Advantages Steeped in culture and history, Beautiful equatorial climate , Amazing sights sounds and experiences
Disadvantages Heat can get oppressive, Water undrinkable - use bottled at all times. Terrorist incident at airport unfortunate, but likely to be a one off.
Sri Lanka, land of Serendipity, Ceylon.I have always wanted to go to Sri Lanka since seeing Duran Duran on top of Sigirya rock in Save a Prayer. In September 2000 I got my chance. And it was, quite simply, the best holiday I have ever had. No contest.
Me and my partner travelled to Sri Lanka for two weeks, with Kuoni, on the “Sri Lankan highlights tour” – One week travelling round and sightseeing, and one week on the beach.Before you go it is necessary to get vaccinations for Typhoid, Hepatitis B and Tetanus. You also need to take malaria tablets, one week before you go and then for another 4 weeks after you get back. (Warning, you get malaria tablets that you must take once per week, and daily tablets for the rest of the time. The weekly tablets are THE most foul things I have ever tasted, so get your water ready and swallow VERY quickly, or you'll regret it for hours!)
We flew with Sri Lankan airlines, and the holiday really starts before you get there! The airline has modified its fleet to comfortable Airbuses, and you do get plenty of legroom, essential as it’s a 13 hour flight. All seats come with private TV screens, with multiple channels showing a wide variety of films and entertainment. For the really adventurous among you, there is also a forward camera mounted on the front of the plane, and a downward camera underneath it, so you can get a pilots-eye-view of the flight from the comfort of your seat. Novel, but bloody scary!Arriving at Columbo Airport, the first thing I noticed was the heat, which was almost overwhelming. (If you ever go, wear comfortable loose cotton clothing, and keep a bottle of water with you at all times - the tap water will give you Delhi belly.)
A word about security:- When we were there, the security did seem very tight in and around the airport, due to the terrorist threat from the north of the island. Unfortunately, it seems this was not enough, as I'm sure you are all aware from the terrorist incident that took place earlier this year. However, I'm convinced that security must now be tighter than ever due to this, and indeed in the light of the American attacks. My view is that if we all bowed to this sort of thing and cancelled our travel plans, then the terrorists win. I would therefore have no hesitation in returning to Sri Lanka, but this is of course a purely personal choice. Expect to pass several checkpoints in and around the airport, with army and police checking all cars, inside and underneath with mirrors. At the time we were there, tourists were simply waived straight through each checkpoint, but I'm not sure whether this would still be the case now.Our guide for the week met us at the airport. We were on a coach tour, but it is possible to have a private car with your own guide. However, we met some lovely people on the coach, and this made the holiday even more fun for us.
Our first hotel was 3 and-a-half hours drive from Columbo; the Kandalama Hotel, near Dambulla. The whole building is built into the side of a hill, and stretches for half a mile! The hotel is luxurious to say the least, but keep your hotel room door shut as you share the hillside with monkeys and lizards! (Monkeys have a habit of nicking anything that’s not tied down.) The Kandalama was going to be our base for three nights, being right in the centre of the country.From here, we visited Dambulla Cave temples, which are built into the side of a huge rock. Beautiful cave paintings adorn the walls of the temple, and the shrines and huge statues inside make your jaw drop in awe at their sheer scale.
A visit to Sigirya rock is a must. Climbing the steps of the huge natural wonder is not for the faint hearted, but once you’re at the top and have recovered your breath and composure, the view is quite simply breathtaking. At the top are ruins of a huge fortress built in the 5th century by the vengeful son of the deposed King of Anhuradapura, who’s half brother had imprisoned his father and assumed the throne. (I think that’s right anyway!) Go early in the morning – the climb is very demanding and would be almost impossible in midday heat. About a third of the way up you can detour up a very narrow spiral staircase to admire some beautiful ancient rock paintings. Interestingly, though not uncommonly for Sri Lanka, the staircase functions as the entrance AND exit, so be prepared for the inevitable crush.We also visited Anharadapura, the ancient capital of Sri Lanka, where spectacular ruins make you realise that Rome and Athens were not the only homes of major civilisations in past times. This is also home to supposedly the oldest tree in the world, where Buddha is thought to have sat and reached enlightenment. As such, the area is sacred Buddhist Shrine, and thousands of people make a pilgrimage there on holy “Poya” days, of which there are many. (As much as one every 2 weeks – AND each one is the equivalent of a bank holiday!)
Other highlights whilst staying at the Kandalama were:
- An Elephant Safari, a two hour trek into the jungle on an elephant, which was completely fantastic!
- A jeep safari, getting deep into the wilderness, seeing much of Sri Lanka's beautiful wildlife, (admittedly mostly elephants, but its still amazing to see herds of hundreds coming down to the lake to drink.)
- A visit to Polonnawura, with its absolutely massive Buddha shrine. Awe inspiring.
- A visit to another shrine at Mihintale, where huge dagobas are visible for miles. Be prepared for a scary climb, and only go if its quiet. If it’s busy - as it was when we went, on a Poya day - it is positively dangerous to climb the hill to the dagoba! (The Sri Lankans are not too worried about visitor safety, and as hundreds of people go up, barefooted, hundreds more come down – the same way, with only one rail to hold on to and very rudimentary steps! Many local “helpers” are only too pleased to help you with the climb, and carrying bags/cameras et al…at a price…. It was so busy that we only made it up half way. However, I think it’s safe to say that I would not have made it even that far without their help. You have been warned!
