Sri Lanka

Author: Helen Anderson
Photography: Julian Kingma

Every afternoon at two o'clock the sky darkens and the damp air stills. We wait, though not for long. The rain falls hard and warm, so loud there is no point trying to talk above it. The monsoon asserts itself not once but twice a year in Sri Lanka; like politics and history here, the seasons are complicated. We look up in silence and wonder as the sky empties and the lagoons fill.

The villagers in Chilaw district in the island's west look up this afternoon and are pelted by fish. Live, squirming river fish rain on roofs and roads. The villagers are "surprised and delighted", I read later, and they collect 50 kilograms of fish in buckets of water and cook them for supper. This follows the curious case of "prawn rain" recorded in the island's south in 2012. A weatherman is quoted in a newspaper explaining the phenomenon of the waterspout, in which whirlwinds over shallow water can gather such spinning force they suck fish and frogs into a storm cloud and dump them far away.

As fish fall in the west, we shelter in the sacred cave-temples of Dambulla in the island's central plains, surrounded by Buddhas that glow richly in the gloom. There are more than a hundred statues of varying antiquity, heft and hand gesture but all wear the same look of compassionate indifference - as if to say, yes, the world is strange but don't worry; like the monsoon, this too shall pass. The most impressive of them is a 15-metre Buddha depicted at the moment of death, lying on a stone pillow beside a carpet of white lotus flowers wilting as if in sympathy. The face, though calm, seems unbearably sad to me; I examine instead the soles of its huge feet, painted in whorls of intricate pattern and traced in gold.

The ceiling of the biggest cave ripples with vivid painted scenes from Buddhist legend. And from a fissure overhead, spring water drips slowly, relentlessly, into a brimming urn that never overflows. "No one can explain it," says Ajith, our guide. Though he patiently describes so many things during our week together about Sri Lanka's complex history and the rituals of life, there are many things here that cannot be explained.

The caves of Dambulla, dating from the second century BC, are one of the wonders of this teardrop island and among its eight UNESCO World Heritage sites. This is an over-endowment for such a small country, an embarrassment of riches on an island only 440 kilometres long and 220 kilometres wide - smaller than Tasmania. Eye-popping art and ancient cities are only part of the island's exoticism - Sri Lanka's diversity is astonishing: rainforests full of leopards, mountains full of sapphires, dry forest plains where 5000 wild elephants roam, miles of palm-fringed beaches, farms of cinnamon and clove, high country terraced by tea estates, Buddhist shrines beside Hindu temples.

Like many travellers, we're haring around a triangular circuit, heading north-east from the steamy commercial capital, Colombo, into the central plains where ancient cities lie in splendid ruin, then south through the manicured mountains of Ceylon tea to the white-sand beaches of the southern coast and a too-short detour to Galle. Several new highways have been built in the island's south-west since I first came to Sri Lanka three years ago - driving time between Galle and Colombo and from the city to the airport has been halved - though most roads remain poor, terrain often challenging and travelling time long and slow at the 60km/h speed limit. ("We are driving to the coast today," Ajith announces cheerfully one morning. "We could take the short cut but today that would take longer…") But without the long trips in our "Jesus is My Saviour" minivan with Ajith in conversation and Anura in the driver's seat, we'd miss so much. Schoolchildren holding hands in pristine white uniforms (the mothers of Sri Lanka are unbeatable in the laundry). A conversation with an old man who has husked a thousand coconuts a day for 30 years, for one rupee apiece. The tree cubbyhouses used by farmers on nightwatch for wild elephants. Games of spot-the-president on billboards showing Mahinda Rajapaksa in various states of beneficence.

The Sri Lankan head waggle. Humble little whitewashed shrines and others with disco lights radiating from the Buddha's head. And we'd miss our frequent roadside snacks: bags of mango cheeks sprinkled with chilli flakes and salt, coconut roti straight from the hot plate with wicked Naga chilli sambal, sucking on straws stuck in yellow king coconuts, their tops lopped off by machete as we watch.
"It's not a one-destination country," says hotelier Tim Jacobson over an Arrack Sour, the Sri Lankan cocktail du jour, at his Dutch-era Kandy House. "It's all about the journey - that's the joy of travelling in Sri Lanka. It's a series of experiences linked by stays in small, very individual hotels."

While still a financier in Hong Kong, Jacobson decided to buy an 1804 mansion on the outskirts of the former royal capital of Kandy 10 years ago, "when people were generally trying to leave Sri Lanka rather than settle here". "You could call it blind faith," he says, "but I felt a very strong affinity with the place." He transformed the house into a lovely nine-room hotel, weathered the final, agonising years of the 26-year civil war, and now owns five pretty special boutique properties, which he calls "stepping stones" around the island.

