful sands devoid of other footprints. Off one beach, stilt fishermen perched precariously on poles as they dangled hooks from outstretched rods, then enthusiastically showed me the tiddlers they were landing.It hardly seemed worth the discomfort.
I watched other fishermen launch outrigger craft into the crashing surf from beaches near Galle, the pushers laughing and joking when the boats hit waves, drenching their occupants. Galle itself is fascinating to explore. A UNESCOWorld Heritage Site, it is a small town full of wonderful old buildings set within the ramparts of a fort built by the Portuguese. The Dutch made it the headquarters of the Dutch East India Company after
winning it in 1640, before it was taken in turn by the British in 1796.
Inland from the south-west's beaches you can visit cinnamon plantations and gemstone mines, little more than shafts dug deep into the alluvial soil where moonstones and other gems are sifted from the extracted silt.
Leopards and elephants
On the south-east coast,Yala National Park is one of 14 national parks in Sri Lanka and one of the best places in the world to see leopards. Sadly, they eluded me on my visit. However, I did see plenty of other inhabitants, including crocodiles, monkeys, peacocks and elephants. Even here is a stark reminder of the tsunami.longside the remains of the park ranger's house which once stood by the beach, a stainless steel sculpture graphically depicts thedestructive waves.
Before 1800, Sri Lanka had around 15,000 wild elephants. Today, protected parks are the only places to see them in the wild. Uda Walawe National Park is home to some 500, while up to 300 at a time can be seen in Minneriya National Park. But a must on any itinerary is the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage, 80km north-east of the capital, Colombo. Set up by the government in 1975 to care for injured and orphaned elephants,it is home to 70 elephants and is one of Sri Lanka's most popular tourist attractions.Twice a day, the herd is led to a river where the animals bathe in front of tourists, who can pay extra to have their pictures taken with them or feed them. Stars of the show are always the tiniest youngsters. They melt your heart.
In the island's centre, Kandy is home to Sri Lanka's most important Buddhist relic - a tooth of Buddha himself. It is housed in the Temple of the Tooth, in a beautiful, forested lake-side setting. The spectacular, annual Esala Perahera festival in July or August is in honour of the sacred tooth, which is carried around Kandy in a golden casket. It involves fire-dancers, drummers and tusker elephants adorned with elaborate costumes and covered in tiny lights. While in Kandy, I went to a cultural performance of music and Kandian dance, which culminated in fire-eaters walking across a pit of blazing coals as monsoon rains lashed down.
By contrast, the atmosphere in the hilltop town of Nuwara Eliya south of Kandy and almost 2,000 metres above sea level was positively serene. A world away from the rest of Sri Lanka, the lush mountains of this area are where the British built hill stations to escape the heat of lower regions and grow tea.
Plantations of vivid green tea bushes are draped across every available slope and armies of women still pick the tender, young leaves by hand, putting them in baskets slung on their backs held by straps over their heads. You can visit factories to see how the tea is processed, try different blends and buy some to take home.You can even stay in an old tea factory which has been turned into a hotel.
Nuwara Eliya itself is like stepping back in time, and is often called Little England for its atmosphere and architecture. North of Kandy, the towering Sigiriya rock has the remains of an ancient royal palace at its summit. Sri Lanka's capital for over 1,500 years, Anuradhapura, is a UNESCOWorld Heritage Site sacred to Buddhists and the well-preserved ruins include several huge, white dagobas. Polonnaruwa also features ancient Sinhalese
ruins, among them giant Buddha statues.
Whatever you choose to do and see in Sri Lanka, your visit will overwhelm both your senses and your emotions. Just as mine did.
Sri Lanka facts
When to go
Sri Lanka enjoys sunshine year-round.The best time to
visit the south-west's beaches is from November to April, the rainy season being May-September. Temperatures hit a high of 31ºC on the coast, and range from 18-22ºC in hilly Nuwara Eliya.
SriLankan Airlines (www.srilankan.aero) flies direct from London to capital Colombo. Emirates (www.emirates.com) operates flights from London to Colombo via Dubai, Qatar Airways (www.qatarairways.com) via Doha and Etihad (www.etihadairways.com) via Abu Dhabi.
Hiring a car with a driver to explore the island is relatively cheap.You can also travel cheaply by train, with routes operated by Sri Lanka Railways (www.railway.gov.lk).
Options range from budget hotels to luxury brands. Notable hotels include Colombo's Galle Face Hotel (www.gallefacehotel.com), open since 1864 with guests including Lord Mountbatten, Nehru and US President Richard Nixon.The boutique Amangalla (www.amanresorts.com),
in the heart of Galle's fort, and the Vil Uyana eco-retreat
(www.jetwing.com) below Sigirya's rock are others.
Operators featuring Sri Lanka include:
Worldwide Direct Holidays (www.worldwideholidays.co.uk)
Virgin Holidays (www.virginholidays.co.uk)
Somak Holidays (www.somak.com)
Premier Holidays (www.premierholidays.co.uk)
First Choice (www.firstchoice.co.uk)
Cox & Kings (www.coxandkings.com)
Monarch Holidays (www.monarchholidays.co.uk)
Visit Sri Lanka Tourism's website on www.srilanka.travel or call 0845 880 6333.
All prices and details were correct when publshed, please check before you travel.