The island of Sri Lanka looks every inch like the tropical paradise we’re accustomed to seeing in films. The Shangri-La of our collective imagination if you will. Golden sand and lush green jungle collide on this small piece of land off the tip of Southern India, it’s easy to see why it’s so often referred to as ‘the jewel’ of the Indian Ocean.
Famous for it’s tea plantations, Sri Lanka was a British colony known as Ceylon until they achieved full independence in 1972. The idyllic landscape give no indication whatsoever of the years of darkness that Sri Lanka has endured. The civil war raged from 1983 until 2009, and it is only in the last five years or so that the country has really been able to focus on its burgeoning tourism industry.
The island itself is beautiful but as are the inhabitants. The locals are incredibly friendly and inquisitive; we made several great friends whilst there who keep in touch via Facebook. Beyond interaction with foreigners, there seems to be no sense of animosity amongst Sri Lankans themselves, quite extraordinary when you consider the bitter divisions civil war caused. Perhaps these things are somewhat hidden from tourists, but there is now a genuine sense of peace and stability on the island. We saw a Hindu festival taking place right next door to the Buddhist temple on Sri Lankan Independence day. It defies belief to think that something so traumatic and tragic happened in such a serene and picturesque environment.
We flew with Sri Lanka airlines from Heathrow, which was as an enjoyable an experience as long haul flights can possibly be. Like almost all of the Sri Lankan’s we would go on to meet, the staff were polite, attentive and eager to be of service. We arrived into the capital city, which is every inch the gleaming South Asian metropolis one would expect. However, once you get outside the city, the truer face of Sri Lanka is revealed, with ramshackle buildings, teeming streets a and tuk-tuk drivers zigzagging all over the roads. The warm, moist air hits you the moment you step outside, as the alternating smells of pungent spices, wood fires, gasoline and flowers fill your nostrils.
We stayed at Citrus Waskaduwa, a relatively new build (it was opened in 2009) a couple of hours south along the coast from the capital. Given that we had booked the hotel as part of a deal, we were completely unsure what to expect. The photos available online were perfectly nice, however it was only once we actually arrived that we realised how little they did the place justice. The hotel is large and gleaming white with orange detailing (whilst a little garish this worked nicely in a tropical setting), with every room looking out over the expanse of Indian Ocean (the video below shows the view from our balcony!).
The rooms were clean and spacious with all the usual amenities. The highlight was most definitely the glass wall between the shower and the bedroom, which being directly adjacent to the balcony, meant that you could look out onto the rolling waves whilst hosing off.
The food both in and outside of the hotel was spectacular. Sri Lankan food is wonderfully varied; it reminds me both of South East Asian and Indian cuisine combined. Think light, fragrant curries flavoured with coconut milk and curry leaves, pillowy roti and amazing fresh seafood. A must try is the traditional Sri Lankan hopper, a kind of crisp ‘basket’ made from batter in which an egg or curry can comfortably sit. Hoppers are not usually served in restaurants, so be sure to grab one from a street vendor when you get the opportunity. That’s another great thing about Sri Lanka, unlike in India, you can feast upon the street food without worrying about getting ill.
Although Sri Lanka is relatively small (smaller even than the UK), if like us you’re only visiting for a week, then you must be realistic about what you can achieve in such a short amount of time. The historic city of Galle on the South coast of Sri Lanka is one place that you have to make time for! The city was fortified by the Dutch during their occupancy in the seventeenth century and is now a world heritage site. Galle was badly affected by the tsunami of Boxing Day 2004; the city was destroyed and over 4000 people died, with many more lost to disease in the aftermath. However, it has since been rebuilt and remains one of the most stunning cities in the world.
The fort area is spectacular. It’s a strange sensation moving from dense jungle with wild monkeys in the trees to a European style town, complete with French style central square, where you imagine a village fete should be in full swing. The juxtaposition of the architecture and the natural surroundings is just spectacular. There’s so much to do in the fort area, from taking in the views (and the snake charming!) by the clock tower to feasting in the town’s many cafes and restaurants. I wish we could have spent a few nights there, as one day simply wasn’t enough.
