Rediscovering Lanka

The Guardian

Sri Lanka:

Twenty years of turmoil has failed to wipe the smile off the face of what Marco Polo called the most beautiful island in the world.

T wenty years of civil war and a fragile ceasefire should have left more obvious scars, but Sri Lanka seems implausibly peaceful. It isn’t what I expected. In Sri Lanka, you are welcome.

Beggars and touts are fewer and less persistent; on the steps of the Dambulla caves, the sellers of postcards, toy elephants and badly made boxes were more interested in talking about cricket. Life is conducted in an orderly sequence; the houses are either being built, being lived in or falling down.

A large sign on the front entrance to Colombo jail read: “Prisoners are human beings.’’

I had been told that security at the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy had become very strict since the 1998 terrorist bombing, and I imagined the local monks, as heavy as nightclub bouncers, whispering: “Step back son or you’ll be pushing up the lotus flowers!’’ But they didn’t.

When the Buddha was young, his father surrounded him with every imaginable luxury and shielded him from the evils of the world, and it was not until he was nearly an adult that he had any contact with old age, illness or death. Travelling round Sri Lanka on an upmarket tour is a bit like that. There could be ugly places and dangerous people just around the corner but they are all kept safely out of sight as you are shepherded from one wonder to the next.

Perhaps it really is what it seems. I shared the ancient ruins of Polonnaruwa with a group of improbably well-behaved schoolchildren escorted by a Buddhist monk in an almost luminous orange robe. The girls wore gingham dresses that belonged in the 1950s; the boys were dressed in grey flannels and white shirts; all of them had bare feet. It was a genuinely serene moment.

The “Cultural Triangle’’ between Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Dambulla is a jungle-covered plain strewn with granite boulders 200m high, with a profusion of wildlife, exotic plants and World Heritage Sites. The forests are mostly teak, mahogany, ebony and names like rosewood and satinwood that you only come across on The Antiques Road Show. On the outskirts of villages are mangoes and papayas, cloves and cinnamon. Ornamental gardeners appear to have an unlimited choice of large shrubs and small trees, all neatly shaped with large, evergreen leaves and showy, heavily scented flowers for most of the year. Marco Polo called it the most beautiful island in the world, and you really can’t disagree. The Cultural Triangle is like the Bermuda Triangle except in reverse. Here, nothing disappears; it is just temporarily lost from sight for a millennium or so, always waiting to be rediscovered.

The palace in the sky at Sigiriya took only seven years to build; it was occupied for 18, then forgotten for more than 1,300.

Halfway up the rock, you can take a detour to the Cave of the Heavenly Maidens via a shaky spiral staircase with open wrought-iron steps and a vertical drop of several hundred feet directly below. “Very safe!” said the guide. “It was a gift from London Underground in 1938.’’

Polonnaruwa was the island’s capital in the 11th and 12th centuries, then lost until the mid-19th when a British hunting party stumbled across it deep in the jungle. “You are all Japanese, no?’’ said the lugubrious wildlife guide at Yala National Park. Somehow, this did not inspire confidence in his ability to identify the more obscure species of bird and mammal.

We failed to spot any leopards, but he did show us some trees where he had often seen them, and we diligently tried to imagine what they might have looked like. The high point of the safari was a close encounter with a spoonbill.

“Look! A spoonbill. Its bill . . . is shaped . . . like a spoon.’’ It was better than any production-line African safari. In the evening, I swam in the infinity pool overlooking the Indian ocean. It was raining, and thunder rolled around the bay. Infinity pools are the modern ha-has;  from the hotel, the view blends seamlessly into the ocean, 12 metres below. When you get to the far edge of the pool, you see how it works; what seems fragile from a distance needs heavy-duty reinforcing. Down on the beach, the sea looked rough, and it is said to have dangerous undercurrents. Perhaps infinity is best seen from a safe distance.