It’s definitely not like India.
Having spent an amazing holiday in Northern India back in 2014 thoughts for future trips had touched on Kerala in Southern India but we had a curiosity for the island of Sri Lanka and when it came to making a final decision we decided that Sri Lanka would probably offer us at least some of what we would experience in Kerala while at the same time tick another country off the bucket list.
So, with August being our only option for taking almost three weeks holiday, we climbed aboard the Sri Lankan Airlines plane at Heathrow bound for Colombo. Approximately 10 ½ hours later we were met and transferred on the very short journey to Negombo where we spent the rest of the day and our first night. Colombo and Negombo are both coastal and our hotel was right on the beach with the Indian Ocean crashing the life out of itself onto the rocks and sand. With time for a walk by the sea and another along the main road, stopping at a convenient bar along the way, it was a nice introduction to the island even though there really wasn’t sufficient time to unpack or even consider the hotel pool, despite the 30 degree heat.
After being extremely well fed at both dinner and then the following morning at breakfast we checked out and were met in the hotel lobby by Charma who was to be our driver and guide for the next 12 days.
Charma drove us to Habarana which took us several hours from the coast towards the centre of the island. On route we passed through areas farming rice, tobacco, mangos, coconuts, bananas and papayas while the landscape changed noticeably; something that would become a feature whenever we drove for two hours or more on Sri Lanka.
At Habarana, Cinammon Lodge would be our base for the next four nights. Set alongside a lake the grounds were extensive with the rooms being in separate units among trees and away from the Reception, Dining and Pool areas of the hotel. There is a nice walk alongside the lake and a cartload of Grey Monkeys are never too far away, often passing through the grounds ‘en masse’.
Charma did his best to point out anything of interest when we were driving between places and often stopped if he sensed our interest in anything particular. We stopped at both a Buddhist and Hindu temple but merely passed through the area at Kadjugama where the farmers were selling their Cashew Nuts at the roadside.
It was difficult not to start comparing our experience of India with what we were seeing in Sri Lanka but we soon decided that the two are very different and in no way did it ever feel like we were repeating something from three years before. It is true that there are as many Tuk-Tuk’s as there are in India but most look newer and in better condition. Also, the roads are better, life generally feels more orderly and organised, the towns and cities feel tidier and the climate slightly friendlier.
Charma was taking us to Polonnaruwa and as he drove pointed out two Jackals running across the road and he then pulled over to show us a couple of large Water Monitor’s, one of which emerged from a drain cover! Polonnaruwa is Sri Lanka’s answer to Angkor Wat in Cambodia; a huge site with numerous palaces, temples and other buildings and this was to be one of our first proper sightseeing stops of the holiday. It was hot but some of the buildings are well preserved and worth seeing despite the ongoing requirement to keep removing shoes before entering each temple.
You generally see and hear three languages written and spoken in Sri Lanka; Sinhala, Tamil and English. 70% of the population are Buddhist, 12% Hindu. 12% Christian and 6% Muslim and this is reflected in what you see as you drive around this country of varying landscapes. Sri Lanka has been described as a ‘flat country with hills’ and I understand why but there is still so much variety in both the hills and the valleys if you travel just for a few hours by car.
A key attraction for us in Sri Lanka was the opportunity to see Elephants in their natural habitat so we planned to visit two wildlife parks while we were there and the first was at Kaudulla. The Jeep picked us up from Cinammon Lodge at 1 o’clock in the afternoon and after about 45 minutes’ drive we entered the park. It was another half an hour or more before we arrived at the water hole which we reached by crossing a riverbed. We had seen several birds plus a number of water buffalo, monkeys, a chameleon and a crocodile before we had sight of our first elephant but once across the riverbed we soon reached the main herd grazing in the open land near the water hole. There were probably twenty or thirty in the group and then several more appeared from out of the jungle, close to our jeep. A fight broke out between two of the elephants in the first group with one or two more supporting the aggressor in seeing-off the offending elephant, leaving it isolated from the herd. The elephants nearest our jeep were simply munching their way through the grass towards the others at the water hole but without really ever getting there. One or two jeeps got a little too close to one of the infant elephants and this brought a reaction with the adult elephants closing ranks around the infant and one or two of the remaining adults making their presence and anger known audibly as they walked toward the vehicles. The drivers reversed ……… quickly!
It had been a great experience getting up close (but not too close) to these huge animals but we didn’t outstay our welcome and turned to make our way out of the park. But first we had to cross that riverbed. We were one of the first to leave to exit the park …… but not the first. And by the time we reached the point at which to cross the riverbed there were already two other jeeps well and truly STUCK! Continually trying to reverse and move forward made their plight obviously worse and before long more than half the wheels on their jeeps were invisible and buried in the soft mud. Our driver was confident however. After all, we had a 4-wheel drive jeep and those already stuck didn’t so we would just fly across and be back to the hotel before we knew it. Wrong! Despite the determination ours suffered the same fate and before long there were 5 or 6, maybe 7 jeeps dormant at different points, all seeking to conjure up a way of escaping before sunset. Fortune was eventually forthcoming when after a few failed attempts by others, another jeep arrived with a motorised cable winch onboard and gradually the vehicles were all recovered with the exception of the very first victim which stayed buried until the following morning.
