Floating in the Indian Ocean and famed for its Ceylon tea, Sri Lanka is a heady blend of beaches, rainforests, highlands and arid deserts. A land of contrast, most of the country’s attractions are found in the southern part of the Island, while parts of northern Sri Lanka are still visibly recovering from the devastating effects of the country’s long running civil war.
During a month in the country I visited places in the North, South, East, West and Centre. Along with Sri Lanka’s natural beauty, other lasting impressions I have of the country are; the terrifying buses and their drivers, the ubiquitous piles of burning rubbish on every roadside, the two questions that started almost every conversation with a local and coconuts…lots and lots of coconuts.
The country’s recent history has seen it suffer some hard times. The 2004 Boxing Day tsunami killed over 30,000 Sri Lankans, with many more displaced from their homes, followed up by a painstaking rebuilding process. The country’s civil war ran for 26 years, ending only eight years ago, in 2009, when the then government controversially launched a final assault on the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). The Group had been seeking, unsuccessfully in the end, to form an independent Tamil nation in what is a majority Sinhalese country. During my travels I still encountered comments and opinions that indicated the tensions between the Sinhalese and Tamils are not completely dead and buried. The issues are deep rooted and complicated, and I’m not going to try and unpick them here, but the recentness of the conflict was still palpable.
Sri Lanka is an easy place to travel around and between the trains, which offer breathtaking views of the Sri Lankan landscape, and the buses it’s fairly simple to navigate, particularly for getting to the attractions in the South and Centre of the country. Getting to the North is more challenging and so doesn’t seem to make it on to most people’s trip routes, which is a shame. For such a small island, Sri Lanka really does have a lot going for it and landscape-wise is probably one of the most diverse countries that I’ve visited.
But nowhere is perfect and there were definitely some frustrations. “Where are you from?” and “Where are you going?”, these were the first two questions we got asked by most people approaching us in the street or on the bus. Often these questions were as innocent as they sound, just curious locals interested in who we were. But every so often these were the pre-amble for someone to start selling us a service – a hotel, a guided tour, a tuk tuk ride – you name it, someone would try to sell it to us. Hustling was the name of the game here and unfortunately it led us to end up being suspicious of everyone who spoke to us, anticipating the inevitable “I’m a tour guide” or “my sister has a hotel”. To be honest it got tiring and became one of the downsides of Sri Lanka. Despite this, the pros definitely outweighed the cons. Sri Lanka is a beautiful island and if you’re willing to venture off the more well-worn paths there are gems to be found.