Colombo has been a bustling port since the 5th Century but it wasn't until 1815, when the British arrived, that this small port town became a city. During the 1970s, Sri Lanka suffered the effects of Civil War which ravaged the country for 25 years. The country slowly rebuilt itself but Colombo still had a tainted image. After much redevelopment, it is now a sprawling, almost cosmopolitan city which boasts a mix of traditional markets and fine restaurants.
We stayed north of Colombo at the beach town of Mt Lavania. As soon as we arrived, we caught up with Shiraz's friend who invited us to his parent's house for lunch. A Sri Lankan feast awaited us - it was the perfect way to welcome us to Sri Lanka.
We made our way into Colombo town as we wanted to organise train tickets from Colombo Fort Train Station. We watched the hustle and bustle of passengers and trains. They were rickety old trains but full of character. The railway information centre doubled as a tourist information centre. We not only bought a train ticket, we also organised a driver and accommodation for 12 days. Backpacking for 6 months had worn us out so it was time to have a holiday.
Across the road from the train station was Pettah. This old quarter of Colombo was a thriving market area. Each street specialised different products. One street had electronics, another textiles, another hardware etc. While being called into stores to "just take a look" we had to look out for passing fruit carts to avoid being run over.
For lunch we visited the Old Dutch Hospital in the historical area of Fort. As the name suggests, it was a former Dutch Hospital dating back to the 15th Century. It has been beautifully restored and houses many cafes, restaurants and souvenir shops.
We came across the Old Galle Buck Lighthouse which was built in 1954 and due to the elements, had a worn old world atmosphere about it. There were several old and rusted canons beside it. Since it's located near the Presidential Palace, the surrounding area was full of gun wielding security. It made us feel safe.
We visited Gangaramaya Temple. It was more of a museum than a Buddhist temple containing bejewelled and gilded gifts from over the years. Most gifts are Buddhist imagery gifts but outside were 2 cars straight out of the 1920s. We wandered through admiring the weird and wonderful gifts. There were a variety of Buddhist statues, furniture, pottery, jewellery and photos. One photo was a gift from Queen Elizabeth.
Outside was a life size statue of an elephant. It looked so real, at first glimpse we thought it was a real one. Standing in the centre of the garden was a small stupa with a shrine of oil candles burning. We watched an elderly lady light some candles before seeing her again inside the small temple singing prayers to the Buddha statue. It was beautiful and melodic.
As we walked along Mt Lavania beach the following morning, a local approached us and told us about a turtle sanctuary on the other side of Mt Lavania Hotel. It was a small yet organised turtle sanctuary. There were several large tanks containing the different types of turtles including the rare hawk's bill turtle. One tank held smaller turtles, once they grew larger they would be released into the sea.
One of the bigger tanks saddened me. There were 4 large turtles all with handicaps. All had at least one fin missing due to fishing nets and one had part of her shell damaged from a boat propeller. With a missing fin, it's impossible for the turtles to dive under so they are in danger of being the victim of fishermen who sell their meat and shell. This sanctuary has become their permanent home.
We had the opportunity to handle some of the turtles. The owner also gave us information on each turtle and the work he does. Considering its one man working for nature, he deserves great acknowledgement. This sanctuary is not well advertised and if it wasn't for locals showing tourists where it is, you wouldn't even know it's there.
Anuradhapura is a small town and known for its archaeological and architectural wonders. These ruins became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982 and we were eager to explore.
Jetavana Stupa was built in the 3rd Century. This massive bricked domed stupa originally stood at 100 metres but due to damage, it now stands at 70 metres. When it was built, it was the 3rd highest monument in the world after the Egyptian pyramids. Just outside of the stupa, workers continue to excavate in search of ancient treasures.
Further along we came to the Samahadi Buddha which is one of the finest Buddha statues in Sri Lanka. It was built between the 5th and 6th Century and was built as part of the Bodhi tree shrine. Behind the statue is a square pit where the Bodhi tree once stood guarded by four Buddha statues.
We visited the Abhayagiri Monastery. In the centre stood a 75 metre brick domed stupa which was built between the 1st and 2nd Century. Abhayagir translates to Hill of Protection and was the centrepiece for 5,000 monks.
After visiting many ruins and water features, we came to several white washed stupas. All were impressive and stood proud in this sacred site. The largest was the Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba. Standing at 55 metres high, it was built by King Dutugemunu in the 1st Century. Unfortunately, King Dutugemunu did not live long enough to see his finest creation. It's guarded by hundreds of stone elephants carved into the wall.