No conversation in Sri Lanka can avoid mention of the war - so terrible, so recent, so inexplicable. Ceylon, as it was then known, gained independence from the British in 1948 without bloodshed, seemingly a model state. But long-running enmity between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils escalated into civil war in 1983, pitting the ruling Sinhalese régime against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam who were fighting for an independent state in the island's north. The Boxing Day tsunami in 2004 compounded the misery, swamping the south coast and killing about 35,000 people. By the time the war ended in May 2009, more than a million people had been displaced and as many as 100,000 had lost their lives.

The relief at war's end is still palpable five years later, yet as a traveller it's difficult to reconcile the island's tranquillity with a generation of warfare and the scars that inflicts. The newspapers are full of debate about the aftermath; in March the UN Human Rights Council voted to open an international investigation into possible war crimes committed in the final shocking months of the war. Tens of thousands of people are still living in camps in the north, awaiting resettlement; though restrictions on travel to these areas have been lifted, most foreigners stay in the south.

For nearly 30 years the threat of violence and suicide bombings dissuaded many travellers, though they were never targeted. They're returning now - about 1.3 million tourists last year and the government aims for 2.5 million visitors by 2016, making tourism critical to the nation's recovery. Most of that has been boutique in scale and style. "You have to understand the importance of small private investors in Sri Lanka's recovery," a newly minted eco-hotelier told me during my first visit in 2011. "The private sector has always done what governments can't or won't."

There's talk of 700 new hotel rooms in Colombo in the next few years and a clutch of "entertainment hotels". That's a euphemism for casinos complexes in this devoutly Buddhist nation where gambling is frowned upon. Colombo's public playground, the beachfront park of Galle Face Green, is flanked by hoardings for a Shangri-La "seven-star" hotel and another owned by the Indian-based ITC group. James Packer's Crown is planning a $425 million five-star "integrated resort" of 450 hotel rooms, entertainment areas and gaming rooms. The president's plans are much more ambitious - he wants to build a new Colombo Port City on 180 hectares of land to be reclaimed from the sea, with a Formula One track.

"I would say Sri Lanka is at a crossroads," says Lalin De Mel, the general manager of the Dilmah-owned Ceylon Tea Trails boutique hotel-bungalows in the central highlands. "We're a small country with a strong Buddhist culture. Will we go for mass-market tourism or stay high-end and small? In my opinion we can't go for that mass market, but we'll see."

For the moment there's new life in the oldest part of Colombo. Photographer and amateur historian Mark Forbes takes heritage walks around the Fort, where soldiers are restoring tumbledown Dutch- and British-era buildings. Some are still at hard-hat stage, such as the 1912 Central Point building with, reputedly, the tallest chandelier in Asia as its centrepiece. It's close to the bomb site of the Central Bank, destroyed in 1996, and the red-brick Victorian façade of Cargills, once a department store and outfitter of the empire, now awaiting restoration as a Raffles hotel. "Only a couple of years ago, no one would have come here," says Forbes, when we meet in the 17th-century Old Dutch Hospital. Restored and reopened two years ago, there are tea houses, cafés and boutiques under the eaves of the hospital's central courtyard, which fills at night with music and people.

We return here after dark to the popular Ministry of Crab, run by cricketers Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, who serve chilli, pepper and baked crabs in 10 sizes topped by the two-kilogram "crabzilla". More peaceful is a lunch of fish-head soup and jaggery crème brûlée at The Gallery Cafe, a case study in the distinctive tropical modernism style pioneered by the late Geoffrey Bawa, one of Asia's most influential architects, and now owned by the island's pre-eminent designer and entrepreneur Shanth Fernando.

More typical, though, are meals of rice and curry: six, seven, sometimes more dishes served with white and red steamed rice, and sometimes cylinders of pittu coconut rice, that embody the island's complex blend of tradition, texture and celebration of spice - always spice, the lure for seafaring Greeks, Arabs, Portuguese, Dutch and Britons for more than a thousand years. Our evening tables are covered by small dishes of banana-blossom curry, chicken curry flavoured with tamarind and coconut milk, eggplant curry fragrant with roasted spices, turmeric-yellow potato curry, rich and fiery fish curry, black pork curry and lots of sambals, though always a pol sambal of ground coconut, chilli, onion and lime juice. Each chef brings something a little different to the curry feast: banana-flower curry and grilled fish beside the ocean at Amanwella, near Tangalle on the south coast; kottu roti chopped theatrically by Amangalla's chef on a candlelit island in a rice paddy just beyond the walls of Galle Fort; baby jackfruit curry with the taste of chicken at Ulagalla, a resort surrounded by paddies in the Cultural Triangle in the island's central plains.

