Last month, I was able to take a trip to Sri Lanka, the small teardrop-shaped island nation off the southern tip of India.
It was my first-ever visit to South Asia, and perhaps the best introduction possible. While the country is small, it is full of great places. This includes 8 UNESCO World Heritage sites, historic cities, and some very attractive mountains and beaches. With over 2,000 years of recorded history, Sri Lanka packs a historical heft way beyond its size – it has more history than even Japan or South Korea and yes, of course, Taiwan. I only went for two weeks so I obviously didn’t visit all of them.
I went to the capital Colombo, the cultural center Kandy, the fort city of Galle, southern beach town Mirissa, and hill town Nuwara Eliya. I also made daytrips to the cultural sites of Sigiriya and Dambulla, as well as Hikkuduwa, another beach town a little north of Galle. It sounds like a lot and indeed it was a little more ambitious than what I normally do, but I decided I had to try to see as much of this country as I could. I was very glad I did, especially in visiting the central highlands or Hill Country, where the mountains, while not individually spectacular, are some of the prettiest I’ve ever seen.
While I’d never been to the region before, I’d heard good things about Sri Lanka, one of them being that it is cleaner and more orderly than its big neighbor to the north India. It turned out to be true in that Sri Lanka was relatively clean and didn’t have the chaos and dirtiness you normally read about regarding India. However, the country was very noisy since the old cars, motorbikes and three-wheeler tuktuks all combined to make the streets the noisiest I’ve ever been on, and that’s taking into consideration Vietnam, China and Taiwan. The people I met, including hotel staff, drivers and shopkeepers were very polite and in general, while walking around I hardly felt any menace to either my physical well-being or my wallet. Still, there were a few instances of persistent tuktuk drivers and employees at a museum and botanical garden asking for tips after giving me short tours.
While the country has a long history and a lot of culture, the British colonial legacy is strong. The use of English, which is present on many street and shop signs and spoken by a good bit of people, the prevalence of tea and attractive tea estates, and of course, the sport of cricket. Everywhere I went, I saw youngsters and adults playing cricket on fields instead of football (I did see girls playing this once) and the country excels at the sport. It was also the only way some of the locals recognized my country Trinidad due to Brian Lara, one of the greatest cricket batsmen ever. The train lines, including the hill line that goes from Colombo through Kandy and into the central highlands, were old and reminders of impressive British 19th-century engineering.
A big reason why Sri Lanka is becoming more popular for travel is that it is slowly becoming stable and peaceful after a civil war that lasted for decades. The country used to always be in the news for its civil conflict (one of the world’s longest), which only ended in 2009, albeit brutally and controversially. The conflict, which pitted the minority Tamils against the mostly-Sinhalese majority (both of whom have lived in Sri Lanka for well over 1,500 years), ties in with Sri Lanka’s most striking characteristics, which is that it is a diverse country, both ethnically and in religions. Besides the two ethnicities above, there are Muslims, who are mostly descendants of Arab settlers who came centuries ago. In fact, the Sinhalese are Buddhists while the Tamils are Hindus. This means there are Buddhist and Hindu temples and mosques everywhere, as well as churches. It is interesting to me how Sri Lanka is heavily Buddhist while India, the birthplace of the Buddha, has very, very few Buddhists. This doesn’t mean everything is fine and peachy with everybody, especially as I didn’t go into the north, where the Tamils are mostly from and where according to travel guides there is a strong military presence, but the country is indeed largely peaceful.
I flew into Colombo, got picked up by my guesthouse in Galle and taken there directly, then went to Mirissa by bus. From Mirissa, I took the train to Colombo where I spent one night, then took the train to Kandy, spent several days there where I made a daytrip to visit Dambulla and Sigiriya, then took the train again to Nuwara Eliya in the highlands. I took the overnight train back to Colombo where I finally had time to explore parts of the city properly.
– I’d come here specifically to go on a whale-watching trip but since we didn’t see any whales, the highlight was undoubtedly the fine beach with its small islet from which there were good views.
– the cultural show which was colorful, energetic and extremely entertaining.
– the Peradeniya botanical gardens, which is actually on the outskirts and which boasts a great collection of trees and plants as well as bats, though I could have done without that
– Sigiriya, which is 3 hours away, a giant rock topped with the ruins of a fortress/monastery, was as impressive as I’d thought it’d be.
– Single Tree Hill, a 2,100m mountain at the town’s edge from which there are great views of the town and mountains in the distance. It was also my first real hike since my ankle operation a year ago.
– Pedro’s tea estate and Lover’s Leap waterfall, which are on opposite sides of a road. The former is a tea estate that offers tours of the on-site tea processing plant while the latter is a waterfall that comes from the top of a mountain.
– Galle Face Green, a long stretch of lawn that faces the ocean with a narrow beach in between. It is a very bustling place of activity and fun with people coming out to enjoy themselves and watch the sunset.
– Colonial-era buildings in Fort area, impressive British buildings (many of which are being renovated) and Jami-Ul-Alfar mosque in Pettah, a towering building whose red and white tiled exterior is probably the most attractive mosque I’ve ever seen.