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Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka – “Serenity” - This word perfectly describes the ambiance of a stay in this Indian country. It is almost impossible to believe that three years ago a civil war between the Tamils and the Singhalese military government was going on. This island, located in the southeast of India, transpires tranquility and should please different types of travelers. Indeed, diversity is the second idea that comes to mind when we think of this green country, rich with a mix of history, culture and wilderness. Whether you are a sports fan, in search of new flavours, just curious or simply seeking idleness, everything is here... 

Visitors land on the island a few kilometers from Colombo, near the ocean. We have a memorable impression of the island from the plane: the jungle waiting for us, as far as the eye can see…

 

Medieval cities

Six cultural sites in Sri Lanka appear on the UNESCO World Heritage list. The historical city of Polonnaruwa and the ancient city of Sigiriya have both been a part of the list since 1982. The immensity and the aesthetics of both sites are stunning. A medieval capital city of south India after the occupation, Polonnaruwa can easily be visited by bicycle; monuments are too far from one another to consider walking. Even if they are mostly just vestiges, we can feel the atmosphere of the XIIth century at the Royal Palace, as well as in different temples such as the Sigiriya, the rock fortress sanctuary with its three Buddhas sculpted on site in one unique block, and other statues scattered around nearby.

Sigiriya, the lion's rock, is shrouded in mystery. History says that in the Vth century, after killing his father, Kassyapa became king and had his palace built on top of the mountain. Known as a lazy king, he enjoyed watching his 500 concubines bathing and commissioned a painting of every one of them. Others believe that Buddhist monks were the first to inhabit this mountain. Whatever the truth is, it is with great energy that we climb the 1,202 stairs to reach the gardens overlooking the jungle and the moat.

Dozens of small red head macaques might come to say hello, some even venturing very close…
be vigilant, they could easily be attracted by your camera or cell phone and want to get away with these “toys”!

A five-hour car trip from Colombo must be planned during this visit, which should be made early in the morning – heat, which builds quickly, could be a real drawback. Roads are rather new and in good condition, but it is still necessary to get used to the Sri Lankan way of driving! First, they drive on the left side of the road. Another rule prevails: the biggest car or truck doubles up with a smaller one, rickshaw or bicycle, and announces its moves with a honk. No surprise, now you know!

The city of Dambulla, in the Matale region, is the place to stay if you want to visit these two exceptional sites. If you wish to extend your immersion, Heritance Kandalama Hotel will charm you with the quality of its offer, but also with its atypical architecture that blends perfectly in its natural environment.

Speaking of a natural environment, don't be surprised if you come face to face with a small monkey at the turn of a corner around here…

And don’t miss the view over Lake Kandalama, an artificial lake where a troop of elephants can often be seen wandering around the far side.

An initiation to Buddhism

In Sri Lanka, 70% of the population practices Buddhism and the young are taught the foundations of Buddhism on Sundays, which explains why we see so many youth dressed in white (the color of respect) heading towards the temples.

If we had to prioritize two temples, we would choose the Golden temple of Dambulla first, with its five troglodyte sanctuaries. In order to reach its amazingly small grottoes perched up high, we climb stairs, cut through the rocks that can be very slippery at times, crossing over 180 meters...

The place is rather peaceful even though it is visited by tourists as well as by many locals. We are impressed to see tiny old ladies climbing barefoot to the top.

This sacred site, with its whitewashed walls, is dug into the rock facing the Bohdi, the sacred tree, many specimens of which can also be found throughout the island. Under its foliage, the Buddha would have found nirvana, according to their beliefs. Inside the cavern, 157 statues and more than 150 wall paintings cover a total surface of 2,100 square meters.

Heading south to Kandy, we discover the Temple of the Tooth, the most important temple in the country. Our guide confirms that if we could only visit one Buddhist temple in our life, it should be this one!

