Throwing open the curtains of my room in the slightly-chilled guest house, I am greeted by the morning view of Adam’s Peak, where Adam first set foot on earth when he was chucked out of the Garden of Eden. Or call it Sri Pada, the mountain of the sacred footprint. But then again, it’s Samanala Kande, Butterfly Mountain. And Hinduism’s Sivan Adi Padham.
The giant footprint at the top? That might have been left by the Buddha, St Thomas the Apostle of India, or Lord Shiva. In Sri Lanka, truth, fiction, myth and reality are shifting planes, and the 2,243m conical mountain has adapted itself happily to the beliefs of Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and Muslims.
But before I could make up my mind one way or another, the clouds swirled and the peak dissolved in mist, so I took myself downstairs to eat my egg hopper, yet another small Sri Lankan mystery.
Suspended from the pointy end of India like a teardrop, Sri Lanka has been teasing travellers’ imaginations for centuries. The island was known as Serendib as far as back as 361, from which we derive serendipity, the art of making happy discoveries by accident.
That fits, but only lately. Tourism, which stagnated during the 1983-2009 war between the government and the Tamil Tigers, is surging and travellers are returning. They are drawn by beaches of staggering beauty, ruined cities entwined with mythology, a culture that leavens the frantic fizz of India with Buddhist serenity, elephants, leopards and highland tea plantations where women in flaming saris stalk through camellia bushes.
The island lends itself to a clockwise tour from the capital Colombo, and a car with a driver is the way to do it. Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle lies east along a sinuous road that threads through rice fields and green tunnels bored through the forest.
More than 2,300 years ago, soon after it was born in India, Buddhism took root in Sri Lanka and its kings celebrated with an orgy of temple building. A day among the crumbling former capitals of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa is an essential part of the Sri Lankan experience.
Don’t miss Sigiriya, a city heaved from a fairy tale. Fifteen centuries ago, the illegitimate prince Kasyapa killed his father and took the throne. Fearing the vengeance of his brother, the legitimate heir, he built a fortified capital on a 200m granite pillar that rises almost sheer from steaming forests.
The elaborate city of pools, fountains and terraced gardens survives in outline. Just to the south is Kandy, capital of the hill country and the last royal city before British rule. Prime attraction is the Temple of the Tooth, where the relic of the Buddha is housed in a lakeside temple, visited daily by a shuffling queue of devotees. The nearby elephant orphanage is a tourist trap but – let’s face it – an orphaned elephant makes even the most hardened heart leap.
Beyond Kandy the road south winds into tea plantations that cloak the hillside in green clumps, like hair woven into cornrows. Even by the standards of Sri Lanka’s rural trades – which throw up stilt fishermen and toddy tappers who work the coconut palms from a web of ropes – the tea pickers are in a class apart, lines of women in bright saris moving through waist-high bushes, stripping the outer leaves with lightning fingers.
The tea capital is the cloud-haloed highland town of Nuwara Eliya, founded by the British to escape the summer torpor of the coast, and where such thoroughly colonial notions as billiard rooms, fly fishing and afternoon tea are fondly preserved by urban refugees from Colombo.
On the south-west coast, the ancient port of Galle is a city of sleepy fascination. Within the stout walls of the old fort that was begun by the Portuguese is a three-square-kilometre World Heritage site pungent with memories of the era when the sahibs drank pink gins on the verandah of the Grand Hotel.
The fading colonial fabric of rattan furnishings, fanlights, colonnaded verandahs and shuttered windows has proved irresistible to a new breed of traveller. The former dusty shopfronts along Pedlar Street have become home to cool cafes, gelaterias, sapphire sellers and antique shops, while the intersecting streets are filled with poshpacker hotels.
Meanwhile, the embrasures along Galle’s fortress walls that once cradled cannons have become a favourite place for young lovers who canoodle on the benches, their privacy underwritten by big umbrellas unfurled on their shoulders. Make love, not war; who can argue?
Don’t expect silky, gorgeous accommodation, à la Thailand or Bali. While the nearby Maldives has made a fetish of glamorous resorts, Sri Lanka has only a handful that come close. What it does have is culture. Its retreats revel in the joy of small things.
The sounds of birds, the perfume of flowers, the water lillies that cover the lake near one of the resorts we stayed in – it is simplicity that speaks. Mornings usually begin with a yoga class in an open-sided building with a palm leaf roof, or in the shade of a banyan tree. The retreat attracts some of the leading yogic practitioners from around the globe, who devise their own unique program. Hill and village walks, massages, Ayurvedic treatments and dips in the waterfall are all part of the routine.
There are also party nights, which may involve alcohol and dancing in the moonlight, with music from a local village band. This is also an immersion in local Sri Lankan culture. The land on which this resort stands was a degraded coconut plantation that has been revived as a self-sustaining, bio-diverse organic farm. Local children, villagers and the sounds of water buffalo working in the fields are all part of the picture.
Guests stay in adobe houses, nestled among flowers and trees. Say farewell to WiFi, and expect to be unwound.
The Sydney Morning Herald