Driving north from Colombo the forest soon takes over. Glossy, colour-saturated plants press up against pretty clay-tiled bungalows and century-old yellow flame trees form a canopy over the main road. There is hardly any traffic heading for the north-east coast even though it is eight months since Sri Lankan government forces wiped out the leaders of the Tamil Tigers after 25 years of a civil war that claimed 100,000 lives.
“It is like a great weight has been lifted from us,” says Ranji, my driver. “Not just from the Sinhalese but from the Tamil people too. ” Ranji, from Colombo, said “awful things” had happened along this road, the A6. “One day a bus full of government soldiers in civilian clothes, going on leave, stopped for tea at a roadside stall. An old lady shuffled across and blew herself up. Nearly all the soldiers died.”
After hearing this story I am comforted to see a strong military presence with sandbagged roadside bunkers. The soldiers do their best not to frighten off tourists. “Welcome to the Alut Oya roadblock,” says a sign in English. We slow and show our papers before passing through a chicane of oil drums planted with busy lizzies.
I have long wanted to visit the east coast after hearing Sri Lankan friends wistfully recall childhood holidays on empty beaches of soft white sand (the south coast has coarse yellow sand and a rougher sea). Trincomalee, described by Admiral Nelson as the finest harbour in the world, is also back on the tourist map. Sadly – like Mandalay and Timbuktu – the romance of “Trinco” is all in the name. It is a nervy, rundown place that needs a big cash injection to give it a future. The harbour appears largely abandoned but massive Fort Frederick, built by the Dutch 350 years ago, is still very much in use. Visitors are allowed to drive through it to visit the site of an ancient Hindu temple from where there’s a grandstand view along the coast.
A half-hour’s drive north is the Nilaveli Beach Resort, its 44 rooms bravely rebuilt at the height of the war’s endgame following its destruction in the 2005 tsunami. Then, a 4.5m-high wall of water crashed through the rooms, killing four honeymoon couples. It is now a tourist-class hotel again with friendly staff, and the only comfortable place for visitors to stay on the north-east coast. There are a few Germans, a Russian family, and two Sri Lankan couples from Colombo who want to see a part of their country that has been out-of-bounds most of their lives. We decide that the beach does live up to its hype – just. Slender coconut palms arc over a long strand of powder-soft cream sand. Offshore lies Pigeon Island where big groupers and parrot fish nibble on the coral which is starting to recover its colour.
One of the boatmen touting for business on the beach takes me up the creek to a large welcoming Muslim fishing village. A man hails me from his dugout. “Micky” apologises for his English. He hasn’t spoken it in a long time, he says. Before the war he used to be a dive instructor at a hotel that has long since burnt down. Micky is returning from his land across the river where he has been able to plant a crop for the first time in 25 years. His face beams with pleasure. “I thought this day would never come”, he says. The boatman says he’s a brave man; he lost his foot to a landmine before the area was cleared.
Passikudah and Kalkudah, south of Trincomalee, were thriving resorts before the civil war closed this coast to tourism. Piles of crushed bricks and concrete, plastic piping and ceramic tiles scattered across the coconut groves are all that remain of its heyday. There are several houses advertising rooms for rent in the small town of Valachchenai a mile inland where nearly every building is pockmarked with bullet holes. There is nowhere to sunbathe in peace on Kalkudah beach. Dozens of families live on the beach in makeshift fishing camps and there is plastic flotsam and jetsam everywhere. If the beach was cleaned up and zoned into areas for fishing and tourism, Kalkudah could be another Goa. But while the wounds of the civil war heal, Sri Lanka’s east coast is best left to the fishermen and farmers.
The Jaffna peninsula, where there is ongoing controversy over the internment camps for Tamil civilians, remains off-limits to tourists. But visitors can now sleep safely in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka’s ancient capital, which was attacked by the Tamil Tigers in 2007. White-robed Buddhist pilgrims from all over the country visit its 2,000-year-old temples to light candles and place offerings of pink water lilies at the massive bell-shaped brick shrines. Known as dagobas, the shrines rise as high as 100m above the forest canopy.
President Rajapaksa would like to build a mega-dagoba in each of the nine provinces to celebrate winning the war. Building the originals left a massive hole in the ancient kingdom’s finances, so there’s not much local support for the project. “We have plenty of dagobas here; we don’t need any more”, says a restaurant owner. “There are much better things to spend the money on, like helping people who have no homes left”.
At the sacred bo tree, grown from a branch of the fig tree under which Buddha obtained enlightenment, there is a queue of pilgrims clutching gifts for the guardian monks. “It usually means their wishes have come true,” says Ranji. “They have come back to make an offering of thanks as they promised.”
Anuradhapura was a famous city in the ancient world, trading precious stones, muslin, ivory and rice as far away as Greece, Rome and China. It was the capital of Sri Lanka for 1,300 years before the kings moved south and the jungle reclaimed it. A model of town planning, there were hospitals, bathing tanks for people and elephants, and tiled pavilions for visiting monks, pilgrims and foreigners.
In the north of the old city, beneath a canopy of glossy margosa trees, there are moonstone steps and staircases to monastery compounds intricately carved with elephants, horses and, most curiously, lines of tubby dwarfs dancing or acting as load bearers. The stone refectory troughs used to serve curry and rice are still in position. Some are as long as a bus; there must have been a lot of monks.
Driving south, elephants graze beside lakes dug out and dammed by the ancient kings and still in use today. A web of water channels nurtures the country’s rice bowl. At its heart lies Vil Uyana, an eco-retreat built on stilts above the rice paddy. My suite is a two-storey villa and oh so chic: all cool polished concrete and warm teak with woven grasses for texture. Kingfishers sit on the bulrushes that screen the private plunge pool. The Pacific Rim-influenced food is wonderful.
