Sri Lanka travel- Dambulla Buddhist cave and Peradeniya botanical gardens

Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, Sri Lanka
While Kandy by itself is not that remarkable other than its lively cultural shows and the temple of the Buddhist Tooth, there is a lot of fascinating sites outside of the city. This includes the Dambulla Buddhist cave, an elephant sanctuary with dozens of elephants, and Peradeniya Botanical Gardens. Dambulla is about two hours’ drive, the Pinnawala elephant sanctuary is about an hour away, while the botanical gardens is very close, less than 30 minutes by bus.

Dambulla is a collection of several Buddhist caves filled with Buddhist murals and statues that date back to the first century BC. Located inside a series of caves on the top of a small hill, Dambulla is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a good place to visit along with Sigiriya if you’re going by car (check with your hotel for a driver). There are five caves, differing in size, with Buddhist statues, murals and even stupas. The murals are very beautiful, though in general, I found Dambulla underwhelming. At the foot of the hill is a Buddhist temple with a huge golden Buddha statue.

I’m not exactly a big fan of trees and flowers but I was very impressed by Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, so much that I spent almost two hours there strolling around and taking photos. Not only is it huge and feature a diverse collection of over 4,000 trees, plants, an orchid house, a spice garden, and enormous bamboo groves, but it has a colony of large fruit bats sleeping on several trees. As I visited during the day, those guys were all asleep and it was easy to take pictures of them. It was the first time I’ve seen bats sleeping in the outside during the day and it was a fascinating and slightly uncomfortable sight (not a bat fan too).

There is a central “great circle,” lawns, as well as an avenue shaded on both sides by giant palm trees. Among the most fascinating trees to look out are a giant Javan fig tree, which has a sprawling umbrella-like canopy, and Coco de Mers or double coconut palms, which bear coconuts of 10-20 kg that are the world’s heaviest nut or fruit!
The botanical garden was established in 1821 by the British, though Kandy kings had set up gardens on the site in previous centuries.

I had a slightly unpleasant experience as I was showed around the orchid house by an employee, who then asked for a tip at the end. I didn’t give him much but I don’t like it when people do something for you and then demand money, especially for something like a 5 minute tour of the orchid house, which was included in the garden’s entrance fee. A similar experience would later happen to me in Colombo at the natural history museum and I refused to give a tip (still annoyed over the orchid house guy).

I had a surprisingly pleasant experience when I came upon a bunch of local Muslim youths. They ran up to me and started crowding me, but in a friendly manner. These guys couldn’t speak much English and couldn’t tell me where they were (Sri Lanka! was all they could say) or what school or organization they were but we managed to take a few photos.

Colonial-era building in Kandy
Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, Sri Lanka
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Sri Lanka’s ancient hilltop fortress of Sigiriya

Sigiriya, Sri Lanka
One of Sri Lanka’s most distinctive and fascinating landmarks is the ancient fortress of Sigiriya. Located atop a massive 200m-high column of rock that dominates a vast plain, Sigiriya was built between 477-495 CE (AD) by a king as a refuge during a war with rivals for the throne. Eventually the place became a Buddhist monastery before being abandoned in the 13th-14th century.

Once you enter the grounds, you will get a great view of Sigiriya looming ahead of you. At the sides are pleasant landscaped gardens with terraces and fountains. In terms of wildlife, look out for monkeys, monitors and even peacocks roaming around. On one side of the grounds, there is even a large man-made reservoir that is still in use.

Climbing up the rock takes you past beautiful frescoes of some very voluptuous maidens along the walls. Unfortunately, some of the paintings have been smeared, either through vandalism or an attempt at modesty by overzealous guardians. Near the top, you will reach Lion Gate, a stone staircase flanked by huge lion’s paws, which signifies the final route to the actual fortress on top. A quick climb up this staircase brings you to Sigiriya and magnificent views of the surrounding plains.

