I have titled this blog post “surprising Sri Lanka” because while I know that Sri Lanka is an amazing place, I did not imagine how amazing. Sri Lanka was one of our favorite vacations ever.
When you step off the plane in Columbo, you enter a small airport that is confusing, but the smallness helps because there just is not too much room to get lost. Once we figured out that we needed an “onboarding” card in order to enter the country, found one of those, and filled it out, we were in. Pretty easy. And while I had read that an easy way to get money is to convert euros or dollars at a moneychanging kiosk at the airport, it turned out to be easier just to visit an ATM, and they are easy to find here.
Also easy to find – the driver/guide we had arranged through Responsible Travel, a tour company. Stoop shouldered, wearing a white short sleeved shirt out of his black pants and bearing a sign with a misspelled but legible spelling of my husband’s name – we found Wasanta (our driver) fairly easily (again, it’s a small airport). He brought us and our bags to the stoop and told us something – we interpreted it as “wait here” – and went to get his little white Toyota Prius, where we would end up spending a lot of time in over the next eleven days.
From the airport we drove through Columbo to Negumbo, which seems like a suburb of Columbo – in any event, it is not very far. The cacophony of color along the streets of Negombo is exhilarating, even though, as Jimmy pointed out, much of the color consists of billboards and advertising. But it is marvelously colorful. What strikes me as we drive are all the tin roofs and the clay roofs – all roofs here are one or the other. I did not see any asphalt or composite roofs here (I know, what a strange thing to be struck by, but then I am a real estate agent and fascinated by these things.) We also noticed immediately that here the palm trees are very very tall and skinny; they are coconut palms and look very different from the date palms that we have in Dubai. I was also taken with the number of little scooters and tuk tuks and the absolutely crazy driving. I was really glad that we had a driver and had not planned to drive ourselves. Dubai driving can be crazy, but nothing like Sri Lankan driving.
Negombo has canals, like Venice but also not a bit like Venice. We stayed our first night at the WATERLAND VILLA, which is on the Hamilton Canal. Upon arrival, we were seated in an open air lobby – all the hotel lobbies we saw in Sri Lanka, in fact, were open air. The greeter gave us wet towels and ginger tea (a common welcoming ritual in Sri Lanka, as we were to find out). Our room had a blackboard outside with a personal greeting, and inside the four poster bed was lit up with blue lights and sprinkled with rose petals. A full window wall opposite the bed looks out to the private pool outside. Our very own pool – here every room has a private pool. The four poster bed was also equipped with mosquito netting (as were many of our beds in Sri Lanka) – but the netting was flowy and white and so didn’t seem too “camp like”, just protective and romantic.
For dinner, we went into Negumbo and sought out fresh seafood – crab, prawns, shrimp are all caught right off the coast here. Our driver took us to King Coconut Restaurant, which looks as if it used to be a huge bank, or bowling alley. It is huge with tall ceilings and pillars,but in a very industrial pedestrian sort of way. We had prawns and crab (local, of course) and Jimmy had a Lion (local) beer while I had King Coconut water. There was more fruit than water in my coconut, which looked like a fruit cocktail. There was a Muslim couple seated beside us,dressed in traditional clothing, and for a moment we could have been back in Dubai.
The restaurant was largely open air, and our waiter opened up the flaps beside us so we could see the beach outside. King Coconut is “sort of” on the beach – you can hear and see the beach and there’s nothing between the hotel and the sea, but there is a fence (wire) so you cannot actually walk to the water, although you can walk on the sand. After dinner we did this – walked right outside our table to the sand and soaked in a little beach atmosphere.
The next morning we borrowed bicycles at Waterland and explored some of the local streets. Waterland is in a little neighborhood along the canal and there are lots of Christian as well as Buddha and Hindu shrines here. In fact, the shrines are everywhere in Sri Lanka, all over the roadsides. When we stopped on our bikes at one of the shrines to take pictures, children stepped out of the nearby home (with Dad watching from the doorway) to say hello. They allowed us to take pictures with them and reminded us to leave a donation at the shrine. Definitely, in Sri Lanka, make sure you always have some small bills with you. There are lots of occasions where donations and tips are called for – in fact, virtually everywhere.
