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Sri Lanka

The Green Serendip

By Pankita Bhavsar

Last Updated: 18 Mar 2021

Being an Indian but living in Qatar for a long time, it was my childhood dream to visit Sri Lanka. The only thing I knew about Sri Lanka was from “Ramayana”, the epic tale of Hindu deity Lord Rama. Sri Lanka used to be Ravana’s (the demon) kingdom who had kidnapped Lord Rama’s wife, Sita and took her to Sri Lanka and the long story goes on…I was quite fascinated with Sri Lanka being an island in the middle of the ocean.

Finally, the day arrived, for which we were waiting for months. We were going on a vacation after almost a year. My husband Sumit and I have many similarities like time management, taking ownership of responsibilities and waking up early etc. That's why we are best travel partners (and of course good life partners too). Most of the time, we plan and book our tickets and hotels 3 to 4 months prior to the date of travel. In addition, we finish 80-90 % of travel packing 15 days ahead. Hence, when we want to catch any flight we are always relaxed. We believe that if we plan ahead, our traveling will be hassle free and we can enjoy each and every moment.

We were traveling from Doha to Colombo via Dubai in Emirates Airways. Our connecting flight from Dubai to Colombo was delayed and at the last moment the gates were changed. We realized that no matter how much you plan, sometimes unavoidable situations occur and you have to go with the flow. We arrived in Sri Lanka at noon while the winter sun was shining bright on the seashore. The Sri Lankan peninsula looked stunning from the flight like a lush green carpet. We instantly fell in love with the landscape. We landed at Bandaranaike International Airport, which is called as Kantunayake Airport, locally. It is the only International Airport of Sri Lanka. It is located in a suburb of Negombo that is around 32 kilometers from Colombo.

Our driver and guide was jovial & chatty. Throughout the journey to Dambulla, our conversation covered a broad spectrum of topics. On the way, he stopped at a farm and bought fresh coconut and pineapple for us. The coconut water was as sweet as sugar syrup and the pineapple was delicious. We understood the reason for this nutritious rich food was the use of natural fertilizer. Most of the farmers in Sri Lanka avoid using chemical fertilizers.

Enjoying fresh coconut water enroute to Dambulla Sri Lanka

Enjoying fresh coconut water enroute to Dambulla

We reached Dambulla at around 7 pm. That evening Dambulla looked like a small village. Our hotel Heritance Kandalama was 10 km away from the city and 1 km interior from the main road. At first we felt like we were going inside a dark jungle, but took a deep breath once we reached the reception. We were amazed, as the hotel was covered with plants and creepers. Initially, we couldn't gauge the size of the hotel. The reception area was in an open space; we were welcomed with a lotus flower. A rocky tunnel led us inside, at the end of the tunnel a cold breeze gently touched us. The main waiting area was wide and all the doors and windows were open. Again, we were welcomed and served tender coconut water and finally directed to our room.

The Heritance Kandalama hotel in Dambulla

A natural extension of the mountainside. Look closely and you will see The Heritance Kandalama

We were ravenous after the long journey, therefore we quickly freshen up and left for the ala carte restaurant. The main course of Sri Lankan cuisine is rice, along with 4-5 varieties of curries, dal and special coconut chutney called sambol. We devoured it with much relish.

The next day, we started early, fresh and rested. We fueled up with a hearty breakfast and were ready to explore this beautiful land. The Kandalama Lake next to the hotel enhances the scenic beauty of the place. We took lots of pictures of the hotel and enjoyed the scenery until our driver arrived. We drove for an hour before reaching the Sigiriya Rock Palace, which is one of the 8 world heritage sites in Sri Lanka. Sigiriya Rock Palace is an ancient castle built by King Kashyapa of the 5th century AD. The palace derives its name from the fact that it is built on a lion-shaped rock, Sihagri meaning lion. We climbed up to the mid-level terrace where one can view the Mirror Wall and Sigiriya frescoes.

Sigiriya rock plateau in Sri Lanka

Sigiriya rock plateau is 200 meters higher than the surrounding jungles, a unique blend of nature and human engineering

We were wonderstruck by the unique architectural skills and landscape design used during that time. The garden and water bodies were planned perfectly. The concept of irrigation through fountains using stored water during the non-rainy season was exceptional and well executed. Near the entrance of the stairs there were some corners, which were used by Buddhist monks for meditation. The view from the mid-level terrace was spectacular. A Buddha statue located opposite the Sigiriya rock was clearly visible from this place. Soon, there was a heavy downpour which drenched us completely. The rain made the steps going towards the top very slippery and dangerous, so we retreated back down and headed back to the hotel.

