For an Indian travelling to Sri Lanka for the first time, there are thousands of thoughts running through the head. Being a journalist by profession, I’ve grown up listening to the events about the civil war. But, this visit was different. It was for a vacation.
It all began by researching and planning an itinerary with a dear friend with the sole aim of covering the country in 9 days. It might sound crazy but my ambitious friend and I tried to tweak the itinerary several times until we deemed it fit and made respective bookings, despite changes to the itinerary while in Sri Lanka. I will come to it in a bit. This was also very special to me because this was my first self-funded trip outside India.
Unexplored South Asian Country
Sri Lanka is a largely undiscovered and unexplored country. It’s beauty, it’s rich vegetation and habitat are hardly known. What makes it better is that it’s affordable and is easy to travel. (3 hours of travel to reach a main city/town).
The myriad colours, beaches, weather, hues and appeals of Sri Lanka are alluring and its beauty beyond words. This country has nailed tourism as a service. At least to witness this, it should make it to your list of must-visit countries.
Staying the first day in Negombo (30 km from Colombo), we visited Gangamaraya Temple in the capital city which has the hair relic of Buddha. This temple is worth a visit for the number of Buddhas it has and to understand the Buddhist culture. Later, we visited Galle Face in Colombo, facing the Indian Ocean. (The viewpoint is perfect for Sunset).
So, our itinerary began with a 3.5-hour train from Colombo to Galle with an Ocean-side view. The journey is a photographer’s delight and landscapes that greet you along the way will compel you to plan for your retirement home in Sri Lanka. That surreal and picturesque.
Reminisces of Dutch Colonial Era
We got off at the train station and headed to the Dutch Colony where we booked our accommodation. (If you’re visiting Galle, stay in the Dutch Colony and take a stroll around the Colony and you are sure to get lost on your way back. It’s worth it.)
The Dutch architecture astounds you. Every street, every house, every shop and every restaurant is built keeping symmetry as a key ingredient. The beauty of the architecture is in its simplicity. A tour around the Galle Fort gives you beautiful sights of the Ocean and drains your energy out. It gets a bit crowded in the evenings. Try visiting the place early morning.
A visit to Japanese Peace Pagoda and Jungle Beach is also a must. Jungle Beach has bluish-green waters. It is tucked in a tiny corner beyond the Japanese Peace Pagoda. The food is good and you’ll love the view and mood with Sri Lankan music band playing in the vicinity.
While Galle and Colombo greet you with the tropical climate of the Coast, you could head to Mirissa which has Whale & Dolphin watching, with a cruise ride. It’s also a surfer’s paradise and has surfing schools.
Living in the Wild
However, our itinerary included Yala National Park (known for Leopard-spotting). The tented accommodation was eco-friendly and it’s something that teaches you to adjust without daily pleasures of hot water and other luxuries. We did the evening safari which lasted close to 4.5 hours. It was totally worth it as we camped the night in the National Park, amid shrill sounds in the wild. This was a magical evening as it was a full-moon night with campfire and candle-light dinner (BBQ).
We woke up to a beautiful morning with birds chirping and sounds of other creatures, had a good breakfast and left Yala where we met one of the best human beings in Sri Lanka, our tour guide, our driver and a good friend – Krishna (His Facebook page).
Krishna – Our saviour in Sri Lanka
My friend spotted Krishna while researching about transportation in Sri Lanka and spoke to him a couple of times. He found him as the best tour guide in Sri Lanka, as suggested by Trip Advisor. Little did we know that he will be our saviour there. Krishna provides transportation/ guide services through his company Tuk Tuk and Taxi Services.
Krishna brought Kumar, his friend and colleague along while ferrying us to Nuwara Eliya. A die-hard Sangakkara and A.R. Rahman fan, Krishna is sure to entertain you with his adrenaline-pumping music (if you too are a Rahman fan) and his love for Tamil movies. Not only does Krishna give you the right plan, he will also help you save a lot of money through right advice. He is also a great storyteller who gives you snippets about his life and keeps you entertained throughout the journey, provided you reciprocate.
One of his witty quotes: “I’m sometimes, Hindu. Because I have to be religious in front of my wife”.
An excerpt from our conversation:
Me: You are God.
Krishna: Yes, I’m Krishna.
We loved every bit of the journey from Yala to Nuwara Eliya (hilly region), with Krishna. (During the journey from Yala, you’re most likely to come across an Elephant on the road.) Like I said, our itinerary wasn’t perfect. Krishna helped us re-work on it and took us to Ella which was on the way to Nuwara Eliya. According to our itinerary, Ella came after Nuwara Eliya. (so, now you know why we’re thankful to Krishna).
