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THE BEST S ROAD TRIP
Beauty of the highlands
As you’ve never seen it before
Exploring the Great South
VENICE The secret canals and alleys
Everything you need to know ISSN 1908-7276
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Photographed by David Lim Art Direction by Christine Cunanan Modeled by Kian Kazemi Additional photography by Dondi Narciso & Christine Cunanan Special thanks to Ambassador Nawalage Bennet-Cooray Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau Embassy of Sri Lanka in the Philippines Tropical Destination (PVT) Ltd.
Paradisefound The TRAVELIFE team journeyed to the middle of nowhere in mysterious Sri Lanka to uncover the secrets of the UNESCO World Heritage sites of Sigiriya and Dambulla.
In spite of its amazing natural beauty and fascinating culture that can be counted as among the oldest documented in this part of the world, very few tourists have actually journeyed to Sri Lanka because of its history of war and internal strife over the past decades. The fighting with the separatist rebels ended in 2009 and tourism is now slowly being revived in Sri Lanka. The Travelife TV and Travelife Magazine teams were among the first media teams from Asia to visit and comprehensively cover the beauty of Sri Lanka.
ri Lanka conjures up a world of Buddhist temples, jungle trails with freckled elephants, ayurvedic aromas, fragrant teas, scorching curries and, of course, shopping. Paradise Road is a brand of boutiques and workshops selling upscale Sri Lankan-inspired handicrafts and decorative items. We visited no less than three shops, delighting in everything from small brass items and tiny cardholders to life-size painted wooden horses at affordable prices.
A UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITE
e arrived at the 2000-year-old Dambulla cave temples an hour before closing time, trekking up a winding road at sunset and finding the caves completely empty of visitors. It was like a private showing of someoneâ€™s collection of priceless Buddha statues sans the champagne reception. Despite our quick-paced appreciation of Dambullaâ€™s many treasures, we were only able to visit four out of the five caves. We headed back down the hill in pitch darkness with menacing dogs barking along the way.
e checked into the Heritance Kandalama Hotel, designed by famous Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa and built unto the face of a mountain facing Sigiriya Rock. This beautiful hotel was definitely the highlight of my visit to Sri Lanka. The next morning, looking out from the terrace as the sun rose, and observing how its crepuscular rays gently filtered through the trees and unto the tranquil reservoir in front of the hotel, I finally asked myself if Sri Lanka was, indeed, for real.
POLITICS & LUXURY
intagel is an ultra-chic boutique hotel with only 10 rooms, easily Colombo’s most stylish accommodations. Located in the heart of one of the city’s prestigious neighborhoods, it was once the home of the Bandaranaikes, Sri Lanka’s most prominent political family, responsible for churning out generations of national leaders including two prime ministers and one president. One prime minister was assassinated right on the verandah in 1959. The hotel’s colorful history and somber but opulent interiors make for a perfect combination of drama and elegance.
GOAL IN SIGHT At a luxury hotel built along an elephant corridor amidst ponds and lakes, I savored spicy curries and all kinds of vegetable dishes while a cool breeze blowed, almost lulling me to sleep. Across was a view of my ultimate destination: Sigiriya, a rock formed from the growlings of the belly of the earth and one of Sri Lankaâ€™s 8 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. (Jetwing Sigiriya Resort)
AND OUT OF THIS WORLD CHRISTINE CUNANAN conquers Sri Lanka’s iconic mountain
igiriya was a good four-and-a-half hours away from Colombo via a single two-lane road that snaked through bustling trading towns and sleepy villages of traditional wooden houses and crumbling colonial-style cottages. It was going to be my second visit in 12 months, and it was on this long drive that I’d finally made up my mind to climb the mountain. Sigiriya is one of Sri Lanka’s most iconic images and the jewel of its set of eight UNESCO World Heritage sites–an impressive number for a fairly small island, with two more heritage sites being finalized as I write. When seen from the top, its dramatic setting on a lush, virginal plain devoid of structures and stretching 360 degrees as far as the eye can manage, is truly a wonder to behold. Up close and personal, it is no less dramatic. The kaleidoscope of colors that play on its rocky façade especially as the sun begins its slow descent for the day–turning the rock into varying hues of orange and purple–is the stuff that calendars are made of.