Climbing stone steps up the Sigiriya rock

Climbing stone steps up the Sigiriya rock was exciting and intimidating!

Our next visit was to Dambulla Cave temple, also known as Golden Temple. At ground level, there is a modern temple but the original temple is at a staggering 160m height from the ground. It is the largest temple complex in Sri Lanka spread across 5 caves. Dating back to the 1st century, it houses 153 Buddha statues, 3 Sri Lankan kings' statues, 4 statues of Gods & Goddesses. The most prominent statues are that of Hindu deities, Lord Vishnu and Ganesh. The view from the top was breathtaking. We enjoyed some quiet time in this ancient ambience absorbing the ambience of Buddist monasticism. We then headed back to the hotel after an enriching experience. We enjoyed a relaxed late afternoon in the infinity pool with drizzling of rain. The lush green carpet of vegetation around the hotel and surrounding mountains was magical, almost like heaven on the earth.

Sleeping Buddha in Dambulla Cave Temple

The stunning 10 ft, long reclining Buddha, among several other Buddha statues in Dambulla Cave Temple

The next stop in our Sri Lanka itinerary was Kandy. But, I was not done in Dambulla yet, I wanted to go Bird Watching! The hotel offers many activities like Elephant Safari, Boat Safari, Hot Air Balloon ride, etc. at reasonable charges. So the next day, we were up and ready early and headed to the reception. A 65-year-old local guide Anbupa welcomed us with a naive smile. Anbupa is a farmer by profession, but he is a naturalist and has been working with this hotel for the past 10 years. He spoke English fluently. Surprisingly, he could also speak French, Spanish and German in an understandable manner. We followed him along the trail enjoying the cool breeze of a lovely morning. During our walk, we heard the chirping of birds and also got lucky and saw a few of hidden birds with Anbupa's expert guidance. One and a half hours spent in the best way possible, in the lap of nature, immersed in the stunning beauty of the mountains and greenery and the exotic fauna. It was truly mesmerizing. Refreshed and rejuvenated, we headed back to our hotel, had breakfast and bid adieu to Dambulla. Kandy, our next stop is around 75 km south from Dambulla. It is in the middle of Sri Lanka.

A farmer by profession, a naturalist at heart! Anbupa, our lovely bird guide.

The drive from Dambulla to Kandy is delightful, surrounded by small mountains and waterfalls. On the way, our driver took us to a spice garden. Sri Lanka is very famous for spices and gems, especially the Kandy Area. Generally we city dwellers use spices but rarely know how they are grown. In an effort to enlighten visitors, these spice gardens prepare demo plots in their front yard of all spice plants and trees. Cinnamon, clove, cardamom, coffee, coco, jojoba, black pepper and many more trees were there to showcase to visitors like us. We indulged in some spices from the shop located in the garden; we found them of premium quality.

This fragrant cardamom and many such beautiful spices are what enhance your food, daily.

In the evening we visited the famous temple of the sacred tooth relic. Legend has it that after the parinirvana of Gautama Buddha, the tooth relic was preserved in Kalinga. It was then smuggled to the island by Princess Hemamali and her husband, Prince Dantha on the instructions of her father King Guhasiva. It was handed over to Sirimeghavanna who was king of Anuradhapura . Years later it was given to the king of Anuradhapura and after that to Vimaladharmasuriya who was king of Kandy. He constructed a 2-floor building for this tooth relic and took care of it. After a few centuries, King Vira Narendra Sinha built the current day temple.

About 70% of Sri Lankan people follow Buddhism and for the Buddhist community, this temple is holy ground. Sri Lankan Buddhist people believe white is a sacred color, hence most of the people visiting this temple dress in white.

Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy

Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, the most revered site in Sri Lanka and locally known as Sri Dalada Maligawa

After a rather interesting experience of Buddhist history & culture, we decided to do something less intense. We headed to Kandy's market later that evening for some retail therapy. There were numerous shops displaying Batik print clothes, wooden items, Sri Lankan gemstones and ornaments. I wanted to treat myself to a batik skirt but unfortunately, did not find anything to my taste. After dinner we went to town hall to watch a cultural show. The spectacular performance had dancers wearing Tiger and other animal masks and dancing on Tabla and other local instruments. Later they moved to the outer area where there were breathtaking fire performances. We later wandered into a souvenir shop nearby and bought a few fridge magnets as souvenirs for friends and family.

