By Nikki Bayley ..for a trip you’ll be glad you tuk-tuk
As we land, I’m greeted by a whoosh of sticky humidity – and left in no doubt I’m far from the familiar coffee and burger chains that seem to follow you around the world.
On the short transfer to the hotel we pass motorised tuk-tuks whizzing past on dusty roads and streetsellers with their stalls piled high with mangos. Schoolchildren dressed in crisp white uniforms giggle and wave as elegant women in rainbowcoloured saris drift past, shaded by their parasols. It is my first time in Asia… and from the moment I step off the plane at Colombo airport I’m hooked.
The plan is to tour Sri Lanka’s “Cultural Triangle”, taking in some of its seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites on the way. As a relatively small island – Sri Lanka is about the size of Ireland – you can cover a surprising amount of ground, even in just a week.
My first overnight stop at the gloriously relaxing Club Dolphin gives me a tantalising glimpse of why the country’s beaches are some of the best in the world. Golden and dotted with palm trees, it is a slice of paradise.
And now it’s perfectly safe, with the end of the island’s civil war. If beaches are what you want, then unlike many monsoon-climate countries, Sri Lanka is a year-round destination as the dry season on the south-west coast is from November until April and the east coast is dry from May until September.
I’m up early the next day and, after a traditional breakfast of fish curry and rice noodles, it is off to the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage. Founded by the government in 1975 to take care of just four baby elephants, today its is home to the largest group of captive elephants in the world.
We arrive as they are taking one of their twice-daily baths. It is amazing seeing so many elephants together. They hose each other down in the cooling water, the older elephants carefully guarding the smaller ones from sight. But when I finally glimpse the babies, my heart melts – they’re tiny, hairy and absolutely adorable.
About 30km north is the Dambulla Rock Temple, the first of the UNESCO sites: five caves which date back to the 1st Century BC, with vibrant patterns and endless Buddhas painted on the walls and ceilings, and more than 150 golden Buddha statues. You need to put in a bit of work to get the reward – climbing the many steps to the temple, running the gauntlet of souvenir sellers and snake-charmers on the way up. One word of warning: if you do accept a helping hand on the way up from the “guides”, you will be expected to tip them. And on entering the temple you need to remove your shoes and hat, and cover your arms and knees to show respect.
Once you’ve sweated your way up, the view is magnificent, looking over the distant mountains, through the intense green of the banana and coconut palms, towards Sigiriya, the ancient rock fortress with its beautiful fresco paintings, another UNESCO site with hundreds of steps up to reach its 300 metre-high summit.
The next morning it is another early start as I head for Polonnaruwa, one of the ancient capitals of Sri Lanka. A ticket for the museum (2,850 rupees – about £16) gives you entry to all the parks gardens there. Bring a picnic as you can easily spend hours lost in amazement, walking through the gardens and admiring the intricate carvings on the ruins of what must once have been a stunning city.
A fun way to see it might be to hire a tuk-tuk for the day – it shouldn’t cost more than about 2,000 rupees (about £11) plus petrol. Definitely stop at a King Coconut stall. For about 30 rupees (about 20p), the stallholder will show off his machete skills, chopping your fruit into a slurpable mug. Delicious!
We head further south towards Kandy, a place of pilgrimage for Buddhists from around the world, about 70 miles from Colombo. According to Sri Lankan legend, when Buddha died, his body was cremated on a sandalwood pyre. One of his teeth was retrieved and it is now in Kandy, in the golden Temple of the Tooth Relic.
The sumptuous paintings, lavish layers of gold and overwhelming perfume of hundreds of frangipani flowers left as tributes create a meditative atmosphere.
Outside, monkeys scamper around the ornate carvings in the wooden roof and, beyond the moat that surrounds the temple, elephants flick their ears in the heat of the day. It is a magical place that will cast a spell over even the most cynical visitor.
Sri Lanka is, of course, famous for its tea and the main plantations are in the cloudy mountains of Nuwara Eliya, where the fields stretch as far as the eye can see. Women labour there, with baskets hanging from loops across their foreheads. They work long, hard hours for barely £1 a day. If you can, try to visit a Fair Trade factory – they provide help, such as micro-loans and schooling, for workers.
After a night in the Grand Hotel, the former residence of the governor of Sri Lanka, I spend the next day wandering around the pretty colonial town, amused to spot a doubledecker London bus, sent over after the tsunami. Being a foreigner makes me something of an attraction, with everyone keen to show off their English skills: “Hello! Bye bye.”
I visit the Ramya Tex sari shop and pick up a genuine pashmina for a fraction of the cost at home.
Lunch is at the Cafe Milano, a plate of spicy curry and rice, which you mix with your right hand into little mouthfuls. It cost just 165 rupees (less than £1). Newspapers are provided as napkins and my clumsy efforts at neatly rolling the curry and rice mix is clearly the entertainment for the day.
My final destination, Rafters Retreat (www.raftersretreat.com) in Kitulgala, is far from the colonial luxury of the Grand Hotel but easily my favourite, an eco lodge created by a rafting legend called Channa. I sleep soundly in a treehouse. The bathroom is accessed through a trapdoor and the shower is cool spring water that shoots over a rock.
My next experience fills me with fear: white-water rafting. I’ve never done it before but I’m persuaded to try – and I’m glad I do. It is exhilarating and I am amazed what fun it is racing down the rapids, following Channa’s soft calls, “…paddle forward… hard left… hard right…”. The journey ends with a float down the river, the chirps and whistles of birds a perfect accompaniment to the water’s roar.
Far overhead, a plane is leaving Colombo, I’ll be on it the next day, but in the meantime, I think I’ll just go with the flow…