Within a living treehouse, you wake to the odd mewling cry of stirring peacocks as a fireball sun rises sharply at 5.30am from a cloud of mist blanketing rice paddies. In the background stands the mighty Sigiriya rock, an imposing clifftop fortress built by Sri Lanka’s King Kashyapa in the fifth century – his impregnable capital, of which a multitude of brick foundations remain for tourists to scale and overlook the surrounding lush plains.
This outlook from the notably exotic accommodation at The Hideout Sigirya reveals a surprising and dramatic landscape, which changes with unexpected frequency as you travel around Sri Lanka. Within a few hours’ drive, the topography shifts from coconut palm-fringed beaches dotting the southern coast, through open savannah plains that define popular safari destination Yala National Park, to the cool high-mountain tea plantations of Nuwara Eliya, then dense tropical jungles that house a multitude of monkeys, birds and Asian elephants.
Even among the supposedly peaceful rice paddies around Sigirya, it pays to be cautious about the elephants; we are travelling in the parched season before monsoon rains arrive, and elephants are on the move at night, in the hunt for water.
Near our remote resort – the clever retirement project of Sujatha and Upali Amarasiri that they constructed on farmland four years ago – there is a beautiful reservoir covered in water lilies. Thirsty elephants make a beeline overland for this precious water source, often trampling rice paddies in their haste. Farmers try to protect their crops with electrified fences, or hire young boys as lookout sentries to sit through the night on wooden platforms erected in trees, firing air pistols to scare the big beasts away. We heard shots and hollers in the distance that night. This is indeed a wild land.
There are many more pleasant options for viewing elephants. Large herds can be observed roaming through Minneriya National Park from the safety of open-top jeeps. If wild animals become isolated or ostracised from their herd, they find a new home in the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, which has rescued injured or orphaned elephants for the past 40 years. Some visitors get upset to see a few elephants wearing chains at the big compound, though such restraint is necessary as they assimilate within this new herd of about 90 misfits. It takes time as they adapt to new behavioral patterns – with a highlight being their massed walk through the village’s main street to reach a fast-flowing river for twice-daily swims. Tourists watch the animals at play from restaurant balconies perched above the riverbank.
The way that tourists access such a small village as Pinnawala is changing. While many visitors had favoured accommodation hubs in renowned focal points within Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle – such as the archeological sites and ancient capitals of Anuradhapura, Kurunegala, Polonnaruwa and Kandy – new options are emerging in other rural towns, from modest Ayurveda health spas through to the luxurious Jetwing Sigirya, boasting private bora pavilions on pylons over lotus covered lakes.
It signals that tourism enterprises in Sri Lanka have accelerated rapidly since civil war hostilities ceased in 2009. More change is set to follow, as signs dotting main roads announce that large tracts of land are for sale. In popular highland tourist towns such as Ella, a rush of homes are being converted into guest houses, and hotel prices are high – as much as $300 a night for places far less salubrious than in neighbouring south-east Asian countries.
The government also sees tourism as an important revenue source, setting high prices to enter cultural attractions. Backpackers, especially, complain about $20 entrance fees to national park walking trails. By comparison, food is very cheap – from $6 to $9 for curry and rice buffets that mostly cater for mild tourist tastes, comprising dahl, several vegetable curries and often a fish curry, with papadams or hoppers (cup-shaped rice crepes).
The allure of tourist money has even affected several religious attractions. Admission to the famed Buddhist cave monastery at Dambulla has been delegated to a new authority after a former head monk absconded with a gigantic sum of admission fees. In Kandy, the Temple of the Tooth Relic proved to be a swirling sea of chaos as impatient crowds of tourists and devotees pushed to file past a gleaming tabernacle housing what is said to be Buddha’s tooth. It was all too harried and frantic to feel any sense of enlightenment, as idealistic westerners would envisage. It reminded that Sri Lanka is in a great hurry to find its commercial feet – and you sense it will all continue changing, very briskly.
All photos by David Sly – All Rights Reserved