Before entering, we have to submit to a complete search, since severe security measures have been implemented following a bomb explosion in 1998. Located in the Royal Palace, the holy relic (Buddha’s tooth) is not easily seen since believers gather here in great numbers with their offerings, mostly fresh cut frangipane flowers with their spellbinding perfume.

Out of respect, we have to cover our shoulders and take off our shoes. We happily follow these rites and for a few moments allow ourselves to be part of the culture of the surrounding crowd…

Kandy

Kandy takes us back to city life with the effervescence of a large city and heavy traffic. More than 150,000 people live in this sacred city. Kandy was the last capital of the Singhalese kingdom, taken by the British in 1815 after having resisted to the Portuguese and the Dutch for more than three centuries... proof that everyone was fighting for the city.

Here, the local dance performance is very entertaining, even though it is a huge tourist trap. Nonetheless, we are charmed by the sounds of the drums and the vision of the colourful costumes, which are different for each dance. Women perform with incomparable grace while men execute acrobatic moves. We are truly enthralled by the show during its entire 45 minutes.

These dances are also performed during Perahera, the annual Buddhist holiday celebrated in the summer, during which hordes of elephants, dressed with caparisons and wearing jewellery, stroll the streets at night.

Inside the city, we discover a local covered market and decide to go shopping. It is in fact not easy to find small souvenirs to bring back from this beautiful country. Here, we seem to have found Ali Baba’s cave and get ready to bargain - within reason, of course!

The Peradeniya botanical garden is located 6 km from Kandy. This huge park offers the opportunity to admire trees and plants from the world over and has a small spice garden and an orchid house. Its main attraction is the giant Java fig tree. Palm and bamboo trees, as well as many other surprises, can be found on its sixty hectares of happiness, not only for us tourists, but also for the incredible number of young Sri Lankan couples visiting. Garden of “Impossible Love”? We will never find out; nonetheless, the place is a real ode to romance.

We spend the night at the Kandy House, a magnificent colonial house with 9 rooms. Built in the heights of the city, it is located 15 minutes from downtown. Calm and serenity are waiting for us there. How nice it is to sit on the patio, sipping tea and learning to play Kadam, a mix of pool and checkers...

Tea hour

We experience a total change of scenery for this next part of our trip: the discovery of the mountainous center of the island, covered with tea plantations.

Known as “small Britain” for its colonial architectural style, roads suddenly become very sinuous. A train ride is a good choice in order to get a better and more relaxed look at the landscape. It is not very expensive and it is a true pleasure to cross the immense green fields with thousands of small bushes, waterfalls and to catch a glimpse at the pickers at work. Most of them are women – they have smaller hands – working for starvation wages! Men are mostly busy inside the manufacturing plant.

We will visit one or two tea factories. It is quite interesting to learn about the transformation process, and be reminded that tea is the most consumed drink in the world… after water, of course! Sri Lanka is the second largest producer of tea in the world, behind India and followed by Kenya. Climate conditions are ideal in this region, where teas of great quality are produced. Contrary to belief, the same plant gives different kinds of tea; what differs is the way the leaves are processed.

The Glenloch Tea Factory is located near Nuwara Eliya, a city that can easily be considered the Capital of Tea. Visits are free and the welcome is very warm. Explanations are given in very good English (which is not the case everywhere) and we are treated to a tea tasting at the end of the visit.

Heading south, we discover the Dambatenne tea factory 11 km from Haputale, which was once owned by Sir Thomas Lipton. Recognize the name? It is bigger than Glenloch, and we only go there because of its reputation. If you pass by, it is worth stopping and walking through the huge fields covered with rows of tea plants.

Climbing Sri Pada

Nowhere in the world can we imagine seeing a place like Sri Pada (Adam’s peak). After a two-hour drive from Nuwara Eliya, we reach Nallathanni, at the foot of the mountain. In a few words, Nallathanni is a small, dream-like village that some of us could only see in a corner of our imagination.

