Stunning Sri Lanka- Not on your bucket list. Make it.
The small island nation, Sri Lanka, wasn’t on my list of travel destinations. For one, it was so close to India (where I come from), that travelling to the country didn’t seem like I would be actually travelling. Secondly, I was sure it would be similar to the the South of India. All tropical destinations are very much the same. Thirdly, the country had had a civil war for 25 years! Other than carnage and devastation, there wouldn’t be anything to see. Fourthly, going by the Sri Lankan friends I had, India was definitely a bigger, grander country compared to Sri Lanka. What would an Indian or anybody else want to see in their country? Wasn’t every other nation better? (For all those who haven’t met a Sri Lankan, most of them are simple, soft spoken people influenced by the western culture to a large extent which makes them fun to be around).
It was 2014 and when I said I was visiting Sri Lanka, friends and colleagues looked at us as though we had gone nuts because people in the Gulf think travel means Europe, United States, South Africa or Seychelles. Well, obviously they were ill-informed. All these friends and colleagues have since visited the country and have agreed that I wasn’t wrong at all.
Why we decided on Sri Lanka?
For want of time and the utmost need for a get-away; one that we wouldn’t regret later in terms of burning our pockets (considering the fact that we had spent 3 weeks in Europe a few months earlier), we decided to do a quick 5-day trip to this nation in the Indian Ocean. There’s no need for a visa for Indians and since we were going to India, a little addition to the ticket was all that was required to visit.
What did I know about the country?
Sri Lanka has a long history with India that dates back to the 4th century CE or earlier. As per Hindu mythology, Ravan, the king of Lanka, had kidnapped Sita, Lord Ram’s wife. Till today, the festival of Dassera celebrated before Diwali, involves the burning of his effigy. Dassera is a 10- day festival which culminates with the burning of Ravan’s effigy, symbolizing the victory of good over evil (Coincidentally, today is the first day of Dassera, this year). Sri Lanka is nothing but modern day Lanka. Every child in India, is therefore aware of the island nation, in the middle of the Indian Ocean which Lord Ram reached by building a bridge to bring back his wife.
Closer to the present, most people would know Sri Lanka as the country which had faced civil war for 25 years and had won the war only in 2009. Added to this, the country had also been badly hit by the Tsunami of 2004 which left more than 30,000 people dead.
Lovers of sport would know of the the Sri Lankan Cricket team which is one of the best in the world.
Tea lovers would know the famous Ceylon Tea.
Other than the above, I knew little else of the country.
First Impression of Sri Lanka from the airport-“Oh my God! It’s just like Kerala!”
Tropical destination– Humid, green trees, rains
People: Friendly, soft-spoken, very, very welcoming and full of smiles.
Attire: The women wear a sari but it’s very different from how the Indians wear it. It’s only at the end of 5 days that I figured that their sari actually consisted of 3 parts – a wrap-around or a skirt that could be clipped around the waist, a pleated cloth that was to be worn around the chest over the sari blouse and a frill around the waist (like a belt that held everything in place). It wasn’t at all like the 6 yards of material draped in India.
Greeting: “Ayubowan“ which means “Long live”. They say it with palms joined like a Namaste. They say it with a smile on their lips and a twinkle in their eyes. During a visit to India, 2 years ago, I noticed that all the officers in the airport- at the ticket counters, baggage counters, immigration officials were saying “Namaste”. One at the boarding pass counter had not said it in a clear voice to me and was reprimanded immediately by the Supervisor. It was obvious that it had been forcefully implemented. I bet the top had visited Sri Lanka and had decided to introduce it in India. While it was a good change to see the officials more friendly in India, the truth is, it wasn’t a way of life and we had a long way to go in terms of acquiring the warmth.
Colombo Airport: Small and insignificant. Similar to any small town airport. There was one small restaurant which served fish cutlets, puffs, tea and packaged fruit cakes. Our friends had told us that the fish cutlets had to be tried so there we were having fish cutlets for breakfast and I have to say they were delicious.
6 day Itinerary
With my dear Sri Lankan friend, Solani, we managed to list out the sights to see in 6 days -a visit to the elephant orphanage in Pinnawalla, a climb up Sigiriya rock while staying at Thilanka resort, a visit to the Cave Temple in Dambulla in the evening, 2 days in Kandy which included a visit to the Tooth Temple and an evening spent viewing the Sri Lanka’s dance forms and the last day on a tea-estate in Nuwara eliya.
Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage
The first stop on the tour was the elephant orphanage. After a 4 hour flight, we thought we’d be exhausted but thanks, to the pleasant weather after the rains and the “holiday” energy, we were all set to go. Also, the orphanage was on the way to our hotel (Thilanka Resort), where we were to stay for the next 2 days. Coming from the land of elephants ( Kerala), we hadn’t expected to be thrilled. But we were proved so wrong – seeing elephants of all sizes at close quarters ( actually all around us) in their natural habitat, bathing in the Maha Oya river and raising their trunks to take bananas from those who handed it to them or to salute the crowd was a pleasure. The orphanage is one of it’s kinds and has the largest number of captive elephants in the world. We stayed around for longer than we thought we would, sitting around at one of the restaurants overlooking the river, watching the big animals taking care of their young ones, some of them rolling in the mud and then walking into the river for a swim. On the banks of the river is a 25 acre coconut plantation. Nature has always fascinated me and this was no different.
Around the elephant orphanage are a whole lot of tourist shops selling bags, clothes, wall hangings with elephant prints. There is also a small cottage industry where paper is made out of elephant dung. It was interesting to see how dung (elephant poop) could actually be used to produce beautiful hand-made paper. We bought an album from there which I am yet to print and put the pictures in (thanks to everything being digital now, the need to do this has taken a back-seat).
After an authentic Sri Lankan buffet or fish, lentils, all kinds of leaves cooked in natural spices, we headed to our resort. We were hungry and the food was amazing.
Thilanka Resort in Dambulla
A beautiful property comprising around 30 villas with two huge rooms in each, set in the midst of paddy fields and mountains, this is the place to be when one needs to unwind. With massage facilities, a restaurant overlooking the paddy fields, it’s breathtakingly refreshing.
The stay at the resort for 2 days couldn’t have been more perfect. Waking up to the sound of birds and sipping a cup of tea while sitting on the porch watching farm hands bent over paddy fields, the mist over the mountains behind and the gardener tending the hotel gardens gives you a sense of calm.
On the second day, we visited the Sigiriya Rock which is considered to be the eighth wonder of the world by the locals. Formed from the magma of an extinct volcano, it is 200 meters higher than the surrounding jungles. It looks like a relatively easy climb from far but is far from easy towards the top. Metal stairs have been nailed into the rock to get to the top.
What does one see once you’re half-way? Frescoes done with vegetable dye that have withstood the ravages of time. The area around the rock was used as a palace in the 3rd century and later as a monastery. In 1982, it was declared as a UNESCO Heritage site. The planning, the art is an architectural wonder and the writings on the “mirror wall” by tourists dates back to a thousand years ago. After the frescoes, there are several more steps that one needs to climb (wrought iron steps nailed into the rock) and then you reach the very top. The top used to have the shape of a lion’s head (hence the name “Sigiriya”, meaning lion). Now, only the lion’s paws remains. We did not climb up after the frescoes because the man-in-charge said there was a sudden influx of bees which may be dangerous with children.
As per Hindu mythology, the monkeys helped Lord Ram to build a bridge from India to Sri Lanka which he crossed to fight with the King of Lanka and bring back his Queen, Sita. Those monkeys probably stayed behind in Sri Lanka. Every place we visited had monkeys and so many of them. While they are revered in Hindu religion, they can be quite a menace and you really need to be alert. As small as they seem and as cute as they look tending to their little ones, they can be quite a bully. One actually snatched the bottle of water from my hand as I held it out to my daughter (the picture of the monkey with the bottle up 🙂 ).
Tip :It’s quite a climb up with around 800 to 1200 steps and isn’t recommended for those who aren’t up-to it. I wouldn’t say “for the old” because while we panted and groaned, we saw an old Chinese man whose face had a hundred lines for each year that he had lived, walking as straight as he could with a walking stick . Watching him gave us the boost that we required to climb (Dad on the other hand, who was way younger than the Chinese man, preferred to stay back in the gardens and sip some Sri Lankan tea, which is one of the finest in the world).
Dambulla Cave Temple
Day 2 evening was ear-marked for a visit to the cave temple. Having done no research, we had no idea what to expect. Sri Lanka isn’t a place that requires much research. Slow-paced, it’s best enjoyed at leisure. The natural beauty and the cleanliness is fascinating. The roads are very well maintained and driving along is a real pleasure.
When one enters the vicinity of the temple, one is welcomed by a large Golden torso of The Buddha. The temple itself is 350 feet above the ground. The climb to the top of a mountain is much more easier than the climb to Sigiriya rock. There are loads of steps but they are not steep. After a certain while there are 2 paths – one with the steps and the other over the mountain which is steeper and shorter. We took the steps but with the evening monsoon breeze, it was pleasant walk unlike the morning humidity and the sweltering heat, while climbing the Rock. The view from the top is stunning. You can see the river below and rest awhile on the mountain plateau before getting into a low doorway that leads to the caves. The caves are neatly embedded under a over hanging rock that leaves you thinking “wow”.