But the highlight of the day was visiting the 2,000 year old sacred Sri Maha Bodhi tree. It is the centrepiece of Anuradhapura both spiritually and physically. It has grown from a cutting from the original Bodhi tree brought over from Bodhgaya in India who came to Sri Lanka to teach Buddhism.
The following day we caught a bus to Mihintale. We had read that it was 1843 steps to get to Ambasthale Dagoba which was situated on top of Mihintale Mountain. We were bracing ourselves for this walk but when a tuk tuk driver offered to take us to the 2nd landing of the mountain, bypassing half the climb, we got in.
It was a steep drive up the road, even the tuk tuk struggled. At the 2nd landing we ascended the narrow steep steps. The path was shaded by overhanging trees with macaque monkeys loitering around the sides, waiting to snatch food from unsuspecting people.
At the 3rd landing, we had to remove our shoes. This was a sacred area with a small stupa in the centre. To our left was a large Buddha, behind the stupa was Aradhana Gala, a rocky viewpoint and to our right was the Ambasthale Dagoba.
The steps to each of these places were intricately carved into the ancient granite steps. We climbed up to the seated white Buddha. The Buddha shined under the bright sky. We then climbed up the shallow stairs on the sun-heated rock to Aradhana Gala. The top of rock, known as Meditation Rock, had incredible views of the surrounding valley.
The frangipani path led us to Ambasthale Dagoba. The pure white stupa was almost regal and it is believed that this is where Mahinda, the son of the great Indian Buddhist Emperor Ashoka, and the King had met. Ambasthale translates to Mango Tree which refers to a riddle that Mahinda used to test the King's intelligence.
Trincomalee is a small fishing village which was invaded during the Civil War. Its historical port made for a great target. After changing colonial hands 7 times, it's now a thriving town but you still see traces of the Dutch and British takeover.
Rather than staying in Trincomalee, we decided to stay just north of town at Nilaveli Beach. Nilaveli is a laid back beach town with only a handful of hotels serving those travellers who venture past Trincomalee. Village life is very much the focus here with pockets of fields and bamboo homes.
We walked along the beach and noticed quite a lot of Hindu families all dressed in white splashing about or sitting under palm trees eating curried rice in banana leaves. Down a trail we found stalls selling drinks, snacks, balls, toys and shell trinkets. There was one shack that sold local meals so we sat down and ordered. While Shiraz enjoyed his spicy chicken curry, I was pulling out fish bones and what I believe was a human fingernail out of my chicken noodles. We never went back.
The following morning we chose a different route as you never know what amazing things are around the corner. It was quiet until we were greeted by children calling out, "Hello, do you have any school pens?" We watched local men driving around the dirt paths on motorbikes, local ladies hang out their washing and a community sitting together under a bamboo shelter filtering their field's pickings. One local fellow came up from behind us brandishing a small machete. He stopped beside us to say a few words we couldn't understand and then ran down the path giggling to himself. There's always one!
For the afternoon, we decided to catch a bus into Trincomalee town. The town centre was bustling and we felt there was plenty to do here to fill our afternoon. After lunch we bumped into a German tourist on his bicycle asking us directions. The conversation turned into his life story. He was on a year-long hitchhiking and cycling adventure. He had travelled from Europe, the Middle East and now through Asia. He slept on mountains, beaches, in temples and in people's homes. He survived lonely long journeys but also was warmly welcomed by strangers. His story was inspiring and he hoped to inspire other travellers to do the same.
Walking along the narrow streets there were many stores with their goods spilling out onto the pavement, homeless people begging and stray dogs searching for food. We turned down one of the alleyways and found ourselves at the beach. Colourful fishing boats were moored on the sand while old local men sat around chatting amongst each other. One local man was a fisherman who survived the tsunami in 2004. He told us of the devastation until he re-joined his friends untangling nets.
We walked by the fishing village towards the fort which guarded this town. We watched locals drying out, cutting up and selling fish on the road side. Between the shanty homes, we noticed deer roaming around.
We arrived at Fort Frederick and were greeted by military officers. Within the fort is another military post standing guard. The fort was built by the Portuguese, rebuilt by the Dutch and exhibits elements of British design.
We walked through the fort and joined the groups of locals heading towards Swami Rock. The whole area felt like a summer camp. There were rows of military barracks among the trees and overgrown bushland. There were signposts to "Mind the deer".
