A thick blanket of clouds seemed to cover the island on our descent from the skies. The monsoons had just arrived over a week ago leading to turbulent weather, a shaky landing with little visibility made our touchdown to Colombo rather “memorable”- only in a not-so-nice-way! Thankfully all gloomy thoughts were dispelled on stepping out of the aircraft, replaced with an energy to explore each and every corner of this small nation that many call the Island of Serendipity
No stranger to us Indians, Sri Lanka has only recently emerged, in 2009, from an ugly war that lasted many decades (With the LTTE- Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam demanding a separate country/state for Tamils)Sri Lanka gained independence from the British empire in 1948. The late 1960’s & 1970’s saw a revival in the free market economy. Many artists, architects, philanthropists and writers from Europe flocked to this island nation only to flee the civil war in the 1980’s that divided the country for nearly 3 decades. It is estimated that over 100,000 Tamils & Sinhalese lost their lives in the war, including the assassination of the Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. The last phase of the war was particularly gruesome & many war crime atrocities being committed. Fast forward to 2013, I am happy to report that all seems well ( at least on the surface) in this country that is gearing up to be the “next big thing” in Tourism in South Asia. Not surprising why- Stunning natural coastlines on the east & west coast; Ancient Buddhist relics and temples dating back to the 3rd century BC; Diverse wildlife and national parks committed to protecting them; Historical buildings & forts that are a testament to the colonial influence of the Portuguese, Dutch & British; friendly laid back largely Buddhist citizens and finally delicious food. Sri Lanka seems to have all the tick(ed) marks for a winning holiday destination
If you are planning to visit Sri Lanka, may I recommend that you spend at least 10 days, of which a good 3 days are lost to road travel. Roads although good (by this I mean free of potholes), getting around from the east to west coast is an arduous task, mainly because there exists very few highways. The strict implementation of speed limits and two lane highways means that you will cover a distance of 50km in 1.5-2 hours. So a distance of 300 kms can take anywhere between 8-10 hours depending on traffic and cops! Do keep this is mind, when getting an itinerary together for your trip.
My recommendations on places to visit in Sri Lanka are based out of the fact that I visited when monsoons were in full swing in the east and south coast. If you have done your homework, you will clearly see that I missed the following: the Dutch fortress town of Galle, the beaches of Unawatuna & Mirissa, Yala National Park & Arugam bay. That’s what’s going to tempt me to come back for in my next holiday (which I foresee will happen in March 2014) Sri Lanka has dazzled me much in the same way as Bali, I’m yearning to go back and explore the east and south coast
BENTOTA & HIKKADUWA
My sister in law’s 50th birthday brought us to Sri Lanka in June, the main celebrations being centered in Bentota. We stayed at the charming Amal Villas-owned by a German and Sri Lankan couple. Having booked out all the villas we were happy to be chilling by the infinity swimming pool which made it feel like we are wading through paddy fields. Their restaurant is undoubtedly the best in Bentota and is just across the road. To get to the beach you needed to cross a railway track, which was scary but fun! Bentota beach was lovely, however there was no question of swimming out due to strong currents, we were happy to spend our evenings watching the sun go down in a deserted beach (being the off peak season) A short stop at the Bentota Sea- Turtle Rehabilitation center ( 15 minutes away from Amal Villas) is a must especially for those with children- you can take a peek at the endangered olive ridley turtles amongst others such as the odd green turtle that lost its flap
STAY- Amal Villas (http://amal-villa.com/en/hotel-sri-lanka.html) Rooms start from Rs 6500 onwards. Its sister property Club Villas(http://club-villa.com/) is a chic and upscale alternative, rooms start from Rs 9000+ taxes
A day trip to the lively Hikkaduwa beach is a must. Hikkaduwa was famous for its coral reef which was destroyed thanks to the 2004 tsunami. Its calm and turquoise waters make it an absolute delight to swim in. Hikkaduwa boasts of a lively nightlife with many beach shacks/ pubs playing live music and serving good seafood. STAY- Chhaya Tranz Hikkaduwa(http://www.chaayahotels.com/chaayatranz.htm) Rooms start from Rs 8000 onwards
Gentle green hills laden with tea bushes seem to stretch out as far as the eye can see. Old colonial buildings, the botanic gardens, streets with English names, large roundabouts & quaint cottages, have deservedly earned this town the rightful title of “New England” Did you know that Sri Lanka is now the world’s third largest exporter of tea? This is all mainly accounted by tea produced in this region. One can’t help but fall in love with the “old world charm” of this town. We stayed a little further out at the Heritance Tea factory( which I recommend seeing putting aside the nightmare of check out with rude and arrogant managers) the hotel in itself is an institution- a working tea factory surrounded by nothing but tea estates.
