Photo Credit: Arnie Weissmann

Enlightened serendipity

If you want to feel enlightened, go to Sri Lanka.

But first, prepare to be humbled.

Sri Lanka simultaneously exalts and surprises, its attractions often so stunning one can't believe they're not better known: Outstanding ruins on a grand scale. A cultural blend that exists nowhere else on Earth. Artistic traditions that not only produce dreamy and mystical imagery but incredible modern architecture.

Perhaps for Americans, some lack of familiarity with Sri Lanka's offerings will soon dissipate. Europeans and Australians embraced the country soon after its 25-year civil war ended in 2009, and together those source markets account for almost 45% of all arrivals.

Americans represented less than 5% of the arrival total in 2015, but that's a 16% rise over the previous year. Sri Lanka in 2016 appeals to American early adopters, those in the first waves of travelers who reached Myanmar, Vietnam and Bhutan when those countries opened up.

But there is a difference: Pioneering Americans who traveled to those destinations in their early stages often found only standard accommodations at best; in Sri Lanka they'll find upscale hospitality companies, including luxury brands such as Aman, Taj and Anantara, as well as inspired homegrown resorts and hotels.

For the time being at least, they're also likely to find they're the only Americans in residence at some of those properties. And that may be the case for some time to come; the biggest barrier preventing Sri Lanka from growing its American arrivals significantly is distance, and that isn't going to change. There are no scheduled nonstop flights between North America and Colombo, its capital and largest city.

In fact, many Americans going there now were already in the neighborhood, tacking Sri Lanka onto a trip to India.

The good news for those who combine these two destinations is that as wonderful as India can be, Sri Lanka won't suffer in comparison. There are some similarities beyond a shared love of curry, cricket and kites, but the country is much smaller and less densely populated than India, and it has an identity and culture that are strikingly distinct. (View a slideshow from Arnie's visit.)


Sacred sites

"When you think of Paris, you think of the Eiffel Tower," my guide said, standing in a plaza before the Temple of the Tooth Relic in Kandy. "The Taj Mahal is the symbol of India. For Sri Lanka, it is here."

He gestured to the grand building behind us, then continued, "I am a tour guide. It's my profession. It's how I make my living. But when I come here, it's very personal. Every time, I feel it here," he concluded, putting his hand on his heart.

In most instances I have a preference for independent travel over guided tours, but on this trip to Sri Lanka with my family, I was very glad to be in the hands of Sudesh Wickramaratna, a guide for Intrepid Travel. The trip was designed by the company's Private Group division. (Disclosure: I was a guest of Intrepid, and I paid for my family to accompany me.)

Wickramaratna provided a crucial portal into Sri Lanka that opened to a much deeper understanding of the nation, its religions and culture. His knowledge of various sites was impressive, but he also brought the country to life with extras that were not site-specific, from teaching us a Sinhalese word of the day each morning to evening instruction in Buddhist meditation. On our last day, he brought us to have lunch with a local family: his own.

And, standing in front of the Temple of the Tooth Relic, his low-key passion helped us fully understand the special and sacred status of the building we were about to enter. My 13- and 15-year-old sons watched and imitated his respectful bearing. We all did.

In an urn inside a chamber off a hall in the temple is what tradition holds to be a fragment of Buddha's tooth. Wickramaratna timed our visit to coincide with the few minutes each evening when the chamber door is opened and visitors file past to catch a glimpse of the urn.

Although the temple is, as Wickramaratna explained, the country's best-known religious site, it is not the only unusual and impressive expression of Buddhist influence. About 75% of the country practices the religion, and earlier that day we had visited Dambulla, a first-century B.C. complex comprising five caves filled with a dizzying array of statues that represent Buddha's life, enlightenment and repose after death. On the walls of the caves are murals with abstract designs and depictions of religious and historical scenes.

By that point in the trip, we weren't surprised to find that a small Hindu temple was also on the grounds. We had visited several places where Buddhist and Hindu temples, mosques and churches were in close proximity.

Sri Lanka's civil war had its roots in religious and ethnic strife. Hindu Tamils, concentrated primarily in the northwest part of the country, demanded autonomy from the Buddhist majority. The war was bitter and long, but in discussions with our guide and others, there was no surface evidence of lingering intercommunal discord, at least in the central and southern parts of the country where we traveled. The rebels, whose tactics included suicide bombings throughout the country, were commonly referenced by people we met as "extremists" rather than Tamils.

A tray holding various grades of tea produced in the Dambatenne Tea Factory near Haputale. The factory was founded by Thomas Lipton in 1890 and is open for tours that demonstrate the stages of tea production: fermentation, drying, rolling, cutting, sieving and grading.
A tray holding various grades of tea produced in the Dambatenne Tea Factory near Haputale. The factory was founded by Thomas Lipton in 1890 and is open for tours that demonstrate the stages of tea production: fermentation, drying, rolling, cutting, sieving and grading. Photo Credit: Arnie Weissmann

Tea time

Tamils make up the majority of the workforce in the tea industry, which was established largely in the mountainous region surrounding the town of Haputale. We toured a large factory that had been established by none other than Thomas Lipton and went up a winding mountain road to get to the highest point in the region, known as Lipton's Seat. Standing next to a bronze statue of a seated Lipton, one is treated to a stunning panorama of five provinces in central Sri Lanka.