The food and service at Cinammon Lodge was excellent and breakfast the following day set us up for the challenge of Sigiriya, the Lion Rock - once made famous by Duran Duran (remember them?). It’s 1,200 steps to the top although there is a halfway point where you can have a second thought if you wish. Having said that, when you get halfway the remaining climb doesn’t look so bad and the curiosity of what the views are like at the top can prove too much – and it did. It was worth it. You can see for miles and miles, a flat country with hills!
Adjacent to Cinammon Lodge is the entrance to trails that lead to villages and a large lake and what is being sold as a ‘village safari’ so we didn’t have far to travel from our hotel when Charma took us to spend around three hours sampling village and jungle life. We began with a tuk-tuk ride that went off-road and delivered us to a Bullock and Cart ride that carried us uncomfortably further into the jungle to a river. There we got into a canoe that merely took us to the other side of the river. From here we walked to the village and sampled freshly made Coconut Roti before moving on to another boat trip, this time onto a large lake full of water lilies and from where you could see Sigiriya in the distance. From the boat we walked further to another village and had lunch of Lentil Curry, Banana Flower Curry and Water before ending the visit back where we began, just around the corner from Cinammon Lodge.
It had been a busy few days so far in Habarana and we still had the Dambulla Cave and Golden Temple to see and this turned out to be another highlight of our holiday in Sri Lanka. Without knowing much about Dambulla before we left the UK we had been assured that it was well worth the steps that you have to climb to see it. The Golden Temple is at the bottom and you can see this from the roadside but the steps to the cave are accessed via a car park. We had seen some rain during the morning and it was threatening more as we started to climb. The weather was consistently warm but with the change in terrain there was often a hint of possible showers during the day and of course when it does decide to rain in these parts of the world, it really rains! Maybe not for long but it certainly lets you know it.
Grey Monkeys lined the wall of the steps as we made our way up to the cave. At the top it was fairly busy with Sri Lankan people queuing to make offerings to the priest. Others lit the Coconut Oil candles while some made their way to each of the accessible cave areas. It was still raining which made the removal of shoes at the entrance to the area suddenly more uncomfortable than usual. Regardless, we made our way to the series of caves. Each one was created in a different age but all depicted Buddha in a number of poses. The first cave was by far the oldest and the best. It was also the one that Sri Lankan people focussed primarily on to worship and pray.
Dambulla was clearly an important religious site for Sri Lankan Buddhists and our visit signalled the end of our stay in Habarana apart from an evening meal, a good night sleep and a breakfast. The following morning we travelled to Kandy where the weather is slightly cooler.
Kandy is a nice city in a picturesque valley which has at its focal point a large lake around which everything revolves. Our hotel was the Earls Regency, just outside Kandy but still within view of the lake. The Sri Lankan Cricket Team were staying at the same hotel and training there ahead of two One Day Internationals against India. Our prime objective when visiting Kandy was to see a bit of the city and the lake but also to visit the Temple of the Tooth. However, before that we attended a cultural show in the early evening, close to the temple.
As with similar shows all around the world the core of the event is singing and dancing and local musical instruments. Here in Kandy we also had ‘fire walking’ added to the programme. We had front row seats and on a day that had been warmed enough already by the sun the addition of petrol to the burning embers on the path of fire almost took your breath away. From the theatre we took the short walk to the Temple of the Tooth. It looked especially dramatic at night, lit up by both spotlights and also rows of Coconut Oil candles.
Shoes off again we ventured inside to where the ceremony was just beginning. People kept arriving and soon we were in the midst of quite a crowd albeit well placed near the front. Much drumming ensued and the participants including orange-clad Buddhist monks made their approach up a few steps to the large solid silver doors that confined the ornate box containing Buddha’s tooth. There is quite a story surrounding the tooth and a nationally famous elephant called Rajah for those that want to research it.
Once the various participants are inside and the doors are closed the focus switches to upstairs where all attendees file past a viewing point from where to view the tooth, making offerings as they so wish to the officials lined nearby to receive them. Filing past involved quite a bit of jostling for position and basically standing ones ground as everybody fought for a better view in the brief moment that you get as you are carried along on a constantly moving human tide.
Eventually we were out the other end to retrieve our shoes and take a slow walk through the exterior of the temple and back to the car. Our evenings in Sri Lanka were all ‘free time’ and the hotels were all very comfortable and relaxing environments to spend time in with a drink before resting for the following day. The Earls Regency Hotel was one of my favourites during the trip.