The next day we visited the Royal Botanical Garden. This garden has around 4,000 types of plants and trees. It is the biggest botanical garden in Sri Lanka and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. When we reached there, it was raining heavily. We were a little skeptical about visiting in this weather but our guide motivated us. We were provided with umbrellas at the entrance, which had to be returned on coming back. The garden is located near a river and it has spectacular landscapes. With its bewildering variety of plants and trees, this is one of the oldest formal gardens in Sri Lanka. It was raining and yet there wasn't mud anywhere. Again, we indulged in refreshing and fascinating greenery with the gentle wind enhancing the experience.

Later we headed towards Nuwara Eliya. The drive to Nuwara Eliya is heavenly surrounded by tea gardens. Our guide took us to a tea estate where we were given a tour of the place and learnt a lot about tea and the process of making dry tea from the tea leaves. We came back to The Grand Hotel by late afternoon. The Grand Hotel is enormous and magnificent from the outside. It was originally a palace built for English Governor in 1891. As time passed it was converted into a hotel. There is a large grass lawn in front of the hotel and the reception area was extensive. Our room was small and dark but the furniture was classical style.

The Grand Hotel in Nuwara Eliya

The Grand Hotel in Nuwara Eliya is all about regal grandeur and elegance

We checked in, freshened up and commenced sightseeing. The "Sita Kovil'' Temple was not in our itinerary but during my research before travelling, I figured that it was near Nuwara Eliya. I requested our guide to take us there. It is believed that Ravana had kept Sitaji here after kidnapping her. The place we know as Asokvatika' or Asokvan' is now known as Hakgala Botanical Garden. There is a small stream of water near the temple known as Sita Stream. When Hanumanji came here in search of Sitaji he is believed to have passed through here. During his walk near the stream, the rocks were imprinted with his footsteps creating holes. Now these holes are outlined in yellow. From the outside, the temple looked very small and unassuming. Looking at it I wondered, it has so much of importance in history but it was not in good condition. I recently heard that it has undergone renovation.

Nuwara Eliya is the coldest place in Sri Lanka. Most of the time during the year it rains here. It was raining throughout our stay there. We strolled around the market and bought a few items from the supermarket. There was an Indian restaurant in our hotel premises. We indulged in North Indian food and enjoyed listening to Bollywood music while reminiscing our trip so far. We were in our last phase.

Ramboda Waterfall on the way to Nuwara Eliya

On our final leg, we reached Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. This sanctuary was built in 1975 to feed and provide care to orphaned baby elephants that were found in the wild. Here, rescued elephants and sick elephants were also taken care of and treated. Breeding takes place as well. The Orphanage has a total of nearly 100 male & female elephants across newborns and old elephants. River Maha Oya passes through here, and sometimes these elephants are taken to this river to bathe them. This scene is very spectacular as all elephants pass in a line and play around in the river. Unfortunately, we reached the spot 30 minutes late so missed it. The riverside had few stalls selling clothes, wooden items and of course tea snacks. We spent some time at a cafe near the river sipping hot tea and enjoying the surroundings.

Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage in Sri Lanka

This tusker is enjoying some tender loving care at his home, Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage

We then headed towards Colombo, which resembles Mumbai in India. Our guide dropped us off at the hotel and returned. We had the rest of the evening to ourselves. We relaxed for a while at the comfortable business hotel and then We then headed towards Colombo, which resembles Mumbai in India. Our guide dropped us off at the hotel and returned. We had the rest of the evening to ourselves. We relaxed for a while at the comfortable business hotel and then stepped out for a walk nearby. There is a beach in front of the hotel where we enjoyed a walk and watched the spectacular sunset. It was a beautiful evening! We later hired a tuk tuk (3-wheeler) and visited the old parliament building and D. S. Senanayake statue.

Later, we went to a mall near by and had dinner at the food court. Our only regret was that we did not spend enough time in Colombo. The next morning, we bid adieu to Colombo, promising to come back again.

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Heavenly view outside our window, Hotel Heritance Kandalama in Dambulla

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