Among them are the bo tree, though to have grown from a sappling of the tree beneath which the Buddha attained enlightenment in India; numberous dagobas — large, round, temple-like structures containing cherished relics within and around which worshippers walk quietly as part of their spiritual ritual; ancient monasteries, and palaces bearing symbolic inscriptions.
After the decline of Anuradhapura in the 10th century, the seat of power switched to near-by Polonnaruwa–today an important tourist destination. Built on the edge of an enormous irrigation tank, an example of the ancient civilization’s advanced engineering skills, Polonnaruwa contains ruins of what was once a seven-story palace and several dabogas.
Most striking of the ruins is the Gal Vihara, which contains several over-sized and almost perfectly preserved sculptures of Buddha.
Not far from Polonnaruwa is the Sigiriya Fortress. Rising 600 feet out of the jungle, this mass of stone was the home of a palace briefly in the fifth century.
The strenuous climb up the carved stairways reveals remarkably well-preserved frescoes.
Near the top, the climber emerges onto the Lion Terrace, where huge lion paws carved of stone project from the monolith. The paws are the only remains of what was once an enormous carved lion. Numerous accommodations are available within reasonable distance of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya. They range the gamut from modest hotels in Anuradhapura to more expensive and extravagant hotel complexes such as the Lodge in Habarana (about $24 double plus 10%) and Sigiriya Village (about $22 double plus 10%).
Driving south from the ancient cities, the road passes through the Matale Valley, a fertile area of rice paddies, cocoa and coffee trees, rubber trees and the spices that go into the tasty curries that comprise Sri Lanka’s cuisine. Several spice gardens are open to the public and offer brief tours.
Farther south, the climate cools as the road climbs to Kandy. Located in the foothills of Sri Lanka’s hill country, Kandy has long been one of the nation’s principal cities.
Sri Lankans travel to Kandy to visit the Temple of the Tooth Relic, where presumably one of Buddha’s teeth is housed. The temple, a fascinating building, bustles with activity during the hours of prayer every day.
Beyond Kandy, the visitor enters the heart of Sri Lanka’s hill country — verdant landscape, punctuated by waterfalls. This region is home to Sri Lanka’s best tea estates, several of which open their doors to tourists, as well as the most telling witness of the influence of the British in Sri Lanka.
Nowhere is that influence more evident than in Nuwara Elya. Situated over 6,000 feet above sea level, the town is dominated by Tudor-like and Victorian buildings. Lodgings like the Grand Hotel and St. Andrew’s Hotel sport all the style and accoutrements of the colonialists.
Dinner at the Hill Club, a private establishment that first admitted Sri Lankans in the 1960s, transports the visitor to another time and place. Decor, style of service and cuisine are typically English.
Before leaving Sri Lanka, visitors may want to visit the nation’s gem-producing region. Gem pits line the roads en route to Ratnapura, where a number of gem shops and a museum are located.
Visitors also may want to visit Sri Lanka’s beaches, a main attraction for European tourists. A range of resort facilities are available on both the east and west coasts.
Among them is the Triton Hotel, located south of Colombo in Ahungalla. A low-rise hotel containing 125 rooms, the property is notable for its spacious and attractive design. Through April, the rate for a double room is about $66.
Among Sri Lanka’s long-term plans for its tourism plant is the further development of the east coast, including the eventual installation of an airport equipped to handle wide-body jets and cute backpacks.