It’s only a little drop of an island off India but Sri Lanka manages to cram a whole continent’s worth of wonders within it.
Flying overnight from Birmingham to Colombo – via Dubai – with fellow fell-walker and holiday-aficionado Trev, we arrived bleary-eyed in the morning for an overnight stay at the Gateway Hotel in Seeduwa.
Now, in time-honoured fashion, I will shamelessly crib from the tour notes, and seamlessly add some sizzling little anecdotes along the way.
After hanging around for a couple of hours and suffering hotel lobby-rage, we were finally allocated our rooms. Although the hotel is close to the airport, it is located in the middle of a coconut plantation bordering the Negombo lagoon. Its air of tranquillity was soon disrupted with a monsoonal deluge in the afternoon, which ended a brief walkabout and sent us scurrying to the bar.
In the evening, we got to know our fellow travellers at a meeting with the tour manager. Then it was off to dinner in the hotel’s restaurant.
We left the hotel early in the morning to travel to Habarana, taking in a panoramic tour of the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo. Of particular note was the international cricket stadium, the fashionable residential districts, and the busy, traditional bazaar areas.
We also checked out a Hindu temple with elaborate stone carvings, an 18th-century Dutch church at Wolfendhal and the historic Devatagaha mosque, before leaving the city behind.
A scenic route then propelled us past pineapple farms and paddy fields until we reached our base for a couple of nights – the Cinnamon Lodge.
Complete with Grey Langurs – large sociable monkeys (they hang around in family groups drinking beer), the Lodge is set on the edge of a natural lake with acres of natural habitat.
Before chilling out, the group embarked on an elephant ride around the lake. I managed to ride along on the elephant’s neck, its flapping ears keeping my knees warm as a torrential downpour ripped down from above.
One of the group, Brian Farrell used to sing in a band called Colonel Bagshot, and once toured with the mega rock band Slade. Fortunately, he wasn’t shy when it came to belting out a few tunes with the resident band, and provided great entertainment throughout the evening.
Here’s a YouTube clip of Colonel Bagshot in its heyday – well worth a listen!
An early morning excursion took us to Sigiriya’s famous ‘Lion Rock’ – the brief capital of King Kassapa I some 1,500 years ago.
Two colossal paws still stand either side of ancient limestone steps, a reminder of the lion figure that once guarded the entrance to the lofty palace gardens on the summit of this 370-metre-high granite rock. Cuts and grooves carved out of the rock face give an idea of the size and shape of the original lion structure. Sigiriya is also well known for the Maidens of the Clouds – paintings of women found on a sheltered ledge. (Carol wondered if the girls in the frescoes had been “touched up.”)
Originally one wall was so highly polished that the vain king could see himself whilst he walked alongside it. Covered in polished white plaster, the wall is now partially covered with verses scribbled by visitors, some of them dating from as early as the 8th century.
An archaeologist deciphered hundreds of verses written in the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries on the mirror wall.
One poem from these long-past centuries, roughly translated from Sinhala, is:
“I am Budal. Came with hundreds of people tо see Sigiriya. Since аll the others wrote poems, I did not!”
They were a witty lot, them Kassapans. That one had me going.
The Gardens of the Sigiriya city are one of the most important aspects of the site, as they are among the oldest landscaped gardens in the world. The gardens are divided into three distinct but linked forms – water gardens, cave gardens and boulder gardens. Precariously-balanced boulders were positioned (carefully) ready to be pushed off from the top at a moment’s notice and flatten any approaching enemies.
The video for Duran Duran’s ‘Save a Prayer’ was filmed primarily at Sigiriya so – as we’re having a musical flavor to this month’s post – here it is:
A few of us took off for a Nature Walk around the grounds in the afternoon. This entailed very little walking but involved a jeep, a couple of bullock-driven carts and a dodgy-looking catamaran. As we glided serenely through the lily-layered lake, our oarsman fashioned hats for us to wear out of the huge water lily pads.
A brief stop at a smallholding in a wooded clearing featured a cookery demonstration by a local woman. She cobbled together a few traditional dishes with grated coconut, chilli and ground flour, all washed down with refreshing herbal teas (served in half a coconut shell).
Next day, there was a quick demo at a Batik factory. After suitable homage was paid to the waxing and colouring processes, traditional dresses were then modelled by some of the braver members of the group. After the twirls and turns of the catwalk, there then followed the obligatory sales pitch in the factory for gaudy tapestries, hankies and wall-hangings.
