Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, is an island of South Asia, divided by the Indian subcontinent from a narrow straight. Many call it “The tear of India” because of its shape on the world map, but a more representative name is “the emerald of the Indian Ocean”, which corresponds to the lush green, tropical natural environment that has nothing to envy from an imagination of paradise. It is a place of rich cultural heritage and ancient Buddhist tradition, and has always been a strategic point in the maritime trade routes. The island hosts a mix of cultures, languages, religions and nationalities. Gained independency from British colonial rule in 1948, in 1972 became a democracy by adopting its current name and suffered from a 25-year civil war that ended in 2009 with the defeat of the Tamil separatists. Today, it is one of the few countries in the region that has excellent growth, social equality and a high standard of living. Unfortunately, the long-term terrorist attacks of April 21, 2019 have come to stir the calm of this “paradise”, to wake up the recent memories of the war and to tarnish the image of a place that until recently was high in travelers’ choice.
The kindness, honesty and helpfulness of this people will happily surprise you, to a degree that makes you wonder how these lovely people have been involved in the brutality of a civil war, just till 10 years ago.
The main attractions for visitors starting from the capital city of Colombo, which combines tradition and modern architecture with contemporary lifestyle, then the historic triangle at the central highlands with cultural heritage monuments such as the ruins of the ancient city of Sirigiya and its palace built upon an imposing rock – a symbol of the country. In the surrounding areas, wild Asian elephants enjoy the protection of the country’s National Parks, though you can even see them by the sides of main roads. The picturesque town of Kandy, surrounded by an idyllic, tropical mountainous landscape, is the cultural capital of Sri Lanka. On the shores of Lake Bogambara, there’s the temple of the Buddha’s sacred tooth relic. The country is linked to an extensive railway network, whose hill section from Kandy to the towns of Nuwara Eliya and Ella, is one of the most picturesque train routes on planet, passing through wonderful landscapes of tea plantations, mountain forests, waterfalls and villages that pop out through the fog. Of course, on a tropical island, not to miss is the coastline that surrounds it, with beaches that are sometimes peaceful and sometimes turbulent by the wild ocean waves.
Terrorism in paradise…
Sri Lanka is an idyllic destination for travelers and fully meets these expectations. So, after a short trip to warring Syria, the expectation of a relaxed and enjoyable journey was anticipated. But the tragic events of the terrorist bombings of April 21st 2019, with hundreds of victims, came to overshadow the serenity of this paradise and eventually make Sri Lanka a “war” destination after a 10-year peace void. Five days after the events, we land in Colombo.
The tense situation with continued suicide attacks, as well as the limited time of our trip, contributed to our decision to leave the capital directly to the next destination, Habarana, in the central part of the island. Weather reports fortunately seem to be falsified. As we enter the rainy season and a tropical cyclone is coming, the sky, although cloudy, did not bring any rain. We choose to move by taxi / mini van, which we booked at low cost, combining comfort and speed. We covered the 230km distance in about 4 hours through the narrow road network where risky overtakings and excessive horn use are common practice. But on the way we will be absorbed by the landscape that little attention will be paid to traffic conditions. An enchantingly dense, green natural feast captures the field of view in every direction and the warm climate of tropics embraces our senses. The tranquility of nature dominates and makes the adventure road a delightful experience. The courtesy of the locals, their kindness but also their worry after the recent events will be met throughout the journey, starting with our guide. At his own initiative we’ll stop at points where free Asian elephants use to cross the main road, for a close meeting with them. At another stop we’ll buy the famous Ceylon tea, but we’ll not find any in bargain price anywhere in the country. We’ll pass through the city of Dambula, which marks the area of the historic triangle, with Buddhist temples around and a giant Buddha statue dominating a hill above the city. We arrive in Habarana, a very small town, very close to places of interest. The accommodation is surrounded by lush vegetation and is simple but very stylish. I usually do not mention my stays when traveling, which in many cases is unbearable. But on this trip, every stay was memorable and at the same time low cost. A path in the garden leads to the apartment, on the balcony two hammocks promise moments of relaxation. In the room, frescoes with half-naked traditional figures decorate the walls. In the bathroom, the shower is mentionable, actually it’s a small garden, roofless, with a tree watered by the shower. The naturalistic experience is complemented by the presence of a small frog looking for a thirst quencher in the toilet seat. To make a picture of the prices in the country, the room costs €24 including breakfast.
We walk around to discover an ancient Buddhist temple (Tampita Viharaya or Temple on Pillars). An imposing gate introduces the visitor to the temple consisting of a small, humble building on thick piles and a centuries-old sacred tree dominating the center of the courtyard. On the perimeter, in a small pond young locals were swimming and washing, while a family of pilgrims prayed in front of the tree. An elephant appeared and I approached timidly. At that time some soldiers kindly asked us to return to our place because there was curfew after sunset. We did not meet any restriction like that for the rest of your trip. Returning to the property, the landlord prepared for the few residents a dinner typical of the local cuisine. Apart from the quantities of rice, every local meal is accompanied by about 10 regional small dishes of various known and unknown vegetarian dishes, with a intense presence of spices and coconut.
