It’s a country smaller than Victoria off the southern tip of India which comprises more than 20 million people – most of whom are mad cricket fans.
We landed in Columbo and travelled straight to the Galle Face Hotel, a wonderful old hotel built by the English in 1864 on the shores of the Indian Ocean.
The elephant orphanage at Pinnawala was first on our itinerary and it took two hours snaking through the hair-raising Colombo traffic to cover the 60 kilometres to this must-see spot.
Our next stop was to climb to the Golden Temple of Dambulla, a cave monastery which features impressive Buddha sculptures dating back to the 1st century BC. The sheer size and beauty of these statues warrants the UNESCO World Heritage listing and it’s hard to believe that visitors can trample their way through the areas separated from the statues by old coffee tables!
We headed to Ancient City of Sigiriya, which lies on top of a massive rock protruding 200 metres in the air. The climb is physically demanding and the last part of the ascent up steel stairs is a real stomach churner.
The story goes that in around the year 477, the son of the king killed his father and, fearing a brotherly backlash from the rightful heir, moved his residence to the top of the rock where he built a palace fortress.
In Kandy, The Temple of the Tooth supposedly houses the relic of the tooth of Buddha is the main attraction in Kandy. The locals flock to the temple and amidst plenty of pageantry and music they patiently climb the stairs to worship the relic which is encased in a gold casket.
Next door, the Hindu temple is complete with resident elephant. Locals paid for their children to be walked under the elephants trunk then belly which is said to bring good luck and bravery.
We asked our driver to take us to a batik factory and we soon found ourselves high above Kandy being given a guided tour as to how the designs are applied to the fabric. It was quite educational – but not as educational as the spirited bartering that ensued.
Next, the drive from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya covered some of the most spectacular scenery of our tour. Everywhere you looked were soaring mountains and teams of women picking tea-leaves.
Picking tea is the exclusive responsibility of women. When you consider that each woman had to pick 16kg of leaves each day over 10 hours to earn the princely sum of 800 rupees ($7), it wasn’t hard to see why the men were keener to spray the leaves rather than pick them.
The Grand Hotel in Nuwara Eliya is where we finished our trek through the tea country. Here you will find a great little bar and a snooker room with three full-sized tables brought out from England 150 years ago. It’s the oldest pool room in Sri Lanka built by the original English owners of the property. No-one under 16 is allowed to play and if you damage the cloth, the penalty is $US1000!
The first class train trip to Ella costs about $12 each and it is a beauty. You get to see some of the most beautiful country as the train groans its way up the mountains through villages and tea plantations.
On the way to Galle we passed several great seaside towns, including Tangalle where we stopped for a coffee. The little beach was beautiful and locals told us of 3000 people swept out to sea and presumed dead in the Tsunami of 2004.
The Galle beachside is clearly a place for courting. In a country where arranged marriage is common place couples get to know each other in their lunch breaks. When you ask Sri Lankan people about arranged marriage they will tell you that “you start as friends and as your marriage grows you begin to love”.
Which is exactly how we feel about Sri Lanka.