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Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka travel guide

Sri Lanka – the island of serendipity – rises from tropical sandy beaches into cool highland regions, rich with temples and tea plantations shrouded in mist

Hanging like a tear-drop from the southern tip of India, Sri Lanka is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. Ringed by a necklace of palm-fringed beaches, its mountainous interior rears up in a jungled hinterland roamed by elephant and leopard, rising finally to the cool highlands that grow the country's famous tea.

Amidst all this there's culture too. Overwhelmingly Buddhist, Sri Lankans practice their gentle beliefs with a lavish enthusiasm. There are thronged temples and sacred relics, religious festivals and extravagant sacrements, at their most spectacular in the holy city of Kandy, home to the Buddha's tooth.

History lives on in the steep, lushly forested hills. This is where you'll find the mighty rock-top fortress of Sigiriya and a cluster of historic towns, including Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa.

The colonial era brought tea-planting on a massive scale to Sri Lanka's cool highlands. You can visit the bungalows of early British settlers as they sit amongst seas of tea-plants, watch pickers at work and factories in action. Walk the streets of Nurweya Eliyah and think Ascot, with timber-framed buildings, G&Ts at members' clubs and even a horse-racing track. European cultures blend in the southern city of Galle, with Portuguese and Dutch elements in this fortified outpost overlooking the Indian Ocean.

To see leopard and elephant in the wild there are a number of spectacular National Parks, lushly overgrown in the tropical climate: Yala is perhaps the most visited. Skilled guides point out the smaller wonders: a huge variety of birdlife and brightly-coloured jungle butterflies.

Last, but not least, there are beaches galore. Pick your beach to suit the season and your taste. There are quiet beaches while others catch great surfing waves. For a beach experience true to local life head to the south, where fishermen perch on stilts dug into the sand, casting lines into the ocean for their daily meal.

Wanderlust recommends

  1. Visit the 'Temple of the Tooth'. Wars have been fought over this relic, which is housed in a teeming temple complex in Kandy. Join the devout to add your own petal offerings and light votive candles
  2. Spot Leopard in Yala. Sri Lanka's alpha predator is protected in a number of national parks, but is most easily sighted in Yala, on the island's southern coast, where you can cool off in the ocean after a day on safari
  3. Take Tea in Nurweya Eliya. At the heart of Sri Lanka's tea industry, this charming throwback to the country's colonial years is rich with the heritage of home-county England. Tour neatly-terraced tea estates, watch pickers at work, and buy your own samples to take home
  4. Take a Train. Sri Lanka's roads are pretty but twisty and slow. Rail is less stressful. The most beautiful route is from Colombo on the coast to Nurweya Eliya in the highlands, chugging its way past spectacular scenes
  5. Climb Sigiriya. One of Sri Lanka's seven World Heritage Sites, this rock-top fortress dates back to the 5th Century AD. The atmosphere is more devout than war-like: in its time it has acted as royal palace and Buddhist monastery
  6. Take a Hike. Plenty of Sri Lanka travels at walking pace, and it's a great way to settle in. The most popular treks are around the Knuckles Range but take a guide - it's easy to get lost
  7. Meet Elephant Orphans. Every day 80 orphaned elephants leave Pinnewala for their daily drink and river bath. Restaurants line the riverfront to take advantage of the view. If you'd like to ride or wash elephants there are plenty of  private camps nearby

Wanderlust tips

The Esala Perahera festival in Kandy has a long and loud procession so be sure to get a seat. Restaurants and shops along the route sell ticketed seats: book early.

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