The sun beams through the grey clouds onto the platform at Badulla station, high in the hills of Sri Lanka’s tea region. Rain is coming, probably the same rain that’s delaying our train. In front of me, hanging baskets line the station forecourt. Opposite the tracks, a row of colonial bungalows stand proudly. In the distance, local boys play cricket on a dusty field. As I head back to the woodpanelled First Class waiting room to finish my cup of tea from a china cup and help myself to another piece of spongecake, I think of how easily this could be the Hampshire of my childhood.
I’m far from home, far from England. And yet, there is so much that is familiar. Colonialism runs deep here in Sri Lanka – it’s somewhat hard to avoid. I have a difficult relationship with the subject. I was recently reading about the poll of whether a statue of Cecil Rhodes should be removed from outside Oriel College, Oxford on account of his ‘war crimes’ in growing the British Empire. It showed that the UK is a country divided on the subject, with nearly half thinking that our conquests overseas were a good thing. My own debate on the subject runs similarly – yes, we did bring a lot of economic development to places around the world, and with that a lot of cultural development too; tourism today would be entirely different without our Commonwealth links. But in the same breath, I cannot condone the Amritsar massacre, the post-partition violence in India or the Bengal famine. Then there’s the gay thing – with the legacy of the British legal system being the very reason why gay people are persecuted in so many countries in the world.
But I’m here, not for the lemon-drizzle sponge cake, but because I want to experience the Sri Lanka I grew up hearing so much about. Yes, many of the stories I had heard were linked to the English, Dutch and Portuguese colonialists – but amidst the tales of malaria-beating ‘gin-and-tonics’ and ‘mad-dogs and Englishmen’, I also heard tales of majestic elephants and mystical panthers, sacred temples, palatial cities and extravagant sacraments, ancient culture and history literally etched into this beautiful country’s steep, lushly forested hills.
Sri Lanka’s history far predates the western attempts of colonisation and has had more than its fair share of challenges. The first Kingdom was recorded in the 6th Century BC – and it has been a tempestuous 26 centuries since. From ancient Kingdoms changing hands, to much of the same between its colonists, to a bloody fight for independence, to what seemed like unending civil war and violent clashes between feuding religions – it meant that most of the country has for a long time been off-limits to visitors. Tourism was primarily centred around the country’s Southern beaches, known more for its surfers than its culture. Then these very beaches were tragically brought to the world’s attention when hit by a huge Tsunami. Since then, the country has been licking its wounds, rebuilding, convalescing and slowly opening up to travellers again.
I started my journey at the aforementioned southern beaches – in need of some relaxation and desperate for sunshine having flown from a grey, cold London on Christmas day. The beach at Tangalle instantly reminded me of how India’s beaches looked when I visited for the first time in the early ‘90s – unspoilt, endless expanses of white sand, broken only by the huge waves. Tangalle is made of several bays, each with a different appeal. Some are dominated by luxury hotels and others are lined with beautiful, colonial-era houses converted into boutique villas. We decamped on Marakolliya beach as we were seeking peace and seclusion far from the madding crowd, where the accommodation was basic but the experience sublime.
With my London stresses washed away, I made my way to the UNESCO heritage fort of Galle. Within the fort walls lies an architectural time-warp, built by its Dutch, Portuguese and British occupants. The winding streets offer Portuguese villas from the 1600s, Dutch colonnades, grand residences with shuttered windows and airy balconies, white-washed Art Deco houses and imposing British colonial churches, while red postboxes adorn the street like sentries to the faded empires. Walking its streets, I found that many of these beautiful properties have been brought back to life by residents, both local and international. I learnt that opinions are split on the redevelopment of Galle; some feel it’s turning into a pocket of wealth and luxury disproportionate to Sri Lanka’s population, but I tend to agree with the others who feel that the buildings are better restored, rejuvenated and given a new lease of life, rather than being left as crumbling mausoleums.
