By Shashwat Pradhan
COLOMBO - The 13th-century Venetian traveller Marco Polo described Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon, as being “for its size, better circumstanced than any island in the world”.
He probably would not have described it that way when Sri Lanka was in the grips of a quarter-century-long civil war that only ended in 2009.
The 2004 tsunami that caused widespread death and misery across the region also hit Sri Lanka, causing extensive damage.
Today, though, with the war over and the coastal towns largely rebuilt, Sri Lanka is reawakening and revealing its pristine beaches, historic ruins and striking culinary flavours to travellers once again.
Northern areas, where the civil war discouraged tourism, also have seen change, with the cities of Jaffna and Trincomalee starting to experience a gradual influx of visitors.
For many, the capital Colombo is the starting point, if only because of the trains and buses linking it to other major towns.
A popular landmark in Colombo is the Galle Face Green, a strip of land sandwiched between Galle road and the sea. On weekends, the place is sprawling with day-trippers, many of whom can be seen enjoying a game of cricket.
Evenings in Colombo are best spent on Mount Lavinia beach, a short bus ride from the city centre. Numerous shacks serving local Lion beer assure no one goes thirsty.
Colombo is also a good place to start sampling the local cuisine. Sri Lanka’s favourite fast food, kottu roti, is made from chopped roti (flat bread), vegetables, egg, spices and meat. It is particularly popular among late-night partygoers craving a spicy snack.
Alternatively, the Taj Samudra hotel offers an expansive breakfast buffet array of continental, Sri Lankan and Indian dishes for 2,000 Sri Lankan rupees ($15) per person.
About 150 km (90 miles) east of Colombo, nestled in the hilly heart of the country, lies the town of Kandy. Although buses between Colombo and Kandy operate on regular intervals, the trains afford a more scenic view of tropical jungles, tea plantations and mist-laden hills.
Kandy offers a welcome change from the warm, humid climate of the coast. It is a bustling town lined with budget hotels, simple restaurants and a few colonial structures that have been converted into ayurvedic massage centres.
Situated along Kandy Lake is the sacred Temple of the Tooth which is said to house the relic of the tooth of Buddha, attracting large numbers of local and foreign tourists. Within the temple complex, devotees clothed in white sit quietly with their lips moving feverishly in silent worship.
KANDY IS A GATEWAY
Kandy serves as the gateway for many historical sites within the heart of Sri Lanka, such as the Buddhist town of Anuradhapura. It also is a convenient hopping off point for the enchanting Adam’s peak -- a hill said to have religious significance for Buddhists, Christians, Muslims and Hindus -- and the ancient town of Sigiriya, possibly the most popular historical site in the country.
Sigiriya is best known for the colossal column of rock that dominates its skyline. Rising above the mist that often shrouds it in winter, the citadel houses medieval frescoes of the Anuradhapura period.
The flat top of the rock, which can be reached in a 40-minute climb, houses the remains of an ancient palace. The best time to visit is at sunset, when the moon and the setting sun can often be seen simultaneously.
For those who prefer sun and sand to jungles and temples, Sri Lanka's pristine beaches lie mostly along the southwest coast, around the town of Galle.
Unawatuna beach is a short ride from Galle in a tuk tuk -- the ubiquitous scooter-like vehicles found everywhere in Sri Lanka. Scuba diving facilities allow visitors to explore underwater treasures such as shipwrecks, turtles and coral.
Those not in the mood for water sports can unwind by the sea while sipping coconut arrack and savouring the subtle flavours of a mullet fish curry.
Unawatuna also has an active night life. The Happy Banana hotel offers an eclectic mix of music and the dancing goes on until sunrise.
(Reporting By Shashwat Pradhan in Bengaluru; Editing by Michael Roddy and Robin Pomeroy)