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Ayubowan Sri Lanka!

Sri Lanka is a visual feast. And what better way to start the journey than the perfect sunset in Bentota. Just as the sun is about to call it a day, whispery lines of asperities catch the light and turn the sky into a rippling canvas of soft pink, orange and red with palm trees swaying gently in the wind in the foreground. There are trips where only the destination matters and there are few where just the journey does.

In less than two hours after I head out of Colombo, along with the southwestern coast of Sri Lanka, I was welcomed in Bentota. Women clad in skirts and blouses, with umbrellas peeping out of their handbags, walk swiftly in the marketplace that willingly accommodates what locals would want and what might catch the tourist eye, as is evident from a handicraft store right next to a row of vegetable stalls.

I then catch a cab and head towards my resort. The boutique resorts in Sri Lanka are quite affordable with access to the Sri Lankan way of life and delicious local cuisine. Kothu roti — a fried rice kind of dish made with chicken, vegetables and chopped godhamba roti (local flatbread made with wheat) and spring hopper rolls with a stuffing of coconut and jaggery are unforgettable flavours that delight the palate.

The next morning is dedicated to Galle and river cruising on the Bentota lagoon. Ready with my lifejacket, I enjoy the sharp twists and slow bumps of the speedboat. We visit different islands during the cruise which include mangrove safari, fish massage, cinnamon garden and seeing a water monitor lizard.

About an hour’s drive from Bentota, Galle is a fascinating contrast to the very Sri Lankan Bentota. Built by the Portuguese and later controlled by the Dutch, the town still bears imprints of its colonial past in its architecture and planning. Antique shops, fashion outlets, art galleries and chic restaurants create a visual delight. The Galle Fort area is interesting to simply walk around. Along with quaint buildings is an old church. A few fleets of stairs later, there is a splendid aquamarine. Also, the Galle International Stadium is strategically positioned in the vicinity. Tucked in the streets of Galle, Coconut Sambol is a small café which serves great Sri Lankan lunch. I am served a plate of rice with daal, chicken curry, a leafy vegetable, and cucumber and pineapple salad. I wash it down with EGB (Elephant Ginger Beer) — Sri Lanka’s favourite local aerated drink.

With my camera resisting returning to its case, I head towards Tangalle and Mirrisa. Mirrisa is the backpackers’ hub, the perfect place to soak up the sun for a day or two. A small town on Sri Lanka’s south coast, it is a common stop for every traveller. Whale watching is the main attraction. For such a small place, there’s everything a traveller could possibly ask for.

Reluctant to leave the place, I head to our last beach destination, Tangalle, about an hour and half drive from Mirissa. Welcomed by my host, 4S Villa is a property with a lake view on one side and a five minute walk from the beach. I couldn’t ask for more. Go for diving and you are sure to clock up several lobsters, an octopus, a turtle and a couple of huge Napoleon fish. Also worth exploring is the vegetable market on Ennapitya Road, near the bus station, a collection of covered food stalls with exotic organic fruits and spices.

Early next morning, along with Umma, the exploration of misty hill country carpeted with the vivid green baize of manicured tea gardens begin. A trip to Sri Lanka is not complete without visiting the hill city of Kandy, says Umma. The route to Kandy is a joy with Ella and Nuwara Eliya in between. Nuwara Eliya is ‘Little England’ with stunning views of women plucking tea leaves amidst lush green tea gardens. The bungalows, hotels, post office, gardens and golf course give a distinct British countryside feel to Nuwara Eliya.

We reach Kandy and visit the Temple of the Sacred Tooth relic that houses a tooth of the Buddha. The tooth of Buddha was brought to Sri Lanka from India many centuries ago and is hidden in a stupa-shaped gold casket inside the temple. The 287-km journey from Tangalle to Kandy takes you through an endless expanse of greenery and hills. The entire stretch blazes with jacaranda, frangipani and bougainvillea. The trees are heavy with mangoes, papayas, avocadoes, jackfruit, coconuts and bananas.

Returning to Colombo next day, I come back with mixed feelings. Saddened to leave the pristine natural abundance yet eager to explore the capital city. With a rich history and culture, Colombo is a melting pot of old and new, where the old nevertheless continues to define the city’s ethos.

Galle Face Green, a seaside promenade, tops the list of tourist places in the city. It is often teeming with families, couples and food vendors and it is immensely clean. Gangaramaya Temple, one of Colombo’s oldest Buddhist temples leaves visitors enchanted with its huge golden Buddha statue and intricate depictions of his life on its walls. Another serene attraction is Beira Lake that is nearby and comprises a huge park just perfect to spend time with oneself. The city is also friendly to pedestrians where vehicles wait courteously at zebra crossings and don’t honk impatiently. The symbol of the island country is Colombo Port City, being built by China on an enormous portion of land reclaimed from the sea.

Desperate to have a homemade meal in the capital before I leave Sri Lanka, I look up a few local websites and found Dunee’s Kitchen run by a Sinhalese woman from Kandy, who is now settled in a Colombo suburb. As she explains to me the nitty-gritty of Sinhalese cuisine, she serves the food in earthen pots lined neatly with banana leaves. My lunch spread includes a number of items: kos curry (curry made with large jackfruit cooked in coconut milk), daal, stir-fried beans, wambatu curry (a sweet, sour and spicy curry made with deep-fried eggplant cooked in onion and tomato gravy), ambulthiyal (a dry preparation of tuna which is marinated in goraka paste and then steamed), pol sambol (grated coconut mixed with chillies and onions), gotu kola sambol (grated coconut mixed with local greens), rice and watalappam (Sri Lankan coconut custard made of coconut milk, jaggery, cashew nuts, eggs and spices). Simply divine!

All in all, Sri Lanka intrigued me. A large part of its charm is it simplicity. Prices are still low and every corner of the country is clean and green. There is accommodation of every type available. It’s warm and friendly. Also, transport is not a problem here. With easy connectivity with local buses, trains and cabs, one can enjoy the country to the fullest. You can often rate a holiday by the number of things you keep for the next visit. And I have a fairly long list for Sri Lanka!