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History, culture and peace put Sri Lanka back on map
Frank Molloy Tamil tea factory worker. Women pick the tea while men work in production.

At the end of day nine of my 10-day tour of central and southern Sri Lanka, I realised I had just visited three World Heritage-listed sites in the previous few hours.

Yet I also realised, by visiting Sigiriya - both the site of an ancient civilisation and the geologically interesting plug of an extinct volcano which dominates the surrounding landscape - I had only visited one "angle" of what is known as the cultural triangle.

Related: SRI LANKA TOUR DIARY

The other two features - the 2000-year-old Anuradhapura, the country's first capital with its ruins of Buddhist temples, and Polonnaruwa, another one-time royal capital, both of which have World Heritage listings - will have to await my return.

Altogether there are six cultural and two natural World Heritage sites in Sri Lanka. These sit alongside the colonial history of its successive rulers, the Portuguese, Dutch and British.

Yet arguably, these are not the main tourist drawcard for most westerners. It is the achingly beautiful coconut palm-fringed beaches with turquoise water and names that you will have fun getting your tongue around that have the biggest pulling power, especially for sun-starved Scandinavians and other northern Europeans.

The New York Times nominated this northern hemisphere tropical island as its number one destination for 2010 - partly because "it's one big zoo".

Now that needs serious qualification but what the writer apparently intended to convey was that there are big areas of forested national park and it's certainly true that on my tour I saw monkeys, elephants, peacocks, butterflies and a variety of interesting birds not in national parks.

I also saw an unconscionable number of stray dogs on roads, often making a traffic hazard, and the country urgently needs to address this problem as rabies is a risk.

Long stretches of road were badly pot-holed and had crumbling shoulders, traffic weaves on both sides of the road - Indian-style - and there is incessant honking and bad air pollution from two-stroke tuk-tuks.

Nevertheless, I saw only one bus that had crashed and no actual accident, despite hours spent driving most days.

Sri Lanka is a poor, conservative country of 21 million people, almost the same population as Australia in an island about the size of Tasmania.

It has been somewhat isolated by 26 years of civil war which only ended in 2009.

Now that the conflict is over (marked by a 10,000-rupee-banknote, about $87, issued to commemorate the peace declaration) tourists are switching on to what's there.

Every tourist I spoke to said they had been waiting for the war to finish before making the trip. No surprise then that tourist numbers are rising sharply.

I wanted to be somewhere near the front of the line as I had waited many of those war years for the opportunity to visit our Indian Ocean Buddhist neighbour.

This made it something of a pilgrimage, with its associations of endurance and religious experience.

It became an actual pilgrimage on day-eight when I climbed the sacred mountain - Sri Pada in Singhalese, though in tourist brochures you will see it as Adam's Peak.

I started at 1.45am and climbed for almost four hours in the greatest physical challenge of my 62 years. My effort was rewarded with an astonishing sunrise as I looked down on mountains poking through clouds, with one peak like a submarine conning tower breaking through white water.

Adam's Peak is a biblical reference to the mountain, although it is not used by the majority Singhalese-speaking population which is 80 per cent Buddhist. It is an interesting example of the power of language, as in Uluru versus Ayers Rock or Purnululu versus the Bungle Bungles.

My driver, Denzil, was emphatic that the religions - Buddhist, Christian, Hindu and Muslim - coexisted harmoniously in his country and made the point that in the civil war the Tamil Tigers did not enjoy universal support from the Hindu Tamil population whose history on the island is linked to tea plantations established by the British in the 19th century.

Tamil tea pickers were brought in as cheap labour and remain such in an industry which continues to produce the country's leading export after textiles, gems and spices such as cinnamon, cardamom and cloves.

The company I travelled with - Ferien Lanka Tours - has a Muslim manager and drivers who are Buddhist and Christian.

Sri Lanka's Christian links shed light on its colonial past with Portuguese (Catholic), British (Anglican) and Dutch (Dutch Reform) churches of historical interest to tourists from their respective countries.

Although I saw foreign travellers waiting for buses and trains, and they had my utmost admiration, I was very glad I was spared the waiting and hassles for public transport.

Instead I had hired Denzil and organised the whole trip with the manager of his company after arriving at my hotel in Colombo.

