Asia 2005 : Sri Lanka

Terrorism, tsunami. If these are the words that people now associate with Sri Lanka, it's not surprising that the island's tourism industry has been suffering. There's another word that sums up this gem of the Indian Ocean to me - indeed this island that Arab sailors called Serendib gave us the word Serendipity.

Serependipity: those joyous unplanned moments that take the breath away, like the instant on an early morning taxi ride from Banderanaike airport to Kandy up in the central hills, when the tropical sun suddenly burst through the morning haze filling the rice fields with a vivid orange glow.

Or when, as we sped through the famous cashew nut producing village of Cadjugama, the driver suddenly brought the car to a lurching stop. I braced myself for a "First sir, we must go and visit my uncle's fine cashew shop" - but no, through the foliage by the roadside I could suddenly see what the driver had seen. Fifteen of Sri Lanka's most famous symbol, Elephas maximus maximus.

The Sri Lankans are anxious to preserve the 2000-odd Asian elephants which still roam the national parks and woodlands and the following day I travelled to Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage, a government-run effort to rescue abandoned and orphaned baby elephants. This was a cause certain to tug on heart and purse strings.

By the time I arrived the 'baby' elephants, often several metres in height and weighing two tonnes, were on their fourth meal of the day, and gurgled down vast quantities of milk fed to them in bottles by their mahouts.


A microcosm of Sri Lankan life was playing itself out at the edge of the Parakrama Samudra, a 6300-acre manmade lake which dominates the ancient city of Polonnaruwa. This colossal engineering project had been the brainchild of Parakramabahu the Great, a visionary leader who understood the important of irrigation to the "Granary of the East". He had declared "Let not a single drop enter the sea without being used by man" and this reservoir was a key part of his plan.

The evening rain had been increasing in ferocity until it became hard to tell if the rain was falling down or the lake leaping skywards. Undeterred, a man was lathering himself vigorously with thick carbolic soap, the whole time gamely trying to balance a large white bucket on his head to keep his hair dry.

On the shore of the lake a cricket match was in progress. Sinhala and Tamil alike are cricket-mad, in fact we'd managed to persuade a pub in Kandy to stay open for two hours past closing time so we could watch the finale of an Ashes test match being relayed from England. Pollonnurawa may have been a million miles from Trent Bridge but the five boys were as engrossed by their own game as we had been by Messrs Flintoff and Warne. The only flaw in the pitch design at the lake was the utter superiority of shots deep into the lake. With whoops of delight the fielders would dive into the water, trying to contain the run-count to single figures.

Even if cricket wasn't your thing, it was easy to be bowled over by Pollonnurawa's star attractions, the colossal Buddha statues of Gal Vihara.

The statues are carved out of a naturally marbled rock which only adds to the beauty that the stone carvers had created over a millennium ago. Whether the largest reclining Buddha was actually depicted passing the time, or passing away, was a matter of great scholarly debate according to my guidebook to the Cultural Triangle. Since wars have started over lesser matters I'll reserve my opinion.


Sri Dalada Maligawa, or the 'Temple of the Tooth' is Kandy's biggest tourist draw. It's said that it contains the left incisor of the Buddha, plucked from the ashes of his cremation. The story of the tooth would make a book in itself: it was fought over for thousands of years, even falling into the hands of the British. To add to the confusion, the tooth was substituted with replicas several times so that the original would not be stolen. What is now believed to be the tooth is locked inside seven nested golden caskets, of which hoi polloi see only the outermost.


After the wide open spaces of the hill country and ancient cities, it was a shock to be back in congested, bustling Colombo. But even with armed police on street corners and the hotels full to overflowing because of a tube strike, Colombo was still Sri Lankan through and through.

I lay on Galle Face Green with the ocean pounding in my ears and colourful kites swooping overhead. Serendipity was smiling on me.

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