Travel 2000: Sri Lanka - Kandy Cameras; James Hardy Is Put in the Picture about Sri Lanka - after He Tears Himself Away from Unspoilt Beaches

Article excerpt

IN exotic locations, gawping tourists like nothing better than snapping a few photos of the natives.

In Sri Lanka it works in reverse. Natives want pictures of the gawping tourists.

We were on the receiving end of the camera so many times we lost count during a stroll through the beautiful botanical gardens in the holy city of Kandy.

Smiling groups of Sri Lankans, decked out in their Sunday best, insisted on posing alongside us for family snaps.

Dozens of them must now possess pictures of my wife and me, wearing increasingly maniacal grins, in our scruffy shorts and T-shirts.

It was an odd but fascinating experience, typical of an island of constant surprises

Just a few miles away, in the immaculately-kept Royal Palace Park, we might as well have been invisible.

On Sundays it's a rendezvous for lovers, and dozens of young couples wandered hand in hand, oblivious to the presence of the only two Westerners around. Sri Lanka is like that. In this land, the casual tourist can only catch occasional tantalising glimpses of the way life is lived beyond the hotels and beaches.

SRI Lanka lies off the south-east tip of India and combines startling beauty with grinding poverty.

Travellers are welcomed mostly because of the money they spend.

Westerners can feel like cash machines on legs - asked to pay special rates way above the charges for locals, and persistently hassled for tips.

But, for all that, the people are genuinely welcoming and prices away from international hotels are low.

However, tens of thousands of tourists who flock each year to the beaches and warm seas of the south west, never explore the treasures inland. The coastline is stunning and still unspoiled, but it's a serious mistake to ignore the rest of the island - from the ancient ruins and Buddhist temples of the north to the mountains of tea country.

We hired a driver at a cost of around pounds 40 a day - a little pricey but by far the best way of getting around.

Don't think of hiring your own car. Driving standards would make even an Italian motorist shudder.

Overtaking is a haphazard process, owing more to the bravado of the driver than waiting for a clear line of vision.

A blast on the horn is seen as adequate warning to the legions of pedestrians, scooter riders, stray dogs and cows which meander constantly across the potholed roads.

The far north of the country is still out of bounds to foreigners because of the civil war with the Tamil Tigers, but aside from bomb blasts which happen intermittently in the capital, Colombo - a city with little to attract visitors anyway - the rest of the country is safe.

Sri Lanka's past has long been bound up with the British, who helped to cast further light into the country's ancient history.

British colonial explorers unearthed lost cities so vast they are still being excavated 150 years later. …