En route to Kandy, the Dambulla Cave Temple and the Matale Spice Garden were both ear-marked for a bit of a foray.
The Dambulla cave is the largest and best preserved cave temple complex in Sri Lanka. The weathered rock towers over the surrounding plains. The main attractions are spread over five caves, which contain statues, icons and mural-covered walls. These paintings and statues are related to Buddha and his life. There are no end of Buddha statues, plus some likenesses of Sri Lankan kings and a few renderings of Vishnu and Ganesha.
Prehistoric Sri Lankans would have lived in these cave complexes before the arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka as there are burial sites with human skeletons about 2700 years old in this area.
The Matale Spice Garden served up a decent lunch, which was then followed by a walking lecture around the gardens – us nodding approvingly at patches of vanilla, coffee, cocoa, cinnamon and sandalwood. This was followed by – surprise, surprise – a sales pitch! Our group were effortlessly enticed by the balms, oils, creams and unguents on offer.
We continued onto the Cinnamon Citadel Hotel for a couple of nights. This hotel is built on the site of the ancestral home of Dunuvila, a minister to the former King of Kandy.
In the morning, there was a brief stop at a gem factory to ogle some sapphires, rubies and suchlike before popping along to the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage. Several orphaned, ill or deserted elephants are looked after here, and its no easy task as one elephant can drink up to 80 pints of milk a day!
A pint of beer was more in keeping with an equally enjoyable lunch, the restaurant overlooking the river where elephants were taken for their daily bath.
A little sightseeing tour of Kandy commenced, of which the highlight was a visit to the former Royal Palace and to the Dalada Maligawa, better known as the Temple of the Tooth Relic. The temple houses the tooth of the Buddha, which was concealed in the hair of an Indian princess and brought to Sri Lanka in the 4th century. It is an object of great reverence for Buddhists the world over.
In the evening, a traditional Kandyan dance was performed featuring some surprisingly chubby acrobats, and ended with a bit of fire walking.
A short visit was planned to a metal working factory which, no matter how you look at it, seems just about the last thing you would want to be doing during a tour of Sri Lanka. The Royal Botanic Gardens in Peradeniya was more like it, and a circuit or two of pleasantly landscaped lawns, a bit of fernery, some bambooed and water-featured gardens was enjoyed before travelling to Nuwara Eliya.
Nuwara Eliya lies nestled in a wooded basin at the foot of Mount Pidurutalagala – Sri Lanka’s highest peak at 2,555 metres.
The cool, crisp climate makes the region unlike anywhere else in Sri Lanka and is a serene retreat far removed from the hustle and bustle of Colombo. The town still retains a Victorian English appearance and is famous for its tea production. We managed a tour of one of the tea estates and factories – tea is still one of Sri Lanka’s major exports and the country produces more than 200 million kilos a year.
Stayed overnight at the Grand Hotel Nuwara Eliya, set within tightly manicured gardens and suggesting the grandeur of a bygone era. Built in the 1800s, this large mock-Tudor style mansion was the former residence of Sir Edward Barnes, the Governor of Sri Lanka from 1830-1850.
We visited a local school and many of the group took a few useful gifts for them – school bags, pens, various toys – and were rewarded with a few songs and performances from a very cheerful and grateful bunch of kids.
After peeling ourselves out of some of the smallest chairs ever made, we bade farewell to a very happy bunch of kids and motored on to Ravana Falls, named after the legendary King Ravana (no, me neither). According to legend, Ravana (who was the king of Sri Lanka at the time) kidnapped Princess Sita and stashed her in the caves behind this waterfall. Allegedly, she was kidnapped as revenge because her husband had sliced off the nose of Ravana’s sister (I think I got that right…)
We were on a roll, and continued on our way, paying a short visit to Kataragama to check out the Shrine of Lord Skanda and the Buddhist Temple of Kiri Vehera.
Kataragama is a pilgrimage town sacred to Buddhist, Hindu and indigenous Vedda people of Sri Lanka. People from South India also go there to worship.
Sheltered by foothills, Kataragama is one of Sri Lanka’s most holy of towns, and is an important religious pilgrimage site and is a holy place for Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus alike.
Eventually we made it to Yala National Park, a protected area spanning over 321,000 acres of land, covering a vast range of different landscapes, from sand dunes and grassland, to lagoons, lakes, wetlands, thick forest and the shores of the Indian Ocean.
First used as a hunting ground for the British elite in the 19th century, the area is now dedicated to the conservation and protection of the wildlife.
We stayed at the Cinnamon Wild Yala hotel, situated on the southernmost tip of Sri Lanka.