Swami Rock is a 130 metre high cliff with shrines dotted around the rock base. Trees have been lavishly decorated with colourful paper and cloth offerings tied to the branches. We watched locals in prayer underneath the trees. Concluding their prayer, they smashed a coconut into a fenced pit. It made such a loud bang, it almost sounded like gunfire.
The temple on Swami Rock, Koneswaram Kovil, is one of 5 temples dedicated to Shiva which was built to protect the island from natural disaster. It's believed that it was built in the 1st Century and houses the Swayambhu Lingam, making it one of Sri Lanka's most spiritual Hindu sites.
After our beach escape, it was time for our holiday to begin. Our driver picked us up and drove us towards Sigiriya. As part of the Cultural Triangle, Sigiriya has history and beauty rolled into one. The reason people flock here is to climb up Sigiriya Rock which is believed to be at least 1,500 years old. Standing at 370 metres it protrudes from the earth in an almighty stance. Back in the 1st Century, King Kassapa had a garden and palace built on the summit. In 1982 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Upon entry, you walk through the Royal Gardens. It's a landscaped area filled with water, boulders and terraced gardens. The terraced garden is the starting point of the stone stairs beckoning the visitor to climb. On the way up, there is a set of steel spiral stairs which takes you to a sheltered Fresco gallery in the sheer rock face. The paintings are brightly coloured depicting images of women from India, China, Africa and Sri Lanka, all with big breasts.
Climbing back down the spiral staircase, the path along the sheer rock is protected by the Mirror Wall. It's a 3 metre wall covered with 1,000 year old graffiti. Unfortunately, over time, the graffiti has worn off leaving just a wall with a few scratches of words.
The winds picked up as we walked towards the Lions Paws platform which is the gateway to the summit. A series of stone and steel stairs take you to the top. Once at the summit, we were literally blown away by the winds.
We wandered around the ruins of the garden and temple. It reminded us of Machu Picchu but not as well preserved. There were many ruins where walls once had stood, watering holes and the Kings throne.
The next morning we went on a village tour. At the starting point we climbed into the bullock drawn cart and with a guide and driver, we turned down a dirt road into the jungle before reaching the river were our canoe awaited us.
The lake was covered with water lilies but only a few flowers were in bloom. The boat driver picked some lilies out of the water and made a chain for us each by ripping the stems and tying it at the end.
Once we reached the other side, our guide introduced us to a local lady in one of the mud huts who showed us how villagers prepare their food. She sifted rice from the husks, grounded herbs, cracked open a coconut and prepared some coconut roti with some coconut chili. After our meal, we drank herbal tea.
We were then taken through a typical village mud house. There were two rooms, a sleeping area and the kitchen. Being onion season, there was a pile of onions on the floor. We were greeted by a local lady and her son. It was a small quaint house with only the bare essentials.
That afternoon we were eager for our jeep ride into Minneriya National Park. The park itself was covered in lush greenery with wide open spaces. It was just like being on safari in Africa. We spotted deer, peacocks and various bird life. Near one of the watering holes we saw a herd of water buffalo grazing by the water's edge.
But we were here for the elephants. Jeeps followed each other along the dirt trails and made their way towards the large watering hole. Several herds of elephants were grazing on the grass; from bouncing babies to adult elephants. It was the perfect scene and we watched them grazing, playing and splashing in the water while some frisky elephants were procreating.
Behind us another herd of elephants appeared from the scrub land. And then another. There were over 100 elephants in this area alone. The jeeps then drove around to the farther side of the watering hole to watch the elephants from a safe distance outside of the vehicles.
The following day we visited Dambulla. It's a large town known for the Royal Rock Temple complex. This UNESCO World Heritage site is 100 metres to 160 metres on a sheer rock face. On the summit is a series of cave temples etched into the rock. It was built by King ValagambaI around the 3rd Century. He took refuge here when he was driven out of Anuradhapura.
It was a steady climb up the stairs to reach the temple. Once we reached the top, we had sweeping views of Sigiriya and surrounds. The exterior of the temple had a white washed pathway with arches leading into each of the 5 separate caves. These caves were adorned with approximately 157 Buddha statues. The caves walls were elaborately painted with well preserved Buddha images.
At the base of the Royal Rock Temple is the Golden Temple. Here stands a golden seated 30 metre high Buddha. It is the highest Buddha in the world with the Dhamma Chakka posture.
Underneath the temple lies a Buddhist Museum. The entrance is through a giant dragon's mouth. Inside were a collection of Buddha statues, leaf manuscripts, artifacts and paintings. One painting depicted the life-cycle of the Buddha.
