1258 kms, 72 tender coconuts, 9 days, 7 cities, 6 people, 3 rainbows, 1 Mitsubishi Montero, 0 potato chips and 0.33 currency conversion rate. Yet 3500 photographs fell short to capture the spirit that is Sri Lanka
Do you remember the first time you went to Barbeque Nation? The insatiable greed as the starters kept coming, followed by a thundering cloud of dismay when you discovered that they weren’t the only thing on the menu. There was main course and dessert, you didn’t have space for even half a grain of rice and you’d have to make a second visit. That’s what discovering Sri Lanka felt like. So much to see, so little time.
In this account, I have also included some match-the- following exercises from folklore; that link incidents, and places from the magnificent Indian epic Ramayana, to present day Sri Lanka. It is of course, rather debatable, and depending on how far Left or Right of the Lakshman Rekha you are, you might hold strong opinions. In an attempt to not cause offence, I will merely tell you what I heard, without corroborating or disparaging any theory. All on board? Arms, Legs, Heads and Noses tucked in? Off we go < insert gentle fluttering of Pushpakvimana wings>
South Western Coast
A road trip creates a more intimate experience, you can make unplanned stops, discover off-map beaches, cafes, Ayurvedic spas and truly live a little more ‘local’. The south western coast is a good place to start; even though the parallel expressway is faster, travelling along the beach road is more picturesque. We spent a few days at Unawatuna , Mirissa and Matara and would also recommend the less populous Hikkaduwa or the more mainstream Bentota.
The USP of these beach towns is affordable luxury hotels, that despite their modernism retain that inexplicable Sri Lankan charm. Sip on an ice cold, (all-season) mango daiquiri, read a book in your private infinity pool, while the gentle red-gold December sun slowly melts into the horizon behind you, or take an early morning jog, on the sparkling clean sand, with the not-so-dulcet cries of peacocks for company. Yes. Peacocks. They’re everywhere! So much so that Sri Lanka has replaced why did the chicken cross the road jokes with why did the peacock cross the road jokes.
We spent New Year’s Eve in Mirissa. The entire beach turned into a well-co-ordinated party. I imagine it would look like an equalizer in a drone shot. Every ten minutes, fireworks went off, rising from one end of the beach, coursing through the smokey coast like a giant Mexican wave. Each club played its own music, the tempo building, egged on by the crowds, as we inched towards witching hour. By the end of the night, when the party had tapered off, we got our first experience of true Sri Lankan. Local police helped party-goers find cabs to go back home. Conscientious local volunteers stayed back to make sure that no stray debris remained on the beach. Autos did not demand exorbitant fare. Well almost – they’re only human.
The historic city of Galle, spills out of the ramparts of an ancient Dutch fort, surrounded on three sides by the ocean. Life in Galle is symbiotic; between its Dutch, Portuguese, English and Sinhalese inhabitants who have built colleges, offices and hospitals in the folds of the fort and the fort itself, that lives on – adapted, softened, nearly 500 years since its creation.
Spend an evening getting lost in its pleasantly chaotic, criss-crossed roads, discovering some of the country’s best art galleries, restaurants and shops, and then walk up to the pinnacle of the city, the stately lighthouse.
The food in Sri Lanka is to die for. Heaven for those who love seafood, and even finicky fence sitters like me who turn up their nose at anything that smells more than a certain amount of fishy. I also surprised myself by enjoying dishes prepared with generous amounts of coconut milk. Perhaps it has something to do with the other spices its blended with, or the way it’s cooked. Be sure to try hoppers and string hoppers – a dish similar to the Kerala appams, served a bewitching side of Sambol -freshly grated red onions, chillies that will make your eyes water, and some optional add-ons like coconut or fish. Use Yamu for the best recommendations from locals.
While the railway to Ella is an Instagram sensation, there’s plenty to see via road. On the way to Ella, you will encounter an expansive, three-tiered waterfall. The fierce, gushing waters, cascade over no ordinary rocks.
It is believed, that the caves shrouded by this magnificent veil of water, were once where the mighty demon King Ravana played the Ravanahattha as he offered his prayers to Lord Shiva.
