I have always wanted to visit Sri Lanka, I don’t know why, I had no real vision of it other than as an island with sandy beaches surrounded by a sapphire-coloured sea. So, when my nephew and his family moved there in May, it seemed the ideal time to make the dream become a reality.
During our first week in Unawatuna we experienced rain. Lots of it. But that didn’t spoil our enjoyment or enthusiasm. My nephew lives close to Galle Fort, which is full of lovely old Dutch-style colonial buildings. The fort walls overlook Galle cricket ground and I can just picture rows of spectators viewing matches from its lofty height. The most Southern part of Galle, and indeed Unawatuna, are the perfect places to view the Indian Ocean, which stretches endlessly until the Antarctic. Galle has legacies other than a colonial past: moonstone and gem mining being just one. The tsunami is another. On the way to Ambalangoda there is a large Buddha standing adjacent to the tsunami museum, a poignant reminder of the devastation here, but also a sign of hope and determination to rebuild and to move on – a Sri Lankan characteristic it would seem, and one that one might well adopt. Grab a tuk-tuk and explore the coastline from to Unawatuna to Ambalangoda to get a hint of Sri Lankan life; from the fish stalls peppering the road, the beach hotels and huts, to Galle Fort and beyond, there is much to see, but remember to fix a price for your ride before you set off.
After leaving Galle and Unawatuna, we headed on the tourist trail towards Ella, Kandy and Sigiriya. I would highly recommend hiring a driver – the roads in Sri Lanka are fine, but the other drivers are not, especially the buses who, as kings of the road, hurtle along as though there is no tomorrow. Ella, land of the hills and tea plantations, was wonderful. I’d suggest you stay out of the main town (which seems to have cheap hotels and tourists shops everywhere) – there are plenty of homestays to chose from close to Ella as well as more upmarket chic hotels that will make a hole in your wallet. I’d highly recommend a tea plantation visit, a trip to Rawana Ella falls, and a hike along Little Adam’s Peak – go at the end of the day to experience a stunning sunset extending across the hills.
From Ella, we took the train to Nuwara Eliya. The route boasts the most impressive views in Sri Lanka including a front row seat of the spectacular Sri Pada, better known as Adam’s Peak. Try to book seated tickets for your journey in advance (first class, if you can – not expensive), which is essential if you don’t want to stand in overcrowded second or third class. Some might think that standing in a hot crowded carriage is part of the fun, and certainly you do get a better view than if you are seated, but for two hours or more it can be claustrophobic and uncomfortable. Luckily there are hawkers going up and down the train selling water, bread, nuts and other tasty looking bit of food. Nuwara Eliya itself is high in the tea country and has a cooler climate. It is know as ‘Little England’, for it is where the English and Scottish pioneers of Sri Lanka escaped the heat. With misty hills and pretty gardens, it does have a vaguely rose-tinted country-village feel to it.
Stepping down from our train in Nuwara Eliya, we headed to Kandy. This was an interesting drive for the incidentals along the way: temples, miles of tea plantations, waterfalls, vegetable and fruit stalls, but mostly notably a procession of Tamil devotees. The procession echoed Thaipusam, where a ceremonial act of devotional sacrifice takes place through food, dance and bodily self-mortification. We watched as three canopies, each with a wooden rod carrying a pilgrim performing self-mortification of the flesh (skin tongues, cheeks all pierced with skewers or small spears) inched painfully along the road.
It took a few hours to reach Kandy, which has a beautiful lake at the heart of it. However, the main attraction in Kandy itself has to be the Temple of The Sacred Tooth Relic. Buddha’s tooth is kept in a casket and on high days and holidays there is a procession through the town where the tooth is carried on the back of an elephant. (The elephant is chosen for various attributes and highly honoured. The most famous elephant or Tusker is, thanks to taxidermy, now on permanent display in the temple museum). We didn’t witness the tooth parade, but we were able to peek at the shrine where the casket is kept during an opening of the shrine doors. The doors are opened for ten minutes twice a day to reveal the casket and the temple fills with devotees who have come to say prayers and lay offerings at the shrine. Many, many people come at this time to the temple, so if you go at this time, be prepared for a massive crowd.
