Sri Lanka: The isle of smiles
It was a mistake to look down. I felt vulnerable enough on the steel ladder nailed to Sigiriya's sheer rock face without taking in the ground 650 feet below me.
Egypt has the pyramids, South Africa has Table Mountain, Australia has Uluru and Sri Lanka has Sigiriya. You've definitely heard of the first three iconic sights, you may even have visited some of them, but for too long Sigiriya - a massive rock known locally as the Lion Rock, with sheer granite on all sides and the ruins of a palace dating back 1500 years at the very top - has remained Sri Lanka's secret.
Indeed Sri Lanka itself has been off our radar, but that is rapidly changing. Now is the time to get on a Sri Lankan Airlines plane - so comfortable that you don't feel the seven hours from London to Colombo - and head there while the lush countryside is unspoilt, the beaches are still beautiful, the historic temples are still standing and the wildlife is still plentiful.
And the good news is it's well equipped for visitors, with a huge variety of excellent hotels ranging in style from ultra- modern to genuine colonial to eco-lodge.
Sri Lanka, a fascinating tear-drop-shaped island just below India, is about the size of Ireland. Like Ireland, it has a lot of rain, lots of lush countryside and great beaches - but there the similarities end. For a start Sri Lanka, which has a population of 20m, also has huge amounts of sunshine, and exotic plant life. Coconut palms and banyan trees line the roadways while vivid jasmine, gardenia and lotus flowers provide vibrant colour.
The Lion Rock (AKA Sigiriya)
Extraordinary wildlife and birdlife are everyday sights here - a tree laden with fruit bats, a family of monkeys crossing the road, a peacock fanning his feathers - while exotic fruits and spices are abundant, which of course ensured that our every meal was a delight of new flavours.
And in sharp contrast to our Christian ethos, the vast majority of Sri Lankans are Buddhists - which may explain their perpetual smiles and air of serenity.
Mind you, it's hard to believe anyone can remain serene in the face of the extraordinary driving; my fellow travellers and I watched horror-struck while massive buses and trucks and myriad tuk-tuks hurtled along overtaking other buses, trucks and tuk-tuks on roads that were not exactly motorways.
When our marvellous guide Susantha saw our petrified looks he joked: "You drive on the left, the Americans drive on the right; here it's optional!"
The roads may leave a lot to be desired but the destinations, whether a gorgeous beach - surfing is huge in Sri Lanka - a jungle full of monkeys or a Unesco-protected temple, were always worth the unpredictable journeys.
Our visit started in Colombo, the capital, and a rapidly expanding modern city, but we were soon out of it and on our way to Galle Fort, considered the most perfectly preserved coastal fortress in the world. It was originally built to protect the island from attack. In 1589 the Portuguese invaded and colonised the fort. They were followed by the Dutch and, some time later, the British.
All three left their mark on the architecture, and the result is a charming web of streets within earshot of the roar of the waves, with no building more than three storeys high, many of them shops and restaurants and featuring carved verandahs, highly crafted trellising and lushly planted courtyards.
Mary and friends in Sri Lanka
On our way to Galle, we had our first close encounter with Sri Lankan wildlife when we visited a turtle hatchery (above). Sri Lanka is one of the world's most important breeding spots for sea turtles, an endangered species. Unfortunately, they are further endangered by the fondness some of the locals have for the taste of turtle eggs, whose exterior, by the way, is curiously rubbery and flexible, unlike the hard shell of the hen's egg.
The turtles lay their eggs in the sands, poachers collect them and sell them on for eating. Now, however, the owners of the hatcheries buy the eggs from the poachers, they're then hatched and the baby turtles are put into water tanks before being released back into the sea. This operation is done at night to prevent the babies being snatched by passing birdlife.
Meanwhile, tourists can visit and see the tiny turtles wildly swimming in the tanks as they get used to the water. The hatchery also has some aged residents - including one guy who has only one front limb. Apparently he had been injured in the tsunami in 2004, which of course claimed so many human lives and caused devastation from which the people and the area are only now recovering.
The next morning brought our second wildlife treat when we visited the Pinnawala elephant orphanage. Elephants, which roam wild, are indigenous to the island, and Sri Lankans are very proud of them. They play an important role in the local Buddhist rituals, including the colourful processions which happen on a regular basis throughout the island. However, the elephants too are targeted by poachers, and often their babies are left motherless.
The Pinnawala orphanage was started in 1975 with six orphans and now totals 70, with some of the older ones mothers themselves and acting as surrogate mothers to the newly orphaned. We arrived at a river near to the orphanage - a wide open forest space - just in time to see some mothers and babies washing and it was a delight to see the interaction between one mother and her baby. She washed thoroughly behind his ears with her trunk and he kept trying to duck. Their antics were a sharp contrast to one little fellow off on his own; it transpired his mother had been killed in front of him, and, still grieving, he keeps to himself.
