‘Dynamite’ curries that set your tongue on fire, wildlife sightings that give you goosebumps, miles of glorious beachfronts, historical and architectural marvels…Sri Lanka has a stunning variety of options for every kind of vacation, says Sowmya Rajaram, who spent her honeymoon in Sri Lanka. The best part? You won’t have to pay an arm and a leg for a luxurious time!
Sorely underrated, Sri Lanka combines the best of what you hope for in a new travel destination—a little bit of bonhomie from home, and all the excitement of visiting a foreign land. Plus, you can do a lavish jaunt here for the cost of slumming it in Europe!
Habarana and the World Heritage Site of Sigiriya
Our vacation began with an hour-long flight from Chennai to Colombo. Three and a half hours after being received at Colombo airport by the nicest travel guide known to man, we were at the Chaaya Village, Cinnamon Lodge, Habarana. En route, we stopped at a roadside eatery. We didn’t order at the counter. Servers came to us with a platter, and charged us for what we picked.
The next morning, we headed to Sigriya, a World Heritage Site and the ruins of a 5th century capital. 1,200 step up a vertical rock face we came to a beautiful painting of 21 bare-chested damsels, amidst fluffy clouds, scattering petals and offering trays of fruit. It meandered through the remains of King Kassapa’s city and its canals, fountains and landscaped gardens. We entered the final stretch through Lion’s Rock, which is carved with two gigantic lion’s paws and a mouth. The rock face is sheltered from the searing October sun by a man-made enclosure. While not much is known about who these figures represent, they are similar in technique to the Ajanta cave paintings. Look out for the Mirror Wall opposite the paintings. It is diligently polished and legend has it that at one time, it reflected the frescos. What remains today, is an impossibly shiny surface punctuated by graffiti that pamphlets say are poems dedicated to the nude maidens.
So, what could beat 16 centuries of history, you ask? Camera-happy elephants, and aggressive ones that threaten to chase and trample your diminutive safari jeep when you get too close, and baby elephants that are all curly tails, tiny trunks and unsure feet sandwiched between fiercely protective pachyderms like a cuddly pile of goo. Okay, the last bit was just how I saw it. But the elephant safari was one of the highlights of my Sri Lanka experience. Having never managed to see a tiger in the wild, I was unabashedly excited about seeing the elephants, and didn’t come away disappointed.
The hour and a half long no-frills affair takes you through Habarana National Park. Bring sunglasses, a hat, a scarf and lots of water, and don’t scrimp on the sunscreen — the wildlife is stunning, but the sun is fierce and dust, unforgiving. Accompanied by a driver-cum-guide, we were seduced by groups of elephants who seem very much at ease with the safari jeeps and provide plenty of photo-ops.
Kandy and the Caves of Dambulla
Day three, and it was time for Kandy, a lovely colonial town that reminded us a bit of a cleaner, larger Kodaikanal, because most activity centers around Kandy Lake.
One of the many perks of Sri Lanka is that the roads are great and people barely honk, which means that even a stroll along the artificial lake in the heart of the marketplace gives you the opportunity for a quiet, romantic walk.
The Colonial Suisse Hotel had us in thrall with its quaint offerings of towel sculptures, decorated bathtubs and a balcony overlooking the lake. The vegetarian food, though, was sorely lacking in variety — a problem we faced intermittently in Sri Lanka. Roadside fare too is unimaginative, and requests for curries without meat are met with surprise.
Kandy is the site of the much-venerated Temple of the Tooth and was the last capital of the Sinhalese kingdom before it fell to the British in 1815. If you want to visit the temple (and you should, the beautiful 17th century structure is believed to contain the upper left canine of Buddha) don’t make the mistake we did — of wearing shorts. That meant we had to skip the edifice entirely and head instead to the Dambulla caves.
