SRI LANKA Plan your dream escape and travel through an island of miracles. Get a tan, surf, pamper yourself, explore wildlife or find your space. IAN WILLIAMS tells us how.
A pendant like island that hangs from the neck of India, both physically and culturally. It shines with white sand beaches, lush green jungle and is rich with a long history and heritage as interesting as its unique cuisine and diverse as its people. Sri Lanka is a full frontal assault on the senses from the moment you leave the climate controlled sanctuary of the airport and step into the warm island atmosphere. The endless chaos, the thick green foliage, the stream of Tuk-tuks and the mass of humanity announces you’ve landed in the capital, Colombo. You are greeted with multi-coloured Buddhist flags and streamers. The main languages and religions were imported from India, but Sri Lanka’s culture and society are as extraordinary as the pungent smell of fruit and a thousand different spices offered for sale. Sri Lanka has a longer history of colonial rule than any other Asian country of its size. Dutch, Portuguese and British influences are noticeable in the churches, tea estates and forts, as well as the food, alcohol and the western style music playing in most of the beach bars. The wild life is incredibly abundant; the highways heading east from Kandy, the country’s second biggest city, are closed at night because elephants are attracted to the headlights of passing cars. Sri Lanka is the kingdom of mongooses, peacocks and giant
monitor lizards. Water birds perch on water buffalo in paddy fields and swirls of bright butterflies hang like mist above warm forest streams. Whatever flicks your switch, there is something here for everyone, incredible beaches that stretch south from Colombo, a dozen national parks with crocodiles and leopards, ancient temples draped with troops of monkeys, great surf of Hikkaduwa and Arugam Bay, rolling hills carpeted with jungle, forest and tea plantations. All of this comes complete with friendly people, fantastic food and a climate designed to relax and kick back in.
What to do
Chill out and discover Colombo. Colombo is the island’s capital, large and frantic. There is a number of fascinating sights waiting to be explored, the Fort, next to the World Trade Centre, the President’s residence (or Queen’s House), loads of old, grand, colonial buildings; the Cinnamon Gardens. Cricket fans should pay a visit to the half mile promenade, Galle Face Green. The National Museum, the Art Gallery, the city’s many mosques, churches, Buddhist and Hindu temples are also worthwhile. Don’t miss the island’s fauna at Dehiwala Zoo. The main attraction here is an afternoon elephant show. If you want to go swimming when you’re here the closest real beach is at Mt. Lavinia, some seven miles
south of the city. Some people visiting the country for a short time may want to bypass Colombo all together, but for anyone who has a spare day or two, the city is well worth exploring and a complete contrast to the rest of the island.
A bygone era
Galle is approximately eighty miles south of the capital and is Sri Lanka’s fourth largest city. Until the late nineteenth century, Galle was the largest port in the country. Historians believe this is from where King Solomon obtained gems, peacocks and spices. In 1505, the Portuguese arrived when blown off course, bound for the Maldives. By 1640, the Dutch came and built a fort, which still stands to this day. It is now a World Heritage Site. When the British came along in 1796, commerce had moved to Colombo and it’s hardly changed since. Galle is quiet and very easy going. Wander along the remains of the Portuguese fortifications at sunset, or explore its massive ramparts that surround the promontory that forms the older part of Galle. Sheltered within its walls are well built Dutch style houses, museums and churches.
This is the ultimate place to unwind on the island, it’s a beach resort for people who don’t like beach resorts. It is a ramshackle mix of beach-side bars, cafés, restaurants, homestays and hotels. With the ocean full of life, it’s a delightful place to go snorkelling; alternatively you can go to one of the many dive centres and explore some of the wrecks in the bay. There are several good surf spots and a long golden beach for midday strolls to soak up the sun. There are far too many shops to buy beachwear, wood carvings and they all cater for whims the average tourist may have. There’s wake boarding close by, a number of temples and inland tidal lagoons to visit.
Above all, if you want to, this is the best place in Sri Lanka to let your hair down and party.
Holy Adam’s Peak.
During the season between December and May, pilgrims converge to climb the 2243m (7362 ft), 4800 steps, to the summit of Adam’s Peak or Sri Pada, the highest peak in the country. At the top is an enormous ‘footprint’, claimed by Christians and Muslims to belong to Adam, who stood there in repentance of his sin in the Garden of Eden. However, Buddhists believe the ‘footprint’ of Buddha was left during his final visit to Sri Lanka. Whatever you believe, it’s a good way to totally immerse yourself in some of the country’s
culture. The pilgrimage has been made for nearly two thousand years and it’s not uncommon to see whole families slowly making their way to the monastery at the top, you will be one of a handful of westerners in a never ending chain of humanity. Most people opt to leave around two in the morning, arriving at the summit to watch sunrise over the jungle. The descent can be far harder on the legs than the climb up.
Grandeur of Kandy
Chill out at Kandy, the Hill Capital of Sri Lanka and the historical bastion of Buddhist power. It is built around a splendid lake set in the hills. Kandy is a mirror image of the harmony and multiplicity
of the people and culture of Sri Lanka. The most prominent attraction is the octagonal Dalada Maligawa, site of Sri Lanka’s most valuable relic - the tooth of Buddha. Other sites include the small but first-rate National Museum, the scenic Peradeniya Botanic Gardens, and the Udawattakelle Sanctuary, a peaceful haven for birdlife. There are also loads of exquisite walks around Kandy, one of which leads to the Mahaweli, where you may see elephants being bathed. The Kandyan Art Association & Cultural Centre beside the lake has worthy displays of local crafts and an auditorium that features the graceful and rhythmic performances of Kandy Dancers.
