It is possible right now, over a couple of steamy weeks in Sri Lanka, to briefly knock around the seaside capital of Colombo, with its sidewalk snake charmers wrangling cobras and pythons beneath sleek, high-rise office buildings; then hop a colonial-era train for an all-day run up into the tea plantations of the central highlands, and then wander down through teeming national game parks to the turquoise waters of funky beach towns — and find little evidence of the bloody, tragic recent history of this beautiful, benighted island that sits like a fallen tear off the Indian subcontinent.
This was a bit of a surprise.
It was just in 2009 that the world watched as Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese government and Tamil Tiger rebels exchanged horrific volleys of war crimes that ended a 25-year civil war. In the final months, at least 40,000 Sri Lankans died in the island’s northern provinces, most of them Tamils. You can read all about it in appalling reports from the United Nations and Human Rights Watch, among others.
This, one of the century’s ugliest sanctioned massacres, outwardly quieted a place that had become one of the world’s least-visited physically beautiful places. This, too, was just five years after the 2004 tsunami, a biblical 90-foot wave that crashed ashore without warning on the island’s south and east coasts. They’re guessing — guessing — that maybe 30,000 more Sri Lankans died that one day in December; more than a million were driven from their homes. All this grotesque trauma in a country of 20 million people on an island the size of Ireland.
Sri Lanka had become, as author John Gimlette writes, “paradise damaged.”
But these days, you might only glimpse Sri Lankans planting shrubs around new, marble war memorials, or maybe spot the rubble of the tsunami’s wreckage through the overgrowth on a vacant seaside lot.
You definitely see, very quickly, that the world is streaming back. Travel to Sri Lanka bottomed out in 2009 in the war’s final days, but visas have tripled since then. It is mostly Europeans, Indians and Chinese (less than 3 percent of arrivals are from the U.S.). They are all eager to return to the island’s tropical beauty and its relaxed, welcoming, prosperous post-colonial culture. Sri Lanka is a country with as many people as Florida, twice the per capita GDP of India, but a tourism economy the size of Azerbaijan.
That intimate scale and the fresh energy of recovery are part of Sri Lanka’s emerging allure.
Colombo, the first stop
Our group of four wanted to be on our own to explore. So we (kind of) winged it — we had general ambitions, places to stay, but we figured things out each day as it came. Logistics for independent travel in Sri Lanka offer two basic approaches: If you have an open-ended schedule that can absorb an extra few days or a week here and there, it is possible to freelance when you get there on trains, buses and ubiquitous, three-wheeled tuk-tuks. Or, if you have a date-certain departure, you can book a train ahead of time and then hire a driver. We chose the latter.
(Note: In Sri Lanka, do not rent a car. Sri Lankans drive on the left side of narrow, crowded roads shared with an equal sense of entitlement by pedestrians, trucks, buses, cars and scooters; signs and controlled intersections are rare outside Colombo; and the local motorists practice an amazing free-form, Buddhist-zen-passive-aggressive driving that blends casual recklessness with gracious good manners. This means, for example, that drivers pull into the oncoming lane to pass in the assumption that the oncoming traffic will give way, which it seemed to do.)
But everything in Sri Lanka starts with a flight into Colombo; the other option, a ferry from India, was suspended during the war and has not resumed. All our advisers beforehand said a day or two in Colombo is plenty, and that seems right. It is huge — 5 million people in the immediate area — and certainly exotic, but Colombo is stingy on sharing its charm. It is a South Asian port city built for container ships, garment factories and banks.
Colombo was, however, our introduction to welcoming Sri Lankan ways. Looking for a comfortable place to land for a few days after flying across 11 time zones, we found the Galle Face Hotel, a grand pile of colonial-era architecture with breezy verandas and starched-uniformed porters, that had a stupendous deal: $100 a night for suites of rooms, with staff. We booked.
Several days later the hotel sheepishly e-mailed to say their reservation system had hiccuped. The $100-a-night rate for the suites was really, ahem, $1,500. But, the e-mail went on, “we have chosen to honor the original reservation.” Half horrified and half charmed, we declined the offer, asked for standard bookings, and ended up in lovely, mahogany-paneled rooms overlooking croquet courts and the Indian Ocean, all for the price of a Days Inn in Duluth.
We would be captivated by such warm, Sri Lankan sense of hospitality for the next two weeks.
More of that warm hospitality
As a practical matter, most travel in Sri Lanka these days is in the island’s southern half — the half that saw less of the war. The passenger trains are again running to Jaffna, the main city in the far north, but the people we spoke to said the rebuilding, and the general sense of vitality, is far from complete. There is also the matter of the 500,000 land mines that have yet to be removed; the government hopes to have that done by 2020.
