"See? It's not like India," our taxi driver proudly remarked as we coasted down the smooth, open highway.
We'll admit, we'd definitely associated the two in our heads before arriving. But while Sri Lanka is close to its continental sibling in proximity, its incredible variety of cultures, climates, landscapes, and food all packed into such a compact little island makes it a fascinating destination in itself.
Most of our time in Sri Lanka's capital was spent either acclimating to or hiding from the incredible heat and humidity. Every step had us pouring sweat, and while we tried our best to see the tourist sights, we were no match for the sweltering conditions. Luckily, we could retreat into the air-conditioned embrace of a tea lounge for the afternoon.
Determined to see what real Sri Lankan food was like before we set out to some of the more tourist-oriented areas of the country, we took the evening to walk down the boardwalk at Galle Face. There were a healthy collection of street vendors selling chili-dusted mango and pineapple, prawn pancakes, and crispy fries, but we had our tastebuds set for something a little more substantial: deviled chicken. This deliciously spicy, peppery base was loaded into a chewy flatbread with caramelized onions, cheese, and loads of cilantro.
By this point, we'd pretty much violated all the rules of "safe eating" while traveling in Southeast Asia. But we had the crowd on our side— the stall was totally packed with people—so we crossed our fingers and dug in.
The next afternoon, so far feeling no ill effects from our culinary explorations, we boarded the train for Kandy at Colombo's central station. Our bumpy-but-beautiful 5 hour odyssey through Sri Lanka's interior took us past rice paddies and dense mountain forests on our way to the heart of tea country. As it made its way around particularly curvy sets of track, the train whipped us around so much we were convinced it was going to jerk itself right off the rails. We glanced around the car in a panic, then relaxed a little bit once we saw how utterly unruffled the local passengers seemed.
When we finally pulled into the station, we were more than a little ragged from the day's journey. We pushed our way weakly through the crowd at the station until we saw our incredibly kind host, who quickly whisked us away to a fantastic home-cooked dinner.
We'd be seeing quite a few temples in our near future, so we decided to stick to the more natural sights around Kandy when we set out the next day. We started with a good wander around the gorgeous botanical gardens, circled around the lake in the center of town (saying hi to all the water birds, of course), and cooled ourselves off with a delicious Ceylon-grown iced coffee.
And because our hosts are over-the-top welcoming and generous people, we came back home to a gigantic barbecue they'd specially prepared in honor of their American guests. While we'd loved all the Sri Lankan food we'd tasted so far, we'd be lying if we said we weren't totally pumped to drown ourselves in grilled meats and barbecue sauce.
Before light the next morning, we bundled ourselves off into the car and headed north to the ancient palaces and temples of Sri Lanka's cultural triangle.
Our first stop was Sigiriya. Also known as the Lion's Rock, this massive palace and onetime capital was built around the end of the 4th century atop a gigantic boulder. We sweatily climbed/jostled the 200m to the top among the masses, passing amazingly well-preserved frescoes and gangs of monkeys on our way.
At the top we were treated to an incredible view and a stunning look at ancient urban planning, but we were feeling pretty done with the crowds for one day.
We decided to skip out on the second leg of the cultural triangle, a massive cave temple with a sea of cars parked outside, and head straight to the more open and remote ruins of Pollonaruwa.
We knew that Pollonaruwa would be large, but once we set foot inside the complex we were floored by the sprawl and scale of this ancient city. We wandered for hours taking photos and couldn't even come close to seeing everything it had to offer. We felt the burn of the afternoon sun on our necks, but we also felt like we'd gotten a good amount of bang for our buck on the entry fee.
And that was before we even ran into the adorable stray puppies that lived inside the park.
Just when we were sure we were going to melt, our incredible driver came beeping up one of the vehicle access road in and rescued us from the jungle heat.
We eagerly set off for cooler climes the next day, driving high into the mountainous tea plantations of Hatton. The next few days on one of these plantations would turn out to be idyllic in pretty much every way.
There were the incredible walks each afternoon through the tea fields and the ensuing encounters with effusively friendly locals.
There were the monsoon rains that only came out to impress us with their might once we were safely enjoying dinner on the porch, and stayed away all the brilliant day.
And, of course, there was the tea.
After enjoying an incredible volume and variety of Sri Lanka's finest, we visited one of the Dilmah tea factories to see just how it's made. As we watched the leaves wither, roll, ferment, and almost endlessly sift and grade, we were totally impressed with the complexity involved in making what we'd thought was a relatively straightforward beverage. We'll definitely have a new appreciation for every sip of Yorkshire Gold we enjoy during our Saturday morning Chelsea matches.
We set off for the airport the next day, feeling sad to leave this magical, colorful place. We'd miss the rainbow of chatty locals, the spicy-but-soft reds of the curries, and the marvelous expanses of green countryside dappled with pink and purple flowers. But even with all we'd seen in our 9 days in Sri Lanka, there's plenty waiting for us on our next visit.
After the briefest of pit stops in Singapore, we're off to find ourselves in Burma.