With all the vaccinations, preparation and expectation behind us, our holiday to Sri Lanka really felt like it had started when our suitcase disappeared behind the check-in desk at Heathrow airport. Everyone had been telling us that Sri Lanka is a beautiful country and that we would have a fantastic time. Were they right? Of course they were!
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Any Simpsons fan worth his salt will know Homer's, "DOH!". What they may not know is that DOH is the airport code for Doha, in Qatar, which was our transit point on the journey to Colombo. We flew with Qatar Airways, which has just been awarded the highest marks for customer service, and it showed. The flights were excellent, the food and wine were superb and the Airbus planes had full in-flight entertainment to pass the time.
On arrival in Colombo, the first thing you notice is not the temperature (which is hot), but the humidity. Of course we had arrived at the start of the monsoon season, so a little damp was to be expected, but the level of humidity really does take some getting used to. Our schedule was for 5 nights touring, staying at three different hotels around the country, followed by a relaxing stay at a beach hotel in the south-west of the island. Most of our hotels were part of the John Keells hotel group, and provided all-inclusive accommodation of a high standard. At all our hotels, the staff were really friendly, the facilities were good and the food was not only plentiful and good quality, but varied and thoroughly enjoyable.
Our first night hotel was called the Tamarind Tree and we really just stayed there to begin acclimatising and to recover from the rather long flight. It was perhaps a pity that we couldn't stay longer, as the hotel was a mix of old "colonial"-style accommodation and modern "western"-style facilities. As with all of the hotels, every meal included some form of curry, from extremely mild to tastebud-torturingly hot. They was something for everyone, however, and for the first few days, we sampled some of just about everything, and dramatically reduced our meat intake, as the dahls and vegetable curries proved irresistible
The first full day of the tour took us to the Habarana Village complex via the famous elephant orphanage at Pinnawela. At the orphanage, you can watch the elephants bathe in the river and see them being fed. The highlight for most people is the chance to see (very) young elephants with their mothers, knowing that the continued existence of such magnificent animals in their natural habitat is helped greatly by such projects.
It's a jungle out there.
Our tour guide and his driver were very observant and spotted plenty of wildlife as we journeyed from place to place. Even though the roads and drivers in Sri Lanka are, at best, completely chaotic, we managed to find enough time and space to spot monitor lizards, fruit bats, exotic colourful birds, porcupines, chameleons, mongoose, water buffalo, monkeys and more.
The three-striped palm squirrels were abundant - they're inquisitive little creatures that will take food from your hand and frequently visit the hotel restaurants in search of food. One even made its nest in a lamp shade hanging inside one of our hotels. The three-foot jump from the window to the lamp was certainly a leap of faith for the adults, let alone the youngsters who would have to leave the nest the same way.
Many of the interesting animals, birds and plants we saw during our stay were at the Habarana Village complex - a 45 acre nature reserve which was our base for three nights. The hotel has good facilities and sits next to a large lake, which is home to a large number of different varieties of birds. During our stay here, we saw giant squirrels, large lizards and the ever-present geckos, but the stars of the show are a troop of grey langur monkeys who live in the hotel grounds and charge over the rooftops and grounds in the late afternoon. As long as you are sensible, you can get really close to (and sit with) the females and their young babies. The dominant male will probably grunt at you and walk on by!
The rooms at Habarana are chalet-style and fully equipped (with air-conditioning, thank heavens!) and there are many excursions and trips which can be taken locally. Optional to our tour were elephant safaris by jeep, elephant rides into the surrounding jungle and a trip to the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, which Fran and I visited. Included with our tour was an excursion to another ancient city, the rock fortress of Sigiriya - again a Unesco World Heritage site.
What a sight!
Both city tours are "must-do"s in Sri Lanka, with Sigiriya especially so. Polonnaruwa is spread over a wide area and has an interesting visitor centre and museum which allows you to make sense of the historical scale of the city. Amongst the highlights here are the Buddhas carved from solid rock, the lotus bath and our first "Temple of the Tooth". The fact that the city rose to prominence in the late 10th century, but was eventually consumed by the jungle and lost for over a century, only adds to its enchantment.
For sheer "Wow" factor, however, the rock fortress of Sigiriya takes some beating. It is often described as the "8th wonder of the Ancient World" or "Asia's Ayers Rock"; both descriptions are appropriate. Rising out of the flat jungle is lump of rock over 600 feet high, on top of which is a 5th-century ruined palace. Surrounding the rock, inside a wide moat, are carefully laid out gardens, water features and terraces. Normally, visitors can climb to the top of the rock and admire the view, but we had to be content with a climb (about half-way) to the cave frescoes, as the local Asian bees had been recently disturbed and would attack anyone climbing near their nests further up. Even so, it was high enough for Fran (who is afraid of heights) and provided a fantastic view of the gardens and the surrounding countryside.
The next day, we visited a nearby farm to talk to the family and see how some of the traditional sweetmeats are prepared for special occasions. Our hosts provided ginger tea, jaggery and freshly made kokis - a deep-fried biscuit made from rice flour.
