There were the army check posts along the roads, cars were stopped and inspected, but that has become an accepted way of life for the tenacious Sri Lankans. Of bomb scares or imminent terrorist attacks there were none. Not even in Colombo the country's largest city and often a target, did one experience even the slightest apprehension of tension. For Sri Lanka, struggling against dwindling tourist arrivals, welcomes the intrepid adventurer with an Ayubowan as warm and cheering as a cup of Ceylon tea.
And the Sri Lankan hospitality is evident through the length and breath of the country. Whether in the cities of Colombo or Kandy, the towns of Bentota or Habarana, or in the colonial remnants of Nuwara Eliya and Galle, the Sri Lankans go out of their way to make the visitor feel safe and welcome.
Famed the world over for the tea it produces, Sri Lanka, that has changed its name quite frequently, still packages its tea around the magical tag of Ceylon' that sends tea drinkers dipping into their purses for that extra penny required to sip of that great refresher.
Perhaps, tea is the best internationally known Sri Lankan product and a ride through the tea estates of Sri Lanka transports the traveller into a world coloured by various shades of green. Like carpets of green, the tea shrubs hug the hillsides as far as the eyes can see, the green landscape broken only by a lake or a waterfall that serves to enhance the scenic splendour. And in these environs it is but natural to settle down for a cup of tea at any of the numerous tea estates and factories that you encounter. A quick tour of the tea making process and then a drink of the afternoon refresher is a must.
For some years now, the capital of Sri Lanka is not Colombo, but Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte some few kilometers north of the former capital. Yet, for most travelers, it is Colombo that beckons as it continues to be the largest city and the commercial capital of the country. It is also by far the most developed urban agglomeration in Sri Lanka, with some great shopping, but perhaps not the best quarter for sight seeing and unwinding on a holiday.
Kandy, the cultural capital of Sri Lank, has on the other hand, more to offer on this account including one of the most important Buddhist shrines in the world, the temple of the tooth relic. The tooth being the only relic of Buddha in existence today, the shrine is a pilgrim destination and houses also a collection of Buddha statues from all over the world. The tooth is ensconced within seven caskets, six of gold and the innermost one of crystal. Three ceremonies are held daily at the temple during which the doorway to the room holding the relic is opened briefly and devotees get a glimpse of the golden casket. The relic is exposed once every seven years when the crystal casket is taken out of the golden caskets and kept for veneration. Besides other sightseeing, while in Kandy it's worth taking time off for an hour long cultural presentation, that includes fire walking.
From the 1,600 ft high hill station city of Kandy, it is but an 80 kilometre drive to the 6,100 ft high Nuwara Eliya town, but it takes you longer than expected, as you linger at various places on the winding uphill road to drink in of some of the best natural panoramas. The hill station, that goes by the sobriquet of Little England', is a good four to five degrees cooler than the rest of the country and houses the holiday homes of the President and Prime Minister of the nation. Set in these idyllic environs are some of the most exclusive hotels in the country The Tea Factory a few miles from Nuwara Eliya in a refurbished tea factory offers a most magnificent view of the hillside around, with the mist rolling in suddenly, enveloping the hotel and blotting out the landscape.
If Nuwara Eliya showcases the British colonial past, then Galle on the southern coast is a model town of the Dutch period, with some influences of the Portuguese. The Fort at Galle, still standing, despite the tsunami that demolished the international cricket stadium, is a heritage site, encompassing within the walls of the fortress, period churches, houses, shopping establishments truly a walled city. On the way to Galle one passes by the town of Bentota, one of Lanka's most famous beach destinations. Surrounded as it is by the Indian ocean on all sides, Sri Lanka has some spectacular beaches and the Bentota-Beruwala shoreline stretch, with some of the most stylish and luxurious resorts draws the largest number of tourists. Bentota Beach Hotel is built on the site of an old Portuguese fort and its architecture relies heavily on creating a fort like design.
Sri Lanka convincingly lives up to its moniker of Emerald Isle'. It's green on the top and from deep within the earth they extract stones that when polished, sparkle and shine and command a stiff price.
Travelling across the country one drives through forests and hills and valleys and protected areas. The country protects its environment and its wild life. These are two attractions that bring in the visitor from abroad. There are elephants aplenty in Sri Lanka, including an elephant orphanage, where orphaned baby elephants are even bottle fed. With about 75 elephants at the orphanage, a trip to Pinnawala has almost surreal qualities. Where else can you suddenly come across a herd of elephants crossing the road to the river for their daily bath and then sit along the banks of the river, tucking into spicy Sri Lankan cuisine, while watching tens of elephants, bathing, playing, sleeping or just plain standing in the water?
As the piquant flavours of the curry tickle your taste buds, the playful antics of the elephants in the water soothe your tired eyes, satiating body and mind together.
If tea is the main Sri Lankan product, then gems are another item that Sri Lanka is famous for. Sapphires, rubies, amethysts, emeralds are mined in Sri Lanka and travellers prefer to pick these up on the island for the cost-effectiveness of the rates. Jewel factories, museums and showrooms dot the roadside all over the country, and spending a few moments in one of these is really a great time.
Yet, there's more in Sri Lanka then just wildlife, tea and precious stones. There's an absolute gem, one that is soon to be crowned with the title of the Eight Wonder of the World. It is the ruins of the 5th century Sigiriya palace and the Dambulla rock caves. Built on a rock 200 metres tall and encompassing four and a half acres, the palace had four levels with swimming pools and other amenities fit for a king. Today one climbs 1202 steps to reach to the top of the rock from where King Kasyapa once surveyed the lands he ruled.
The Sigiriya complex is an example of 5th century urban planning, engineering and hydro systems. On the long climb up the rock, one takes a breather to view some of the best ancient frescoes in the world and a stunning mirror wall. Just 18 of the 500 estimated paintings on the rock wall and ceiling exist today, but they are as stunningly beautiful as the alluring vistas that one sees from atop the rock. Just a few kilometers away are the Dambulla cave temples, another world heritage site and the largest ancient art gallery in the world. With 150 statues of Buddha spanning various periods from I BC to the 19th century, these caves built within a rock have also 1000 similar paintings of the Buddha on their ceilings. Of the statues, there are five of the reclining Buddha and three of the Bhodisthan (future Buddha) who, it is believed, will appear after the year 5000 to revive Buddhism.
As Buddhism is the State religion of the country, there are statues of Buddha in every city, town and village, ranging from a foot tall to 100 feet in height. They are made of almost any and every material, with the golden Buddha at Dambulla sitting atop the temple, attracting the most attention.
And you can even stumble upon the odd Goan in Sri Lanka. A hurried trip of the Pearl of the Orient' didn't allow us to discover any Goan residents, but we did come across a third generation Goan, Tony Paiva doing what Goans do best, strumming his guitar and singing at the Chaaya Village, Habarana and it was time to exchange notes. But an even bigger surprise was in store, when sitting at the Kandy Cultural Centre, awaiting the start of a programme that included fire walking, a Frenchman in the front row, who spent some time in Goa, took absolute delight in speaking a few words in Konkani. And of course there are a few similarities between the Sinhalese and Konkani languages. If you want warm water ask for it in Sinhalese saying, unn watara' and if you want to call someone crazy then pisu' is the word for it.
As you leave the country, the Sri Lankan jet taking off from the airport, the words of the song Lovely Island Home come to mind: Some day I'm going there, this is my one prayer, some day I'll see her shores again, this is my one ambition, but until then, I'll keep on singing this refrain.' Once is not enough, someday a second trip to Sri Lanka is definitely called for.