Pearl of the Indian Ocean

A visit to Sri Lanka will leave you hopelessly in love with this beautiful part of the world, writes Parris Bambery 

Fishermen stilts on the south coast 

Sri Lanka has always held a special place in my heart. My mother travelled there in the seventies and her exotic travel stories and photographs had enchanted me. I knew I’d get there one day, though the opportunity to visit the island came unexpectedly. A friend asked if I could join the team of a private sailing yacht for a couple of months on their travels around the southern shores of the island. My answer was a resounding yes.

Point Pedro 

Daydreaming on the south coast

Elephant at Hurulu National Park 

The yacht was based in the southern coastal town of Galle, the fourth largest city in Sri Lanka and best known for its impressive fortress, first built in 1588 by the Portugese and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The fort is also one of the few structures in Galle that withstood the damaging 2004 tsunami. Walking out of the port authority gates I was immediately struck by the city’s vibrant energy: beeping horns and calls from tuk tuk drivers, buses packed full of school children in stark white uniforms, women brushing past in brilliantly coloured saris and the rich scent of spices filling the air. 

Lotus flowers at Sigiriya 

Strolling in Ella 

Parris atop Sigiriya

Cruising along the south coast in a tuk tuk became a favourite way to spend a day on land. Hurtling toward the long stretches of beaches such as Mirissa, Weligama, Unawatuna and Hikkaduwa – always requesting a thambili (coconut) stop en route – the happenings of local life played out before me like a film. Away from the bustle and into the calm, a visit to these beaches wasn’t complete without a traditional Ayurvedic treatment or massage. As one of the world’s oldest holistic healing systems, Ayurveda attends to the wellness of the body, mind and spirit.

One long weekend away from the yacht I ventured into the hill country of the central province, where the cooler climate, lush greenery and cascading waterfalls made for a refreshing introduction to Sri Lankan country life. Towns and villages such as Ella and Nuwara Eliya are nestled among the rolling hills where the tea plantations are plentiful and the views breathtaking. When my time aboard the yacht came to an end I extended my Sri Lankan travels by taking a 10-day road trip with a friend. We planned to travel from Colombo as far north as war-torn Jaffna, with our first destination being the Knuckles Mountain Range near Kandy, named for its folds and peaks, like that of a clenched fist.

Hiking was on the agenda and after trekking under the hot sun alongside rice paddies and streams we cooled off in a natural rock pool. That evening we wound down at our guest house, set high in the valley, with local Lion beer and views of rolling green hills. 

Driving further north, we visited Euphoria Spice & Herbal in the town of Matale, an enchanting garden where you can take cooking classes and discover the many alternative uses of familiar spices and herbs. We slept that night in a tree cottage (The Other Corner, Tree Cottages) in Habarana, a peaceful retreat where guests’ rooms are set amidst beautiful tropical greenery. Habarana makes a good base for visiting the ancient kingdom of Polonnaruwa and rock fortress of Sigiriya, both steeped in history.

Polonnaruwa was the second capital of Sri Lanka after the destruction of Anuradhapura in 993. Kings ruled the central plains of Sri Lanka from Polonnaruwa 800 years ago, when it was a thriving commercial and religious centre. Here, free marketeers would haggle for rare goods and the pious prayed at its many temples.

The archaeological park is wonderful to explore, with hundreds of ancient structures – tombs, temples and statues – in a compact core. The Quadrangle alone is worth the trip. Polonnaruwa is also close to elephant-packed national parks, adding to its popularity. Referred to as Lion Rock (and the Eighth Wonder of the World by locals), the World Heritage Site of Sigiriya demonstrates the exquisite construction and engineering of the 5th century. With its incredible views, we found this place, once the palace of King Kasyapa, breathtaking.Keen to see wild elephants before we made tracks again, we travelled by safari jeep on dirt tracks through the dense jungle of Hurulu Eco Park and were lucky to see half a dozen as they made their way slowly toward nearby Minneriya National Park.

The north was beckoning and we were eager to experience the region that for so long had been a no-go zone, ravaged by the civil war for more than two decades. Closer to southern India than Colombo, the north is very much Sri Lanka’s final frontier and as we powered along the A9 stretch of highway to Jaffna the landscape transformed around us. Knowing that so much fighting had taken place in those areas was haunting; it felt a world away from the rest of the island. It’s not hard to spend several days exploring the town, its peninsula and islands. A highlight for us was driving the northern most tip, Point Pedro, where the eastern coast forms a five kilometre wide, 32 kilometre long beach with sand dunes up to 30 metres high. We arrived to the sun casting its last rays upon the colourful shores.

The food in Jaffna was something else and two eateries kept enticing us back. The first was the authentic Malayan Café with its marble-topped tables and old-fashioned fans, serving delicious vegetarian fare on banana leaves. The other was the atmospheric Mangoes, where we watched dosa upon dosa being flipped in the open kitchen; they were the best we’d ever had.  

The natural beauty of Sri Lanka’s landscape, the rich history, culture, food and many beautiful faces of its people left a strong impression on me. I was sad to leave, but knew I would one day return to this pearl of the Indian Ocean.

For more of Parris’ travel adventures and social justice pursuits, visit www.parrisbambery.com

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