And then we were off to Sigirya in Wasanta’s little white Toyota Prius, with a crystal Buddha statue on the dashboard. Wasanta is Catholic, but his dashboard Buddha watched over us the entire time we were in Sri Lanka. Again, driving safely in Sri Lanka is no small feat. Wasanta had to contend not only with other cars on the road, but with city buses, tourism buses, motorcycles, scooters, bicycles, tractors, trucks, walkers, cows, elephants and lizards. I am sure there were other types of vehicles on the Sri Lankan roads I am forgetting to mention, but you get the idea.
Sigirya is a natural rock formation that was in the 5th century BC was used by a Sri Lankan King as his domain, where he housed his palace, fortress, and other buildings. It seems the King had killed his father and exiled his stepbrother, and fearing retribution for these actions, he sought protection by creating his own defensible fortress on top of the natural rock. Sigirya means “lion” and the rock was once carved in the shape of a lion although now only the paws remain.
In addition to the ruins left behind by the King, Sigirya is known for its rock murals – once there were more than 500 of them, but only 21 or so survive. To get to the murals requires a long walk up the mountain and then up a very scary spiral staircase packed with people. I couldn’t help but fear what would happen if the spiral staircase suddenly disengaged from the mountainside. But we survived the staircase and also the wasps, which scary warning signs told us could attack at any time. When you go, be sure to take pictures of the replica murals in the Sigirya museum, because they will not allow you to take pictures of the real murals upon the rock.
Near the murals is the “mirror wall” which was once so polished that the King could see his reflection in the rock. After the father-killing King died, the mountain became a monastery but also a visitor’s attraction and for 700 years visitors would post their thoughts about the murals on the mirror wall. While generally not legible today, you can see traces of the ancient visitor “reviews” and there are translations of the commentary available, and they are fascinating. Nowhere else in the world can you find 700 years worth of art criticism immediately beside the art being commented upon. A very special place.
As we first approached Sigirya, the skies were quite cloudy and by the time we were at the top the winds had really picked up. I personally feared being swept off the mountain (Jimmy is braver than I am) so we didn’t spend a ton of time at the top. But there was plenty to see from the base of the mountain to the top; ancient urban planning such as drainage and irrigation systems, building ruins, and pathways.
On the way back to our hotel Wasanta took us to a spa for a massage – the spa wasn’t exactly clean, but then we weren’t either so it wasn’t a huge deal to us. At this spa and others during our trip we experienced what I came to call “the ritual oiling of the tourists”, for Sri Lankan massages involve a LOT of oil. You are thoroughly greased by the time it is through. And unlike U.S. massages, they have no compunction about massaging your breasts, and they put a lot of oil in your hair as well as the rest of your body. Definitely a different massage experience.
They also offer what they call a “steam bath” which is a coffin like contraption (just your head sticks out of the wood coffin-like structure) filled with herbs and with a door beneath your bed where hot coals are stoked. At our spa, there was a steam bath in the same room where I was receiving my massage. As I am layingon the massage table, I hear the woman in the steam bath whisper loudly “get me out.” Then more urgently, “get me out NOW.” One tourist down. The next woman entered the steam bath (and they didn’t change out the herbs, by the way). It was not too long before I heard, “this feels like a coffin. It’s freaking me out.” Then, “please please let me out of here.” Tourist number two down. So mental note to self = no steam bath please. Actually, later in the trip we DID try one and as suspected, I didn’t like it – possibly because of hearing these earlier pleas. Jimmy had a steambath and liked it, so there you go – but again, he’s braver than I am!
Our hotel for the night was Sigirya Jungles, my favorite hotel of the trip (Jimmy’s favorite was our last hotel, which I will talk about later). After passing through a guarded gate, you drive right up to the Sigirya Jungles huge lobby with a three story ceiling, totally open air. The lobby is under a high walkway that leads over to an older looking brick building that is an older, original building in stark contrast to the new, modern hotel structure. It is all very fantastical and impressive.
The next day we went to Polonnaruwa– the 11th to 13th century Sri Lankan capital (Sigirya dates from the 5th century, so we’re moving fast forward in time). Polonnaruwa had been overgrown and taken back by the jungle until it was rediscovered in the twentieth century – a lost city rediscovered after centuries of decay.