Of Rama, Sita, Rawana Falls & Hanuman Footprint
Ella is a small town in the hills where you can see the Rawana Falls which are beautiful and can spend sometime there. From there, we were asked to do a trek to Little Adam’s Peak. Ella is a trekker’s paradise and the peak tests your stamina. But, the view atop the hill is worth the treacherous climb. Ella also has a 5,000-yr-old Rama-Sita temple where (it is believed that) there is a Lord Hanuman footprint.
We reached Nuwara Eliya (also called Little England) and my friend, who believes everything has to be productive came up with the thought of doing something to help Krishna. Given that Krishna is already established as a tourist guide, he wanted to do something that’ll further boost Krishna and help him scale. Finally, he came up with an idea of doing a short documentary on Krishna.
The Hills have Tea
Our first day in Nuwara Eliya was spent at the Tea factory and Tea plantations, including tea tasting at the Bluefield Tea Estate (100-yr old). We then interviewed people who saw Krishna grow from a Tuk Tuk (auto) driver to a certified tour guide, apart from winning Trip Advisor’s certificate of excellence for 4 consecutive years. Stories of how the British exported tea from these Tea Estates and visit of Prince Charles were described to us on our way. We also did a couple of interviews of Krishna’s mentor, brother and others who supported him.
Hortons Plains – The fantasy land (Must Visit)
Our second day in Nuwara Eliya started very early with our visit to Horton Plains (one-hour drive from Nuwara Eliya town). Horton Plains, as my friend calls it, is a fantasy land and home to Sri Lanka’s second and third highest mountain. We were told that it’s a 7-km walk through the Plains and would take 3-3.5 hours. We were greeted with a view of the rainbow on our way, a Stag and a picturesque view of the Adam’s Peak from the grasslands of the Horton Plains.
As we trekked through the Horton Plains, it reminded us of scenes from the Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, Bridge to Terabithia, 127 hours, etc. We witnessed the weather change frequently: From foggy morning to the grasslands covered partly in shade and partly in sun with cold wind blowing across and soon after, the rain changing the whole landscape from a dry to a wet region.
From wild grasslands to patches of thick forest, plateau, rocky protrusions, slippery slopes, misty lakes and dewy waterfalls – all part of this beautiful creation of the Nature. This too is a photographer’s delight as flora and fauna is found in abundance & preserved well. As you walk through, you will be spellbound by the stunning beauty and surprises along the way. It’s a trekkers’ paradise with a rocky terrain. Baker’s Falls, World’s End and Mini World’s End are the spots you will searching for, during this trek.
During your trek, you will be greeted by people of different colours, races and ages. All smiling and throwing an excited or a reluctant “hello” or “morning” at you. (These people keep you going and re-energise you along the way, proving that age is just a number). The walk can get monotonous but you need to keep going and motivate yourself along the way. And, when you reach the end, you heave a sigh of relief for what you’ve seen. And, it all feels like it was worth the strain.(Tip: Dress in sportswear. Shoes are a must). On our way back from Horton Plains, my friend spent time filming Krishna and his story and we also got a view of the Gregory Lake.
Sweet Kandy – Blending Culture & Commerce
On the next day, we took the train to Kandy from Nuwara Eliya which sifts through the scenic tea estates of Nuwara Eliya (more like the Indian Shatabdi Express). This is another train journey that’s worth’s taking. Kandy is Sri Lanka’s second biggest commercial city after Colombo. It is also a high-tourist zone, crowded indeed.
We began with the Tooth Temple which had a history of 400 years. It is known to have Buddha’s tooth relic. Several wars were fought for the tooth relic, says Sri Lanka’s history. The temple complex also houses World Buddhist Museum which has the World Map of Buddhism and explains how each country views Buddhism across the world. This Museum is like a Maze, you enter one gallery and you go the other. You cannot come out from the same one. So, it allows you to spend ample time, understanding how Buddhist practices differ from one country to another. If you’re a history lover, this will be interesting for you.
This was our last leisure day in Sri Lanka which ended on a great note with the Kandyan Dance. The Kandyan Dance is a combination of 10 dances which exude Sri Lanka’s rich culture, heritage and pomp. The performance is a riot of colours, includes different props and ends with fire-walking. Quite a magnificent sight to witness. You can then take a stroll along the city of Kandy which is very English-like.
Happy Stomach = Happy travel
We had great food: From a very English breakfast including toast, hotdogs, Srilankan Omlette, scrambled eggs to a South Indian thali and Srilanka’s authentic Coconut Sambhol, everything was available. I forgot the Parantha and Vada. (South Indians will not have trouble as spices used in Sri Lanka are similar to that in South Indian houses).
What we learnt
This trip has been all about learning from people like Krishna and others; adjusting and letting go off our comforts. We also learnt how to travel light and easy as we moved every day from one place to another. Travel teaches us how to save, how to budget our travel and most importantly, how to help and care for others while being humble. Travel teaches you things about life that you wouldn’t otherwise learn staying at home.
Like Ibn Battuta said: “Travelling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.”
I have many more stories to tell. It begins here.
This is my story.