STAY- Grand hotel(http://www.grand-hotel-nuwara-eliya-sri-lanka.lakpura.com/) in the heart of Nuwara Eliya town retaining its stately British colonial ambience, rooms are simple and cosy. Rates start from Rs 8000 onwards. The Langdale by Amaya(http://langdalebyamaya.com/ )is also highly recommended . Room rates start from Rs 9000 onwards
NOTE- do carry along a light sweater as evenings can get cold. If you aren’t carrying anything, fear not, there are many shops near the main bus/train terminus that sell “export surplus” woolen clothes!
A back breaking 300km or 10 hour journey bought us to a tiny village in the east coast of Sri Lanka. Up until 2009, Passikudah was in the hands of the Tamil Tiger rebels having been completely cut off from the rest of the world. Today Passikudah is tipped as being Sri Lanka’s answer to the upscale Nusa Dua with luxury 5 star properties already dotting the beach which many (including me) consider to be one of the best in Sri Lanka. Powdery white sands, gentle turquoise waters allowing you to swim up to a kilometer in & fantastic coral reef( destroyed closer to shore unfortunately) makes this a top draw. Visit now before it also gets commercially exploited. There is no nightlife to speak off so dinners are mainly restricted to the resorts
STAY- We stayed at the Centara Passikuddah, a Thai luxury chain and newest entrant to the 5 star hotel scene dominating the beach. Rooms are large & spacious with the usual impersonal 5 star décor you can get in any hotel across the globe. We got a sweet deal on a pre-opening rate which was Rs 6500/ night making it also the cheapest in Passikuddah!( http://www.centarahotelsresorts.com/cps/cps_default.asp) If you’re looking for a resort with individuality stay at Maalu Maalu offering luxury accommodation in stilts and thatched roofs(http://www.maalumaalu.com/) Room prices start from Rs 9000 onwards
The restaurant at Uga Bay Resort next to Maalu Maalu is a must eat- their grilled king prawns are to die for!
HABARANA- MINNERIYA NATIONAL PARK & POLONNARUWA
This town formed our base to explore the elephant sanctuary in Minneriya National Park & the ancient city of Pollonaruwa. Minneriya National Park is known across the country as having the highest number of elephants in the wild, it is said that in the dry months of August and September, visitors have seen herds of over 200 elephants gather in the lake at dusk. I considered myself lucky to a) spot a male tusker, usually very shy and hardly seen b) to see an elephant descend into the lake and splash itself with water and c) See two herds of 20 something elephants. All this in a month which received very heavy rainfall is truly lucky. Elephants aside, the park has a diverse eco system- migratory cranes, wild bison, wild geese, peacocks, langurs all made our safari worthwhile. To soak in nature’s abundance is the best feeling ever. A safari with pick up from hotel in Habarana is Sri Lankan Rs 5000, park entry fees is INR Rs 500/ person.
An evening visit to the ancient city of Polonnaruwa is a must. This is Sri Lanka’s second oldest city( after Anuradhapura) created during the reign of King Parikrambahu in the 12th century. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site as it still contains near- intact ancient buildings set in a grid like layout of what was once a glorious city.
STAY- Cinnamon Lodge (http://www.cinnamonhotels.com/hotel.php?hotel=3253) all the way! From its stunning grounds comprising of a lake filled with migratory birds to the monkeys sitting on our verandah, the Cinnamon Lodge really gave us the feeling of being next to wildlife. The spacious and comfortable rooms & restaurant makes it my recommendation. Rooms start from Rs 8,000 onward
SIGIRIYA AND DAMBULLA
No visit to Sri Lanka is complete without a visit to the “Lion Rock” Sigiriya and Cave temple of Dambulla that form part of the cultural triangle. Indian nationals get a 50% discount on tickets (around Rs 500/person) It is advisable to wear comfortable walking shoes as the climb up ( especially Lion Rock) can be unforgiving. It is thus advisable to visit before 9am.
