In over a decade of worldwide globe-trotting, few are the places I have come across that encompass as much diversity as the beautiful island of Sri Lanka does. Calm and swimming friendly beaches on the West coast, surfing paradise beaches on the East coast, hill station cities with mountains and tea plantations in its centre, ancient cities, tropical jungles and national parks in its south, vibrant cities and quaint villages, bustling with culture and tradition all around the island. My month long trip to Sri Lanka felt short, but I had the opportunity of exploring amazing places and connecting with incredibly friendly people.
An Introduction to Sri Lanka
Myths and legends regarding Sri Lanka's origins have their roots derived from several different ancient cultures and religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and even Christianity. This island has had its history written for over 3550 continuous years, and having been a colony of Portugal, Holland and England through several centuries before acquiring its independence in 1948, the cultural influences and remains of so much of a blend can be well observed up to current days.
Interestingly enough, the two largest ethnicities in the country, the Sinhalese and the Tamil people, differ a lot in how they see the history of the island. And not just its history, but its present and future as well. The struggle between both ethnic groups has been a source for great conflict in Sri Lanka, mostly from the early 1970s to 2002. It is a lot beyond the differences in their culture and religion (Sinhalese are Buddhist and Tamils are Muslim), and encompassed territorial disputes, acts of terror as as military actions for a long time, and in parts of the country the tension can still be observed.
But the country came a long way, and tourism has been booming for the past decade. The former president opened up the country for foreign investors, trying to place Sri Lanka heavily on the tourism map, and it seems to have been working well. Although the country most certainly does not resemble an unified nation as the ideology struggle remains present, it is safe and peaceful enough as a destination, where people can roam around without worries of conflicts. Most visitors to Sri Lanka might not even learn about the country's division (particularly the visitors spending most of their time in beach resorts), but if one is interested in learning and opens up their eyes and years, locals are happy to share their views.
Colombo - A clean, civilized and safe capital
My first impressions of Colombo were not exactly great: It was clean, civilized and proper. Things most people, myself included, would normally appreciate in a city. But considering my current state of mind, not this time around. I had just come from spending nearly 6 months in India - a country I learned to call home, oddly enough, and had left against my will, due to my visa expiring. So I was craving for excessive honking, chaos and madness. I was craving for anything that would make me feel like I was in Tamil Nadu, in India. It wasn't the case.
I spent my first full day noticing just how different Sri Lanka was from India, as I couldn't stop making comparisons. My heart was suffering, my that was all. But after a full day, I opened myself up to another country that would soon win my heart over, and Colombo had lots to offer.
All the big name brand shops were available at the malls, as well as restaurant chains and top international hotels. After accepting Colombo would not resemble India, I opened myself up and explored the city's top spots, such as the Fort area, the Parliament, the World Trade Centre, Gaulle Green park and a very nice Buddhist temple - the Gangarama temple.
I could have left the city the following day, but weekends aren't usually representative of a city's reality, specially the capital. I wanted to go to Petah - the pulsing heart of the city, where all kinds of trades happen in the bustling market area that sells everything under the sun, from textiles to electronics, to fruits and vegetables. It sounded chaotic. It sounded promising.
Two bus rides later, I made it to the Fort area. Now life was indeed happening, and I was glad to see it. There were many remains of Dutch Colonial architecture and I had a good time walking in that area. It only got better when I reached Petah, for it was indeed mad chaotic, just like some parts of India. Strong smells of curry mixed with honking tuk tuks, and people walking all around...
I felt safe walking in Colombo. People would stare, obviously, but nobody made me feel uncomfortable. Local buses were cheap, fast and an altogether very efficient way to move around, in a country that is trying to get away from the budget travel market in order to establish themselves in the higher scale travel market.
Colombo is an easy city to navigate. It might not offer a lot in terms of attractions or sights, but it is representative of the country, so a stop is a must if you ask me.
The West Coast: Hikkaduwa, Unawatuna and Mirissa
Hoping on a local bus from Colombo to Hikkaduwa was extremely easy, and the ride was only about 3 hour long. Hikkaduwa was described as a low budget, laid back beach with a bit of a backpacker scene, which appealed to me. It is well known for surfing and snorkelling, and I enjoyed the beach scene there so much that I ended up spending a lot longer than planned, after having made friends with lots of locals as well as travellers.
The city was one of the beaches hit the hardest by the 2002 Tsunami, and it is where one can find the Tsunami museum. Visiting it was a very touching experience, hearing the personal accounts of locals that have had their homes destroyed and lost family members over the tragedy. Galle, the biggest city near Hikkaduwa, home to a beautiful Dutch Fort, had also been hit really hard. It was a humbling experience for sure...
