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Review: Sri Lanka

Escorted Tour

Pearl of the Indian Ocean

  • By SilverTraveller stcuthbert

    5 reviews

  • Feb 2014
  • Wife

23 people found this review helpful

The Pearl of The Indian Ocean Sri Lanka may not be among the most familiar of destinations for senior travellers but, once visited, it is easy to understand why it conjures up wonderful memories and some life changing experiences. We visited this small but dramatic island earlier this year and were soon captivated by its charm, dramatic landscapes and by its welcoming people, many who have learned to be resilient and adaptable, often in the face of civil war and powerful natural disasters.



About the size of Ireland, it is relatively easy to get about and if, as we did, you opt for a ten or twelve day guided tour, then you can visit many of the country's most memorable attractions without mishap. Hotels are often of high quality and the food absolutely delicious. Originally called Ceylon, the modern name 'Sri Lanka', translates as the resplendent island or isle of unexpected pleasures. An apt choice of name! Shaped like a teardrop off India's western coastline, Sri Lanka has so much to commend it, including magnificent fortresses hewn into solid rock, ruined ancient capitals, dense jungle, cool hillside villages and a culture which at times has been refreshingly slow to embrace the less attractive side of our own modern life. Added to these qualities, we have a country producing the world's best tea and one possessing abundant wildlife, including hundreds of exotic birds and a wide range of animals including snakes, monkeys, elephants, crocodiles and leopards, many of which can readily be seen in the National Parks. There are also gentle reminders of ithe island's British colonial past, especially in the cultural triangle, an area of particular historical importance and economic growth.



Like almost all visitors, we made use of Colombo airport, the gateway to the Island. Colombo, the present capital, is a memorable, electric city which can both fascinate and terrify you in the course of one afternoon. Buses , motor bikes and tuktuks abound, skillfully making their way round bemused pedestrians and even the odd cattle. The streets are crammed with stalls and shops interspersed with modern buildings and high rise commerce. As in India, drivers' horns are sounded frequently making for a degree of chaos in which surprisingly there is little evidence of serious accidents. Our tour made its way rapidly northwards to Anuradhapura, an area ruled by Sinhalese kings for some 1000 years. The landscape here is filled with ancient Buddhist shrines, stupas (Buddhist commemorative stone monuments usually housing sacred relics associated with the Buddha or other saintly persons ) and the sacred 2000 year old Sri Maha Bodi tree, a place of pilgrimage for many modern Sri Lankans. Buddhism is widely followed by most Sri Lankan people, although religions such as Christianity and Islam are also present.



In Habarana, we were able to informally visit a typical Sri Lankan village in order to see indigenous farming practices unaltered for generations, such as the hand grinding of rice. The farming of coconuts is particulalry important whereby every part of the fruit is put to good use, with nothing wasted. In the same area is probably Sri Lankan's most famous landmark, Sigiriya, a 182 metre volcanic rock plateu on which the 5th century ruler, Kasyapa, built a fortress and even his own palace containing a wall of mirrors, supposedly reflecting the grandeur of both him and his creations. Part of the spectacular lion rock fortress still remains and the summit of the rock is reached by scrambling up literally hundreds of stone steps, some rather precarious. The views from the top were superb but descending to the car park was made quite hazardous by the onset of a thunderstorm and teaming rain.



Before heading further south towards the mountainous regions of Kandy and Nuwara Eliya, we were delighted to see the serene Golden Temple of Dambulla, famed for its gilded interior and the five awe inspiring caves containing replicas of Buddah in almost every pose. At the entrance, standing guard over all, is the main gold plated Buddha statue, some 100 feet tall and undeniably impressive.