Colonial town planning means the fort is laid out on a grid system, making it perfect for exploring. It’s a bit of a maze, but I’m the sort of person who enjoys getting lost – which is the best way to uncover Galle’s hidden treasures. I say this metaphorically and literally, as several of these streets are homes to antique shops (a boom fuelled by the demand for home furnishings in the restored villas). I spent a lot of time in an old Dutch colonial residence, drawn to the faded charm of the merchandise within it. One room was filled with gramophones and old records, while another had the largest collection of antique luggage I had ever seen. Covered in dust, cobwebs and shrouded in darkness, with windows glazed with stained glass and floorboards that creaked with every step, the rooms smelt of a heavy mixture of incense and old leather. As I drifted, mesmerised, from room to room, filled with the paraphernalia of a bygone era, something urged me to open a set of dusty double doors. Walking through, I encountered a vast, empty space and it wasn’t until I looked up that I noticed a ceiling filled with what must have been a hundred chandeliers of different styles and sizes, each casting dramatic shadows across the floor. A sudden breeze filled the room and the chandeliers sang like wind chimes, harmonising a lonely song of forsaken beauty. The room was suddenly filled with prisms of colour and light that danced across the floor – like the ghosts of those who had danced a hundred dances beneath these chandeliers of the once great Galle households, their luggage still waiting to be collected in the other room, as the gramophone played out jazz. Then the air was still once more and the ghosts were banished to the darkness. For me this is the magic of Galle, and this was just one of many such buildings, on many such streets – full of echoes, with hundreds of stories waiting be told, age old scandals whispered and romances rediscovered.
As seductive as this image of Sri Lanka is for me, Galle isn’t a true representation of the rest of the country. While I can’t deny succumbing to its charm, it is evidently somewhat crafted by and for tourism. I was getting eager to see what lay beyond the villas, luxury hotels and bougainvillea-clad coffee shops.
So we set compass for Dambulla, home to majestic teak forests and the gateway to the ancient secrets of lost kingdoms. Not wanting to lose time, we opted for a local car and driver. I love travelling this way – you get out what you put in, and furthermore, a local driver will always be able to take you to places where you can taste real local flavours, and experience local hospitality beyond your planned itinerary. A six hour journey by car may sound painful for some, but I loved every single minute and it whizzed by so quickly, almost too quickly; above all, it was an adventure that was a far cry from my London city life. And I have to admit, being chauffeured around all day was a bit more than fabulous, something less affordable at home!
The first couple of hours were smooth and monotonous on the newly built motorway; endless palm trees gave way to green fertile plantations, interrupted at regular intervals by billboards, and advertising-clad buildings, tempting locals to part with their hard-earned cash. I was obsessed with these, because they were mostly hand-painted. It seems that it is still cheaper, or convention at the very least, to get a local artist to paint a billboard than to roll out a photographic print. The result is often rather camp and pop-tastic – a woman beaming out with satisfaction about her washing powder, a Warhol-esque image of a can of car oil, a family drinking ‘Thumbs Up’ (similar to Coca-Cola) smiling joyfully at their sugar intake. These bright, utopian images, reminiscent of 1950s advertising in Britain and America, continued beyond the motorway, to cover every surface – buildings, walls and even vehicles in the smaller Sri Lankan towns. This is a taste of the Sri Lanka pushing towards the future, colonisation of a different kind, by the multinational corporation. This last bastion of unexploited, pre-corporate Southern Indian continent has become seriously ripe and juicy for capitalisation; that’s why I decided come now, as I fear it will be a very different Sri Lanka in a few year’s time.
As we started the climb uphill, gone was the smooth, surfaced motorway, replaced with local roads and bumpy pothole-ridden paths. Halfway into our journey, we stopped the car to remind our legs what walking was. We were in a small and dusty settlement not found in any guide book, or even on our map it seems – and the only Western faces in town. Our driver, Kadim, took us to a local café for a spot of lunch. The food here was a simple choice of chicken or vegetarian curry with rice, both of which packed a punch. A quick walk around town lead us through a maze of ramshackle buildings, no boujis tourist shops here! A dark alley led to shops packed with all things plastic, whole streets selling the same thing in fact. Another alley revealed a row of shops selling fabrics, where I picked up a sarong to cover myself at the holy sights. Ironically, the shop was called ‘New York, New York’ and for a second it felt like the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple: the owner, shoppers and the whole town it seemed turned up to watch us shop – with particular interest in my gentle-giant, 6 foot 5 fiancé – and give us tips on which designs to buy. I’m now the proud owner of eight sarongs – what can I say? I’m just a girl who can’t say no.
Arriving that evening in Dambulla, it became clear that I was starting to discover the paradise I sought – high on a hill in the middle of the teak plantation. Five bungalows of wood, rock and glass, the whole place was made from teak and stone. The gentle rain and heat gave the whole place a mysterious, almost spiritual haze – with the sounds of the jungle as our lullaby.