The next morning, after breakfast, we had a late start and then went back to the city to visit the Peredeniya Botanical Gardens. Not necessarily at the top of my own ‘must see’ lists I must say that these gardens were as good as I have ever seen anywhere. It will also be remembered for one of the most unexpected moments during the holiday. The weather was a bit unpredictable and it started to rain while we were in the Orchid House. After standing and trying to decide on the driest route through the gardens we agreed on a pathway and started walking. A few minutes later an English voice called out “Will you stop running away from us!”. We turned around and it was a couple (John and Megan) who we had spent time with on a holiday in China 12 months previously. It really can be a small world.
After spending an hour catching up with past acquaintances we met up again with Charma who declared that the rest of the day was ours and we could enjoy the pool at the hotel or basically do whatever we wanted. So, back at the hotel the Sri Lankan Cricket Team were in mid-training session in the pool so a book and a beer became the order of the day for a couple of hours while the Parakeets flew shuttle runs between the palm trees around the grounds of the hotel.
Nuwara Eliya and the Tea Plantations were our next destination. The town is the highest on the island and again, probably more predictably this time, the landscape and climate changed as we drove the two or three hours from Kandy. Gradually you climb higher and higher until you can literally be in the clouds. The area is dominated by tea with numerous plantations including substantial ones owned by the likes of Rothschild although the majority are now Sri Lankan owned. On the way we passed through various Hill Villages, saw many waterfalls including Ramboda Falls and stopped at one of the Tea Factories. It’s an interesting process and reminded us of the low quality ‘dust’ that we rely on in tea bags at home. Back outside and on the hills the female tea pluckers are busy at work accumulating the 10kgs of leaves that they need in their sack each day to satisfy their employers. Often from the North of the country the women have accommodation as part of their remuneration which obviously lasts for as long as they stay in work.
Our hotel in Nuwara Eliya was the Heritance Tea Factory; literally a converted Tea Factory which still had some of the original features and working machinery. Set high in the hills, the views from the hotel are impressive and acted as the backdrop to a spectacular electric storm on our second night there. It still operates a small tea processing factory in a separate building and produces the tea served in the hotel from the leaves plucked from its own fields. Occasionally during the day we would hear a tune moving through the area. It turned out to be a larger version of a tuc-tuc selling breads and rolls from the local bakery.
Being slightly isolated at the Tea Factory, you really have to drive into the town for any activity and this is what we did. Charma drove us and we spent an hour or so just looking around the shops and the market. In addition to tea a huge quantity of vegetables is grown in this area and that was evident. Some of the buildings have more than a hint of British Colonialism about them, especially the Post Office and two large hotels at the back of the town. And judging by the amount of construction work underway Nuwara Eliya gives the impression of being a currently prosperous and upwardly mobile part of Sri Lanka.
We also spent an hour at Gregory Lake, a popular spot with locals who queue up for rides on a jetski. There was also a fair in place when we were there so it was generally quite busy despite the low cloud that suddenly engulfed the area and marked the end of our walk and time there. So, back to the hotel we went.
Following the storm the previous night the sky was much clearer and brighter when we woke up next morning - a relief as we had a long drive to Yala with an important stop along the way. We aimed to be at the Elephant Transit Centre at Udawalawe by midday to see the elephants being fed. This meant that Charma had to put his foot down a little while also allowing for the occasional photo stop. Through changing terrain and scenery we descended from the mountains toward what are the dry plains of the south. In some areas the hills, mountains and forests were reminiscent of Germany before the landscape changed again to a dry, sandy colour that made you think more of parts of Africa.
The transit centre was supported by the Born Free Foundation which kind of validated it in our minds. We arrived with about ten minutes to spare; well done Charma!! A purpose made platform was already well-filled with spectators (almost all Sri Lankan people) but we found a position from where we could see the elephants and take our photos. The elephants were allowed in to the feeding area in threes or fours. The first to be fed was an adult elephant that had featured on a BBC documentary just months before our visit. He had injured his foot and eventually had to have it amputated but had been given an artificial one that enabled him to walk around. Because of his condition he would never, unlike the others at the transit home, be eventually released back to the wild and he would spend the majority of his time in relative isolation away from the group simply for his own protection.
More and more were slowly moved through the feeding area. One over-enthusiastic baby elephant threw himself over the feeding gate in his frenzy to get at the milk being issued through a hose into their mouths. Lying in a heap on the wrong side of the feeding shed the greedy little ‘elly’ picked himself up and was ushered towards the water hole where those that had been suitably topped-up went next to wallow in the water and mud. It was a highly entertaining hour and by the end there must have been around 40 elephants in the area.
