Published on November 1, 2013 in the Singapore American Newspaper:
How would you describe your ideal travel destination? Tropical beaches or crisp mountains? Adventurous hikes or luxe spas? Exquisite food or cultural wonders? Even if you chose all of the above, Sri Lanka fits the bill. As it were, my friends and I decided to make nature and wildlife the primary focus of our ten-day trip around the island nation. We were not disappointed.
Sri Lanka has excellent roads and for a multi-city tour like ours, a driver was by far the best option for getting around. Our trip began at dawn in Negombo, a coastal city seven kilometers north of Colombo, where we observed the bustling outdoor fish market in action. Brightly painted fishing boats filled the green waters of the Laccadive Sea and the docks were busy with butchers expertly lopping the heads off fish larger than me. Along the 100 km long canal, groups of men and women could be spotted shaking nets to loosen tiny fish, which danced and glittered under the watchful eyes of cats and crows. When I smiled at people, they smiled back.
We drove from Kalpitiya (on the west coast and perfect for dolphin watching) inland to Sigiriya, and it was impossible to resist pulling over to sample the myriad of freshly picked local fruit. Bright hanging bunches of apples. Small, fragrant bananas. Piles of fresh pineapples, durians, and jackfruit. If you’ve never tasted a rambutan, mangosteen, or king coconut, this is the place to do it. Painted Buddhas, white stupas, and pastel-colored churches flew by our windows, but our attention was seized by the mammoth Lion Rock in the distance. 200 meters high and shot through with red and white layers of stone, the boulder can be seen for miles. Visitors climb to the summit via narrow staircases, passing by acrobatic families of monkeys, colorful frescoes, and the Mirror Wall, which once upon a time was so well polished that the king could see himself as he walked alongside it. A sudden squall hit when we were two-thirds into our ascent, but we pressed on and up through the whipping winds and pouring rain, and we were rewarded shortly after reaching the grassy top. The storm dissipated and the fog rolled back to reveal an endless, deep green landscape stretching out around us in all directions.
We spared a few hours for Kandy, a lively little city that encapsulated Sri Lanka’s easy blend of modernity and heritage. Men and women wore both western and traditional clothing. Post offices, police stations, medical centers, banks, and the public bus system all appeared readily available across the country. Yet there was a refreshing lack of a dominant fast food presence. For the next leg of our journey, our van climbed out of the tropical jungles up to the misty tea plantations nestled near the cool summits of Nuwara Eliya’s mountain ranges. Tamil women moved through the winding rows of Assam bushes with practiced ease, plucking the young leaves and shoving handfuls into the sacks on their backs. Though there are a number of smaller inns and lodges balanced on the mountainsides, I suggest splurging on a stay at the Heritance Tea Factory, which has been refurbished into an elegant hotel that retains almost all of the factory’s original 1930s infrastructure.
The next morning was crisp and sunny. Though I didn’t think it was possible, our little van climbed even higher, up into and above the clouds, where we tackled the nine km World’s End hike across the Horton Plains. We marveled at the herds of elk in the vast grasslands and the proximity of the clouds to the dense forests. The trail led to a vantage point perched on a sheer cliff drop overlooking a rolling basin ringed by mountains that lurched into the sky.
Although we had retained our driver, Upali, for the entirety of the trip, we couldn’t resist taking a train back down from tea country. Though not the fastest form of transportation in the country, it is without a doubt the most scenic. Our blue locomotive raced through corridors of lush foliage that would suddenly give way to views of immense valleys dotted with terraced farms and varicolored villages, surrounded by infinite waves of highlands. Sri Lanka is a rainbow of greens: emerald Assam tea bushes, pale new sprouts in vegetable patches, dark and gargantuan forests that run rampant up steep mountainsides.
In the southeastern town of Tissamaharama that night, we went to sleep early so as to rise before dawn the following morning for an all-day safari in Yala National Park. It was a long, dusty, adrenaline-fueled day spent in an open-air jeep hunting for a glimpse of a wild leopard. We were lucky enough to find one napping in the crook of a tree while locked in a hilariously quiet traffic jam of jeeps all trying to get close without disturbing the creature. For me however, the real treat was witnessing a family of elephants (including two infants) splash in the mud of a reservoir in the hot afternoon. There were a number of other animal sightings and we didn’t leave the park until after sunset.
Our next destination was the southern city of Galle, a historic colonial town cradled inside the barricades of a Dutch fort. Engulfed in such picturesque scenery, it’s easy to be lulled by the waving palms and clean beaches, but the memory of the devastating 2004 tsunami lingers. Just off the coast, portions of the old road could be seen in the sparkling surf. Memorials could be found in every town and park we’d visited. Cemeteries were full of tombstones constructed from debris. Chunks of wrecked houses stood along the shore, now veiled by creeping vines. These somber markers were a reminder that behind this natural paradise was a grim and difficult past.
For our final day we again awoke at sunrise, this time to travel by tuk tuk to the harbor in Mirissa to set sail with Raja and the Whales, a tour company I found professional, knowledgeable, and friendly. They located a trio of blue whales and brought us in close without disrespecting the giant creatures’ space. Before heading to the airport we popped by the Kosgoda Turtle Hatchery, which was obliterated in 2004 and rebuilt thanks to donations. After sunset, we brought precious three-day-old turtles to the seashore and watched them scamper from our hands towards the pounding surf that called them home.
Alongside its layered history and colorful culture, Sri Lanka nurtures a rich and varied natural world: feisty fruit and serene landscapes, safaris in prairies and at sea, cool peaks and steamy beaches. We easily could have spent a week in every place we visited. I’m already planning my second trip.