It may be small and far away but Sri Lanka ticks all the travellers' boxes, writes Andrew Stone

We were not suitably dressed for such an auspicious occasion.

Entry to the Temple of the Tooth Relic inner sanctum, a sacred Buddhist shrine in Sri Lanka's crowded hill city Kandy, is an invitation-only affair.

Visitors are expected to be correctly attired. Inside the temple, the dress code is white for purity.

Through the connections of Priyanjith Panabokke, whose father had served on a powerful temple committee, we had a coveted pass to the holy of holies.

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"You must be covered," Priyanjith told us.

The cover-up was settled by a quick detour to Fashion Bug, a Sri Lankan clothing chain with a range similar to Farmers, albeit with distinctly South Asian styles. I found a $20 cotton shirt to go with a muslin sarong. It did the trick. Temple guards waved our group into the heavily protected sprawling compound.

The golden roofed relic temple is part of a historic complex with museums, shrines and large pavilions. At any time it seethes with pilgrims, tourists and orange-robed monks.

For karmic satisfaction, Sri Lankan Buddhists try and visit at least once in a lifetime.

The tooth relic encounter was swift.

After passing through richly decorated halls and chambers and beneath an arch of magnificent elephant tusks, we squeeze into a passage and wait behind an embroidered curtain. A steady beat from sweating temple drummers pounds in our ears. Our queue includes senior military figures and others with friends in high places.

The drape is finally drawn to reveal a jewelled, golden, bell-shaped stupa casket, protected by bulletproof glass.

You don't actually see the relic — it is more that you feel it, besides the heat generated by the swarm of devotees at close quarters under bright lights.

Andrew Stone (left) with wife Gillian (centre) and guides outside the Temple of the Tooth Relic.
Andrew Stone (left) with wife Gillian (centre) and guides outside the Temple of the Tooth Relic.

We get to drop petals in a tray and briefly wonder at the hidden contents before we are whisked away.

Milan, our driver and a devout Buddhist, offered some perspective. He had been to Kandy many times and visited the temple but never got close to the relic. "I feel blessed," he sighed.

Every August, the relic is carried from the temple on the back of an elephant and paraded through Kandy. The ancient festival, known as Perahera, electrifies Kandy as torches illuminate whip-crackers, trumpeters, drummers and dancers. It is one of Asia's celebrated spectacles and a rich feast of Sri Lankan culture.

Teardrop-shaped Sri Lanka is half the size of the North island. Home to 20 million people, the country is two flights from New Zealand, which probably explains why it is not front of mind in terms of Asian destinations. Its recent troubled history — a 30-year civil war and the devastating 2004 tsunami — has hardly helped.

But our swing through the nation known in Sanskrit as the Resplendent Isle revealed an intoxicating blend of culture, ancient history, irresistible cuisine and accessible wildlife that ticks all the travellers' boxes.

The terrific hotels are great value, there is no sense of being ripped off, you feel quite safe and we completed two weeks without any Delhi belly.

A way to get the best out of a Sri Lankan holiday is to explore in a loop. From Colombo, the capital, to the cultural treasures a few hours' drive away, with a side trip to a tea plantation in the cool southern highlands, it is possible to get under the surface of this fascinating land in a week.

Sri Lanka's cultural triangle, about four hours from Colombo, covers the ruined monuments of Polonnaruwa, the ancient monastery at nearby Dambulla and the rock fortress of Sigiriya.

It was more than 30C when we began exploring Polonnaruwa at 8am. A Unesco World Heritage Site, the ruins were once the heart of the Sinhalese kingdom. The integrity of several structures has escaped the ravages of time. Perhaps the most stunning is the Gal Vihara, a quartet of exquisite Buddhist figures carved into rock.

A buddha statue in Gal Pota temple. Photo / 123RF
A buddha statue in Gal Pota temple. Photo / 123RF

Artists working 1000 years left behind the sculptures, hewed from a single slab. The 7m tall standing Buddha gazes out with a sorrowful expression. Alongside is a magnificent reclining Buddha depicted just after death, the head lying in a gently depressed pillow.

A carved statue of the monarch who ruled the ancient city takes the form of a bare-chested figure holding a yoke in both hands. King Parakramabahu turned Sri Lanka's central plains into a food bowl. Engineers in his service devised remarkable hydraulic projects, which survive in a working system of huge reservoirs or tanks.

If you can take the heat, don't miss Polonnaruwa's quadrangle, where ancient artisan skills are revealed. Bounded by a protective stone wall, the archaeological treasures include temples, stone fences and immense pillars. Stone columns of the royal palace still stand, and rock lions guard the entrance to an assembly hall.

A pool where princes bathed is fed by water flowing through spouts fixed in carved crocodile heads.

