Poetically referred to as the “teardrop of India”, Sri Lanka is a beautiful island country in the Indian Ocean. The country offers serenity, cultural heritage, ancient history, flora and fauna and of course mesmerizing beaches and is a tourist's paradise. One would feel a trip to Sri Lanka would be a breeze, but it is not that straightforward. Most tourists spend a lot of time in the capital city of Colombo and miss out interesting destinations and hidden gems. Travel within the small country is time consuming owing to the narrow roads and minimal road safety. Keeping all these in mind, travel schedules should be efficiently and thoughtfully planned. Sri Lanka is quite seasonal so it depends which part of the country you plan to visit and at what time.
We arrived in Colombo airport (located in the adjacent town of Negombo) late evening. We drove straight to the hotel for a night stay in Negombo as we planned to head to Kandy the next morning and the highway connection was more convenient from there. We started out early the next morning and beating the traffic reached our first stop - Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage.
Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage
Located on the east side of the highway on Rambukkana road, this is an orphanage and captive breeding ground for wild elephants that are orphaned or unweaned. On arriving, we were taken on a small jaunt on the elephant with the Mahout (handler) navigating our journey. This was followed by a photo-shoot to capture some fun moments with the elephants. You can wander around and see mother-baby bonding and elephants bathing in the pond. If you are lucky, you can pour water on the elephant, but of course under the supervision of the Mahout. On campus is a gallery where there are exhibits of elephant skeletons and the rangers explain their structure and impact on their backbone and spinal system when they are abused for commercial purpose. It is a great place to gain knowledge about Asian wild elephants.
The Elephant is being escorted by his Mahout in Pinnawala Orphanage.
Our next attraction was to watch the spectacle of oodles of elephants being taken to the Ma Oya River for a bath. This is a daily affair that happens in two batches, one at 10 am and the other at 2 pm. The sight of these gentle giants walking through the marketplace across the highway to the river is a once in a lifetime experience. Once in the river, it is fun time for these majestic pachyderms. It is an hour-long activity during which we got to take pictures of and with these amazing creatures. With playtime over, the herd is navigated back to the sanctuary by the Mahouts. Reluctantly, the jumbos as well as tourists journey back to the orphanage.
Elephants are getting a charge out of in a gathering at Ma Oya River on their every day schedule shower.
The happy campers are in a fun mood creating mischief along the way. From plucking banana branches off roadside shops to the little ones playing along the way, it is the most heartwarming sight! Shopkeepers, tourists and bystanders equally enjoy this parade. Occasionally, newly-wed couples come here in their beautiful wedding costumes and offer prayer and food to the elephants as part of the local customs. This is a must do activity when in Sri Lanka. While planning though, ensure you check the change in schedule if any.
Elephants are coming back to the Orphanage after their shower, a sight worth an encounter as they go through the narrow streets partitioning a jam-packed market.
The second largest and a very old city was established in the 14th century elevated at 1,500 feet above sea level surrounded by mountain ranges. It is a major transportation hub due to its geographic location and can be reached by all motorways from every direction. The preferred mode of transport from Colombo to Kandy is the train. The 4-hour ride is a feast for the eyes; from lush green tea gardens and paddy fields to colorful houses built on layered hilltops enveloped by forests. Kandy is the cultural capital of Sri Lanka and this is more than evident in the archaeological and architectural wonders across the landscape. We chose to stay in a hotel on the highest altitude of Kandy where not only did we have a spectacular view of Kandy but also were wrapped up in the clouds most of the time. One vivid memory that I cherish is that of a beautiful morning spent on the balcony with clouds sweeping into our room. The entry to our hotel was so narrow and steep that we could not take our car up to the rooms. We were provided a 3-wheeler Tuk-tuk to carry our luggage while we climbed the hill on foot. All the greenery and hilltop houses make Kandy mesmerizing and magical when it rains.
Sri Dalada Maligawa, famously known as Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic is the prime attraction in Kandy. A UNESCO heritage site, it is a Buddhist temple located in the royal palace complex. It houses the tooth of Buddha. It is believed that after the parinirvana of Gautama Buddha, the tooth relic was preserved in Kalinga and smuggled to the island by Princess Hemamali. The temple witnessed two terrorist attacks, first in 1989 and then in 1998. The main entrance of the temple was completely destroyed from bombings and it was restored successfully each time. A guided tour of the temple and the aesthetic museum on the top floor explains the ancient culture of Sri Lanka. There is a nexus of guides who offer the guided tour and you cannot bring your own guide from outside their network.
