Our World Sri Lanka has much to draw you in

Photo of Dean Alston

Our cartoonist Dean Alston encountered a sacred tooth, menacing monkeys and more curry than you could poke a cinnamon stick at. And he recorded it all for posterity. This is his Sri Lanka diary...

Saturday

After the cold of Perth, arriving in Sri Lanka is like wearing a thermal space blanket. We’re met by our young, friendly driver Chummy. The brief is for a short stay in Colombo, a tour of the Cultural Triangle, a relaxing few days at a coastal resort and a nice hotel at the end. Off we go!

We head to Mt Lavinia Hotel, south of Colombo. This old British pile next to the sea began life as British governor Sir Thomas Maitland’s mansion in the early 1800s. These days it’s a bit tired but still a grand old lady.

We’re welcomed by a doorman sporting a white pith helmet and crisp whites. The rooms are nice, most with a sea view, and there’s a lovely terrace and exquisite Raj-style dining room. The old wide-gauge railway runs behind the hotel and then next to the sea all the way to central Colombo.

The food is grand. I know your mother told you to beware of buffets but this so well done: tasty and plentiful curries and Western food, following drinks on the terrace. 

The walk north along the beach is interesting, with pop-up bars and fishing shacks. To the south, the hotel’s beach is wide and inviting.

Sunday

Following our baptism by curry and Sri Lankan hospitality, we travel east to Hatton, in tea country. 

We stop at the town of Ginigathena, where there are markets and shops selling vegetables, hardware and clothes — everything you could need — before arriving at Mandira Strathdon Bungalow, a beautifully restored, old, tea plantation manager’s home. We’re the only guests.

Misty hills. Light rain. Gin and tonics on the terrace overlooking thousands of hectares of manicured tea plantations.

Monday

After breakfast we run down to the valley to see the tea factory and workers’ village next to it, where we meet children in crisp, white school uniforms with smiles to match and watch the tea pickers start work. 

Each girl has to pick 20kg of leaves a day — a tough job. 

Tuesday

We depart for Kandy, travelling past rolling hills, mountains and lush tropical forest. More prosperous homes appear as we near Kandy, the one-time capital of Sri Lanka.

We pass through Nawalapitiya, with its bustling streets full of commerce, shoppers and the ubiquitous tuktuk taxis. Then it’s on to Gampola, which is even busier, and the Royal Botanical Gardens at Peradeniya. They’re well worth the visit. 

It’s about now we realise why it’s advisable to hire a driver. Sri Lankan driving is a bit like Italian driving and Sri Lankans communicate using the car horn for “get out of my way”, “speed up”, or “thank you”. It’s chaos but Chummy is expert.

We push on to Kandy and the Cinnamon Citadel hotel, a 70s edifice set on a lovely jungle-fringed river in the middle of nowhere. 

The restaurant is empty, so we jump into a tuktuk and motor off to the bright lights of Kandy for a great curry at White House Restaurant. Kandy at night is like Kalamunda on a Monday night — quiet.

Wednesday

Kandy was the last royal capital and was brought under British control in 1815. We see the Ceremony of the Sacred Tooth at the Buddhist temple. The tooth is a revered relic of Lord Buddha and the ceremony is colourful, everyone brings gifts and flowers and there’s music and ritual and history. 

Then it’s on to Kandy markets, where there’s fresh produce, handicrafts, food and people vying for whatever is left in our wallets. After coffee at Empire Cafe, we have a long drive to Habarana. Our hotel, Cinnamon Lodge, is a winner.

 It’s set in lush grounds and we’re in a bungalow surrounded by lawns, trees and lakes. As we sit outside for tea, the monkeys arrive. The circus is fantastic: acrobatics and attempts to steal our biscuits.

We eat at a small local restaurant called Villa Dewata which is absolutely delightful: cheap, great curries, and within walking distance.

Thursday

To Sigiriya, the World Heritage-listed fifth century citadel of King Kasyapa. The gigantic rock fortress overlooks the surrounding plain, its entrance surrounded by gardens and moats, galleries and caves. 

The remains of the extensive buildings and ramparts are staggering. The climb to the top is challenging but worth it to see the ancient engineering works and contemplate the splendour that once was.

That afternoon we head to Minneriya National Park, where we have a driver and a sharp-eyed guide. 

The birdlife is fascinating, and we see crocodiles, deer and circling hawks. As we arrive at a vast lake, at least 60 elephants with many calves emerge from the forest to harvest the fresh grasses at the water’s edge.

