With long pristine beaches, verdant expanses of lofty rolling hills, and rushing waterfalls on every turn on the snaking roads, Sri Lanka should definitely be on the bucket list of next destinations. Especially as the government aims to double tourism numbers to four million in 2020, ensuring a welcoming host, it is only more attractive as Lonely Planet declared it the No. 1 travel destination in 2019! Lucky then, we visited this land of mostly unspoiled and unblemished vistas in December 2019.
Colombo, the country's capital is said to be crowded, and we gave it a miss, ending up in Kandy directly from the airport. A small hill town, it has beautiful views of little hamlets on verdant slopes. On the day cut short by unexpected rainfall, as well as fatigue, we did not explore Kandy much—only visiting the lake by Temple of the Tooth Relic— and retired for the day. Next day, early in the soft morning sunshine, we headed out to go to Sigiriya.
On the way, we stopped at a village experience, as a typical touristy thing to do, but it made for a nice peaceful experience. The package offered a bullock cart ride for the entire group of 8, a traditional lunch, and a short boat ride. The bullock cart ride, although once a common feature of Bengal, was still a novelty as it was the first time for many of us. The bulls, called Raju and Bhai, were huge, powerful beasts, and pulled the fully loaded cart with surprising ease. The lunch, cooked by a simple village lady, was delicious – plain rice, spicy sambhar, pumpkin curry and thinly sliced fried fish freshly caught from the river, served on banana leaves over flat wicker baskets. I am sure the cook has never seen a group of people simply inhale that amount of food for one meal. But it wasn't completely our fault, it was simply too delicious to stop for decorum!
The reserved tour bus took its time to get to Sigiriya, giving the sun a chance to tone down its ferocity. Also known as Sinhagiri or Lion Rock, Sigiriya is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Legend has it built by the Maya Danava of Mahabharata fame, as per the wishes of King Ravana's father. Historically, the area around the rock has been inhabited since the 3rd century BCE, but the true marvel are the remains of a fortress capital of King Kashyapa, said to have been built in the 5th century C.E. The location of choice? Atop a lone standing rock-plateau, towering 660 feet above its surroundings, and replete with intricately built rooms, and beautiful frescoes painted on the rock face and caves leading to the summit. Suitable for the relatively fit, it is a steep climb, but totally worth the effort.
The next day we headed off the coolest spots and main tea producing area in Sri Lanka, at the altitudes ranging around 1,868 m (6,128 ft)— Nuwara Eliya. Sometimes translated as the city of light, it is overlooked by country's tallest mountain Pidurutalagala. The best place to enjoy the various types of teas, obviously, enhanced by the chilly nights, it is also home to some lush strawberry gardens. A brilliant treat was eating fresh strawberries dunked in thick fresh cream, right outside the garden. Of the menu celebrating strawberries in every way, no one can have just one. Centred around Lake Gregory, this is a peaceful hill town. It comes alive with festivities during the Sinhalese New Year festival in April.
We had planned to visit the Horton Plains National Park from here, but heavy rains in the week prior had blocked off the roads. The plains, locally known as Maha Eliya Plains, have revealed tools from the Balangod culture, more than 38000 years old, and now have montane forests home to many endemic species of flora and fauna, and the headwaters of major Sri Lankan rivers like the Mahaweli, Kelani, and Walawe.
On the way out of Nuwara Eliya, we visited the Hakgala Botanical Gardens. It is a vast area of tastefully curated gardens, established in the latter half of the 18th century, with various themed and flower gardens, lovely natural hilly streams, and artsy wooden bridges.
Usually tourists prefer to take the famous train from Kandy to Ella for the beautiful views, and the famed 9-arches stone bridge, but our oversight in planning meant tickets were sold out. So we went by the same bus, and hopping around from shop to shop on the only street of the Ella, got an early dinner and checked in to our BnB.
This turned out to be the true surprise out of all the places we stayed at. Being budget travellers, we pick places with just decent creature comforts and good security reviews.
In Ella, we ate dinner surrounded by the lyrical rush of a large waterfall nearby, which only revealed its true beauty in the morning light. Rested in the absolute silence, we had a plentiful breakfast of hoppers, fruits, juice, tea and coffee, and fresh honey, butter and jam for warm toasted bread, while looking at the magnificent waterfall in the background, and spying a peacock up in a tree, as well as other singing birds. The simplicity of the food only added to the pristine calm of the place, and the sincere hospitality.
A small beach town in the southern part of the country, this is a typical surf and nightlife tourist town that we found in Sri Lanka, the other cities notoriously going dark just a couple of hours after sundown. The long white sandy beaches, the yummy fresh seafood and juice bars, and the brilliantly colourful sunsets are what set Mirissa apart in my memories forever. Despite the number of tourists at the common spots, it was quiet and thoroughly enjoyable.
This is also the place to go for whale watching. The deep blue sea is a treat in itself, but watching a whale in its own environment, up and close, is a heady feeling.
Next up on the itinerary was Galle, the famed fortress built by the Dutch. The drive from Mirissa to Galle was wonderous in itself, with pristine, completely empty beaches, dotted with palm trees just swaying in the sea breeze.
Today a quaint city preserving the old world charm, we were lucky enough to book ourselves a stay inside the fort, right by one of the huge walls that stand on the coral-smattered coast. It is a perfect place for leisurely walks absorbing history, and scarfing down home-made ice creams and juices, as well other delicious cuisine at the different restaurants housed inside the old hospital building. Not to mention all those gem shops just beckoning my inner magpie.
This beautiful island, for its numerous steep mountains, is home to hundreds of brooks and streams, and some spectacular waterfalls. I have a personal fascination for them. The lovely Ravana Falls, and the pristine and powerful Bumbruella falls were just two of the beauties I must mention. For enthusiasts, there are tour sites specifically catering to this interest, and easily searchable online.
The only complain I have about the country is due to our unhealthy lifestyles— almost the entire country seems to go home to bed promptly after sundown, except in Mirissa, and somewhat in Galle.
Sri Lanka is a vast opportunity for experiencing life. There is option for conservationists, and compassionate eaters like vegetarian and vegans, and the local food is great. There are elephant and turtle conservation projects, and miles and miles of preserved natural forests. And simple honest and beautiful life of a resilient people, spirits unbeaten, evident in their everyday lives. I wish to go back time and again, if only to imbibe more of this unyielding spirit, and to once more sit in the cold clear waters gushing down a mountainside.
Photo: Sania Aiman