Chances are that when you land at Bandarnaike Airport in Colombo, your taxi driver will ask, "First time coming to Sri Lanka?" If your answer is yes, it's equally likely your taxi driver will tell you all about the charms of his island, from the "Little England" of the hill country to the beaches in the south.
But if, like me, you're no stranger to Sri Lanka, chances are that your taxi driver will want to know where you've been and what you've seen.
I tell Hemantha, who'll be driving my mother and I around during our week-long stay, that I have visited his country many times. I've contemplated Buddha's tooth in Kandy, watched a cricket match in Dambulla, traipsed around the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, driven up the famous A9 Highway to Jaffna during the ceasefire between government forces and the Tamil Tigers in 2002, and visited fishing towns along the coast after the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2006.
This time I'll be exploring an irregular quadrilateral tract of land starting from Puttlam on the north-west coast, moving south towards the centre of the island, before looping back up north to the old capital of Anuradhapura.
Puttlam, my first stop, is a fishing village in Sri Lanka's dry zone. Predominantly Muslim, many of its inhabitants were relocated here from Jaffna because of tensions with the Tamil Tigers. During the war, this was a relatively safe place to be, but tourists never ventured here because two of the main attractions in the area - Puttlam Lagoon and the Willpattu National Park, Sri Lanka's largest park - were off limits, occupied by the Sri Lankan army and navy.
Now you can go looking for pink dolphins in the lagoon, and the park has finally opened its gates again.
It took us nearly six hours to reach Alankuda, the beach resort we've booked. Hemantha overshoots, driving us 25km beyond to the town of Kal-pittiyam. There's no signage to speak of, so we have to ask for directions and after a lengthy phone conversation with the staff, Hemantha finds the correct turning off the road.
The landscape here is dry and wild, with salt flats, prawn hatcheries and goats wearing odd contraptions made of sticks around their necks to keep them from wandering too far. The entry into Alankuda's wooden gates is one filled with relief and beauty. We leave the arid dunes behind and arrive in a mini oasis - dry-zone grass and Palmyra trees everywhere.
Alankuda is an innovative entrepreneurial venture based on the rather rare idea of sharing. Four properties (Bar Reef Resort, Palagama Beach, Khomba House and Udekki) have pooled their resources to promote the area around their resorts in the hope of turning Puttlam into a beach destination with a difference. This isn't the beach experience you'll find in the sheltered southern coast of the country, which is greener and gentler. Here, the sea is rough, raw and virtually abandoned. There's even a kite-surfing school nearby for adventurous types.
Bar Reef Resort (until recently, it was named Alankuda Beach Resort) is the main hotel, and is a lovely sprawl of mud and wood cabanas and villas. The abiding theme is space: lots and lots of space. Everything is made out of natural materials – grass roofs, mud walls, a shower that magically sprouts out from a tree. It’s all very relaxed and comfortable. The cabana we’re assigned is simple and elegant, with the bed, walls and floors all made from mud and painted a warm ochre colour. It’s a bit of a trek to get to the bathroom, but the privacy each place offers is really one of the highlights of this property.
You can while away your day at the gigantic saltwater pool facing the ocean or you could relax in the ambalama – a traditional wooden hut, originally built as a resting place for travellers. At Bar Reef Resort, all meals are taken at the ambalama, buffet-style for breakfast and lunch but western-style for dinner. Guests sit informally on cushions, balancing plates on their knees, chatting with a glass in hand. While I was visiting, a Sri Lankan family equipped with a guitar sang the night away while fibre-optic stars shone from the depths of the swimming pool. It was magical.
After a few days of looking unsuccessfully for pink dolphins in the Puttlam Lagoon an hour up the coast – dolphin season, we were told, is November through April – we moved south-east towards the town of Anamaduwa, to a property called The Mud House. Its unique selling point is its lack of electricity, offering instead a back-to-basics jungle experience.