The climb by bus towards the mountain capital of Kandy is well worth the effort and every torturous bend. Here we were rewarded by splendid views, welcome drops in temperature and a panorama of palm free hills looped by the famous Mahaweli River. Whilst lacking the sheer business of Colombo, Kandy is nevertheless an important town with some thriving local industries. Before leaving, we were able to sample perhaps its two most important attractions, the Botanical Gardens and the sacred Temple of the Tooth. The former is an oasis of plant colour and tranquility just a short distance from the city noise. Rare trees and plants provide a rich contrast to the grime of surrounding streets in which large fruit bats roost overhead. Perched on the lakeside near to the town centre, are the attractive white buildings of the Temple of the Tooth. This is Sri Lanka's most important and sacred temple, housing reputedly the tooth of Buddah. Thousands of devout Buddhists come from all over Asia to the Shrine . The Relic itself is kept within several closed interlocking gold caskets and is rarely put on display. Whatever its secrets, this an awe inspiring place and well worth a visit. All vistors must shed their shoes and headgear before entry.



A little further south is the famous tea growing town of Nuwara Eliya. For miles around there are terraces of the tea bearing shrubs, many of them being hand picked by local women bearing their famous wicker style baskets on their backs. We were able to visit a tea factory and observe the whole process from leaf picking to packaging and attend tasting sessions. Still proudly called Ceylon tea, the flavours are unquestionably Sri Lankan and can excite the palate without the need for milk and sugar!



The wildlife of the island continues to draw vistors from around the globe. We were particularly drawn to the magnificent array of birdlife ( the famous Bundala National Park has 5 wonderful coastal lagoons housing almost 200 species of birds alone, from flamingos to eagles.) This park, together with the neighbouring and most widely visited Yala National Park, are a naturalists' heaven. Taking an early morning safari in Yala , we were delighted to see herds of roaming elephants, endless monkeys, rare deer, giant squirrels, mongoose and many less inviting crocodiles. The elusive sloth bear and leopard escaped our attention this time round, although Yala has the greatest leopard population per square km in the world. The elephant is highly respected by the islanders and well protected. We were treated to an elephant ride to the edge of the jungle, which was a holiday highlight, particulalry for those ladies chosen to ride on the elephant's shoulders. At Udawalawe is the Elephant Transit Home, where younger, injured or orphaned beasts are carefully nurtured until they can be released back into the wild. Seeing baby elephants hand fed with milk, draws admiring crowds on a daily basis.



During our final two days in particular, we saw ample evidence of the sheer might of the tsunami which devestated the coastal parts of the island almost 10 years ago. Over 50,000 are known to have perished but locally they still talk of huge numbers yet unaccounted for, with the possible death rate being as high as 100,000, many of them children and the elderly. Along the coastline around towns like Galle, the debris still lies where it fell and the poignant remains of cafes, flimsy homes and even hotels, are a tragic reminder of the horror that occurred during the Boxing day holiday of 2004. The devestation stretches well inland, testimony to the sheer destructive power of two massive surges that engulved local communities early that day. However, the Sri Lankans are a resiliant people and they are determined to rebuild their communities and support each other. It was a very sobering experience to visit such areas where cameras were somehow an intrusion and largely unused. Our lasting memories of this beautiful country were many and varied. An island with a rich array of natural resources, a people who show immense pride in their homeland and a developing country which openly shared its cultures and traditions to any who stopped by and asked. Some day we hope to return.

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Other Members' Thoughts - 2 Comment(s)

  • Su
    2 months ago
    We enjoyed Sri Lanka so much.The safari in Yala really gave me the bug to do more! Very emotional seeing wild elephants so close to you, and beautiful bird life too.
    The people were really friendly and kind. Would really recommend it to anyone who has a sense of adventure
  • Jdlluce
    almost 6 years ago
    I too was on this trip in Feb and whole heartily agree with the review and comments, an amazing holiday, with wonderful hotels ( two had animals in the grounds, monkeys, monitor lizards, wild boar and if you were lucky,we were not, the odd rambling elephant). Would like to return again. We loved the heat, not too humid and didn't have any problems with mosquitoes. It was quite an adventure.