We wanted to bike through the ruins, because they are quite spread out, and I highly recommend this (although you can also drive between the ruins if you prefer). There was some confusion, as Wasanta was not sure where to get the bikes, but it turns out we got bikes right outside the front entrance. There were many others also biking the ruins, and because there are so many bikes, we had trouble finding ours after visiting the first ruins. We figured out that ours were the two most beat up bikes (note to self – next time ask for nicer bikes) and thereafter we made certain we remembered where we left our bikes. It felt like a return to childhood to fly on the bikes along the roads between the ruins. Even though it was quite hot, we are glad we did bikes. It is a very chaotic place with lots of vehicles and bikes, all on busy roads between the ruins, but we felt perfectly safe.
Many of the ruins have moonstone entrances – a moonstone is sort of a half round entrance mat looking piece of stone which typically has four rows of animals, which represent birth, disease, old age and death.
It was an exhausting but fun day of biking around ancient ruins and also perfectly intact stupas (a stupa is a dome shaped building that holds Buddhist images and artifacts). At every site, you have to take off your shoes (as they are sacred sites) so that was another opportunity to lose our stuff, but we fared pretty well with that one except Jimmy did lose glasses along the way. At the end of the day, at the exit, they asked to see our tickets again – and thank goodness we did have them!
On the way back, Wasanta stopped by the road to point something out – a “water monitor”. Which I thought must be a piece of equipment that measures the level of water in the ditch he was pointing to. It took five or ten minutes after we pulled away from the stop for us to figure out that “water monitor” is actually a animal – a very large lizard. There are also “land monitors”. Called “monitors” we later learned because of the way the creatures hold their heads high above their necks and survey the landscape right to left, left to right.
Wasanta is a Sri Lankan native. He did not know much English – enough to get along, but not enough to communicate much more than where we were going and what happens next. He was sweet with a shy smile and a willingness to accommodate, which was much appreciated. With Wasanta, and in Sri Lanka there seems to be a wide divide between the economic standing of the local people and that of the tourists, so expect to be asked for money often along the way. It was never threatening at all, and we were happy to tip along the way as people helped us.
We stayed another day at Sigirya Jungles and enjoyed their spa – it is in a beautiful brick building with openings to the sky and outside, but still with plenty of privacy. This spa was clean, and this was a much more upscale experience than our first massage, but with the same huge heaping of oil. “The ritual oiling of the tourists” all over again. It is definitely a great way to relax AND to moisturize.
Dambulla Cave Temples
The cave temples outside Dambulla, where we headed the next day, date back to the first century BC. When an ancient King was exiled, he was given refuge by monks in these caves, so when he came back to power years later he converted the caves to temples in gratitude to the monks who sheltered him. There are five caves here with some amazing sights inside, including a 46 foot long reclining Buddha inside one of the caves. The caves are tight and small (as caves can tend to be) and so they get very crowded with tourists.
There are many steps up to the cave temples, and lots of entertainment along the way in the form of monkeys who are quite bold – one tried to grab the purse of a woman in front of us who was posing next to the little prospective thief.
Herbal Gardens & Tea Factory
There are plenty of what I would call “tourist traps”(others might call them educational opportunities, I suppose) in Sri Lanka, where your driver will take you somewhere ostensibly for a cool thing to see when actually it is just a hard sales pitch. On our way from Sigirya to Kandy, our driver took us to Herbal Gardens,which would have been interesting had it not just been a half hour of a guy trying to sell us products (he would have kept us there a lot longer, but we kept reminding him we were in a hurry). There are many such herbal gardens in Sri Lanka and I would suggest that instead you go to the botanical gardens for information about local plants. The herbal gardens seem to be just a hard sell opportunity. We were also taken to a tea factory that was a legitimate tour of an actual tea factory (or so it appeared) but nothing was being processed at the time and we were sold some very overpriced tea at the end. After the tea experience, we declined the further tourist “opportunities” offered by our driver – namely, woodworking factory and gem factory. I suggest you do the same. I think we would have preferred going to a tea plantation to the factory and could have skipped the herbal garden altogether.
There was a lot of driving in our time in Sri Lanka. As it is a large country with lots to see, there is a lot of driving inbetween cities. We didn’t mind, and it never seemed excessive, partly because the views are so incredible along the way. These views are at times chaotic (when going through some of the larger towns) at times quite scenic (particularly driving through the mountains) and at times just plain crazy –like when we drove through the refuge areas and elephants were blocking the road.