The hotel has recruited 25 Tamil school-leavers from the battle-scarred north-east into its training programme. “After all that has happened, we must help the young people to start working together and find an understanding,” says Vil Uyana’s manager, Priyanthike Wijenayake. It is a sentiment I heard all over the country.
Three of Sri Lanka’s greatest cultural sights – the rock fortress of Sigiriya, the medieval capital of Polonnaruwa, and the exquisite painted caves temples of Dambulla – can all be visited from Vil Uyana. There are few foreign visitors but everyone I spoke to was hopeful that more would come once the presidential election was out of the way.
One of the surprising things about Sri Lanka is its low population, especially compared to its neighbour India, and the ease of escaping into wilderness. In the centre of the island lies the near-impenetrable Knuckles range where the cloud forest that once covered much of highland Sri Lanka is preserved. It is a treasure house of rare birds and plants and a gene pool for many cultivars.
An old tarred road hardly wider than our car climbs through tea gardens where nut-faced women pick two-leaves-and-a-bud all their lives. The scent of lemon grass fills the air. Here there are only spindly pine and eucalyptus trees.
Crossing over Corbet’s Gap is an Alice moment. We enter a different world. A rocky peak known as the Sphinx reaches for the sky above its own misty cloud forest.
Waterfalls, lianas and giant ferns tumble down sheer rock. Clinging to the mountainside is Corbet’s Rest, a handful of clean basic bungalows with spring water showers. Chef Lal’s slow-cooked and delicately flavoured curries are worthy of a top restaurant. After the heat of the lowlands, it is deliciously fresh and cool at night.
People come here for the walking. Age-old tracks wind down through jackfruit trees, fishtail palms and giant bamboo to the valley floor 1,000m below and up through orchid-laden myrtles, banyans and myriad other species of tree that only grow here.
Such flamboyant fertility is fed by an extravagance of water that eddies into natural swimming pools. As we wade across a river, tree nymph butterflies with tissue-thin wings float past on a whisper. There are leeches but Nishantha, the lodge’s manager and my guide, sprays our legs and feet with dilute Dettol. “They hate the smell,” he says, and we walk on leech-free in flip-flops like the locals.
Pepper, coffee and rice grow side-by-side in small holdings beside pretty cottages in famously remote Meemure, a place of exile in royal times. The road is impassable to most vehicles and villagers must hike two hours to the nearest bus stop. So it comes as no surprise to bump into a road survey crew. Many of the country’s potholed roads have already been rebuilt as part of the president’s re-election campaign.
Kandy is only 58km from Corbet’s Gap but the journey takes three hours. Most tourists find it a brash, noisy place but I like the city; it is full of culture and historical intrigue. And Kandy House, in a leafy suburb, is probably the best small hotel in Sri Lanka.
Built in 1804 for the last chief minister of the Kandyan kingdom, it is a large tiled villa built around a courtyard with deep verandas supported on fat white columns. There are just nine suites.
I am woken at dawn by the soft chanting of monks drifting through the teak shutters from the temple down the way. For breakfast there are perfectly-formed egg hoppers, poached eggs in a paper-thin rice basket and, for dinner, braised emperor fish.
The ebullient Tania Brassey, who lived on the Longleat Estate in England for 23 years, has returned to her native land to take the helm at Kandy House. She wrote the original Insight guide to Sri Lanka and, now the war is over, she yearns to reveal its secret places to a new generation of visitors.
Already she has uncovered a tea estate bungalow for lunch owned by a charming but somewhat reclusive Englishman with its own waterfall pool, a walking trail from the hotel through the rice terraces to an 800-year-old cave temple, and found an expert naturalist to lead night safaris into the Knuckles in search of leopards.
It is Tania who insists I visit the British Garrison Cemetery in Kandy and find Mr Carmichael to show me around. The grandson of an English planter, who ran away to India leaving his Sri Lankan wife and children, the cemetery has become Mr Carmichael’s life. His intriguing stories behind the gravestones give a good picture of colonial life 200 years ago.
There is Oteline Rudd who died of sorrow at 37 after her husband lost everything when blight destroyed his coffee plantations, Waterloo veteran James McClasnan who died of fever after walking from Trincomalee to Kandy in the monsoon “just for an adventure” and Andrew McGill whose epitaph says “died of sunstroke aged 35”.
“He was chased by a wild elephant” says Mr Carmichael. “He ran and ran and managed to get away but he had sweated so much he died of dehydration”.
In the next field Kandy’s famous temple elephants are too busy ruminating on hay to take any notice of us. They go on parade at the Temple of the Tooth, the most sacred shrine in the country, which claims to house a tooth taken from Buddha’s funeral pyre. It is a tourist magnet and filled with pilgrims and sightseers all day long.
Much more intriguing is the 650-year-old Lankatilake Vihara temple near the Peradeniya botanical gardens where Buddhism and Hinduism coexist on the same site – as they do in many Sri Lankan temples. Here the shrines are even in the same building. At one end sits a contemplative statue of Buddha surrounded with some very fine murals; at the other end are statues of the Hindu gods Vishnu, Ganesh and Murugan.
Murugan is a favourite deity of both Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka because he never hesitates to come to the aid of a devotee when called upon. He is also believed to hold power over the chaotic and can be appeased, through sacrifice, to bring order and prosperity.
In a country where religion plays such a big role in society, Murugan seems the obvious deity to call for help in finding a way for Sri Lankans to resolve their differences and secure a lasting peace for this beautiful island.