Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

SRI LANKA, after the war

Magical island nation open to world after civil conflict

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Serendip, Arab traders called Sri Lanka ages ago, the Island of Gems. From this, our word serendipity is derived, the gift of finding unexpected but beautiful things.

This often happened to us in Sri Lanka, for it was once aptly named the Island of the Blessed, the earthly paradise given to Adam and Eve after they were turfed out of Eden because of that unfortunate affair with the apple.

'Paradise' seems ironic when talking about a country reft by a bitter 25-year civil war -- now finally over -- that consumed much of the island's wealth and crippled its once-flourishing tourism industry.

But the war, in its final days when we were there, really didn't touch us. We simply followed local advice and avoided the danger zones of the northeast. That left us about 90 per cent of this beautiful and diverse island, known until 1972 as Ceylon, 'the pearl near the southern tip of India.'

As a result, our first and lasting impression during a two-month trip to this magic island was its friendly population. We usually stayed in nice but modest (and modestly priced) guest houses in villages and near towns. When we walked through a village in the velvety warmth of a tropical evening, nearly everyone greeted us with a friendly "hello."

The kids practised their school English: "How are you?" they would ask. "Where you from?" "From Canada." "Oh." they would laugh. "Very good. Very big!" They would wave and smile. "Bye-bye," they would call. "Be happy!"

Sri Lanka, smaller than New Brunswick, is crammed with history and beauty. Where else on Earth can you find a place like the 2,243-metre-high Adam's Peak: that, say ancient tales, is where Adam arrived (together with Eve); Buddha stood on its summit and left his footprint -- Sri Pada -- as he ascended to heaven; Muhammad stopped briefly; and, before him, the peak was visited by St. Thomas, one of Christ's disciples, by the Lord Shiva and, some say, by King Solomon.

It is sacred to Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Muslims, and during the annual pilgrimage season, from the pooja (the full-moon day) in December to the pooja of May, tens of thousands of pilgrims of many faiths help each other as they ascend (usually at night) the 5,200 steep steps and pray together at sunrise atop the magic mountain.

We start our trip in Colombo, the busy, sprawling commercial capital of Sri Lanka, a fascinating amalgam of East and West, of modern department stores and teeming oriental bazaars where you can buy anything from the gorgeous gems that made Sri Lanka famous (the world's largest rubies and sapphires came from this island, including the 400-carat sapphire in the British crown) to Ayurvedic, or traditional, medicines that reputedly restore health and rejuvenate the body.

Language is never a problem. Apart from Sinhala and Tamil, English is the lingua franca of the country.

From Colombo, we travel in the teak-panelled "observation car" of a charming, bouncy train high into the country's central mountain region that was once the Kingdom of Kandy, with cities of stunning splendour and some of the world's first hospitals. Deposed by British troops in 1815, the king of Kandy was Sri Lanka's last royal ruler.

Being home to so many different religions, Sri Lanka has a plethora of holy days and holidays -- more holidays, they happily claim, than any other country in the world. The greatest festival, the Esala Perahera, with probably the most sumptuous procession in all of Asia, is held annually during the time of the full moon in July/August in Kandy.

Thousands of drummers, torchbearers and the flamboyantly dressed Kandyan dancers escort a great procession of more than 50 gorgeously caparisoned elephants through Kandy.

The largest, most venerated elephant carries, beneath a jewel-studded baldachin, a golden replica of the sacred tooth snatched from Lord Buddha as his body was being cremated in 483 BC and smuggled to Sri Lanka 794 years later.

Most Sri Lankans love their elephants. Long ago, they worshipped them: Elephant statues and effigies ornament many temples and memorials to Buddha.

About 4,000 wild elephants still live in Sri Lanka, about half of them in the country's superb national parks, the rest in the extensive jungle regions of the island.

To protect villages and fields from marauding elephants, farmers encircle the villages with deep ditches. Occasionally baby elephants slip in, get mired and are abandoned by their herd. These hapless mud-smeared waifs are brought to one of Sri Lanka's two elephant orphanages.