Photographed by David B. Lim, Christine Cunanan
We began our journey to the heart of Sri Lanka on a congested four-lane road out of Colombo where tuktuks, vans and all forms of humanity crisscrossed each other’s boundaries with seeming abandon. Our initial slow pace afforded us a glimpse of the daily life of Sri Lankans from our windows. Fortunately, the Sri Lankans we stared at smiled back in sincere amusement. (D. Lim)
NOWHERE BUT UP But it’s also a tough climb up stone and steel steps that start out wide and easy and then end up steep and tiny. Sometime after the psychological midway point of no return–when you’ve made it far enough and high enough that continuing becomes more sensible than giving up and turning back–the steps are little more than ledges for a baby’s foot, certainly far from suitable for adults wearing loafers and rubber shoes. Here you’ve got to tiptoe up or get used to climbing with your heels hanging out–or prepare for a pretty steep fall. JUNE-JULY 2012
The giant lion’s paws
The hardest part, however, is not even the climb itself, but the oppressive heat that accompanies it regardless of the time of day you attempt your ascent. As long as the sun is shining–this is certainly not a feat to try in the rain–it will be the soaring temperatures that will tax your patience. But even without the experience of the climb, Sigiriya in the flesh is an amazing wonder of nature already enjoyable with one’s feet on the ground. I’d first seen it on a poster in the home of the living room of the Sri Lankan ambassador to the Philippines, and since then I’d been mesmerized by the idea of a mountain that arose from an extinct volcano, with a fortress and a palace built by a king on top of it; adorned with colorful ancient frescoes and four bathing pools, reportedly one for each of his four wives.
SRI-LANKA The Elephanta corridor
AMAZING AT FIRST SIGHT On that first visit last year, I sat for hours on a brick wall in the shade, just after the moats filled with crocodiles, simply staring at the majesty of the mountain. It has that kind of beauty that one never tires of, like an enchanting woman who has grown old but who is comfortable with her years and lines. I’d decided then to content myself with enjoying the mountain from afar.
have fallen to their death midway on the perilous climb; and these days, after safety rails were installed, the fatalities have been due to heart attacks on the road up. Not everyone gets second chances to right a challenge they’d once already passed up. Fortunately, here was a golden opportunity to do so. I found myself returning to the very same mountain almost exactly 12 months later and this time I was determined to conquer it.
Upon my return to Manila, however, I’d regretted passing up the opportunity to conquer the mountain and the anxieties it ended up representing– including the fear of heights, and of not being up to the physical challenge.
“How many steps are there?” I asked our guide, Jude, as I sized up my nemesis from below on this second trip. He gazed at the rock before us, shrugged his shoulders and replied: “I’ve never actually counted. Some people say 800, while others claim there are over a thousand steps.”
It was not Sigiriya’s fault, but I’d let it overwhelm me from the outset. It’s not called the Lion Mountain for nothing, even if its name is mainly linked to the remains of a lion statue on one side. Over the centuries, pilgrims
He’d probably climbed the mountain hundreds of times, but even he couldn’t give me an answer. In reality, Sigiriya isn’t very high; but it’s 600 feet from the bottom, all rock in a vertical line that’s as close to 90 degrees as you can get, so the impression is a formidable one. www.travelife.biz
HEAVEN AND EARTH IN ONE
THE PATH MUCH TRAVELED I began my ascent just after 4 PM, when the sun was kinder but powerful all the same. The first steps were easy enough, like climbing the stairs of a building. I gained further strength from the groups of Sri Lankan schoolchildren in perfectly starched white uniforms who passed me by, laughing and chatting away as if climbing the mountain was a game. There were some women in colorful sarees taking to the steps as well. “If they can do it, so can I,” I told myself, staring at the backs of the women, wrapped in flowing silks, ahead of me. I took slow and even-paced steps, stopping on certain landings to inspect caves and interesting rock formations along the way. However, soon the climb suddenly became harder as I embarked on a steeper section that began precisely after reaching the landing of the lion’s paws and passing through its carved jaws and throat. This is perhaps the most difficult moment of all, as it’s equal parts battle of will vs. battle of strength. Was my willpower stronger than the perceived strength of this mountain that has withstood the ferocious forces of nature for centuries?