The entrance to the temple gives one absolutely no clue to the the richness inside. There are around 80 caves but there are just 5 main caves which house around 153 Buddha statues on the west side of the mountain. The uniqueness of the place is that these caves are completely natural (not man-made) except for the outside which is painted white in colonial style but the caves are as it is with paintings depicting the life of Gautama Buddha. I have no idea how they managed to get all those status all the way up. There is a 14m huge statue of The Reclining Buddha in cave 1 and then the subsequent caves have the other statues.
Tip: Wear flat shoes or good walking shoes so that you enjoy the walk and go in the evening when the weather is pleasant.
The next day we left to Kandy. On the way we visited a herbal garden with coffee plants, turmeric, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, pepper etc. (all of which are found in my in-laws’ backyard in Kerala, except for the coffee). It was part of the trip. The gardens also sell herbal products for various illnesses such as thyroid, diabetes, obesity, cholesterol, baldness etc. We spent around Rs 12000.00 on slimming products all of which lay in the cabinet for 2 years after which were thrown as part of clearing clutter.
Tip: If you are absolutely certain of using herbal products, please buy it or else, thank the guide and walk out.
From Thilanka Resort, it’s a two hour drive to Kandy. However, the time extended to around 4 and a half hours because of the herbal garden and lunch on the way. Lunch, like every other meal in Sri Lanka was a delight. Fresh produce, cooked with the perfect blend of spices was an epicurean’s delight.
The landscape changed dramatically as we entered Kandy and so did the temperatures. Kandy is a hill-station and our hotel was perched on a hill.
Some floors were on one hill, then you had to get out of the elevator and get into another elevator within the building that would take you to the higher floors of the hotel which was mounted on another hill. Surrounded by pine and fir trees, the place was heavenly at night. Looking below from our abode in the mountains, the skies were a deep blue and the streets were lit by yellow lights. We had dinner at Chinese restaurant which was owned by an American who had made Sri Lanka his home. The ambiance was kind of like small town Hard Rock Cafe. We returned to the hotel through the backdoor which was closer to the restaurant but just couldn’t find the second escalator after we got off the first. The door opened and it was pitch dark. We were kind of spoofed out and decided to head back through the front entrance. This required us to get out onto the street again and take a long walk around the hill but it was better than being in the dark, in the middle of nowhere :).
Breakfast next day was on the part between the hills but you couldn’t eat out thanks to the monkeys.
By day, Kandy is like any other hill-station that you’ve been to. Simple, content folk who go about their lives in peace. Streets with fruit sellers selling fruits of the season which happened to be freshly plucked rambutans and mangosteens, in August.
Day 4 which was our first morning in Kandy was the day on which we were supposed to go around the town and head to see the cultural dances of Sri Lanka. Before the show, we headed to the Batic (tie and dye) cottage industry, where we shown how it’s done.
The dances were beautifully performed and were well organized. We’ve been to a similar show in Kerala and honestly, compared to those these were delightful. It was obvious that the government and it’s people take tourism seriously. It showed in the quality of service at all tourist sites, the service provided at the hotels and the well-marked, pot-hole free roads, the cleanliness of washrooms on highways. Any sign of the war had been wiped out in a matter of 6 years which is commendable!
We lazed around that evening, walking the streets of Kandy, enjoying the view of the valley and breathing the fresh mountain air.
Temple of Tooth, Kandy
We visited the 17th century Temple of Tooth the next day. The time of our visit coincided with the 10 day festival Esala Perahera which happens once a year, when the “tooth” is taken out of the temple and carried in a casket on by a Royal male elephant across the streets of Kandy. It is believed that the temple houses the upper canine tooth of the Lord Buddha himself. Legend has it that was smuggled out of India to Sri Lanka by Princess Hemamali, in her hair, from The Buddha’s body as it lay on the funeral pyre. It lies in this temple ever since. Buddhist pilgrims from all over the world visit the temple, dressed in white with lotus flowers and frangipani.
The temple seems like a simple white building on the outside but the inside is intricately painted and grandiose. It stands behind the Kandy Lake . The white building seen in the lake in the picture below used to be the Queen’s bathing room.
