Somebody once told me that Sri Lanka is “paradise on earth.” Ever since, I have wanted to see if the country lived up to this extravagant description. A Google search suggested that Sri Lanka means “resplendent land”, “venerable island” and “honourable Lanka,” amongst others. Whatever the true meaning, I'm not sure why it took me so long to test out the claim, except to say that a lot of places in South East Asia also demanded investigation.
But in January 2017, Mrs T and I arrived at Colombo airport. I have long held the theory that the only way to experience a country is from the saddle of a bike with a local tour leader who is passionate about his culture, environment and heritage. As always, Explore provided the best: Sampath. “Call me Sam,” he said at our introduction.
We were a full group of 16 – a mix of Brits and Canadians and over the next two weeks, Sam introduced us to Sri Lankan history, the people, religions and most importantly, the food. Every day was a gastronomic delight. When in Sri Lanka, one must eat like the Sri Lankans. This means first put some rice on your plate (or banana leaf) and then add small portions of up to a dozen different curries – jackfruit curry, breadfruit curry, fish curry, dhal curry, chicken curry, crab curry and heaps more.
Of course, it’s not always easy to climb back onto a bike and negotiate a jungle track in 30°, after a superb lunch, when you feel a siesta would be far more appealing. But in no time, you're back into the rhythm of the pedalling and responding to the amazing friendliness of the people, observing the colours and variety of the wildlife – and it’s not just a bird watcher’s heaven.
One day we were cycling along a road between villages when some locals stopped us and animatedly told us that there was a wild elephant ahead, eating at the side of the road. Wild elephants are not unusual in Sri Lanka but nevertheless everyone gets excited at the prospect of seeing one of these magnificent animals. My first thought was whether my vivid yellow top was a good choice and whether I could cycle faster than a charging elephant. I decided that the 24 gears supplied on my bike would all be put into use if necessary.
In the event, the elephants (there were two) were happily engaged in demolishing and consuming a tree at the bottom of a slope beside the road and not in the least offended by a yellow cycle top. Later that day we stayed in a hotel beside a lake and in the evening a huge, lone male elephant came right up to the swimming pool, where there seemed to be a particularly delicious type of plant. Every guest came out to see him. He finally left … as he didn’t have his swimming trunks. (Apologies.)
In the second week the group visited an elephant orphanage at feeding time (my personal highlight of the trip). Here, baby elephants who have lost their mothers are reared in a protected area until they are ready to be released into the nearby Undawalawe National Park. It was reminiscent of a load of junior school children being let out of class at lunch time, slurping down the food and rushing off to play boisterous games involving pushing, shoving, slipping about in the mud and sliding into the water on top of fellow classmates. They were unperturbed by the laughter from the strange humans on the other side of the fence.
This is a land of elephants and we encountered many more in Undawalawe and Yala National Parks. Personally, I find it disappointing that the national flag depicts a lion (of which there are none in the country) and not an elephant. There are other types of animal, in fact rather a lot of them in the parks, the fields and by the roadside. But before leaving Sri Lanka, I bought a polo shirt with an elephant embroidered on the chest. It was only right and proper.
Elephants aside, Sri Lanka is a fascinating country of 21 million people and 5 million dogs. 69% of the people are Buddhists, 13% Hindus, 8% Muslims and 6% Christian. The dogs, however, are all one breed – brown dog. They mostly lie in the middle of the hot road obliging cars, lorries, buses and cyclists to go around them. Occasionally they stir themselves to form a small pack and chase a few chattering macaque monkeys into the trees. If they were a little more diligent in this occupation Mrs T would not have had her water bottle stolen from her unattended bike by one of the macaques.
A taste of paradise
Life is easy in Sri Lanka. Everything just grows without any effort. Just reach out and there are fruit, herbs, spices, nuts, coconut, and so on. Admittedly, a little effort is required to grow the rice to accompany the curries, but fish abound in the surrounding sea and jump willingly into the waiting fishermen’s nets. The land is lush and tropical and the rain falls in set seasons. The locals are warm, kind and friendly. Surely this is paradise?
But this year the monsoon is two months late. Despite the greenness all around, the reservoirs are dangerously low and we won't mention the 30 years of civil war that ended in 2009. Those two phenomena, global warming and politics, have upset perfection.
Until the 15th century, Sri Lanka was connected to Tamil Nadu in south east India via a spit of land referred to as Adam’s Bridge. The Indian influences from frequent invasions are to be seen everywhere – language, temples, religion, cities and food. And then the British arrived at the start of the 19th century and brought language, churches, religion, cities and food (plus roads, railways education, tea and cherry brandy). This trip takes in many of the amazingly preserved, world-famous sites and their history stretching back over more than 2,000 years. Being on bikes is the best way of getting around places like the massive Ancient City of Polonnaruwa. And being with Explore means that we visit the most popular sites like the impressive Lion Rock at Sigirya, climb it and are just starting to pedal away as the first coach parties of tourists are arriving.
By the end of the two weeks we’d cycled over 500km, seen villages, towns, cities, temples and enormous statues of Buddha rising above the tree tops of the surrounding jungle; we’d met wonderful, friendly people, been on two safaris, visited a tea plantation, eaten every type of curry imaginable, been instructed in the use of herbs, spices and oils, tried the various Sri Lankan beers, sampled the local Arrack fire water and seen lots of elephants.
We cycled on dirt tracks, sandy tracks, smooth tarmac roads and bumpy roads. Throughout, we were guided, advised and informed by Sam, our superb and ever-attentive tour leader for whom no request was too much, whether for an ATM, loo stop or general information. Before becoming a tour leader, Sam was in the Merchant Navy for 10 years, travelling the world. Since then he has never left Sri Lanka. I asked him if he would like to see some other countries. He replied that he was happy to stay in Sri Lanka for the rest of his life and added, “This is paradise. Why would I want to go anywhere else?”