With small and slow steps, I eventually conquered the mountain. Midway, on the walls of a grotto enclosed by steel shutters to protect it from the sun, ancient paintings of bare-breasted women–portraits of the maidens who once inhabited the palace, perhaps?–smiled encouragingly down at me as I huffed and puffed past them, and past poetry scrawled onto the rocks by ancient travelers from as early as over 1000 years ago. Finally I reached the top, three acres in size and the site of the amazing ancient city itself. On the summit, I felt the power of the king who once lived here, high up where he could see everything he owned in one sweep of a glance. I stood on a ledge that seemed perilously close to toppling over down that 90-degree angle I had just clambered on. But by then I was oblivious to the dangers. Above me, I felt I could almost touch the sky. Meanwhile, before me was a breathtaking and all-encompassing view of the pristine majesty of being as in the middle of nowhere as I could possibly imagine, in a lost civilization untouched by the modern one. This was how the world must have looked like before man changed it. It seemed more out of Africa than Sri Lanka. And it was simply out of this world. n
NEED TO KNOW
Sri Lanka is a small island country with one of the oldest cultures in the world. Located just off the coast of Southern India in the Indian Ocean, it is heavily influenced by Indian culture but also very different from it. The majority of its people are Buddhists.
It was a British colony until 1948 and became a republic in 1972. In 1960, Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaraike became Sri Lanka’s and the world’s first female prime minister. The Sri Lankan flag is reportedly one of the oldest flags in the world.
TRAVELER’S CHECKLIST VISA REQUIREMENTS: Sri Lanka requires a visa for most tourists including those from the Philippines. Contact the Embassy of Sri Lanka in Manila: 7F GC Corporate Plaza, 150 Legaspi St., Legaspi Village, Makati. Tel. (63) (2) 8120124, 8120125, Fax (63) (2) 8120126 CURRENT EXCHANGE RATE: 1 USD = 128.69 Sri Lankan Rupee (LKR) TIME DIFFERENCE: Sri Lanka is 2.5 hours behind the Philippines. CONSULATE OF THE PHILIPPINES IN SRI LANKA: 41 Sir Ernest de Silva Mawatha Flower Road, Colombo 7, Colombo, Sri Lanka; Tel. (94) (1) 370-710, Fax (94) (1) 522-524 HOW TO GET THERE: Malaysian Airlines flies from Manila to Colombo via Kuala Lumpur. Sri Lankan Airlines has direct flights to Colombo from Bangkok and Singapore.
WHEN TO GO
It’s best to visit in the cooler months of January and February. Those attending Kandy’s Esala Perahera festival should plan in advance to visit around the first week of August. For exact festival dates each year, please contact the Embassy of Sri Lanka.
WHAT TO SEE
Sri Lanka is a small country but it has an ancient culture and it now has eight UNESCO World Heritage sites, with two more being finalized. Packed with a rich heritage, a visit to the beautiful island nation in the middle of the Indian Ocean offers a world beyond imagination. Visitors short on time may wish to focus on Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle: Sigiriya, Dambulla, Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura and Kandy.
SIGIRIYA became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in
1982. fifth century AD Sri Lankan King Kasyapa built his palace hidden within this mountain of rock to avoid invasion. Its main features include a beautiful and extensive water network that supplied the palace’s baths and the fountains, and its frescoes that are said to rival India’s famed Ajanta Caves in intricate sophistication. It’s also known as the ‘Lion Rock’ because of the giant lion paw at the northern end of the rock, reportedly the remains of a giant lion statue located at the entrance.