Switchbacks etch a narrow path through the tea fields to get to the top, and along the way we passed a mostly female workforce picking tea leaves and throwing them into baskets on their backs. Toward the bottom of the mountain was a weigh station where the women lined up, each with a large sack representing her morning's harvest.

Lunch that day was combined with a deeper look at Tamil life. A local guide, Kolandevan Sivaneson, had joined us, and we headed down a trail to his house. His wife, welcoming us as we approached, applied red bindi dots to our foreheads before we entered their small, simply furnished home.

We were invited into the kitchen to hang out with Sivaneson's mother as she prepared dosay, etaly, dal and wadi on a wood-fired stove.

Trunk and disorderly

Elephants permeate Sri Lankan consciousness and society. Even visitors who don't make it to a national park to see them in the wild will see them in captivity, in art, on fabrics, in temple imagery, on currency, on souvenirs and T-shirts, even being transported in trucks.

Ubiquitous they may seem, but be sure to include a national park in any visit to Sri Lanka. Herds of wild elephants there are larger than anywhere else in South Asia, and the interactions within the herds we saw ranged from adorable to funny to concerning, the mood of the scene sometimes changing within minutes. (View a slideshow here.)

We visited Minneriya National Park in central Sri Lanka, and from an open-roof vehicle we watched young males tussle, entwining their trunks and pushing against each other with all their strength. We saw babies trotting alongside their families with Disneyesque levels of cuteness and a large bull elephant who appeared to be offering unwanted affection to females.

We also spied axel deer, macaques and tufted gray langur monkeys and a dozen varieties of birds, from peacocks to storks to ibises to eagles. But most of our time was spent in the company of elephants and the tourists who migrated with them from one small freshwater lake to another.

Thanks to our local guide/driver, who suggested we also go down some isolated back roads, we were to be the sole witnesses to an unusual encounter. Toward the end of our drive, we came across a family of elephants with a (relatively) tiny baby calf still covered in lanugo, the fetal hair that's shed soon after birth. We cooed and oohed and shot photos of every movement of the calf, but after 10 minutes, my wife spied two jackals lurking in the tall grass nearby. The family of elephants, unaware, moved toward them. When the elephant family noticed the jackals, the females circled the baby, and the tusked bull turned to face the jackals directly, lifting his trunk and staring.

The jackals slunk away.

Two gigantic paws are carved out of stone at the base of the staircase to Sigiriya, a 660-foot-high, mountaintop fortress.
Two gigantic paws are carved out of stone at the base of the staircase to Sigiriya, a 660-foot-high, mountaintop fortress. Photo Credit: Arnie Weissmann

A usurper's mountaintop fortress

Habarana, the closest town to Minneriya National Park, is also the gateway city to Sri Lanka's finest and most extensive ruins, Sigiriya. The site, an elaborate network of roads, gardens and other court features, is often cited as the first example of urban planning in that part of the world.

It was built by a rebellious prince in the fifth century who killed his father and, fearing retribution from his brother, built a city around a 660-foot-high rock outcropping. He lived atop it in a fortress, worrying his brother would return with an army. (The brother eventually did show up and succeeded in breeching the fortress.)

Although the buildings are gone, their footprint and many impressive features remain. There are well-preserved murals still visible on the rock wall of the mountain (it's thought that the entire wall, hundreds of feet high, may have once been covered in murals). Two smooth, gigantic lion's paws remain at the base of the stairway leading to the highest level; Sigiriya means "lion rock." Elaborate defenses, royal courts and pools, some of which have been fully restored, are among the features.

We stayed outside of Habarana in a grand, modern property called Aliya (Sinhalese for elephant). It was designed by students of Sri Lanka's most famous architect, Geoffrey Bawa, and amplifies his aesthetic, which makes the most of natural settings while also imposing creative, sometimes flamboyant, overlays. It's primarily minimalist, but there exist few greater "wows" in hospitality than the scene that greets visitors entering Aliya's open-air lobby and finding themselves facing Sigiriya mountain in the distance, but with an enormous swimming pool and deck dominating the foreground. The lobby walls feature simple but stunning, elephant-inspired sculptures.

Where contemporary and colonial mix

Although stays or visits to hotels designed by Bawa himself weren't on our original itinerary, our guide indulged our requests to see a few of them.

Just outside Galle is Jetwing Lighthouse, which features a stairwell that winds among metallic warriors doing battle beneath a blue Moorish dome. Like Frank Lloyd Wright, Bawa also designed furniture throughout his public spaces. And, as is the case with Wright's furniture, one gets greater delight from looking at his chairs than from sitting on them. We also inspected an inspired Moorish suite whose balcony overlooked a turbulent Indian Ocean.