 They are fiercely protective of their young — a bit like a Peppy Grove mum — and we keep moving as they growl at us. It’s a wonderful experience.

We stop in the nearest town to top up the cash reserves. Habarana is busier than Kalamunda — more like Dalwallinu, with road trains roaring through.

Friday

Brekky is egg hoppers (poached egg in a fine pastry basket), tomatoes and toast. The most amazing thing so far has been the lack of leaf tea: all teabags, in one of the homes of tea.

We set off for Dambulla. Called “the 24-hour town”, it’s a busy market town humming with trucks, people, tuktuks and all kinds of shops. 

We spend the night at Heritance Kandalama. The hotel is designed to join with the surroundings and part of the building envelops the adjoining cliff face, which forms part of the entry walkway. 

Vines and creepers curl around the supports outside the rooms and the outlook is across a tremendous artificial lake. It’s spectacular, with a resident elephant and plenty of wildlife.

We venture on to the balcony for drinks and the monkeys show up. They’re a bit frightening as they bare their teeth. Drinks inside, then.

Saturday

We head for Dambulla cave temple, where a leisurely climb up what seems like about half a million stairs leads us to a series of caves treasured by kings since the first century BC.

Five caves house drawings and statues of Lord Buddha, all surrounding the Golden Temple of Dambulla. It is incredibly hot, so I am keen to return to the air-conditioned temple of our Toyota Camry parked below, but I soldier on.

Our next destination is Pasikuda, to the east. We stop on the way at Polonnaruwa, a former capital and royal city of King Parakramabahu I. The remains of a sophisticated ancient culture are evident: a gigantic artificial lake and irrigation canals set in rich agricultural country. (We spare a thought for the thousands of workers who excavated the lake by hand and the many who must have perished.) 

It is a breathtaking place.

After driving through rainforest, jungle, scrubby plains, coastal scrub and coconut palms, we arrive at Uga Bay resort. It’s the best resort on this stretch of beach, with wonderful, accommodating staff. 

We have a beach studio, which overlooks the wide, flat expanse of white sand. The sea is a bit murky but refreshingly cool. 

Drinks on the balcony, then it’s curry time.

Sunday

Breakfast is egg hoppers, bacon, fruit, juice and more teabags.

It’s hot, about 38C. We relax under the coconut palms, run on the beach, swim and ride bicycles into the nearest town, a trading and fishing hub. 

We walk through the market: Claremont Quarter it’s not but the varieties of fruit, vegetables and fish — including stingrays — are interesting. Fabric shops, hardware and coconut stalls all vie for business in the bazaar- like atmosphere.

Later, we walk up the beach at Uga Bay, where families are having fun on their day off: kids and adults in the water, the girls demurely clad in school uniforms while swimming.

 Friendly hellos, beautiful people. Dinner is salad Nicoise for me. I’m all curried out.

Monday

More fun. More relaxing. It’s hell. We walk up the beach to see the fishermen come in with their catch.

 Lunch, drink, dinner — you know the drill.

Tuesday

We arrive in Colombo early afternoon, Chummy takes us on a short tour of the city. It’s a fascinating mix of grand British buildings and Sri Lankan modern (and not so modern). Some inner-city streets look just like South Kensington in London. It’s very busy, with tuktuks weaving in and out of the heavy traffic. 

We finally arrive at Galle Face Hotel. Originally opened in 1864 by four British entrepreneurs, the hotel is a jaw-dropper: long hallways with twirling punkah✓ fans, wonderful bars and dining areas, all right next to the sea. 

It borders on Galle Face Green, a stretch of grass used for ceremonies, kite flying and relaxing by all and sundry.

 There’s a celebration for the end of Ramadan on our second night: thousands of people, food stalls and tuktuks.

We’re lucky to score a table for dinner at Ministry of Crab in the Old Dutch Hospital complex. The food and decor are sensational.

Wednesday

It’s our last day in Sri Lanka. After breakfast, we walk the city streets in the blazing sun. The humidity is crippling.

We have dinner at Chutneys in the Cinnamon Grand hotel nearby. It’s surely the best food in Sri Lanka: thali dosai, mutton keema, minced chicken, seafood scramble, sambar, coconut chutney, dhal chutney, carrot halva and chicken curry, all soaked up with Malabar paratha bread. The tastes are complementary and consuming — and all at a reasonable price. 

We’re on the plane home at 1.10am.

Sri Lanka is worth the visit.

The history is surprising: ancient cultures, with Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim influences. The landscape is varied and so interesting. Heat is formidable on the coast but beautiful in the tea country. The food is wonderful, as are the people. 

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