A road trip across the island that has emerged from turmoil challenges any traveller to not fall for our neighbour’s diverse and seductive charms.
President Mahinda Rajapaksha’s face could not be missed on Sri Lanka’s highways.
As I kept tabs on the billboards announcing his temple visits, political meetings and environment-conservation efforts, it struck me that the motorable stretch (450 km North to South and 220 kms East to West) had features that I had stopped associating with road journeys – a clean blue sea coast, spice gardens, lush rainforests, vast rubber plantations, rich wildlife reserves and a variety of bird species. The giant-sized monitor lizards made overt efforts to cross roads and rivers to greet the guests.
Thankfully, I had not taken the Sri Lanka experience limited to the beaten Colombo-Kandy-Nuwara Eliya track. Colombo-based Yathra Travels’ 10-day package, worked out in collaboration with Mumbai’s Doreen D’Sa’s Eco Tours, helped explore the raw aspects of the Isle of Serendipity. Not only did it touch all World Heritage sites, but it cut through the length and breadth of the small south-Asian island.
Once past the typical city experiences (malls, roadside restaurants and handicraft shops) in Colombo, an untamed tropical landscape of flowering acacias and mangrove swamps embraced me.
It is another story that a relaxing holiday to Sri Lanka should ideally be spread over a fortnight, so that one does not need another holiday to recover from the zapping biosphere.
The cultural triangle
The country’s cultural triangle includes Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, and the Sacred City of Kandy. Kandy houses the temple of Lord Buddha’s tooth. Though known as a Buddhist pilgrim site, it embraced a thronging multicultural crowd. I was next to a European couple who had vowed to visit the site.
Anuradhapura came across as a perfect archaeological wonder – the ancient first capital of Sri Lanka, also the cradle of the Sinhala civilization.
The relics spoke of past glory, but they may not excite the uninitiated. They are the early signs of urban life in South Asia.
The sacred Bodhi Tree, believed to be the oldest documented tree in the world, and the Kuttam Pokuna (twin ponds) are not to be missed – masterpieces of old Sinhalese architecture. Similarly, Polonnaruwa, the medieval capital set besides a nature reserve, is spectacular, especially its 5940-acre reservoir built by King Parakramabahu.
Anyone studying water management and irrigation systems should observe the Pollonaruwa model. Any takers in Mantralaya?
The rock-cut caves of Dambulla
Dambulla’s cricket stadium put Sri Lanka on the international cricket map. It is also home to a well-preserved temple cave complex. Located in the central province of Matale, it is one of the most impressive rock-cut caves in Asia. Wandering around the 80 documented caves is difficult.
I concentrated on the five major ones containing Lord Buddha’s statues and paintings in varying sizes. Depictions on the walls and ceilings are reminiscent of Ajanta and Ellora. But the difference lies in their preservation. The Dambulla Rock indeed wears a looked-after look, and offers a great panoramic view.
Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage
The Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage, in the Kegalle village, was one of the highlights of the tour. It was definitely a window to the lives of 80-odd elephants. Their feeding and bathing time added to my photo album.
The playful baby elephants, queuing up for the plunge, were unforgettable. But somehow the chained bottle-fed mammals were a forced synthetic photo frame. It violated the Sri Lankan spirit of environment-friendly tourism.
Yala National Park
The animal safari at the Yala National Park was a better opportunity to see the wild. The 6 am safari was a meeting place for not just untamed elephants but also leopards. As we drove around the 100,000 hectares of the park, a lounging leopard sunning it up was a privileged view.
A precious freezeframe. Peacocks crossed our paths. Around 130 bird species — lesser flamingos, paradise flycatchers, crested hawk eagles and the green-billed Caucal surrounded the cosmos.
The spotted deer herds inspired solidarity. At one point, the Yala safari was closed due to the threat of terrorist attacks from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam ( LTTE). Later, the 2004 Tsunami threatened the park’s inmates. But wildlife remains unaffected now.
The Horton Plains National Park (near the Nuwara Eliya hill station) is a plateau perched at an altitude of 7000 feet, surrounded by two mountains and three major rivers. Its edge-of-the-precipice view is breathtaking.
The plateau comes to a sudden end, called the World’s End. The cliff with a 700 metres vertical drop is stunning –not recommended for the weak-hearted.
Atop the Sigiriya Rock
The ancient rock fortress-cum-palace ruins of Sigiriya were uplifting. Falling in the same Matale province, the precinct has the remains of an extensive network of gardens and reservoirs.
Sigiriya is renowned for its frescos. One of the most important World Heritage Sites of Sri Lanka, declared by UNESCO as the 8th Wonder of the World inspires a feeling beyond words.
One can imagine how it was inhabited through prehistoric times, and used as a rock-shelter mountain monastery since 5th century BC.
The Sigiriya rock, a distinct flat top, encourages you to reach atop. It took an hour to reach atop the distinct flat top. Drinking the cold water trickling through streams was an experience in itself. It’s potable and cool!
Visits to the Peradeniya and Hakagala gardens underline the country’s biodiversity hotspots. The Sinharaja Forest Reserve is a designated biosphere reserve whose remote southern location works to its advantage. It is fun to walk up its dense vegetation on a hilly terrain, notwithstanding the leeches.
Walking in the wet evergreen forest with lofty tall trees is worth every hardship. I recommend the stay at the Blue Magpie Lodge, with a wonderful middle-of-nowhere location. When you leave, jot down the bird species you spotted.
The Muthurajawela wetlands
It spans from the Negombo lagoon to the Kelaniya River, northern tip of Colombo. A boat ride in this ‘swamp of royal treasure’ showed me herons and egrets and 40 types of fish. However, one has to be prepared for the sun’s harsh rays as you sail in the lagoon.
The other core tourist spots are Sita Temple (which is the Ashok Vatika marked with Lord Hanuman’s footsteps), and Ratnapura gems.
The visit to a rubber plantation site, the taste tour in a tea factory, the survey of handmade batik centers, a massage session at a spice garden, and a gourmet guide to Sri Lanka’s buffalo curd was valuable.