From Surrey to Sri Lanka...
PUBLISHED: 14:49 19 December 2017 | UPDATED: 14:49 19 December 2017
Aly Warner is bowled over by the stunning, diverse sights of Sri Lanka, the homeland of Surrey county cricket's retiring superstar, Kumar Sangakkara
Greeted in the Sri Lankan capital by my local driver/guide, we find immediate rapport as he boasts about Surrey County Cricket Club (CCC)’s Sri Lankan star Kumar Sangakkara owning a local seafood restaurant.
For the next two weeks, the legendary left-handed batsman and wicketkeeper’s name pops up everywhere, as I travel around the enchanting, cricket-mad island. At the same time, “Sanga” was ending his awesome season for Surrey CCC, his last in first-class cricket – boosting the claim that he is one of the most influential cricketers of all time.
Sri Lankan culture
Sanga’s homeland is a chaotic blend of sights, sounds, sensations and (Ayurvedic) spas. Decades of civil war and challenges such as the tragic 2004 tsunami kept Sri Lanka off the tourist radar for some while, but now it is firmly back on the travel map and rightly so. Luxury, boutique resorts are booming, along with renowned restaurants serving a rich diversity of dishes using native spices. As I was soon to discover, it is a captivating land of contrasts – but for British tourists, a few similarities too, thanks to years of former colonial rule. Cars drive on the left hand side of the road; postboxes are red; schoolchildren sit A’Levels; and everything stops for a welcome cup of Ceylon tea. But unlike Blighty, there are driving hazards such as tuk-tuks, roaming cows, wild elephants and dogs to negotiate; the hot sun invariably shines and open-fronted stalls selling everything from fridges to colourful, exotic fruits and vegetables line the roads.
Sigiriya (Lion Rock)
Just a short flight from Colombo via a 10-seater plane – aptly, the small airfield was also playing host to a group of military personnel pulling up stumps, parallel to the landing strip – my first stop was the World Heritage Site of Sigiriya (Lion Rock), home to a 200m-high dramatic outcrop. With 1,200 steep steps up its vertical walls to a flat-topped, 4-acre summit with 5th century palace ruins, it’s not a climb for the faint-hearted or unfit and best attempted early morning. But the ascent is definitely worth it and gives a 360-degree panoramic view of the surrounding landscaped water gardens, dense forest and distant central plains of the Matale District, Sanga’s birthplace 40 years ago. No wonder the England cricket team choose to stay in a hotel near Sigiriya when they tour.
Sri Lankans take their cricket very seriously and their players enjoy widespread popularity, apparent as we drive past copious advertising posters of former Sri Lankan cricket captain Angelo Matthews holding a bat and a milk drink. The national humiliation this summer of Sri Lanka losing every match at home to old rivals India hit the nation hard and proved to be the constant subject of concerned conversation everywhere; especially at our next destination.
A short drive from Sigiriya are the five, beautifully painted cave temples at Dambulla, dating back to the 1st century BC – as well as another popular place of worship, better known to cricket lovers worldwide as the picturesque, 30,000-seat Rangiri Dambulla international cricket stadium. In August, it was the setting for an ignominious ODI defeat for Sri Lanka against India, which resulted in fans booing and vehemently protesting – only quelled by Sanga appealing in social media videos for calm and patience.
Serenity is certainly on offer at the nearby well-preserved ruins of Polonnaruwa, the second capital of Sri Lanka. Built in the 11th and 12th centuries, and another of the county’s eight World Heritage sites, here you can see the ruins of the royal palace and the magnificent Gal Viharaya rock carvings (three splendid statues of Buddha in upright, sedentary and recumbent postures). Too extensive to be explored by foot, bicycles are available to hire – and don’t forget to take some socks to wear in the temples (where footwear and hats have to be removed), as the sun-baked soil can get very hot underfoot!
Just 2.5 hours away, the sacred city of Kandy is the highlight of any cultural trip of the island. Located in the centre of Sri Lanka, it attracts visitors and pilgrims from around the world, drawn by the Temple of the Tooth, one of the most holy places of worship in the Buddhist world and site of the colourful, annual Esala Perhera festival and elephant processions.
