Sri Lanka in plaster – a road trip with Helen Anderson

Helen Anderson finds a road trip in the tear-shaped island is marked by serendipity.

The girls are sensational: topless and eye-poppingly well endowed, wasp-waisted, draped in bling, with come-hither eyes and long hair piled high. We’re already breathless from the heat and the climb, and sudden proximity to such sauciness renders us speechless. “No flashes,” an attendant warns, oblivious to the scenes of tumbling bosoms all around.

How these women have kept their figures after 1500 years is a mystery, though it’s not the strangest thing I encounter on the enchanted island of Sri Lanka. Out of nowhere on the dry central plains rises the abrupt rock fortress of Sigiriya, declared the eighth wonder of the world by UNESCO. A rebel prince named Kashyapa retreated here after murdering his father and usurping his brother, and turned this astonishing volcanic plug into a pleasure palace.

Legend has it the self-appointed king assembled an entourage of 500 women from home and abroad for his entertainment and to enliven his frequent parties. It seems he hosted a kind of 5th-century nightclub.

One school of thought says the frescoes portray these concubines; another that they represent a central figure in tantric Buddhism and yet another that they’re images of celestial goddesses (the clouds that envelop their nether regions might support the latter theory). Their survival seems a miracle; we’re walking on protective scaffolding high on the cliff face and there’s some shadecloth flapping in the breeze but the frescoes, on a rock overhang, are exposed to the elements.

From these heavenly beauties we keep climbing, past the ancient graffiti scribbled on the Mirror Wall (an easy way for a king to keep an eye on his back), to a plateau dominated by a pair of massive stone paws, all that’s left of a huge brick lion. We climb between these monstrous paws, grasp the handrails and head higher. Finally, after 1682 steps, we reach the palace on top, with the remains of a regally proportioned swimming pool and a throne from which the king might have surveyed his realm and his spangled dancing girls. Kashyapa lasted only 18 years here before his brother hunted him down, but the man knew how to live.

Sigiriya is one of the island’s eight UNESCO World Heritage sites and most of this embarrassment of riches is clustered in a central archaeological zone known as the Cultural Triangle. This was the seat of powerful kingdoms and some of the world’s most beautiful ancient art – the sacred cave temples of Dambulla are extraordinary. Wild elephants roam here and gather once a year and vast, 1000-year-old water “tanks” and the ruins of the ancient cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa reveal a complex and fascinating history barely known beyond the island.

Named Serendib by early Arab traders, the origin of “serendipity”, and famous for its peerless coastline, spice gardens, fabulous gems and jungles full of wild creatures, the island has been a honeypot for empire builders and travellers for centuries. Ceylon, as it was then known, gained independence from the British in 1948 without bloodshed – unlike India – seemingly a model state with a bright future. But long-running enmity between the majority Sinhalese Buddhists and the minority Hindu Tamils escalated into civil war in 1983, pitting the Sinhalese regime against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam fighting for a separate state in the island’s north. The Boxing Day tsunami in 2004 compounded the tragedy, swamping the southern coast, killing about 35,000 people and displacing half a million.

It’s a little more than two years now since the end of Sri Lanka’s long and terrible war. For nearly 30 years the real threat of violence and bombings dissuaded many travellers, though they were never targeted. They’re returning now – arrivals since January have risen 35 per cent to 537,737 compared with the same period last year – and tourism is increasingly important for the devastated economy.

I confess I almost didn’t get here. A few days before my departure, ABC’s Four Corners screened a British Channel 4 documentary about the final shocking months of the war in 2009. Following a United Nations report released in April, which found credible reports of war crimes committed by the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tiger leaders, the documentary showed harrowing interviews with witnesses and mobile-phone footage of atrocities. None of the Tamil Tiger leaders survive to answer these allegations; the Sri Lankan government denies it targeted civilians.

The documentary was so disturbing I thought about cancelling my trip. I wasn’t worried about personal safety – Sri Lanka is not among the countries the Australian government advises travellers to avoid – but I struggled to reconcile what I saw with the idea of making a holiday.

No point punishing ordinary people for the sins of their leaders, one colleague advised. “If everyone avoided visiting places where human rights have been abused or where there’s inequality or sectarian tension, no one would travel to China, Indonesia, most of Africa, the Middle East …” another said.

I went, and would return in a heartbeat.

“You have to understand the importance of small private investors in Sri Lanka’s recovery,” says one newly minted hotelier, who asked not to be named (“it’s a small island…”). “The private sector has always done what governments can’t or won’t.”

She has built a small eco-resort in the Cultural Triangle, employs 12 staff from the region and has supplied water to the local school and electricity and roadworks to the closest village. There are similar stories throughout the central and south-west regions I visit and a real sense that the presence of travellers makes a difference.

Among the people I meet – shopkeepers and tuk-tuk drivers, hoteliers and students – the sense of relief at the war’s end is palpable. Though the peace is fragile and nation-building seems to have barely begun, “for the first time in my life, I can feel safe”, says a young woman with her toddler, who shares a lift with me near Kandy. “We can take a train and not worry about never returning.”

