It’s hard to image that Sri Lanka was at war with itself for twenty five years. A war that ended less than ten years ago. Granted most of the conflict was away from the areas we are visiting but as a nation Sri Lanka appears to be an incredibly peaceful country with absolutely wonderful people. But then again I’m sure I said the same about Sierra Leone. I suppose when you pop out of a civil war and return to peace, the only thing to do is make the most of it and enjoy life. I’ve only been here a week but Sri Lanka has to be my favourite South Asian country by far. I would almost go to say it’s my favourite Asian country but I cannot bring myself to demote Nepal. I almost see Sri Lanka as the New Zealand of Asia, a country with a wonderfully laid back attitude and a natural environment that demands you to be impressed at every turn. It is a country like no other in Asia because although compact it is so varied and, unlike many ex colonial nations it feels like Sri Lanka has embraced what good came out of colonisation instead of clinging onto the negative with a bitter taste in the mouth.
On our second day of hiking in the Knuckles range we passed through so many different environments it was hard to keep up! The ranges themselves were stunning as we rose up along a single lane road which hugged the mountain side which was covered in lush green forrest. On arrival to our start point, just outside a village, we were greeted to a views of tea plantations that spread out through the valley. What stood out for me at this point was the number of trees still present. Usually where agriculture is present, almost all traces of the natural habitat have disappeared but not in Sri Lanka. According to Sujan, our gallant leader, it is illegal to chop down trees and villagers my only use fallen branches for fire wood. The trees also have a practical use. Firstly they bind the soil together which is particularly important when trying to grow the worlds tea on a slope in a tropical country, and also their leaves provide a natural fertiliser. Whatever the reason for their presence, it was great to be in a productive environment that didn’t look like it had been completely dilapidated. I think it was my first time in a tea plantation and they are rather nice places to be. I don’t know why other than I found it very peaceful and extremely beautiful. It is down to the women to pick the tea and a minimum of 14kg has to be collected in a day to get paid their salary. In case you want your very own bush, you can harvest it every seven to ten days. After several hours walking through the plantations we entered into some tropical forest for a wee while which offered a break from the sun. Then, out of the blue we entered a pine forest. It was as though we had stepped from Sri Lanka into Northern Europe! An extremely surreal experience. This is a common theme throughout the trip. Tropical forest, pine forest, eucalyptus forest, paddy fields, grassland plains, tea plantations, dairy farms and vegetable patches. I shall elaborate.
On one drive day, we passed through what can only be described as Lincolnshire on the Hill. We had just left Nuwariya Eliya, a small town up in the hills which was a favourite spot for the British to retreat to, away from the heat experienced in the lowlands. A town full of grand colonial hotels and houses with its very own race course. Even new properties are being built in quintessential British style. As for Lincolnshire, well the Brits do like their potatoes and other vegetables and the surrounding area grows such crops rather well. The British may be largely gone but the fields of vegetables continue to prosper in a setting that resembles a huge allotment. Shortly after Lincolnshire we passed through more forest before emerging in New Zealand or Ireland, whichever you prefer. The trees thinned out and gave way to lush rolling pasture with paddocks, water troughs, cow tracks and…. dairy cows, actual black and white ones. I suppose if tea is grown nearby, it would make sense to grow some milk along side it! Again, I found this very surreal, largely because it was a spitting image of where I worked in New Zealand.
Ahh I nearly forgot, Adam’s Peak! Adam’s Peak is another one of Sri Lanka’s highlights, if not the highlight. You don’t visit Sri Lanka without at least considering a climb up Adams Peak. For those that know me, you may know where I’m going with this! At 2,243 meters it isn’t particularly high although it is the fourth highest peak in the country. As a tourist I’m not convinced what the appeal is (stick with me). We started the climb at midnight in an effort to miss the bulk of the crowds and reach the summit for sun rise, a feat which Sujan and the rest of the group managed with plenty of time to spare. So much so we arrived at the peak around two hours before sunrise. Incidentally, it takes around 4,500 steps to get to the top! There is no doubt this is a climb that will make you pant a little. The problem at the top is that there is a shrine and many, many people which means there is nowhere to relax and enjoy the view which would be the reason for me to climb a mountain. We therefore headed back down and waited for sunrise around the halfway mark. Instead of a warm glow of orange, we had to make do with a thunderstorm in the distance which blocked the rising sun however, that’s life. So as a climb, for someone who likes to climb stuff it was alright but the significance was a little lost on me, personally at least. So what is the significance? The story goes that Buddha himself hiked to the top of the peak back in the day and so now pilgrims flock to Adams Peak to make the journey to the temple at the top which is home to the sacred foot print (of Buddha). Therefore the significance is that the journey to the top is a pilgrimage for Buddhists, a journey that should be made at least once in a life time if possible. What was incredible for me to see was the number of old people making their way to the top being supported by family. I’m talking people in their eighties old. Some guys were strolling up with children on their shoulders. Many were doing it in bare feet. We saw one person coming down on a stretcher. So I may not be the emotional or the religious type but it’s impossible not to be moved by such scenes of endeavour and sheer determination. Therefore, it may not have been a personal highlight for me but, it was certainly a privilege to experience an event that was one of life’s highlights for many of the people around me.
What impresses me the most about Sri Lanka so far is that it hasn’t succumbed to the misery of mass tourism. Whether this is because it is still in its infancy, I’m not so sure. Based on how the country has handled colonisation by removing the bad and keeping the good, I get the feeling it will attempt the same with tourism. If achieved it would be a highly commendable feat in today’s world.