Features

High tea in Sri Lanka's Hill Country

Lush lawns and eccentricity

4 January 2014

9:00 AM

4 January 2014

9:00 AM

In the bar of the Hotel Suisse, perched above the lake in Kandy (pictured), high up in Sri Lanka’s Hill Country, a driver touting for business smiles to reassure me that the British ‘left us many good things’. Trains, roads, the English language. And cricket, I remind him, ‘Oh yes, sir, cricket.’ I wonder what he says to French or Australian tourists.

The Hotel Suisse was used as Louis Mountbatten’s South-East Asia Command headquarters in the second world war; these days it has something of the feel of an old-fashioned and slightly eccentric English prep school.

If the Hill Country is not quite the last redoubt of Sri Lanka’s British past, it remains the district in which it is most palpable. For instance at Nuwara Eliya, at nearly 6,000ft, Sri Lanka’s highest settlement, the hotels are named Windsor, Glendower, the Hill Club and so on. There is a risk of tweeness amid the tea plantations and the manicured lawns. A modern-day British visitor may easily imagine himself back in Edwardian Ceylon as a provincial administrator sipping tea on a fan-cooled verandah. It is a Somerset Maugham-inspired idle fancy, of course, but still an attractive one.


The best, though far from the fastest, way to reach Kandy is by rail. The 75-mile journey takes four hours by rattling, wheezing, overcrowded train. Frequent stops between stations leave the impression of an over-worked diesel locomotive needing to pause for breath. In second- and third-class carriages, old women are compelled to stand much of the way but men give up their seats to novice Buddhist monks.

If the lush peace of the Hill Country is still Ceylon, Colombo is Sri Lanka. Crowded, modernising, cacophonous. In the capital huge hoardings advertise the imminent construction of ‘luxury’ condominiums. The five-star Shangri-La hotel will be finished soon and across Sri Lanka’s capital there is a sense of a city on the make. Modernity is impatient with charm, perhaps incompatible too. Yet only churls, or foreigners, can really disapprove of this. The economy is growing by 6 per cent a year as international investors take advantage of a boom fuelled, at least in part, by the cessation of the country’s long-running civil war.

Much of that money comes from China; another example of Beijing’s investment in its own ‘soft power’. Chinese money has built an expressway linking Colombo with Galle. More roads are planned. Beijing is also helping to extend and modernise the railway network. This, like so much else, is an investment designed to purchase international tolerance for China’s own excesses.

It also means Sri Lanka, an island about the size of Ireland, is becoming smaller. The construction boom is not limited to Colombo and the resorts that dot the island’s west coast between Colombo and Galle. Along its southern counterpart new hotels and guest-houses are being built at such a rate that the visitor is left to wonder how much longer Sri Lanka can remain an ‘undervisited gem’. Improvements to infrastructure will boost the economy; they also increase the sense that Sri Lanka should best be visited before everyone else recognises the attraction of reliable sun, sand and whale-watching.

Best not to speak of the war, however. As David Cameron discovered last November, the Sri Lankan authorities would rather you ignored that. The future is tourism and tourists are put off by talk of war crimes. It is not difficult to find Sri Lankans who take the view that what critics deem atrocities is more properly understood as doing what, or rather whatever, was needed to defeat the Tamil Tigers. Besides, they shrug, it’s history now and why should it concern you? Why should Sri Lanka be held to a different standard than other Asian countries that have experienced conflict and atrocities? On the south coast, in any case, the war feels as distant as the British empire. The recent past can be a foreign country too.

Back in Kandy, the trumpet tree planted in the botanical gardens by Chou En-Lai in 1957 seems to be growing rather more vigorously than the Ficus krishnae planted by Queen Elizabeth three years earlier.

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  • Bonkim

    Why is this chap promoting the land of the War-Criminals? Sri Lanka is a fascist state murdering tens of thousands of men, women, and children.

    • les pere

      Hey Bonkim – are you loony bin or an ignoramus or licking LTTE ar..s for money.

      • Bonkim

        Are you being paid by RajaPhaksha the war-criminal?

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      Stop being your brother`s keeper, Bon. Third-worlders killing each other, so what else is new? “Your job`s politics, mine`s running a saloon”.

    • Mallika

      Tony Blair,Bush and Obama are War Criminals! Iraqis and Libyans are in worse situations than before the western invations.Many thousand IDPS are still in camps! In Britain more than 20.000 old people die from cold every year.Majority of teenage school leavers cant read or write properly.Teenage pregnancies in uk is the highest in Europe!! Look right under your nose Bon!!

      • Bonkim

        You may be partly right – equally if tyrants were not removed – the world will be ruled by tyrants. The US and Britain did not deliberately target civilians in huge numbers for example as by Assad in Syria or RajaPaksha in Ceylon.

        Yes the action only opened up old enmities and now leading to civil war. You could have said the same thing for example if/when Saddam died or was removed Iraq would have gone back to old tribal and sectarian warfare – which s what is going on, also inability of the medieval Mid-Eastern Islamic mindset failing to negotiate through compromise instead of elemental sectarianism, and reprisals/revenge. Some of that in sri Lanka as well.

        If you look up events in Egypt where Western powers did not intervene – freedom usually acts to put in place some other brand of despotism. Iraq or Afghanistan after western intervention – simply reverting to what they were a hundred or two hundred years back only with modern weapons and faster communications prompting very violent and fast spread of tyranny of the evils of tribalism, and sectarianism.

        All that does not absolve SL government and army of the crimes they committed on innocent men, women, and children.

