My initial impression of Sri Lanka? Hot.
I first visited in 1982 – when England played their first test match against Sri Lanka in Colombo.
Then we went and played in Kandy, in the central province, and it has become one of my favourite places in the whole country. It’s home to the Temple of the Tooth Relic (Sri Dalada Maligawa), and is the most important spot for Sri Lanka’s Buddhist community.
The whole town is steeped in history. It’s always been one of the country’s major trading places, and there are beautiful temples and tea plantations. It must be part of your itinerary.
I only really started to fall in love with the country on coming back to commentate. As a player we were never in one place long enough.
I visited the south at the start of 2004, just after the tsunami. It was horrendous, with bodies still being pulled from the rubble. Since then, Laureus Sport for Good Foundation (I’m an ambassador for the organisation) has worked with the Sri Lanka-based Foundation of Goodness and built the Southern Project in Seenigama, an area which was devastated by the huge wave.
There’s a brand new school, a cricket oval and an Olympic-sized pool. The pool was paid for by rock singer Bryan Adams, who offered to help fund the sports complex after reading about the destruction wreaked by the tsunami, and locals have named it the Bryan Adams Pool in his honour.
It’s hard to believe that when I first visited, the railway line – and a train – were 400 yards away in a coconut tree.
It was this project which inspired me to undertake last year’s sponsored walk. I managed 160 miles, from the north to the south of the island, in eight days. The aim was to raise money and mirror what’s been done in the south – because the north was devastated by the civil war and has suffered terribly.
The north has so much to offer – it’s Sri Lanka’s next booming tourism centre. The main draw are the beaches – they’re sensational.
There are new hotels and railways being built and the airport at Jaffna, the capital city of the northern province, is being renovated. It should establish itself within five years. Anuradhapura – the capital of the north central province – and Mihintale, which is the birthplace of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, have beautiful stupas and temples which put Angkor Wat to shame – well, almost.
They are within what’s known as Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle.
This area’s most spectacular landmark is the Sigiriya rock fortress – an enormous, 200-metre-high lump of stone. In 480 AD, a Sri Lankan king built his castle atop the rock. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and Sri Lankans call it the eighth wonder of the world.
I climbed it on my first cricket tour and was amazed. So much that, while taking a photo, I accidentally knocked over the bottle of water I’d diligently carried to the top. I remember watching in horror as it rolled over the edge and tumbled out of sight.
I’ve visited Sri Lanka with my family several times. Some of the most memorable trips have been with my wife and the grandchildren.
It’s incredibly child-friendly – as child-friendly as destinations like Spain or the Caribbean. We wanted to show the grandchildren that life isn’t easy, that terrible things happen but you have to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and carry on.
The Sri Lankans are the best example of this – they’re always smiling and there’s no bitterness about the unfair hand they’ve been dealt, with the civil war and tsunami.
They are the reason my wife Kath and I keep returning.
We’ve spent a lot of time in the capital, Colombo, which is a fantastic, progressive city, with great hotels and restaurants. We like Lagoon, the restaurant at the Cinnamon Grand hotel, where you choose your seafood from a huge display and the chefs cook it however you want.
The grandchildren loved it – they would compete to find the biggest fish.
Other great restaurants in the capital are the Ministry of Crab, which is owned by Sri Lankan cricketers Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, and the Park Street Mews restaurant, which blends Sri Lankan and European cuisine.
I’ve probably spent most time in the south, in coastal towns like Galle and Weligama. In Weligama, we rented a villa and just chill out – I love watching the stilt fishermen balancing on their poles.
I’ve spent hours walking around Galle fort, which is a walled city. The locals have incredible stories to tell about the day the tsunami hit – how they could see the wave coming and ran inside the fort, emerging hours later to find the rest of the city in ruins.
The fort was built by the Portuguese in the 14th century and it split the wave and saved thousands of lives. Nobody inside died – you can walk around inside and see these old shops and restaurants which weren’t even affected.
The grandchildren also adored Weligama, where they fished, rode in tuk-tuks, played on the beaches and spotted turtles.
One day was spent just fishing on the beach.
One of my grandchildren, James, is extremely competitive – he simply has to beat his younger sister at everything.
James had spent all day waiting for a bite. He put down the rod while he nipped to the loo and his sister Imani-Jayne picked up the rod and caught a fish within seconds. James was livid.
My advice for anyone considering a visit to Sri Lanka? Do it. It is all there to be explored.
Tourism on the south coast is well-established. The east and west coasts are becoming more established, and the north will soon be the next big tourism destination.
What’s more, you don’t have to walk everywhere – like I did.