Hot spot ... tourists take a rest on the beach of Sri Lanka's southern coastal town of Hikkaduwa. Photo: AFP
A little more than three years ago, Sri Lanka was a basket case, and had been for more than a quarter of a century, as civil war ravaged the country. Sri Lankan-born novelist Michael Ondaatje, in his book Anil's Ghost, put it succinctly when he wrote: "There had been continual emergency from 1983 onwards, racial attacks and political killings. The terrorism of the separatist guerrilla groups, who were fighting for a homeland in the north. The insurrection of the insurgents in the south, against the government. The counterterrorism of the special forces against both of them ... the reason for war was war."
But those days are finally and thankfully gone, with Sri Lanka bouncing back and providing a less commercialised, less spoilt alternative to perennial favourite destinations for Australians such as Bali. Lonely Planet, in its book, Best in Travel 2013, hails Sri Lanka as a "cut-price paradise back on the map" that is best for "culture, off the beaten track, value for money".
Sri Lanka is cheap and cheerful and - at a tad more than 65,000 square kilometres - small enough to be easily negotiable.
One of the nicest things about Sri Lanka today is how often strangers will ask you what you think of their country. "You like my country Sri Lanka?" is a staple question everywhere you go. It's like a collective sigh of relief, or perhaps a verbal pinch of the national skin to check that the nightmare has truly ended.
A local with a bunch of coconuts. Photo: Alamy
Today Sri Lanka is a beautiful and deeply spiritual country where almost every road junction is watched over by a Buddha; or a Ganesh, the Hindu elephant god; or the Virgin Mary; or Christ on the Cross. No doubt this explains how, despite driving like madmen, they manage to (mostly) miss the three-wheeled tuk-tuks, stray dogs, cyclists and motorcyclists who swerve in and out and under each other's wheels.
It's a fresh green land bursting with vitality and rice paddies and tea plantations, with wildlife parks and elephant sanctuaries, and where wild monkeys sit genially by in 1000-year-old temple grounds.
Sri Lanka is cheap and cheerful and - at a tad more than 65,000 square kilometres - small enough to be easily negotiable. You could lose it in the top right-hand corner of NSW should you be so carelessly inclined and yet it boasts eight UNESCO World Heritage sites: the ancient cities of Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya, the Golden Temple of Dambulla, the old town of Galle, the sacred city of Anuradhapura, the city of Kandy, the Sinharaja Forest Reserve and the Central Highlands area.
Spiritual sights ... Sigiriya, the 200-metre rock citadel. Photo: Corbis
It's the ancient cities that are its biggest and best-kept secret. Stories abound of the dive and surf beaches on the south and east coasts but until you've experienced the history and grandeur of Anuradhapura, or climbed the astonishing Sigiriya, you haven't even scratched the surface. As one of our tour group whispered amid the magnificence of Anuradhapura: "It's like we've found Narnia." Here, then, is a crash-course in what you need to know to plan a holiday to this magical island.
What to see
Cut-price paradise ... bikes are a popular mode of transport. Photo: Getty Images
The Cultural Triangle is the area of Sri Lanka's northern plains that boasts the amazing ruined city of Anuradhapura. The capital of the island from the 3rd century BC to about 933AD, this was one of the mediaeval world's great metropolises.
For a more than 1000 years this city thrived as a spiritual and political power. Just standing among the ruins of the monasteries - it was once home to about 10,000 monks - and the various royal halls and administrative buildings, is to encounter something magical. This was one of the golden ages of Sinhalese culture, when the kings built dozens of enormous water tanks to help with irrigation and threw up enormous temples and dagobas that were the architectural wonders of the time.
Polonnaruwa is another ruined city in the triangle, more compact than the sprawling Anuradhapura but no less fascinating. Polonnaruwa was the country's pomp-and-circumstance capital in the 12th century and enjoyed 100 years of magnificence before being sacked by invaders from southern India and being reclaimed by the jungle and forgotten for 700 years.
Other highlights include the Dambulla Cave Temples, packed with hundreds of statues of Buddha; Mihintale, a beautiful wooded area shaded by frangipani trees and famous as the spot where Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka; and the breathtaking Sigiriya (Lion's Rock), the sheer 200-metre rock citadel that was the site of the country's most remarkable royal capital and palace.
If you do nothing else in the Cultural Triangle, do this. The site museum has a scale model of the area that gives a wonderful insight into what it was like and the approach to the rock itself, through the wonderful water gardens, is unforgettable.
