Sri Lanka enthralls with superb roads, friendly people and gorgeous food

The Vatadage in Polonnaruwa, which probably once held a relic of the Buddha
Days after I returned from my trip to Sri Lanka last month, Lonely Planet named the country its top destination for 2019. I wasn’t surprised. Whether your idea of a holiday is to be a beach bum or a culture freak or to have your fill of nature, wildlife and adventure sport, this island country has it all. Add to that superb roads, tourist-friendly people and gorgeous food, and you really want to check in and never leave.

After spending a night in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s leafy capital, we headed out for the Central Province where the old cultural heart of the country lies. The area’s three historic high points are the ruins of the ancient cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, and Sigiriya, the Lion Rock, the 200m-high fortress-eyrie of a 5th-century Sinhala king. In Sigiriya, the hamlet named after the soaring rock, we stayed in a wooded resort with food so good that it probably had a masterchef in hiding. This is where I had my first taste of the Sri Lankan breakfast consisting of string hoppers (idli-like discs of slender noodles made with rice flour), white curry (a thin, lightly flavoured coconut milk broth), dhal curry (dal made with coconut milk and seasoned with fennel and curry leaves), a spicy chicken or fish curry, and pol sambol (a coconut, chilli and onion relish). It was a stunning confluence of flavours and I devoured the entire lot and licked my fingers clean.   

Elephants grazing in Kaudulla National Park
We had decided to give Anuradhapura a miss, but breathtaking Polonnaruwa made up for the loss. A sprawling complex of colonnaded buildings, Buddhist temples and towering viharas (monasteries), the splendour of Polonnaruwa dates back to the 11th century CE, when Sinhala king Viravahu drove away the Chola invaders from southern India and set up his capital here. You need a few hours to explore the architectural majesty of this site. The museum, too, is worth a visit.

Next up was Sigiriya Rock which, the guidebooks said, was famous for its frescoes. But to see those you have to ascend the 1,200 steps to the top of the rock. I must admit here that one look at the vertiginous climb and I promptly chickened out. The others went ahead, while I contemplated the dramatic outcrop and wondered if that bygone king had got some winged god to build his palace in the clouds. When my friends came back huffing and puffing, they swore that there were hardly any frescoes up there. But don’t take their word for it — if you go to Sigiriya, climb the blessed thing and find out for yourself. If nothing else, you will at least have burnt a heck of a lot of calories. And the view is definitely to die for.

The beach at Hikkaduwa
Driving back, we saw a distant elephant cross the road with lightning speed. Elephants are native to these forests, and that afternoon we went to the Kaudulla National Park, about an hour’s drive from Sigiriya, to see if we could spot a few. We were in luck. Though we didn’t see any other animal, we came upon a herd of elephants feasting on grass with elephantine mindfulness. A flotilla of Jeeps stood by, filled with humans who gawked at them. They cared not a whit and before long, went trundling towards a shimmering lake to drink deep from it.

Sri Lankan crab curry
Sri Lanka’s coastline is dotted with many lovely beaches and it’s quite a challenge to pick one among them. We had plumped for Hikkaduwa in the southwest of the country. The sea is a startling Mediterranean blue here and the hotels, no doubt in complete violation of environmental norms, are built right on the narrow strip of the beach. You wouldn’t stand a chance if a tsunami swung by, but who cares about that when your soul is throbbing to the eternal roar of the waves crashing just a few yards away? I settled in for a few days of sybaritic bliss, punctuated by bingeing on crabs, mussels and prawns, cooked the spicy Sri Lankan way, or just lightly grilled for that intoxicating hit of fresh seafood taste.

Not far from Hikkaduwa is the fort city of Galle, which was built by the Portuguese in the 16th century and later taken over by the Dutch. You can wander around the imposing Galle Fort, its rugged, wind-swept ramparts and its many charming white-washed colonial buildings that house upscale coffee shops and jewellery stores. Sri Lanka is known for its gems — blue sapphire, moonstone, amethyst, rubies, garnet and many more. And I spent a pleasurable afternoon going through the shops, trying on exquisite pieces and teetering on the brink of blowing up a gigantic crater in my bank balance.  

I left Sri Lanka reluctantly and promised myself that I would be back. Perhaps I shall go whale-watching the next time, or scuba-dive near Hikkaduwa's coral reef. Or maybe I shall once again sit watching the brilliant aquamarine sea and think about my next Sri Lankan meal. That, too, sounds like a plan.

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