After years of civil war, peace has arrived in Sri Lanka and so have the tourists. Why? Because, Sri Lanka is home to eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, an array of beaches and exotic animals — plus it’s affordable and the English-speaking people are friendly. All of this is packed in a country the size of West Virginia.
Sri Lanka had been on my “Gotta Do” list for several years and I finally made it. I wasn’t disappointed. Now it’s on my “Gotta Visit Again” list. To get my biological clock and thermostat synced with Sri Lanka I started my visit at the Hilton in the capital city, Columbo. In January the temperature was very agreeable, not hot and humid as I anticipated. One morning I toured the bustling capital which has many British colonial buildings plus an ornate Hindu temple and Slave Island. Slave Island was originally a place where the Dutch kept the slaves they brought to Sri Lanka to build the canals they needed for transporting goods from inland to the harbor. Today it is a relaxing little island in a large pond that was once home to the crocodiles that deterred slaves from trying to escape. Eventually the slaves were returned to Africa. Sri Lankan culture has been influenced by the Dutch, Portuguese, English and Indians.
World Heritage Sites
I am a sucker for World Heritage Sites and I managed to visit most of the ones in Sri Lanka. Heading inland I was impressed by the Golden Temple of Dambulla, which dates to the 1st century BC, and where a long row of saffron-robed monk statues bearing alms are heading toward the giant golden Buddha. At the iconic Sigirya, built in the 5th century, I would have liked to climb to the top the Lion Rock to see the ancient city and gardens, but it was a bit too strenuous for me. However, the rock that towers 600 feet over the plain is impressive, as were the moats surrounding it. It is hard to envision building anything atop of it. My favorite World Heritage site was the Polonnaruwa archaeological site, mainly because many of the 900-year-old ruins are still discernible and diverse in nature: palaces, temples, statues and murals. Especially impressive were the beautifully carved statues of Buddha at Gal Vihara, one of which is 21 feet high. One evening I strolled the walls of the 17th century Dutch fort in the coastal city of Galle. Within the walls there are many Dutch-style buildings, museums and other attractions. Galle Fort is a living, functioning World Heritage Site.
I had expected the archaeological sites but never really thought about the wildlife. Sri Lanka is a great destination for naturalists. I made sure I was at the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage at 9 a.m. for the morning bottle feeding of the elephants. The 80 elephants were either orphaned or injured. One elephant had a difficult time standing due to a serious leg injury from a landmine. Later in the morning they were led down to the river. It was obvious that it was one of their favorite activities. The young wrestled in the water like children dunking each other. I never associated the word “safari” with Sri Lanka, but that is the most popular activity at Chaaya Wild, located on the edge of Yala National Park. On safari I saw wild elephants, monkeys, wild boar, sambars, deer, crocodiles, water buffaloes and a wide variety of birds, but alas, no leopards, for which the park is famous. During our travels I also saw monkeys, beautiful birds and huge monitor lizards.
Beaches and More
Ahh, the sun, sand and sea. That is what most visitors come for and they are never disappointed. Beaches encircle the island, so there is a beach for everyone and accommodations range from basic to luxurious. I stayed at the beautiful Jetwing Beach in Negombo not far from the international airport, just north of Colombo, and also at the lovely Bentota Beach Hotel, located about two hours south of the capital. They are just two of many full-service resorts that line the coast. While the resorts offer a wide variety of activities, there are many fascinating day trips that are not to be missed. My favorite was a boat trip on the Madu River, where we visited Cinnamon Island, a temple and a fish farm where I had a fish foot massage. Other day trips include a visit to a Turtle Hatchery dedicated to turtle conservation; the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, one of the most sacred sites in Sri Lanka; mines for moonstone and other gems for which the country is noted; and a tour of a tea plantation to learn about famous Ceylon Tea.
If you go:
You can apply for a visa on line. For the best weather, the ideal time to visit is between December and March, but this is also the most expensive season. For the best deals with a chance of great weather, consider April and September. For places to stay, consider: the Hilton in Colombo which has a wide variety of restaurants; Mahaweli Reach Hotel in Kandy, close to many inland attractions; Chaaya Wild in Yala National Park; historic Closenberg Hotel on a promontory in Galle; Bentota Beach in Bentota; Jetwing Beach north of Colombo. And for a luxurious eco-friendly destination resort, check out Ulagalla on the Sambulla-Anuradhapura Road. For more information www.srilanka.travel.