This mango-shaped island nation has become South Asia’s symbol of rebirth, going from a lengthy civil war to now enjoying increasing freedoms while democracy is being restored. It possesses an intrepid traveler’s trifecta: rich culture and history, a plethora of flora and fauna and pristine coastlines.
A Juncture of Trade and Cultures
At the southern tip of India, Sri Lanka — once called Ceylon — has always been strategically important due to its location along the commercial trade route.
The Portuguese arrived in 1505, followed by the Dutch in 1658, then the British in 1796. Independence came peacefully in 1948 but did not last. Its 22 million people are comprised of four main ethnic groups: Sinhalese, Tamils, Moors and Burghers (European-Sinhalese mixed) and four religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity.
The civil war began in 1983 between the Sinhalese majority government and the Tamil Hindu LTTE, known as Tamil Tigers. It lasted nearly three decades with more than 100,000 casualties. Then, the devastating 2004 tsunami caused an additional 30,000 casualties. When the war finally ended in 2009, change was eminent. With open elections in 2015, the reserved Maithripala Sirisena became president and, in record time, has been instrumental in the sea change to combat corruption and ameliorate ethnic strife. While there are still occasional ethnic flare-ups requiring intervention, the government’s response to quash those appears quicker.
Colombo, the Commercial Capital
Although Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte is the country’s administrative capital, Colombo is its heart, pulse and largest city. Staying at the recently opened Shangri-La Hotel Colombo in the city’s northern Fort section — originally the site of the 16th century Portuguese fortifications — was pleasurable walking distance to the area’s main sites.
I joined a walking tour of Fort area and its Colonial-era buildings. The carefully restored Old Dutch Hospital houses quaint restaurants and shops. Nearby, the 1857 Chatham Street Lighthouse Clock Tower is touted as the world’s only lighthouse clock tower. The red-facade Cargill’s department store was once Colombo’s retail grand dame. At the Grand Oriental Hotel, known as GOH, where Anton Chekhov stayed among other notables, boasted in its heyday it had “the best modern system of drainage.”
In Pettah Bazaar, there are four main streets: textiles, flowers, bling and spices. It’s a crowded, colorful, commercial Mecca in all of its chaos. According to the guide, “One can have a suit made in two hours, but will probably last for just three!” The imposing Red Mosque can be seen from most Pettah streets and accommodates 16,000 worshippers.
To go further afield, I took a three-wheeled, 150cc trishaw with a covered rear carriage. My kind driver, who inexplicably went by the name “Donald Duck,” deftly negotiated Colombo’s crowded streets with Job’s patience and Mario Andretti’s skills.
Stopping at peaceful Simamalakaya
Temple on Beira Lake, we continued to Gangaramaya Temple, one of Colombo’s most important shrines. The main hall’s intricate ceiling frescoes reflecting old Colombo make up for the cluttered grounds.
At Royal College Park, and nearly every other public space, cricket is played. As much national obsession as sport, it’s enthusiastically played even during steamy midday heat.
The impeccably restored Independence Arcade, a Colonial-era former mental hospital, now houses upscale shops. Another magnificent Colonial-era building contains the National Museum. Best exhibits are in halls seven, eight and 14, bearing paintings, textiles and traditional masks.
The fashionable Cinnamon Gardens area hosts Tintagel Colombo, the former Prime Minister’s elegant Colonial-era residence, now a 10-suite boutique hotel. Dark woods, period pieces and gleaming balustrades allow visitors to contemplate their inner royalty.
The late Geoffrey Bawa is thought to be one of Asia’s premier architects. Once an attorney, Bawa had a long and distinguished architectural career completing more than 200 projects, including the new parliament. At No. 11, 33rd Lane, one of his signature homes can be visited.
The day ended at Paradise Road The Gallery, Cafe, Bar & Shop, once used as Bawa’s offices. With installations that change monthly featuring talented Sri Lankan artists, it’s another lovingly restored Colonial-era set of buildings with a large courtyard koi pond.
Wilpattu National Park
From Colombo, Scott Dunn Private Journeys’ driver/guide Kevin drove me to Wilpattu. Here, I met up with Keith, a knowledgable animal spotter and birder.
One of Sri Lanka’s 12 national parks, Wilpattu is known for its leopards and sloth bears — we had several sightings of both from our open jeep — but also has a mind-boggling number of birds. Indeed, if birding floats your boat, Sri Lanka is an ornithological orgy with more than 440 species, 33 of which are endemic. During dawn and dusk game rides, we saw crested serpent eagles, green bee-eaters, blue-eared kingfishers, black-headed ibises, peacocks, jungle fowls and painted storks to name a few. It’s a cacophony of constant chipper chirping.
Accommodations at Leopard Trails, three miles from one of the park’s two southern entry gates, had air conditioned tents, good food and service.
The Cultural Triangle
This region is home to five UNESCO World Heritage sites filled with historical wonders. These allude to the region’s grandeur and refinement during its peak.
