THE SHIFT FROM peace to war can be famously abrupt, with neighbors turning on one another with little apparent provocation. Placid communities can become bloodbaths in the blink of an eye (Kosovo, Syria). Rebuilding in the wake of a terrible war, by contrast, usually takes decades. But Sri Lanka has managed a rapid shift from some of the most horrific carnage in recent history—a civil war that raged for more than 25 years and produced 100,000 casualties—to a peace that not only unites the country’s previously divided ethnicities but inflects the experience of any visitor to the island. Gone are the roadblocks that were scattered across the landscape; gone are the once-ubiquitous photos of Sinhalese Buddhist President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who in 2009 brutally trounced the equally vicious Tamil Hindu LTTE, or Tamil Tigers, who had waged a ruthless guerrilla war aimed at building a separate Tamil state.
Gone, too, are the white vans into which Rajapaksa’s victorious government, basically a nepotistic dictatorship, allegedly whisked people who said the wrong things.
In their place is a new unity and openness evident in everything from the “1 Team, 1 Nation” cricket banners lining the roadsides in the capital city of Colombo to the dinner plates at one hotel that were ornamented with both Sinhalese and Tamil alphabets—two populations’ differences now recorded on decorative crockery rather than in violent bloodshed. This historic change resulted from the 2015 open election of the soft-spoken, liberal President Maithripala Sirisena, who enacted reforms aimed at curbing corruption and healing ethnic rifts. In just two years, he has restored democracy and confidence to his country. “This is one of the few places on earth where freedom of every kind, including freedom of speech, is on the rise,” the U.S. ambassador, Atul Keshap, told me when we met in his Colombo office.
“People were afraid in the war and afraid under the government that followed, and now, at last, they are free of fear.” Their resilience reflects the hard-won equilibrium of a country already deeply changed by conflict and loss. The Portuguese came to Ceylon, as the island was known, in 1505; they were routed by the Dutch in 1658, and by 1796 the Dutch in turn had ceded to the British, whose departure in 1948 laid the ground for an ethnic conflict that would later surge between the once-powerful Sinhalese and Tamils. Then there was the infamous 2004 tsunami, which claimed more than 30,000 lives on the island. Today, however, the coastline has been largely rebuilt, and international investment, especially from China and India, has started to create a coherent infrastructure. Because President Sirisena has tackled the nation’s most pressing internal issues—fighting racism, forging a single national identity—Sri Lanka is finally able to lookout-ward.
Even if this were not a place of immense natural and historical wonders, it would be worth going there now to see what fresh liberty feels like. Sri Lanka is something of a three-in-one destination: In 18 days, we experienced historic and cultural sites worthy of Kyoto, a Serengeti-level safari, and an Amalfi-caliber beach vacation. My husband and I took our seven-year-old son, and found that Sri Lanka is warmly disposed toward children—everyone called him “darling” or “baby,” and our driver, Madhawa, showed a sweetness with him that often made us feel like mean-spirited disciplinarians. Tourism is not yet saturated: You see relatively few Westerners, and the primary visitors to Sri Lankan sites are Sri Lankans, other South Asians, and an influx of Chinese. That said, Sri Lanka operates at its own pace: Sometimes when you are told something will take an hour, it takes 90 minutes; sometimes when you are told an hour, it takes five.
WHAT’S OLD IS NEW – As such, it took five hours to drive the 72 miles from the bustling seaside capital of Colombo to the inland Cultural Triangle, defined by the ancient cities of Anuradhapura, Kandy, and Polonnaruwa. The historical monuments there—five of them UNESCO World Heritage Sites—reflect a society that was at one time among the most sophisticated in the world. The once walled city of Anuradhapura was the Sinhalese capital from around the fifth century B.C. until the tenth century A.D., its palaces and monasteries irrigated by an elaborate network of reservoirs and hydraulic engineering. The site complex features stepped pools, stone pillars, and a proliferation of stupas: great hemispheric, plastered, and sometimes gilded receptacles for holy relics.
The city’s 2,000-plus-year-old Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi, or holy fig tree, reputedly grown from the very tree beneath which the Buddha attained enlightenment, is among Buddhism’s holiest sites. About 45 miles away, the fifth-century fortress of Sigiriya lies atop a 656-foot, souffle-shaped rock that’s a sort of Asian Machu Picchu. It is 1,200 steps to the top, and there were moments when I felt that climbing this crowded stone stairway to heaven in 92-degree heat seemed a misguided idea.