Tea and sympathy
Ryan Ver Berkmoes raises a cuppa to Sri Lanka’s beauty and resilience
OURISTS continue to pour into Sri Lanka in ever greater numbers. About 1.2 million people visited the island in 2013, an approximate 20 per cent increase on 2012 figures. What makes Sri Lanka such a hot spot? Try fabulous beaches, ancient culture, great surfing, wildlife-filled safaris, tasty food, famously refreshing tea and warm, hospitable people.
My fascination with Sri Lanka began when I read Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar as a child. His wonderment at the island’s endless contradictions stayed with me. In 2004, I was in the west and south in the weeks after the tsunami. I was struck by the stories of the survivors and deeply moved by their efforts to rebuild. In the years since, I have been endlessly amazed by the Sri Lankans’ ability to overcome disaster, war and myriad other challenges as they work tirelessly to make their country match its potential, while remaining some of the most charming people on the planet.
FIVE TOP EXPERIENCES UDA WALAWE NATIONAL PARK
This huge chunk of savanna grassland centred on the Uda Walawe reservoir is the closest Sri Lanka gets to East Africa. There are herds of buffalo (although some are domesticated!), sambar deer, crocodiles, masses of birds and elephants – and we don’t just mean a few elephants. We mean hundreds of the big-nosed creatures. In fact, we’d go so far to say that for elephants, Uda Walawe is equal to, or even better than, many of the famous East African national parks.
Here, bits of Sri Lanka’s cultural and religious heritage sprawl across 3sq km. In the centre is one of the world’s oldest trees, the more than 2000-year-old Sri Maha Bodhi. It has been tended by guardians for all those centuries. The region’s fields of crumbling monasteries and enormous dagobas (or stupas) attest to the city’s role as the seat of power in Sri Lanka for a thousand years. Biking through this heady past is a thrilling experience.
SURFING AT ARUGAM BAY
The heart of Sri Lanka’s growing surf scene, the long right break at the southern end of Arugam Bay is considered Sri Lanka’s best. From April to September, you’ll find surfers riding the waves; stragglers catch the random good days as late as November. Throughout the year you can revel in the surfer vibe: there are boardrental and ding-repair joints, plus plenty of laid-back cheap hangouts offering a bed on the beach. And there are fine breaks at nearby Lighthouse Point, Whiskey Point and Okanda.
For more than 1000 years, pilgrims have trudged by candlelight up Adam’s Peak (Sri Pada) to stand in the footprints of Buddha, breathe the air where Adam first set foot on Earth and see the place where butterflies go to die. Today, tourists join the local pilgrims, who stand in the predawn light atop this perfect pinnacle of rock to watch the sun crawl above waves of mountains.
VISIT TEA PLANTATIONS
It wasn’t really all that long ago that Sri Lanka’s Hill Country was largely a wild sweep of jungle-clad mountains, but along came the British who felt the need for a nice cup of tea. So they chopped down the jungle and turned the Hill Country into one giant tea estate.
WHAT’S NEW HOTELS & MALLS, COLOMBO
Several huge hotel and mall complexes are set to open