Where else can you see the world’s largest land creature – the elephant – and the largest sea creature – the blue whale – on the same day? Sri Lanka overwhelms the senses. The air is heavy with jasmine, the food richly spiced and the landscape one of utter beauty. The island is poised for a rediscovery. Rich in history and natural beauty and home to a magnificent coastline, it’s the top tourist destination for the year. Its people are warm, generous and welcoming.
This tiny teardrop-shaped nation has one of the oldest cultures on the Asian continent and dating back to the sixth century BC. Colonized by the Portuguese, Dutch and British, Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948, and English is widely spoken. The decades-long war between the majority Sinhalese and the Tamils, the largest single ethnic minority, ended four years ago.
The new Mattala Rajapaksa International airport enables tourists to fly into the capital Colombo and leave from another airport on the southern coast. We attended the dedication of the new airport on the first commercial flight with much rejoicing, guitar music and singing of old Sri Lankan songs. Tourism dropped severely after the tsunami, but is steadily coming back.
Colombo was a good starting point for our tour. It is a vibrant city and Sri Lanka’s business and commercial center. Mornings are hectic and bustling. Flavorful food markets start early and made us feel an overload of stimuli and energy. In contrast are the charming areas in the lush green embassy district with old English and Dutch colonial architecture. Remains of buildings from the Portuguese, Dutch and British rule are found in every area of the city.
An interesting place to explore is Pettah, the bustling bazaar and one of the oldest districts in the city. It is traditionally one of the most ethnically mixed places in the country where Buddhism is the primary religion followed by Hinduism, Islam and Christianity.
A popular and inexpensive mode of transportation is the tuk-tuk, a three wheeler motorized vehicle that can weave in and out of traffic much faster than the cars and trucks. It’s a lot of fun and gives the rider an experience of local life.
Leaving Colombo, we headed to Yala National Park for an animal safari.
We traveled in jeeps on unpaved roads throughout the preserve and viewed elephants, birds, crocodiles, sambhur deer with three antlers, wild buffalo and wild boar, and last but not least, a leopard perched in the trees. With 35 individual leopards sited in Yala, it has one of the world’s densest leopard populations. Outside of our wooden cabins monkeys, boar and other animals played, and 130 bird species woke us up in the early morning.
Evenings were spent on a roof-top restaurant with incredible views of the ocean and jungle while playful monkeys turned over chairs and sometimes grabbed a banana from our hands. Indeed, they need better manners.
Sri Lankan food is all about fresh herbs and spices. A favorite breakfast consists of hoppers which are fried pancakes with syrup from the kitul palm. Another favorite is the egg hopper, a coddled egg in a fried dosa nest made of rice flour, coconut milk and yeast. Fresh papaya, bananas and pineapple are so sweet they melt in your mouth.
Dinners consisted of rice dishes accompanied with delectable curries of meats and vegetables. No meal is complete without wattalapan, Sri Lanka’s answer to creme caramel.
After the Yala safari, we took a glorious winding coastal drive past cliffs and dunes. Huge breakers pounded the palm-fringed shore. Our next stop was Galle, the major city on the southern coast with a lovely natural harbor. Galle is one of the best examples of a walled citadel in Asia. The Dutch-built Old Town was largely untouched by the 2004 tsunami.
We strolled around the lighthouse, harbor and stopped for cold ginger beer at Pedlar’s Street Cafe. The old Dutch Fort is a “World Heritage Site.” Traditional lace makers and wood carvers exhibit their wares for purchase. Many families who live within its ramparts have resided there for generations, and are a mix of Sinhalese, Dutch Burghers and Muslims.
Our hotel, the Jetwing Lighthouse, was designed by the famous Sri Lanka architect Geoffrey Bawa. Mercifully, it was built as a low rise hotel and kept in the architectural tradition of the country in a spectacular setting overlooking the ocean with lots of open air seating.
WHALES & TURTLES
Continuing on the coastal road, we took an early morning excursion to Mirissa, the best base for whale watching. This secluded crescent shaped beach is the perfect place to sit back, relax and forget about life a million miles away. The small beach boasts some of Sri Lanka’s most stunning sunsets and sunrises. Sri Lanka’s beaches are not overly crowded, and surfing is popular along Unawanatuna Beach.
We boarded our boat with great anticipation and managed to see six blue whales while eating breakfast and watching the sun come up. Fishermen perched on high stilts demonstrated their expert fishing skills as we drove along the beach.
Sri Lanka is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. The island is home to a high number of endemic plants, reptiles and amphibians.
A short drive down the road brought us to the Turtle Hatchery where the eggs are left in the nests on the beach, well protected from predators, until they are hatched, allowing the young ones to go to the sea in the natural way. Turtles come ashore, lay their eggs, close their nests and go back to the sea.
Large Albino turtles were of special interest. Their light color easily marks them for predators so they are usually kept at the hatchery. The baby turtles are kept for three days in holding tanks until their bellies are completely formed, and then they are released into the sea.