Until then I had very little information about travel in Sri Lanka, having only bought Lonely Planet on discount at a Bangkok bookshop the day before I arrived.

The New Colombo Hotel had been recommended to me as mid-range accommodation in preference to the Grand Oriental opposite the harbour, the Renuka and Global Towers.

However, the New Colombo, while very well-located near five-star hotels, is quite small and unexceptional, though the management and staff were friendly and helpful. My room was musty with towels well-worn.

There is an important point to be made for intending tourists: the Government enforces minimum rates on accommodation in a country with a very low standard of living (approximate average annual earnings are around $3730, which ranks 135th in the world).

Tourist accommodation is taxed to help the Government recover from the war.

There is top-end, five-star accommodation in Colombo and Galle to the south and in colonial-era guesthouses in the mountains inland known as the hill country where the famous Ceylon tea is grown. (A still earlier Greek name for the island was Taprobane.)

If your tour is pre-arranged like mine you will experience a range of mostly guesthouse accommodation where the quality ranges from good to basic-poor depending on how much you pay.

I paid $720 for a driver and six nights accommodation with breakfast included, which happened to be just $20 shy of the cash I was carrying as I negotiated the deal.

Towel provision and quality were usually minimal, locks jammed in two doors and it was redundant locking one door as all it required was a hefty shoulder on it to open.

In my last room on the tour a pink and frilly mosquito net was suspended over the bed like a huge, surreal box jellyfish. I didn't use it and managed to hook it to the wall. Malaria can be contracted in Sri Lanka so travellers must consider the range of options to keep safe.

There were damp, musty smells in places, European food was of the plain and wholesome variety with boiled vegetables overcooked in the old British way. Continental breakfast always meant white toast, local coffee that seemed intended to convert the drinker to tea, and eggs. Bacon was served once.

I tried Sri Lankan curry only once and was assured by Denzil that it was of a very high standard. Just one chicken dish among the spread was too hot and spicy for me. The curried potatoes and onion brinjal stood out.

In the evening at the same hotel, a 30-minute drive from Sigiriya, I was served such a large meal of tasty grilled tuna and local vegetables that I would have had to leave half if Denzil hadn't come to join me at the table.

At almost every stop the service and hospitality were impeccable and had the effect of masking the aspects which did not meet international standard.

You are advised not to drink tap water and bottles were provided everywhere except at the Full Moon Garden Hotel near the airport where I stayed for a few hours after parting from Denzil and waiting for an early morning flight back to Bangkok.

The Full Moon had a broken toilet which was fixed immediately, one threadbare towel and mosquitoes that seemed to have mastered spontaneous generation. As soon as I killed one, two more appeared.

At 4300 rupees ($37) a night it is not recommended even for a brief stop near the airport.

Fortunately, I arrived at the airport in plenty of time as there was a long line of passengers waiting to get through the first of three security checks - the airport has been the target of a terrorist bomb.

"There doesn't seem to be any system," I said despairingly to the man next to me as queue-jumpers sneaked to the doors before us and I was on the verge of creating an international incident.

"That is the system," he said wryly.

Suddenly, I understood a lot more about his country as I admonished a European couple for trying to get ahead of us and claimed victory as they slunk away.

FACT FILE

• Clothing is a mix of Western and traditional. Women wear saris as well as dresses. Men are often seen in colourful sarongs.

• It is not unusual to see people going barefoot in towns and villages. Porters in guesthouses and waiters are sometimes barefoot, as are most monks.

• Tea and coffee are always served from the finest porcelain pots.

• Male homosexuality is illegal but it is acceptable for men to hold hands.

• Bicycles are common in this country where consumerism has not caught on. Three-wheeled tuk-tuks are everywhere and can be hired at very reasonable rates for short journeys. I took a 20-minute ride for 300 rupees ($2.60).

• The value of the Sri Lankan rupee is about half that of India's.

• Geologically, Sri Lanka, Australia and India have always been neighbours. All three land masses were part of Gondwanaland in a cluster with Antarctica before Sri Lanka drifted north with India to where they are today.

• The Sri Lankan Government is promoting hotel building in a bid to reach a target of 725,000 tourist arrivals this year.