An 80-cave precinct set in a 600-foot rock, the complex is a must-visit. Five of these caves greet you with rows and rows of Buddha idols, mostly seated in the Dhyana position. Paintings of Buddha—and interestingly, Hindu Gods like Vishnu, Ganesha and Saraswati—overlook the idols beatifically from the ceiling, in vibrant hues. The 153 Buddha statues, believed to have been constructed around the 1st or 2nd century BC, are well-preserved and lit, making this a unique sight.
The Lush Beauty of Nuwara Eliya
Nuwara Eliya, a charming hill town, is every bit the stereotype of the colonisers’ summer retreat. Lush green valleys, tiny waterfalls (bigger ones abound if you visit in the monsoon) and that unmistakeable mountain-fresh air greet you in this town nicknamed Little England. If you’re here for a while, do stay in the colonial bungalows, walk through the tea plantations and visit a golf course. But if time is short, a drive through, with a walk in the hills and a visit to a plantation or tea factory should suffice. The weather is a highlight, and does a lot to elevate your appreciation of the sights.
Magnificent Galle Fort
Galle Fort, simply put, is breathtaking. The furious sun made it hard to keep our hot eyes open, but the magnificence of the view from the fort walls, which overlook the oh-so-blue ocean, did the trick.
We captured some beautiful photographs of the ocean as we walked along the fort walls. Enterprising, tanned young boys goaded us to watch them take some jaw-dropping leaps off the walls into the rocky ocean below for a few. But we knew that a few hundred bucks and stunning pictures might come at the cost of a life.
The fort itself, first built by the Portuguese in the 16th century, subsequently fortified by the Dutch and then restored after suffering damage in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, is like a planned city. Various government and commercial buildings still operate out of it. Most existing heritage structures within the area have now been appropriated by the fancy 5-star Amangalla Hotel.
Seduced by the impossibly perfect pictures of frothy-laced, insanely blue waves kissing the bronzed sand, we reserved the best for last–Saman Villas, a luxury boutique hotel on the beachfront. The promise of having a private seven-metre swimming pool in our villa had a little something to do with it.
A water sports destination, Bentota serves up the opportunity to go snorkelling, diving, windsurfing and even deep sea fishing. We made time for a short visit to a nearby turtle farm and hatchery that took us through the process of breeding, conserving and rescuing a now endangered species.
Saman Villas indulges every whim. You can luxuriate in your private pool with some champagne, soak in the gorgeous infinity pool overlooking the ocean, laze on the lounge chairs outside your villa, or head to the beach with a good book. The outdoor shower in our villa came with a little fountain, which was periodically showered with white jasmine flowers from a nearby tree. Meals were served in the restaurant facing the swimming pool, and come with 2-3 set vegetarian and non-vegetarian options, unlike the standard buffets at most other places.
And if you’re itching for some action, have a go at the well-maintained billiards table, the gym or the sauna. You can also make a request for a special, romantic dinner, to toast your heavenly holiday. I speak from experience.
Sri Lankan Airlines operates regular flights from India to Colombo, as do Indian carriers like Jet Airways and Spice Jet.
Visa & Currency Information
30-day visas are available on arrival to Indians for $20, and for $15 if you do it online in advance. Log onto http://www.eta.gov.lk for more information and to confirm.
US dollars are accepted freely almost everywhere in Sri Lanka.
Almost everyone we met spoke English, or warmed up when they found out we were from India and followed cricket.
Local prepaid SIM cards are available at the airport. One for the value of Rs 1,000 (approx 520 Indian Rs) was more than sufficient for a week.
If you don’t eat meat, carry a few ready snacks with you or purchase them from wayside eateries to tide over the munchies.
Carry lots of sunscreen, a hat, a scarf and a mosquito repellent.
Make sure to dress appropriately when you visit temples and sites of religious significance.
Almost everyone here expects a generous tip, so keep some extra cash handy.
Shop only from places recommended by someone in the know, or you will find it hard to distinguish between the really indigenous, unique stuff and the cookie-cutter tourist souviners.
Sri Lankans love their spicy curries. Don’t forget to try the ‘dynamite’ in particular, which we were told multiple times, would ‘take us to the moon’.