Sri Lanka: Sun, Spice and Sapphires
By Gillian Birch
Have you ever visited Paradise? You know where it is - just a little south of India, nestled in the blue waters of the Indian Ocean. Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as it was formerly known, is a teardrop-shaped gem in an azure setting. It has a wonderful year-round temperature of 30C (86F), English is widely spoken and visas are easily issued on arrival.
Sri Lanka offers so much in terms of culture, history, tropical rainforest and exotic flora. Where else can you bathe an elephant in a babbling mountain stream, explore an ancient tea plantation, see porcupines at the side of the road, visit an authentic spice garden and eat delicious food in creamy sauces? Sri Lanka has it all.
After the long-haul flight, it is advisable to catch up on all the things you are behind with – reading your new bestseller, letting your muscles soak up that therapeutic sunshine, dozing a little even though it is daytime, staring trance-like at nothing and taking a walk along the sandy beach to absolutely nowhere. Once you have dealt with these burdensome tasks, you will start to feel a little more curious about the country you are in.
Many hotels along the tropical white-sand beaches are close to local villages so you can see the schoolchildren proudly walking to school in their immaculate white uniforms. You may have watched the men of the village play an impromptu game of cricket each evening on the communal sandy wicket. You will have passed the local women in their gorgeous colourful saris, smiling shyly as they carry their water and fruit baskets. The best way to enjoy the local culture and the richness of the natural resources of this wonderful country is to book a local guide.
Private Tour Guides
Each day on the beach, the local men come down to offer their services. Unintrusive, these are not the pushy touts of other countries. These proud family men, dressed in pressed shirts and ties, with smart trousers and polished leather shoes will generally only show you their portfolio of photographs and trips if you approach them. As the main language is English, it is easy to communicate and discuss your requirements and agree a price.
Having decided upon your general tour requirements, the guide will arrive at your hotel complete with air-conditioned people carrier and a local driver. The first unscheduled stop will probably be at the local temple. Sri Lankans are mainly practising Buddhists or Hindus. Offering a small gift and a prayer at the temple gate is their way of taking responsibility for your safe trip.
What to See and Do
There are so many unique things to see and do in Sri Lanka. There are temples and lakes at Kandy, rainforests rich with wildlife, the famous Pinnawela elephant orphanage, botanical gardens, Kosgoda sea turtle sanctuary, tea and rubber plantations, spice gardens and excellent shopping. This is the place to pick up a ‘seconds’ Oscar de La Renta shirt, or a designer linen dress for just a few rupees in the commercial and textile capital, Colombo. It is also a great place to buy local basket ware, leather luggage, spices and of course precious gems.
Buying precious stones is again an eye-opening experience. You can visit the gem mines to see where gems are simply hauled up man-made pits in baskets, then washed and sorted. Entering the small gem shops in Colombo is like stepping back into Aladdin’s cave. The robed figure on a high stool will first offer his honoured guests some tea, and will discuss what you are looking for. The dealer is surrounded by glass display cabinets and walls of tiny drawers like an old apothecary cabinet. He will select a drawer, and tip the contents onto a tray. Pushing with his wrinkled fingers and examining with his monocle he will select first one stone then another for your approval. It is a unique way to take home not only a valuable souvenir, but also a memorable experience.
Driving through the local villages high in the lush mountain highlands, you will notice that each village has a specialty. They may sell baskets, and only baskets, or furniture, pineapples, coconuts or pottery. It is very strange to see, but the village system ensures that you get a great choice at a very competitive price. A good guide will constantly point out the local sights – a porcupine at the side of the road, a good restaurant, the blue water lilies which are the national flower, the local train with people hanging from the roof and from every side which brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “hitching a ride”. Driving along the busy winding mountain roads, from time to time you will see the traffic cease flowing in the opposite direction. The silence goes on until, rounding a corner, you see a huge logging elephant, chains rattling and the mahout on his back, carrying whole tree trunks down the road. Too narrow to pass, the traffic backs up behind and everyone is forced to travel at elephant speed.
Some tours include bathing an elephant. In the morning sunshine, the mahouts bring their working elephants down to the shallow rivers to bathe and rest. The huge cumbersome animals will ponderously kneel then roll into the stream. You can almost hear their sighs of pleasure. Tourists can go into the river with their coconut shell halves and massage and scrub the elephant’s hide. It is so therapeutic, and I don’t just mean for the elephants! It is a privilege to get so up-close-and-personal with these gentle giants. At the end of the session, you are invited to sit on the elephant’s back as it rises to stand. Of course the elephants then hose up the clear river water and spray it over their backs – and you. Now you know to wear a bathing suit for this experience!
Most Sri Lankan resorts are in the south west of the island and are within easy reach of the Pinnawela Elephant orphanage. These orphaned elephants are cared for in a massive project, and the tourist revenue helps pay the staff and the food bill. The elephants again are often found in the river, and there are sometimes tiny baby elephants among them too. Just three feet high, with hairy backs, cute smiling mouths and inquisitive trunks, they are adorable.
Another ecological trip which safeguards the local turtle survival is a trip to the Kosgoda hatchery. Once endangered, turtle eggs were a nutritious meal for local families. The turtle sanctuary stepped in and now buys turtle eggs for a few cents, ensuring the locals still get to eat but the turtle eggs have a chance of survival. You can tour the sand piles, neatly dated, and see the newly hatched turtles in tanks. At a few days old visitors can choose a tiny turtle and carry it wriggling and flapping down to the ocean and release it. Again it is a wonderful interactive experience with nature and has a great feel-good factor attached, as well as helping the local wildlife.
Spices, Tea and Rubber
Trips also typically will include a visit to a shady spice garden to see the trees and plants. The names will be familiar to you – citronella, cinnamon, aloe vera, nutmeg, mace and cocoa - but the plants will not. There is also an opportunity to buy some excellent herbal remedies and potions for insect bites, muscle pain or whatever your need may be.
Visiting the tea plantations gives an insight into an industry as old as the very hills the bushes stand on. Similarly, seeing rubber being tapped from the tree and then processed using turn of the century machinery – and I mean the turn of the 19th to the 20th century – shows how the products we take for granted start life in a very different world to our own.
So, beach bum or culture vulture, environmentalist or tourist, you will leave Sri Lanka a great deal richer than you arrived in terms of experience, education and awareness of another culture.