With the first morning light we leave with a tuk-tuk to the archaeological site of Sigiriya. After buying the ticket that was unreasonably expensive – same for any tourist attraction in the country – we face the famous rock popping through the dense jungle. I will not refer to the history of the monument but to the serenity that I felt, early from the ground level of the almost empty ancient city, which extends to a symmetrical plot of gardens, artificial lakes, remnants of brick buildings that blend harmoniously with the smooth rocks and vegetation. At this time of low tourist season, the exotic scene gets alive by countless monkeys, living in the area and having a lot of intimacy and curiosity with the people. If anyone has the patience to spend time with them, will enjoy interacting, feeling a common contact point with these close relatives…
Ascending to the steep cliff named Lion’s rock, is through many (1200 they say) steps around the perimeter. At some point, frescoes depicting female figures are preserved, it’s supposed once covering the whole rock. Photographing them is forbidden. In the next frieze, a tall wall with a smooth coating and scriptures of visitors even since the 8th century, protects the entrants from the void, while in the times of its glory was as smooth as a mirror so that the king could see his own face. At a level before the top, there was the carved central gate of King Kasayapa’s palace (5th c.) in the form of a huge lion, from which only nails are saved today. Another stairway leads to the top, where the brick structures reveal the design of the fortified city and the palaces. In a relaxing environment, only disturbed by the birds’ singing, the visitor will enjoy an unparalleled view of dense vegetation in every direction, up to the depths of the horizon. Somewhere in the valley a white giant Buddha emerges through the jungle. The King was definitely a view appreciator, but he also secured his back as the rock was a natural fortress, and the ambitious besiegers had more unpleasant surprises with huge rocks coming to their head. More interesting than the rock and the ruins, however, caused us the monkeys after we returned to the lower levels. They were endlessly playing with each other and also the many dogs that co-exist in the area, chasing on the trees, having bug removals and occasional sex … My camera made them curious, our presence was quite enjoyable and interactive. For loud tourists, there are warning signs in many places about endemic wasps nesting there, which don’t like much chatting. At the exit of the archaeological site, at the parking lot with the souvenir shops we meet with the tuk-tuk driver and ask him to take us to the tall Buddha statue. Surprisingly, he did not know the way and I was directing him with the GPS, also asking passers-by and to make sure. The temple requires a ticket provided by an aged guard and, of course shoe removal on the dirt ground. Apart from the tall Buddha and a small one in a small temple, a row of statues of monks surround the area. We were the sole visitors except from three local ladies that came later for pilgrimage. The driver took us to another point with the funny name Pidurangala. Apart from another Buddha statue with a cobra above his head, we did not see anything remarkable. Although there is a path that leads to the top of a hill from where you see Lion’s rock from another perspective, our available time was not enough as we had arranged to go for elephant safari.
Back to the accommodation before we board a typical safari jeep with an open roof that -due to low tourism- did not have other passengers. Fortunately, for the same reason in Minneriya National Park, we saw just 4-5 more vehicles while at other times we were told that there were countless. At first we saw only two elephants, some peacocks and other birds that didn’t excite me much. But then, a herd of many dozens of elephants moved slowly to the lake for quenching, eradicating the grass in their passage to meet their nutritional needs. We watched them for a long time, until I got bored to take more pictures. In the park also live large flocks of water buffaloes. We return to the small town where there is not much to do and even a beer is scarce. After a lot of research and bargaining we arrange a car to take us to Kandy on the following day and enjoyed another evening at the tranquility of Habarana’s tranquil environment.
We leave at 5:30am and after 4 hours we arrive at picturesque Kandy, built between hills and around a small lake. The Queen’s Hotel, which was also at a bargain price, is a beautiful, 2 centuries old, British colonial building where you can feel the glamor of another era. In the afternoons, a pianist plays masterpieces in the reception hall, but without audience at this time. The building occupies a building block, housing perimeter shops and a restaurant. Inside the patio, the surrounding scenic British windows, the pool in the center of a garden with palm trees and other endemic flora, with the giant Buddha statue on the background hill of the city, make up a wonderful scenery. Before we enjoy it, we will walk around the city and arrange train tickets to continue the journey. Fortunately, there is not much demand at this time, at least for the 2nd class with the opening windows preferred by tourists. The small, sweaty town has a small local market with vegetables, meat, fish etc, the small picturesque lake, some boring Buddhist temples, an Islamic one with white and red square ornate on the facade and a Hindu temple with much more interest. It was noon and prayer was performed under mantra chanting, creating a highly mystical atmosphere in the room. We attended the pilgrims and the ceremony for a certain time. At some point in the courtyard, a Buddhist monk who seemed to be cohabiting there, invited us to bless us. The blessing, however, eventually required a substantial financial donation, which was indicated to us in the relevant book with names of the tourists and the amounts. Our symbolic contribution to him seemed too small to him and he disappeared angrily in his room.