I had imagined Ella would be like the sleepy mountain towns in northern India – a quiet town with all the right amounts of blue skies and green Grass, where the lights go off at 10. Ella turned out to be Kasol on steroids. The lively town takes on a different hue late in the evening, Tourists, locals come together swapping stories at any of the innumerable local restaurants and tea houses.
There are plenty of hiking opportunities, the most notable ones being the Little Adam Peak (the Yoghurt shop on station road can pack you a scrumptious picnic breakfast), and the more leisurely walk to the Nine-Arch bridge. Built in 1920s, this brick and cement bridge supports a colonial railway line that is still functional. Once you reach the actual bridge, take a slight detour, and trespass a little bit into the tea gardens wrapped around the bridge, to catch a panoramic view of the entire bridge.
Nick-named Little England, Nuwara Elliya is an idyllic hill town that once served as a vacation getaway for early British settlers, to escape the scorching summer sun. The architecture of the town is indeed quintessential biscuits-and-tea with its tiled bungalows and white picket fences, complete with the perfectly manicured Victoria Park and calm waters of Lake Gregory.
These gardens of Nuwara Elliya with its exquisite flowers from roses to chrysanthemums and lilies, are believed to be Ashok Vatika, where Sita once lived in capture.
Nuwara Elliya is also famous for its exquisite tea blends. Once the largest exporter of tea, Sri Lanka grows a variety of teas and tea blends. While driving through the valleys, bathed in tea gardens, you will see some of the world’s most prominent labels – most offer free sampling and have retail outlets. My personal favourite, is currently a delicate Ceylon White tea, blended with pomegranate and rose petals.
Central Sri Lanka is home to the ancient Rock Fortress – Sigiriya. Dating back to the 450 AD, this enormous granite structure stands a towering 200 tall, complete with ruins of gardens, pools and fountains, ensconced by thick forests. Built in the shape of a lion, only the feet of the beast remain today.
History says that this was once Palace of King Kashyapa, and after the decline of his empire, it flourished as a Buddhist monastery. Another version of the story, is that this site was Ravana’s own royal palace, designed and constructed by the Lord of Wealth, Kuber himself. The frescos of royal women, on the rock faces – Maidens on Clouds, in their vibrant colours dancing off the walls , are believed to depict Ravana’s wives.
Trek up the neighbouring Pidurangala Rock – so that, instead of catching the sunrise with four hundred other people lining up on the thousand five hundred-odd steps on Sigiriya, you can claim for yourself an exclusive balcony seat, and watch the first rays of sun frame the Sigiriya Rock in a radiant crown of light.
Colombo today is what I wish Bangalore could be. Green, clean, organized traffic. A Higher Human Capital Index than India, infact, the highest in South East Asia , higher GDP per capita and lower population below poverty line. Even the construction in Sri Lanka is polite, and somehow doesn’t get in the way.
And there’s a lot of construction. Roads, flyovers, technology centres. The prime beach front or Marine Drive, has erupted with stunning skyscrapers- a mix of hotels and residences. With the construction, has come the familiar sense of loss , a growing distance between the unnamed, unknown faces who live behind the newly erected steel curtains and the locals who watch quietly as old emblems are swiftly replaced by mass-produced baubles.
Sri Lanka is truly cosmopolitan in 2020. Differences of origin, language and culture are far less significant than a running, bond of deafening resilience. Resilience to years of internal conflict, devastating tsunamis and the senseless terrorist attacks upon its capital city.
Here you will find people who’ve left well-paying jobs across the world to live in this little pear-shaped corner in search of something else. Along the way we met, ex-armyman (I can’t you which country) turned Ayurvedic masseur, Indian investment banker turned cashier, French IT pro to yoga instructor, British journalist who now runs a B&B and Australian bar owner from Sydney to… well… Australian who now owns a bar in Sri Lanka. Not to mention the scores of people, simply on a break, on year-long solo trips exploring the offbeat country side. In this quest for an alternate lifestyle, these expats live shoulder to shoulder with the Sinhalese, together creating a country so vibrant, welcoming and cheerful, that you will want to book your next visit even as you’re winding up the first.
I recently learned of the Danish word Hygge – an idea that symbolizes the warm and cosy feeling when you’re doing something mundane, watching the first monsoon rain with a plate of hot pakodas perhaps. While the concept is Danish, living in Sri Lanka is living with Hygee, every single day.