An enviable coastline, warm sunshine, a seafood lover’s den, a cultural sanctuary and people proud and prudent for Sri Lanka truly is no longer a communal battlefield, but a tourist friendly destination whose natural beauty and rich heritage preserved over many centuries is now accessible to the world
Words & Photography: Rahul Basu; Year of visit: 2012
It’s nothing more than a tiny speck on the world atlas but when you dig into its past that spans centuries you can’t help but feel just a little bad for what that tiny little island once called Ceylon has had to endure over the years at the hands of an imbalanced governance and decades of pulverising civil war.
That being said the Democratic Socialist Republic today stands proudly on its own two feet and on a recent visit to the island with my family I was quite instantaneously charmed by the laid-back way of life and more importantly people who were at times nicer to me than any of my teachers from high school ever were to me.
The so called ‘Pearl of the Indian Ocean’ located off its south eastern coast does indeed have a long list of attractions for the world to see starting with its 1,340 km coastline which is truly one of the most dazzling spectacles that you will see minutes before your feet first touch base at Colombo.
Touch and Go; Kandy and Colombo
Well one would ideally want to take a few weeks to really scour Sri Lanka’s many vistas, but approvals for such extended field trips are unfortunately not the perks of my profession. Regardless, even with just under a week to travel and explore as much as we possibly could we managed to cover quite a bit of the landscape.
By default Colombo is the first stop for any tourist landing in Sri Lanka, being the capital and more importantly the major town in the country with an international airport. My first few hours in Colombo didn’t stir up any sensations of being in the hustling bustling capital city I had heard so many stories about, but then again it was Diwali and when the shutters are down the tourists will certainly frown.There would be time for a revisit, but it was time to move on.
A few enquiries at the train station not too far from the Colombo City Hotel where we spent our first night got us familiar with the city’s intercity train service, which seemed like a good way to get to Kandy, our next destination. Language can sometime be an issue in Sri Lanka especially when inquiring about ticket prices and the services that one should expect with them. But educated Sri Lankans at large are comfortable speaking to you in English and after a while you even begin to mimic their funny accented way of speaking the language.
The two and a half hour train ride to Kandy on the ExpoRail is a botanical safari on rails offering you the most magnificent view of the country’s tantalizing tropics, its foggy fields quite like an English Moor, Coconuts and palms swaying in every direction and a predominantly rural inhabitance that only adds to the overall simplistic persona of the land.
There’s that wistful feeling of having arrived at Ooty (Tamil Nadu) when you first gaze upon the town of Kandy with its green station benches and little colourful houses stacked up the mountainside like pretty matchboxes. The historic hill city located in the picturesque highlands was once the district capital of the Sinhalese Kings and even today feels like no small town nestled into some desolate mountainside.
Kandy is a great place to relax and spend a day or two. The City Centre is a sprawling marketplace with shop filled streets stretching in every direction. Spices, local handicrafts, apparel and merchandise stores are in abundance and will keep you on your toes for as long your feet will allow. Devon Restaurant located at the City Centre is highly recommended for its bakery items and wide variety of cuisine.
Strolling along the Kandy Lake at dusk, visiting the famous Temple of the Tooth, where Buddha’s sacred oral remains lie, exploring the enchanting caves at Dambulla or even a quick tour of the Kandyan Art and Cultural Centre are among the many delights that one can enjoy at Kandy.
Scaling Sigiriya; In awe of Anuradhapura
The road from Kandy to Sigiriya is a 100kms long, but you will find plenty of interesting tourist attractions en route which may or may not interest you. Having already seen this colossal rock fortress on television I must say the excitement of seeing it with my own eyes that morning made my stomach just a little queasy.
Once a mighty citadel under the reign of King Kashyapa, Sigiriya is a single piece of solid rock that stands 365m above the ground, surrounded by over 2,000 hectares of forest cover. It was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1982 and as we witnessed is going through painstaking restoration to bring it back to its former architectural glory.
