A country of endless beaches, ruins and welcoming people, oodles of elephants, world class tea estates, excellent food; the list can go on and on. You might wonder how come you’ve never heard anything about this piece of paradise. 30 years of the bloodiest civil or terrorist war (you pick the title) have put Sri Lanka off the map for even the most adventurous travelers. After that, came the tsunami that destroyed the country almost from coast to coast. Now the war is over and if you’ve been to India and Southeast Asia, this is where you should be looking into dropping in.
Rochelle and I landed in Colombo with no great expectations and just for a ten-day trip. While we were disappointed since the diving season was over and our desire to dive with blue whales was left in the air, we were greatly impressed.
As most capitals of the world, Colombo is crowded but still manages to keep a tranquil feeling, something that I have seen and felt in very few other capitals. Since the monsoons had already kicked in, we decided to explore the east coast in order to avoid the rain. We hired a car with a driver in order to avoid the hustle of the local police and took off. As you can see from the time we were there, it was the Vesak Poya, the cerebration of the birth, enlightenment and death of Buddha that transforms the whole island into a big celebration temple. Sri Lanka is a melting pot of different religions. The Buddhists are the majority and the Christians are the minority. All these religions though have managed to coexist in harmony.
Customs have it that the Poya Day of Buddha’s birthday, people set up outdoor kitchens and feed anyone who comes their way. Rochelle had the experience of participating in one of these events. That particular outdoor kitchen had to cook and feed the unbelievable number of 6000 to 7000 people. The sight of people lining up in long rows and waiting to be fed, no matter what their financial situation, is a sight that you must experience and a huge humanitarian lesson to all us Westerns. That day, your financial or social status doesn’t matter. You line up with people that you have never met before just to have humble street food and celebrate the Poya Day.
After our visit to Colombo, we headed inland, to Dambula and the Royal Rock temple. Despite the commercial air, this temple is an important holy place and the hike up gives you a great view of the surroundings. A series of caves make up this beautiful temple containing 150 statues of Buddha. King Valagamba took refuge in these caves and after he regained his throne, he had the interior of the caves curved into a magnificent rock temple.
Close to Dambula is the premier site of Sigiriya. Rising 200m straight up over the dusty plains of north central Sri Lanka, the flat-topped rock formation is not only one of the island’s most impressive geological formations but also one of its greatest archaeological legacies. History says that King Kassapa, after killing his father and taking over the throne, picked this rock to build his palace/garden/castle making it impossible for his enemies to attack him. In some of the frescoes still intact you’ll find out that the King rather used this place for his harem than for the protection of his people. Till today nobody knows why, when his brother turned against him, he left the safety of the Rock Palace and chose to fight him in the open lower ground leading to his own death.
After all those cultural sites it was time for some fun. So we headed to the east coast and the beach of Nilaveli. This is where the brutality of the civil war actually took place and you can feel it in the air. Some small touristic infrastructure has started popping up but it’s still a virgin area. For years Nilaveli with its bending palms over the golden sand has been considered one of Sri Lanka’s best beaches. Just what we needed to cool down after all that cultural information we were bombarded with as soon as we stepped foot in the country.
Further south, in the most touristic area of the east coast, there is Arugam Bay. The best place to gear down and have a couple of days of sun-seeking. The lovely Arugam Bay, a moon shaped curve of soft sand, is home to the best surfing in the country. Nevertheless, if you’re not a surfer, there are plenty other draws to keep you busy. The whole village had a-swing another day in a hammock-kind of feel and as we were told, it has nothing to do with the brash west coast beach resorts. We had a couple of great lazy days before we headed to Kandy, the ex-capital and religious center of the country. On the way there, we visited a couple of plantations and a tea factory. Today the Sri Lankan tea is famous across the world. Visiting a tea estate and seeing how the world’s famous tea is produced was absolutely fascinating.
Kandy itself is dominated by the town’s lake. Just north of the lake is one of Buddhist top temples, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic that holds the tooth of the Buddha. We didn’t see the tooth itself since it’s kept in a gold casket shaped like a dagoba (stupa) but just the atmosphere of the religious people around it was worth the visit. The temple itself became a target of the terrorist war and was almost destroyed. The entire main complex was part of the royal palace of the Kandian kings that ruled the area.
Our time had almost run out though, so we had to get back to Colombo. Sri Lanka is well known for its elephants. We didn’t have the time to go on an elephant safari but we visited an elephant orphanage that was on our way. Although the purpose of taking care of orphan, wounded elephants is real, I got the impression that the animals we saw are used as an attraction to make money and they don’t live in good conditions. Most of them are chained down on cement poles and are taken for a walk only once a day or for a swim in the nearby river.
Sri Lanka is a spectacular country; it’s affordable and still mostly uncrowded. Now is the best time to discover it. You can book in one of the island’s chic boutique beachside hotels, dive across glowing coral reefs, learn to surf on gentle sandbars or take off to find your own little undiscovered corner of paradise. Pick and enjoy. Sri Lanka is there for you.