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