It’s a marvel of engineering that you will gradually come to learn as you inch upwards and finally scale it summit, a total of 1,202 steps. From the clay & sand bricks that laid its original foundations to the beautiful frescos along its mirrored walls, the Lion Rock is an enchanting place to be in and is a testament to Sri Lanka’s prosperous ancient civilizations.
Our next stop was the holy city of Anuradhapura located another 120 kms from Sigiriya. As the first capital and centre of Buddhism Anuradhapura has been in existence for over its 22 centuries and like Sigiriya also holds the UNESCO’s world heritage site badge. Even for a non believer like me the atmosphere and sheer magnitude of this ancient Buddhist cradle overwhelms you. Spread over 500 acres there are eight ‘Great Places’ that are of particular significance here among which is the Bodhi Tree where Buddha attained enlightenment, and the Lovamahapaya or the Brazen Palace. The bubble and bell type stupas and the famous moonstone relics are fascinating and also very symbolic to this eternal sacred city.
Scouting the Southern Coast
After returning to Colombo by train from Kandy the next day it was time to head south for a taste of the sand and sea. At the top of my list was Hikkaduwa, a beach well known for its water sports and under water activities. It turned out to be one of the most memorable snorkelling session I had ever undertaken overseas. Swimming over quirky looking corals and shoals of brightly coloured tropical fish in the Indian Ocean was thoroughly exciting.
Not far from Hikkadiwa almost at the southern tip of the Lankan island lies Fort Galle, a 300 year old Dutch Fort now one of the major towns in the country. I spent some time gazing at the international cricket stadium which most recently saw a clash between the home side and the Kiwis on its splendid green turf. Fort Galle teleports you into a colonial era with its whitewashed walls, stone ramparts, nicely levelled cobble stone roads (nearly like Naples) and one stone-age clock tower that you shouldn’t miss. The stony beaches around Galle have a character of their own and here in the south one must admit life is good.
We returned to Colombo by the newly constructed southern expressway that covered our 165 km return journey from Galle in under an hour. Colombo on a Saturday night is as vibrant as many metropolitans I’ve seen in my lifetime and a definite contrast to the otherwise relaxed way of life with the Sri Lankan people living along the coast.
Notes for you folks
So Sri Lanka is a great place to spend a relaxing few weeks, but mind you it’s not exactly the cheapest island to go get a tan. A 210 km journey like we undertook from Kandy to Sigiriya and Anuradhapura and back to Kandy could very well cost you anything between 9,000 – 12,000 Sri Lankan rupees.
Groceries are fairly reasonable but assuming you won’t be cooking a lot and eating out most of the time choose your restaurants wisely. Regular bakeries are great places to grab a quick bite and keep expenditures in check. Traditional Sri Lankan food is great but if you are a regular fish and rice eater. There’s a lot to pick from even for vegetarians but be advised dried fish qualifies as green for the Lankans.
Don’t hesitate getting a local SIM card as it is dirt cheap and in under an hour you could be making local calls and browsing the internet on your smartphone for under 300 Sri Lankan rupees. Finally chart your destination routes wisely after taking into consideration what it is that you’d primarily like to see and how long it would take to get there; for example our inclination towards history, heritage and Hikkaduwa meant skipping the tea plantations of Neuralia and the Yala National Park, which are also great spots for first time visitors.
Looking out for your neighbours
I will admit it felt pretty good going for an overseas visit where for the first time in my life I felt I was richer there than in my country. But all said and done Sri Lanka is slowly getting back on its feet and as the locals there opine it is a country that is yet to achieve self-sufficiency at many different levels if it is to revive it economy and encourage home grown industries to flourish independently.
That being said, tourism is now a big part of that restoration process and like we experienced is something that every citizen of that country is conscious of and will therefore treat you nothing less than a welcome guest who they hope will not only return to their land to build newer memories and strengthen ties but also carry word of their pleasant stay in Sri Lanka to a world beyond its borders.