“Softly spoken Sri Lanka” (Part 1)
Sri Lanka travel blog written by my very talented guest writer and friend, Nigel.
I’m re-posting this blog as a 3 part series on Sri Lanka travel (mainly due to format and SEO settings) – and this is before my Euro/Middle East blogography because our wonderful guides have had nearly all of their tourism bookings cancelled due to the recent turmoil in their wonderful country.
You’ll find their contact details at the bottom of this blog. I cannot recommend these beautifully kind gentlemen and Sri Lanka enough. Don’t let the media dictate that it’s not safe, do your own research and go book with these sensational humans that will give you the best and inexpensive travel experience you could have ever hoped for.
And yes, you will need a guide if you want a stress-free version of Sri Lanka travel. Their transport system is pretty average, although, not impossible. I just imagine that most of us over 40’s travel disciples prefer a little more comfort than non-airconditioned, overcrowded buses. (The train ride between Ella and Nuwara Eliya, in part 2 of this series, is absolutely sublime though.)
Accomodation: The very acceptable Paradise Beach Hotel with balconies overlooking the Indian Ocean.
Turns out the Colombo airport is really in Negombo – or so it seemed in hindsight. After a few turns out of the bouganvillia-lined airport access road, the environment is a strikingly low-rise, well-kempt residential one dotted with markets, temples, and churches and cut through with surface railroad tracks.
This tidy, pleasant everyday neighborhood gives way quickly to sandy sidewalks, hotels, espresso bars and views through alleys to the sparkling Indian ocean. Less than $100/night is plenty for Paradise Beach Hotel’s beach-front 3.5-star with generous sea-view balcony, nicely-maintained pool with manicured lawn and coconut palms and complete with a Pirate Bar, serving the “standard” plus-size Lion beers with their golden hues and mellow vibes.
If you want to have smoke with your beer when you travel Sri Lanka, be prepared to buck the system or have to go to great lengths to purchase a pack. None are allowed to be brought through customs. None. But rumor has it that a few packs strategically stowed away in luggage are extremely likely to get through undisturbed.
Sri Lanka travel wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the seventh-floor rooftop bar at Jetwing. This building dwarfs its surroundings and beckons with opening-night-style searchlights. The music is as conservatively house-pop as can be but gets some head bobs from the well-heeled local crowd as they surmise the lavish dessert bar.
On to Rodeo bar where there might be a band. It’s Friday night. No dancing here. No metal. No live music. No ping pong show. Just Soft-spoken local highschoolers drinking beer and munching on club sandwiches while watching the cricket. Better to stake out a balcony chaise and watch the moon play on the surf.
2. The road to Dambulla
Rolling out of Negombo, the sandy beach-town grid gives way to shady 2-lane (oh, sorry, 3-lane for those vehicles game enough to create their own path) roads that carve through agricultural land spread out in front of the inviting hills of the North Western Province.
The first big town, Kurunegala, that sits squarely at the intersection of flat and hilly and is home to our super guide, Tharanga.
Here a snack of roadside rambutan (tastes similar to lychee) fuels a scorching midday stagger around Athugala Statue – a blindingly white 100mt-tall buddha that sits high above the town looking placidly out over it and whose sarong and repair scaffolding provide shade for a family of feisty macaques (evil monkeys) and a few lazy young lovers taking in the view.
The local small scenic lake and surrounding park are another welcome oasis from the punishing sun and here more white-school-uni-clad teenagers jostle gently around holding ice cream pins flashing brilliant toothy grins at each other and giving the occasional love punch to keep it casual.
3. Dambulla Cave Temple
The cultural religious stop of the day is the Dambulla Cave Temple. A white-washed vaguely Western arcaded façade a few hundred meters walk up from the car-park covers the seam between cliffs above and a human-enhanced, terraced plateau. Step through the arcade and into the dimly-lit cave rooms beyond and you’re met with a massive, full-reclined Buddha lit ethereally by beams of daylight sifting through the doorway.
