No longer dismissed as “India Lite”, Sri Lanka has emerged to claim its place among the highlights of South Asia.
If there’s one problem with exploring Sri Lanka, it’s finding a place to start. This compact island barely rivals Ireland in size, yet somehow seems to cram as much as the rest of South Asia into its small but verdant backyard. It’s a land of aromatic and vividly spiced foods, ancient Buddhist and Hindu temples, colonial history from the Dutch, Portuguese and British, and jungle wildlife from leopards and monkeys to elephants. It’s a place of surf shacks and yoga retreats, luxury resorts and Ayurvedha spas, railway journeys and tea plantations, and elaborate traditions and festivals played out with colour and pageantry. Now stable after the civil war that plagued its north and the tsunami that devastated its east, Sri Lanka is enjoying a visitor revival. From its capital Colombo, most visitors disperse along Sri Lanka’s west coast where the majority of its beaches and resorts are found, from simple seaside shacks to exclusive five star retreats. The south-west is home to the old Dutch city of Galle, perhaps the prettiest of Sri Lanka’s coastal centres with a rich legacy of old colonial buildings. Inland, Sri Lanka’s true romance comes to the fore. Hill towns and tea plantations flourish in the cooler altitudes of the mountain interior, edged by lush tropical forests. Here the city of Kandy serves as the cultural heart of the nation, famous for its Temple of the Tooth where a sacred tooth of Buddha is secured. The city is also the site of one of Asia’s most spectacular festivals, Esala Perahera, in which processions of dancers and decorated elephants are held during July and August. Further north, the imposing Sigiriya Rock Fortress is one of the country’s great landmarks - an ancient Buddhist monastery and a fortress, perched upon a monolithic rock outcrop. Elsewhere wildlife lovers can explore national parks including Yala, with the island’s largest population of leopards.