As soon as we arrived, we could already sense a spiritual atmosphere. During the day, everything is calm, even the errant dogs are sleeping. Suddenly, at the end of the afternoon, the mountain lights up and gives us the impression of being lit by candles. Loudspeakers spit music and prayers and we become intoxicated by the ambiance, even if we know that we have to rest up to be ready for the challenge waiting for us the next day.

2 o’clock in the morning: it’s time to get up and get ready for the climb up the summit. If we want to enjoy the show and not be killed by the heat, we have to reach the top before sunrise. This multi-religious pilgrimage is usually done between December and April and very few tourists dare to make the climb. It is, however, a unique experience even though the physical effort needed shouldn’t be underestimated: more than 5,300 irregular stairs are climbed, followed by a descent that is as challenging as the climb. We will be stopping a few times: to ring the bell asking for courage, to receive bracelets from Buddhist monks as protection from the bad things in the universe, and to regain energy with a few sips of ginger tea!

What we will remember from this sacred mountain is that the experience is worth every minute of it. Not only for the view of the sun that all of the sudden rises over the hills, but also for the amazing shadow cast by the mountain on the landscape, and overall for the memorable encounters we made during the trip.

For trekking fans

Many easier walking trails are available. Horton Plains, for example, is a good destination to discover the endemic vegetation and the numerous animals: small loris (a variety of deer), endangered wild boars and mongoose are often encountered. Many birds also find a refuge here. This protected area is in fact an immense plateau rising 2,100 meters, where it is fun to walk to “the end of the world”: a very impressive and abrupt cliff!

The island offers many more trails for trekking fans. To enjoy them safely, opt for the company of a guide who will help you discover his country better than anyone.

Ayurveda

The smiles and the serenity of the Sri Lankans are communicative. We are miles away from the stress of our occidental world, and now is a good time to reflect about ourselves and our daily lives. And to fully relax, what could be better than an ayurvedic massage?

Spas and ayurvedic centers can be found in the majority of hotels. They are, however, quite expensive! We found a local institute, mostly popular among tourists - the local population cannot afford this kind of treatment.

The primary purpose of Ayurvedic massage is to re-equilibrate the body, regulate blood circulation and treat heavy legs or water retention. Our program consisted of three steps: first, a 45-minute massage where every single part of the body is taken care of. Then, there is a steam bath with aromatic herbs: you sit in a wooden box, with only your head emerging, for fifteen minutes. Not recommended for those who are claustrophobic! The last step is a 15-minute break in a sauna. Needless to say, it is a very relaxed and “Zen” client who emerges from this charming institute!

What about animals?

Elephants

To live in harmony with nature implies protecting the animals. As sacred animals in the Buddhist religion, more than 4,000 elephants populate the island of Sri Lanka - only 5% of them are males. For the promenade, we choose to sit directly on their backs rather than in a basket. As a matter of fact, the use of such baskets should soon be banned, since they allow too many passengers to sit on the animal, leading to exhaustion and premature death.

For close contact with these animals, the Millennium Elephant Foundation, with its ten animals in-house, is the best choice. A one-hour drive from Kandy, it offers elephant rides along with the opportunity to go into the water with them! It’s a lot of fun for both the animal and the rider! Volunteers are also welcome to take care of the mammals… a great initiative to consider if you are a volunteer at heart.

To complete your trip, a visit to the Pinnawala orphanage is a must. Located a few kilometers from the Foundation, this orphanage was created by the government and houses about fifty baby elephants. The surroundings are sublime, worthy of the best movie set. We should not have been surprised to learn that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was filmed in Sri Lanka! The cherry on top is watching the pachyderms going to the Maha Oya bath from the terrace of a café, a real fairy tale-like scene.

Safaris

Have you ever fancied a safari in Africa? You should know that Sri Lanka has many reservations and national parks, such as Minneriya and Uda Walawe, where you can ride a Jeep.