Moving on, we still had a little way to go before arriving at Cinammon Wild, our next hotel inside the Yala Wildlife Park. The rooms are small chalets scattered around an area in the park a little way from the main reception, dining and pool areas. You really are in the animals’ backyard at Cinammon Wild and one of the first things you see is the warning about crocodiles living in the vicinity. When checking-in you are also told that after dark you must not walk between the main hotel building and your room without an escort from the hotel. All of this focuses the mind on the dangers from not just the crocodiles but also the wild boar, the elephants, the monkeys and the water buffalo.
We were at Yala for two nights and had booked a half-day safari during our stay. The pool area looked out onto a large water hole which contained a few dead-looking trees and some large boulders (a feature of Sri Lanka it seemed). The water levels weren’t especially high and this created a currently arid water-bed around what was the water hole, allowing the brave or foolhardy that chose to ignore the crocodile warning the opportunity to get a bit closer to whatever was residing in and around the water. We saw Grey Monkeys, Chipmunks, Water Buffalo, Wild Boar, Crocodiles, Pelicans, and more, all without leaving the hotel. On one occasion the monkeys temporarily took over the pool area, scavenging whatever they could from the visitors.
We survived the night without incident or intrusion from the wildlife and had the morning free again to explore the nearby water hole. Four crocodiles basking on an island in the water hole, several water buffalo nearby and numerous birds either flying around or lazing on the water. All of this plus a chapter or two of a book by the pool took us through to lunch, then, it was time for the safari.
We at least didn’t have to travel far. Our Jeep picked us up from the hotel and we drove for 40 minutes or so and turned onto a long straight road, across a bridge over water, past an elephant posing for visitors and into the rough, uneven roads that mark the start of the wildlife park. Again, we chose the later safari rather than the sunrise option. This was on the advice that the majority of the animals stay well-hidden until the day warms up. Certainly we couldn’t complain about the numbers we had so far seen.
We had around three hours in the park and left as the sun was setting and the shadows were long. More crocodiles, mongoose, monkeys, buffalo, deer, lots of elephants and many different birds including both Blue and Green Bee Eaters and the Asian Paradise Fly Catcher. Our driver received a message about a leopard at a water hole and sped along the dusty track to get there but alas we were five minutes too late. We stayed for around 20 minutes at the hole to see if the big cat would return but of course he didn’t. However, it had been a really good day.
We had one more area to visit on our trip around Sri Lanka; namely Galle. Different again, Galle is on the coast and a key area for fishing. It was hot, around 37 degrees with 70% humidity. Our hotel, The Fortress, was possibly my favourite during our trip to Sri Lanka. Located in Koggala, just outside Galle, we arrived early afternoon and checked in to one of just 53 rooms in what is a huge building in a lovely location. In some ways, the trip had gone full circle with the Indian Ocean once again, as it did in Negombo, crashing against the rocks and sand to the rear of the hotel. We had some free time and made the most of the facilities with the pool and sunbeds complemented by being able to watch the turtles swimming and feeding close to shore on the seaweed between the rocks. The weather was changeable but it made for nice sunsets against which the silhouette of a single stilt fisherman stood out in the near distance.
After breakfast the following day Charma drove us to Galle where we did some sightseeing around Galle Fort and the adjacent lanes. We visited the Dutch Church, walked the ramparts and stopped on a couple of occasions for a drink over the space of a couple of hours. Back at The Fortress Hotel we enjoyed yet another great meal and sat watching the Indian Ocean again while the largest Bat (a Fruit Bat) either of us had ever seen flew over our heads. It marked the beginning of the end to our Sri Lankan holiday.
Charma had been great for us during our stay and while in the area stopped at another temple, a Sri Lankan boatyard, Weligama Bay to see the stilt fisherman and an area that had suffered during the 2004 tsunami where we saw a memorial to those that had died as a result. He had also had a tough time personally during our 12 days together with his 3-year old son first breaking his arm falling from his bike and requiring an operation and then being diagnosed with Dengue Fever. He was worried for several days and took a couple of bus rides back to Colombo during the evenings from wherever we were to be with his family but he was always back promptly the following morning to help us enjoy our day. He also had to quickly break to avoid a pedestrian suddenly walking in front of the car as we headed south towards the end of our stay. Two policeman on motorbikes happened to be nearby and had they not seen that he was totally not to blame for the incident he could have suffered an automatic 14 days in prison, regardless of nobody being hurt in any way. He was quite shaken up and equally relieved at the outcome. Charma was a big part of what had been a really top holiday on the island of Sri Lanka.
Charma’s final task was to drive us the following morning along the new and very impressive Southern Expressway to Colombo Airport from where we were due to catch a flight to Male and The Maldives for a few days. The Expressway left a good impression of the country as had the previous 11 or 12 days. And it definitely isn’t India.