Day 6 Nuweraliya
We drove higher up from Kandy to the tea-estates of Nuweraliya. A distance of 97 kilometers which was to be covered in around 2 and half hours took around 4 hours as we stopped on the way to absorb the beauty of the sprawling tea-estates, the waterfalls and the mountain streams.
Vegetable sellers dotted the winding mountain road. The vegetables did look really fresh. The air was so fresh, so pure, so clean. The pollution of the city roads were a far away, distant dream.
We stopped at a tea factory on the way, where we were shown the process of tea-making, green tea, black tea etc. and we were also given a cup of tea in pretty porcelain tea cups. The steaming hot tea was more than welcome in the cold.
The Hill Club Resort in Nuweraliya is so “English”. Red carpets, beds with white linen, a really small dresser, round basins and tubs that were used in the Victorian era, set in the midst of tea estates, landscaped gardens. You have to be dressed in formals for dinner and if you do not have a blazer, don’t worry, they will lend you one to wear but rules are rules and must not be broken 🙂 .
Nuweraliya was really cold; more so because we hadn’t really carried warm clothing. The guide had informed us earlier but hubby dear had not wanted to carry extra luggage for 6 days and brushed it off saying, ” How cold can Sri Lanka actually be?”. Well, he couldn’t have been more wrong. The temperature here was around 14 degrees Celsius in the day and at night dropped to 10 degrees. But, we women will always over-pack, no matter what. And so I had carried some shawls and a cardigan, just in case; which came in handy. You can see the girls’ wrapped in mamma’s shawl and mamma’s over-sized cardigan.
At night it got really cold. The hotel gave us hot water bags to keep us warm, for which we were so thankful.
Tip: Carry warm clothes if you are travelling to Nuweraliya and if you don’t fancy wearing borrowed clothes while dining at the restaurant, carry a set of formals.
The next day we had to catch a flight from Colombo. So we had to leave by 6.00 a.m. and couldn’t have breakfast (which must have been amazing as all the other hotels in which we had stayed) The hotel packed us a lovely picnic basket of English breakfast that we could have on the way and that wouldn’t spill or get messy) Remember I said, Sri Lankans are really good with service).
Return to Colombo Airport
We pulled over at a road-side restaurant at around 8.00 a.m. for tea and to dive into our picnic basket. It was a small family run eatery . As soon as we entered the warm aroma of string hoppers and lentil curry welcomed us. Dad ordered a cup of tea while we decided to use the washroom and freshen up before breakfast. When we returned, we found dad totally focused on having “breakfast of the day” which was string hoppers and the lentil curry. He had soon tempted all of us to enjoy the local Sri Lankan breakfast which we absolutely enjoyed. What happened to the English Breakfast? Well, we gave it to the owners’ children who were delighted to have bread and cake and eggs and juice :).
The holiday had been perfect . We reached the airport in time and left Sri Lanka knowing that we would return to see the North and South of Sri Lanka as well. The trip had been much more than we expected and well, though our expectations had been low, the Sri Lankan holiday had surpassed it by leaps and bounds. Ever since this trip in 2014, a number of our friends and colleagues from all over the world have taken a trip to this beautiful island and have come back totally satisfied.
Why you should visit Sri Lanka?
At the end of a short trip of 6 days to Central Sri Lanka, these are my reasons that make it a must-visit destination:
- Extremely pocket friendly- Enjoy staying in 5-star hotels in the lap of nature while enjoying the luxury of a Jacuzzi in your room and spas at a very reasonable price.
- Food: Delicious! Hotels offer continental food and Sri Lankan food which is absolutely mouth-watering and healthy. The food is similar to that cooked in the South of India with sea-food and coconut based curries being a staple. Vegans will love the food too because every edible green plant is cooked. Hadn’t eaten all those leaves prior to my visit to Sri Lanka.
- Clean: This factor totally stood out. Every part of the country is spic and span- the roads, the tourist attractions, the small eateries, the big cities and the little towns. All of us were totally impressed by the fact that even small restaurants had very clean cutlery and very, very clean washrooms which is so very important when travelling with children.
- You can enjoy different climates, different terrains and different landscapes over a short distance with minimum travel time. In 6 days, we had experienced the warm humidity just before the rains, the monsoon rains (similar to India in July and August) , the cool clime of a hill station (similar to Simla in the North of India) and the chill, fresh mountain air of Kullu- Manali (North of Simla) or Darjeeling (East India). Travelling across the length and breadth of India to experience these varying climates is unthinkable for most Indians because of the distance, the travel time and the cost but Sri Lanka makes it possible. That of-course does not mean you can replace your visit to India with a visit to Sri Lanka. It just means…you get the point.
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