We chose the latter. During our safari, we will not see any leopards; after all it is not possible to make a date with animals… however, wild buffaloes, crocodiles, peacocks and many, many birds were all there for us. Of course, it is forbidden to get out of the vehicle, as priority is given to the safety of the animals in their natural habitat and not scaring them. We recommend planning this excursion in the morning or at the end of afternoon, when the heat is less intense. You will be better able to appreciate the changes of the colors in the landscapes with the shifting light of the sun. Animals are also less timid at those times.

We stayed at Kalu’s Hideaway Hotel, at the park exit, which allowed us to remain in the safari mood. Managed by Romesh Kaluwitarana, a former professional cricket player, this hotel is very intimate and has all the required amenities for an enjoyable and relaxing stay.

Turtles

With sea turtles being an endangered species, many nurseries have blossomed along the south coast of the island. Eggs are kept in pens to be protected from birds. After birth, turtles are kept in seawater basins for the first three days of their life before being returned to the wild. Unfortunately, despite these precautions, only 20% of them will survive…

These nurseries also take care of wounded – most often by boat propellers – or handicapped turtles. An interesting visit with a very low cost!

Relaxation in turquoise waters

Sri Lanka had many sandy beaches that invite relaxation. However, they are not supervised. Be careful, as surges might catch you off guard and drag you away. You might be lucky and be able to see fishermen on their stilts, a very picturesque activity to watch. Sri Lankans usually don’t stretch out on the beach and most of them won’t swim. The 2004 tsunami that killed 30,000 people is still very present in their minds. You can still see remains of houses that were destroyed by that catastrophe on the road between Mirissa and Colombo. Globally, reconstruction has since been completed with the help of many NGOs, but the terrible shock is still in the back of most minds.

A few beautiful hotels adorn the coast. One of the most remarkable is the Amanwella in Tangalle. The hotel has an infinity pool and direct access to a private, white powder sand beach that is washed by incredible transparent turquoise water. Its 40 rooms are very luxurious, where everything is planned to make you feel as though you are in paradise.

Further north, the Fortress Resort can be found near the city of Galle. A visit to the old fortress is worth the detour, with its narrow alleys where the ambiance seems different. No surprise, since the Portuguese and Dutch influences on the old colonies can still be appreciated, especially in the architecture.

When?

November to March is the most suitable time to travel to the southern and western coasts, as well as in the mountain area. For the eastern coast and the ancient cities, April to September is recommended since that is the dry season. Even then, rain showers can fall at any moment, but they don’t last long before the shining sun rapidly returns.

Considering the difference in climate in different parts of the island, it is possible to travel there all through the year. It should, however, be noted that monsoon goes from May to the end of June, with many rain showers that usually fall in the mid-afternoon.

How long should you plan to stay?

It is impossible to see all the “musts” on this “resplendent island” in less than two weeks. So many different sites, each more magical than the last, contribute to our total amazement and disorientation and make our own return back home to reality so difficult!


Sophie Baconin

Special thanks to Continents Insolites and its on-site partner Connaissance de Ceylan for making this trip possible, and to Catherine France for organizing this expedition.


www.continents-insolites.com
www.connaissance.lk
www.heritancehotels.com/kandalama/
www.thekandyhouse.com
www.thefortress.lk
www.amanresorts.com

Historical city of Polonnaruwa

Gal Vihara reclining Buddha

Temple of the tooth

Sigiriya Palace

Kassyapa's concubines

Macaque 

Heritance Kandalama Hotel

Praying Bohdi, the sacred tree

Scholars

Dambula's golden temple

A street in Kandy

Dancers in Kandy

Orchid House, Botanical garden

Kandy House, lobby

Through the fields of tea

 Pinnawela orphenage

2 days old baby turtles

Amanwella Hotel

The Fortress Resort, lobby

Kalu's Hideaway

Photos: Sophie Baconin and Continents Insolites


  

 

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