Sri Lanka

A Small Place Worth Getting to Know

Dambulla Cave TempleAs the saying goes, good things come in small packages and Sri Lanka is a small island that delivers on that promise. Now that the civil war is over, travellers are visiting by the planeload and are being welcomed by the friendly locals. Sri Lanka can be easily explored and offers up a large variety of things to do. From beaches to jungles, ancient cities to enchanting temples, there really is something to please all travellers here.

The starting point for most travellers is the largest city, Colombo. This is a big bustling city, but with its beach-side location isn’t as hectic as some other Asian cities. It can be pleasant taking an evening stroll along the coastline, particularly Galle Face Green, the locals’ playground. This is exceptionally full of people on the weekends, picnicking, playing frisbee and swimming. Next to this large open space you’ll find the Galle Face Hotel, a luxurious Colonial hotel that has claimed the ocean views since 1864. If you can’t afford the price tag to stay there - which most travellers cannot - you can still sit by the terrace and enjoy a cocktail and just pretend to be a little bit glamorous.

Colombo’s beaches, however, are not the city’s main attraction, as far cleaner and more beautiful beaches can be found elsewhere. There are lots of things to see and do, not the least of which is shopping and the city has enough to suit all shopping tastes. Odel is the best known department store with a wide variety of clothes and other items, while Majestic City and Liberty Plaza are two outlet stores where shoppers scramble over the bargains. For a real market experience, try the Pettah Market with its broad range of offerings from electrical goods to jewellery. Bargaining is expected, but it’s hard to out-bargain the locals.

Once you’ve had a fill of city life, it’s time to move on to the real joys of Sri Lanka. Regardless of the direction you head out from Colombo, you will discover something wonderful. To the south is the fortified city of Galle, a reminder of Dutch colonial days. To the north are the ancient cities with Buddhist temples and palace ruins perched on awkward mountain tops proclaiming their former importance. And if you head east, you find the hill country where tea grows to feed the country’s economy and quench the thirst of tens of millions worldwide. 

For a dose of history and culture, the ancient cities are a group in the north that are home to some uniquely beautiful temples and historic sites. Each town has a unique site, making it less repetitive than the usual temple hopping excursions. Anuradhapura has a series of magnificent large stupas and ancient city ruins from the glory days of Royal reign. The sites are spread out and so cycling around this UNESCO World Heritage Site is the perfect way to get between them. There are quite good signs between the sites, although it is a bit confusing finding where to buy an entry ticket, as tickets are only available at a few of the larger sites. It doesn’t seem that ticket checking occurs all that often, however, though go ticketless at your own risk. Anuradhapura provides plenty of open spaces and places to sit and contemplate the centuries old buildings. This contrasts completely with the hidden Cave Temple of Dambulla, also known as the Golden Temple of Dambulla. Large caverns house numerous carved Buddhas painted in bright colours. The soft lighting in the caves creates an intimate atmosphere for inner reflection. Another striking site is the royal city ruins of Sigiriya. This remarkable royal dwelling was built upon a large monolith with a lion carved into the sides and steep stairway leading up to the top. Only the lions feet remain, but they give enough indication to the scale of what was once there. It is a strenuous climb up, but the spectacular views are well worth the effort.

Heading inland, you reach the hill country. Kandy is the largest town and entry point into the area. The altitude gives a relief from the hotter temperatures around the coast, though it can get quite cold and misty. If the weather is good there are some popular walks, the most famous being the pilgrimage up Adam’s Peak. This mountain is sacred to Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians, and thousands trek up its steep peak to catch the sunrise view. The trudge is not recommended in the wet seasons, however, as heavy fog and rainfall making it both dangerous and disappointing to miss out on the views. The hills of this land, formerly known as Ceylon, are also famous for their tea plantations. There are several tea factories that can be visited in the area, though you'll have to find out what times they are open, as it depends on what operations are going on at the time. However, most will offer a tour while activities are in progress so you can see the full tea production process. The tea is picked by women in brightly coloured saris, but be warned that many will ask for a fee to take their photo. A popular town to visit in the hill country is Nura Eliya. There are many guest houses catering to tourists and several offer cooking classes so you can make your very own curry and rice. This national dish is actually several types of curry, usually a few vegetable options and one meat curry. Each restaurant seems to have their own variation so you never eat the same curry twice. Once you’ve tried Sri Lankan food, everything else will pale away into blandness in comparison!Sri Lanka 'tuk-tuks'

Encircling the whole of Sri Lanka are endless stretches of coastline with rolling waves entice surfers and sun-lovers to their shores. Many towns around Sri Lanka were affected by the 2001 Tsunami, but now much of the rebuilding seems to have been done. The fortunate thing about visiting Sri Lanka is that although there are wet and dry seasons, the east and west coasts experience these at opposite times of the year, so regardless of which you visit, you can find somewhere sunny with clear waters.

In the south is Yala National Park, one of the best known and best managed national parks in the country. If you want to see wildlife, this is probably the best place to do it as the populations of elephants and leopards are thought to be larger here. Half- or full-day safari tours can be booked take you around by jeep to try your luck at wildlife spotting.

There is so much to see in Sri Lanka, and getting to it is easy enough as there is as much variety in transport as in sites to visit. To travel with the locals take a bus but be warned that you will be travelling with hundreds of locals at once and there is not an inch to spare on longer journeys. If you are lucky enough to get a seat you will probably have your nose in someone’s armpit as they lean over to hold onto the poles. But most likely the local women will push ahead of you with expert technique making it seem too risky to try to snatch a seat from them. There are also some well-established rail way lines that are also a journey back into the past. A fun trip is to travel from Colombo down south to the colonial town of Galle where you can hang out the windows and doors and feel the fresh sea air in your face, literally just a few meters away from you. If there is strong wind you will even get sea spray blown your way as the track follows the coast closely. There is also a scenic journey through the hill country from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya or Badulla. It is usually a good idea to book train tickets ahead of time as they can sell out. Travellers looking for more comfort and convenience can easily hire a car with a driver to get around. This is quite affordable, but you won’t meet any locals. Once in a town, there are always numerous tuk-tuk drivers vying for your attention; make sure you bargain hard.

Whatever you decide to do and see in Sri Lanka you won’t be disappointed. The locals are welcoming, the food is tantalising and the sights are breathtaking. It is certainly a small place worth getting to know.

About the Author

Megan Morlok tries to make travelling a part of life. She has lived in six different countries and hopes her job as an English teacher will take her on one long working holiday around the world. As a nature lover she tries to find natural beauty wherever she goes, but also enjoys experiencing the local culture of the people.

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 Full name: Democratic Socialist Republic of  Sri Lanka

 Population: 21.48 million (CIA, 2012)

 Capital: Colombo

 Largest city: Colombo

 Area: 65,610 sq.km. (25,332 sq. mi.)

 Major languages: Sinhala, Tamil, English,  Other

 Major religions: Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu,  Christian, Other

 Monetary unit: Sri Lankan Rupees

 GDP per capita: US $5,600

 Internet domain: .lk

 International dialling code: +94

 Source: CIA World Factbook