The old saying, strong essences are kept in small bottles, perfectly describes the small island country, Sri Lanka. Although many tourists visit the country just to enjoy a sunny escape during winter, Sri Lanka is more than a tropical island with pristine beaches.
It is one of the best places for admiring the wildlife of Asia, with over 20 natural reserves and protected areas. Its flora and fauna is very diverse, and many endangered species can still be seen wandering in the jungle. And the beauty of it is that everything is packed together into one tiny area.
Civil unrest in the country
Although at first glance it is hard to notice the extreme violence that has troubled the country for 26 years, the civil war has put its mark on economic development. Only in recent years has tourism gained momentum, so you most often feel the only traveler on the island.
Religious minorities usually live separately therefore you will find predominantly Christian symbols in a town, and then Islamic features in the next. Buddhism is the main religion in Sri Lanka, but due to the long period of conflicts, the population has segregated. Tamil Hindus occupy the northern part of the country, while the Sinhalese Buddhists live in the southern and central areas. Most of the Christian and Muslim populations are located on the west and east coast of the island.
During the civil war between the government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a militant organization fighting for an independent Tamil state in northeastern Sri Lanka, many massacres were committed by both sides. Tamil Tigers killed thousands of Buddhists and Muslims, forcing the population to flee the area, to which the government responded with the murder of a large number of Tamil fighters and civilians.
Between 1983 and 2009, about 100,000 civilians died due to massacres and suicide attacks. According to the United Nations report, in the last months of the war, up to 40,000 people may have been killed. The Sri Lankan Army was accused of shelling civilians in the northern territories during their offensive against the LTTE, but the government denied any wrongdoing.
Today, the traces of war are not very visible to the untrained visitor, but locals painfully recall the years of terror and death. Like any other country that has gone through a period of war or dictatorship, Sri Lanka is affected by the corruption that dominates the transition years. People are aware of the potential of their country, so they suffer because of the bad governance.
The tourism industry is currently one of the country’s main sources of income, as many locals have developed their own businesses, offering accommodation or guided tours. Because mass tourism could destroy the island’s biodiversity, alternatives have emerged for responsible travel in natural areas. Over the past two years, over 4 million tourists have visited Sri Lanka and I’m happy to say, I was one of them.
Colombo – the capital of Sri Lanka
We arrived at Bandaranaike International Airport from Dubai, a very comfortable layover if you fly from Europe. Using Uber in Colombo is a cost-effective option, so we ordered a car to take us from the airport to the hotel. There are many hotels in the city to choose from, depending on the budget, but I think the most beautiful area to stay in is around Viharamahadevi Park.
The capital is quite contrasting, ranging from modern buildings, such as skyscrapers, to slums and luxurious villas. The wealthy have built their houses in the park’s vicinity, along with the state institutions, embassies and cultural centers. After about 15-minute walk from Viharamahadevi Park, you will reach the Beira Lake. It is probably the last place you can enjoy a relaxed atmosphere, because as you get closer to Fort Colombo, the city’s central and financial district, madness begins to settle in.
Although the area still bears the name Fort, the Portuguese fortifications were demolished by the Dutch and later by the British invaders. Beautiful old buildings, especially the legacy left by the British colonialism and somewhat less by the Dutch era, can still be seen among skyscrapers or dusty streets.
Walking between Colombo’s points of interest is not easy. Even at pedestrian crossings, you have to make sure that a car or a three-wheeler will not cut your way. Many streets in Colombo Fort are crowded with people, cars and especially tuk-tuks. As a tourist, you are often stopped on the road. Sometimes people just want to say “hello” and have a chatt, other times they try to sell something. Most often, tuk–tuk drivers will follow you trying to convince you to take a city tour in their rickshaws.
After spending about an hour in the heat, we succumbed to our chasers’ pressure and got into a tuk-tuk. Although we had to pay more than we initially discussed, it was a good decision, after all, because the distance traveled was not exactly negligible. We agreed to pay 2000 LKR (about $10) per hour, but at the end of the tour the driver claimed the price was, in fact, for one person and not for the rickshaw, so we ended up paying double.
I would like to say that I can give you some tips on how to avoid being fooled, but I think, no matter how cautious you are, a tuk-tuk driver is way smarter than a tourist, so you will eventually be tricked. Just try to ask as many questions as possible before agreeing on the ride and expect to leave some extra money at the end.
History and wildlife
After meeting our friends in Colombo, we began our journey across the island.