In Anuradhapura, the Sinhalese capital until the 10th century A.D., I hopped onto a bicycle. It’s the best way to see this ancient city given its layout and the heat. This remarkable complex has sophisticated irrigation systems, baths, and crowning achievement, the 3rd century Jetavanarama Dagoba (“stupa”). Originally rising 328 feet, construction required 93 million bricks then rendering it the world’s third tallest structure, after two of Egypt’s pyramids.
One of Buddhism’s holiest sites is here, Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi (“holy tree”) allegedly grown from part of the tree under which Buddha attained enlightenment.
Following an hour drive, I arrived to Sigiriya Water Garden, a splendid hotel with ethereal views of ancient citadel Sigiriya Rock. Lying atop a massive granite column rising 660 feet, it’s considered the heart of the brief, 5th century Kassapa kingdom. Commencing the 1,200-step climb at 7 a.m. to avoid the heat, rewards en route were plentiful: frescoed celestial nymphs, a wall so shiny it’s dubbed a mirror and a gate bearing enormous lion paws. On top, resplendent central valleys views instilled deep gratitude for not being acrophobic.
In Kandy’s historical center, one of Buddha’s molars rests in the Temple of the Tooth. Wondering what a close dentist friend would think of paying homage to a tooth in a town called Kandy, I checked into Elephant Stables, a charming Colonial hilltop bungalow once housing elephants in adjacent gardens. The Kandyan curries served here were outstanding.
In Peredeniya’s 147-acre Royal Botanical Garden I strolled amid 4,000 plant species and 10,000 towering trees, including giant Burmese Bamboo, Cook’s Pines bearing hoards of hanging fruit bats and Javan fig trees. Understandably, several movies were filmed here, including 1997’s “The Second Jungle Book” and 1981’s “Tarzan the Ape Man.”
The medieval capital of Polonnaruwa gained prominence as Anuradhapura commenced its decline and is guarded by a defensive system of ramparts and moats. The highlight is the Quadrangle, where the central dagoba is set atop an elevated terrace.
Teatime in the Hill Country
From Kandy, a train ride climbing to 4,170 feet elevation past miles of hillside tea plants brought me three hours later to Hatton. In tea country’s heart, I checked into Ceylon Tea Trails, one of five artfully restored bungalows, each with five guest rooms set amid stunning emerald-hued tea estates surrounding the otherworldly Castlereigh Reservoir. Within the estate are walking trails with plenty of leeches that happily found me boring.
Following coffee crops’ failure to rust disease, Scotsman James Taylor introduced tea in the 19th century. Sir Thomas Lipton modernized production and tea is now the most consumed liquid after water and Sri Lanka the world’s third largest tea exporter.
Leafs are mainly collected by women who deftly maneuver steep trails. Bearing heavy bounties on their backs, leaves are weighed at the processing plant. The Dunkeld tea factory tour was informative and the labor intensity of the process, from plant to cup, caused me to never view a little, aromatic tea bag in quite the same way.
The Southern Coast
Driving back roads exposed more tea, jade-green terraced agriculture, and countless dogs, cows and horses that meandered the road. At Nuwara Eliya’s Hindu Sita Amman Temple, angry macaque monkeys guarded the entrance. Six hours later I arrived to the southern coast’s Tangalle.
Here swaying palms, white sands and an idyllic coastline beckoned. At Amanwella, 30 enormous, Balinese-style accommodations with an ocean-facing balcony, graced a secluded, blissful setting.
In coastal Galle’s historic fort area, the Portuguese created and Dutch improved ramparts that withstood both time and the 2004 tsunami. Colonial-era churches, clock and bell towers, small shops and restaurants within its thick walls make for an inviting stroll.
Reflecting on 10 remarkable days, I contemplated the writings of Sri Lankan Romesh Gunesekera who wrote, “A very special island that travelers from Sinbad to Marco Polo dreamed about. A place where the contours of the land itself forms a kind of sinewy poetry.”
Perhaps this poetry imparts the optimism of democratic reforms and freedom it instills. If following decades of conflict the Sinhalese and Tamils can break bread and move peacefully onward, then I share the optimism that Sri Lanka will overcome its current challenges to prosper while delighting travelers fortunate enough to experience the “Pearl of South Asia” and its generous, hospitable people.
IF YOU GO: Sri Lanka
Travel Arrangements: For comprehensive, custom travel arrangements, I used award-winning Scott Dunn Travel that provided a knowledgeable English-speaking driver/guide, air-conditioned car, and arranged all accommodations, meals, site tickets and activities. Based on a 10-night itinerary, rates start at $4,000 per person, excluding international air. SDT has eight worldwide offices, including one in California. (858) 703-4709, www.scottdunn.com
Air, the best way: From SFO: Award-winning Cathay Pacific Airways offers three daily flights with nonstop service to Hong Kong, with one using its new Airbus 350-900. Following a brief layover in Hong Kong, it has daily, nonstop onward service to Colombo. Restricted, round trip fares start at $1,030. (800) 233-2742, www.cathaypacific.com
Tourist visas: Required for U.S. citizens and can be obtained online at www.eta.gov.lk/slvisa
Julie L. Kessler is a travel writer, legal columnist and attorney based in Los Angeles and the author of the award-winning book, “Fifty-Fifty, The Clarity of Hindsight.” She can be reached at Julie@VagabondLawyer.com.