“YOU England. England good. I Perrera,” said the vegetable stallholder in the sensory maelstrom that is Kandy market.
“Perrera... like cricket,” I replied, wafting an imaginary bat in his direction.
Sporting heroes are treated like gods across South Asia and the best social currency is to invite conversation about bat and ball.
I was lucky, for the previous day Sri Lanka had found an unlikely icon in Thisara Perrera, a young player who helped his country defeat Australia.
“Yes!” beamed the trader, his smile revealing what was left of his teeth, all stained red from chewing too much beetle-leaf.
“When Sri Lanka play Australia, I am Sri Lankan,” I told him.
The smile turned into a Cheshire-cat grin and his earnest laugh indicated I had a new friend for life.
That’s Sri Lanka, the teardrop-shaped island once known as Ceylon, where joy accompanies the ubiquitous greeting ‘aayu-bowan’.
Much of this pleasantry breeds from calmness induced by a nation that is predominantly Buddhist, the religious code having arrived from neighbouring India in the third century BC.
Sri Lanka maintains some of Buddhism’s premier draws, none more so than the monastic ruins at Anuradhapura. Its sacred Sri Maha Bodhi Tree represents the country’s conversion and dates from 200BC, making it the oldest documented tree on earth.
Further archaeological wonder is found among the temples of Polonnaruwa, which developed as a bustling religious and commercial hub in the 13th century. Typical of other lost cities, the erosion of time has not dimmed the spiritual majesty of this former royal capital.
The regal palace is surrounded by giant statues of Buddha, the largest being a 50ft-long reclining version, while most impressive are the Gal Vihara group of four carvings made from a solid section of granite. The temples are fantastic, although repeatedly removing shoes to enter can lead to scorched feet, as you skip across sunburned gravel to reach comforting shade.
Mihintale’s sedate temple complex involves a climb of 1,840 stone steps. Indeed, it is peculiar how worship and ascent intertwine the world over, making this the first of three Buddhist climbs.
The ‘sky fortress’ at Sigiriya is a natural wonder, embellished by man and worth the effort of 1,202 leg-trembling steps up its sheer rock face.
For centuries people thought the ruins on top signified a royal palace, although contemporary experts now believe the plateau was a simply a place of meditation. Whichever theory you favour, the views are remarkable.
Likewise, the night-time trek of Adam’s Peak, which sees thousands of pilgrims head for the 2,243m summit.
Their goal is a spectacular sunrise and symbolic triangular shadow cast across the valley below. Legend dictates the person who never makes the journey is a fool, while the person who climbs more than once is also a fool.
This mountain is one of Buddhism’s most revered locations, with Buddha’s footprint supposedly evident at the top, yet the site also has reference points for Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. This religious co-existence demonstrates a fascinating theological tolerance on the Sub-Continent, that intertwines seamlessly with the secular world.
Pinnacle of Sri Lankan worship is Temple of the Sacred Tooth in Kandy, the beautiful former Sinhalese capital, where days amble by at a peculiarly-relaxed pace. The artifact was supposedly taken from Buddha’s funeral pyre in 483BC, before being smuggled into the country 800 years later in the hair of a princess.
Since then, the relic’s significance has swelled to the point where it now embodies spiritual control of the nation.
The hill country south of Kandy is renowned for tea production and the winding road to Bandarawela navigated valleys green with one of Sri Lanka’s main industries.
Rolling cloud kissed mountain tops as scores of female pickers nipped young shoots from plants covering the terraced slopes.
Tea is still branded as Ceylon and Sri Lanka produces 300,000 tonnes per year, which is not as much as India but quality dictates higher auction prices.
And there is no finer way to sample this national beverage, than the decadence of Nuwara Eliya’s Hill Club. Visitors pay 100SR (60p) for temporary membership and are ushered into a reading room of leather-topped desks, glass-cased periodicals and silver trophies for horticultural excellence.
A portrait of Her Majesty hangs next to a 1938 group photograph of the Ceylon Mounted Rifles, while a bookcase contains such lightweight tomes as the Memoirs of Grand Admiral von Tirpitz.
Afternoon tea is served in bone-China cups by exceptionally-polite and whispering waiters, who are resplendent in immaculate white tunics.
With only the booming tick of a grandfather clock for company, I slid into the excess of a tapestry armchair and imagined travel from a lost age. In the evening, men must be properly attired, although ill-equipped guests can loan jacket and tie from the club. However, its wardrobe isn’t quite up to date and you could spend the night resembling one of Jack Regan’s cohorts from The Sweeney.
A sea excursion from sleepy Mirissa provided a travel experience to treasure, as a pair of blue whales came within a few metres of the boat.
Untroubled by human presence, they rested on the surface before flipping giant tales in the air as they dived. Dozens of long-nosed dolphins then came say to hello, spinning out of the water in a display of aquatic choreography.
In fact, nature abounds across this pleasant land and the coastal route from Negombo to Puttalam previewed lush fields populated by roaming waterbuffalo.
In the Uda Walawe National Park it was common to see wild elephants as close as the roadside, while rivers seemed to idle past, replicating the unhurried voyage of their passengers.
On the south coast, Galle retains the faded grandeur of European colonialism, its pivot being a 400-year-old fort that became a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1998.
A perfect afternoon was spent lounging amid wicker furniture at the Fort Hotel, the renovated former home of a 17th-century merchant.
Peeking through louvre shutters, the sweltering temperature was reduced by brass ceiling fans and the sound system’s cool jazz.
My cinnamon tea was garnished with food for thought, about passions for cricket and the search for spiritual enlightenment.
I suppose you could say I was ultimately bowled over by Buddha’s island.