Sri Lanka is the land of the exotic. Gemstones, spices, emerald green hills filled with tea plantations, the deep turquoise Indian Ocean, elephant herds and ancient red stone castles where one used to climb a mountain and then walk into a lion’s mouth to visit the King and his expansive harem.
This is where you gaze at a gallery of wall paintings depicting gorgeous half-naked women and realize the movie industry is only just now catching up in displaying the foreign, exotic, harem stories of history. Here you’ll see paintings of women from across the world, a harem for a connoisseur. And after the king fell, his kingdom of massive stone lions and flickering torchlight crumbled into ruins, this is where you found chanting monks. They sit across the mountain top, perfectly still. With acolytes climbing thousands of stairs to reach these hollowed out stone benches to seek nirvana.
Next, hundreds of years later, you find British colonies. No, Dutch. Or, buried beneath them all, Portuguese. So, these are the East Indies. The deep, wide, almost painfully emerald tea plantations. This is Ceylon. This is a 2,000 year old nation that still feels more exotic than modern.
It’s an enchanting place. But a history of being invaded from the north by India (repeatedly) has left it’s mark on this foreign beauty. Buddhists predominate followed by Muslims, while Hindus – the violent and historical conquerors – are tolerated. Portuguese occupation, followed by Dutch industry and then the British empire also show in the architecture and the blatant colonial offerings.
I spent two days driving about the Cultural Triangle of the North to see the old capitals and elephant safari. Then I headed to Galle on the Southern Coast to relax in my own villa.
Yes. my. own. villa. Feel free to judge, but it was spectacular. Solo travel in Sri Lanka is a wonderful experience. My driver was happy to create a mini-food tour from road side stands for me as we drove. I sampled rambutan, mangosteen, guava and ate a number of lychees raw, before eventually discovering the hard way that I am allergic to jack fruit. So we headed to a spice garden where an Aryuvedic healer gave me tea for my tingling mouth to prevent fever blisters before walking me about a traditional Spice Garden.
By the time we arrived in Galle I was utterly spoiled by my sweet driver. Janeka, to his credit, was not perplexed by the idea of a white woman traveling alone in Sri Lanka. And the house staff at the villa in Galle didn’t lessen this effect. I would awaken in the morning and one of the house boys would greet me while the chef made breakfast, followed by a walk around the Fort. Then in the afternoon after I lounged in the living room. I would gaze at the exquisite bookshelves and upright piano and sip on a rum cocktail while the fans turned lazily about.
During the day I photographed the jewel-like ocean and the Dutch architecture. I shopped for jewelry and gemstones while talking to artisans and mine-owners. It was… luxurious.
When people ask me which of my recent destinations have been my favorite, Sri Lanka is always one I recommend. Everything that I have romanticized about travel, the search for exoticness that comprises such a large part of my drive to wander, is embodied in Sri Lanka. It’s still relatively unknown and the tourism machine hasn’t polished things up. But if you’re willing to indulge in the colonial experience, there is no lack of comfort.
Suggestion: Tip well, especially if like me you struggle with the colonial history.