Elephants are one sight you can be sure of seeing on the Sri Lankan roadside. Another is the profusion of Buddhist shrines and temples - every little townland has one, but there are some extraordinary temples which must not be missed.
Dambulla, a Unesco world heritage site in the centre of the island, is famous for its five cave temples which date from the First Century BC. Founded by King Valagam Bahu in thanks for the shelter he found in the caves while fleeing from his enemies, the cave temples are hewn out of a massive piece of granite, and contain extraordinary ancient murals telling the story of Buddha's life, as well as a total of 153 statues of Buddhas, some gilded, all in different poses.
Sri Lankan dance
The most revered temple in Sri Lanka is the Temple of the Tooth, which is in Kandy, a city in the lush north of the island where cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves all grow in the spice gardens. The tooth is said to be that of Buddha, and it's believed to have been snatched from his funeral pyre and brought to Sri Lanka in the hair of a princess. The relic is preserved now in a tiny casket which is at the centre of series of caskets, Russian-doll-style.
Every year in August, there's a colourful procession in Kandy and the casket is displayed to the massive crowds who turn up to see it. During the rest of the year, it's housed in a section of a temple opened daily, and throngs queue to get a glimpse of the casket containing the tooth.
It was extraordinary to watch the faithful, barefoot and dressed in white, as they joined the huge queue snaking around the corridors of the temple, patiently awaiting their turn. Most brought offerings of lotus flowers and there were so many that attendants swept the flowers away into bins as quickly as they were put in front of the shrine. It didn't seem to matter to the faithful that their offerings were discarded, all that mattered was they brought them. It didn't matter that they wouldn't see the tooth itself, it was enough to come and pay respect.
If the tooth relic is the smallest treasure in Sri Lanka, Sigiriya is the largest.
It's not enough to just go and see Sigiriya, which is located north of Kandy, the done thing is to climb to the top. Easier said than done, as it has over a thousand steps, some carved into the rock but some of them on iron ladders attached to the sheer rock face. Some of my fellow travellers chose not to do the climb, but I was full of bravado. To be honest, I was terrified, particularly the couple of times I accidentally looked down and thoughts of the ladder coming away from the rock and hurtling me to instant death were hard to keep at bay. Another hazard was the wild monkeys who blocked our path, but at least it didn't rain.
It was worth it for the views, and the incredible sense of man's ingenuity. How King Kasyapa was able to build a palace that high in the sky is unfathomable. The descent was slightly easier despite the signs which said going down is dangerous, but my fears were allayed when we met a 79-year-Sri Lankan woman speeding back down, barefoot.
So that's next year's challenge when I return, because return I will.
Mary travelled to Sri Lanka as a guest of Sri Lanka Tourism (srilanka.travel).
Sri Lankan Airlines can be contacted at srilankan.com.
Mary stayed in the following hotels: Mount Lavinia, Colombo (mountlaviniahotel.com), Amaya Lake, Dambulla (amayalake.com), The Kingsbury Hotel, Colombo (thekingsburyhotel.com), Mahaweli Reach Hotel, Kandy (mahaweli.com), Jetwing Lighthouse, Galle (jetwinghotels.com/jetwinglighthouse), Cinnamon Grand and Cinnamon Red, Colombo (cinnamonhotels.com).
Traditional dance as performed by the Kandy Lake Club dance ensemble is a colourful, energetic and thoroughly enjoyable affair. The themes are based on Sri Lankan lore and include a devil dance which apparently was devised to exorcise demons and is still believed in some parts of Sri Lanka to be effective psychiatric treatment. Other spectacles include fire-eating and dancing on hot coals.
Sri Lanka enjoys a lot of nature's bounty, including great seafood, amazing vegetables, exotic fruits and is home to many spices, so naturally their cuisine is a joy. Curries are their thing and we enjoyed many fruit and gourd curries, including lotus gourd curry - all delicious. Jaggery, a sort of palm sugar marzipan, was addictive, as was wattalapa, a type of creme caramel. And the Elephant Ginger Beer is full of real ginger.
We got up close and personal with a troop of toque monkeys in the jungle of Polonnaruwa. Though wild, they've featured in many documentaries and are now stars of a new Disney film called Monkey Kingdom. We met Sunil Gunnathilake who has spent 20 years studying the primates and could identity each by name for us, including Maya, the movie's temperamental star who treated the jungle as her red carpet.
Sunday Indo Living