Just when we thought the holiday could not get better, it did.On day 4 we transferred to Kandy. The drive takes you up through the jungle, higher and higher, on what seems like a never-ending journey skywards! On the way we stopped at a spice garden, which was really excellent! The guide described all sorts of wonderful spices with great enthusiasm. You get to taste a cocoa bean before it's made into cocoa. (It’s nothing like you would expect!) You can also have a professional massage with all kinds of exotic lotions. Very relaxing!
Kandy is Sri Lanka’s second city, and is the spiritual and cultural centre of the country. The most important shrine in the land is there, in the awe inspiring Temple of the Tooth. Completely shrouded in gold, the shrine is guarded to the death by armed soldiers, and you must pass 5 security checkpoints before you are allowed inside. It is worth it though.We stayed at the Hilltop Hotel in Kandy, and while not as luxurious as the Kandalama, it was adequate for our needs and the food was good.
From our base in Kandy, we visited the Pinwalla elephant orphanage. This was THE highlight of the whole holiday for me. The elephants are fed in the mornings at 11 o’clock, then ALL of them, 50 or so, are led down to the river to bathe. Seeing them coming down the road is an absolutely fantastic sight. I could have stayed there watching them forever. However, after an hour, bathtime is over and its time to move on. If you only go to one place in Sri Lanka, make sure that this is it!A half-day was set aside for sightseeing and shopping in Kandy, and a visit to a gem factory and jewellers (Sri Lanka is rich in natural gems.) Seeing and learning about the different gems was quite interesting, but really it was a sort of sales pitch, before you look around the shop afterwards! Give this one a miss unless you really want to splash out on that plastic!
After two days in Kandy, it was onwards and upwards to the tea plantations in central Sri Lanka. The climate up in the mountains is so different - cool and refreshing after the heat of the country. The mountain region is absolutely beautiful, and is home to Sri Lanka’s most famous export - Ceylon tea. There are literally miles upon miles of tea plantations. You can see numerous tea pickers as you travel up through the hills. An interesting though somewhat shocking fact is that you discover these workers are paid the equivalent of £1.25 per day. This puts into perspective the looks of wonderment on the faces of children when they gather round at each coach stop and you give them a 100 rupee note (10p) or a sweet (“bon-bon”.)We paid a short visit to the Labookelie Tea factory, where you get a demonstration of the entire process of tea production, which is actually very interesting! You can also buy tea at extraordinarily low prices. Everyone we know got tea of some description as a present when we got home!
Then we moved on – and up again – to Nuwara Elia, nicknamed Little England, and when you see it you’ll understand why. When the English arrived in Sri Lanka, many built their homes here, and everywhere you look are remnants of the British Empire.Eventually we arrived at the Tea Factory Hotel for one night's stay. The ultimate in five star luxury, the hotel is just what it says – a converted tea factory! You can go on an optional walk from here, or just relax in the beautiful surroundings of the hotel. It was here that we witnessed the most spectacular sunset I’ve ever seen. Truly amazing.
The following day was set aside for our transfer to our beach resort. This is a LONG drive. Although only a couple of hundred miles, it took about 7 hours, despite being downhill for at least half the journey. The main problem is that there are not enough bridges in Sri Lanka. If you want to travel west, and there is a valley in the way, you need to travel down one side of a mountain, then up the mountain on the other side before rounding the hill and then arriving in the next valley! Therefore, it may take an hour to travel only about 5 miles as the crow flies! A bridge from one side of the valley to another is definitely in order. The journey to the coast, although long and increasingly hot, had stunning scenery throughout and wasn’t as bad as I've made it sound.On the way down we stopped for lunch at a hotel built alongside the place where Bridge on the river Kwai was filmed, beautiful but what made it memorable for me was being attacked by a dragonfly that was as large as my hand. I don’t know if it was dangerous or likely to bite, but I wasn’t going to give it a chance!
Our beach hotel was excellent, with all the facilities you could want. Being next to a lagoon, it had excellent water sports facilities, although these were fairly expensive even with the hotel discount. Miles upon miles of beautiful sandy beaches, although swimming in the sea is not advisable due to the strong monsoon currents.We went on more excursions from here, visiting the Fortress City of Gale, which is very interesting, and a turtle sanctuary, another place I would definitely recommend you visit. You can hold the turtles (the big ones are heavy and slippery little blithers, and the baby 2-week-old ones are cute and tickle. If you go at the right time you can even release them into the sea!
We went on a river boat tour of the huge lagoon area, and saw more fantastic wildlife, like monitors (huge water lizards) and hummingbirds. Our boat broke down in the middle of the lake, and for about twenty minutes we faced the possibility of a long swim! (Fortunately the engine came back on and we limped home 45 minutes late.)Finally we went on a glass bottomed boat ride, to see the coral reefs surrounding the west coast. Unfortunately, due to pollution, the coral is all dead. You see a few exotic fish, but really this was not worth writing home about. Give it a miss, unless it’s part of your tour.
The beach holiday was a great way to relax and end our stay. Watch out for the hawkers on the beach though. It’s very “un-British” to be rude, but after a day or so you realise that quite frankly it’s the only way to get rid of these people.All in all, Sri Lanka was the most amazing place I’ve ever visited, a real beautiful and amazing country that I will never forget.
I cannot recommend it highly enough, thoroughly worthy of my excellent rating. If you were ever thinking about going, I hope I’ve persuaded you. I promise you won’t be disappointed.
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