We are met at a 2,000-year-old landmark, the Paramakanda Temple, by Tom, an Englishman who came to Anamaduwa a decade ago to teach English and is now part owner of The Mud House. He arrives on a motorbike; behind him come a few other guests on bicycles, and behind them comes a colourful tractor with three beaming children on board. It’s a pretty jolly procession, but then we meet Kumar, another part-owner of The Mud House, who must be the jolliest man on the planet. Kumar takes us on a tour around the property – which sits on 24.3 hectares of forest and lake – pointing out various trees and birds in between loud bursts of laughter, warning us about the jungle squirrels and their fondness for soap.
The idea behind The Mud House is simple: to recreate the experience of Sri Lankan village life without compromising on comfort. The huts are made of traditional wattle and daub with thatched roofs. Bathrooms and shower areas are outdoors, down the garden path. And hammocks are strung up between every possible beam because this is the kind of uber-relaxing place where being horizontal is the default position. Even though a stay at The Mud House feels a bit like camping, (which is why it’s a hit with families, kids, and romantics), there’s also a real sense of luxury. Time slows down the minute you arrive. At night, all you can hear are the calls of crickets, frogs and red loris, a tiny and endangered Sri Lankan primate. And in the morning, you’re woken by the majestic chorusing of the birds. I cannot remember sleeping this deeply anywhere else.
At night, when the kerosene lamps are lit, illuminating the pathways and casting their gorgeous, soft light over everything, there is little to do but talk, play cards, sit by the bonfire, and enjoy the stillness. Oh, and eat. You will eat well here: simple, fresh, Sri Lankan cooking, served in the woods, by the lake, or in the privacy of your own yard.
From The Mud House, our itinerary takes a distinctly luxurious turn as we head towards Dambulla and the Heritance Kandalama hotel. Built by the legendary Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa, the father of tropical modernism, its most distinctive feature is that nothing in the natural environment, not even a tree, was disturbed or destroyed during the construction. Cut from rock and covered with foliage, it looks from afar like a grey cave covered in creepers.
The hotel is a striking piece of architecture, with an infinity pool and three varieties of cheeky monkeys running around. My favourite aspect is the hypnotic view it offers of the Kandalama Reservoir and the Sigiriya Rock Fortress in the distance.
Kandalama makes the perfect base to explore Minneriya Park an hour and a half away. After lunch, we seek out the hundreds of elephants that gather here each September, attracted by the water on offer at the end of the dry season. Minneriya is a small sanctuary but it also has beautiful and abundant bird life with peacocks and jungle fowl (the national birds of our respective countries) along the way. At the reservoir, we spot about 50 elephants chewing peacefully on grass. Unfortunately the elephant herd is not the only gathering taking place and we also see 4x4s full of tourists. Hemantha, ever thoughtful, artfully positions us in such a way that we don’t see other humans through our camera lenses.
Later that night, my mother and I head back to the jungle. A casual lunchtime conversation with a Sri Lankan producer and his wife ended with us being invited to the wrap party of an American TV drama, Close Encounters. The jungle has been the predominant theme of our trip so far, so it seems like the most natural thing in the world to be sitting with strangers in this Out of Africa setting, surrounded by swaying grasses, kerosene torches and a table full of barbecued meats.
It’s difficult to wake up the next morning but we’re scheduled to climb Sigiriya at dawn. Sigiriya is the lion-shaped rock fortress built in the fifth century by King Kashyap and deemed by the locals to be the eighth wonder of the world. I climbed it nine years ago and it’s as difficult now as it was then. You have to cut through three levels of gardens, all fed by an intricate but defunct terracotta underwater piping system, before starting the dauntingly steep ascent. What I realise, as I huff and puff my way up, is how much easier it must have been for King Kashyap, who had four stalwart soldiers to ferry him up and down on a litter.