Our next driving stop was Kandy, the last capital of the ancient kings of Sri Lanka. Here we stayed at Cinnamon Citadel, which had a view from high above overlooking a river and like all of the places we stayed, an open lobby where at night there was live and lively entertainment.
That night we attended the fanciful Esala Perahera, a spectacle unlike any we have ever seen. We purchased tickets for seats – which was a great idea – (definitely if you buy seats make sure you on the front of the second story, which we were, for some seats on the first floor in the back would not have been worth paying for, because the view from below in back would be so limited). The Perahera takes place every year in August and has a dazzling array of hundreds of elephants, dressed up in shiny finery and even in lights. Lots of fire, dancers, drummers, general merriment. The Perahera went on for two hours, which was perfect for us. It seems the Perahera lasts for several weeks and gets longer as the weeks go on – so that on the last night, it can easily last eight hours or more. Our two hours of amazing crazy marching elephants, dancers, fire, drums and music were perfect.
Sri Lanka obviously does not have the protective legislation we have in the United States. This was evident everywhere – from the steps at Sigirya (I was almost swept off the mountain by the wind on those steps, as there is no handrail) to our seats at the Perahera– we were perched precariously on the front row of the second story. Great vantage point, but nothing to stop us from falling forward and hurtling to the ground below but a flimsy pole that was not secured. This is a point of interest rather than warning – if you pay attention and are careful you are perfectly safe.
The next day we saw the Temple of the Tooth. When Buddha was burned on a funeral pyre, one of his teeth that remained was brought here, and the “Temple of Tooth” was born. It is quite an ornate and large shrine and consists of a multiple building complex. A huge building, all for a tooth. No cars are allowed within the complex ever since the 1998 terrorist bomb attack here that killed 38 people, so now it is a pedestrian area. The Sri Lankan civil war is now long over (it lasted from 1983 to 2009) and there’s no hint of danger now. (The war was between government forces and the Tamil Tigers. The Tamils are Hindu, and are far outnumbered by the majority Sinhalese, who are Buddhist. The Tamils felt discriminated against and were fighting to establish their only state in the northeastern edge of the country. They were unsuccessful and the country is unified now.)
Along our path to the Temple of the Tooth were the elephants we saw in the Perahera the night before, today resting up for the next performance. It is amazing to watch them up close, and to watch them being transported from other areas of Sri Lanka on the highways (as we had earlier in our visit).
At the Temple of the Tooth, our driver had someone meet us when he could not find a parking spot despite driving in circles for about an hour. The “fill in” guide, while he did not speak English, was a great help as he took us backwards in the line to see the tooth relic. Probably not legal but it got us past a tremendous line and through a lot faster. Note that you don’t actually see Buddha’s tooth, of course. The tooth itself is packed away securely in layer upon layer of protective finery. My favorite part of this day was visiting the Buddha Museum at the Temple of the Tooth, where there are great opulent exhibits of Buddha statues and artifacts donated to Kandy from other countries.
Also in Kandy are large temples to the four Hindu Gods said to protect the city. This may seem strange for a Buddhist country, but then Buddhists are very accepting people. In fact, the Perahera, which is at its heart a celebration of Buddha’s tooth is also a procession in honor of the Hindu gods Vishnu, Kataragama, Pattini and Natha. The morning we left this diverse town, August 18th, we found out we have a new little grandchild – the first grandson (following four granddaughters), Luke Alexander Backer (born August 17th), born to daughter Anna Kathryn Backer and son-in-law Joe Backer. Such joy!
Most of our time in Sri Lanka so far was sunny and hot, with the exception of a little rain in Kandy. But things took a definite turn for the winter during our ride up to Nuwara Eliya. All the sudden it was freezing cold, and the fog was so thick it was hard to see through the windshield. The road from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya is beautiful but treacherous – the fog was so thick that at times I wasn’t sure how our driver could see the road. Perhaps his dashboard Buddha really did take the wheel.
The first thing you notice on the approach to Nuwara Eliya is the bright pinkish red colonial style post office – then a look around reveals that you appear to be in another country altogether. There are Tudor style buildings galore, and a lot more large buildings that are found in other areas of Sri Lanka.