The fortress exists as ruins, with much of the base structures intact. It was much larger than I expected, and it is easy to understand why the king, Kashyapa, would build a fortress there. Despite building Sigiriya, he met a sad end because after losing a battle to his half-brother and claimant to the throne, he is said to have committed suicide.

Sigiriya isn’t just a cool site to see, as it’s also an example of Sri Lanka’s over 2,000 years of history, impressive even by Asian standards. Sigiriya is over 90 km from Kandy, which is about a 2.5-hour drive. I visited Sigiriya and Dambulla, a Buddhist cave temple with murals that is over 2,000 years old, on a daytrip from Kandy with a driver which my hotel helped me hire.

Sigiriya, Sri Lanka Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

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Sri Lanka travel- the capital Colombo

Colombo, Sri Lanka

In a country flush with great traveling destinations, Sri Lanka’s capital city Colombo hardly gets any mention. Now, obviously if you’re flying in from elsewhere, chances are you will arrive in Colombo. From there, most people go on to other places like Kandy, Galle, the Hill Country, or to the beach towns along the west and south coasts. That’s actually what I did since I went straight to Galle as soon as I landed in Colombo. I did return to Colombo twice – first to go on to Kandy in the center of the country, then to leave at the end of my trip.

Colombo didn’t impress me much at first. Most of it is built up, but it isn’t as modern as Bangkok nor as charming as Hanoi. It doesn’t boast very famous sights or landmarks. But when I look back at all the places I went to in the city, Colombo is actually a very decent city.

Situated right by the sea, Colombo has a coastal stretch of open ground that faces the sea, the Galle Face Green, that comes alive in the evening with sightseers, couples, and kids flying kites. The city’s major museum, the National Museum of Colombo, has a good collection of historical religious artifacts and is housed in a magnificent colonial-era all-white building. Beira Lake is a serene water refuge in the middle of the city, while the Pettah district boasts one of the most attractive and unique mosques you’ll ever find, the candy-striped Jami-Ul-Alfar Mosque, and a bustling street market. There is also the slightly wacky and impressive Gangaramaya Buddhist temple, as well as Hindu temples with colorful gopuram towers. Last but not least, the Fort business district features entire blocks of stately and elegant colonial-era architecture.

I hardly saw any other tourists at these places, with the exception of the museum and Gangaramaya temple, where there were a few Chinese and Western visitors. Walking around Fort district, I was even approached by a guy from one of the buildings who asked me a few questions. Actually, before this encounter, I did get approached by people several times but they were tuktuk drivers or unofficial tour guides trying to hustle me into going on a city tour. This guy didn’t try to hustle or sell me anything and he was more well-dressed than the touts I’d encountered, so I think he was probably an employee in one of the government buildings wondering what I was doing. At that point, I was basically the only non-local walking around in that area so it was like I had all those colonial architecture to myself.

So if you go to Sri Lanka, by all means visit the beaches, the fortress of Galle, the ancient city ruins and the hilltop fortress of Sigiriya inland, the beautiful hill country, and the national parks. But, make sure to leave some time to explore Colombo too.

National Museum of Colombo, Sri Lanka
National Museum of Colombo, built in 1877
Colombo, Sri Lanka Colombo, Sri Lanka
Gangaramaya Buddhist temple
Colombo, Sri Lanka
Colombo, Sri Lanka
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Sri Lanka travel- the kingdom of Kandy

Kandy Lake, Sri Lanka
The city of Kandy lies in the center of Sri Lanka and can literally and figuratively be considered the country’s heart. As a cultural hub, it is where the island’s most famous festival of  Esala Perahera is held, and where the Temple of the Buddha’s Tooth is located. Surrounded by hills, Kandy also has a feisty side to it, having held out as the island’s last independent kingdom against Portuguese, Dutch and British invaders for centuries until 1815.

