Sri Lankan food
Sri Lankan food & profile picture of Smita. (Photo by Smita Shah)

Traveller interview: Smita Shah - Sri Lanka small group tour, a food adventure

Chatting with Responsible Travel writer, Catherine Mack.

What made you want to go there?
So, a little bit about my background first of all. My parents are from North India but I was born in London. I do trips to India to see my family but to the north, and so I had never been to Sri Lanka. It is pretty off the radar for North Indians really as it is so far away. However, it was really the heat and sunshine that I was looking for as I had had a period of ill health and I wanted to go somewhere warm and sunny, and Sri Lanka came up on the radar as lots of friends had been and talked about how good it is. And then I mentioned this trip to a really good friend of mine, Victoria, and she immediately jumped at it, as she knew that Sri Lankans made the most amazing food.

Were you a foodie before you went?
Yes I am a foodie but don’t cook as much as I want, because I work long hours. However, when I travel I always try and do a cookery class or something like that. But this tour seemed just amazing, even though I had never tried Sri Lankan food before. And the idea of being able to stuff my face for half the day was just fantastic!

Is this tour all about food then?
Not at all. It is the perfect mix and a really great introduction to the country. You cover all the nature reserves, Yala National Park, Minneriya to see the elephants, you do Dambulla Caves, Sigiriya which is just incredible, you get to do the cities such as Colombo or Galle, and you can go sit on the beach for a few days – it is a really good combination. And you get to eat all this Sri Lankan food and meet Sri Lankan people.

Sigiriya and shop vendor
Sigiriya and shop vendor. (Photos by Smita Shah)

What is the most useful thing you packed or wish you had packed?
Victoria had packed insect repellent shower gel, and I wish I had too. It is fantastic, a brand called Incognito. So you are totally covered, even though you wash it off in the shower it still seems to work. I also wish I had packed a fan as it was so hot. The one thing I was glad I did pack was a little medicine bag that I bought in Boots and I just added to it as I wanted. I had also brought a poncho for the rain, but I really didn’t use it. It just didn’t rain that much, as we had missed the really heavy rains by about a month, as we were there end of April. And like a real Brit I had packed an umbrella. However, I used that on sunny days as a parasol. I used to make fun of tourists who did that, but it was brilliant and I didn’t feel silly because a lot of Sri Lankans do it as well.

Did you learn or use any of the local language?
I learned ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ which I think made a difference when we met people. And I learnt them in both Sinhalese and Tamil. So, Sinhalese ‘hello’ is ‘Ayubowan’ which I think means something like ‘blessings upon you’ and thank you is ‘sthuthi’. In Tamil it is ‘Vanakkam’ and then ‘Nandri’ for thank you. And it was really nice to know those, just to break the ice.

And were you able to tell if someone was Tamil, and then know to speak in their language?
No, not really. Because it was a food tour, and one of the things that I loved about it too, our tour guide would always introduce the family who was cooking for us and tell us their background. We met such a wonderful cross section of Sri Lankan society and that is when I realised just how complicated religion and ethnicity really is here. But our guide would tell us, for example, we are going to visit this family today and they are Tamil, and this is how you say hello and thank you. And of course, once you go north it is a pretty safe bet that people are Tamil.

What is your favourite souvenir/present?
I travel quite a bit and my family and friends have asked me to stop buying them things as I have filled their homes with tourist stuff! But one of the things I did bring back for people was cinnamon. And that went down really well. Victoria and I also bought matching t-shirts because when we came back we invited family friends over and made a Sri Lankan meal for them, and we wore our matching green t-shirts with pink elephants on them as hosts! We cooked for two days solid and invited loads of people. It was really good fun.

Were your preconceptions very different from reality?
I try not to have preconceptions when I travel but I was curious to see if any of it felt familiar, having been to India. But that was a bit of a mistake because it is so completely different. Sri Lanka is a very unique country. Also, I am very glad I didn’t read anything about the civil war until I got back to London, because I didn’t want it to colour my perceptions of the country. People talked about it with you once they felt comfortable with you, but it was more interesting for me to do it that way around, and then come back and read about it. Of course now I want to go back and have the same conversations and ask, ‘yes, but what about this….?’

Fruit and herbs
Fruit and herbs. (Fruit photo by Smita Shah, herbs photo by Amila Tennakoon)

Is there a particular book that you have read about the civil war since coming back then?
Yes, I loved This Divided Island by Samanth Subramanian (published 2015 by Atlantic) and it is a brilliant reportage that he wrote after the Civil War. It feels balanced and is really interesting.

Where was your best sleep?
All the hotels were really good. I was really impressed, and there was a real variety too. I did have a favourite bathroom! In this old colonial hotel in Kandy with high ceilings, lots of dark wood and a great atmosphere. In fact, there were three guys on the tour who ended up bunking in one room there because one of them was convinced there was a ghost in his! But in our room we had an amazing bathroom with a beautiful huge modern shower, but with very period features as well, one of which was a giant cupboard, which was a bit like the wardrobe in the Chronicles of Narnia.

Did you have a scary moment?
Oh my gosh, yes! We went to see the wild elephants in Minneriya National Park, but the elephants by the end of the afternoon got really annoyed with all the cars of tourists. And we were unlucky because, although we kept our distance and didn’t stay for too long, it was our jeep that managed to aggravate a group of elephants and we got charged at by three male bulls! We were in one of those open jeeps, so we did have to reverse back pretty fast, and pretty far. And they did look pretty angry, like they had just had enough!