Flanking the reclining Buddha are a host of smaller seated ones, some serene, some seemingly perturbed. They get along though, and the white, orange and purple flowers left for them seem an essential relief from the otherwise eternal and somber scene. There are other rooms, some larger, some smaller, all hosting buddhas and all with intricately painted natural stone (cliff underbelly) ceilings. It’s as if the ceilings have been hung with taut, beautiful woven fabrics.
4. Ritigala Nature Reserve
A couple more hours’ drive up into the North Central Province, arriving as the shadows lengthen, is the vendor’s grass-roofed roadside hut to sign-up for our first Sri Lankan Safari at Ritigala Nature Reserve. With a beefy, black, 8-seater, plush-seated, roofless, roll-barred off-roader to ourselves with windscreen down, we tear off at high speed in pursuit of sun bears, leopards and ellies.
Once in the park, the red-dirt roads are well rutted and the African-safari-style massage starts. Our guide/driver knows what he’s up to and with efficient precision in stopping for and pointing out some colorful fowl (peacock).
He subtly passes leading Jeeps and gets us beautifully teed up at a stream where a family of magnificent elephants is sauntering out of the shady woods, scraping their tough hides on the tree trunks and prancing slow-motion into the golden late-afternoon sunlight. They take turns munching the tender grasses and cooling their toes in the water. And then a couple of the elephants, a Mom and daughter I’m guessing, think it’d be cool to come check us out up close. Breath-held, camera noises turned off, we can hear their teeth grinding on grass, see their spotted lips and irises, and smell their sun-warmed skin.
For me, a safari newbie, this is magic and pure bliss. Looks like my safari-vet buddy is a bit impressed too. After more than half an hour of this beautiful encounter it’s time to back up and move out. A quick stop at another Lion Rock (do all nature preserves have one?) where it’s easy to picture Simba and the gang lounging about.
It’s a tear back to the hut and a hour-plus drive in darkness to Thilanka Resort in Dambulla , a gorgeous, low-key, soft spoken eco-lodge resort with a fantastic campus of breezy, well-planned new buildings that nod to the vernacular, all set in a mango grove with a pool that stretches out into the rice paddies in the direction of the sunset.
5. Sigiriya Rock (Lion Rock)
The following morning, we’re up and out on the early side to beat the heat and crowds to climb Sigiriya rock to the Lion Fortress upon it. This is a big tourist draw for locals and foreigners alike. If you’ve not seen a helicopter shot of this one, imagine a rock shaped like an upside-down iron the size of 6 cruise ships (2-wide, 3-high) sticking prominently out of a dense jungle and supporting a sun-deck of fortress ruins. It even seems to have a bow and a stern and the iconic shots are from just off the bow.
We didn’t make the trek up to the top of Sigirya Rock.
The density of the sweaty, curry-tooting, out-of-shape, hopelessly over-ambitious climbers and the patter of geriatric medical conversations, paired with the narrow steepness of the stairs and resulting tortoise-on-morphine pace of the climb was enough for us.
After about 40 minutes and a quarter of the ascent, for us to look at each other, shrug, smile and reverse course, weaving our way, very gingerly but persistently back down through the crowd to smiles and comments of “had enough, eh?” A fainted woman being tended to with ticket-stub fans and label-less water bottles (check your single-use labels at the gate, please), was a pretty good convincer that we had chosen wisely. Base camp is beautiful, a shady compound of vendor huts surrounding a makeshift, tree-filled tourist-village green. We hung out here, admiring a resident tree sloth and chatting on a bench until pink moist huffers emerged from the exit trail and our trusty, very soft-spoken guide, Tharanga, greeted us with his heart-warming genuine hospitality smile. Perfect morning in my book. “Uhhhh.. no” is a complete sentence apparently.
And an even more perfect balance of the day.
6. Village tour
A quick pretty drive back toward Dambulla is a small village where we were treated to a cursory village tour by ox-drawn cart and then a leisurely private shaded, pontoon-boat ride across a small lake. The waters of which were teeming with fish and dragonflies as well as lotus flowers – that were pulled up and fashioned into necklaces for us to wear and a bouquet for us to hold while posing serious-faced like 19th-century newlyweds.
