Sir Arthur C. Clarke once very famously declared: “The island of Sri Lanka is a small universe; it contains as many variations of culture, scenery and climate as some countries a dozen times its size.”
The wise man couldn’t have phrased it better.
Sanskrit for sacred island, not many people know that before the name Sri Lanka was coined, the country had many a title before the one it holds now; Ceylon when under the reign of the Portuguese, and Taprobane to the Ancient Greeks. But most beautiful, and probably the one that holds most true was the name appointed by the Arabs of yore: Serendib; derived from the word serendipity.
Cradled by the Indian Ocean and located right under the Indian Sub-continent, this tiny Island is often referred to as ‘The Pearl of The Indian Ocean.’ But don’t judge an Island by its size.
This ‘little’ emerald isle stakes claim to a history spanning centuries, and has many a tale to tell; of ancient battles and overthrown monarchs, to the Portuguese, Dutch and British invasions, and the recent civil war. Before the onset of the bloody civil war that held the island captive for more than 2 decades, and the tragic onslaught of the 2001 tsunami, Sri Lanka was once on par with the world’s top Travel and Honeymoon destinations. And now with the war declared over, and the tsunami just a bad memory, the once wary tourists are finding it safe to visit again.
And why wouldn’t they?
Almost synonymous with seductive beaches and it’s seemingly endless expanse of tea plantations, Sri Lanka is ideal for that easy, yet pocket-friendly escape. The climate is comfortably temperate, and although Sinhala and Tamil are the official languages of the nation, English is widely spoken in the city and most tourist hot-spots. The currency (the Sri Lankan Rupee) is fairly easy to comprehend, and with regards to accommodation, tourists can either choose to set up camp in the hotel industry’s big-names (Hilton, Galadari, etc.), or the many ‘Boutique hotels’ and ‘Eco-lodges’ located across the island.
Colombo: The city of Colombo might resemble any other South-Asian city at first glance, but on closer observation one will notice the easy infusion of cultures representing the island in the Capital itself. Amongst the busy streets of school-going children clad in white, and the street side vendors exhibiting their wares, you will find the representation of cultural variation in the food you eat and traces of history in the monuments of ancient architecture hidden amongst the modern-day edifices. The majority of the 20 million strong population are Buddhists; but in addition to the prevalence of eggshell-white Temples and frequent sighting of larger-than-life-sized effigies of Buddha, a steady presence of Kovils, Mosques and Churches reflect the country’s accommodation of religious diversity.
Anuradhapura: A few hour’s drive from Colombo, this ancient city was once the capital of the island, and is the cultural hub of the country. The impressive ruins and intricately carved moonstones, remind us of the architectural marvels that once stood, and the massive stone-carved statues of the Buddha are enough to satisfy every culture-buff’s quest for heritage.
Sigiriya: This ‘Fortress in The Sky’ is an amazing geological rock formation that stands 200m tall, rewarding all it’s climbers with an exhibition of ancient paintings en route to the top, and a spectacular view of the surrounding plains.
Kandy: The next most-populated city after Colombo, Kandy is known for the temple that hosts the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha. The same tooth relic that is paraded around the city every year (around July-August), with a pageantry-like fanfare in what is called the Esala Perahara. Most tourists co-ordinate their trip so as to catch this annual parade, with even the locals lining up, not wanting to miss out on the march of glamorized elephants, fire-breathers and Kandyan dancers.
The National Parks: For that true Safari experience, the Yala National Park boats the largest population of leopards in Asia, and a chance to catch some of Sri Lanka’s 92 mammals in their natural habitat. The Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage gives tourists an opportunity to ‘adopt an elephant’ and watch these tusked creatures bathing, eating, and even dancing!
The culture-buff’s fix can be satisfied (even satiated) with just the smorgasbord of food the country has to offer. Start your day with some traditional Sri Lankan Kirribath; unsweetened rice cakes often spiced-up with a local concoction called Lunumiris.
For lunch, make sure you order yourself a packet of Lamprais (pronounced lump-rice). Of Dutch origin, this midday meal comprises of a portion of stock-cooked rice and it’s curry accompaniments wrapped for function and flavour in a banana leaf.
Satisfy that mid-day sweet craving with some Wattalapan; a jaggery and egg-based pudding of Malay origin. Ask for Kotthu-roti for dinner; a flavourful (and spicy) medley of vegetables, meat and of course roti.
Must Do List:
* Book a window seat: And on your flight over, make sure to take a peek out just before landing. The expanse of green is breath-taking, and gives you that teasing taste of what your trip has in store.
* Take a ride in a Tuk-Tuk: These three-wheeled rickshaws might seem precarious, but whizzing around the streets of Colombo in one these multi-hued taxis is an adventure on it’s own.
* Drink some Thambili: No trip to Sri Lanka is complete without a drink of coconut water straight out of the King Coconut; the fruit of those towering trees flanking the island is enough to quench the thirst of any weary traveler.
* Visit a tea plantation: Make time in your travel schedule to visit one of the many tea plantations that contribute to the county’s main export produce. On having finally understood the process involved in the making of your daily cuppa, don’t forget to sit down and savour a cup of Sri Lanka’s finest!
* Speak to the locals: Your hotel/tour operator might have your agenda all planned out, but nothing beats the insight of good old street knowledge on places to eat and visit. The locals are friendly, and you might just be surprised at what you almost missed out on.
So sure, the name of your tour guide might be a tad hard on the tongue, and the local food might be spicier that what you’re used to, but on that flight out of the Island you’re guaranteed to look out that window and commit that view (and trip) to memory.
Was it the drive through the hill plantations, or the lure of the beaches that gave you that lasting impression? It could’ve been that heady rush of staring into the eyes of a magnificent Tusker. Or maybe it was the endearing smile of the mango-vendor on the pavement.
You’ll want to come back and find out.
– Shaahima Fahim. Images: Dinidu De Alwis, TravelPhoto http://www.travelphoto.net/