DAMBULLA CAVES is considered among the most
ancient of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist temples. Its earliest cave temples date back to the 1st century BC, when one of Sri Lanka’s kings took refuge here after being defeated in battle. The caves have been used ever since. The temple has five caves, all decorated with exquisite religious paintings and statues of Buddha from different centuries. The “Cave of the Great Kings” contains 56 statues of Buddha and carvings on the wall; according to ancient folklore, water seeping from this cave can heal any kind of illness or disease.
WHAT TO BUY BATIK Sri Lanka is known for their light and colorful hand printed textiles made of the highest quality cotton with a high thread count. They come in different colorful, oriental designs and patterns. GEMS Sri Lanka has been selling precious stones to the world’s royalty for centuries. It mines over 40 varieties of gems including rubies, garnets, topaz, and amethysts. However, the blue sapphire is Sri Lanka’s most prized commodity. TEA Sri Lanka is also the home to some of the finest tea in the world, including the famous Ceylon tea, which is extremely fragrant and consistent in flavor. WOOD CARVINGS Woodcarvings are mostly handmade, intricately designed and reasonably priced. Popular souvenirs include Buddha statues and traditional masks, which make wonderful accents in the modern Asian home. SILVERWARE & BRASSWARE Sri Lanka’s metal ware shows off its cultural heritage and ornate handiwork. A variety of products are made out of silver and brass, including decorations, trays, and utensils.
POLONNARUWA was Sri Lanka’s capital in the 11th
and 12th centuries. Don’t miss the Gal Vihara, a 12th-century rock temple with four relief sculptures of Buddha made out of granite, the royal palace, the king’s audience hall, and the royal bathing pool. Polonnaruwa’s most sacred relics–including what is believed to be a tooth relic of Buddha–are housed in the Vatadage, also famous for its beautiful architectural design.
ANURADHAPURA was Sri Lanka’s first capital, full of
ancient palaces, monasteries, and monuments. It’s home to the sacred Bodhi tree, reportedly 2,300 years old and the oldest documented tree in the world. Other famous landmarks include three of the largest stupa (monastic, bell-shaped buildings) and the Jethawanaramaya, the third-tallest building of the ancient world, second only to the pyramids of Egypt.
KANDY is home to the Temple of the Tooth Relic,
considered one of the most important pilgrimage sites for Buddhists because it holds the tooth relic of Buddha. Legend has it that whoever holds the tooth relic holds the power in the country. The Esala Perahera, an annual procession through the streets of Kandy in August, celebrates the tooth relic of Buddha. Other places of interest include the Royal Palace of Kandy, which was the last royal palace to be built in Sri Lanka, the Lankatilaka Temple, which is a good example of Sinhalese architecture, and the National Museum, which contains ancient artifacts as well as items from the British colonial period. Kandy is also considered the cultural heart of Sri Lanka, home to many of the island’s arts and crafts workshops.
CLIMB THE HIGHEST MOUNTAIN At 2,243 meters above sea level, Adam’s Peak, also known as Sri Pada, is Sri Lanka’s highest mountain and it’s been a major pilgrimage site for over 1000 years. At the summit you’ll find a Buddhist temple and the shrine of Saman with the impression of a footprint. Buddhists believe this is Buddha’s footprint when he walked away from the Adam’s bridge, while Hindus consider it to be Lord Shiva’s footprint and Christians associate this with Saint Thomas. Muslims believe it was Adam’s footprint. Currently a UNESCO World Heritage site finalist, Adam’s Peak has been visited by many famous travelers including Marco Polo. It’s best to go in January or February, although this is also the busiest time. You can take either the three- or four-hour northern route or the seven-hour southern route favored by pilgrims.
GALLE has been occupied by the Dutch, British, and
Portuguese. For defense purposes, the Portuguese built the first fortifications from the sea to the harbor, and then the Dutch built a wall around the city. Galle thus became a fortress town full of colonial-style buildings and intriguing alleys.
Located 2500 meters above sea level, the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka consist of a wilderness protected area, a national park, and a conservation forest. UNESCO describes it as a “super biodiversity hotspot” because of its wide range of flora and fauna, the natural habitat of many endangered animals.