The ultimate destination for this little side-journey, which featured a tramp through what seemed like a family-sized subsistence farm and past a micro fish market, was a traditional open-air, thatch-roofed Sri Lankan farmhouse for lunch. We watched and took part in the grating of coconut and pounding then grinding of millet (?) for flour.
Some non-participatory grinding of herbs and super-heating of coconut oil and furious wood-fired stove-top stirring, our lunch was served in clay pots and tasted phenomenal.
It wasn’t all go-go-go during this Sri Lanka travel – We spent the rest of the afternoon poolside at Thilanka Resort, befriending a puppy and her Mom, sipping the house-special mojito-esque cocktail and Lion beers and soaking up the fading rays of sun while sharing stories of past glories and defeats. A predictable buffet dinner was made lighter and more fun with a visit to the pasta bar and a bottle of South African red. A cricket watching lesson, invisible tennis class, Bruce Willis dive roll practice and balcony climbing rounded off the evening.
7. Polonnaruwa Ancient City
When you travel Sri Lanka I highly recommend visiting Polonnaruwa. This, our final Dambulla-based day is spent exploring the ancient, UNESCO Heritage listed, Hindu city of Polonnaruwa. This vast complex, warmed up nicely before we hauled our beleaguered butts out of the Honda Fit, is characterized by nested layered compounds of ruined temples and stupas.
Due to the short time we had here we chose to stick with Tharanga and his car chauffeuring us around this expansive site. There are cycling options instead of car for those willing to brave the relentless heat and spend a few days locally to enable seeing as much as possible.
Main requirement is that we de-shoe before entering the sanctum of each of these sites, at spots commonly demarcated by three steps up from a round elephant and lotus-flower medallion pavers leave tender soles scrambling for the scant shady spots to avoid 2nd degree burns and the need for immediate back-seat amateur skin grafts.
The sites are in turn majestic, sublime, humble, ruined, nicely restored, crowded and deserted. Skip the lotus pond. It’s a smallish ancient tiered hot tub shaped like a lotus and sunk in the ground. Maybe more impressive if not led up to with a 3 km drive down a dusty track into an otherwise vacant wooded area.
The common denominator at Polonnaruwa is hot and sun-scorched. If you could catch this place really early or late in the day, or on one that offers a preponderance of cloud-cover, then by all means, do it. Duran Duran filmed the video to their 1982 single Save a Prayer amongst the ruins here. Woo hoo!
No Sri Lanka travel would be complete without a famous Avurvedic Massage – oiled, seasoned, basted and steamed…. reeelaaaxed.
Morning – it’s time to say bye for now to our stylish Dambulla eco-lodge. Now it’s off to Kandy, the cultural capital of Sri Lanka nestled in its geographic center of gravity.
On the way we stop at a spice garden, tour the grounds, learn some interesting facts about the ayurvedic medicinal characteristics of plants I thought just tasted nice and are treated to an express version of the same massage noted above – minus the steaming.
First impression of Kandy is traffic jam. It takes us over an hour, once we make the city line, to creep to the other end of town (walkable in 30 mins) to a 4thfloor tourist buffet lunch and another hour to return the same distance and park in a downtown shopping mall parking garage to visit the famous Buddha Tooth relic museum and adjacent Museum of World Buddhism.
These sites suffered a terrorist bombing in the early 2000’s as part of the civil war and unfortunately that tragedy has left a low-energy pall over the otherwise quite stately and beautiful grounds adjacent to Fake Lake. To complete the buzz-kill we’re scolded for PDA by an olive-suited police officer who judges our casual hug to be on the far side of the tact/taste line in Kandy.
This blog will be continued in another 2 blogs. Part 2 HERE.
If you’re considering some Sri Lanka travel, PLEASE make sure you get in touch with the below wonderful humans to help make your trip a comfortable and educational breeze:
Nisha (organised the WHOLE trip for us):
WhatsApp; +94 77 626 4733
Tharanga (majority of driving & educating):
WhatsApp; +94 70 363 6046
For discounts on accomodation through Booking.com, click HERE.