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"Oh My God – stop the bus! Like – there’s a freakin’ elephant!”

And with these words, Janna was off the bus to take a photo of her first “real” elephant. A few moments later she returned a bit teary eyed and said, “Ok – so that wasn’t a real elephant”

I looked out my window and saw exactly what she meant. Shuffling past the bus was indeed an elephant with a few people on its back and Mahout walking beside it with a long cane – but this poor elephant had heavy chains around its neck and feet. I watched sadly it as it passed by and I knew exactly what she meant. (And why we no longer offer that sort of “experience” to our clients).

I was in Sri Lanka on a short fact finding tour, and the first day or so had me searching for the “off” or “mute” button on my younger travelling companions who seemed to say whatever they happened to be thinking at the time at the top of their voices. After the elephant episode though, I thought perhaps it wasn’t such a bad thing, and I decided to look at this exciting new destination through different eyes - those of someone who had never been to Asia before instead of the cynical old man I was evidently in danger of becoming!

Gardens by the BayOur first stop had been Singapore where we'd visited the amazing Gardens by the Bay, wandered at night around Chinatown and had a much needed cider at the “Sleepy Kiwi” backpackers on Bussorah Street. It was only a short flight from there to Colombo, capital city of Sri Lanka.

This is a country that truly has it all for someone looking for a destination that's a bit different. Lush vegetation, ancient cities, World Heritage sites, exceptional wild life, arid plains, mountainous hill country and beautiful beaches...there truly is something for everyone.

The main religion in Sri Lanka is Buddhism, followed by Muslim, Hindu and Christian at about 7% each. It has a population of 20 million and is about ½ the size of the South Island!

Perhaps it's because of this Buddhist influence that I found the locals invariably friendly and relaxed – and always willing to talk. Especially about cricket since they had only just recently whitewashed Australia in a test series at home. Plus cricket was being played wherever you looked- in school grounds, parks and on the road - pretty much anywhere they could find a space!

They were always happy to have their photos taken and we were never asked for money.

One of the girls on the trip made a comment that Sri Lanka was the only place in Asia she felt comfortable walking around carrying a bag – that alone speaks volumes for the place.

The food was amazing – we measured the breakfast buffets by the metre, not by the dish! Each area we visited seemed to have it’s own specialty – and you just have to try them all don’t you? It would be rude to refuse….

One morning we climbed Sigiriya Rock which rises 200 meters above the valley floor. This was a 5th century fortress and on the summit, you can still see the outlines of the royal palace. A combination of well worn steps and staircases bolted to the rock get you to the top.... it's a total OSH dream/nightmare, depending on your viewpoint. Around the rock you can find the remains of what is said to be some of the oldest landscaped gardens in the world.

Sigiriya Rock

Polonnaruwa - another world heritage site - was an ancient capital of Sri Lanka and we spent a few hours exploring the ruins on bikes and riding from one shady spot to another.

Yet another World heritage site is Dambulla Rock Temple – dating from 1st Century BC. The 5 caves have over 150 images of the Buddha – the largest of which is carved out of solid rock and measures over 14 meters long. Be wary of the monkeys lining the steps to the top – they are lightning quick to steal anything that takes their fancy.

We visited a spice plantation and learnt about the country’s indigenous healing system – Ayurveda. This has been perfected over more than five thousand years and is based on herbs and diet. It was the region’s only treatment method until the introduction of Western Medication in the 19th Century

One of the absolute highlights of the week was taking the local train from Kandy up to the Tea Plantations at Nuwara Eliya. This was about a 4 hr trip which included air-con and meals all for about NZ$15.00. It would stop every so often to drop people off and pick others up, which sometimes involved a mad dash across the tracks as there weren’t always stations available.

(Nuwara Eliya is often referred to by the Sri Lankan tourist industry as ‘Little England’. It combines a typical dusty, busy Sri Lankan town center with a beautiful golf course, horse racing course and stables, red telephone boxes and a brick Victorian Post office).

Sri Lanka would now have to be my new favourite place on earth, and one of the few destinations I would honestly say I would go back to again. I’ll leave the last word to author, Arthur C Clarke, who describes it far better than I ever could:

“It may well be that each of Sri Lanka’s attractions is surpassed somewhere on earth:

Cambodia may have more impressive ruins, Tahiti lovelier beaches, Bali more beautiful landscapes (although I doubt it) Thailand more charming people (ditto).

But I find it hard to believe that there is any country which scores so highly in all departments – which has so many advantages, and so few disadvantages especially for the western traveler”.

And don’t worry – Janna did get to see her real elephants, both with wild herds on a game drive, and also a bit more up close and personal at an elephant orphanage/sanctuary.

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