SINHARAJA FOREST RESERVE
The Sinharaja Forest Reserve is a biodiversity hotspot full of rare trees and animals. Over 50% of its animal inhabitants are considered among the world’s most endangered species.
WHERE TO STAY
WHAT TO EAT
HOPPERS are famous breakfast fare in Sri Lanka. Pancake batter is delicately fried and shaped into a bowl, which can be eaten with an assortment of side dishes including curries and sambal. KOTTU ROTI is a stir-fried dish made with spiced vegetables, egg, meat, and various spices. Some restaurants add cheese for variety. LAMPRAIS is a Dutch-inspired delicacy that’s wrapped in banana leaf when baked. This delectable dish is a complete meal on its own since rice, meat, and vegetables are cooked in beef stock. PITTU is a mixture of rice flour and grated coconut that’s traditionally soaked in coconut milk and then steamed in a bamboo pipe.
GALLE FACE HOTEL is Sri Lanka’s most historical hotel. Built in 1864, it was the epicenter of British colonial life and then the accommodation of choice for VIP visitors to Colombo including royalty and heads of state. It’s famous for the English high tea experience, and for its seaside location. Tour the main building but make sure you book rooms in the luxurious new wing. www.gallefacehotel.com MOUNT LAVINIA HOTEL boasts of a romantic 200-year history and Colombo’s only private beachfront. It’s witnessed the secret love story of a British governor general and a beautiful PortugueseSinhalese dancer, and it’s famous for its food – Sri Lanka’s most celebrated chef oversees the kitchens. Stay here if you’re looking for beautiful scenery, comfortable rooms, and a resort feel within the city. www.mountlaviniahotel.lk TINTAGEL HOTEL is an intimate boutique hotel offering Colombo’s most stylish accommodations and the added cache of being an integral part of Sri Lanka’s recent political history. Located in Colombo’s most exclusive neighborhood, it was once the home of the Bandaranaike family, Sri Lanka’s most prominent political family. Sirimavo Bandanaraike, Sri Lanka’s and the world’s first female prime minister, lived here until her death in 2000. www.paradiseroadhotels.com
CULTURAL TRIANGLE ULLAGALLA RESORT is perhaps the most luxurious accommodations within the Cultural Triangle. It’s located near Anuradhapura, the northernmost UNESCO World Heritage site, and its 20 villas offer spacious privacy, an intimacy with nature and every conceivable modern comfort. The resort has its own helipad for guests who don’t wish to arrive via the long drive from Colombo. www.ullagallaresorts.com
KOLA KANDHA, which literally means “green soup,” is a healthy soup made of dark green herbal leaves and pulped rice, that’s eaten with juggery, a caramelized coconut honey.
JETWING VIL UYANA SIGIRIYA is a rustic yet modern resort that takes advantage of its proximity to the Sigiriya rock fortress, with luxurious accommodations on the water or within the forests of its estate, all decorated in simple but tasteful native style. www.jetwinghotels.com ELEPHANT CORRIDOR is a luxury eco-resort built right on the Sigiriya plains. No tree was cut down in its construction and the natural landscape was carefully followed. Conveniently located to three UNESCO World Heritage sites, it offers comprehensive recreational activities and one of the most dramatic dining venues in this area. www.elephantcorridor.com KANDY AMAYA HILLS combines traditional Kandyan culture with modern four-star luxury amidst the Hanthana mountains. www.amayahills.com HELGA’S FOLLY is more like a home than a hotel, with its eclectic décor. Book one of its 10 uniquely designed rooms – no two are alike – for an experience like no other. www.helgasfolly.com For travel in Sri Lanka: LSR/ Tropical Destination Pvt (Ltd) www.LSR-srilanka.com
HERITANCE HOTEL KANDALAMA was designed by Geoffrey Bawa, South Asia’s most famous architect, to blend harmoniously with nature. The result is a tasteful, minimalist hotel that brings the outdoors in. (See Check-in article on page 100)
Published on Jun 17, 2013