Our hotel was the “Tea Plant” – Jimmy called it the “House of Usher”. The manager was incredibly welcoming and friendly, and the architecture was beautiful, with huge tall ceilinged common spaces. Our room was majestic; large with high ceilings and a balcony overlooking the lake (Lake Gregory). But the towels under the doors to the patio were our first clue of something amiss. Then we noticed towels under doors elsewhere on the property. And at dinner a bit of plaster fell from that very tall ceiling to the floor. As it turned out, the house leaks like a sieve. And it is cold– while there was a portable heater in our room, it wasn’t enough to keep us warm. Despite this, we loved this hotel. Its quirky rain and heat problem were not ideal, but didn’t ruin our stay. The rain and cold were a nice contrast to the heat earlier in our trip. And the hotel had the best food we had in Sri Lanka, and despite the difficulties I gave it five stars on TripAdvisor (but also explained the rain/cold problem – which wouldn’t be problems during nice weather).
That night we went into the town of Nuwara Eliya. Not much to write home about, just a typical small town, but the locals are friendly and we loved talking with them. Since we were COLD and hadn’t expected that, we purchased Columbia fleeces for about $12 each. In fact, this is a great place to buy brand name wear– I also saw North Face products at very inexpensive prices. I’m pretty good at spotting fakes, and these were the real deal.
The next day we were back in the car and through the mountain area of Sri Lanka, which has more Tamils than the southern areas we had been in earlier. So there are more Hindu shrines, fewer Buddhist shrines. At one point on the steep mountain road we had to make our way past a big Hindu perahera (a “perahera” is a religious procession).
Our next stop was Ella, a hippy/hipster town like Asheville or any trendy mountain village, only raw and authentic. We drove through town to the overlook of Nine Arches Bridge and then to Little Adams Peak, both of which are just outside Ella, walking distance – in fact, lots of people do walk there to and from Ella. But since we had just arrived in town, we drove straight to the path to Nine Arches Bridge.
It’s a good idea to check the train schedule before you head to the Nine Arches Bridge overlook. We didn’t. We saw the bridge but not the train coming through. While the bridge itself is pretty dramatic, of course the better picture is with the train coming through. As it was, we were looking down on dozens of people on the track waiting for the train and I couldn’t help but wonder how they avoid getting hit by the train when it does come through. To get to the bridge overlook, we hiked a path but got lost along the way. An older lady sweeping her front stoop helpfully guided us the right way, then of course asked for money which we were happy to pay, thankful that we had some small bills.
At the overlook, there were lots of people and a refreshment stand run by enterprising locals. To support them, we bought a few lemon sodas. Turns out they refill old bottles and you are not getting a “new” lemon soda. But we survived so all’s well there.
The Nine Arches Bridge was built by the English when Sri Lanka was a colony. It’s a big beautiful stone bridge with – you guessed it – nine arches set in the beautiful jungles of Sri Lanka.
We also went to hike Little Adams Peak which is also very near Ella- in fact, it is on the way back to Ella from the Nine Arches Bridge overlook. The Little Adams Peak hike is an easy hike – lots of stair steps, but doable within forty minutes or so and the views at the top are breathtaking. Along the way to the top there is plenty to see as well. We saw a real snake charmer (with a cobra and a monkey), a gaggle of school girls in their all white uniforms, a group of orange and red robed monks, and passed by a rag tag village where music was blaring, disturbing the mountain quiet.
After our hikes we had lunch at Chill in Ella. It looked like a popular spot, and it was packed for good reason – great food. But then we were probably famished when we got there.
After our hiking adventures in Ella, it was time for the trip to our accommodations at Ella Jungle – and what a trip it was. A big truck with padded benches facing one another in the back greeted us outside of Ella. First thing I noticed was a young man with an “Expo 2020 Dubai” shirt on. Turns out our greeter had lived in Dubai for a time. But not much time to talk about that – we were shepherded into a truck with cushioned benches on both sides of the back, our luggage crammed in beside. Another couple and their luggage were also put on and down the mountain we went.
The ride down the mountain was scary and I couldn’t follow the conversation Jimmy was having with the other couple because all I could think of is what would happen if the driver let a tire slip over the edge of the mountain. Indeed, at every hairpin turn the truck had to back up in order to make the turn without going over the edge of the cliff. Then at the bottom of the mountain we still weren’t done. We got off only to get ON a shaky looking cable car that carried us over a deep valley and stream. But by that time I suppose were were inured to an uneasy ride.