One orphanage is at Pinnewala, an hour's drive from Kandy. Every morning at 10, the elephants young and old (83 during our visit) march from their spacious sanctuary down a village street to the river for their morning bath. Restaurants and cafés line the shore. You can have lunch or enjoy a cold beer and watch as the elephants spray themselves or are being scrubbed by their mahouts. (For a little tip, you, too, can wash an elephant!)

At noon, the elephants return to their enclosure for a hearty lunch: 100 kilograms of grass and leaves for every adult, washed down with 100 litres of water.

The Pinnewala animals have nearly everything that elephants desire: lots of food and water, daily baths, good company, and sex every three years. But they lack freedom. That's perhaps why we preferred a second, less well-known orphanage, the Elephant Transit Home near the great Uda Walawe National Park. Only baby elephants are kept there (36 at the time of our visit). Once they're weaned at the age of 3 or 4, they are released and join the 450 wild elephants in the national park.

There are several feedings (each elephant calf gets 40 litres of milk a day). You can watch it from a nearby platform. It is funny and charming: a baby-elephant filling station. They rush up on urgent little pillar legs, shrieking shrilly in anticipation, and as milk is poured into them through a funnel, their eyes roll up in ecstasy.

In Kandy, we hire a car and driver. Wise tourists in Sri Lanka travel with car and driver from guest house to guest house or hotel -- it's the nicest way to go.

Ours is a friendly young man, Prabat, driver, guide, problem-solver and, finally, friend. He shows us the extensive ruins of what were once among the most beautiful cities on earth, the ancient royal capitals of Sri Lanka: Anuradhapura (founded in 380 BC) and its successor, Polonnaruwa; the 1,500-year-old mountain fortress of Sigiriya (the Lion Rock) built as a refuge by a parricide king atop a sheer-faced, 200-metre-high granite crag; and the ancient, brilliantly painted and superbly preserved cave-temples of Dambulla, all four UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

In a niche halfway up Sigiriya Rock, we admire the frescoes of voluptuous wasp-waisted, big-bosomed women (goddesses, say some experts; concubines say others), ancient but marvellously vivid, and see, nearby, traces of graffiti incised by ardent admirers 1,500 years ago. For example, "Women like you make my body tremble with desire."

After days immersed in history, we travel south into another of Sri Lanka's many disparate regions: the highlands where the island's famous tea is grown, and its "tea capital," Nuwara Eliya.

Here are the great tea plantations founded by the British. It was at this pleasant hill station that colonial civil servants played golf, watched horse races, went for walks in the lovely Victoria Park, and dined on roast beef at their exclusive clubs. They have gone, but their spirit lingers, including the cool climate and frequent drizzle.

That's just what tea loves, and the highland hills are covered with tea bushes, neatly trimmed and sculpted. Tamil women, many in colourful saris, dot the emerald-green hills, each one plucking 16 kilograms of newly sprouted tea leaves a day. We roam the verdant hills all day and dine at night in the lovingly preserved ambience of a colonial-era dining room, served by white-gloved waiters.

We end our trip on Sri Lanka's southern coast, the fun-in-the-sun playground of the island, with postcard-pretty palm-girt crescents of sand washed by the warmish waters of the Indian Ocean. It's fairly close to every chilled Canadian's dream vision of "tropical beaches." The southeast coast has surfer-sea. "The waves are great!" a group of happy young Australians tells us.

We opt for the more sedate waters of Unawatuna, protected by a distant reef, ideal for long leisurely swims in a gentle sea. At night, we dine by candlelight on a terrace near the sea, and we are charmed by this island that charmed so many.

-- Canwest News Service

IF YOU GO:

Canadians receive a tourist visa upon entry. It is valid for 30 days. You can obtain travel information from the Sri Lankan High Commission in Ottawa, 613-233-8449, www.srilankahcottawa.org. Or check www.srilankatourism.org

Air Canada (www.aircanada.ca) has daily flights to Europe and connecting flights via Sri Lankan Airlines (www.srilankan.aero) to Colombo.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 17, 2009 E1

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