I’ve lost count of the hundreds of steps I’ve climbed by the time I finally wheeze my way onto the flat top of Sigiriya Rock.
This massive stone platform soars up nonsensically out of grassy plains, high enough to defend from marauding enemies and wide enough to have supported a monastery and a palace.
Emerald-coloured fields 200m below fade into misty horizons as I step over the crumbled walls within which King Kassapa reputedly lived in AD 477. I try to picture his poor serfs lugging building materials and everything else needed to run a palace up the sheer sides of this rock kingdom. It’s much more do-able now, with a hand rail all the way.
Halfway up, an alcove serves as an ancient art gallery, with vivid frescos showing seductive, buxom beauties. “They were painted for the king’s titillation, not for the monks who supposedly also used this rock as their monastery,” says my guide, Sujan Weerakoon.
Sigiriya’s one of eight Unesco World Heritage sites in Sri Lanka and one of its many must-see attractions, which include ancient capitals, splendid temples, glorious beaches, cool hilltop towns and safari parks.
I’ve booked a tour with Exodus, led by the excellent Sujan, who shares his memories of the 2004 tsunami – which tore up the south coast, leaving 30 000 dead – and tells stories of the war between the Buddhist Sinhalese majority and the Tamils seeking independence.
The conflict still isn’t entirely resolved and few tourists reach the northern tip around Jaffna, which was the Tamil Tiger stronghold. However, today Sri Lanka is safe, warm and inviting, with excellent food and prices that are affordable even for rand-toting South Africans.
I soon learn how to pronounce “ayubowan” (a blessing said in greeting) and “st’uthi” (“thank you”). More words are added to my vocabulary, picked up from Sujan’s catalogue of catch-phrases. “Chop-chop” is one he uses ironically, since there’s no sense of urgency on this island. “If you’re a whingeing, moaning person, this is the wrong holiday – you’re in the wrong place,” he says, instantly inciting us to whinge and moan.
But there isn’t much to moan about. When I landed in the capital, Colombo, I was relieved to find the taxi counter open even at 3.30am. Colombo itself is worth staying in for a day or two for the fun of dashing around in tuk-tuks and enjoying the contrasts between old and new.
But the real sights lie further afield. While the weather’s usually clement and beautiful, it knows how to throw a good storm too. We splash around the ancient capital of Polonnaruwa, not really appreciating the 12th-century ruins hidden behind a drab sheet of rain. My feet are so soggy that I happily shed my shoes and splash barefoot through lukewarm puddles to enter the still impressive temples.
Imposing Buddhas are everywhere, so if you want to go clubbing, get drunk and get amorous on the beach, you’ve chosen the wrong island. Booze is expensive and the government often declares alcohol-free days. Imagine celebrating New Year’s Eve with a nice cup of tea and seeing the waiters yawning by 10pm and you’ll get the picture. Eating out isn’t common, so good restaurants are scarce, making hotel dining the best option beyond the more developed cities.
I fall into a routine of an early-morning swim, followed by a breakfast of dhal curry with hoppers. These are something like pancakes, except that the cook rolls the batter around a high-sided pan to create an edible basket.
For lunch I buy something spicy from the street stalls, enjoying watching skilled cooks create four hoppers simultaneously. Dinner is often the national dish of curry and rice, but this is no two-bowl affair. I invariably end up surrounded by eight, as the waiter brings a tongue-tingling meat curry, rice, poppadoms, a dangerously fiery sambal of coconut and green chilli, a green leafy curry, a potato curry and a vegetable curry. A small version of that served as a “lunch box” in a café might set you back R17, or 10 times that amount for the full feast in an upmarket hotel.
One essential stop is Kandy, a bustling city surrounding a placid lake. We get a real Kandy crush when we join the crowds at the Sacred Temple of the Tooth Relic, where Buddha’s tooth is preserved behind a vast golden door. Hundreds of people stream into the main hall carrying flowers as an offering, queuing up the stairs and cramming onto a claustrophobic balcony as drummers and priests perform the rituals. Finally the golden doors open and people stream in. We’re swept into side-rooms, where statues of Buddha sit amid more offerings.
I far prefer the open spaces of Kandy’s Royal Botanical Gardens, with an orchid house and palm tree-lined avenues. As I stroll along, a man emerges from the bushes and asks if I want to see his scorpion. “Oh-oh,” I think, “here comes trouble!” It’s a relief to see he means a real scorpion, which he holds on a massive leaf and prods until its tail curls menacingly.
Minutes later I’m accosted again, this time by a young student asking if I speak English. When I say I do, another 10 students surround me and we spend a few jolly minutes brushing up their conversational skills. I’m still smiling when I bite into an apple and walk up to a few people watching a troupe of monkeys. Toque macaques are the cutest little things you can imagine. One swings over and sits at my feet gazing up at my apple. Another joins him. Then there are three, and I nervously shove my half-eaten apple up my T-shirt to hide it. Just in time, I realise I don’t want three monkeys rummaging inside my T-shirt, so I lob the apple at them, wincing as I mentally hear Sujan chiding me for feeding the animals.
I decide to scarper before I have any more wild encounters and head towards the bus stop. Even before I’m there, a battered bus swings along, with the conductor hanging out of the door. He practically scoops me up on the move. “You’re a tourist – you must be going back to town,” he says.
Sri Lanka’s central region is developing into adventure sports territory. At Kitulgala, we duck and dodge our rafts down three fairly tame river rapids, ending up drenched and laughing with delight. The water’s so warm that we all jump off the rafts to float downstream, with lush greenery finally giving way to our well-hidden hotel on the river bank.
Traditions are still strong in some areas and Ayurveda centres abound. This is the world’s oldest scientific medicine system and at one spice and herb garden, a guide explains the medical uses for the plants being grown there. He also demonstrates the world’s oldest depilatory – made from temple plant, turmeric and a dozen other ingredients. He smears some of the potion on a companion’s hairy leg and 20 minutes later, it’s bald.
Despite this, men aren’t allowed to display their legs in shorts for dinner at The Hill Club at Nuwara Eliya, where the island’s colonial past still lingers. Founded by the Brits in 1876 as a gentlemen’s club, it’s now a gorgeous, quaint hotel. An impeccable waiter sporting white gloves happily takes the postcard I’ve penned to my mother and pops it into the gleaming red postbox in the corridor.
Nuwara Eliya is up in the central mountains, reached by driving up twisting roads with spectacular views of tea plantations tumbling down steep terraces.
The main attraction here is hiking over Horton Plains, a massive plateau overlooked by mountains and ending in a sheer drop appropriately called World’s End. “It will be your end too,” warns Sujan, fretting that I’ll stray too close to the perilous edges.
I step back meekly, not wanting to provoke any more tears on an island that’s already seen too many.
This article appears in the latest issue of Sawubona magazine, download here, for free.