‘Why Guesthouse’ just outside of Galle, run by the lovely Henrietta, is meant to be lovely, and I’ll definitely stay there during my next visit. Five or so minutes in the car from Galle Fort you can find ‘Jungle Beach’, a tiny but gorgeous beach that whilst completely off the beaten track has proven immensely popular with tourists. Also definitely worth a visit, if only for the fantastic fresh juices and shakes served at the little beach hut café!
The other main Sri Lankan city we visited was the historic Kandy, world heritage site and last capital of the Sri Lankan Kings.
The long drive up winding mountain roads felt like an exercise in sight seeing itself. The bustling streets, shouting vendors, laissez-faire attitude to road safety and colourful but dilapidated shop fronts are enough to enthral anyone used to the relative blandness of the UK. What’s so different about it is the sheer swell of humanity every town centre seems to hold. The huge number of people simply going about their daily lives makes the roads of London seem comparatively empty; a difference I’ve noticed on my travels throughout South Asia.
The temple of the tooth is the go-to site for tourists in Kandy. This scared Buddhist temple houses Buddhism’s most important relic, the tooth of the Buddha as the name suggests. The site was bombed during the civil war, but looking at worshippers from far and wide gather there today you’d be forgiven for assuming it had always been a place of peace. Kandy Lake –which surrounds the main site – is thoroughly impressive to look at, as is the beautiful golden ceiling of the temple itself.
Only a few hours from Kandy is another world heritage site, the ancient rock fortress Sirigya. I have to admit I was bitterly disappointed not to be able to visit, will be at the top of my list for next time.
Aside from Sigiriya, the main thing we felt that we missed out on was visiting Yala National Park. Given that it’s an area of such staggering natural beauty – and by today’s standards remains relatively unspoilt- Sri Lanka has many national parks you can visit. We went to a small, local reserve where we spotted stunning rare birds, paddled in breath-taking waterfalls and learnt to spot the difference between almond and cashew trees. However, it’s at the big parks like Yala that you can expect to spot wild elephants and if you’re lucky, a leopard or two. After much consideration we decided against taking the eight hour drive to Yala purely because – given that the best time for animal sightings is dawn – it just didn’t seem feasible during our short and jam packed trip.
We were however able to see an abundance of wild life on our ‘river safari’ in Bentota, only forty five minutes or so away from the hotel by tuk tuk. Boats crawl along the winding salt-water trail through the mangroves, where you can spot water monitors, crocodiles, fruit bats and herons to name just a few. The river felt eerily quiet, the tranquillity broken only occasionally by the eager ‘hellos’ of local children playing by the banks.
Another place worth a visit in Bentota is the turtle sanctuary. Of the six species of sea turtle, five can be found in Sri Lankan waters. In an effort to get the endangered types of turtle to thrive, the sanctuary aims hatches thousands of eggs on site before releasing them into the sea. We actually held the live eggs, which were rather like moving soft-shelled ping-pong balls, as well as the tiny babies themselves.
One thing to be mindful of when visiting Sri Lanka is that you have to be firm when dealing with local experts and guides. There are plenty of moneymaking initiatives designed to make the most out of tourists, so bear in mind that if something seems a little too steep in price, it probably is.
We were taken to a herb and spice garden where we learnt all about ayurvedic medicine which was, admittedly, fantastic. A little less fantastic was the £160 we spent on various lotions and potions without even meaning to, under the influence of the very charming – and flashily dressed- owner. At the end of the day Sri Lanka is still a poor country in recovery from a gruelling twenty plus years, and tourism is the main industry generating wealth. Most people aren’t out to rip you off, but do make sure that you put your money into the right people’s pockets. Tipping is an absolute necessity, so be sure to keep smaller notes to tip hotel staff, waiters etc.
The magic of Sri Lanka is felt by all who visit. The abundance of mountains, jungles, ancient sites, beautiful beaches and colourful villages is enough to win over even the most reluctant tourist. Since returning, my boyfriend and I have spoken endlessly about moving there in the future, imagining the idyllic (and cheap!) life we could have. It’s literally become our favourite day-dream. If you can take one trip this year, make sure it’s to Sri Lanka, and you’ll see exactly why people all over the world have fallen in love with this island nirvana.