Sri Lanka is a small miracle partly due to the compact physical diversity of this pearl-shaped island - but, as we shall see, this diversity extends to virtually every aspect of life. Fringed by variously-shaped sublime beaches, from straight expanse to rocky cove, the island possesses a coastal plain containing a host of geographic features such as lagoons, wetlands, rivers and various types of wildlife-rich jungle. The plain ends in the central area where the land starts to ascend into mist-shrouded mountains, covered in forests of wind-stunted trees (in fact there are seven different types of forest in Sri Lanka), plains known as patanas, and rolling tea plantations. In addition, the hillsides are invariably punctuated by dramatic waterfalls. For its size Sri Lanka has perhaps the largest number of waterfalls of any country.
Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural society, a reflection of the island's encounter with successive foreign immigrants. But it all began with indigenous people, the Veddahs, hunter-gatherers who exist today.
The main ethnic groups are the Sinhalese and Tamils, both originally from the Indian subcontinent. Then there are Muslims, who settled in the island from the time it became an ancient trading centre. Similarly, Malays and Chinese were also attracted to the island. The Portuguese and British brought with them Kaffirs from Africa, and the Dutch an assortment of European traders, the Burghers. There are other communities too, the Chetties from South India for example . . . the list is extraordinary.
Whatever their situation in society, the people of Sri Lanka possess a warm and friendly nature reflected in persistent smiling faces and eagerness to help those unfamiliar with aspects of local life. You'll find that Sri Lankans are very hospitable and take pride in inviting people to their homes, however modest they may be. So don't be surprised if a driver or guide, or indeed virtually anyone encountered, requests the pleasure of your company. And don't decline, as Sri Lankan hospitality is taken very seriously!
Eight sites of Sri Lanka have been inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage, namely, the ancient city of Polonnaruwa (1982), the ancient city of Sigiriya (1982), the Golden Temple of Dambulla (1991), the old town of Galle and its fortifications (1988), the sacred city of Anuradhapura (1982), the sacred city of Kandy (1988), Sinharaja Forest Reserve (1988) and the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka (2010).
Sri Lanka has always been a place that refreshes not just the mind and body, but also the soul and spirit. And for thousands of years, the most popular method used to restore and rejuvenate tired bodies and weary souls has been Ayurveda – the oldest and most holistic medical system available in the world Sri Lanka has been a centre of spiritual and physical healing for 2,000 years. Ayurveda programmes consist of a range of herbal treatments and various types of baths and massages, together with cleansing and revitalization techniques such as yoga, meditation and special diets.
The need to conserve the environment was deeply ingrained in traditional Sri Lankan society: in the 3rd c. BC, the country's first Buddhist monarch established the world's first wildlife sanctuary. Today, this tradition continues with 13% of Sri Lanka conserved as national parks, reserves, sanctuaries and jungle corridors.