SIGIRAYA / POLONNARUWA
We rose early to a spectacular dawn chorus, the most beautiful alarm clock one could ask for and the right way to start a day’s exploring. Our rickshaw was standing by to take us to Sigiriya, a complex of palatial ruins, dating back to the 5th Century. The first thing you see on the approach is a huge rock busting out of the ground and dominating the sky – stretching up 200 meters. It requires some imagination to see that the place was once a palace with sprawling grounds covered with elaborate, symmetrical water gardens and pavilions – today all that remains are craggy, ancient ruins and dark mysterious pools, set around this enormous, towering rock. Most of the structures have long fallen, but their imprint and foundations remain – and while it is easy to get lost, it is said that some people come here and walk as if they had been here once before. My explorations led me to the pools; it seems my radar for communal bathing is still finely tuned. My fiancé, on the other hand, headed almost straight for the palace’s throne-room and audience hall without guidance, no surprise given his insistence on always having the last word.
It’s the done thing to scale the rock, a little daunting at first, but armed with a lust for adventure and some good walking shoes, I was soon rewarded by stunning frescos of wasp-waisted, buxom concubines etched into the stone. I fantasised that this was perhaps what motivated the kings, as a promise of what lay in wait at the summit. But what greeted us at the top was a stunning view of the whole complex, and it’s up here that you realise that the entire 1.6 hector site is uninterrupted – no tourist shops or cafés and just a few visitors, so very unlike the other sites of archeological significance around the world.
Carrying on with the theme of exploring ancient kingdoms, we made way in the afternoon sun to Polonnaruwa, the once great capital of the Sinhalese Kingdom, over a thousand years old. In its heyday, this was the commercial and religious capital, and today it is protected by UNESCO as a world heritage site. The archeological treasures to be found on site give you a good indication of what this Kingdom once looked like, palaces, ‘dagobas’ (memorial domes), temples and other architectural features to showcase the might of the then King Parakrambahu, who built his palace seven stories high in a feat of engineering.
The entire complex is best explored by bike – but don’t expect a hipster fixed-wheel cycle, I was told to be thankful that it had two wheels and brakes that work. My bicycle had definitely seen better days and ironically I looked more like Elliot from E.T. rather than Indiana Jones. Polonnaruwa is utterly atmospheric, still used by locals and very much alive; you’ll still find people on spiritual pilgrimages, making offerings among thick mists of incense smoke. There is an ancient reclining Buddha effigy here at Polonnaruwa, which suggests the significance of the city as a religious centre, as a Buddha in such a pose represents the period of his last illness, entering ‘Pari-nirvana’. In simpler, layman’s terms, the place is deemed so magnificent, that Buddha himself would have been happy to die here.
In one last feat of tropical weather, the heavens opened once again. Perhaps it was a spiritual cleanse – many of the Buddhist pilgrims believed so, as they stood out playing in the heavy rain, beaming from ear to ear, laughing and accepting their drenched fate. The tourist in me started to run for cover, but something stopped me. Rather than seeking the shelter of a nearby, sheetmetal- roofed hut, a calm came over me and I too accepted this baptism. Having seen what I had seen in the past days, it seemed foolish to run from the water that not only fed the land, but also the soul and spirit of this island nation. I’m thrilled that I have had the chance to experience what in my mind is the real Sri Lanka, to leave the gentrified walls of Galle to find my own Nirvana. No doubt there’s so much more to be seen and explored, and many more friendly locals to meet along the way – but just being in that circumstance, that position, with my loved one by my side, dancing in the rain, made me feel that perhaps I too am ready to lay down on my side, and recline – I had finally found the enchanting place I spent my life searching out. I can’t say with any certainty if I have been here before in a past life, but what I do know, is that I shall certainly be here again.
GET OUT THERE
1. We travelled as an openly gay couple and received nothing but wonderful hospitality. It’s not uncommon here for men to travel together, but it goes without saying to exercise caution in more rural areas.
2. Take tea. Not just in the colonial style at a luxury hotel, but take time to understand the agricultural significance of this national industry.
3. Travel long distances between destinations by private car, which is cost effective and easy to arrange. The ability to detour when you want is a special bonus.
4. Take a train journey, they don’t go fast and are often delayed, but this will give you a slow-travel opportunity to see the country.
5. Indulge in curry or any other home-cooking. Try the Murunga, a green bean, the fruit of the horseradish tree. It’s simply delicious.
6. You’ll see elephants roaming free everywhere, which is for the best. Stay clear of anywhere offering an elephant experience; what goes on behind the scenes isn’t worth the experience.