At the midway level are the Sigiriya frescoes, 21 paintings of ample-busted women of King Kashyap’s court, vaguely reminiscent of the ladies that line the Ajanta caves. There were 500 frescoes originally, but over the years some have been destroyed by natural erosion, while others, our guide explains, were defaced by the Buddhist monks who took up residence here after King Kashyap’s fall. “Some monks don’t like topless ladies,” he said.
After climbing Sigiriya we drive north-west on to Ulagalla resort, a brand new property close to the ancient city of Anuradhapura. Arriving here is like entering an oasis, a sanctuary for our tired and overheated bodies. The main office and dining area are housed in a wallawe (literally, a mansion) decorated with wonderfully ornate old fans. At Ulagalla they call their suites chalets and their staff associates. “It’s ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen,” the resident manager, Lalin, tells us. It’s the most luxurious place my mother and I have stayed at to date.
Everything runs with wonderful precision at Ulagalla. There are 25 chalets built on stilts, and spread over 23.5 hectares. You can either bike around or call for a golf buggy and the activities on offer include archery, horse riding, kayaking and bird watching, and a gorgeous spa, but when you can lounge about in your own private plunge pool and Jacuzzi, I wonder, who would want to move? My mother and I finally decide to make an effort at sunset. We ride our bikes around the property, stopping to take pictures from lookout towers, imagining how the place must look when the paddy fields that surround the estate are at their brightest and most luminous.
It’s very difficult to say goodbye to Ulagalla, and especially after we finally figure out how to operate the ultra high-tech entertainment system, safe and switchboard. Also, let’s face it: the Jacuzzi on the deck is a big bonus. Still, we must soldier on to the final, and perhaps the toughest part of our journey. A one-day historical blowout at Mihintale and Anuradhapura, plus the long drive back to Colombo. Is it possible? You bet.
Mihintale is the place where Buddhism arrived in Sri Lanka from India in the third century BC, via Emperor Ashoka’s son, Mahinda. It wasn’t on our original itinerary but Hemantha seemed very dejected about bypassing it, so we decided to call in. Our guide for the day, Kapila, had studied biochemistry and spent two years in prison because of his involvement with the JVP, the youth Marxist party. Mahinda convinced King Tissa, ruler of Sri Lanka at the time, to convert to Buddhism, and soon, more and more people were brought into the fold. Today, Buddhism is Sri Lanka’s official religion.
Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka’s most historic city, has been off the tourist circuit in recent years as, being strategically positioned on the road to the Tamil Tiger stronghold of Jaffna, it was home to a large army base. Ideally you need a couple of days to wander around the ruins here. We have just two hours in the city, so must do a drive-by tour, though we still manage to take in giant stupas, swimming pools and pleasure gardens, a 2,000-year-old Bo tree, and countless other treasures.
As we make our way back to Colombo I make note of the lyrical names of the towns we pass through: Katuneriya, Mangaleiya, Nikaweratiya, Rajakadaluwa. I love the way the names roll off the tongue, part of the magic of Sri Lanka – as varied and wonderful as the many different peoples and climate zones.
Being such a small place, and having such a behemoth as a neighbour, Sri Lanka is often thought of as “India Lite” or “India diluted”.
I disagree. Sure, some of the landscape is evocative of Goa or Kerala, and there are elephants and tea plantations and cricket-obsessed folk, but to reduce it to an extension of India is to deprive it of its own special powers, the greatest of which is that it is an island: small, contained, able to look in and out at the same time.
After stopping for a final night at The Wallawwa, a new and very chic heritage hotel near Colombo airport, we say goodbye to Hemantha, who has been a stellar guide and companion. I tell him it won’t be long before I’m back to discover more of this tear-shaped island. “Hari, hari,” he says jokingly. This has become the phrase of the week, translating as “Yes, good, it’s all right, OK”. When you make your trip to Sri Lanka, make sure you say, “Hari, hari,” because those words work as a blessing, really. Just say yes, and everything will be OK.
Tishani Doshi’s new novel, The Pleasure Seekers, is out now. Tishani travelled with Experience Travel