The couple who rode down with us were visiting from Australia, but the husband was born in Sri Lanka. They used to own a bed and breakfast at Galle in Sri Lanka, but got tired of trying to manage it from Australia so they sold it. Still, they come to Sri Lanka often (in fact, they travel quite a bit to all sorts of places – they were fascinating). They told us the story of the clock at their bed and breakfast, which had stopped at just the time the tsunami hit in 2004. They kept the grandfather clock in the lobby and put a plaque to commemorate. Later on our trip we visited several tsunami memorials, so more about the tsunami later.
Ella Jungle was not as expected. Our greeting at the property was underwhelming – nice ginger tea and jaggery (coconut palm sugar in large chunks) but the employee checking us in was decidedly unenthusiastic. We had chosen a “private bathroom” room (many of the accommodations share bathrooms) and were taken to a room on the bottom floor. Although all of the rooms back up to a river, from ours you could not see the river, only hear it. And the room was very dark. I felt claustrophobic. So we asked to be moved – and we were moved to a upper floor unit with tall ceilings and a better view. Much nicer! To our chagrin, however, we found out the next day that poor couple below us could hear each and every thing that we said (and our light shone through their floorboards). So if you stay at Ella Jungle, be sure to get an upstairs room. Even better, if you go to Ella Jungle, try to book the shared bathroom cottages – they are in a better location and are really interesting (withoutdoor showers). You’ll want to have friends in the other room and/or book both for yourself – but definitely the better option.
The path to our room was clearcut – no vegetation, and even some trash scattered about. Not the idyllic jungle location we had envisioned. But then there was dinner by a big bonfire, with our new friends, and the next morning there was a marvelous walk to a beautiful waterfall led by a former bodyguard to the president of Sri Lanka (there was some heavy climbing involved but it was fun) and all of the sudden the downsides to the place were forgiven.
One of the coolest things about staying at Ella Jungle is that we actually met and interacted with people like the Australian couple, who we thoroughly enjoyed spending time with. For the rest of our time in Sri Lanka, we were travelling around so frequently that we didn’t have the time to sit, meet and talk with people.
Two nights at Ella Jungle and then it was time for the cable car/jeep ride out of the jungle, still harrowing. I did realize something at Ella Jungle that we also saw elsewhere that is very clever. When you ask a question, you may be met with silence. When you suggest the answer, that will be the answer you get. Every time.
Then it was time to drive to Yala, and along he way we stopped at the Rawana Waterfall. Almost as interesting as the waterfall was the hullaballoo surrounding it. Dozens of buses lining the roadway, and hundreds of people in and around the waterfall itself.
Further along on the way to Yala a most interesting sight –Elephants on the road! Literally on the highway. On a road between two animal preserves, the very clever elephants have learned to block one half of the road (so that cars can indeed pass, thus insuring a steady parade of cars, whose occupants helpfully toss bananas and apples to the elephants).
We stopped at a Buddhist shrine to meet our Yala guides, Gayan and Dharmasiri (guide and driver). The Buddhist shrine was over the top, as so many of them are here, with multiple huge Buddhas and even one that appeared to be “starving Buddha”. Actually, Buddhism teaches moderation, so I figured starving Buddha was not really Buddha, and indeed it is not. The “starving Buddha” statues aren’t actually Buddha, because they depict who Buddha was before enlightenment – Prince Siddhartha. And he isn’t “starving”, he’s fasting (although I would argue that is a distinction without a difference since he is all bones). It seems that after the young prince Siddhartha Gautama left his palace to search for enlightenment, he fasted. The emaciated Siddhartha finally attained enlightenment and became Buddha (The Enlightened One) when he discovered the “four noble truths”. The “starving”statues depict this part of his life.
To make things even more complicated, it turns out that there is more than one Buddha. A Buddha is one who has reached enlightenment and who makes enlightment available in his time to others. so there is more than one Buddha – there are actually twenty-eight Buddhas. Siddhartha in the 6th century BC was simply the first.