Again, this was a site that rose to prominence as the country's capital in the 5th century AD, was attacked by invaders and then forgotten for many hundreds of years. It was declared a World Heritage Site in 1982.
Halfway up are the beguiling Sigiriya Damsels, a series of frescoes of topless nymphs painted onto the walls of a cave more than 1500 years ago. They're reached by two incongruous metal spiral staircases (one up, one down) but are well worth the detour.
Further up, at the Lion Platform, two enormous paws flank stairs up to the summit itself. These are a little more strenuous but the view from the top is worth it. Only the foundations remain of the former castle in the sky but the sheer scale of the undertaking is mind-boggling.
What to eat and drink
You could easily eat some kind of curry at every meal, including breakfast, but most hotels provide plenty of alternatives more suited to the Western palate. This also extends to the curries served up at the pretty much ubiquitous buffets around the country. Sri Lankan tastes in curry run to the fiery end of the spectrum but most of those offered to foreigners have been, shall we say, dumbed down.
If you prefer something hotter you can always add a little extra from the pot of hellishly hot sambal (crushed chillies) that comes with every meal. Sri Lankan food is a mix of influences from Arab traders to Malay navigators, and the various colonial powers such as the Dutch, the Portuguese and the British, notwithstanding influences from the country's south Indian neighbours.
There never has been much of a dining-out culture in Sri Lanka so most of your meals will be taken in your hotel or in a hotel restaurant during the day. A full all-you-can-eat buffet will cost about 1300 rupees (about $9.80).
Vegetarians are well catered for in this majority Buddhist country, as evidenced by one of our group who kept a daily dhal diary and raved about the high standards of this popular dish. Street food isn't exactly a thriving industry but you can get what are known as "short eats" or "quick eats" from a few stalls or the front section of little cafe/restaurants. Here you can a classic Tamil savoury known as a vadai (or wadai), which is a spicy doughnut made of deep-fried lentils, or perhaps a samosa or a vegetable/meat-filled roti.
Fruit is pretty much in abundance, too, with great bunches of bananas hanging on almost every roadside stall next to papayas, pineapples, jackfruit, durians, custard apples and guavas. One thing you must do is get the guide to stop at one of the many stalls selling thambili (king coconut), on sale for about 30 rupees. The vendor will use a machete to cut a square hole in the top and pop in a drinking straw. The glucose- and potassium-rich liquid inside is said to be good for hangovers.
Afterwards the vendor will slice off part of the underside before chopping the remains in two. You then use the sliced-off section to dig out the jelly-like coconut pulp inside. Delicious.
Tea is a popular drink and tends to be taken black with copious amounts of sugar. The Sri Lankan palate for hideously fiery chilli is matched equally by a frighteningly sweet tooth. Of all the local bottled beers - there is little in the way of draught beer - Lion Lager is the uninspired best of a bad bunch. Prices depend on where you are buying it; it will obviously be more expensive in a hotel (about 400rupees) than from a street liquor store (about 120 rupees).
At one local hangout we found, the deliciously seedy but friendly Palladium Restaurant in Nuwara Eliya, a glass of Lion Strong Beer turned out to be a mind-bending 8 per cent proof and was priced at 205 rupees.
What to spot
Unlike its neighbour India, there are no tigers to see. But Sri Lanka is said to be home to 92 mammal species, 242 types of butterfly, 435 birds, 107 species of fish and 98 types of snakes, including the revered and feared king cobra. If you are very lucky you might spot one of the leopards that make their home in the national parks. Ditto the golden jackal, shaggy sloth, civet and the armour-plated Indian pangolin.
What you will see are buffalo, elephants, the bushy-tailed, five-striped palm squirrel (a sort of zombie apocalypse squirrel the size of a small dog), and more monkeys than you can poke a stick at. These last include grey- and purple-faced langurs, hairy bear monkeys and the distinctive toque macaques, notable for their odd, "pudding bowl" haircuts.
The monkeys can be found hanging out at most old city and temple sites and are, mostly, harmless. They are relaxed around people but bring out a banana or any other recognisable food and you'd be advised to let fly with it pretty quickly or risk getting a finger torn off in the rush.
Elephants are both a blessing and a curse for Sri Lanka as the country struggles with the problem of human-pachyderm co-existence. They occupy a special place in the local psyche and it was once a capital offence to kill one. Then along came the British and their big game hunters.
