Not to paint too rose-tinted a view of it all. There are some important Millennium Development Goals, like halving hunger, which Sri Lanka is not going to meet. There is also some discrepancy between government reports and the reports by civil society organisations. Crucially a lot of the issues facing Sri Lanka are more structural and associated with post-conflict recovery. Such things are not going to be obvious to the casual holiday maker.
On a far more trivial note, Sri Lanka smells nice. It is one of the first things I noticed. There is often a heavy scent of incense, even in the middle of Colombo. Then there are the cooking smells, spicy and hunger inducing. Of course, there is the occasional off note. The sting of gasoline, the pungent order from the drying fish. These pass quickly however and you are usually rewarded for taking deep breaths.
Perhaps most troubling for us in most of the towns we visited was the lack of places to hangout. We could not find a town square, a park, a tea house, a cafe, a bar or restaurant (beyond the in-out establishments dishing up delicious kottu or rice and curry, but which did not invite lingering) that wasn't created for the seemingly sole use of tourists. Apart from staff, Sri Lankan people were conspicuously absent from these places. This rather defeats the goal of taking the measure of Sri Lanka through people watching. Instead we became more conversant with the ways of Russian package holiday sun seekers. It, therefore, raises the question - where do Sri Lankan people go for their leisure time? We weren't able to find an answer for this. There are indicators that, at least for part of society, there is some leisure time and discretionary income. Beauty salons, for example, were advertised in most towns, as were photography studios, there are betting shops everywhere, a burgeoning chain of KFC and in the Cultural Triangle we encountered bus loads of domestic tourists. Hence, we left feeling that we missed something
Hill country was a welcome reprieve from the stifling heat of the Central Region. It is also where we started to encounter tourists and a tourist industry. In Ella we were able to shift pace a little. No longer needing to get all the day's exertion out of the way before the heat of the day set in, and having somewhere at the end of the day to mull over our experiences with a cold beer, something more like holiday mode began to kick in.
In hill country we also discovered intriguing micro-climates. A walk out to World's End through the moors of Horton's Plains National Park felt like we had been transported to Scotland. While a trek to Ella Rock looked, smelt and sounded so much like the Australian bush that I was seriously disoriented when we stumbled back into tea plantations. With waterfalls, hidden temples and a gently accommodating, but not over the top, tourist industry, it was very easy to wile away sometime in the hills.
These beaches could be anywhere in the world (not such a problem if you are just looking for a beach holiday). In stark contrast to our earlier travels, where we were often the only foreigners, the only locals on the beach were the occasional group of young men surfing or adopting that beach bum cool of coastal locals. The other thing missing was Sri Lankan food. Menu after menu offered the bland, unchallenging international diet of pizza, pasta and noodles. I found myself missing the rapid "bang, bang, bang" of kottu being prepared.