On route to Kandy we stopped at Aluviharaya in Matale. This monastery was built by King Devanampiyatissa in the 3rd Century into the sheer rock wall. The first cave housed a reclining Buddha surrounded by lotus patterns. The second cave was filled with hellish murals. It suggests if you stray from the path of good, you will suffer the consequences of hell. Once you have these images etched in your mind, there is a third cave dedicated to the Indian scholar who spent several years here working on the Tipitaka.
Kandy was the capital of the last Sinhalese Kingdom until the British settled in 1815. It's a sprawling city at the edge of the Hill Country with sweeping green hills surrounding Kandy Lake. We were greeted with gridlock. Every inch of road space was taken by a vehicle of some description.
Once we reached our hotel in the hills, we were invited to join the owner's sons 1st birthday. The place was buzzing with people, children and music. We joined in the festivities in the terrace restaurant and dined on chicken, fish, rice and papadums.
Putting on our explorer caps, we ventured into town and walked through the Royal Palace Park. Thinking it was a large park with several trails, it was only a small garden perched on the hill. We wandered through the paths and noticed how many canoodling couples there were, although one couple were reading the newspaper. Romantic!
We then started walking around Kandy Lake when a local man stopped us and pointed out the turtles sunning themselves on a branch. He then told us that it was our lucky day as the President was visiting the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. As we walked past the temple, staff were setting up the marquee and chairs in the gardens.
We then walked around the narrow busy streets passing the famous Queens Hotel. It has the architecture and charm of Raffles Hotel in Singapore. Further on a local pointed us in the direction of the main market. Here they sold clothing and textiles, spices and handicrafts.
We returned to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic and watched the monks congregate into the marquee. It was a sea of bright orange and maroon robes. Once they all arrived, a senior monk spoke in Singhalese in the presence of the President.
In the early evening we went to watch the Kandyan Dancers and Drummers performance at the YMBA Hall. Drummers and dancers performed various dances and acrobatics in bright costumes. At the end of the performance we went outside for the fire dancers and firewalkers. One poor fire dancer twirled so much he fell over and burnt his arm.
The following day we wandered around the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. The temple was constructed between the 17th and 18th Century and contains the sacred tooth of Buddha. Sri Lankan Buddhists believe that they must complete at least one pilgrimage to the temple to improve their karma.
After walking through the gardens, we followed the worshippers towards the altar situated in front of the guarded room where the tooth is enshrined. Worshippers knelt and prayed to the Buddha. It was a peaceful and serene experience to watch. The tooth itself is kept in a gold casket which contains a series of six stupa caskets. The room is only open to Buddhists for 15 seconds at a time.
Behind the temple is a prayer room surrounded by Buddha statues. The history of the tooth relic is depicted here in cartoon-like paintings with an inscription under each painting. And outside is the Rajah Tusker Hall. It contains the remains of Rajah, the Maligawa Tusker (elephant) who served in the Kandy Esala Peraheras (processions) for 50 years before passing away in 1988.
For a complete change of scenery and something a little different, we visited Helga's Folly, a weird and wonderful hotel nestled in the hills. Helga Da Silva created a surrealist dream-like hotel and we were impressed before we walked in. The whole building and garden was painted in a Gaudi/Dali style. Inside we sat on multi coloured cushions on the settee and admired the art work/gallery/ornate decorations which surrounded us. Some say it's a horror-house, others say it's a creative dream like fantasy. The entire room was adorned with paintings, puppets, pottery, antiques as well as candelabras hidden under many years' worth of candle wax. Colours jumped out, your imagination ran wild; it was like an acid inspired artwork and we loved it.
Nuwara Eliya is the highest town in Sri Lanka and is the heart of the Hill Country where tea plantations flourish at 1850 metres above sea level. The narrow windy road took us through the green valley of tea shrubs. Above them, mist hovered and rolled down the valley walls.
On route to Nuwara Eliya we were taken to a tea planation nestled on the valley side. Each tea leaf is handpicked and brought into the processing factory. We watched how the tea was dried, sifted and packaged. Inside the shop we were able to sit down to a complimentary cup of tea. It warmed our insides.
The rest of the journey was incredibly scenic. We saw tea pickers climbing up the sides of the field to pick the freshest leaves, hawkers on the side of the road selling fresh vegetables and old men covered in rain jackets walking along the wet roads.