The amazing rock fortress of Sigiriya or Lion’s Rock is straight out of a Kipling novel. It is an ancient rock fortress and palace in ruins, situated in the central jungle of Sri Lanka, surrounded by the remains of an extensive network of gardens, reservoirs and other structures. Sigiriya was built during the reign of King Kassapal (AD 477 – 495), and is one of the seven World Heritage sites here. King Kassapal killed his father and banished his brother to India. After seeing the huge rock, he decided to build a fortified palace on the top. He then filled it with several hundred concubines, the frescos of whom can still be seen painted on the walls and ceilings of the rock. Eighteen years later,
with the return of his brother, Kassapal took his own life and the lion fortress was left to the mercy of the jungle. The British discovered it in the 1930s, excavated it and now it is a great attraction for tourists. You can climb through the two great lion’s paws that serve as the entrance to the palace and make your way to the top of the rock and take in the most outstanding views.
The Tea Plantations
Sri Lanka is one of the world’s largest exporters of tea. Since the introduction of tea to Sri Lanka in mid 19th century, Nuwara Eliya has been the capital of the tea industry. For many miles prior to reaching Nuwara Eliya, from
either direction, you will find acres and acres of tea plantations. In fact, nothing but tea estates. There are many factories open for visitors which also have tea sales outlets. Situated at around 2000m above sea level and surrounded by lush tea plantations Nuwara Eliya is the main hill resort of Sri Lanka and the heart of the tea industry. Once, the pleasure retreat of the European planters, the town is still very much an English town with many English style bungalows and buildings. It is a good escape for those who enjoy a cool breeze in tropical Sri Lanka any time of the year. There are many things to do here, including, golf, horse riding, hiking and simply wandering around the hills and tea plantations.
More stuff to do.
Spy on Sri Lanka’s abundant wildlife, much of which is found nowhere else on earth. Bird watching is superb, and as well as the famous elephants, there are also leopards, deer, bears, wild boar, porcupines and monkeys to see. Ride an elephant, it’ll make you feel like Asian royalty rolling from side to side and looking down on the passing scenery. There is a well known elephant orphanage at Pinnawela. Enjoy sunbathing and swimming along Sri Lanka’s one thousand miles of beautiful palmshaded beaches. Good resorts include Beruwela, Bentota, Mount Lavinia Negombo and Hikkadu-
wa. Unawatuna in Galle claims to be among the top 15 beaches in the world. Try your hand at windsurfing, facilities are located in Bentota, Beruwela, Kalutara and Negombo. Go hiking through diverse landscapes, especially the rainforest and cloudforest of the hilly interior. Join in a game of cricket, impromptu games are always striking up on the beach and in the street. The cricket-mad locals are always happy for an extra pair of hands. Immerse yourself in one of Sri Lanka’s many colourful festivals. Most involve huge processions
of glittering elephants, dancers and drummers. The best-known is Esala Perahera in Kandy; Vel Festival in Colombo is also spectacular. Trace your morning tea to its source in Sri Lanka’s highlands, inhale the delicious aromas of Victorian-era tea factories, drink their finest and roam the lush tea plantations. Head to the village of Kitulgala, tucked away amid ravines in the hill country, to enjoy both beginners-standard and high-adrenaline white-water rafting. And if green is your thing, then check out the many websites that help offset the carbon footprint of your plane journey there.
Flying is the only way to enter Sri Lanka. Colombo is the international gateway for direct flights from Asia, Australia, Europe and the Middle East. There are no direct flights that reach Sri Lanka from cities outside Asia, the Middle East and Europe. From the American west coast, the distance is almost half the globe.
Passport should have one blank page and be valid for at least two months from date you leave your country of departure required by all nationalities.
All nationals will be issued with landing endorsements free of charge valid for a period of 30 days on arrival
The currency is the Sri Lankan Rupee. ATMs are located in many bank branches in the cities, less so in rural areas. Be careful of using credit cards as fraud is on the rise in Sri Lanka.
The food is very cheap generally, with a cheap meal costing about two or three pounds. The most expensive, tourist-orientated places seldom charge more than nine or ten quid. The staple food of Sri Lankans is rice and curry, a massive mound of rice surrounded by various curries and delicacies.
If you want to eat a cheap lunch you can follow the Sri Lankan crowds and duck into any of a million small cafes.
Water is not always healthy for unseasoned travellers, and so it is recommended that either purifying tablets or bottled water be used whenever possible.
The most common local beer is Lion Lager. The traditional spirit is Arrack and is often drunk with ginger beer. The quality can vary depending on how much you want to pay.
Violent crime is not a serious problem for tourists in Sri Lanka. As in most tourist locations, beware of pickpockets, and donâ€™t leave valuables unguarded. Women should not be alone at night on the beach or streets.
It is customary to remove shoes and wear respectful attire when visiting temples. It is also the custom to remove shoes before entering a home. Public nudity is illegal in Sri Lanka, nude or topless sunbathing and skinny dipping should be avoided except in the private beach resorts which allow it. Take nothing except photographs, leave nothing apart from foot prints.