Our all-time favorite was a visit to the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage. The orphanage was started in 1975 to house abandoned and wounded elephants.
Never are you likely to see so many elephants at close range. They are controlled by their mahouts (keepers), who ensure they feed at the right times and don’t endanger anyone. The elephants roam freely around the sanctuary area. A total of 85 elephants live here, as well as the 23 babies born as part of the captive breeding program. The most popular viewing times are when the elephants are taken to the river for feeding and bathing. Most of the 60 or so young elephants become working elephants once they grow up.
Nearby the orphanage is Dambulla – a vast rock mass 500 feet high and a mile around the base – where the famous Rock Temple is found. The caves of Dambulla sheltered King Walagamba during his 14 years of exile around the first century BC. When he regained the throne he built the most magnificent of Rock Temples.
In the first cave is recumbent image of the Buddha, 47 feet long cut out of the rock. In the second cave, the finest and largest of all, there are 150 life-size statues of the Buddha in various postures. The ceiling is covered with frescoes that depict great events in the life of the Buddha and landmarks in the history of the Sinhalese people.
FORTRESS IN THE SKY
Perhaps, the most fantastic single wonder of the island is SIGIRIYA, the fifth century “Fortress in the Sky.” It is also known as Lion Rock because of the huge lion that used to stand at the entrance to the Royal Palace built on its 600-foot high summit. On one of the stairways is the only known ancient work of Sinhala secular painting that has survived in the form of frescoes of 21 life-sized damsels in all the freshness and delicacy of their original color. Visitors leave offerings of lotus flowers or trays of intricately cut watermelon and guava.
Being an island-nation with more than 1,000 miles of coastline, one does not expect to see much more than beaches. But take a short drive inland to the central highland’s mountains, and the stunning region that makes Sri Lanka famous for its tea is found. Tea is as much a pastime for Sri Lankan as it is for the British who introduced it to the county in 1867 and started the love affair that continues today.
Driving north to the highland country, we headed for Kandy. Kandy is the hill capital and another World Heritage Site. A ride from Colombo to Kandy is one of beautiful scenery over a winding road with refreshing waterfalls and historic sites.
The hill country lives in a cool, perpetual spring. Everything is green and lush with large tea plantations hugging the higher slopes.
Expats come here to recuperate, as the air is cool and the climate reminiscent of home.
A visit to a spice garden is an excellent way to discover alternative uses of spices. We stopped along the way to tour the spice gardens at Matale, and the guide explained how each tree and plant is used for food preparations. Cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, vanilla beans, cardamom and black pepper are just a few available for sale.
As we drove higher and higher, the terrain became steeper and lush green with vibrant waterfalls. Tea will grow only on rolling terrain and is classified by elevation into low grown, medium grown and high grown of two main types. Today more than 200,000 hectares in highlands and others areas are under tea. Sri Lanka is the world’s largest exporter of single origin tea.
Our destination is approaching, the historical hill capital of Kandy. To the Buddhists of Sri Lanka and the world, Kandy is one of the most sacred sites as it is the home of the “Dalada Maligawa” Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic of Lord Buddha. Mothers bring their babies to be blessed and children are delighted by the stuffed Raja Tuska, an elephant who has worked at the temple for 50 years.
The tooth is said to have been snatched from the flames of Buddha’s funeral pyre in 543 BC, and smuggled into Sri Lanka during the fourth century AD, hidden in the hair of a princess. After visiting the temple, we attended a colorful cultural performance of music and dance.
Our last stop in the hill country was Nuwara Eliya, the “Little England” of Sri Lanka. It is set against beautiful backdrops of mountains, valleys, waterfalls and tea plantations. It is the coolest place on the island and reminiscent of an English spring day. You will see evidence of the British influence, houses like country cottages or Queen Ann style mansions.
Victoria Park, in the middle of the town, is a lovely place for a walk or picnic and also good for watching rare birds. We stayed at the St. Andrews hotel and sipped wine in the evening with a large roaring fireplace to warm us up.
What vacation would be complete without some local shopping? A wide and beautiful variety of batiks are sold all around the island with the most original in the west coast towns. We visited a mask factory and watched the workers carve intricate designs. The masks are remarkably well made and look very nice on the wall back home.
Gems are very popular and there are countless showrooms and private gem dealers all over the country. Sapphires are the primary gem, and the government operates a free testing center in Colombo. Be sure to bargain or strongly negotiate the price.
Beautiful beaches, animal safaris, tea plantations, ancient temples, elephants, turtles and leopards. What a wonderful and variety filled holiday – all on one small island.
I cannot say enough about the warmth and hospitality of the Sri Lankan people with their captivating smiles. Their resilience and kindness are Sri Lanka’s greatest assets.
Despite a history of civil war and the setbacks of 2004’s tsunami, Sri Lankans are determined and optimistic. They’re proud of their heritage, eager to see you smile and quick to return one when you do.