From Habarana, the journey to Kandy was quite long (with interesting roads through the hill country), but we arrived in time for lunch at our next hotel, the Citadel. Situated a short distance from Kandy on the banks of the Mahaweli river, this was our base to explore Kandy, visit the Temple of the Tooth and watch a cultural show.
The heavily guarded temple is thought to be the final resting place of the Buddha's tooth which was the symbol of power for a large part of Sri Lanka's history and always housed in the King's capital city. Whether the story about the tooth (and its existence) is true or not, to non-Buddhists the temple is somewhat disappointing for a building of such significance. If you want to visit, the best time is probably during a Perahera (festival), where several days of pageants, ceremony and dancing take place. For the main festivals, the Kandy Dancers lead the celebrations - our visit to the cultural show included performances by the dancers and some spectacular firewalking.
Another highlight near Kandy is the Royal Botanical Gardens, which are bounded by the Mahaweli river and contain some absolutely fabulous trees, shrubs, orchids and plants. It's worth spending some time here, as there's so much to see. We particularly enjoyed the orchid house, the fruit bats in the tall trees, the enormous umbrella tree (also known as the Java Willow or Java Fig Tree), the elephant's foot tree, the palm avenue and, of course, the coco-de-mer. Unfortunately, our time at the gardens was short and we moved on to a spice garden, where we learnt more about the indigenous plants and spices of the island. Apart from too much of a sales-pitch at the end of the tour, this too was worth the effort, particularly as free head and neck massages were on offer.
Time to relax...
With the main part of the "highlights" tour over, our home for the next 5 days was a beach resort hotel - The Bayroo Beach - near Beruwela on the south-west coast, where we had a ground-floor room within 10 yards of the sandy beach (and the ever-present beach traders). Since our arrival coincided with the start of the monsoon season, we could expect some rough weather but, to our surprise, the days were sunny and the strong sea breeze kept the mosquitoes away. Again, the hotel facilities were faultless and the selection and quality of food on offer was the best we'd had in Sri Lanka. The evening entertainment in the hotel was not up to much, except the snake show, which was mesmerising. My memory of the large King Cobra suddenly making a bid for freedom, scattering the watching audience as it went, will stay with me for many years!
...but not for long.
Not really being beach people, Fran and I decided that we'd take a couple of trips to local attractions and, again, there is so much to see that we could have done with more time. One of our trips was a river safari, which took us into the Madu Ganga wetlands - a tract of pristine mangrove forests, which consists of over 60 mangrove islands and is home to 303 species of plants and 248 species of vertebrate animals. For a couple of hours we cruised slowly around watching water monitors, fish eagles, cormorants and much more. Perhaps motorised vessels do cause some damage to the wetlands, but our guides seemed to respect the area and took care when passing the islands and mangroves. On Big island, we visited another local family who showed us how cinnamon sticks are prepared, how coconut fibre is turned into rope and how the rope is used to make colourful doormats. Continuing the eco-tourist theme, we visited the Kosgoda Turtle Hatchery, where you can see 1-, 2- and 3-day old green and leatherback turtles before they are released into the sea. Believe me, baby turtles are cute. The hatchery claims a 10-15% survival rate for their turtles (as opposed to 1-2% in nature, even when the nests aren't raided by fishermen).
Getting more adventurous, a day or so later we planned a trip to several more attractions and negotiated a good deal with a local taxi driver (5,000 rupees for 6 people for the whole day - that's around £5 per person). First stop was Bevis (Bavis) Bawa's Brief Garden - former home of the ADC to four governors of Sri Lanka before and after independence. Brief is a quirky mix of formal gardens, traditional and unusual architecture and modern works of art. The house is reached via ever-narrowing roads through seemingly impenetrable jungle, out of which a formal gateway appears. Inside, the staff have maintained the property since Bawa's death and it provides a cool, peaceful escape from the local traffic.
On the south coast of Sri Lanka lies the old Dutch walled town of Galle. Here we walked around the town walls and, nearby, watched the famous stilt-fishermen catching fish whilst perched high on poles above the pounding waves. Another unusual and eye-opening attraction is the Meetiyagoda moonstone mine, where primitive, and often dangerous, working conditions allow beautiful blue moonstones to be extracted from gravel 50 feet down the mineshaft.
All over too soon.
A couple of days later, we braved the Colombo rush-hour on our way to the airport and our flight home. It's very difficult to include everything that we saw and did on this holiday. I didn't mention the batik factory, the silk factory, the gem museum, the tuk-tuks, the mad driving, the butterflies, the dragonflies, the fireflies, the golden orioles, the red-vented bulbuls or many of the interesting and friendly people that we met. There's only one thing for it - if you want to know more about this most beautiful, fascinating country, try one of the holidays from The Travel Collection. We certainly had a great time, and are already planning our next trip away.
Addendum, January 2005
Following the Boxing Day Tsunami, the coastal region that we visited in south-west Sri Lanka was extensively damaged. From reports on the Internet, it is clear that the Bayroo Beach hotel suffered serious damage, Galle was very badly hit, and the Kosgoda Turtle Hatchery was completely destroyed. If you intend to visit any of the areas mentioned in this report, please contact your tour representative for up-to-date information before you travel.
Take care, and best wishes!
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