The other major warning we got, from several advisers, was: Don’t take Sri Lankan trains. We thought an old British-built train would be the jauntiest way to see the countryside up close on the way from Colombo to the town of Ella, up among the tea plantations. But, we were told, the trains are bumpy, noisy, foul smelling and probably late. As it happened, our train was all that — a swaying, rough, 162-mile ride with 24 stops over 10 hours, with diesel-fume-filled tunnels, and an arrival that was 90 minutes behind schedule.
But that train was also pretty wonderful. From the rice paddies outside Colombo we chugged up into the dense-green arboretum that is the Sri Lankan highlands — 200-foot-tall blaze-pink tulip trees, budding mangos, a trackside hung with wild orchids, huge stands of bamboo mixed with equatorial pine forests. Need an image? David Lean filmed “The Bridge on the River Kwai” on a spur off our rail route.
In Ella, we found what appears to be an emerging pattern these days in Sri Lanka — a dusty backpacker village getting fresh linens and new ATMs. Without the Europeans and the Aussies (and, in early December, there were lots of those), Ella would be a fanciful, impressionist’s farming town, surrounded by what look like surreal, boundless hedgerows of bonsai. These are the famed tea plantations, which anchor the local economy and are now joined by a growing selection of homestays, B&Bs and a few full-blown resorts.
We stayed in a recently converted, five-room tea planter’s house called Secret Ella, set among those precise hedges on a bluff about a mile out of town. The staff of 19 was warmly attentive, in what we were coming to see as the Sri Lankan way. They would rush out apologetically if they spied one of us trying to carry a teapot in from the garden. They made sure that we had tried all the variations of curry and rice the kitchen could imagine. They reassured us when, at dusk, the sky filled with swooping, 4-pound bats with 2-foot wingspans.
They also found us a guide for our longest hike, a 7-mile, half-day walk through the hedgerows and several villages to a precipice called Ella Rock, at 4,400 feet. Our man was Tamil, a tuk-tuk driver and guide in his 30s, quietly earnest except when discussing American professional wrestling. Over the hours of walking and talking, he acknowledged Sri Lanka’s rebuilding and recovery, but cringed at a suggestion that the country had moved on from the war. He said he knew people who were pulled off the street by police as suspected Tigers, and “A lot of people every day didn’t know if they were going to make it home.”
He stopped on the path, held his hand at his chest and said, “Sinhalese here.” He held his other hand at his waist and said, “Tamils down here.”
A ride to the sea
The next day, Miral arrived, with a warm smile and a spiffy van. He was our driver, and also the answer to the question of how we were to get from the mountains south to Yala National Park, then the beach, and back to the airport for home. We found him through an outfitter who booked most of our lodging (at rates we could not have booked on our own). Miral — charming, knowledgeable, flexible — was an affordable luxury who suggested detours, provided cultural and language translations, accommodated our requests and got us to our plane. (Even with this invaluable service, our two-week Sri Lanka trip probably cost about the same as one week in central Europe.)
But, even with a driver, we were mostly on our own. We needed a separate guide in Yala — so thick with wildlife that, at one point, we mock-complained that the elephants were blocking our view of the leopards — and when we plopped on the blissful beach at Mirissa, we suggested that Miral go home to his family for a couple of days, and he accepted.
Mirissa, a south coastal fishing port of 4,500 people, is another warmly unpresuming town in transition. In some parts of Sri Lanka you can stay in grand resorts that look like Cancun. Mirissa, with a huge golden beach, is busy, but with the intimacy of a place without sidewalks, where rooming houses or restaurants can have hand-painted signs and it’s usually best to have cash.
And the port at Mirissa is a near-cinematic glimpse into the everyday theater of life in the subcontinent. At first light, you can see crews unload the holds of neon-painted outrigger boats, disgorging onto the quay an amazing census of the waters offshore — piles of skipjack tuna, Indian mackerel, spiny lobsters, one-pound prawns, sailfish, redfish, and a by-catch of hammerhead sharks, rays and various unidentifiable finned beasts. In the middle of it all, three freelance fish cleaners sit on buckets, wielding cleavers that chunk or fillet any animal brought to them, as glistening piles of heads and guts grow around them.
Later in the day, some of those same fish are stacked at restaurants that spill out of the jungle across the huge, arching beach, where warm water laps at table legs and sunburned bare feet.
Will this kind of cozy idyll survive in the momentum of a newly stable and welcoming Sri Lanka? All we know is, on the way out of Mirissa, we noticed construction of the town’s first high-rise hotel, and it’s a Marriott.
Tony Brown is a writer living in Minneapolis. He can be reached at email@example.com.