Our driver then left us in the safe hands of the hotel manager. If we needed a lift into town, he would take us. This small misty town comprised of local eateries, supermarkets, market stalls and two pubs.
After a solid day of rain and the onset of cabin fever, we welcomed a semi-clear sky. We visited Pedro Tea Plantation high in the hills. The hills were alive with tea shrubs and tea pickers. We followed the tea pickers up the hill before receiving a tour of the tea factory. The whole process from picking to drinking fresh tea was only one day.
We arranged to catch the traditional scenic train to Ella. But since it only has one locomotive instead of two, it was notorious for being late due to lack of wheel traction. It arrived 3 hours late and due to the mist, rain and lack of daylight, all we could see from our windows was the reflection of ourselves. Very scenic!
Ella is a small hill country town nestled among the rolling hills of Sri Lanka. It's a tourist town with plenty of scenic hikes through the tea plantations, temples and waterfalls offering stunning views of the valleys.
On our first day we headed to Little Adam's Peak, a scenic viewpoint high in the valleys. We strolled along the dirt path which slowly descended up one of many hills. The whole valley was covered with lush tea plantations. Local ladies passed us carrying bundles on their heads.
At the base of the hill we climbed up the stone steps. At the top of the climb, there was a flat area where you could sit on smooth rocks under the shade of a large tree. If you were in need of a drink, there was a sign underneath the tree, "Beer" with an arrow pointing out towards the valley. It would be a very long walk for that beer.
We walked further up into the open grassy area to catch 360 degree view of the surrounding valleys. We could see tea plantation factories, expensive accommodations and waterfalls. We turned back and climbed up to another viewpoint near the top of the stairs. It was a flat area with flags blowing in the strong breeze. We could see mountains and valleys as far as the eye could see.
We gave our legs a rest the next day and caught a tuk tuk to the historical 9 arch bridge. It's located amongst the valley and we wanted to catch a train crossing over it. We had been told that there is a walk to get closer to the bridge. We walked through dense forest and several times ended up in someone's backyard. We headed back and waited for a train from the balcony at the nearby guest house. We waited for over an hour and still no train. Trains don't run on time here so we gave up. 10 minutes later as we walked back along the main road, we heard the train tooting along. Just missed it!
In the afternoon we caught the local bus to Rawana Falls. From the bridge we could see the cascading falls where many locals and a handful of tourists braced themselves before dipping in the water. We followed the rocky path to the swimming area. The rocks were slippery and we watched many people fall into the pools of water. We sat on the edge and put our feet in. The water was icy cold and there was no chance we were going to jump in.
The following day we donned our hiking boots and tackled Ella Rock, a 1350 metre high rock. Since the walk wasn't signposted, we had to rely on locals and tourists to find the way. To get there it was an hour's walk along the railway track. It was like living out a scene from Stand By Me. Very few sections had a dirt path beside it so we listened out for any trains. We already envisaged ourselves jumping into the bushes if a train came along.
We turned down a dirt path and after passing farms and plantations, we crossed a bridge before walking through tea plantations and long grass. The track took us to someone's house so we snaked around their backyard before climbing up a rocky hill. At the top we spotted another trail that led to the great Ella Rock.
The rocky trail became a steep incline. At every step, gravel fell under our feet so we steadily climbed up the rock. It took us an hour of sweating, puffing and panting but we were rewarded when we reached the top. We sat on the rocky edge to catch our breath and to view this natural wonder. We had 180 degrees of valley below us. After taking in the views, we descended down the rocky path. While walking along the railway track, we finally caught our train. We jumped off the tracks and into a café. It was the perfect time for a drink.
In keeping with the train theme, we caught a train to Negombo. It may not have been the traditional scenic train but the first 6 hours of the journey was spectacular. We did as the locals did by popping our heads out of the windows and doors admiring the rolling hills and tea plantations.
When we reached Kandy train station, the train continued the journey backwards travelling south before heading west to Colombo. The scenery changed from hill country to urban life. From shack stalls to modern looking stores. The streets widened and the roads became busier with locals walking around and traffic flying past.
Just north of Colombo lies the beach town of Negombo. It's a large fishing industry sprawling with modern hotels, restaurants and nightlife. We spent a few days here walking along the beach, enjoying the cuisines in many cafes and restaurants as well as meeting up with an Irish couple who were here for a few months doing volunteer work in the nearby orphanage. It was the perfect place to unwind, relax and reminisce about our wonderful holiday in Sri Lanka. Next stop, China…