And how was the guide at that moment?
We had our group leader who was acting as a safari guide and also a driver, but they were really calm, and just got us out of there. And fast.

But did you enjoy the experience at Minneriya apart from that?
Oh it was amazing, we saw so many elephants, about 200 of them. And after seeing them in the wild, I will never be able to go to a zoo again. And actually I am really pleased that Responsible Travel is really solid on things like this, on animals and captivity and zoos. Once you’ve seen them in the wild you gain a real respect for them, even when they are charging at you! In fact, seeing them charge gives you a healthy fear and respect for wild animals, I have to say.

Elephants, Sri Lanka
Elephants, Sri Lanka. (Photo by Chris Shervey)

Do you have any sense memories from your trip, other than ‘sight’ ones?
Oh yes – taste, of course! The food was just so tasty, aromatic and flavourful. And varied and very different to what I have had in terms of Indian food. To the point where I would look at something and wouldn’t be able to tell if it was going to be sweet or savoury. And the other sense memory was sound, especially at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy which was very busy and full of bustle, but yet very respectful and calming. The fact that it is packed doesn’t bother me too much, although some people don’t like that, but for me this is part of the experience as it is the most important religious site in Sri Lanka. And when they open the casket it is particularly busy, with hordes of people come to witness that.

Was there one local person that you met whom you will always remember?
Probably our tour leader, Priyantha Balakrishnan. He is Tamil by origin, in his 40s and married with three children, and his wife works for the Human Rights Commission in Trinco. And he has been doing it for about seven to 10 years. And he really was a fantastic tour guide, always going over and above for us. He was very open, transparent and a really great guide. He explained a lot of things and you could tell he was once an economics teacher because he was good at lecturing! So, he gave us really interesting talks about the country’s marriage customs, or their healthcare system, or the economy. And that was brilliant. But he also took us to meet all the families, and he knew them really well and was able to tell us all about them and was a brilliant translator too.

And who did the cooking demonstrations on a foodie outing?
Both men and women in Sri Lanka are very comfortable in the kitchen and would both talk to us about the cooking, the ingredients and so on. We did take part too of course, although you didn’t have too, but it was all fascinating. Like how they make curd, and also the different ways in which they use coconuts.

Did you have a favourite food?
Oh that is a really hard question. One thing I did really love was coconut and pumpkin curry which was amazing. Absolutely divine. And then hoppers [a kind of crispy, coconut and rice flour-based pancake]. Whether they were string hoppers or egg hoppers, oh gosh, I just loved them for breakfast. Hoppers with dal actually. If you are not used to having very spicy food, a good tip is to have something like lime juice as it is a good digestive. Or with soda. Same as Coca Cola. They all help your systems adjust to really spicy food otherwise you can get a dodgy stomach.

Anything about this trip that you consider underrated in tourism, or a pleasant surprise?
Yes, I really liked Colombo. It is really modern, bustling and with a great food scene. And also in Kandy, the Botanic Gardens, which are a bit out of the way and so we took a tuk tuk there on an afternoon that we had to ourselves. I tend to avoid gardens because I get really bad hay fever, but they were so stunningly beautiful. That was just the most spectacular afternoon.

Smita & Victoria in a tea plantation
Smita & Victoria in a tea plantation. (Photo from Smita Shah)

How were the tuk tuk drivers?
They were really wonderful. Very helpful, friendly and once you negotiated a price, they really stuck to it. They were diligent and got us where we wanted to go. I would ask the tour leaders or people working in the hotel what they recommended as a price to go somewhere and then used that as a starting point for negotiations. Most of the time it’s fine. If it’s not something you’re used to, then you just need a bit of practice to get confidence. Some of them will try it on, but that is the same the world over with taxi drivers. Just be polite and firm, and keep a sense of humour, but don’t get annoyed. Because Sri Lankans don’t show overt negative emotion, and so that doesn’t get you anywhere.

What is your favourite photograph?
It is a bit of a theme, but I did take lots of pictures of food! But then when we came back and made our big meal for everyone, we were able to show them how it was made in Sri Lanka and how it looked when they made it.

Has this trip influenced where you would like to go next?
Yes, I really want to visit South India now. And possibly Indonesia. We visited a lot of Buddhist temples and I thought they were just beautiful, so I would like to see more of those. I will start browsing the Responsible Travel website now to see what I can find! I must say your site is always my go to, as it has everything I need. I haven’t time to faff around with lots of other sites. It is great. I also loved travelling on my own at the end of the trip, which I highly recommend.

So you stayed on after the rest of the group went home? And how was that?
Sri Lanka is very easy to travel around and I felt very safe travelling alone as a female. Also, one of the things that I find remarkable is that it is almost as if civil war didn’t happen. It is very peaceful now. Travel is very easy, and I explored the north coast which I hadn’t seen on the tour and just had some beach time, for a week. But going on a group tour really gives you the confidence because you get a sense of the country and the people, and time to figure out how things work. And also Priya, the tour leader, would send me texts, even though the tour had ended, just to check if I was OK, if I needed anything and so on. Just to have a contact like that in the country in case I needed it was amazing.

And did you feel restored health wise?
Oh wow, absolutely. Even after the food tour, before I went off on my own, I was so relaxed I was almost ready to go home then, as I felt that it had all just been perfect up until that point. I never felt overstretched by the tour itinerary, because Priya was so good at everything and kept things really local for us, but also gave us plenty of chill out time.

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Written by Catherine Mack
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