Ηowever, Kandy’s top monument is the famous Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, located inside the royal palace complex, where it’s believed that the original tooth is kept. Three ceremonies take place daily and constitute a unique experience. After the visitor buys the ticket and hands over his shoes, will head by a double marble staircase on the lower floor of the main building. Everything in the interior express grandeur, as in most important temples in the world. At the bottom of the large hall, there is an entrance to a small building dedicated to the priests, with wooden carvings and paintings of masterpiece figures. Pairs of enormous ivy decorate the gate. At the afternoon ceremony, four drummers with traditional costumes accompany the praying of the pilgrims, devoting flowers or food. After the praying, which in Hindu and Buddhist religion is called Puja, the pilgrims are directed to the upper floor where there is another hall with wooden parquet and another room where the Holy Tooth is kept. Following the short queue -due to low tourist season and terrorist attacks – one can approach the entrance to remotely worship the relic, which is stored in a golden shell, inside a golden room and receive blessing from the guru.
Our departure coincided with the first rain storm in our trip, which filled the night sky with lightnings.
In the morning at the train station, the presence of army was noticeable. The wagons are old but relatively comfortable, but from a glance I threw I would not recommend anyone visiting the toilets during the seven-hours journey. The landscapes crossed by the railway line are really gorgeous. The green of the rich flora is lush and varies from dense tropical vegetation to mountainous coniferous forests and plantations of the island’s famous tea. Small settlements or bigger cities pop up before each station. The wagon personnel informed the passengers about points of interest, especially waterfalls, but upon request he opened some of the doors and allowed stair seating, with unobstructed view but also engine fumes. The rest of the passengers with hands armed with mobile phones and cameras were hanging out of the windows. On the last leg of the route, passing Nuwara Eliya and approaching our final destination, the hill station town of Ella, we entered a landscape of dreamlike mist. Accordingly, the climate became cooler and the first contact with the picturesque village where palm trees coexist with pine trees, was quite different from what we’ve seen so far.
We struggled to find our accommodation and even more to get there by dragging the luggage to a devastating high hill followed by many stairs to the room. But the view from the stylish rooms with the extra resting mat in the small attic, made worth the effort. A dense, impenetrable jungle sprawled beneath the balcony to the surrounding hills. It makes sense that Ella is a favorite destination for travelers. But the city has yet to fully reveal its character. After a walk in the center, we are surprised to find English style pubs with loud music, restaurants and shops of a bad touristic type. Of course one can avoid them, since there are other options as well. We moved for a hike outside the city and specifically to Little Adam’s Peak. This is the ” little brother” of Adam’s Peak located in another part of the country which we were unable to fit into the timetable. But this time, weather was not by our side and a heavy rain started. We stopped the only tuk-tuk that was passing through the little alley to negotiate for our second destination, the 9-arched railway bridge. Instead of the hiking route, we will make a circle over 6km around the mountain, with the tricycle running in narrow, uphill, sloping and steep paths and our “pilot” surpassing all the obstacles. The curved bridge of the early 20th century is indeed of architectural interest, that’s why it attracts many tourists. Meanwhile, the rain stopped and this allowed us to enjoy the dreamy landscape with the lush vegetation and sit on the barrier, with the chaotic height under our feet. The driver was kind enough to let us know that in a short while a train was passing by and he had no problem waiting. So I captured a typical photo from this point.
The next leg of the trip is the transfer from the mountains to the seaside of the country. The route consists of a variety of landscapes, from waterfalls and mountain jungles with monkeys, to paddy rice fields and of course the presence of elephants.
Approaching the ocean, the sky began to blacken again. It is not the best prospect of having a beach time under rain, but there’s no complains because the weather was generally good for the time of the year. Arriving in Mirissa, the hotel was luxury enough but with various small issue, but the already low price was discounted more. The beach of Mirissa was just a 5 minutes’ walk. The weather was dark, with drizzle and gigantic ocean waves. Along the coastal zone, under the tall palm trees, there are bars and restaurants, most of which of a mass tourist style. At the evenings, fish, shrimps and lobsters fill the storefronts. Apart from the main beach, Mirissa extends to more nearby sandy beaches with less development and a few more stylish places to eat. As the weather gradually improved, but waves stayed, the stormy Indian ocean waters provided a great play, perhaps more enjoyable than the calm turquoise waters that portray in pictures of the high tourist season. A characteristic feature of the coast of Sri Lanka is traditional stilt fishing. Unfortunately, this practice is now practiced only for tourist needs, especially in the Koggala area and fishermen ensure their income from fees for photography.
Approaching the Colombo airport, the strict security measures and thorough checks are more intense than war zones.
The short trip to the beautiful country reaches nostalgically at its end. No matter how much time a visitor has available, it won’t be enough.
Sri Lanka has fully confirmed its reputation of a dreamy exotic destination, while the tranquility that exudes and of course the kindness of its residents, classify it fairly as a destination high in preference of travelers of every class.
Let us therefore hope that there’ll be no incidents of violence again, to disturb the tranquility of this paradise.
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