The wonders of Sri Lanka.
I will need to come back to Sri Lanka. My short visit here in March 2019 has been filled with endless enchantments and discoveries. I was reluctant to leave.
What made me want to go to Sri Lanka in the first place? This little island at the southern tip of India has often been overlooked by travellers in favour of its bigger neighbour. The long lasting Civil War didn’t help either. Maybe because I wasn’t sure what to expect, the trip had a taste of adventure and mystery. I ended up falling in love with this unique country. Serendipity, an unanticipated and lucky discovery, is a term coined by Horace Walpole after he read a Persian tale called ‘The Three Princes of Sarandip’. Sarandip is also a Persian name for Sri Lanka. I can guarantee you, Sri Lanka is a real gem, or else, it is a treasure trove full of surprises for everyone who cares to explore. Why would you want to come here?
THOUSANDS OF YEARS OF HISTORY.
When you travel do you like to follow in the footsteps of distant civilisations? Then Sri Lanka has something special for you. This ancient kingdom boasts eight World Heritage sites, most of them within easy driving distance, a journey that takes you into the country’s fascinating past. You might have heard of the Cultural Triangle. As the name suggests, the area in the shape of a triangle encompasses several sites of cultural significance, six amongst them are listed by UNESCO and each of them is an architectural marvel and a testimony to the great civilisation that built them. The ancient city of Anuradhapura marking the northern point of the triangle was founded in the 5th century BC and remained the capital of Sri Lanka until the 11th century CE. It was the golden age of ancient Sri Lanka. During this time vast water reservoirs have been built in form of artificial lakes to capture the water from seasonal monsoon. They still exist today and are the haven for wildlife, as the country doesn’t have any natural lakes. Polunnaruwa city, on the eastern edge of the triangle, has been declared the seat of the new kingdom in the 11th century. Nowadays you can admire its impressive sculptures and meticulous architectural planning. I should also mention the Golden Temple of Dambulla, which is a system of caves with paintings and statues dating back to the 1st century BC.
Right in the heart of the Cultural Triangle lies Sigiriya. The rock fortress was the only one of the ancient sites that I had a chance to visit and it will stay in my memory forever. Even without the ruins that adorn the top, this massive 200 metres granite monolith is an awe-inspiring sight. It must have impressed King Kashyapa back in the 5th century, as he chose the place for his new capital and ordered to build a palace on top of the rock. How the heavy building materials were lifted along the vertical column for such an ambitious project is a wonder in itself.
Today only foundations remain, with beautiful frescoes on the rock’s walls as you climb, elegant palace gardens below and the paws of an enormous lion sculpted at the base of the monolith. They gave the name to the fortress, the Lion Rock, Sinhagiri in Sanscrit. Getting to the top is well worth it, the views of the forests, lakes and the mountains on the horizon are majestic.
UNIQUE SPIRITUAL CENTRE
Are you looking for spiritual enlightenment? Maybe you are curious to see what attracts thousands of people here? Or you don’t want to miss yet another World Heritage site? At the southernmost edge of the triangle lies the sacred city of Kandy. The palace complex built by Sinhalese kings in the 16th century is the place of pilgrimage for Sri Lankan Buddhists, as the temple within its grounds holds their most important relic: legendary tooth of the great spiritual teacher. The tooth has not only religious but also political significance, as it is believed that whoever holds it, will rule over the country.
In my opinion visit to the temple is a must for every first time visitor to Sri Lanka. It is the island’s spiritual heart attracting thousands of pilgrims, an unforgettable experience whether you are a believer or not. The atmosphere here invites you to pause, slow down and you can also relax in the surrounding, beautiful gardens.
Sri Lanka is a gem for the history geeks, is it also generous for the nature lovers? You will see plenty of monkeys eagerly accompanying you during your visit to all the ancient monuments, but what about other wildlife? The good news is, there are countless opportunities to see animals in Sri Lanka, all you need to do is to choose which way you want to go and what you want to see! I went to Udawalawe National Park to see Sri Lankan elephants. The park is relatively small (above 30 thousand hectares), and its open grasslands and the large elephant population make it easy to spot those majestic creatures. Throughout the country wildlife corridors have been created so the elephants are not limited to the park. Udawalawe National Park also runs an orphanage for baby and injured elephants who are looked after until they can be released into the wild. The picture on this blog is from the Sanctuary, which you can visit to observe daily feeding and learn more about elephants and their conservation.