In Sri Lanka, you need an international driving license (IDL) to rent a car, but luckily, because none of us had one, we rented a minivan for five persons with a driver. I say ‘luckily’ because the traffic was pretty crazy (although people say it is much better than in India), with dozens of buses speeding on the road to reach customers ahead of competing companies. And also, we got a much better price, as we didn’t have to keep the car with us all the time.
Every hotel can arrange your journey from one place to another with as many stops as you like. And if the price seems too high, there are always several tour operators that you can contact and ask for an offer. Most of the time, however, hotels will be willing to negotiate and accept a lower fare. You can also check the appropriate cost per kilometer at the time of your trip, to make sure you get a fair deal.
Visiting Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle
We left Colombo in the morning and headed for the center of the island to the so-called Cultural Triangle, the ancient heritage of Sri Lanka, which includes the most important UNESCO sites in the country.
Kandy – the last capital of the Kingdom of Sri Lanka
Around lunch, we arrived in Kandy, the last capital of the Sinhalese monarchs before being captured by the British in 1815. This historic city is home to the famous Temple of the Tooth, where the relic of the tooth of the Buddha, considered sacred, is housed.
To enter the temple, you must dress properly, which means that both the shoulders and the legs must be covered. And as we forgot to take more clothes when we left the car, we rushed to the nearby stalls to buy some scarves. We wrapped ourselves in a long scarf and went to the security gate. But, surprise, we were still not adequately dressed because you need two pieces of cloth, one for the top and one for the lower part of the body, no matter how covered you are.
Until we tried to solve our dressing problem, the monsoon weather solved it for us. In less than a minute, we were totally wet and were running to hide from the rain. During the wet season, the temperature becomes a little cooler, so we soon forgot the sticky heat and we felt the cool air. Despite the small size of the country, due to the ocean currents, the dry and wet season varies from one area to another.
In the so-called dry zone of Sri Lanka, which includes the northern region and eastern coast, the monsoonal rainfall is less severe and occurs between November and March, while the south-west region and the Highlands (or hill country located in the south-central part of the island) are hit by a more aggressive monsoon from May to September. An inter-monsoonal period – with thunderstorms and heavy rain – takes place from October to mid-November across the country.
And it was late September and we were in the mountainous area of Kandy …
Dambulla – the temple in a cave
From Kandy we continued our journey through the Central Province and, as the rain did not subside, the temperature dropped by a few degrees. We reached Dambulla in the evening and headed for our resort outside the city. Surrounded by the mighty jungle, in the heart of Sri Lanka, the Sundaras Resort was the best place to discover the beauty of nature and the history behind it.
Every morning, macaque monkeys and green forest lizards that change their colour accompanied us at breakfast. After eating, the monkeys began their morning workout, jumping from one room balcony to the other. We were less self-disciplined, so we preferred to laze around in the pool and watch their training.
Dambulla Cave Temple, the major attraction of the city, was just a 20-minute walk from our resort. But we were offered a free ride, which we accepted happily, because the road there is rather steep. While climbing over 300 steps from the foot of the temple up the hill, the monkeys came to greet us, hoping they will get some food in return.
The temple is actually a complex of five caves, with religious murals and statues of the Buddha. The caves, varying in size, were converted into a temple by the king of Anuradhapura in the 1st century BC. The statues were added later during the Polonnaruwa era, while the ceilings were painted in the 18th century using colours extracted from tree trunks. From the top plateau, you can admire the rich vegetation surroundings and the rock fortress Sigiriya.
After a mere half an hour drive from Dambulla, another stop on the cultural trail is at this megalithic rock. For centuries, the 200-meter-high cliff served as a religious sanctuary, until King Kassapa decided to build his royal palace and fortress on its summit. After the king’s death in 495, the site was returned to the Buddhist monks, who used it as a monastery until the 14th century, when it was abandoned.
The name Lion Rock, as the term Sigiriya translates, derives from the shape of a lion carved on one side of the rock. Its feet have survived the passing of time, but not the rest of the body. From the former citadel of King Kassapa, only the ruins of the defense walls were preserved, and a few frescoes.
To get to Sigiriya, we preferred to take the scenic route that passes by Kandalama Lake and through several small villages conquered by the jungle. We stopped on our way to a small lake where our driver said he had spotted crocodiles a few days ago. Unfortunately, we were not as lucky, but we saw a bunch of monitor lizards and, more importantly, purple-faced langurs, a species of monkey that is endemic to Sri Lanka.
The climb up and down the Sigiriya rock can take about three hours and there are over 1,000 steps to the top. So we decided to admire the volcanic cliff from a distance and continued on to Polonnaruwa.
The ancient cities of Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura
Polonnaruwa is the second most ancient kingdom of Sri Lanka after Anuradhapura, and lasted for over three centuries between 1017-1310 BC. The primeval city stretches over several kilometers, so it is better to use the car for visits to the historic attractions or to hire a bicycle if the weather is good.