Our chalets were spread all over the resort and, when the sun went down, it was necessary to phone reception and ask for an escort!
This was due to the wild elephants that often take a fancy to wander through the hotel grounds at night. We saw plenty of wild boar sauntering around but the only jumbos we saw were in Yala.
There was an observation deck on the top floor of the hotel from which to take a cold beer and watch the sunset over a lake. Plenty of buffalo around but it wasn’t until the early morning game drive that we saw our first elephants.
The early morning session also unearthed herds of deer, some jackals, more wild boar, tons of birds – especially peacocks – plus crocodiles and monitors.
The birds were so numerous, I’ve decided to list them at the end of this post for any twitchers to drool over.
Here are some great photos from fellow-traveller Peter Ward:
Following a champagne breakfast, the jeeps took us out again the next day and we managed to clock a couple of leopards, a big cat for which Yala is renowned. Both were draped over branches and totally uninterested in the surrounding clamour with many vehicles jostling and baying for a glimpse.
An afternoon game walk took us around the local lake, where a huge crocodile had already taken up residency on the near shore. We also had to slink past the occasional dodgy buffalo, before finally emerging onto the beach, and making the slow circuit back to our hotel. Ant nests, craftily-concealed lizards, and small falcons made up much of the wildlife interest on the way back with the lake offering up a vast selection of storks, herons, spoonbills and pelicans.
In the morning, we left for the pleasures of the coast, travelling to Beruwala, which is on the south-west coast of the island.
Along the way we stopped to visit the bird sanctuary at Bundala, an important centre for aquatic birdlife, crammed with storks, bitterns, ibis, herons and such feathery ilk.
Then, finally, onto Galle, a quiet town with an old-world atmosphere and a long history. King Solomon reputedly sent his merchant ships here many years ago. The town sprung up around the harbour and the fort, which was captured by the Dutch in 1640. The fort became an archaeological reserve in 1969 and is arguably the best-preserved Dutch fort on the island. It is a short walk from the town centre and it was well worthwhile taking time to explore the historic ramparts.
And that was just about the last action for me, cramming in a fair day’s work before bidding farewell to Sri Lanka – a fantastic holiday enjoyed with a fantastic group of people. Before I knew it, I was soon speeding off to Columbo from Beruwala for the flight back to Brum with some great memories and no credit cards.
I’d lost my wallet.
Which, incidentally, was returned intact but not before I’d cancelled the cards!
And now for the bird list. Fortunately, former RSPB warden and bird expert Colin was always on hand to help with the identification!
Sri Lanka Junglefowl, Indian Peafowl, Lesser Whistling Duck, Cotton Pygmy-goose, Painted Stork, Asian Openbill, Black-headed Ibis, Eurasian Spoonbill, Cinnamon Bittern, Black Bittern, Black-crowned Night Heron, Yellow Bittern, Indian Pond Heron, Grey Heron, Purple Heron, Cattle Egret, Great Egret, Intermediate Egret, Little Egret, Spot-billed Pelican, Little Cormorant, Indian Cormorant, Darter, Brahminy Kite, White-bellied Sea Eagle, Shikra, Crested Serpent Eagle, Crested Hawk Eagle, White-breasted Waterhen, Watercock, Purple Swamphen, Pheasant-tailed Jacana, Indian Thick-knee, Black-winged Stilt, Yellow-wattled Lapwing, Red-wattled Lapwing, Kentish Plover, Common Sandpiper, Gull-billed Tern, Caspian Tern, Whiskered Tern, Eurasian Collared Dove, Spotted Dove, Sri Lanka Green Pigeon, Green Imperial Pigeon, Rose-ringed Parakeet, Jacobin Cuckoo, Greater Coucal, Indian Roller, Green Bee-eater, Blue-tailed Bee-eater, Chestnut-headed Bee-eater, Stork-billed Kingfisher, White-throated Kingfisher, Common Kingfisher, Pied Kingfisher, Common Hoopoe, Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill, Malabar Pied Hornbill, Lesser Goldenback, Sri Lanka Woodshrike, Brown Shrike, Jerdon’s Leafbird, Black-hooded Oriole, House Crow, Large-billed Crow, Barn Swallow, Jerdon’s Bushlark, Red-vented Bulbul, Asian Paradise Flycatcher, Yellow-billed Babbler, Common Myna, Rosy Starling, Oriental Magpie Robin, Indian Robin, Purple-rumped Sunbird, House Sparrow, Scaly-breasted Munia.