Sri Lanka by Air
Stunning Sri Lanka
This place has been on my list of ‘most wanted’ travel destinations for a few years now, and it does not disappoint. It’s like an easier going, more laid back version of India. It’s still crazy, and chaotic, especially on the roads, but it does not have the full on assault to the senses that it’s bigger nearby sibling has.
We land in Columbo, but give it a swerve (after living in metropolitan Singapore for over four years, I crave the countryside and open spaces), and with our driver head straight out to Dambulla. The drive takes about six hours, mainly due to 30 kilometres of tedious roadworks and earth moving, that limits the road to just one, snarled up lane, and reduces our progress to under 10k per hour. When the road does free up again, it becomes an all out wacky races style competition, with buses, cars, lorries and most intimidating of all, the buses all jostling for position.
Dambulla – Cave Temples, Sigiriya and Wild Elephants
Dambulla is a fairly unremarkable town, but home to two major attractions, the Cave Temples and nearby Sigiriya, plus plenty of flaura and fauna.
The Cave Temples are the most impressive, dating back thousands of years, and over the last few centuries, have seen hundreds of Buddha statues added, in most of his significant poses, and wonderfully intricate, still vivid murals that adorn the cave interiors, largely protected by the brightness of the Sri Lanka sun.
Sigiriya on our trip was a little bit of a let-down, partly because the weight of expectation we had around seeing it, but mainly because our trip coincided with two days annual holiday, meaning that seemingly every nearby Sri Lankan family was out visiting it. The rock that this ancient city once stood upon is undoubtably impressive, standing tall amongst the surrounding jungle. But after an almost three hour climb to the top, moving at the rate of the slowest person in the line (and many elderly people gamely attempt to get to the top, despite the intense heat), the summit is a bit of an anti climax. There are some interesting murals on the way up, mainly of rather comely Indian ladies with fulsome breasts, but at the top, there are only some stunted ruins, and you need a vivid imagination to really envision what this place would have been like it it’s day.
After the climb, we retire for some lunch of local curry (all the food we had was excellent) before going off to a nearby National Park, for some elephant spotting. We see almost ten of the pachyderms, of various sizes, but all smaller and spottier than their African cousins, both inside the park itself, and later, ambling around the roadside. It’s heartening that there are still a few thousand elephants allowed to roam freely, and not held captive, or forced to clank around in chains, beaten into submission in order to carry tourists around for a tacky photo.
Kandy – home to the Temple of the Tooth
Kandy, a largish town, marks a convenient stopping off point between Dambulla, and our journey down South. For many, this is a destination to see the Tooth Relic temple, which is situated next to a large man-made lake. Kandy is a good place to re-charge. The lake makes a pleasant walk around in the evening, and is teaming with turtles, reptiles and bird life. The tooth relic temple is a large compound, and is a fascinating place, full of history and folk lore surrounding the famous tooth, supposedly snatched from the Buddha’s funeral pyre, and spirited to Sri Lanka. Legend has it that whoever has possession of the tooth, has the right to rule, and over the years, possession of it has been hotly contested by centuries of Sri Lankan Kings and later Colonial powers.
The Hill Country and Adam’s Peak
The drive south from Kandy is stunning, as we head down through the centre of the country and through the bright green tea plantations, spread far and wide along the verdant valley’s, and tended by hard working Sri Lankan ladies, delicately picking the tea leaves under the hot sun. We head to the 2500m Adam’s Peak, a key mountain in the country, an important pilgrimage for Buddhists, and for locals and tourists alike, promises a spectacular daybreak. So at 3am the next day we haul our bleary asses out of bed, grab some warm clothes and water, and head out into the black and chilly night. The Mountain stands darkly, save for the long string of lights that pick out the long trek ahead of us. The bottom starts easily enough, but before long, the wide path, narrows and steepens, and becomes a seriously calf shredding endurance test. The climb is interspersed with many shrines, where early morning prayers and chanting adds an atmospheric distraction to our exertions, although the sugary instant Nescafe has a more immediate effect. After just under three hours, we make the top, and about 30minutes later, the first rays of the sun come over the top of the neighbouring mountain, and before long, the whole scene is drenched in the golden, warming, early morning light. It really is a wonderful experience, and we happily make the long descent, our hearts and spirits lifted by the spectacular sight we’ve just shared.
Galle – Old Colonial Charm
And so to Galle, our last stop. I had not really done any pre-reading about this place at all, but had heard from a few friends that it was a great destination. Immediately we enter the centuries old Portuguese walls, we were hooked to this wonderful place. While un-deniably more Western, rather than Sri Lankan, this place retains a genuine old World atmosphere, helped by the very sympathetic planning controls inside the Fort, which have retained most of the older buildings, and prevented any overtly modern developments.
The main attractions are the huge walls and battlements that surround the compact old city, the lighthouse area built in the early 1930’s, and the back streets, which contain dozens of coffee houses, bars and restaurants. Our favourite of these is a great fish restaurant called Elita, which is right opposite the lighthouse (though apparently they may be moving soon). It’s a small, two story place, with the dining room and kitchen on the second floor, and an outdoor dining areas on the ground. The fish, crab and prawns they dish up at this place are to die for, super fresh seafood, with subline light curry sauces. The service is pretty terrible mind, the second time we went there, we waited over an hour for the food, but it’s worth it, both for the location, ambience and the quality of the food.
Sri Lanka, with it’s welcoming people, superb food, wonderful beaches, wildlife and fascinating Buddhist history, is a wonderful destination, and I hope that this trip will be the first of many.