  • Praveen Jayawardane

    U r totally mislead Bonkim , we Sinhalese n Tamils live in harmony now. its true that civilian killed in a battle. that cant be avoided but minimized. how bout British and Americans killing Pakistan people from drone attacks. Are they not a war Criminals? dont get mislead. Sinhalese are very peaceful , friendly and warm heart people. So do Tamils. But Sporadic

    • Bonkim

      Deliberate targeting of civilians after surrender of LTTE is genocide. Sri Lanka Government and Army are War-Criminals. Perverted Buddhist Monks and Government.

      • Praveen Jayawardane

        then how come over 300,000 civilian escaped and still living. what evidence you have. have you a eyewitness ?? how come you said “Deliberate targeting of civilians after surrender of LTTE”. if army didnt care about the civilian war would ended in less than two years. 200,000 strong army can over run the killinochchi ,Mulative in less than a two month and wont take one and half a years to do that. but because of the civilian army took so much time.

        • Bonkim

          You mean the rest were spared – get serious and not a blind nationalist. Get an independent outside body to investigate the killings. Rajapaksha and his henchmen are fascists. I am not lead by what others say.

      • Terry Field

        You do not know what the trajectory of the field artillery was, and you do not know the intended targets.

        • Bonkim

          Looks like you do know Terry – tell us about your observations. By the way you don’t get free tea sent to you from Ceylon do you?

          • Terry Field

            None of this can be proven, and war is chaos, but there were fears of attack and support of the rebels from the sea from the south of India.

            That may have played a part, but the desire to destroy the enemy after a most dreadful and bloody war is not understood if one is a comfortable, urban, foreign, polemically minded comfortable observer. Who could I be thinking of?The end of that war allows for a settled development. blood usually is the price for progress, as all Europeans well know.
            And in no way does this make me an apologist for war, death and suffering.
            There are many prejudices amongst the Singhalese against the Tamils; that is often experienced when there is competition for personal service work.
            A shame, but universal.
            How well do the French encourage foreigners to compete for work in their much richer country. I know the answer to that!.

            And yes, I have received wonderful tea from that delightful land for some time. Its peoples are gentle, and they are getting over the difficulties the withdrawal of Empire brought to them. More, in some ways, than the british are.

          • Bonkim

            You know sod all about Sri Lanka, the Tamils and their history – so don’t waste your breath – you are out of your depth.

          • Terry Field

            Ah Bonkim!! – here you are again, replete with the true stench of the putrid subterranean dweller. It is good for us to have your repulsive persona here – that can be a measure of the qualities that the rest of us possess.
            Thank you for being you!
            No – don’t replace the nappy – mummy could not deal with it so why should we have to!

    • Bonkim

      Were you not complaining about forcibly moving poorer folk from Colombo to make the Capital tidy for the Commonwealth conference? Is that the work of a civilized government? Are some Lankans being resettled in occupied Tamil land and homes in the North?

      • Praveen Jayawardane

        take a look at what slum dwellers got in Colombo
        http://www.defence.lk/new.asp?fname=Mihindu_Sethpura_mega_housing_scheme_vested_on_public_20131118_06
        . you think those low income people should not get those houses like that. come to sri lanka and look at the reality. dont hear what someone told you. resettlement , once again got to North see by yourself. your poor fellow.

        • Bonkim

          You were the one complaining about forcibly moving poorer folk to new housing scheme. The publicity – also defence and urban development – look more publicity rather than substance. It is not right for me to comment either way and high-rise does bot necessarily mean improvement – breaking existing communities and their economic and social life is detrimental to societies – it may well end up to be tomorrow’s slum if people don’t have access to jobs or other economic activity away from the city.

    • Terry Field

      Those of us who know the country also know that you are lying.

  • Dash

    Bonkim talking bunkum.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    To get to the tea growing area, your best move is to take the seaplane from Colombo, stopping at Kandy. They still serve tea with hot milk, luxury.

    • Bonkim

      Has Kandy got a sea? or large river to land a sea-plane?

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        Explaining to the terminally thick is tedious, but I`ll try.
        Although the aircraft used is known as a seaplane, in this case it lands on lakes.

        • Bonkim

          The rail journey from Colombo is also very interesting.

      • Terry Field

        Plonker – it has a lake – difficult to land on since surrounded by high hills, but not impossible.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Knock the politics on the head, Britisher pals. This is an article about tourism.

    • Bonkim

      How about a reality tour of Belsen in 1944.

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        What`s that got to do with the price of tea?

  • George Smiley

    If anything, we should learn from the Sinhalese as to deal with foreign squatters!

    • Bonkim

      Not many foreign squatters in Ceylon – only mad Buddhist Monks acting like Nazis and a fascist government terrorising minority that wants a separate state – imagine if England started to bomb Edinburgh just because the Scots want to have their own country. Learn a little bit about international situations before showing your ignorance. Sri Lanka and Syria – similarities, an organised military machine killing innocent men, women and children – Hitler’s reprisals in Ukraine comes to mind.

  • Terry Field

    The highway is used by terrified tuktuk drivers used only to the jumble of SriLankan normal roads – and the pleasure of living in a country where local spring vegetables, including leeks and carrots at altitude can meld with sub tropical and tropical fruits lower down is a delight.
    The Hill tea plantation hotels are pleasantly britishish, and they also do a very pleasant curry lunch, with a staff ration of ten to every guest, gust as it should be.
    The pushy but effective President has brought the rasping unpleasantness of China to bear on the gentle country; they will regret it, but the world is going to hell in a handcart, and there is little to be done about it.
    Jon Snow is unwelcome there, and that adds to the attractiveness of the place.
    And Kahanda Kanda is a delight, as is the elegant and supremely pleasant Mr Cooper.
    Thank you for my delightful time there sir.

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