Sri Lanka rises from the Indian Ocean like a planter’s hat to heights of up to 2,500 metres. It gets a lot of rain, which keeps it lush and jungley. Although it’s only three-quarters the size of Ireland, it’s so diverse it’s like several countries rolled into one. Sometimes you feel you’re in Africa, sometimes India and sometimes Windermere. Then, amid the jungle and rivers, there are ruins of cities once as great as Rome or Carthage.
Because of the civil war (1983-2009), two-thirds of Sri Lanka’s coastline and beaches are largely undeveloped, particularly in the north. Most visitors go to the south coast but, up near Trincomalee, the area of Nilaveli, with its golden beaches and few people, has lots of potential and more hotels are opening now. Trincomalee itself can feel quaintly Georgian. Jane Austen’s younger brother is somewhere there, among the graves.
Despite the war damage, Jaffna is a gutsy place. On the main drag the buildings are painted primrose yellow. It’s really vibrant with lots of Indian traders, old British cars and ice-cream parlours. Rio Ice Cream is an institution and a fun place to hang out.
The dry zone in the north-west is where you’ll find all the sights like the sacred city Anuradhapura and the amazing rock citadel Sigiriya. But if you want to escape the crowds go to Ritigala, a mysterious forest monastery. It’s extraordinary and you’re likely to have the place to yourself.
A lot of people think you have to have a driver in Sri Lanka but it can be a mixed experience depending on who you get! Buses are as cheap as chips and I love travelling by rail, particularly chugging through tea country and the Highlands. I missed my stop once and the guard just stopped the train so I could walk back along the track.
Galle is beautiful, it feels like a little Dutch town from the 1700s, but Colombo – with amazing colonial architecture and lots going on – is really underrated. Buy a kite for a couple of quid and join the kite-fliers on the oceanside park, Galle Face Green – my daughter loved it. Take a tuk-tuk through Pettah, the busy Arab quarter, and have lunch at the Old Dutch Hospital, where the courtyard dates from 1680 and there are cafes around the edge. Ministry of Crab is great for seafood.
Weirdly, tourism never totally dried up, even at the height of the fighting. But peace has brought more business, and although development brings much-needed wealth, it stirs up all the usual problems: land grabs, jealousy, and child prostitution. But you’ll never see or hear any trouble. I had to dig deep to explore the fractures that divide this society, and only then was Sri Lanka ever ugly. I remember once being lambasted by a Singhalese man dressed only in a towel. Fortunately, he was armed with nothing worse than a bar of soap.
Galkadawala Forest Lodge in the centre of Sri Lanka is one of my favourite places to stay. It’s built from recycled materials, there are no external walls and there are just three rooms. The jungle is easily drawn into this structure, and so, at sunrise, I could lie in bed, drinking tea, surrounded by monkeys. The owner, Maulie de Saram, organises wonderful walks into elephant country – there are 5,800 elephants in Sri Lanka. And you can swim in the lake, if you don’t mind the crocodiles.
Sri Lankan food is exquisite. The cooks are often like alchemists, spending hours foraging for herbs and then working away on the perfect taste. To experience authentic cuisine get out into the countryside, to places like the Mudhouse orGalkadawala Forest Lodge. Try their okra curries, or their pancakes, thin and fine and baked to perfection.
The end of the war has opened up all sorts of new areas. For me, the best are the islands off Jaffna. Barely rising above the sandy lagoon, these are dotted with sumptuous mansions, now mostly abandoned. My favourite island is Delft, which from 1811 to 1824 was run by an Irishman, called Lieutenant Nolan. You can still visit his residence, his enormous stables, and the descendants of his horses, now magnificently shaggy and feral. There are places to stay, but they’re often run by the army, so somewhat controversial. Hammenhiel is a little fort out at sea on its own island that used to be a military prison – you have to go to a naval base on the main land and check in at the officers’ mess, then they’ll take you over on a speedboat. It’s a bit spooky.
In my book, Elephant Complex, I wanted to tell Sri Lanka’s story through the people I met:farmers, soldiers, a former president, tea planters, terrorists, people who remembered the Japanese raids of April 1942, survivors of the tsunami, and ev en a few Test cricketers. One of my favourites was a Veddah tribesman – the Veddahs are the original inhabitants of the island, and go back perhaps 32,000 years. He taught me how to make traps, find wild honey, and made me a bow and arrow, just the right size to go in my rucksack.