During our visit to Galle, we stayed across the road from Jetwing Lighthouse at the elegant, low-key, former 18th-century colonial mansion Tamarind Hill, a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World. Its quiet courtyard setting, excellent restaurant and dark-wood bar conveyed Galle's colonial past in ways that complemented and contrasted Bawa's contemporary vision.

Galle had been ruled in succession by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British, and it is characterized by a large, walled Portuguese fort that has morphed into the city's most interesting neighborhood. The area and the fortifications were the fourth and final Unesco World Heritage Site in Sri Lanka that we visited. (The others were Kandy city, Sigiriya and the Buddhist caves in Dambulla.) While backpackers haven't fully colonized the old city, they are a presence there, staying in inexpensive guesthouses, sitting at internet cafes and shopping at craft markets and boutiques.

But a colonial atmosphere pervades, symbolized by a lighthouse, the city's iconic structure, as well as a Dutch Reform church and Islamic teaching centers. Some colonial administrative buildings, however, have been repurposed. What was once a hospital now houses pubs and restaurants, and a 17th-century, colonial building across from the Dutch church is currently the five-star Amangalla.

While Galle has the most prominent Western influences, past and present, of anywhere we visited in the country, it's a popular vacation spot for Sri Lankans, as well. We saw many honeymooners and couples -- small production crews in tow -- shooting elaborate Bollywood-style videos and stills in and around the older buildings.

Tsunami coast

Galle was among the cities inundated by the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004. Although its historical fortifications helped preserve parts of the old city, 4,000 Galle residents died, and much of the city was extensively damaged. The Dutch contributed greatly to the city's restoration, which no longer shows evidence of the deluge.

But as one moves up the southwestern coast toward Colombo, abandoned houses along the road and three memorials bear witness to the 30,000 Sri Lankans who died on that day.

The first commemoration, built with Japanese funding, has an almost Zen simplicity: a large Buddha stands on an island in the middle of a large pond. The Buddha itself is a replica of a Bamiyan statue that was destroyed by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The second is a disturbing bas-relief sculpture, re-creating the apocalyptic landscape that was revealed as the water receded, with train carriages and autos juxtaposed in abnormal angles and bodies splayed and contorted.

A child’s drawing of the Dec. 26, 2004, tsunami that devastated parts of Sri Lanka’s southwest coast has been mounted on the walls of the Tsunami Photo Museum outside Telwatta.
A child’s drawing of the Dec. 26, 2004, tsunami that devastated parts of Sri Lanka’s southwest coast has been mounted on the walls of the Tsunami Photo Museum outside Telwatta. Photo Credit: Arnie Weissmann

The third display, though the least sophisticated, was by far the most moving. The walls of a few rooms in a simple building are covered in photographs, handwritten remembrances, children's drawings and hand-lettered interpretive posters, all telling the personal stories of Sri Lankans and visitors whose lives were shattered on Dec. 26, 2004.

Life goes on along the coast, which today is popular with surfers and vacationers, and a drive along the highway is a reminder that, entwined with the peaceful and placid surface beauty of Sri Lanka, is a recent history riven by tragedy.

Oh, just one more thing: Colombo

We didn't have even a full day in Colombo, but on our way there we stopped and visited another Buddhist temple complex just outside the capital. Its beauty and spiritual atmosphere left us wondering why it, too, wasn't better known by travelers. Like the Temple of the Tooth Relic and the Buddhist caves of Dambulla, the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara is not merely a historical treasure (it is believed by some to date to 500 B.C.) but a living center of worship and divinity. It was a place that transcended time, merging live rituals with ancient devotional art and architecture.

Almost all of our 10 days in Sri Lanka were spent in historical or nature areas, but on our final evening there, my 24-year-old daughter, Emma, and I decided to go into Colombo's downtown for dinner and to see a bit of the capital while the rest of the family relaxed at the hotel. The concierge warned us that there wasn't going to be much happening on a Sunday evening, but he ended up recommending an area he thought might have a small concentration of open shops and restaurants.

One thing I did know about the country before we arrived was that before it was called Sri Lanka, and even before it was known as Ceylon, it was named Serendip, from which we get the word "serendipity." And that evening, we understood why during an experience that greatly strengthened our connection to modern Sri Lanka.

On our way to where the concierge had directed us, we came across a massive crowd filling a park along the Indian Ocean shoreline.

We told our tuk-tuk driver we'd get out there and wandered into a huge festival with modern pop-music acts on a mainstage, fashion shows, technology displays, crab shacks, toy vendors, kite runners and what seemed like a significant portion of the population just out enjoying an evening by the sea.

We watched, listened and strolled among the crowd of Sri Lankans -- Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims, young and old, rich and poor -- who mingled, danced, sang and played. It was true serendipity that we happened upon this surprising aspect of Sri Lanka just in time before we departed.

Nonetheless, though this is a relatively small country, I would say that 10 very full days were not enough to see even the highlights. We had only engraved a thin, irregular line through the bottom half of Sri Lanka.

Intrepid had, in fact, initially suggested that 15 days is a more typical length of time for a family trip.

I imagine even that would leave one wanting more.