The ruins of King Parakramabahu’s palace, statues of the Buddha, temples and ponds are gathered in a vast green area with alleys and gardens, and the usual macaque monkeys. As we approached Rankoth Vehera, the largest stupa in Polonnaruwa, we saw people in white clothes singing at the foot of the temple. The atmosphere was magical, so we stood there in awe until they finished their prayers.
Just two hours’ drive from Polonnaruwa is the capital of the first kingdom of Sri Lanka, Anuradhapura. Founded in 377 BC, it ruled the country for 1,400 years until being defeated by the Cholas, a South-Indian Tamil dynasty. The ancient city of Anuradhapura is even larger than Pollonaruwa (a tuk-tuk or a car would be useful for a visit), but its ruins are less preserved. If you are not very keen in spending a lot of time at the sights, you can combine the two in one day.
The natural reserves of Minneriya and Kaudulla
The road to and from Polonnaruwa passes by two of the most impressive natural reserves Minneriya and Kaudulla National Parks. Situated in the dry zone of Sri Lanka, in the North Central Province, the region suffers from reduced water supplies, especially from July to September.
At the end of the dry season, the elephants begin to migrate to reach the Minneriya water reservoirs and the more fertile grass. Some roads are closed during the migration period to avoid accidents. And since we were not far from this area, we could see the elephants on the road, close to our car as we drove back to the hotel.
The best time for a safari is in the afternoon, when elephants gather around the water tanks to socialize and bathe. As we arranged a visit to the park with our hotel staff, a black jeep took us from there and headed for the Kaudulla National Park (drivers will know which of the two places are most likely for you to see elephants at the time of the visit). We paid $30 per person for the jeep and another $15 for the entrance fee.
We entered the park on a narrow road and opened the roof of the jeep for better visibility. We drove for a while on these jungle lanes only to spot one elephant. And just when we thought there are no more elephants, a wide plateau opened before our eyes, and the herds were there.
Called The Gathering, it is the largest meeting place in Asia for these incredible creatures. Families with babies use the reservoirs as a playground and it was amazing to see the spectacular show of elephants trying to reach the water. We returned in the evening after taking hundreds of photos.
South West Coast and Galle Fort
After five days in the wild, it was time to say goodbye to our friends: the monkeys, elephants, the colourful lizards and monitor lizards. We left the jungle and went south to see the ocean. We rented a villa right on the shores of the Indian Ocean, not far from the ancient Dutch city of Galle.
If you happen to be in the area, do not miss this beautiful city. A UNESCO world heritage site, the Galle Dutch Fort is well preserved and many of its architectural monuments are still intact. Originally built by the Portuguese in the late 16th century, the Dutch took over the country in the 17th century and began an extensive fortification project.
Inside the fort is a small lively town. As you stroll through its cobbled streets, you can admire old churches, mosques, temples and government buildings, or even spot a purple-face langur seeking food on the wide-open terraces of the Dutch colonial houses. You can stop for a drink at one of the many cafés and restaurants or shop in the elegant boutiques. A nice walk along the fortified wall to Galle Lighthouse offers an impressive view of the ocean.
Although built right on the southwestern tip of the country, in the Bay of Galle, the fort has survived the 2004 tsunami. Due to its strong ramparts, it withstood the waves, while the rest of the city was severely damaged. Sri Lanka was the second most affected country by the tsunami after Indonesia, with around 40,000 dead. The worst hit areas were the southern and eastern coasts.
Today, much of the destroyed areas have been rebuilt, and tourists can relax again at the beach. On the southern coast, from Bentota to Mirissa, you can find many enjoyable resorts. We preferred a quieter area and, as we were five people, we rented a villa overlooking the ocean in the small village of Talpe.
The sunsets were magnificent and the warm waves of the Indian Ocean embraced us with tenderness. We were just two meters from the ocean, so we could hear its breathing during the night. And while the owner of the villa was telling us the story of the horrific tsunami, when his house and everything else was wiped off the face of the earth, we were listening to the waves of the ocean crashing against the wall of our temporary home …
Due to the fact that Bandaranaike International Airport is located 32 km from the capital, in the suburbs of Negombo, consider spending a day here before departure. For us, it was a pleasant surprise. The city is incredibly green, and the Hamilton Canal, with its colorful fishing boats, passes right through it. You can also enjoy a massage session at Villa Rose Ayurvedic Center. With a beautiful garden and open terraces with lotus flower pools, it gives you a sense of relaxation the minute you enter its gates.