Sigiriya was the glorious capital of King Cassapa, who meticulously planned his impregnable palace at the foot of a 370 metre granite rock. Visitors wanting to head up the final stairwell and palace are greeted by the daunting sight of a Lion’s paw carved onto the rock. It is said that with growing time and fear of invasion he moved his palace to the top of the rock. Sigirya was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site forming the best example of ancient urban planning. The frescoes in the caves of the rock date back to the 3rd century BC were said to have been inhabited and painted by monks.
Dambulla is famous for its cave temples carved beneath a massive hanging rock. The rock standing tall at 150m is said to be a place of worship dating back to 1st century BC( when the frescoes were painted) The shrines within the temple are a classic example of 18th century art from SriLanka, Kandy.
STAY- Amaya Lake on the banks of Lake Kandalama is 8km away from Dambulla. Room rates start from Rs 5000 and up
SRI LANKAN FOOD
HOW TO GET HERE
The best way to get into Sri Lanka is flying into Colombo International airport- which has several connections with Chennai( India), Kuala Lumpur( Malaysia),
Bangkok( Thailand) and Singapore. The airfare from Chennai airport cost us Rs 11,000 nett return( 1 hour 15 minutes flight time). So my advice is book at least 3 months ahead to avail of good deals. The great part about connections from South East Asia is that most budget airlines such as Tiger Airways & Air Asia offer good deals sometime as low as SGD 150 return( nett)
The most sensible thing to do if you’re looking to explore Sri Lanka in 10 days is hire a car( which comes with a driver) Almost everybody seems to be doing that. Fact is, it is very expensive hiring a car for point to point services( as they charge you for coming back) Car hire charges for a large van which can accommodate up to 6 people is $ 38( USD) a day or 100 km( whichever is higher) smaller cars will be between $25-30( USD) a day or 100 km( whichever is higher) We used an agency Sri Lanka Exclusive Tours( Email: email@example.com) Manager name Sampat ( Telephone no:+94 75 4773100) Their driver Buddika ( Phone: +94 772244684) was pleasant, un- intrusive, well informed & our informal tour guide for the 11 days. Most hotels have provision for providing accommodation & food for drivers but do budget around Sri Lankan Rs 200/ day for food in places where they don’t offer the same
THINGS TO KNOW:
1) HOTEL BOOKINGS: All hotel room prices quoted here are in INR(unless stated otherwise) most hotels have additional taxes varying from 15-25%, this needs to be added to the final room price. Booking.com and agoda.com constantly have deals but do keep in mind that their rates are excluding taxes, most hotels in Sri Lanka require a pre-payment so in all likelihood your credit card may be charged at the time of booking
2) CURRENCY: The Sri Lankan rupee is roughly half of the Indian rupee. Although accommodation is expensive( equivalent to India) eating and drinking out is relatively cheap with a fancy meal costing you anywhere between INR 800-1500/ person( inclusive of taxes+ bottle of wine) Otherwise budget around INR Rs 500-800/meal at a beach shack
Stones: Sri Lanka is famous for its rubies and sapphires, its important that if you are keen to shop, ditch your driver! Most driver’s get a commission from taking their clients to these stores, the commission can vary from 20-30%, which will be accounted for in the prices they quote you. If you are really keen to purchase sapphire do note the price for a single carat can go upwards of USD $300, depending on the cut, colour and clarity. It is advisable to purchase the stone and do the setting in your own country. Stone quality used in silver settings are poor. Always ask for a certificate- most good jewellers will ensure they give you this. Finally don’t be ashamed to bargain, big jewelers are also willing to cut their prices by at least 30%!
Clothing: Sri Lanka is also famous for its cotton and export surplus for all the big brands such as FCUK, Zara & H&M etc Cotton Collection and Odel in Colombo are worth visiting.
Home accessories If you are looking for home accessories, head to Paradise road in Colombo/Bentota which is an absolute delight!
Sri Lankan masks: are a must buy, each mask having a particular function/meaning, some are made to ward off evil spirits, others are for good health and prosperity
Noritake: In India, Noritake dinnerware is synonymous with luxury, it’s a sign that you have finally arrived and I hadn’t quite figured out the Indian obsession with the Japanese dinnerware maker, till I visited their factory outlet in Colombo. The attention to detail and dinnerware is truly remarkable. What’s even more remarkable is their prices- at least 40-50% cheaper than the retail price. Address of FACTORY OUTLET: Warakamura, Matale 94-66-224432 / 2244127 / 30 and FACTORY OUTLET 2: No: 280; High-level Road; Colombo 06. 94-11-2816363