As far as assaults go, it’s intense. A slim film of sweat gathers across my brow as I return to face my tormenter. I’m learning my lesson the hard way: never accept a Sri Lankan curry with extra heat. But then I am eating with a local guide, in a local cafe, in the Sri Lankan holy city of Kandy – a situation that calls for authenticity, no matter how painful. I’ve even foregone cutlery for th native method; balling up the curry with rice in your fingers, then scooping it as elegantly as you can into your mouth. Consequently, I’m in desperate need of a bib.
Besides setting my tastebuds alight, I’ve come to Sri Lanka to explore a country that, despite recent conflicts, continues to earn itself a reputation as one of the most exciting, unsung destinations to walk the less-trodden road. Small and perfectly formed (you could nail it in three weeks, though a more leisurely pace is obviously preferable), the island’s pearl-shaped mass is flanked by
India to the west and the Maldives in the south, making it a suitably tropical escape that’s also carving a reputation as a credible eco destination.
Like India, the legacy of tea production flourishes here, a result of opportunistic British colonialists visiting in the early 1800s and planting the crop some 1500 metres above sea level. But it’s more than a canvas for fragrant green, black and golden tea buds; the country’s highlands serve up a rich and largely unspoiled portfolio of high-altitude hiking opportunities. The pay-off for all the tourist-free trails, however, is the definite need (especially if you’re female and travelling solo) for a decent, trustworthy guide.
I find mine in a quick-witted Sri Lankan named Ranjith, whose wealth of local knowledge is put to good use working for Red Dot, one of the few tour companies I’ve encountered who give you free rein to tailor your experience and don’t charge a bomb for it. Greeting me with a firm handshake and a twinkle in his eye, Ranjith and I make the winding, two-hour car journey away from Colombo airport upwards and inwards past rice paddies and rubber plantations towards Kandy – Sri Lanka’s cultural capital.Predominantly Buddhist (70 per cent of the country are practising Buddhists), the city emanates a calmer feel than other frenetic Asian metropolises I’ve encountered. After one of several spicy finger feasts, Ranjith and I stroll beneath an indigo sky towards the Holy Temple of the Tooth, or Sri Dalada Maligawa as it’s known to Kandyans. Comparable to the Vatican in terms of religious significance to the global Buddhist community, the ‘sacred tooth relic’ is said to be the tooth of the Lord Buddha, retrieved from his funeral pyre. We’re lured towards the temple by a persistent drumbeat and whispers of hibiscus incense, perfuming the night air with a scent that’s unmistakably, hypnotically Asian.
With bare feet and high hopes of seeing the famed tooth (once upon a time, the Sri Lankans believed whoever was in possession of the tooth had the divine right to rule the land, triggering wars fought to take possession of it), we enter numerous maze-like candlelit walkways and head towards the source of worship: a gilded, bulletproof wall behind which the legendary artifact has remained for hundreds of years. Every inch of the 14th-century palace’s stone floors and gilded mosaic walkways echo with peace; young and old alike can be found serenely cocooned in their own unshakable faith. I’m not one for religious beliefs, but it feels like something stirs within these walls.
Breathtaking moments come thick and fast in Sri Lanka, but spirituality lies not only in the magnificent architecture and gilded artifacts – it’s clearly present in nature too. The next day, after breakfasting on a juicy banquet of fresh papaya, king coconut and red bananas (Sri Lanka’s natural Viagra, a blushing Ranjith informs me), I depart Kandy in true colonial style onboard the country’s ancient hillside railway train. Introduced in the late 1800s by the British, it’s an efficient, not to mention enchanting, way to navigate the island’s dramatic topography. Even Ranjith concedes, “Madam, the British bring good things to this country; you gave [us] this.” Minutes into the ride, I’ve got to admit Ranjit’s right about this particular ‘good thing’. The journey, especially if you can pre-book a seat in the observation deck (£5), really does take some beating. A fully glass-fronted coach offers views straight from a Kipling novel; lush, emerald-hued fauna hugs the swirling contours of the hills as female tea workers go about their daily pluck mere metres from the train, deftly de-heading the bushes of their bounty as we slink deeper into old Ceylon (the English version of the name given to Sri Lanka by Portuguese invaders in the 1500s).
During the seven-hour journey, we stop at countless stations to watch weary workers lug three or more sacks home after their daily grind. I’d never realised so much effort went into something the Brits chug back on a daily basis. My impromptu train companion – a Canadian teacher living in China – hops off after four hours at Hatton, the closest station to perhaps the most revered hiking trail in Sri Lanka: Adam’s Peak. Conical shaped and 7350ft high, Adam’s Peak holds a sacred footprint (or Sri Pada) at its summit that is believed by Sri Lankans to be the footprint of Buddha.
I remain train-bound, heading higher into the hills towards Ella, a place promising scenic waterfall hikes and Ayurveda, a form of ancient Asian healing that uses indigenous plants, herbs and spices to harmonise the body and balance the mind. From nowhere, a thunderous rain cloud blankets the hills and turns the sky a sulky shade of grey. Simultaneously, the landscape becomes saturated in high-definition emeralds and blood-red soil – a dazzling, dizzying contrast to the sky above.
Hitting Ella at nightfall, weariness kicks in as we head for the enticingly named Mountain Heavens Hotel, accessible only via a steep dirt road. The lodge twinkles and teeters precariously close to the mountain edge; even in the dark, I’m guessing some seriously good views will be delivered come dawn.