There’s a party mood in the wood-panelled observation car of the train pulling uphill from Kandy to Sri Lanka’s tea estates. Overhead fans oscillate wildly in their cages. A woman feeding her large extended family on white-bread sandwiches filled with seeni sambol, a spicy onion relish, thrusts four rounds into my hands. Passengers want to know how I rate the Australian cricket team’s form and what Shane Warne is doing. Everyone hangs out of the windows at well-swept stations to buy bags of sliced mango cheeks sprinkled with chilli powder and salt. The stationmasters wear hats, black jackets with gold buttons and white trousers.

It’s a rock’n’roll ride through the jungle, past teak and clove plots, over clear streams and terraced rice paddies, past grazing buffalo herded by men with bare chests and sarongs, then higher through valleys laced with waterfalls and majestic “flame of the forest” trees. Then we labour through Sri Lanka’s famous tea gardens, so steep, so perfectly pruned that they might be the work of a mad celestial gardener.

“So, we take a good slurp of tea, taking in some oxygen at the same time, and swirl it under the tongue,” says Andrew Taylor, a tea planter for 40 years and the planter-in-residence at Ceylon Tea Trails in Bogawantalawa. “Give it another good turn around the mouth, then swallow or spit it out. Relax, take a breath. Feel that sense of vitality? That refreshing feeling?”

My cup of BOP (broken orange pekoe) is very fine and couldn’t be fresher, since the leaves were plucked only yesterday morning. But I suspect my “cheering feeling” has more to do with Taylor’s encyclopaedic passion for tea and his splendidly fruity Lankan-British accent. I swirl, slurp and swallow while he discusses the “liquor’s” strength and colour, briskness and pungency with a precision I’ve heard only among sommeliers. Sacks of just-plucked Camellia sinensis are unloaded beside the tasting room and the grassy, toasted aroma of withering and roasting tea settles inside the Norwood Tea Factory, close to my lodgings at one of four restored tea-planter bungalows run by the Dilmah-owned Tea Trails.

Taylor is a third-generation tea planter and a descendant of Scotsman James Taylor, regarded as the founder of Ceylon’s tea industry, after all the coffee plantations were destroyed by coffee blight in the 1860s. Andrew drinks five or six cups a day, never with milk or sugar to mask the flavour or diminish the power of tea’s antioxidants. “Most problems seem better after a good cup of tea,” he tells me cheerfully as we sit down to high tea that afternoon. “Another cup?”

Madame Helga de Silva Blow Perera pours our tea from an antique swinging silver pot in a room with a hand-painted zodiac on the ceiling and walls plastered with photos and newspaper clippings of her remarkable forebears with Hollywood stars, European royalty and Asian powerbrokers (“there’s Lord Mountbatten scratching his nose”, “there’s mother with Indira Gandhi”). In a purple silk robe and startling white-framed sunglasses, she’s working with an artist on a fresh mural (“I really need a monkey with wings here”) when I drop in at Helga’s Folly. She describes her art deco family home high above the lake in Kandy as an “anti-hotel” (“god, I hate that word, ’boutique”‘). Guests stay, sometimes for months, in 35 rooms filled with family heirlooms, Gothic chandeliers, Portuguese antiques and wild, hand-painted walls. I follow Helga along corridors and random staircases as she points out more photos and fantastical etchings (“a couple asked if they could doodle something simple on the walls in this room; it ended up as a kind of advanced lesson in the Kama Sutra”).

She opens a door and we step into sunlight around a swimming pool flanked by jungle. “This is where we have fabulous parties,” she says. “And where leopards come late at night to drink from the pool.”

A few days before I arrive, travel restrictions to the northern district of Jaffna are lifted for foreigners. I don’t have time to venture north – though Sri Lanka is a small island, about the size of Tasmania, the roads are mostly rough and travelling times are long. Yet even in the relatively small area I cover, the diversity of landscapes and characters and the richness of the island’s treasures are remarkable.

I head south from the Cultural Triangle to Galle and in one crowded day I descend from sculptured tea gardens to lowland rice paddies, through sleepy villages and buzzing market towns and past big communal lunches held on Poya, the full-moon holiday. From the sacred Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, holding the only surviving relic of Buddha, we pass Hindu temples, Buddhist dagobas and arrive as the evening call to prayer is sung at a dazzling white mosque on the Indian Ocean at Galle.

I had heard much about the old fortified town, an ancient trading post for cinnamon quills and sapphires, peacock feathers and ivory; settled by the Portuguese in 1505, then the Dutch, then the British. I wondered what it was like now, a decade or so since a new wave of foreigners began restoring crumbling colonial villas.

Serendipitously, it retains an air of sleepy mystery in its labyrinth of alleys, spice warehouses and mouldy bungalows. It’s a place that reveals itself slowly to the traveller who lingers. No better place to start than a breakfast of thick buffalo curd and kithul treacle, egg hoppers and a cup of lowland tea on the terrace of Amangalla, one of Asia’s oldest hotels and a landmark in chic subcontinental luxury.

By the afternoon a pre-monsoonal shower has settled the dust and at sunset everyone is either promenading or playing cricket on the

17th-century Dutch ramparts. I meet an elderly Moor, hobbling to the mosque on a walking stick. He used to be the muezzin; now he teaches Arabic to children.

“We survived the tsunami and everything else,” he says. “Look, it’s a beautiful sunset. We must give thanks.”

Helen Anderson travelled courtesy of Banyan Lanka and Singapore Airlines.

Thanks: stuff.co.nz

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