There are countless statues of Buddha – some with inscriptions, and so I learnt a little about him this holiday – a prince, philosopher, teacher, monk and a religious leader. At his birth, it was predicted that he would become a great king or a great holy man. Although his father tried to avoid the later, Buddha did indeed give up his life as prince to become a mendicant and ascetic. He was finally liberated from the cycle of rebirth when he reached enlightenment, and thus entered nirvana. Well, that’s my very short version of this remarkable man’s his life. Some of the best statues of Buddha can be found in the cave temples at Dambulla, which were breath-taking in their beauty.
Sri Lanka is famed for its wildlife and rightly so. You can happily be driving along when a bull elephant steps out in front of your car, but if you prefer a more controlled experience there are numerous wildlife parks where you can see herds of elephants, crocodiles lounging by lakes, even leopards make an appearance. We were lucky enough to see owls, hawks, eagles, elephants, crocodiles, and buffalo on a short expedition to Uda Walawe, but an overnight stay in Yala is recommended for a more all-encompassing experience.
Changeable Hawk Eagle
Our final destination was the World Heritage site of Sigiriya, aka, Lion Rock. It always amazes me how sophisticated ancient civilizations were, and this is in evidence both here and at Polonnaruwa, which boasted, for example, sophisticated plumbing and water systems long before I imagined they were used in the UK. Get a guide and hire bicycles, as this site is vast. At Sigiriya it is best to arrive early – say 6.30, before the heat and the crowds make it impossible to climb easily to the top. If you’re lucky, you’ll see the sun rising above soaring rock, and when you’ve scrambled up vertiginous staircases, the view that unfolds in front of you will surely make you believe you are viewing paradise.
Now, sitting at home, I ask myself, would I return? The answer is yes, definitely. There is still so much to see, but high on my list would be Horton Plains National Park and World’s End in order to take an early hike to see the sun rising over filigree waterfalls and misty lakes.
- Get a driver – I would suggest Sura – Sura Tours and Travel (also see Tripadvisor).
- Visit an organic tea planation, such as Amba. Not only is it an organic farm, it has a policy of treating its tea pickers as partners, which means they get better paid as well as receiving a share of the profits. Also offer accommodation http://ambaestate.com
- Take a cookery class – try https://mid-climes-ella.booked.net for either a homestay of authentic cooking.
- Polonnaruwa – https://www.lonelyplanet.com/sri-lanka/the-ancient-cities/polonnaruwa
- Sigiriya – stay at the Hotel Sigiriya, it boasts a terrific view of the rock https://hotel-sigiriya-sigiriya-sri-lanka-en.ww.lk/
- Dambulla Cave Temples – https://www.lonelyplanet.com/sri-lanka/dambulla/attractions/cave-temples/a/poi-sig/1397751/357450
- Yala National Park – https://www.yalasrilanka.lk/
- Uda Walawe National Park – https://lanka.com/about/attractions/udawalawe-national-park/
- The Three Temple Loop Gampola, Kandy: Lankatilake***, Embekka Devale, Gadalaadeniya https://www.srilankainstyle.com/experience/the-three-temple-loop-gampola
- Kandy, The Temple of The Tooth – https://www.lonelyplanet.com/sri-lanka/kandy/attractions/temple-of-the-sacred-tooth-relic/a/poi-sig/450797/357477
- Kandy, The Botanical Gardens – https://www.lonelyplanet.com/sri-lanka/attractions/peradeniya-botanic-gardens/a/poi-sig/1395190/357442
- Wye House hotel, Unawatuna – https://whyhousesrilanka.comBoutique colonial-style hotel
- https://88andcloudless.com/ – high quality contemporary jewellery designed in Sri Lanka.