Statue of golden Buddha inside the main area at the Temple of Tooth Relic.
After visiting the temple, we took a stroll along the manmade lake surrounding the temple. We went on a 30-minute boat ride during which we sighted exotic birds, varieties of ducks, large monitor lizards and extensive marine life. Fishing is banned in the holy lake. The boatmen were enthusiastic and happy to explain the history around.
Ducks enjoying an evening stroll around the Kandy Lake.
Kandy is a laid back city with minimal nightlife. However, restaurants in Kandy take you on a culinary rollercoaster and offer an unbeatable experience. Only, be there early because this city shuts down by 8 pm. After an indulgent meal, one can enjoy a walk in the downtown area, which is nicely paved for the walkers and adequately lit. Outskirts of the city are deserted after about 8 pm but you will get a Tuk-tuk to return to your hotel.
A 3-hour drive from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya treats you to a breathtaking view of panoramic Sri Lanka. There are many interesting places en route to stop and soak in the beauty with a refreshing cup of tea/coffee. And just in case it rains, the entire character of the landscape will change to make it even more stunning!
Picturesque drive from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya that goes through slanted nurseries of tea gardens on either side of the highway.
There are abundant viewpoints to stop by on the way like a sky deck from where you can view the Ramboda Falls at a distance or the deck of a coffee shop to enjoy the breathtaking view of the lake. You may have Indian food at Shri Bhakt Hanuman Temple by Chinmaya Mission on the way. The view from the temple atop the hills is amazing. Time permitting; you can also visit Ramboda waterfalls, which can be accessed through the Ramboda Falls Hotel. There is a small fee charged by the hotel for availing their elevator and the trail. There is a beautiful deck with benches to enjoy the falls.
Get yourself drenched into an enchanted landscape from the Sky Deck while in transit to Nuwara Eliya.
Nuwara Eliya, a city in the hill country of Central Province at an altitude of 6,000 feet; is also known as Little England. The colonial architecture and century old heritage buildings give a feeling of a British village in the countryside. A walk in this town on a misty day is truly enchanting. You can take the opportunity to mail postcards from the Town Post Office, one of the oldest post offices in the country. It is the hub of Sri Lanka's tea production. . Complete your experience of this quaint town by either having a cup of coffee or beer at Grand Hotel, built in the style of Elizabeth era manor house and declared as a National Heritage Property. A stroll along Lake Gregory is enjoyable along with sightings of different species of birds and flowers. Shopping, however, is a no-no as the prices are exorbitant.
A Philatelist is always on the lookout for a post office, a colonial style heritage building in Nuwara Eliya.
The Ancient City of Polonnaruwa
One of the less known cities of Sri Lanka is Polonnaruwa. A UNESCO world heritage site, the ancient city of Polonnaruwa is situated in the main town of Polonnaruwa in North Central Province. It was established by the Chola dynasty after their invasion of the country in the 10th century. Under this period, systematic destruction of the Buddhist civilization took place in the northern plains of Sri Lanka. Today it remains one of the best-planned archaeological relic cities in the country. I strongly recommend availing the service of a highly knowledgeable guide while visiting the ruins of this ancient city, but beware of fraudsters.
Entrance to the Audience Hall of Royal Palace at Polonnaruwa, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Several adventurous tourists, especially backpackers, had rented bicycles and were exploring the ancient city on their own. I suggest you start your journey with a visit to the Archeological Museum where there is a display of models of each important site. This is right next to the ticket office. It builds up the story for your visit to the ancient city of Polonnaruwa. We visited the museum in the end and thought it should be the other way around. However, our knowledgeable guide made our visit memorable. Detailed information about each site of the ancient city is abundantly available hence have listed down the places that our guide covered in detail.
The Vatadage, a circular relic house at the Quadrangle.
