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Above and beyond: visiting Sri Lanka

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“You need eggs? I’ll get you some eggs. Be right back,” is the reply that comes from an independent grocer in Hikkaduwa, on Sri Lanka’s southwest coast. We’re staying at a rented villa just off the town’s main strip and have run out of eggs.

It’s a sweltering afternoon and, after hopping in his tuk-tuk and returning with a dozen eggs (where from remains a mystery), the owner steers the conversation to Sri Lankan inflation, his worries about his daughter’s schooling, and his hopes the country can find its way through the mire after 30 years of civil war. Needless to say, going in search of eggs for a bunch of tourists is above and beyond the call of duty.

But that’s the thing about Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans. Above and beyond is par for the course.

Elephant-spotting at Yala National Park

Colombo city tour

The cautious among us will advise against travelling to Sri Lanka in the wake of April’s terror attacks, but they shouldn’t. While not detracting from the tragedy, Sri Lanka actively practises tolerance, and for now, it’s an affordable, diverse and delicious vacation destination ideal for individuals and families alike.

Most international visitors start in Colombo, and most brush it off far too quickly. Located on a harbour that was once a strategic port for Portuguese, Dutch and British traders – and is now a Chinese Belt and Road stop – Colombo has more going for it than it’s given credit for.

Start with a stay at the ShangriLa Hotel, Colombo (with serviced apartments for families) to get a lay of the land. The hotel sits walking distance from Galle Face Green, a 12-acre urban park, where you should sample Sri Lanka’s representative street food, kottu – a grilled mix of shredded chicken, vegetables, noodles, egg and roti – while sitting by the sea. A few minutes further and the Khan Clock Tower identifies Pettah Market, a bazaar that puts Mongkok’s Ladies’ Market to shame and must simply be experienced.

Colombo is also an architecture buff’s dream, so dive into history at the 19th-century Italianate National Museum of Colombo and move on to renowned Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa’s 33rd Lane home. Among the most influential Asian architects of his generation, Bawa is widely credited with creating tropical modernism, and thus shaping the look of modern-day South East Asia.

The next day, tour Colombo Fort with knowledgeable, loquacious local guide Mark Forbes of Colombo City Walks. He’ll regale you about how after the Civil War ended newly unemployed Sri Lankan soldiers were drafted
into restoring the Old Colombo Dutch Hospital – home to trendy local brands and one of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants (Ministry of Crab). Mark’s tour stops at the magnificent colonial General Post Office and Cargills department store, and winds up at the luxurious Grand Oriental Hotel, for a gin and tonic.

Galle Face Green

Most delightfully, Mark points out the teahouse where ’80s new wave band Duran Duran shot the classic video for Hungry Like the Wolf. Maybe leave the kids behind for this one.

The question after Colombo becomes one of which way to go. Heading inland towards Kandy is always a good idea given Sri Lanka’s tea reputation. But if you’ve got kids, you might prefer to bask in the country’s diverse wildlife. Make your way south, either by train or on the new west coast highway, to the beach town of Tangalle and start adventuring there.

Elephants and treehouses

Sri Lanka is home to 26 national parks, each with unique charms, but Yala National Park is the second largest and most visited. Located on the southeast coast around three hours’ drive from Tangalle, Yala has some of the most varied animal life of all of the parks in the country, including elephants, sacred langurs and endangered Sri Lankan leopards.

Yala has a permit-based entry system but a murky web presence. Fortunately, dozens of local tour operators are picking up the slack. A good one is Lanka Tracker, and if you’re lucky you’ll have guide Indu’s eagle eyes spotting animals hidden in the bush.

Lanka Tracker will come pick you up from your hotel if you’re in the Yala area, and nothing says wildlife safari like a stay in a treehouse. For a naturalist experience, spend a few days at Saraii Village, which stays true to its word. Rooms are accessed by crooked ladders made from branches, floors are woven together branches, walls exist in spirit only and bathrooms have dirt floors.

Saraii puts ecology first, so powersucking air conditioning and overlyprocessed soaps are out. But if ‘rock-a-by baby’ isn’t your cup of tea, there are mud huts – on the ground. Either way you’re going to hear all manner of wildlife running around outside overnight.

Hikkaduwa

Spas and cooking classes

Sleeping in trees should be rewarded with pampering and, with Sri Lanka becoming a hotbed of luxury spa resorts, plenty of decadent options exist. Among the best are the high-end Amanwella and the Bawa-designed Anantara Peace Haven Tangalle Resort, both stops on the way back from Yala.

Peace Haven has plenty to keep kids amused, with one of its most engaging ‘excursions’ being ‘Spice Spoons,’ an outing to a local market first thing with the hotel’s chef followed by lessons in making lunch.

Sri Lankan cuisine is distinct from Indian, and involves heaps of coconut and coconut milk, making it somewhat milder. Even the rice is different: fat-grained and almost nutty. Must-haves (aside from kottu) include pani pol – a dessert crepe made with coconut milk and stuffed with palm sugar and shredded coconut – and jackfruit curry. Yes. Jackfruit.

Admittedly cooking for oneself isn’t entirely vacation-y, but watching Sri Lankan dishes come together with the same few ingredients is worth the work. Anantara has a second hotel in Sri Lanka at Kalutara – also by Bawa and perhaps the most exemplary of his work, which also offers its cooking class.

Beach bums and batik

Hit the road and head for a town like Hikkaduwa. With its tourist-friendly beach bum vibe, it’s popular for swimming and surfing.

The town is a good place from which to explore the old Dutch stronghold of Galle Fort (30 minutes by train), visit sea turtle sanctuaries and tour Lunuganga, Bawa’s Country Estate (about an hour).

Also around Hikkaduwa is a clutch of traditional Sri Lankan wax-dyed batik makers. If Alponso Batiks is closed when you visit, don’t worry. A neighbour will call Alponso and tell him he has customers. He’ll race down on his moped to see how he can help you. At the family-run Genuine Batik (Jungle Workshop) close by, you’re likely to get offered fruit and tea, while you browse Hirantha’s incredible artisanal work.

See? Above and beyond.

Chicken Kottu 


Find it

• Amanwella, www.aman.com
• Anantara Peace Haven Tangalle Resort, www.anantara.com
• Colombo City Walks, www.colombocitywalks.com
• Grand Oriental Hotel, www.grandoriental.com
• Lanka Tracker, lankatracker.simdif.com
• Saraii Village, www.saraiivillage.com
• Shangri-La Hotel, Colombo, www.shangri-la.com

Cathay Pacific flies direct to Colombo Bandaranaike International Airport.
For more information refer to travellanka.lk.


 

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