Lon­don-based celebrity pho­tog­ra­pher Nigel Barker re­calls the de­lights of his mother’s fas­ci­nat­ing coun­try

Hong Kong Tatler - - The Last Word -

I fell in love with Sri Lanka, where my mother was born, on my first visit. Per­haps it was be­cause it was in my genes, or maybe it was just that the unique mix of cul­ture, his­tory, beaches, jun­gle, mu­sic and food awoke my senses. On that first visit, as an eight-year-old, I played with kabaragoya, giant wa­ter mon­i­tors that I was told could eat small chil­dren, and was dive-bombed by co­conut bee­tles as I ran through groves to visit an­cient tem­ples over­run by mon­keys. Tales of this trop­i­cal land I’d heard grow­ing up in the city be­came real, and I made up some of my own.

It was a mag­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence to take my fam­ily back re­cently. I got to wit­ness the re­ac­tions of my chil­dren, Jack, nine, and Jas­mine, six, when ele­phants met us at our ho­tels and mon­keys knocked on our doors. Our days in this en­chant­ing land al­ways be­gan with in­cred­i­ble break­fasts of curry, string hop­pers and a len­til-based dish called purripu be­fore we set out to ex­plore. One of our first ad­ven­tures was to the an­cient site of Si­giriya in the cen­tre of the is­land, where the ru­ins of a palace sit atop a 220-me­tre-high rock whose caves are dec­o­rated with colour­ful fres­coes.

Though the name con­jures sweets, Kandy is ac­tu­ally the cen­tre of tea and spice pro­duc­tion, and we en­joyed learn­ing about the his­tory of tea on a tour of a plan­ta­tion fac­tory. We also at­tended a cer­e­mony at the sa­cred Tem­ple of the Tooth, where thou­sands of pil­grims gather to get a glimpse of Bud­dha’s tooth.

The won­der­ful food of Sri Lanka is a key part of the cul­ture, and each area is fa­mous for dif­fer­ent dishes. Co­conut is used in al­most ev­ery­thing in place of but­ter, lard or veg­etable oil. One of the culi­nary high­lights of the trip was din­ing al­fresco at the fa­mous Royal Botan­i­cal Gar­dens in Per­adeniya. The res­tau­rant, which has amaz­ing views of the moun­tains, serves your food on large leaves in­stead of plates, and ev­ery­thing is made with the herbs and spices grown in the gar­dens.

On the plains of Habarana we found our­selves with wild ele­phants roam­ing all around. I would open a bot­tle of wine and sit out­side lis­ten­ing to their trum­pet­ing while shoo­ing away cheeky mon­keys. One evening we dined by a lake and I heard a stray dog growl­ing next to the ta­ble. I looked down to dis­cover he was warn­ing us of an al­li­ga­tor a cou­ple of me­tres from the ta­ble.

Ev­ery­where road­side stalls stock the wares of Sri Lanka’s in­dus­tri­ous peo­ple, and each area has its own spe­cial­ity. We left Sri Lanka with 10 times the lug­gage we had when we ar­rived. We brought back saris, em­broi­dered cush­ions, carv­ings, spices and herbs, jew­ellery and gems, tea and more tea.

From left: Ex­otic va­ri­eties of tea from Sri Lanka; ele­phants at Yala Na­tional Park

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