Gal Vihara, although a tad far from the ruins of the city, is definitely worth visiting. You can drive there if you are tired of walking. En route to Gal Vihara, you will find many small Hindu temples scattered on either sides of the road, covering all the Hindu deities. It is believed that the Kings of Chola dynasty had periodically built them based on each ones spiritual beliefs. Eventually, on reaching Gal Vihara, we were absolutely stunned. What we saw made us speechless. Four giant Buddha statues carved from a single stone, what an artwork of those days? It is believed that Sinhalese developed this site after they took over Polonnaruwa from the Cholas. The sleeping Buddha is an amazing 14-metre long statue. While visiting Polonnaruwa, special attention needs to be paid to attire. These are religious sites with their own customs which one needs to respect and adhere to.
Panoramic view of Buddha Statues carved from a single stone at Gal Vihara.
Sigiriya Rock Fortress
Another gem of Sri Lanka, omitted from the itinerary consciously or unconsciously due to lack of time. King Kashyapa built the ancient rock fortress of Sigiriya on 650 feet high massive column rock in the 5th century. It is a marvel of advanced engineering and architecture skills and recognized as the benchmark of ancient urban planning and water engineering. UNESCO declared this as a World Heritage Site in 1982. Sigiriya is best explored along with a knowledgeable guide.
Sigiriya Rock as observed from the distance where King Kashyapa built a fortress at 650 feet height.
The fortress has five gates. You enter through the main public gate that is the south entrance. It has a man-made lake and fountains built during the 5th century, considered to be the oldest in the world. Then you start climbing up through the western walls, which are entirely covered by Frescoes that depict nude females considered to be King Kashyapas wives. There were 500 such frescoes out of which hardly 18 have survived. It is like a gigantic picture gallery spread across 140 meters long and 40 meters high.
Moving forward, you pass through the Mirror Wall. Originally, the wall was made of brick and polished white plaster such that when the sun rays fall on the lake they are reflected towards the wall and the King could see himself while he walked alongside it. There are ancient inscriptions on the wall as old as 8th century by tourists who visited abandoned Sigiriya thousands of years ago.
Once you climb halfway up you will reach the main entrance on the Northeast side. It was designed in the form of a massive Lion structure. The name Sigiriya originates from the word Sinhagiri, which means Lion Rock. Currently, only the feet of Lion have survived and the rest of the structure is destroyed. Further up from the Lion gate on the flat top of the rock you reach the ruins of the upper palace.
The Lion Rock and remains of the upper palace at Sigiriya.
We came down through the lower palace and then took the western gate passing through four different types of gardens, namely Water, Cave, Boulder and Terrace. The hydraulic system for fetching water from the lake through underground water pumps and canals is a marvel of ancient water engineering. These gardens are believed to be the oldest landscape gardens in the world. These caves have a few frescoes on the walls and ceilings some of which have been rubbed or scratched. After the death of the King, Sigiriya was converted into a Buddhist Monastery and survived until the 14th century. It is believed that Buddhist monks used to meditate inside the caves and nude paintings in the frescoes caused distraction and hence, they were erased. Well, the fortress lasted for a brief period of less than 20 years, but it tells a fascinating story, isnt it? I am sure your experience will be far more enriching than my account of the experience.
Western gate of the Sigiriya fortress passes through landscape gardens and caves.
Dambulla Cave Temple
Another UNESCO world heritage site, another ancient monument, and I must emphasize that people of Sri Lanka are well equipped to preserve and nurture their ancient history. I have been to many ancient places in Sri Lanka and pleasantly surprised that all of them are extremely well maintained. Dambulla Cave Temple is no exception even though history suggests that this dates back to the first century BC. It is also believed that prehistoric Sri Lankans would have lived in these caves before Buddhism. There are burial sites with human skeletons about 2700 years old in this area.
Entrance to the caves of Dambulla Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The rock temple situated 350 feet above the ground is spread over five caves with more than 150 statues of Buddha, Sri Lankan Kings, and other Gods including Vishnu and Ganesha. The entire temple is covered with murals representing epochs of Sinhalese culture. King Abhaya sought refuge here after South Indians invaded his kingdom Anuradhapura for 14 years. After reclaiming his capital, he built a temple in the caves to thank God. His successors kept contributing to this and eventually it became a major religious centre by 11th century.
Inside the caves of Dambulla: Statues of Buddha and Murals on the ceiling.
My trip to Sri Lanka was one filled with ancient civilizations, a vibrant cultural history and carpets of greenery. I spent the last few hours shopping for souvenirs and then embarked on a long rainy drive to the airport.