A trip to Sri Lanka, the teardrop in the Indian Ocean, leads Susan Stephenson on a voyage of discovery.
When I told people I was going to travel halfway across the world on my own there were two kinds of reaction. One was a wide-eyed, open-mouthed excitement, followed by questions about where, when and why. The other involved a furrowed brow and a brief silence, followed by instructions to be careful.
The thing is, I wasn’t really going to be on my own – not after the flight anyway.
I was headed to Sri Lanka, a destination which had remained in my thoughts since 2009, when I had looked at going but decided not to, due to Government warnings about terrorism.
But now, thankfully, the days of conflict have passed, and this beautiful, mystical island with its rich history, diverse landscape and no less than eight World Heritage sites is reclaiming its rightful place on the tourist map.
So after seven years of dreaming, plus a seven-hour Emirates flight to Dubai and four-hour connecting flight to Colombo, I was there.
A short taxi ride to Negombo and I checked into my first hotel, where I was to meet the 11 other people, plus our guide, with whom I’d be spending the next two weeks.
I was embarking on a tour with Intrepid, a company which offers small-group, “off the beaten track” travel, promising to take you right to the heart of your destination, rather than into the usual tourist traps.
It is also geared up for solo travellers, perfect for slightly nervous first-timers like me.
But the nerves vanished as I shook hands and made introductions with the 11 people, mainly from Australia and Canada, who were to become my wonderful travelling family for the next fortnight.
And as our guide, Indie, beamed at us as he described the next two weeks, I had a funny feeling everything was going to be all right.
Now at this point, I will say forgive me if I gloss over details, but we visited so many astonishing, fascinating places in those two weeks that I could write a book about it. This relatively small island is a wonder, with jungle, mountains, tropical beaches and forests littered with ancient ruins.
Which brings me to the ancient city of Anuradhapura, our first stop, which we explored by bicycle, dodging resident monkeys and stray dogs that lolled in the heat.
The city, which was the capital in the 4th century BC, is home to sacred Bo Tree, a spiritual reminder of the beginnings of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, and one of the most holy Buddhist sites in the world.
We watched as pilgrims, dressed in white, made their offerings of flowers and rice.
Indie told us about stupas, ancient dome-like structures which were used to enshrine relics of the Buddha. The stupas built in Sri Lanka are the largest brick structures known to the pre-modern world.
We also visited 1,000-year-old Polonnaruwa, another former capital, which is home to more palaces, temples and stupas.
The highlight was the huge granite carving of the iconic reclining Buddha, a pose which represents the moment before he passed from this world into the next.
And when you think you have seen the most amazing sights possible, along comes Dambulla, the third World Heritage site of our trip.
This place took my breath away and made me feel – just for a moment – like Indiana Jones.
Because when you set foot through the gateway into these caves, lined with rows of glimmering, gold-painted Buddha statues, you feel a sense of wonder that must have been shared by anyone lucky enough to witness this incredible spectacle over the centuries.
However, I was pulled from my reverie, and brought back to the 21st century, when I saw a young monk, about eight years old and clad in an orange robe, walking past me and chatting on his mobile phone.
This could be a metaphor for Sri Lanka, a country full of ancient mystery but with a better phone signal than some parts of Yorkshire – one foot in the past and the other firmly on the path toward the future.
Our next stop was Kandy, the last capital of the ancient kings era and home to the country’s most important Buddhist site, the Temple of the Tooth.
We visited at night, which gave a different atmosphere as candles flickered and drummers performed their musical ritual. However, the later hour didn’t make for fewer tourists, as the temple has a constant stream of visitors through its doors day and night.
It’s a fascinating yet confusing place, an ostentatious monument to a religion that places an emphasis on living simply and without the trappings of the modern, consumer-led world.
However, whatever your beliefs, you cannot deny the importance this place has in the hearts of the people who worship there.
It is also testament to the resilience and survival of the Sri Lankan people, having been the site of a terrorist attack in 1998.
From Kandy we took a six-hour train journey to Bandarawela, which was a real highlight of the trip.
The scenery as the train wound its way up into the mountains was out of this world.
From a mountain village, Udeweriya, we started a two-day hike through tea plantations and Tamil villages, with curious children running out to greet us and tea pickers, laden with brightly-coloured baskets, waving as we passed by.
This part of the trip really brought home the diversity of the landscape – the cool, mountain air in contrast to the heat of previous days.
And in contrast again, after the hike, we travelled to Mirissa, a beach resort favoured by young travellers, which exudes a relaxed, hippy vibe.
Our final destination was Galle, a World Heritage-listed Dutch fort, which made me feel like I’d been transported back to Europe – or onto a glamorous colonial filmset.
Sri Lanka provides contrast after contrast – if you can’t decide whether you want beaches, mountains, jungle, sightseeing or relaxation, you can have it all here.
And if you feel homesick, you know that you’ll always be able to find a decent cup of tea.
Emirates offers regular flights to Sri Lanka from Manchester, connecting in Dubai or Malé in the Maldives.
Go to emirates.com for details
Intrepid Travel offers small-group travel in over 100 countries. Go to intrepidtravel.com
Tailor-made trips to Sri Lanka can be created to meet your needs at indiesadventures.com
Tourists must obtain a visa (US$35 approx) to enter Sri Lanka. Go to eta.gov.lk