“We all know about Bali,” says Courtney from LA, my new yoga friend at Villa de Zoysa near Galle on the South Coast. “And of course in the US we all know about Vietnam,” she says. “But who knew about Sri Lanka?”
Indeed, who knew that this place would be so diverse. I knew that there were many Buddhist heritage sites and I’d come as close to the Buddha’s molar as one can get at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth when I visited Kandy four years ago to practice silent Buddhist meditation. But I had absolutely no idea that whilst I was chanting Om, others were shouting Wow at the sight of leopards and wild elephants not too far from my mediation cushion. On safari in Sri Lanka? Who knew!
So this time I’ve come to see as much as I can squeeze into two weeks and get some rest as well. There are 8 Unesco World Heritage Sites, too many national parks to name, top notch surf beaches, tea plantations, some of the world’s most scenic train rides, colonial mansions and much more.
With so much to choose from it’s hard to know where to begin and little time to tell so many stories. Here is my Sri Lanka itinerary in pictures, with minimum text. Well, minimum for me. I just can’t help myself.
Like many visitors, we begin the journey by taking the train to Kandy and then onwards to the World Heritage sites in the so-called Cultural Triangle situated in the country’s dry zone interior.
The first stop, Dambulla turns out to be just a stretch of dusty, busy road. The reason to stop here are the famous Cave Temples. Alas I have eaten a dodgy curry somewhere between Colombo and Kandy and my stomach doesn’t like the traffic or the heat. I empty my stomach right behind a Buddhist statue, just after the friendly monk had wrapped a piece of blessed string around my wrist. The 5 cave temples with their superb rock paintings are worth the visit even in my state.
By the time we reach Sygiria, I’ve made the driver stop several more times to empty my stomach and I have all the symptoms of full-blown food poisoning. Shivers, fever, aching joints, the lot. The steep climb up Sygiria Rock is out of the question. All I manage to do is take an inferior photo of a majestic heritage site which rises abruptly out of the jungle. Then I collapse in a remote treehouse for a couple of nights. I’ll just have to come back here another time to explore the landscaped Royal Gardens at the base of the rock and the century-old sensual frescoes of sacred female forms half way up.
By the time we reach Anurdahnapura, the ancient capital of Sri Lanka, founded in 377 BC, we are a few days behind schedule and I really wish we’d have more time here.
The temple complex can be explored by bicycle, which makes it very peaceful. It’s not as expansive as Angkor Wat and there isn’t as much to see here, but the history of this cluster of sites is very impressive.
And the quiet backstreets winding through verdant jungle are an open invitation to hang and chill for a while.
But onwards we move, or rather backwards, back to Sygiria and from there all the way up-country to Nuwara Elyia and Ella. You can read here what I loved about Sri Lanka’s highlands and the scenic train journey.
From Ella most people head to Yala National Park for a chance to spot leopards. We’d heard that the park gets very busy with tourists but less so with wildlife and visit Udawalawe National Park instead. It is home to 600 elephants, crocodiles (tiny ones in comparison to those back home), water buffaloes, peacocks and lots of birds I wouldn’t be able to identify or spot.
We only meet a few of the 600 resident elephants, but enough to declare them my favorite new species. Those little baby elephants are just the cutest things I’ve ever seen.
From the National Park we travel down through Jurassic Park-like jungle, past wetlands carpeted in purple waterlilies and through bustling, dusty towns that pop up suddenly and are in stark contrast to the verdant and tranquil natural environment. We stop for lunch near Tangalle at the super sleek and exclusive Amanwella resort where modernist minimalism marries with tropical jungle and a wild beach. It’s a rainy day, but that doesn’t make it any less beautiful.
Once we hit the coast road, it’s busy all the way to Galle. And very scenic. My stomach is good again and we do this stretch on the bumpy public bus, which means no stopping for Madam along the way to snap the picturesque scenery.
I get my daily quota of photos again in Galle where I am based for two weeks. You can read here about what makes the Galle Fort so hip that you need to visit now before it becomes just a little too hip to feel authentic.
I can finally look at food again without getting queasy and my camera just loves the colors of the fresh produce at the Galle market, which is just outside the historic fort.
As if I haven’t seen enough bananas back home in Far North Queensland, but I just love these colours. For the next few weeks it’s bananas every day for desert at Villa de Zoysa where I do my yoga retreat.
And it’s two weeks of buffalo curd with treacle for breakfast. I love my curd, until one of my yoga friends points out that it is more like cream than yoghurt. We can’t find any conclusive evidence on Google, but it seems it may be healthier than yoghurt but also more fattening. My landlady provided the ultimate proof when she welcomed me back to Male’ with these words “You little bit fat now, no?”. I guess she meant it in the nicest way. But after two weeks of strenuous yoga morning and evening I can only blame the curd.
The journey back to Colombo by train is another scenic train ride along the palmfringed coast line. On the morning of Boxing Day 2004 the scenic journey turned into a site of carnage, when a huge tidal wave, that had arrived without warning, lifted an entire train off the tracks.
Mrs Kamani de Silva bravely keeps the memory of the Tsunami alive in her photo museum in a basic house build with international relief funds on the site where her home once stood. Her new home is right next door where she runs a tiny shop.
Between Galle and Colombo there is much to see. Unlike my sun-deprived German brothers and sisters, I am not here for the beaches and July is off season and the famous tourist beaches of Hikkaduwa and Unawatuna look a little eroded and murky.
We stop at Bentota to visit Geoffrey Bawa’s country estate Lunuganga, a total contrast to everything else we’ve seen. Sri Lanka’s renowned architect was going to settle in Italy after he finished his studies in the UK. Like George Clooney many decades later, he’d fallen in love with the Italian lake villas and was going to built one for himself. But he changed his mind, returned to Ceylon and converted a former rubber plantation into an Italianite garden estate in the jungle. Well worth the visit.
After one month in Sri Lanka I am totally in love and I am heart broken when it’s time to leave. But I know I will be back soon because like everybody else in Maldives, I’ll have to make the short one hour journey from Male to do some shopping. And also because there is still the West coast and the North to be discovered.
Have you visited Sri Lanka? Which itinerary did you pick?
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