Inside Sri Lanka
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Many tourists who visit Sri Lanka never get
much further than its glorious beach resorts with their infinity pools and
all-inclusive luxury. Yet the country has so much more to offer with ancient
cities, Buddhist temples, hillside tea plantations and wildlife sanctuaries, all
offering a unique cultural experience.
Sri Lanka is a compact country, around the
size of Wales, with a good network of buses and trains. To get the most out of
your visit, the best way is to hire a car with a driver. It’s not expensive,
less than £50 a day including the driver’s meals and accommodation, and it
gives you the flexibility to stop whenever you want. The added benefit is that
many of these drivers make excellent guides, just make sure they speak good
English. You can do this itinerary in a week, but it makes sense to spend
longer to give you time to linger.
After a long flight, it’s worth stopping
for a night in Colombo and the city is less than an hour from the airport. Of
course like most Asian cities it’s rapidly growing a selection of high rise
buildings, but it still retains much of its leafy charm, partly because
investors shied away during the long civil war. Explore its narrow lanes, lined
with colonial buildings to get a sense of the old Colombo and sights include
the National Museum, the Gangaramaya Buddhist temple, the restored Old Dutch
Hospital, and the busy markets of Pettah.
There’s new highway linking Colombo with
the south and it only takes around two hours to cover the 128 Km to the city of
Galle. The 18th century Dutch fort area is a UNESCO world heritage site and is
the best example of a fortified European city in South Asia. Remarkably, in
spite of the boutique hotels and handicraft shops, it’s still a working town
with the law courts and schools drawing locals every day. It can get hot here
so walk the ramparts and get some cooling sea breezes, watching local boys leap
into the ocean. The 17th century Dutch Reformed church is worth a visit, but best
just to wander the narrow streets past tumbledown colonial buildings and soak
in the atmosphere.
Heading east along the coast it’s worth
visiting the Kosgoda Turtle Hatchery.
The beach here is a prime nesting site for turtles but locals have a taste for
their eggs so they’re often stolen. The good folks at the hatchery either
collect them from the beach, or buy them at the market, and incubate them until
the hatchlings break out. They’re then released back into the sea after a few
days. They also rescue injured turtles and you can see a few specimens here.
Turning north and climbing up to hill
country, it’s a gruelling six hour on narrow winding roads to cover 253 Km. The
climate noticeably cools and the vegetation changes. It’s worth stopping at
Ella, at 1000m, for scenic views of jungle covered mountains, notably through what
they call Ella gap, a niche in the hills by the side of Ella Rock.
The road climbs further upwards and soon you’re in the cloud as you reach Nuwara Eliya at 1,868 m. This is the capital of the hill country and was founded by the British in 1846. It’s also known as Little England, since the buildings look like they’ve been transplanted from Surrey, complete with hedges and manicured lawns. Here hard drinking tea planters spent their leisure time, in between elephant and fox hunting trips. It still has a race course and of course, a huge golf course with appropriate club house.
Even though the British are long gone, the
tea plantations continue to thrive and the hillsides are covered in the emerald
green bushes, dotted with workers still picking by hand. One of the tea
factories has been imaginatively transformed into a hotel, complete with its
own garden where you can try your hand at picking tea. You can taste the fruit
of your labours, if you wait the two days it takes to dry the leaves. Instead I
visit the Bluefield Tea Gardens
factory and see each stage of the process, of course accompanied by various tastings.
It’s another three hour drive and 85km
through the mist and drizzle to reach Kandy, Sri Lanka’s former capital. The
town is tucked on the edge of an artificial lake, surrounded by green hills on
all sides and it’s an attractive place. The big attraction is the Dalada Maligawa,
or the Temple of the Tooth, where they have one of Buddha’s canines, kept
hidden inside a Russian box of caskets. That doesn’t stop worshippers queuing
up to see the monks opening the sacred sanctum twice a day. It’s a tremendous sight,
with incense, drumming and exotic costumes adding to the sense of ceremony.
There are usually cultural shows nearby with displays of traditional dancing
and fire walking.
Still heading north and descending to the
plains, after 95 km and three hours driving, you reach Sigiriya, or Lion Rock.
This Rock Fortress or "castle in the sky” was a royal citadel for 20 years
in the 5th Century. It’s a massive monolith of red stone that rises 600ft above
ground and the climb to the summit is reached between the paws of a lion.
Beneath it are the remains of the Royal Palace landscaped with waterways and
lakes and there’s also an excellent museum. On the way up there are well
preserved frescoes depicting topless women and of course the view from the top
is stunning. Signs warn of wasp attacks and they’ve been known to attack
tourists, but there’s a caged shelter in the middle of the climb, just in case.
Minneriya National Park
There are a number of protected areas in
the vicinity and Minneriya is known for its large herds of Elephants who gather
to drink around the reservoir of the same name. It has all the ingredients of
an African safari and you transfer to special vehicles to journey deep into the
jungle. I arrive in late afternoon and am rewarded by the sight of over 250
elephants milling around on the edge of the lake, some of them taking the
opportunity to have an early evening bath, as the sun sinks on the horizon.
Not far away is Polonnaruwa, the island’s medieval
capital from the 11th to the 13th Centuries, before being abandoned to invaders
from South India. It spreads over a huge area, fortified by three concentric
walls and laid out with an irrigation system and clusters of temples and
shrines. You’ll need your guide to drop you off at strategic points, otherwise
distances are too great to walk. The highlight is the Buddhist temple containing
four colossal Buddhas carved out of the rock, sleeping, sitting and standing.
A couple of hours east, is Passikudah, a
small coastal village about 35km from Batticaloa. What brings people here is its
long bay, fringed with golden sands, and clear shallow water which makes it
safe to bathe. The hotels are all recent developments and, although they’re
clustered next to each other, are tastefully low rise and hidden in the palms.
At the far end of the beach fishermen still set out in their canoes every night
using lights to attract squid, their main catch. It’s a pleasant place to relax
but just be aware that it can take seven hours to drive back to the
international airport in Colombo.
Travelling around in this way means you see
far more of the country and the driver will usually stop at interesting village
cafes for refreshments or lunch. Even though the distances are not huge, the
roads tend to be narrow and full of traffic, so bear that in mind when you are
planning your itinerary. Drivers are usually fairly flexible so if there’s
something you want to see that isn’t on your route, then they will usually be
able to accommodate your request. Sri Lankan curries are excellent and usually
vegetarian, but all hotels offer western dishes if you get fed up of spicy
food. Beer is widely available but wine is imported and expensive. Bottled
water is freely available throughout the country.
Travel has tourist information, including a list of travel agents who can
arrange cars with drivers.
All these are fairly high end properties
but there are many cheaper options.
The Kingsbury, in Colombo, is right on
the seafront and close to the main attractions.
The Beach Cabanas in Koggala are around
half an hour from Galle and have comfortable bungalows which open onto the sand.
The Heritance Tea Factory
sits in the middle of the tea plantations in a converted factory.
Reach, in Kandy, is just outside the town and overlooks the river.
The Heritance Kandalama is an
eco-friendly hotel and sits in the middle of the forest on the shores of
Sun Rise by Jetwing
sits right on the beach in Passikudah.
Beach Resort is at the far end of the beach in Passikudah.
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