I continued on to the beautiful calm blue waters of Unuwatuna, about an hour south of Galle. The tourism there is a bit more family oriented, and the beach is more appropriated for swimming. Moving along the coast, I reached Mirissa, another beautiful beach, well known for its whale watching opportunities. Certainly a lot calmer, and nearly just as beautiful, it was a bit more low key than Unuwatuna, and I was fortunate to spend Sri Lanka's New Year celebration over there, with a local family.
The South: Tagalle, Tissamaharama and Kataragama
Moving along on public transport is just so incredibly easy in Sri Lanka, that stopping at different beaches and cities become rather tempting when trying to get from A to B. So, on my way to the Ancient city of Kataragama, I stopped at yet another marvellous beach, Tangalle, where I enjoyed 3 full days of being a beach bum and doing nothing other than swimming and reading on a hammock.
The ancient temple of Kataragama is one of Sri Lanka's most important pilgrimage sites, along with Adam's Peak, and it is considered a holy place for Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims. Buildings of religious significance to all three religions can be found in the complex, making it extremely interesting not only architecturally, but for people watching. I was privileged enough to be invited to visit the temple along with a local family I befriended in Hikkaduwa, as they would pay their respects to the temple as a part of their New Year customs. It was a great opportunity to be a part of the tradition for once, rather than just observing it, as they took me along not just following but taking part in their offerings and other rituals, Truly special.
After Kataragama, the jungle like town ot Tissamaharama was just nearby, surrounding the area of the famous Yala National Park. There I could experience an entirely different side of Sri Lanka, full of wetlands, forests, wildlife and rivers. Exploring the region on a 4X4 jeep was enough to make me feel like I was on an entirely different country than where I had been just days before, surrounded by beaches and temples...
Kandy, Ella, Nuwara Ellia and the Highlands
Kandy is considered by most, Sri Lanka's top, must see city. Sri Lanka's second largest city, surrounded by lakes and mountains, used to be the former capital of the Sinhalese Royalty centuries ago, and was later listed as an UNESCO world heritage site. Walking around, visiting its impressive temples and watching Kandean Folkloric shows were certainly a highlight of that region.
Continuing inland, reaching the highland of Sri Lanka, I moved on into the beautiful city of Nuwara Ellia for the day. It was a very very pretty English looking town, full of charm and character, filled by gardens and Victorian houses. Another place that resembled very little the other parts of the country I had just recently visited. It was the best time to visit it for the flowers were in their blossoming season, which made the town very crowded. After a day of walking around, I continued by bus to Ella, further up in the highlands, reaching the tea plantation territory of Sri Lanka.
The hiking opportunities in Ella were second to none particularly the ones that went through tea plantations, where workers could be seen in their daily routine that has been in effect since the old Ceylon days, while Sri Lanka was a British Colony.
The biggest highlight of the region for me, and potentially of the entire country, was the train ride from Ella to Haputalle. Seating in the step of the train, on a 2nds class, rather full wagon, I had the best seat in the train, and there I sat, surrounded by friendly locals, looking at amazing scenery with the wind and the breeze of a moving train as well as the heat of the morning sun lightly touching my skin. The train moved up slowly up the hill country, boasting all kinds of flora, mountains, gorges and waterfalls. Truly beautiful - one of the best train journeys I ever took.
Last few days in Trincomalle and struggling leaving Sri Lanka behind
Time had flown before my eyes. I could hardly believe that I had already been in Sri Lanka for 4 weeks. A whole month of eating delicious rice and curry (their staple food) and roti, lazing around the most amazing beaches, and surrounding myself by enchanting scenery. There was just so much more I wished to visit, but my time was running short. I spent my last few days visiting the beautiful North East beach of Trincomalle, before reaching Dambulla - once one of Sri Lanka's ancient kingdom cities, hosting the magnificent Sigirya rock - a very impressive site indeed.
I was upset for not having had time to visit the province of Jaffna, Tamil territory, said by many to be extremely beautiful, friendly, and rather different than the rest of the country. As easy as it is to move around, one month was simply not enough to cover as much as Sri Lanka had to offer in the slow moving pave I found myself travelling back then... I did meet lots of travellers that had managed to see as much as I did in just over two weeks, by hiring a private driver to save time, as it is fairly affordable. I considered it for a minute, and then remembered how precious my bus rides had been, and stuck to my slow moving rhythm, even if it cost me leaving Jaffna for another visit.
In the end of a month, I found myself rather attached to Lanka, very different than what I felt like upon reaching the country, still missing India so much. I was sure I would be back though, and with a level of certainty I do not get from most places I visit, even if I like them a fair bit. Knowing that it was easy to India gave me the assurance I would be back eventually, as I know I'll likely revisit India for the rest of my life.
So much was left to be discovered. So many were the smiling faces that got stuck in my memories. Sri Lanka is one of the most versatile and diverse countries I have ever visited, and I cannot think of anyone I know that wouldn't enjoy spending time there - regardless of age, travel style or preferences, as it truly does cater to everyone!