“Good morning Madam.” “Good day.” “Madam, how are you?”
As I walked through the village to a shaded garden I knew served sweet chai, everyone from the baker to the tuk tuk driver wished me well along the way. It was a bit like the opening scenes of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast but with less French accents and not so many baguettes.
For my first few days in Sri Lanka I was taken aback by this friendliness. I returned hellos with looks that said, ‘What do you want?’ I replied ‘no thanks’ and waved dismissively to well-wishers who I had mistaken for hawkers. Living in London, previous experience of pushy vendors, and my misperception of the Sri Lankan welcome had made me rude.
The first word that comes to mind when I think of Sri Lanka is unspoilt. Tourism, on a large scale, is a relatively new development and one that is still burgeoning. The circular route we took around the south of the country (from Colombo to Kandy, the Hill Country, Yala National Park and southern beaches) saw us pass only a handful of tourists at a time. Commercialisation has not yet tainted the country; tourists are not a burden to the locals. I hope this does not change.
For the island’s beauty really is staggering. On a 6-hour train journey from Kandy, through the luminous green Hill Country to the elevated town of Ella I stared out the window for the entire journey. Books, magazines and blog posts waiting to be written could not distract me from the scene rolling past the window. In the non-air conditioned third class carriages you can throw open the windows and I hung my head out like on a dog on its first car journey. The young boy and his grandmother seated opposite us insisted on sharing their food. When we arrived at our destination they waved us off like old friends.
I’ve visited a decent number of beautiful beaches on my travels and it takes something special to impress me. In Sri Lanka I was expecting brown-gold sand and wandering cows like I had seen in Goa, but what we found in Tangalle was miles and miles of sinkingly soft white sand, and not a single person on it.
Parts of the south coast are so surprisingly underdeveloped that at first we wondered what to do with ourselves. But after several days of sunshine, sensational sunsets and drinking fresh coconuts I wasn’t interested in further entertainment.
The food is good too. I’m not normally good at commitment, always trying new things for fear of missing out, but after my first taste of a creamy Sri Lankan prawn curry there was nothing I could do to stop myself ordering it every night.
But the true beauty of Sri Lanka is its variety; that you can drive from leopard-dotted national park to deserted sands in less than 2 hours, or take a train from sacred temples to tea plantations. And then, just when you least expect it, an elephant will halt your journey as it lazily crosses the road. I still can’t believe we saw all this scenery and wildlife in just 2 weeks.
Yet I’ll admit I found it difficult planning this trip. Information on booking trains, prices for hiring drivers and recommendations for good guesthouses are surprisingly hard to find (at least it was when I was doing my research in the UK). So it will be my pleasure to tell you over the coming weeks about one of the best train journeys in the world, how to find a good place to stay and what if felt like to spot a leopard in the wild. Sri Lanka was an absolute delight to travel and I’d love to help you discover it too.