Much of what is miraculous about Sri Lanka is found within the Cultural Triangle, the central region defined by Kandy, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, making Ulagalla a perfect base for exploration. Within 90 minutes' drive are the remarkable frescoes of Sigiriya, an ancient pleasure palace carved into a volcanic plug, visible for miles and a perfect fortress for a king who seized power by murdering his father and deposing his brother. He entertained dignitaries from around the world and kept hundreds of beautiful concubines from near and far, many of whom are thought to be depicted in the famous frescoes - eye-popping depictions of big eyes, big hair, lots of bling, wasp waists and stupendous breasts. Protected only by scant scaffolding, it's a miracle these remaining paintings of 21 women - perhaps goddesses, perhaps consorts - have survived for 1500 years.

Within the ruined city of Anuradhapura, one of two royal capitals in the Cultural Triangle, is the Jaya Sri Maha bodhi, the world's oldest planted tree, a 2300-year-old cutting from the tree under which Lord Buddha is said to have found enlightenment in India. It looks its age, many of its long limbs propped up by golden poles and protected from storms by younger bodhis growing on lower terraces. But the tree retains an astonishing power, drawing Buddhists from around the world, many of whom believe it can fulfil their prayers. We follow a crowd of worshippers on their way past a huge white stupa to the tree, planted high on a terrace surrounded by platforms, where people are chanting, meditating, offering flowers and food and circumambulating, as ritual dictates. A family gathers around a middle-aged woman being exorcised - a man grasps her arms and shrieks in a voice that's not his own.

With the all power of ritual, it rains at two o'clock that day. The water tanks are full as we drive past on our way to Kandy - reservoirs that were built a thousand years ago by kings who knew their first duty was to ensure everyone had water. It's still raining when we order soursop and mango sorbets and buffalo curd smoothies at Tim Jacobson's new Empire Café in Kandy while we wait for the evening ceremony at the Temple of the Tooth. Twice a day the temple fills with worshippers wearing white and bearing lotus flowers; they come to venerate a golden casket holding the sacred eye tooth of Lord Buddha. Every year since the fifth century the casket has been paraded through the streets in a 10-day festival led by elephants, dancers, whip-crackers and musicians, and every year it starts raining as the sacred tooth leaves the temple. Ajith shrugs and smiles, "No one can explain it."

Singapore Airlines operates 121 flights a week from Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane to Singapore, and SilkAir from Darwin, with a daily flight on to Colombo.

Abercrombie & Kent has a range of private and small-group itineraries in Sri Lanka, including the 13-day private "Enchanting Sri Lanka" tour, taking in Colombo, the Cultural Triangle, Kandy, tea country and the south coast, from $5,365 per person (excluding international flights). A four-star alternative is the eight-day "Tea & Temples" private tour, from $1,695 per person. A no-expense-spared option is the 27-day "Islands, Savannas and the Amazon", a global joyride by private jet including Sri Lanka, $115,000 per person twin share. 1300 590 317.

Tintagel Colombo
The dramatic tropical-luxe style of designer-hotelier Shanth Fernando is fully realised in this 10-suite hotel, where every space has the air of a film set awaiting glamorous extras. It's the former home of one of the nation's best-known families; Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranaike was shot on the verandah in 1959 and his widow, Sirimavo, became the world's first female PM. 65 Rosmead Pl, Colombo 7.

Ulagalla Resort
Surrounded by paddies and close to the World Heritage sites of the Cultural Triangle, this 23-hectare resort has 20 chalets with plunge pools in the forest around a restored walawwa, or village mansion (we love the mechanised punkah flapping above the reception desk). Thirappane, Anuradhapura.

One of my favourite hotels, anywhere: the epitome of Sri Lankan luxury in historic Galle Fort, with the character and quirks of the New Oriental Hotel, as it was until Aman Resorts acquired and reopened the property a decade ago. Try ayurvedic treatments in the Baths, a feast of curry and rice in the Zaal (Great Hall) and buffalo curd with kithul treacle for breakfast on the terrace. 10 Church St, Fort, Galle.

Ceylon Tea Trails
Owned by Dilmah, these four superbly appointed tea-planters' bungalows are located on working tea estates in the Bogawantalawa Valley, near Hatton. Each bungalow has a butler, chef and staff, with a focus on fine produce and tea pairings. High tea is a highlight, as is the morning tour of Norwood tea factory with tea planter-in-residence Andrew Taylor. 

Picture coconut palms, a crescent-shaped beach, the Indian Ocean and contemporary architecture making the most of a postcard setting on the island's south coast. Start with an Arrack Sour on the pool terrace, then dinner beside the ocean. Boddhi Mawatha, Wella Wathuara, Godellawela.

The Kandy House
About 20 minutes' drive from the city, this beautifully restored Dutch-era villa has nine rooms full of character, antiques and claw-footed tubs, with Sri Lankan fusion meals served on the terrace. Hotelier Tim Jacobson owns four other boutique properties including his new five-bedroom tea-country Taylors Hill, an hour's drive from Kandy. Amunugama Walauwa, Gunnepana Kandy.

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