After a throat-warming arak (the local 40 per cent rum) and simple mung dahl and red rice, I slumber hard and wake up to a pleasing justification of the hotel’s name – the view is preposterous. The valley tumbles down in successive, impenetrable waves, a panoramic succession of thickly forested gorges, valleys and waterfalls. To my right, Ella Rock taunts me and my unfit thighs into action as I guiltily remember the Canadian hitting Adam’s Peak.
An hour later and we’re in the thick of it, literally. Following the train tracks out of the town, then traversing woods with little or no signage, Ranjith once again proves it’s better to be with someone that (a) knows where they’re going, and (b) also speaks Sinhalese. Talking me through the flora, fauna and his personal passion – rare birdlife – he cheerfully warns me to “stay away from trees, leeches fall from them, madam”. I avoid making a scene and douse myself in a whiffy Ayurvedic repellent instead, propelled onwards by the prospect of a tree-free view at the top. Two hours and one false leech alarm later, we reach the lookout, which provides us with a jaw-on-the-floor panorama that we relish without another soul in sight.
Two hours later back in Ella town, we reward ourselves with a creamy avocado lassi (sounds weird, tastes dynamite) that’s blended from fruit plucked only seconds before. It’s then off to the local Ayurvedic doctor, another trusted recommendation from Ranjith and one I’m assured is “most authentic experience madam, I take you to the real heart of Sri Lanka”. Unremarkable from the outside, I enter a humble local abode and am promptly greeted by a woman whose shimmering black braid and sparkling eyes hint of mystical knowledge. I go with it.
After an in-depth introduction into the complex principles of Ayurveda (for you, I’ll keep it simple and say it’s about balancing the body through food, herbs and yoga), I’m led into a dark, simply decorated room with a couch on one side, and what looks like a giant treasure chest with a hole for a human head and neck cut out of the top, and a bed of dried herbs and spices strewn at the base.
Lying down, with only a batik shawl for modesty, a warm river of sesame oil is slugged all over my body using firm, rhythmic movements. I smell like my local Thai restaurant, but I’m assured sesame is an Ayurvedic cure-all for mental and physical imbalances, as well as calming the central nervous system. Sounds great, but it’s making me hungry. After the oil is administered over achy limbs and massaged into my hair, I switch locations to the treasure chest, where the doctor applies a grainy herbal mask on my face and pushes a herbal tonic into my scalp as the chest lid is lowered. Now I get it: this is in fact a rather masterfully efficient sauna-for-one.
In minutes, the herbs hit my blood stream, mingle with the sesame oil and send me on a full-body herbal high. I’m sweating, but it’s far from uncomfortable. My body feels light; I can hear chanting. If this is what the Sri Lankans do to get healthy, I’ll take it over my local GP any day of the week. In fact, I’ll take most things on offer in Sri Lanka, but you can hold the extra heat; it’s pretty special just the way it is.
Jennifer travelled with Red Dot Tours reddottours.com
The Insider’s guide
Ranjith Alwis is a guide with Red Dot Tours (reddottours.com)
Where’s good for an adventure in Sri Lanka?
After exploring the Hill Country, see what the southern lowlands have to offer on a scenic road trip down through Ella Valley towards Udawalawe National Park. The road slices through thick jungle and offers plenty of chances to stop off for a ripe orange king coconut – a regional delicacy. Ask the seller to carve it open after you’ve drunk the nutritious water and scoop out the jelly, using the husk for a spoon. After two hours of shifting landscape, marshland and low-lying rice fields signal the entrance into the park, where elephants, crocodiles and herds of wild buffalo can be seen from the comfort of your car.
Where’s good to chill?
After Udawalawe, keep driving for about an hour until you reach the coast. Make a beeline for Mirissa, a quiet, coastal surf town that remains a low-key favourite for those wanting sizeable waves and the chance, between November and April, to catch blue whales migrating. Drawn into the region because of abundant supplies of krill, blue whales, orca, dolphins and sperm whales can
all be enjoyed on a day trip. Go with a reputable firm that exercises safety and eco-awareness; Raja and the Whales is one of the best. (rajaandthewhales.com)
Where’s best to indulge yourself?
If it’s self-indulgence you’re after, Sri Lankan Ayurveda doesn’t get better than at the award-winning Barberyn Beach Resort, 10 minutes up the road from Mirissa in Weligama. Featuring a range of short and long stays, yoga, an organic on-site herb garden and delicious Ayurvedic food, it’s a healthy and eco-conscious destination to put back what stressful Western lifestyles take out. (barberynresorts.com)
Millenium Elephant Foundation
Deeply committed to the care, protection and treatment of Sri Lankan elephants since 1999, the Millennium Elephant Foundation (MEF) is located in Kegalle, about an hour from Kandy. Welcoming volunteers from around the world to care for and treat elephants injured and endangered as a result of extensive deforestation, the MEF is a proud pioneer of eco farming and endorse a belief that “life revolves around nature”.
For long-term volunteers looking to reside in Sri Lanka for a month or more, there’s the chance to help out on the foundation’s working eco farm, as well as teach English to children in the nearby village. Day visitors are encouraged to get up close and personal to the elephants and interact with them and their mahout (elephant rider). You’ll be given the chance to wash and exfoliate the creatures in the river using coconut husks, and even assist with feeding the younger elephants or providing medicine to sick elephants as part of a voluntary veterinary programme.
WHEN TO GO: December to March is best for the Hill Country, when the weather is drier. However, these are also the months that
are most popular with tourists, so accommodation can be tight.
CURRENCY: £1 = 175LKR (Sri Lankan rupee).
SEE: srilankatourism.org for tourist board-listed hotels, operators, activities, and more.
GETTING THERE: Sri Lankan Airlines fly from London Heathrow to Colombo daily. Return flights cost from £478. (srilankan.lk)