A sense of the unbelievable effort behind the mighty creations is conveyed by a 9m rock slab known as the Gal Pota, or Stone Book. Inscribed on the block are the virtues of another royal, Nissanka Malla, whose big ideas drove the kingdom into debt.

The 25-tonne chunk was hauled 100km to its resting place, presumably by a herd of elephants, which for centuries did all the heavy lifting.

Nearby, Sigiriya has an even older pedigree. We set off on bikes at dawn and rode 21km to the immense rock fortress, warily watching for stirring roadside dogs.

Soaring 200m from its flat surroundings, Sigiriya is a challenge to climb in the morning heat but rewards every sweltering step.

Another World Heritage Site, the ruins are the remnants of a garden city and palace built on the orders of the parricidal King Kasyapa, which pulled the strings from 477-495 AD.

A ruthless ruler, Kasyapa walled his father up alive and retreated to the safety of the massif where he set about designing an ancient wonder.

A garden city is laid out at the base of the rock, with pools, channels and fountains. On the summit, the king built a palace from where he could see invaders. Steps to the elevated ruins take visitors past striking frescoes, protected for centuries by drip ledges hacked into granite above the art caves.

His engineers created a remarkable mirror wall along a sheer face, enclosing a marble walkway with a polished plaster finish so that he could see his reflection as he walked by.

The ruined palace is reached by metal steps which ascend the vertical rock from a portal flanked by two giant carved lion's paws.

The Gal Vihara in the world heritage city Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka. Photo / 123RF
The Gal Vihara in the world heritage city Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka. Photo / 123RF

From the top, the careful symmetry of the gardens unfolds. What you can't see is another clever touch created by the king's corps — a series of underground conduits directing water around the fields.

Sensing that heat exhaustion threatens our welfare, our host, Stefan D'Silva, decides it's time to head for the hills.

It's a long, winding drive to the tea country, a trip which Stefan enlivens with his encyclopaedic knowledge of his country's wildlife and heritage. We see a troop of toque macaque monkeys and a black eagle scanning for prey.

It is early afternoon when we get to Nuwara Eliya, a surreal town a mile above sea level. Neat hedges fence in gabled houses, towering conifers have replaced the lowland steamy jungles and three-wheeled tuk-tuks scuttle past red post boxes.

This is the heart of Sri Lanka's tea industry, and the legacy of the British planters who deposited their culture and their class system when they planted the hills.

We get a taste of it at the Hill Club, a colonial institution which excluded women members for decades. Shooting trophies hang on gloomy walls and a lonely elephant leg rests by a wall.

It feels out of place in a land of vibrant colours.

We leave the 19th century for Stafford Estate, a 25ha plantation with a beautifully restored superintendent's mansion.

High tea of scones, coconut cake, cucumber sandwiches and fine tea is served on the lawn as afternoon shadows draw close.

We are joined by Parakkrama Kiridena, a dapper gentleman in a flat cap, knitted cardigan and corduroys. He runs the plantation, and employs 50 staff. Tea jobs are for life, and Para is expected to provide cradle-to-grave comfort for his workers. Planters, he explains, must be "a father, a judge, a scientist, a lawyer, an accountant and an agriculturalist". He carries the teapot for every event on the estate and must know all that goes on.

The 45-year-old started his career as a "creeper", a kind of indentured tea slave at the bosses' beck and call 24/7. Some are notoriously mean but "I am not like that", insists Para.

The next morning he takes us through the property. He wears a leather jerkin, shorts and knee-high socks to protect his calves from tea bushes. Para carries a worn, banded stick, which, besides being handy to knock snakes aside, gives an accurate measure of the ideal picking height of his crop. It is cool as we wander along steep tracks, watching sari-clad pickers twist off the top buds.

The women nod in his direction. He is reminded of an early lesson as a creeper. It was a wet day, and he set off with a brolly. His boss scalded him and he left it behind.

"You cannot expect to stay dry under an umbrella when the workers are getting wet," Para explains. "You must put up with everything you ask of them."

As the heat arrives, we trek back to Stafford Bungalow. Para tells us he is extremely content.

"How could I not be," he remarks taking in the green slopes with a sweep of his stick. Time, once more, for tea.

Sigiriya Lion Rock Fortress in Sri Lanka. Photo / 123RF
Sigiriya Lion Rock Fortress in Sri Lanka. Photo / 123RF

CHECKLIST

Getting there:

Singapore Airlines

flies daily from Auckland to Singapore and on to Colombo after a four-hour stopover.

Accommodation: Andrew Stone stayed at Jetwing Lagoon and Jetwing Lake, Amaara Forest, Ozo Kandy, Stafford Bungalow, Kithala Resort and Rampart Street-Galle Fort and Cinnamon Red.

Further information: Holidays by Design offers a 10-night Sri Lanka tour.