I’ve just returned from a two week walking/sightseeing tour of Sri Lanka, with a small friendly Exodus group. Organisation was first class and the busy itinerary perfect. I would urge anybody to pay a visit to this magic island.
Wifi was poor out there so I’m posting a general impression of the highlights now, in no particular order.
1. THE PEOPLE.
The Sinhalese are mainly Buddhists, with a minority of Christians and Muslims. There are sizeable populations of Tamils in the NE and on the tea plantations. All I can say is that they are all very friendly and smiling towards us tourists! There did not appear to be the overcrowding and poverty prevalent in India and Pakistan. The lack of hassle was very welcome.
2. THE LANDSCAPE.
As this was substantially a walking holiday we explored some quite remote hilly areas of the country and enjoyed an insight into farming life that has not changed for centuries. The Knuckles Mountain Range was particularly impressive and untouched, we needed local guides to find our way through the jungle. Horton Plains and Worlds End were also a highlight despite the usual damp mountain weather. The walking around Ella was spectacular on a smaller scale. There were some lovely waterfalls in the hills.
Everywhere there were Buddha statues and shrines for the people to make their offerings and pray as part of their daily life. We learnt about the different poses of Buddha and the steps to Nirvana. During our stay there was a full moon which is auspicious to the Buddhists and hence a holiday and crowds at popular sights.
Any Buddhist country has a plethora of Temples, on this trip we achieved the right balance of sightseeing and didn’t become ‘templed out’. Dambulla, Adam’s Peak, Temple of the Tooth and Kataragama were the highlights. Most temples were shared with other religions giving a cosmopolitan experience.
Sri Lanka has had a colourful and tortuous history and many ancient capital cities have crumbled to be replaced by the next. The dramatic short lived Sigiriya was one of them, unbelievably constructed in the 5th century on a 200m rock tower and needing a head for heights to scale today. Halfway up in a cave are some well preserved frescoes of beautiful damsels.
We only visited a few towns Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, Ella and Galle. Nuwara Eliya was the strangest with ‘Tudor’ houses, old colonial clubs, a golf course and a race course!
Srio Lankan food is distinctive from Indian in the abundant use of coconut for its oil, milk and flesh, ‘The Tree of Life’. Most places served a version of rice and curry, [aubergine beetroot beans and dhal] with accompanying hot coconut sambol. Hoppers and banana leaves were extras and we had a cooking class to learn how.
In the towns with a significant Tamil population roti, samosas and wada were available for a change.
I thought the fish was disappointing for an island. Everything was very cheap – 2 or 3 quid for a meal.
The local Lion Lager was OK and the arrack liqueur potent.
8. FLORA AND FAUNA.
I was constantly surprised at the variety of vegetation and wildlife we encountered whilst walking – from rain forest, plains to mangrove swamps. With the expertise of our local guides all manner of spice plants were recognised – nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, cardamoms, peppers. The different palms were explained, coconuts for milk, flesh or toddy. Magnificent trees on the forest walks and beautiful flowers everywhere. Wildlife was everywhere, we visited a game park but saw more on our walks in the forest and around lakes. Animals ranged from centipedes to elephants and I saw more exotic birds than I’ve seen before.
9. TIME FOR TEA.
The British brought tea to Ceylon at the end of the 19th century and it still is a major industry. Large areas of highland jungle were cleared for planting and Tamil labourers brought in. Their ancestors are still the major workforce today in the tidy tea estates dominating the hill country. The estates have a colonial feel and much of the British machinery used for processing is aged. The teas are graded according to the leaf size and give a minefield of abbreviations – OP, BOP, BOPF and Dust. Tea is served everywhere.