Sri Lanka’s new trails meander through stunning scenery and storied past.
Poets travel everywhere. They measure mountains with their feet. They notice the swirling of leaves, the howling of the wind, the roughness of the road and the abundance of nature. Our language is more suited to their romanticism.
But I don’t make enthusiastic observations about Sri Lanka. It turns out that prose is easier when your back is resting on a comfortable surface (preferably level).
I am in this country straddling the Indian Ocean, desperately hoping that the next step will end the road. One, two, three… ten. Inhale, exhale.
A genius of architecture and urban planning, UNESCO-listed Sigiriya dates back to the 5th century. The ancient city is 180 meters high and requires climbing 1,200 steps. On the way up, a detour around the metal staircase will take you past the cave paintings. If the climb was difficult before then, when you climb the sidebar of the attraction, it’s downright scary. I pulled myself on the railing, and at the same time, a group of elementary school students rushed over. Every time I stepped on the metal steps, my heart was filled with fear.
It took two hours to climb the behemoth, but the reward was a stunning view of the surrounding jungle from the terrace of the Sigiriya rock fortress. After an unseasonable rain, the clouds gradually gave way to a clear blue sky. I was lucky enough to watch the yellow sun fade to pale orange before sinking into the sky, a fading halo disappearing into the lush greenery. This is a sunset that few people enjoy, as the authorities until recently allowed tourists to stay and enjoy the sunset.
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But you know what they say about stairs? Those who can go up must also come down. What a painting it would be: two silhouettes descending in the twilight, a shaggy dog standing next to a pair of trembling legs. My knowledgeable driver and guide, Vijitha Lenaduwe, charged forward with ease, while I had to force myself to move, tremblingly putting one foot in front of the other. Lift left foot, place left foot, lift right foot, place right foot.
old road, new foot
My trembling legs recall my childhood. When I was a girl with unflattering bangs, my mom would pick me up and my brother from my aunt’s house after get off work. We walked in single file for ten minutes, my mother walking in front. Every day, my brother would yell at my mother to wait, “Apekesha is far behind,” and I would drag my short legs, hoping to catch up. It is a family story that has been repeated countless times as an anecdotal imprint of my brother’s care for me. Or my lack of walking ability, I can’t tell.
More than two decades later, I embarked on a longer walk up the Kandy Hills with my trekking guide and Jetwing Kandy Gallery’s in-house naturalist, Nayanapriya Bandara. The 300km trek has 22 stages and we were on stage one, a few kilometers from Kandy, starting at the Ceylon Tea Museum. It was just over 14km, but due to my wobbly legs and inexperience, we didn’t complete the most difficult part, the descent to Galaha.
“It’s a bit of a risk,” Bandara told me, acknowledging that another British journalist had done it two days earlier.
The sun left its handprints on my back, nudging me as its warmth streamed down my neck. The initial germs of energy quickly dissipated over time – more than ten kilometers up and down the mountain, more than four hours of walking, talking about Sri Lankan plants, trees and tea.
The Complicated History of Sri Lankan Tea
These paths are not new. Winding paths meander through the tea country where horseshoes used to crunch along the gravel. Tea was transported in horse-drawn carts on these roads, and overseers also came to inspect the plantations. According to legend, some 5,000 years ago, the Chinese inadvertently brewed tea into a beverage, a love that eventually spread to Europe.
The British brought tea to the island as early as 1824. In the 19th century, Sri Lanka was a major exporter of coffee until a fungal disease wiped out the crop. James Taylor, the father of Ceylon tea, purchased a few acres in 1867 and successfully experimented with tea production, shifting the cash crop from coffee to tea. In 2020, Sri Lanka will become the world’s second largest tea exporter, earning as much as US$1.3 billion in foreign exchange each year.
When you catch a local woman bending over to carefully pick tea leaves among the verdant hills, it’s a postcard-perfect moment. But such details of its heritage add a degree of complexity to the bucolic scene.
Sri Lanka was under British rule until 1948. Workers from another British colony toiled hard on the island, supplying the world with tea. Tamils from India were brought to the country – many dying on the way – and held in inhumane conditions on plantations.
The marginalization and exploitation of workers did not end when the royal family stepped down. This is a generational wound that continues to infect and scar. The green carpet of rolling tea hills is dotted with wire houses and cramped rooms built for workers 150 years ago.Families live in rooms each 10ft high in condition UN experts say Degrading 2021.
Sri Lanka’s New Tea Route
The three of us were the only ones making the trek that February morning. But if all goes according to plan, the tea route will draw hikers in droves, offering opportunities to experience local community tours, restaurants, campgrounds and hotels.
We take a watermelon break on a rock with views of the fist-like Knuckles mountains.We craned our necks to see this mountain that was featured in the movie, like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The design and development of the route took ten years and was funded by the European Union and USAID. This summer, once all 22 stages are in place, adventurers will be able to visit and meet local tea workers, stay in production line houses, visit growers’ bungalows, and learn more about Sri Lanka’s unique tea-making process.
Luxury accommodation for two between rice fields
Jetwing Hotels has 30 properties in Sri Lanka, but here are my two recommendations.
The dream hotel of my travels is Jetwing will face. Opened in 2006, it was built on a large disused paddy field, and amazingly, this reclaimed land has been turned into Sri Lanka’s first man-made wetland. It was inspired by the London Wetland Center and designed by environmental architect Sunela Jayewardene.
When it first opened, guests usually arrived by boat, but I arrived at the hotel by electric scooter. The check-in location is by the lake, and as I walked around, each corner became more beautiful than the next.
The 28-acre property features 36 rooms, spa, restaurant, pool bar and rich natural landscaping. I stayed in a water villa with a plunge pool outside and a bathtub inside. There are more than 140 species of birds, and there’s even a resident crocodile that smiles at guests on their way to breakfast. But the most extraordinary species is the elusive gray slender slow loris, a nocturnal mammal discovered in the land more than a decade ago. Guests can now take an evening tour of the Loris Trail for $35 per person, with proceeds funding research and conservation of this threatened primate.
Also on site is a large 2.5 acre farm with an abundance of kitchen fruits and vegetables. Enjoy a lunch experience where you pick fresh produce and assist the staff in preparing a typical Sri Lankan lunch featuring at least four types of curries, rice and condiments. In addition, Jetwing Vil Uyana has a water treatment plant, a composting plant and a biogas plant, as well as four acres of rice fields for local community participation.
Another hotel I recommend is Jetwing Kandy Gallery, Located along the Mahaveli River (the longest river in Sri Lanka), away from the bustling city of Kandy. The lobby, guest rooms and public areas are decorated with installations by Sri Lankan artists. There are only 26 rooms here, and each guest is assigned a butler upon check-in, who they can contact on an old-fashioned cell phone using a pre-saved phone number. Most of my meals were eaten on the balcony overlooking the river and pool, followed by blue tea and a piece of cake every evening.
The hotel opened in January 2020 and is lovely and new. There’s an hour-long trail around the hotel that’s sure to appeal to bird watchers, and a local artist comes to demonstrate lacquer work (you can also buy his work). The hotel has several sustainability initiatives (rainwater harvesting, solar panels and a water treatment plant), but it’s much smaller than the brand’s flagship Sigiriya hotel.