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A divine time in Sri Lanka
Martin Stewart Temple of the Tooth Relic

It is a performance that would impress a professional mime artist. The platform guide for Sri Lanka Railways at the maniacally busy Colombo Fort station cuts through all language barriers with a skill he has held all his life. He is deaf and mute.

His technique is simple. As soon as he sees a puzzled look on the face of a tourist wandering through the entrance, he plants himself in front of them.

His facial impression conveys sympathy, then he will gesture for your ticket. Ding! A smile will be followed by traffic signals and a rapid escort to the part of the platform required, then instructions on how many trains will arrive before yours. Then he will find you a seat and keep an eye on you, making sure you are not becoming engulfed in the tide of humanity surging across the platforms.

We have already booked our seat to Kandy in the first-class, air-conditioned section of the train, so we know we will be spared the potential crush of second or third class. When the train rolls in, Marcel Marceau moves among the groups of foreign faces giving us all the thumbs up.

Catching the optimistically named inter-city express to Kandy, 2 1/2 hours from Colombo, requires some forward planning. Trains can sell out several days ahead, depending on the season, and there are often queues for tickets released on the day as coaches are added.

Once aboard, you'll find comfortable reclining seats and overhead TVs to relax you for the climb into the high country and wonderful views across the lush valleys and mountains where the country's estimated one million tea plantation workers live.

The ancient kingdom of the Kandyans is high on the list of tourist destinations as the city which houses Sri Lanka's most important Buddhist relic, a tooth of the Buddha.

The tooth is said to have been snatched from his funeral pyre in 483BC and smuggled into Sri Lanka in the 4th century AD.

But Kandy is also a jumping-off point for spectacular mountain and forest scenery, tea factories and plantations and all the British colonial history that is wrapped up with the early days of the tea industry.

Kandy's heart is a blend of the usual subcontinental, helter- skelter commercial hub, flanked by the serenity of the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic and Kandy Lake.

Rising above this centre are steeply wooded hills that contain numerous guesthouses and hotels, many offering spectacular views. In fact, accommodation in all price ranges is to be found throughout the hill country, enjoying rural scenery but with easy access to the city itself.

We stay close to the city for the first couple of nights, at Shenani Oudagama's Villa 49 guesthouse, just a short stroll from the lake and the temples and shrines.

It offers a personal level of service that more expensive hotels strive to emulate, clean and modern rooms and amenities and, as always in Sri Lanka, fabulous food.

Shenani, a child psychologist before she dedicated herself to bringing up her family, helps us plan each day, and discusses what we would like for each meal. For 1200 rupees ($10) we have 10 dishes for our local-style curry each night; breakfast is a choice of spicy food or Western-style eggs, toast, homemade jams and banana waffles.

For 2500 rupees we hire a three-wheel tuk-tuk, which zips around everywhere for local journeys, for the day. The driver takes us to a working tea factory, three historic temples in a beautiful, rural setting and the Peradeniya Botanic Gardens.

These are the finest botanic gardens in the country, spread over 60ha with avenues of palms, a spice garden, orchids and thousands of specimens once viewed only by the Kandyan royal family.

For those interested in the hill country's colonial past, there is the landmark Queen's Hotel, which is well located and reeks of history. There is also the British cemetery behind the National Museum, where the headstones tell a tale of lives cut short by tropical disease.

But the real legacy of Sri Lanka's commercial history and the tea trade lies beyond Kandy in the cool of the mountain ranges.

The road south from Kandy climbs to Nuwara Eliya (1889m), a town with much colonial architecture where the plantation pioneers would come to relax and play sport. It was the tea capital of the hill country but much of the historic feel is fading as the descendants of the plantation workers build their own lives and livelihoods.

The town can be a stepping stone to Ella and the Horton Plains and Udawalawe national parks. Allow several days to explore the hill country as there is much to see and the twisting roads and heavy traffic make for slow travelling.

If you are fit, you can hike the Knuckles Range, where a guide is compulsory. Equally challenging is Adam's Peak (2243m), where Adam is said to have first set foot on the Earth, otherwise knows as Sri Pada. It is a seven-hour climb from Ratnapura.

To the north are the ancient cities of Dambulla, Sigiriya (another climb) and Polonnaruwa, with histories stretching back 1000 years.

But you can see all these cities from the comfort of a hired vehicle, as well. Hiring a car or van, plus driver, for the day costs 10-12,000 rupees, and it's worth it. Driving on Sri Lanka's roads is not for the faint-hearted.

Trains are frequently delayed, so you need to be patient, or come prepared with a book. If you prefer to study people, there is much to fascinate in such places. On the plus side, a second-class ticket from Colombo to Kandy costs just $1.60; first-class carriages are not attached to every train.

Ask where these carriages will stop on the platform, so you don't get left behind in the competition for seats.

The best approach is to just jump in with both feet. Most people are only too delighted to offer directions and other advice, and a sizeable minority speak good English.

The spirit of enterprise is everywhere as everyone who can has to make a living, so you will be approached and asked who you are and where you are from. This is generally a prelude to an offer of a taxi, or an introduction to someone who has a fine jewellery store, of which there are many. These can be declined politely, without umbrage.

Life for many people can appear a lot closer to survival; they don't enjoy the benefits of the welfare state of developed economies. But their politeness and ready laugh are perhaps best summed up in the words of US president Theodore Roosevelt: "For those who fight for it, life has a flavour that those who are sheltered will never know."

From its food to its colourfully dressed people and stunning landscape, Sri Lanka's hill country is alive with flavour.