Review/Gallery: Tea and temples in sunny Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan sunset over the Indian Ocean

Sri Lankan sunset over the Indian Ocean - Credit: Archant

Paul Thomas visits one of Britain’s fastest-growing tourist destinations and finds a very different world

So many had told us so much of Sri Lanka. Friends, colleagues, others who had visited this island off India. And, as a tea addict, I’d always hankered to go. And so we succumbed…

Sri Lanka – or for us, more fondly, Ceylon, as it was named pre-1948 – is many things: from its daily tea to temples, elephants, leopards, rare birds, buddhas, bustling streets, cricket-lovers, beaches and bullock carts, tuk-tuk taxis and hooting horns. There’s also, sometimes, great peace and tranquillity in a world so unlike our own.

But it is also a country still influenced by us, with a horse-racing town like Newmarket, a St Andrews and golf course – albeit far from Scotland – and other British influences. But here too you find religion, lifestyles, even marriages a million miles from what we’re used to.

It is an old British colony, independent now for more than half a century during which it has grown, suffered terrorism (Tamil Tigers), tsunami and other dramas. Yet today, it is one of the fastest-growing British long-haul tourism attractions.

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Sri Lanka has sunshine, seasons with predictable rain, a Third World intrigue, yet at times chaos – and it’s high value if you pick carefully, probably from professional tour operators; for all is not always what it seems, including booking direct on the internet.

We flew there with Oman Air. Our arrival was startling. The 14-day exploration – with an encyclopaedic guide and driver, Conrad – testing, tiring yet exhilarating. We woke almost daily to a seemingly different civilisation: smiling, so keen to please, yet at times disorganised.

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Sri Lanka has a population of about 20 million people in a land mass the size of Ireland. About 10% live in the capital, Colombo, and about two thirds are Buddhists.

The lives of the young are sheltered by comparison with our own, with 60% of marriages arranged by parents, sometimes with the help of professional match-makers.

Sri Lanka’s colourful dress makes for a picture of elegance but clothing has another role to play too. It is vastly important is to the economy too – textiles being first earner (with 98% of exports going to Britain) followed by income from Sri Lankan emigrants’ earnings from abroad, then tourism.

Long-established British tour operator Kuoni looked after us exceptionally well. They provide off-the-shelf packages or your own specific requests.

We set out with Conrad from big, bustling Colombo but travel here takes time. We headed for Habarana, and on the way the famous Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage, one of a number of facilities guarding the island’s endangered wildlife.

It’s said Ceylon was the original home to the Asian elephant, a little smaller than its African cousin. And there are 5,000 in Sri Lanka today, mainly in the wild but threatened by growing industrialisation. About 70 are in the sanctuary, where visitors can watch them roaming, feeding and watering in safety.

Tourists aid impoverished communities by paying entry fees to some sites – and one of the most charming is near Habarana, a walk down a monkey-occupied, tree-lined lane to one of hundreds of reservoirs. Here you board your own tiny Orura (or catamaran), to be paddled to a small farm where you will see a tiny house, home to the farmer, Senaviratne, who splits open coconuts for you to drink.

His three-acre estate produces crops, such as onions and maize; his wife takes two children to school, then works the land, like so many others in this country.

Our return to tourist civilisation is by bullock cart down narrow tracks and even here we are reminded of traffic pressures – with more bullock carts and even a tuk-tukt vying for use of the mimimal track.

Other major sites are the Sigiriya Rock Fortress, soaring a challenging 1,602 difficult steps into the sky; the crammed city of Kandy on a lovely lake with the Dambulla Rock Cave Temple, plus the astonishing Temple of the Buddha’s Tooth, worshipped by millions but tantalisingly hidden beneath seven golden hoods.

Then we head for the hills – and tea. We wind up mountains and arrive at just one of 250 tea plantations – Blue Field. Women on the slopes have collected hundreds of kilos of tea leaves. Then, at the tea factory itself, our young guide, Tharaka, explains the production process.

From drying, heating, fermentation, grading, all without additives, to completion of various pure teas. Here in a blue landscape we witness the two-day transition of leaves to tea, beyond which Blue Field becomes anonymous as it enters the Colombo auction process, marketed throughout the world, Britain particularly.

For me, Tharaka’s charm and innocent ambition symbolise Sri Lanka’s great opportunity from tourism.

More practically, when tea is served, it is as good as ever. My daily cuppa – we never miss – is superb. All thanks to Sri Lanka.

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