Singapore is the ideal jumping off point to see Asia. Most expats are quick to cross off popular destinations like Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam. But even place a little farther afield are worth a trip. Well traveled Singaporean Rehan Amarasuriya, 29, director of the BP de Silva Group, shares why the highlands of Sri Lanka top his list of favourite destinations.
Who: Singaporean Rehan Amarasuriya, 29, director of the BP de Silva Group
Favourite destination: Kandy and Nuwara Eliya, the highlands of Sri Lanka
Why: They have picturesque mountains and tea plantations, elegant colonial architecture and cool climate. The well-preserved colonial architecture enhances the region’s sense of heritage and history, and the cool temperatures make it a good escape from the heat and humidity of the capital, Colombo.
Favourite hotel: My favourite is Tea Trails resort, perched 1,250m above sea level in Sri Lanka’s Ceylon tea highlands and about a two-hour drive from Kandy and 48km from Nuwara Eliya. It has four beautiful bungalows on the banks of Castlereagh Lake, each with four to six rooms and different colonial or cabin-style decor.
When they are all filled, being there is like living in a small, luxurious village with spectacular views of the lake and surrounding mountains, valleys and tea plantations.
Depending on the season and room choice, the rates start from US$437 (S$607), which include three meals a day.
Favourite restaurant: The food may not be very local but I like Licensed To Grill, a food stall in George De Silva Park in Kandy. A good alternative to the usual Sri Lankan fare, it serves freshly made wraps and burgers for just 150 to 400 rupees (S$1.45 to S$3.90). Almost everything, including the delicious, slightly garlicky bread, is home-made.
Barnes Hall in Grand Hotel in Nuwara Eliya whips up amazing nosh from all over the world. For 1,500 rupees, you get a buffet of everything from roast pork and succulent seafood to mouth-watering curries, moussaka, handmade roti and Mexican dips.
The Heritance Tea Factory Hotel Restaurant, which is housed in an old factory, serves local food with an international spin.
Favourite cultural site: Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, which was built to house the relic of the tooth of Buddha and recently magnificently rebuilt to represent Sri Lankan’s Buddhist beliefs.
It is usually crowded in July and August, when devotees gather to commemorate Buddha’s conception, renunciation and first sermon during the 10-day Esala Festival. The processions are a fascinating attraction for tourists looking for a better understanding of Sri Lanka.
Favourite tourist activity: Every visitor to Sri Lanka has to go to a tea plantation where you can observe how a tea plucker works and how tea leaves are selected, cleaned and processed. Because of its cool and dry climate, Nuwara Eliya produces the finest tea in the country, known as the champagne of teas among Sri Lankans.
At Heritance Tea Factory hotel, guests can pluck their own tea, take a plantation tour and spend the night in one of the 54 rooms with views of mountains.
The tea tour at Mackwoods Labookellie Tea Centre gives an overview of tea plantations, after which you can enjoy a cuppa and slice of cake while taking in the beautiful views. After tea, drop by Adma Agro, a strawberry farm that serves strawberries and cream and strawberry pancakes.
Best local fare: String hoppers and kiri hodi are my favourite Sri Lankan breakfast staples. String hoppers are made from rice flour dough which is pressed into thin strands, shaped into a round pancake and steamed. They are served with kiri hodi, a spiced coconut gravy.
Every visitor should try kottu roti, a dish of sliced Sri Lankan roti, chicken curry, vegetables and many spices which are cooked and tossed around on a metal grill using two spatulas, like teppanyaki. The result is a flavourful and spicy dish.
Another must-try dish is lamprais, rice with meat curry, frikkadels (Dutch-style meatball), belacan (fried shrimp paste), seeni sambol (caramelised onion) and wambatu (fried brinjal curry) – all wrapped in a banana leaf.
Best view: Catch the sunrise at Adam’s Peak, about a two-hour drive from Nuwara Eliya. It has been a pilgrimage site for more than 1,000 years, thanks to what looks like an imprint of a foot – said to be that of Buddha or St Thomas, depending on who you ask – at the top.
The view from the top is mesmerising. The strenuous hike to the peak takes about four hours, so you should start at around 2am to make it for sunrise between 6 and 6.30am.
While I recommend not going during the peak season from December to May as it will be packed with pilgrims, that is also when the weather is best and there are lights to guide your path to the top. Otherwise, carry a torch. Bring warm clothing, no matter when you go.
Necessary day trips: World’s End in Horton Plains National Park is a must-visit. It is where the highland plateau suddenly drops into a steep cliff and on a clear morning, you can see straight to the coast, more than 65km away.
Try to go before 9am when the view is covered in mist and to avoid the tourist crowd. The hike to and fro takes about three hours, but the views are worth it. Wear warm clothes and sturdy hiking shoes.
Best souvenirs: Ceylon black tea and Sri Lankan cashew nuts, which are quite different from the ones in Singapore supermarkets as they are bigger and come in flavours such as masala and sour cream.
Essential tips: Driving in city areas may be fine but not in the more rural areas. Hire a car and driver to get around. It is best to change money at the main banks in Colombo and Kandy or at top-end hotels. US dollars and euros are easily exchanged.
By Lydia Vasko, The Straits Times, October 25, 2015