Whenever we go to any country, we tend to take our preconceived notions of that place with us. I had this idea that Sri Lanka would be like Bangladesh and the people would resemble South Indians with the accompanying Tamil accent. I could not have been more wrong. In fact, this trip has left me wondering exactly how I got such ideas in the first place. The soft-spoken eloquence and refined attitude of the Sri Lankans are simply a level above what we see in South Asia.
How to Get There
Sri Lankan Airlines has direct flights from Dhaka to Colombo and takes only three hours. You can enjoy the trademark Sri Lankan hospitality right after boarding the flight. In addition, tourist visa can be obtained upon arrival and Sri Lanka is rather affordable.
The beautiful city centre is bustling with life with its many eateries, pubs, and malls. A lot of the architecture, especially in places like President's Avenue, still retains their colonial roots showing the exquisite mix of Colombo's past and cosmopolitan present. You will find giant Buddha statues dotting the city, demonstrating Colombo's Buddhist identity.
Marine Drive is a beautiful long road that stretches along the Indian Ocean. During the ride, I could hear the mighty waves crash against the outcrop of the island and I could imagine the impact of the tsunami that took place in 2004. Even after 13 years, there are still remnants of that disaster. Also, watching the sunset from any high-rise on the Marine Drive is a must. I watched it from Hotel OZO's rooftop and it was absolutely magnificent.
The Galle Face pier is the largest open space in Colombo and offers an excellent view of the city skyline. From Galle Face starts a straight road that leads to a city called Galle, which is popular for the two great attractions—Meera Mosque and Galle Fort Lighthouse, both within the Galle Fort made by the Portuguese—Galle is ideal for a day trip from Colombo.
The city resembling Sylhet for its hilly areas and acres of tea plantations is a must visit for all tea-lovers. You can spend a day or two looking at how tea is picked and processed from the plants to the cups. Curling up in the chilly weather, you can grab a cup of hot flavoured tea that Ceylon offers. You can also go for a horse ride around the hills to enjoy the scenery. One of the hills even has a view of the southern tip of India.
For the history buffs, Sigiriya offers a host of archaeological settings that tell stories of gods, kings, and nature alike. Sigiriya Rock Fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is simply massive in its proportions. The entrance called Lion Gate was designed as a giant stone lion that had its upper parts destroyed but the remaining paws will dwarf anyone standing next to them. Fun fact for the 80s' kids: this will remind you of the Cat's Lair from Thunder Cats. Sigiriya contains one of the world's oldest landscaped gardens that spread over terraces, caves and even on water. As humongous pieces of rock go, the Cobra Stone is as interesting as it gets: it is a huge naturally formed rock in the shape of a cobra.
Your trip to Sigiriya can take a detour through Dambulla Cave Temple (also known as the Golden Temple of Dambulla). It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest cave temple complex in Sri Lanka. The temple complex is beneath a massive 160-meter high overhanging rock, with 80 caves that contain statues and paintings depicting Buddha's life and legacy.
Sri Lankan cuisine is simply amazing. The one restaurant I would recommend would be Nuga Gama, located right in the heart of Colombo, inside the hotel Cinnamon Grand. The faux rural village is built around a 200-year-old banyan tree and offers almost the entire local cuisine. Whatever sambals, hoppers and devilled dishes you can think of, Nuga Gama has it all served on earthenware.
Since most cities are within 3-4 hours distance from each other, it is possible to cover multiple cities in a day, provided you hire an efficient guide-chauffeur like I did from a company called Long Weekend Sri Lanka.
You can visit Kandy for the renowned Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, which supposedly houses a tooth of Buddha.
If you are interested to interact, feed and bathe with elephants, Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is only two hours away from Colombo.
You will come across many Buddha statues but make sure you do not take any pictures with them in the background. Standing with your back to Buddha statues is considered extremely disrespectful.
Yala Safari is incredibly boring. After four hours of bumpy ride and inhaling dust, I finally got to see just one elephant. A completely underwhelming experience.
Saadat Chowdhury is Co-founder and Chairman of Zurhem Limited. Instagram: saadat_worldwide.