You can tell where the British have been by the toilets.
When the Roman Empire was finally dismantled, they left behind temples and amphitheatres and forts and mosaic-floored houses. When the British Empire began to shrink, we pulled out of various countries leaving behind a love of bureaucracy and some excellent lavatories and sewer systems. We Brits do like a good loo.
Like India, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) had once been part of that empire and, consequently, going to the loo there is just like ‘going at home’. I’ve been to many places in Europe and the Mediterranean - First World countries close to home – where you still can’t flush any paper down the loo and it all has to be placed in bags. It’s all quite ghastly. Sri Lanka may have shanty towns and poverty on a level we just can’t imagine but, when it comes to toilets, they put some of their First World neighbours to shame.
I mention this because the white porcelain became a very good friend to me for several days when I contracted dysentery. I have no idea how or where the bug got inside me but I suspect that it was on our return trip from Kandy and Galle. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let’s return to the beautiful city of Kandy.
Having enjoyed a mosquito-free, air-conditioned night in a nice hotel, our guide Linton promised to take us to the Temple of the Tooth and the Royal Botanical Gardens.
The temple – the Dalada Maligava - is absolutely huge and sprawls over much of the centre of the city along with a wonderful square lake. At the temple's heart, in a small reliquary, lies a shard of one of the Buddha’s teeth, left behind after his cremation.
It is Sri Lankas’s most sacred relic and the temple is patrolled by guards with big swords. And probably a good idea too - the temple is full of gold and ivory and precious stones. The tooth is also serenaded morning and evening by drummers who shake the vast building to its foundations. Drums and cymbals seem to be the staples of Sri Lankan music and, later that day, we were to see a display of Kandyan dance where the music is accompanied by frenzied whirling and stylised warfare, all performed while wearing the most extraordinary masks.
These masks are a big part of the culture of the island and, in the final part of this feature, I’ll be taking you to the mask museum. But first, we were going to have a look at the Royal Botanical Gardens.
The Brits are good at toilets. And they’re good at gardens; you only have to visit a few English stately homes to see that for yourself. The Botanical Gardens at Kandy are wonderful, beautifully laid out and full of exotic flowers. There was a whole section just for orchids – surely the most glorious of all flowers – and some real oddities like the so-called drunken pines that lean at mad angles over the pathway and strange, spiky plants with tall necks that looked a lot like I imagine a triffid would look.
The West coast is stunning with white sandy beaches and swaying palms. Whenever we stopped, men would offer to get us a fresh coconut and, as quick as you like, they’d be up the tree without a safety net and to Hell with health and safety legislation. They did taste good though. The coconuts, not the men.
They use coconut palms for everything on Sri Lanka. They use the flesh and milk for cooking, the shells for bowls and the husk for matting. They even make a local spirit from it called arrack which is like Irish poteen – you could clean paintbrushes with it. It tastes something like whisky and something like rum. Apparently the name comes from the Arabic for ‘sweat’. Local fishermen use coconut palm wood to build houses with and to make a particular kind of canoe with an outrigger float called an oruva and these were often brightly coloured making them easy to spot against the deep blue of the sea.
No boats were needed for the stilt fishermen of Galle though. This curious form of fishing was used traditionally for thousands of years to catch the fish that strayed close to the shore. These days, they have progressed to oruvas and do it just for the tourists, apparently.
I’ve mentioned the British influence in the Far East several times in this piece and nowhere is it in evidence more than Galle. Pronounced to sound like ‘Gaul’, this is a fortified town composed of a Dutch fort and British battlements with a dash of East India Company chic.
We did stop at the turtle hatchery and, despite feeling quite poorly by now, I’m glad we did. Sri Lanka is a favourite nesting spot for many of the world’s rarest turtles and so, to increase numbers, the eggs are gathered in once laid and incubated in a safe environment away from gulls, sea eagles, monitor lizards, devil birds and – most damaging of all – humans. The eggs are guarded until they hatch. These are one day old (below).
The young hatchlings are looked after until they are of a size where they can take care of themselves. Then they are released into the sea. This one (below) was almost ready to go and was a week old. Even so, it felt so small and delicate in my hand.
My face was slowly turning a similar colour so Linton got us home as soon as he could. I spent the following three days touring our bathroom.