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The shimmering beauty of Sri Lanka

From seeing baby elephants to the temple that houses a tooth relic of Buddha - Gareth Huw Davies finds joy on the island that gave its name to serendipity

Sri Lanka is a destination of glorious, shimmering sandy beaches, enthralling wildlife and relics of ancient civilisations.

Serendip is the island's ancient name, so it can claim to be the spiritual home of serendipity - lucky discoveries by accident - and this is the feeling you get all the time here.

Hoteliers and the rest of the tourist industry on this beautiful teardrop-shaped island are keenly looking forward to welcoming holidaymakers back following the relaxation of Foreign Office warnings about travel to Sri Lanka after the tragic terror attacks at Easter.

Sigiriya Rock with its 1500-year-old fortress perched atop

On one of my early starts for an excursion, serendipity was seeing dozens of candles flickering in the dense dark outside a Buddhist temple. Then a schoolgirl in brilliant white uniform striding through the dawn mists along a levee between paddy fields, while an equally white egret paced daintily in the water.

Or an old lady, knee-deep in a swamp picking blue water lilies, the national flower. And everywhere, games of impromptu cricket, with a stick for a bat and a plastic drum for a wicket, on bare mud patches, in gardens, on roads.

The island’s unique subspecies of elephants are a vestige of ancient Sri Lanka. You can’t miss them.

My most memorable jumbo encounter was at the Uda Walawe nature reserve.

We watched in awe as an extended family ambled across our track. One juvenile pushed over a tree, just for fun, it seemed. Last across was a harassed young mother, sheltering a three-week-old baby.

You might see 200 elephants at the lake in Minneriya National Park, while the distinguished star in Yala National Park is the ‘prince of the night’ – the leopard.

Sri Lanka's railway was established in 1864 to reach the tea plantations high in the hill country

The nearest thing to cool in Sri Lanka is its green and hilly heart, where tea plantations are a fascinating sight. Kandy, where the British beat the last king of Ceylon in 1815, still feels like a charming, antique outpost of empire.

It is dotted with guesthouses that recall Tunbridge Wells. The colonial throwbacks include a bus station clock that chimes like Big Ben. There are red King George V post boxes and immaculate old Morris Minors, Hillman Minxes and Ford Anglias.

I stayed at the Queen’s Hotel, all echoing wooden corridors and polished staircases. In the Botanical Gardens I found the tree that Queen Elizabeth planted.

Serenely perched on Kandy lake, the Temple of the Tooth houses an ancient tooth from Buddha

In the serenity of the Temple of the Tooth, what is said to be the Buddha’s tooth is kept safe within the innermost of seven caskets.

Sigiriya is a quarter the size of Ayers Rock, topped with the 1,500-year-old fortress of the playboy King Kasyapa. He killed his father and surrounded himself with a crocodile-filled moat to exclude his vengeful brother.

I decided against the one-hour, 900ft climb to the top for the ancient frescoes and spicy graffiti.

Instead I strolled into the jungle that smothers the massive defensive stones at the rock’s base.

Huge, golden-green butterflies fluttered past. A strange symphony of birds burbled out of the trees – Sri Lanka has many wonderful avian species.
In a gap in the canopy I caught a flash of orange at the top of the rock. It was a Buddhist monk in his vivid garb. Yet more serendipity.

Most visitors stay on the west and south coasts where there's a growing choice of chic boutique hotels. You can book trips by coach or car (with your own private driver) to most parts of Sri Lanka. For short distances the ubiquitous motorised tuk-tuks are fun.

My advice is not to even consider hiring a car. Roads are an all-day adrenaline rush. You need an expert at the wheel to dodge the massive Ashok Leyland Tusker lorries painted with idealised landscapes, jam-packed buses and wobbling bikes with impossible loads.

The little station on the Colombo to Galle line close by my hotel felt like a slumbering country halt from 1950s Britain. Behind the ticket office’s narrow arched window, a clerk consulted his tomes and solemnly outlined my choices – I opted for a 90-minute trip in second class for about 50p.

On the platform I joined goats and men there just for a chat. We lurched off down the beautiful coast to Galle. Another epic rail journey is Colombo to Trincomalee, a city on the east coast. 

First published in the Mail on Sunday - August 2019

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