Nowadays, Kandy is not a kingdom anymore and though it is the country’s cultural center, as a city in terms of looks it isn’t that remarkable. It is not very big and feels more like a small town. However, it does have a scenic lake in the middle of the city, where the Temple of the Buddha’s Tooth (which contains exactly what the name says) is next to. The lake also boasts a lot of birds such as ducks, herons, and cormorants. There are also several performance venues alongside the lake where you can see a Kandy culture show. These are one-hour evening performances that feature a number of different sets with drumming, singing, a bit of theater, and dancing. The performers are resplendent and dressed in colorful traditional costumes, with the women looking amazing.

The city actually doesn’t have much attractions within it besides the lake and temple, but there are a lot of fascinating sites nearby. These include the ancient hilltop fortress of Sigiriya and the Buddhist cave sculptures of Dambulla are within three hours’ drive from Kandy and can be done in a daytrip (which I did). Meanwhile, the Royal Botanical Gardens is right on the outskirts of the city in Peradeniya (5.5 km, less than 30 minutes by bus) while elephant sanctuaries, tea plantations and spice gardens are within an hour away.

I specifically went to the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage by tuktuk, which was originally built to house orphaned elephants found in the wild. Over time, the orphanage’s elephants have increased both due to new orphans brought in and births among the orphanage’s elephants (they can never be released into the wild due to being unable to adapt). There is some controversy surrounding this center regarding how it treats its elephants. While I think people need to be very careful regarding elephant tourism, elephant rides are not provided here which is a good thing. One issue I had was that the staff handlers would often ask people if they wanted to take a photo with an elephant for a fee. One highlight is that twice a day, the handlers bring their elephants to a river across the street to bathe. While it is nice to see the elephants bathing in the river, seeing dozens of elephants cross a street is amazing.

Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage

Lookout point
Birds at Kandy Lake, Sri Lanka
Multitude of black and white birds, Kandy Lake
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Sri Lanka travel- thriving Galle Fort

Despite being a small island next to a giant country (parallels with Taiwan), Sri Lanka boasts historical sites, lush mountains, elephants, and beaches. The country is really special for travel; so special that I wrote two articles about it. I mean how many countries in Asia, especially small island nations, can you go on safaris to see elephants in the wild? And the country’s historical sites include both native structures like the 5th-century mountain fortress of Sigiriya and the ancient cities of Poḷonnaruwa and Anuradhapura, as well as the Portuguese-Dutch colonial fortress of Galle. The latter was my first stop during my trip to Sri Lanka a couple of years ago.

Located on the southwestern coast of Sri Lanka, Galle Fort is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was built in the late 15th century by the Portuguese before later being expanded by the Dutch (who captured Galle from the Portuguese). It is the largest European-build fortress in Asia. Guarding the bay of the town of Galle, the fort lies on a small peninsula and still is home to a residential community of locals and expats. When you come here, you aren’t just looking at sea walls and gun emplacements of a historic fort, but museums, lighthouse, mosques, churches, shops and hostels.

The sea wall of the fort is a great place to look out at the Indian Ocean, especially sunsets, but even better for walking the lanes inside the fort. That’s because the lanes are full of interesting colonial homes, many of which house shops, cafes, and restaurants. The most interesting building I came upon was the Historical Mansion Museum, a former colonial administrator’s mansion, which housed several rooms of antiques and a jewelry workshop. It is free though there is a jewelry gem store on site. If you are not interested, there’s no need to buy anything of course. I also made a quick visit to the Maritime Museum, which besides a mounted whale skeleton had a disappointing sparse collection.

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Overview of a trip to Sri Lanka

Last month, I was able to go on 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 – 8 UNESCO World Heritage sites, historic cities, and 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 Hikkaduwa, 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 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, though 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 many 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 schoolgirls playing football 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 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.

The itinerary
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.

The highlights

– the fort, which is actually a fortified town jutting out into the sea filled with homes, museums, shops and even a district court

– 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.

Nuwara Eliya
– 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 flows 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 with many locals, as well as a few tourists, 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 makes it probably the most attractive mosque I’ve ever seen.