As Sri Lanka leaves its civil war-torn past behind, tourists are flocking to see its lush jungles, pristine beaches and famous elephants. Let’s just hope it stays this way, says Chris Beanland
- Image Credit: Getty Images
- The elephant has always had cultural significance in Sri Lanka. In fact, many institutions use the Sri Lankan elephant in their insignia today.
Cracks of thunder slice through the air, but the previous day the sun had turned the landscape citrus bright. It’s just one of many contradictions that define Sri Lanka – some of them delicious, some less so.
I’m sitting in the new Number One Mirissa Hotel watching surfers ride the waves into the rocky horseshoe bay of Mirissa, the view framed by swaying palm trees. This boutique property, owned by an English emigrant, epitomises the new, much fancier box that Sri Lanka is now trying to tick.
The Sri Lanka that excites visitors has been here for a very long time – the beaches, the lush vegetation, the elephants – but today the country is proving more irresistible than ever. Tourist numbers are surging. The place has never been more peaceful. The civil war between the government and the Tamil Tigers ended in 2009 and a spirit of rapprochement seems to be in the air – despite almost 30 years of hostility.
Mirissa feels a long way from the past bloody conflict, from the political games and corruption that dog Sri Lanka to this day, from the creaking cities with their mushrooming populations – and from the driven business life of the UAE.
Mirissa is a place where people come to get away from the hubbub, to surf and lounge and sample local delicacies on the most perfect curve of beach. Westerners dream of a place like this.
From the shrine on top of the village’s only hill, an even better view unfolds, showing everything little Mirissa has to offer – a few shops, a few beach bars. It’s yet to be sullied by hotel chains or greedy restaurateurs. Let’s hope it stays that way.
Mirissa witnessed its own horror with the 2004 tsunami, which flung its worst at the little village and at the entire south coast of the island. In the years since the disaster, the people have picked themselves up and triumphantly returned to this place. People like the Dewmini family – Gayani, Chaminda and their daughter Pinky, whose roti shop is the stuff of backpacker legend.
I eat a chicken and vegetable kottu in their wonderful garden, while the sound of the clanking knives making other punters’ lunches rings in my ears. The roti is chopped and mixed on a hot plate with the other fillings. The sound of its assembly is said to define meal times in Sri Lanka more than any other.
On another night in Mirissa, after a languorous day spent on that luscious golden beach, I feast on devilled fish fillets swathed in the hottest chilli, on fish curry served with rice and pickle and on the plumpest prawns coated in a coconut crumb and served at a seaside shack where the eats are cheap and the beats are always Bob Marley – he’s a hero with the surfers round here.
I hire a taxi, which takes a Chinese-funded new highway up to Colombo, and head to the train station to catch a Chinese-made train. I could have taken a diversion from Mirissa to see the new Chinese-funded Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport at Hambantota, which offers direct flights to Dubai.
Sri Lanka is cosying up to the world’s newest superpower, and its beaches and temples could – in the not too distant future – be hosting hordes of Chinese visitors too. Chinese tourist numbers have shot up by 58 per cent in the past year.
Despite the large Chinese presence, the strongest colonial influence remains the British one. Colombo Fort Station looks like an English rail junction – perhaps York or Reading. From this grand edifice I take a train to Kandy and sit in the rickety rear carriage, a first-class saloon that looks about 60 years old, but affords stunning views of the mountains and gullies of Sri Lanka’s lush interior.
Kandy Station’s elegant architecture and trains, which seem to have leapt straight out from Brief Encounter (the new Chinese trains just don’t quite have the same feel), evoke memories of the era when Sri Lanka was called Ceylon and gentlemen of the empire wearing pith helmets took tea at 3pm. Other remnants of that long-forgotten time remain – I see cricket matches being played on ovals all around Kandy.
But the good folk of Kandy always knew where their allegiance really was. It was to their island and to their own culture. Kandy is the heart of a former royal kingdom and the Temple of the Tooth remains one of the most important Sinhalese sites.
A sacred ‘tusker’ – an elephant that would carry what is said to be the relic of the Buddha’s tooth during festivities – is preserved in a museum at the temple. This monster looks more like a woolly mammoth from prehistoric days when dinosaurs roamed around Adam’s Peak – the mountain at the centre of Sri Lanka.
Mighty yet gentle
At the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage – an hour’s twisty drive from Kandy – orphaned elephants are cared for, and you can watch them guzzle three-pint shots of milk in a few seconds and wash themselves in a nearby river. I don’t know about the elephant, but I’ll never forget the first time I felt a damp trunk sniffling graciously over my hand to see if there was a banana secreted in it.
To see elephants is a real treat. They have been attacked by poachers and the encroachment of man into their territories has had a huge effect on their numbers. But the elephants – mighty and gentle – are still here.
Sri Lanka is the fastest growing tourist destination in Asia and it’s easy to see why. I hope that in trying to attract more visitors and foreign currency, it doesn’t lose the magic that makes it appeal to so many.
Hopefully the rich and powerful of the country won’t monopolise the economic boom that tourism generates. And let us hope that Tamil and Sinhalese can share the bounties the boom delivers.
As I watch the majestic elephants of Pinnawela washing in the river and blowing water from their long trunks, I understand, as the Sri Lankans have done for centuries, that these creatures are the wise ones of the world.
Chris flew to Colombo with Qatar Airways (www.qatarairways.com, return flights
from Dubai with a change in Doha start from Dh1,165). He stayed at the Cinnamon Citadel in Kandy (www.cinnamonhotels.com) and Number One Hotel Mirissa in Mirissa (www.numberonemirissa.com). For more information see http://www.srilanka.travel