Today estimates vary as to how many are left. At the end of the 18th century there were between 10,000 to 20,000 elephants in the wild; today that number is down to 3000 to 4000. To see even 200 or so of them in the wild (from old tuskers to tiny new-borns), as we did from the back of a safari jeep in the Kaudulla National Park, is a humbling sight.
For a more close-up experience of elephants, head to the government-run Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage between Colombo and Kandy. Here, about 80 elephants of all ages are looked after by the keepers (or mahouts), who for a small consideration of about 500 rupees will take your picture with the animals.
Twice a day the animals are herded down to the nearby river (10am-noon and 2pm-4pm), a short walk from the orphanage which takes them down a dusty street lined with tourist shops selling elephant T-shirts and paper products made from elephant dung. To see these gentle giants come lumbering along the street and gather in the flowing river where their keepers shower them with water is something you will not soon forget.
What to do
Cycling is an increasingly popular way of touring the country but you really do need to stick to the back blocks and avoid the madness of the main roads.
Diving, snorkelling and surfing have long been staple reason for Westerners to go to Sri Lanka and in that department nothing has changed. White-water rafting, canoeing and windsurfing are also becoming increasingly popular as visitor numbers increase.
Trekking isn't something that has taken off in Sri Lanka (yet) but one short trek you should do is the seven-hour, 15-kilometre round trip up to the Buddhist temple at the top of Adam's Peak (Sri Pada, or Sacred Footprint) and back. This sometimes near-vertical climb is strenuous but worth every aching muscle. The "footprint" depression at the top is said by Buddhists to be that of Buddha himself, while Muslims claim it to have been made by Adam after he was cast out of heaven. Hindus believe it was made by Shiva. Whatever, it makes Sri Pada a popular place of pilgrimage for people of many faiths and during the main season it can get crowded.
We were lucky enough to go just before the main season and enjoyed a fairly pilgrim-free ascent - if "enjoy" is quite the right word for leaving the hotel at 2am for a three-hour clamber up stairs in the pitch black.
Sunrise at the summit is spectacular (clouds willing), as you might expect, and when the temple doors are opened at 6am scoot around to the far side to see the mysterious shadow the mountain casts over the countryside. It seems to be an almost perfect pyramid - which is odd, given that the mountain itself, all 2243 metres of it, isn't.
Keith Austin travelled to Sri Lanka courtesy of World Expeditions.
Getting there: Singapore Airlines has super deals to Colombo, Sri Lanka, via Singapore, from about $1250 return. Qantas, Emirates and Malaysia airlines all fly to Colombo from about $2300 return. World Expeditions can arrange competitive airfares to get you to the starting point of your chosen adventure. (02) 8270 8400 or email email@example.com.
Touring there: World Expeditions runs several trips to Sri Lanka throughout the year. These include Sri Lanka by Bike, the Sri Lanka Explorer (which includes a short trek, white-water rafting and an elephant safari), and the Sri Lanka Wildlife tour. Prices (excluding airfares) start from $1890 for an 11-day tour. Prices include some meals and soft drinks, airport transfers, accommodation (on a twin-share basis), transport by private airconditioned vehicle, an experienced guide and sightseeing and entry fees as listed in the itinerary. worldexpeditions.com/au.
Staying there: Accommodation can range from the very basic to the luxurious. Notable hotels included in the World Expeditions trips include the terribly British colonial-style Grand Hotel in Nuwara Eliya (grand-hotel-nuwara-eliya-sri-lanka.lakpura.com), where you must use the billiard room before dinner; the mountainside luxury and stunning views of the Randholee Resort in Kandy (randholeeresorts.com); and the more basic but amazingly friendly Water Garden Hotel at Belihuloya, where a Sri Lankan cooking class is a highlight of our tour.
Five essential experiences
- The ruined cities of Anuradhapura, capital of the island from the 3rd century BC to about 933AD, and Polonnaruwa, the country's pomp and circumstance capital in the 12th century.
- Mihintale, a beautiful wooded area shaded by frangipani trees and famous as the spot where Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka.
- The breathtaking Sigiriya (Lion's Rock), the sheer 200-metre rock citadel that was the site of the country's most remarkable royal capital and palace.
- The seven-hour, 15-kilometre round trip to the Buddhist temple at the top of Adam's Peak. Strenuous and not for the faint-hearted but worth every aching muscle.
- The elephant orphanage and bath time at Pinnawala.