Last Christmas, we spent two weeks in Sri Lanka. We were looking forward to some warm weather and to getting away from the Delhi smog, which gets hazardous during that time.
When I booked our Colombo hotel over the phone, I was told to expect some traffic coming from the airport so I was expecting a long drive when we arrived. We needn’t have worried. To put it in perspective, Delhi NCR has 20 million people in an area of 1500m². Sri Lanka has the same number of people, but in the entire country which covers 65000m². It was a drive in the park.
The island is amazing. For its size, Sri Lanka packs a punch. With arid plains to the north, mountains in the middle and wetlands to the south, there is much to see and two weeks were not enough to see it all. There really is something for everyone here – temples, caves, ruins, mountains, tea estates, beaches, national parks, lakes – and the country’s compact size makes it all very accessible.
Sri Lanka’s written history dates back to 6th century BC. Buddhism was brought to Sri Lanka by the Emperor Ashoka’s son in the 3rd century BC and the tussle between Buddhist and Hindu rulers continued over centuries. Visiting the ancient cities of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Dambulla and Sigiriya is a good way to see the enduring structures of the ancient Buddhist kingdoms. These sights make up the Cultural Triangle and are popular on the tourist trail.
Arab traders arrived in the 7th century, in search of cinnamon and a place to trade their goods, bringing Islam and Christianity along with the moniker Serendip. That put Sri Lanka firmly on the Spice Route. Architectural and cultural influences from these times are most prominent in Colombo and the UNESCO-listed colonial town of Galle Fort. The spice industry isn’t the biggest in the world, it still consists of small producers recovering from years of neglect and setbacks, but the spices produced are of great quality.
The island was subsequently ruled by the Dutch and the British, ravaged by civil war for nearly 30 years after Independence and devastated by the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2006. Perhaps as a result of this tumultuous history, its people are resilient, kind, hospitable and friendly. And thankfully the country is now well on its way to recovery.
Lush, verdant landscapes are spread across the island. Animal and bird life are abundant. It’s a popular safari destination and although we didn’t go on one, we were lucky to spot elephants in the distance in the Yala National Park and one trudging along the road, barely a few metres away from us.
After the Cultural Triangle, we made our way up the hills to the tea plantations just outside of Kandy. After my zeal for an afternoon walk amongst the tea bushes was tempered by a leech attack, we retreated to our safari-style tent to enjoy the idyllic surroundings from the safety of our balcony instead. Mornings were just as delightful. We sipped the estate’s signature Orange Pekoe blend and watched hardworking plantation women picking tea buds right outside our tent.
Women should feel very safe travelling here, as long as usual precautions are taken. Sri Lanka ranked 39th out of 135 in the UN Gender Gap Report of 2012 and indeed the respect for and equitable treatment of women was visible. It’s safe and easy enough to get around in cabs and even tuk tuks off the street (the latter tend to careen down roads like rally cars otherwise perfectly safe!). And I had no issues walking back to the hotel on my own one evening after dark. I’ve missed this terribly living in India.
We saw in 2016 in Galle Fort, falling asleep before midnight but not caring much. We holidayed well in Galle, thoroughly enjoying being able to walk around and not risk getting run over by errant motorists. We ate ourselves silly and shopped for locally-made homewares. Galle Fort has a buzzing food and design scene and whilst there were a lot of tourists, it never felt overly touristy. We ended our trip in a private beach villa in Hikkaduwa where we whiled away the last days of our trip with morning runs on the beach, watching fishermen bringing in their daily catch and enjoying meals cooked by our private chef.
It was a shame we had to leave.
*Ayubowan is a beautiful phrase in the Sinhalese language which literally means “may you have a long life” and is used as a greeting or a goodbye.