The variety of habitats, apart from grasslands, forests, lakes and marshes in Udawalawe support a great diversity of mammals, birds, amphibians and invertebrates. It is a very popular park, centrally located and easy to get to, so you can expect lots of other visitors.
The best known for its diversity and the biggest in Sri Lanka is Yala National Park, famous for leopards, crocodiles and abundant birdlife. I was really curious about this one, unfortunately I didn’t have enough time to visit, but it is definitely something to add to my list for the next trip! Those interested in the rare endemic species might head to Central Highlands and Horton Plains, home to the Horton Plains slender loris, though I wouldn’t expect to see those, as they are very rare and elusive. This area also has a World Heritage status.
WORLD FAMOUS TEA.
If you are in the Highlands, you are not far from Nuwara Eliya and the tea country. Higher elevation gives this part of central Sri Lanka a more temperate climate. Whilst it is baking hot on the coast, here the temperature averages 20 degrees Celsius. The tea has been introduced to Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon) by the British in the 19th century. They brought Tamils from the south of India to work on the plantations. Nowadays women are the majority amongst the tea pickers. When visiting a plantation you can also take a tour of the factory to learn about the process of drying the tea leaves.
As a big fan of the beverage I was very excited to see tea growing on the hills, for the first time in my life! Walking amongst the neat rows of green tea bush is a special experience, but it also made me reflect on how hard the work must be here. We should hope that the popularity of tea benefits the local communities and especially those who are hands on the job, literally. I am not sure it is the case to any greater extend at the moment and lots still need to be done in this regard.
This part of Sri Lanka should be a big highlight of any trip, not only for those who love tea. The area is famous for its beauty with walking and hiking trails. Little Adam’s Peak and Ella Rock are amongst most popular hikes. Ella Rock was a short distance from our accommodation and it is an easy climb, the views from the top are amazing! You can also walk to the beautiful Ravana Falls.
PICTURESQUE TRAIN RIDES.
There is something romantic about train travel, maybe because it is somewhat old fashioned, maybe due to the feeling of adventure and anticipation. Sri Lanka has its share of iconic train rides. The route between Kandy and Ella with the vistas of lush rainforest and the countryside has become a rage in recent years. Everyone, it seems, has to have a picture taken from the carriage to post on their social media and in peak season, between December and March, the train is incredibly crowded. Instead, we hiked along the rail track on our way back from Ella rock. You can also take an easy walk from Ella to Nine Mile Bridge to see the train pass. You will have the same, spectacular views. The bridge itself is an example of colonial era railway construction and it definitely makes an impression.
AND WHAT ABOUT THE COAST…?
For a lot of people Sri Lanka is a beach holiday destination and it is true, this island on the Indian Ocean is also famous for its coastline. I have to say I didn’t spend much time by the sea. I had a chance to take a stroll along the beach near Negombo on my first day.
When you are there, you should try local delicacy, sun dried fish! It is a common sight in Sri Lanka to see fishermen drying their fish directly on the beach. Sprat is the most popular fish that you will see spread on coconut mats. Once the fish is dry it is salted and ready to be send to the market! Whilst on the south coast, visit to Galle is definitely worth it. Set in the picturesque bay, Galle was the main port on the island before the arrival of the Portuguese, who built here a fort in the 16th century, subsequently reinforced by the Dutch a century later. Nowadays Galle’s old town is a very charming place with its colonial architecture, breadfruit trees lining the streets and multiple cafes and art galleries. It is also on the World Heritage list.
I hope that this short introduction to Sri Lanka’s main attractions helped you make up your mind about visiting this beautiful island. On top of all that, if you are a foodie, you will find Sri Lankan cuisine delicious and rich in fresh ingredients. Last, but not least,people here are friendly, resourceful and very welcoming, they will happily talk to you about their amazing country!