At the entrance to the temple, the area is noted for its concentration of lawyers, Sanga’s father’s profession, and one he himself sought to join when he entered the law faculty of Colombo University, before professional cricket intervened when he was 22. Kandy was also where the young Sanga attended the city’s elite school, Trinity College. Founded on British boys’ public school principles in 1872, today it still aspires to “train the next generation of leaders in Sri Lanka”. Its impressive chapel may not have been of much interest to the Buddhist Sanga, but its cricket ground undoubtedly was.
Kandy has a rich heritage of traditional dance and performances are spectacular; and its wonderful botanical gardens are a welcome respite from the heat. It is also a great base for exploring the Knuckles mountain range and a spectacular, slow train ride to Ella through the elevated, verdant tea plantations was one of the highlights of my trip. A popular trekking destination, more adventurous travellers can climb Ella Rock, visit the photogenic Nine Arches Bridge and Ravana Falls or just enjoy the cooler climate and spectacular views.
A few days “eco-glamping” in the vast Yala National Park, is another experience I will treasure for a long time. Home to wild animals such as elephants, crocodiles, deer, water buffalo, peacocks and sloth bears in their natural habitat, I was lucky enough to catch an elusive leopard scratching and marking a tree, before she slowly paraded away from our safari vehicle.
Distances are short and it’s just a few hours’ drive to magical Mirissa with its rocky southern coastline, the palm-fringed beaches of Tangalle and scenic Weligama Bay, home to the famous stilt fisherman and an ideal location for blue whale-watching (in season).
An impressive, colonial fort, with its well-preserved ramparts is just 45 minutes away in historic Galle, and is where I visited my final Sri Lankan cricket ground. Galle stadium is celebrated worldwide for its scenic location and it didn’t disappoint. With its views of the 16th century fortifications and the Indian Ocean, it is hard to beat. Fittingly, it was where Sanga made his international debut in 2000 and then bid a fond farewell to Test cricket in front of a delirious crowd in 2015.
With the sun setting over this idyllic venue, my mobile buzzes to alert me that Sanga has scored a splendid 157 against Somerset in his final Oval innings for Surrey CCC, the end of a memorable, record season and farewell to his county career. According to the enthusiastic local sports press, during his retirement he may work more with the national cricket team. As a former Sri Lanka captain, Sanga was renowned for his fierce national pride; having been captivated by his varied, beautiful country, I can understand why he feels so proud.
Good to knows
• Set in the Indian Ocean, the teardrop-shaped island’s geographical position on a trade route resulted in many invasions, most notably by the Portuguese, Dutch and then British, all of whose influences remain
• Lying a few degrees north of the Equator, it is slightly smaller in size than Ireland
• Once known as Ceylon, the name is still used for its key export, tea.
• It is renowned for its sapphires, one of which is in the Duchess of Cambridge’s (formerly Princess Diana’s) engagement ring
• The population is predominantly Buddhist, it’s an important pilgrimage destination and boasts 2000+ years of culture
• Warm temperatures are constant; it has two monsoon seasons in different areas. High season for travellers is Dec-March, when it is driest, but April & September are also good
• Flight time is c10.5 hours direct; time difference is GMT +5.5 hours
• A £30 visa is required for travel to Sri Lanka
Sangakkara’s stunning Surrey stats
1. Despite spending time in Sri Lanka commentating for his home team playing India, from April to September 2017 Kumar Sangakkara:
2. Played 15 innings for Surrey CCC
3. Made 1,491 runs
4. Scored an average of 106 (highest was 200 v Essex)
5. Made eight centuries (five of them consecutive, equalling a record in first class cricket)
6. Played his final match for Surrey CCC on September 25 2017 at Old Trafford (his first was in 2015)
* Aly travelled to Sri Lanka with the award-winning Surrey travel agency Haslemere Travel – haslemeretravel.co.uk