So here we are at the shrine with numerous Buddhas about,including the starving one, and I have to go to the bathroom so badly! I can’t find a restroom anywhere. Finally when I’m about to just go in the bushes a man miraculously appears to point me towards a building behind that I thought was someone’s home, not a restroom, but thankfully it is in fact a toilet. Saved from damnation that must ensue when one improperly relieves oneself near sacred places.
But back to our guide and driver. They are from a company called Mahoora Explorer, and they were superb. They took us to our campsite and served us king coconut water in coconuts carved to look like elephants. As in most places, they gave us a cold wet lemon scented washcloth to freshen up. Then on to the tent, which was more like a bungalow. Absolutely unbelievable! We walked in to find burning candles, incense, fans blowing, a living room with furniture, a separate bedroom and bathroom, and even artwork hanging on the walls. They have thought of everything to make your tent like a luxury hotel room.
We were served us lunch by a private pond stocked with fish. The lunch was as nice as any five star hotel – better, I would say, because we had our own personal waiter waiting just on us and serving a five course meal. Jimmy had signed us up for the“luxury” glamping, and it was certainly that.
The stay at the camp included two safaris. One was the afternoon we arrived and the other the next morning. So after lunch it was off to the first safari. Yala has two entrances, and this camp is near the second, less busy one. You stop at the gate and a park ranger joins your group (every jeep must be accompanied by a park ranger, and no one can leave the car for any reason except at designated places). Yala is working hard to protect its park and wildlife.
Once in, it’s a peaceful beautiful ride and we spot water buffalo, crocodiles, lots of varied birds… peaceful and quiet. Until it is not. Someone somewhere has spotted a leopard, word gets out and the race is on. There is a maximum 300 jeeps allowed in the park at any given time and it seems all 300 are racing to get to the exact same place, where the leopard is. To me watching the crazy Formula One race to get a view of the leopard was as interesting and crazy as spotting the leopard itself. We do, eventually, spot the leopard – far away from us but visible through binoculars. In fact, we saw leopards on both days – a smaller female the first day, and a larger male on the second. But if you are going on a safari in Yala in order to see leopards, you will be disappointed – the two we spotted were far away and hard to see. We were told that all the traffic and safaris in the park has caused the leopards to move to other areas not open to the public. Our guide tells us that there are plans to shut the park down for two months to allow the leopards to reclaim the area. So if you are planning a Yala safari, make sure the park is open.
For me, frankly, the driving through lovely desert was the best part. We loved the safaris because of the surroundings, and charming and informative guide. We saw enough wildlife to keep things interesting. But don’t go to Yala expecting to see lots and lots of wildlife close up – that’s not the experience. At least not the experience we had.
In the park, many of the watering holes are dry due to a drought. In a way, that helps the guides– it limits the areas where the animals will congregate since they tend to congregate around water. The park’s roads are rutted and bumpy,nothing like US park roads. Much morenatural, if you don’t count the hundreds of jeeps darting about. To be fair, the only time we really saw otherjeeps was when there was a leopard sighting and everyone rushed to it.
On the ride home from the park that evening, Jimmy and I noted the gorgeous sunset, so our great guide and driver drove us to a special spot to enjoy it. This was actually one of my favorite pictures from the trip.
The wonderful experience continued that evening at camp – we were treated to an amazing meal by a bonfire, a private dining experience just for us. I believe that we were just lucky and were the only couple to have booked the “luxury” experience for this particular night. So if you book, you may not have a totally private dining experience. In any event, it was phenomenal. The campsite is shared with other campers who aren’t staying in the “luxury” tents, but the luxury tents and experience were well worth it!
The next morning we had to get up quite early (5am) for our morning safari. Another great experience (without tons of wildlife sighting, but again, not a big deal to us although it may be to you, so manage your expectations if you go). We saw a larger male leopard, again from far away, and again jockeying for position with hundreds of other jeeps to see the guy. However, I would have enjoyed the safari experience had we not seen any leopards at all. Our guide was that good, and the scenery that amazing.
For a break we stopped at the tsunami memorial (one of the areas where you can get out of the car). It is a memorial to all those who lost their lives in the 2004 tsunami, and the four panels indicate the height of the three waves in and the recession waves as the water went back out, only to come in again. Sadly, what happened in 2004 is that after the first wave hit, many thought the danger was over and ran towards the beach only to be hit by the subsequent waves, so many more died.
In Sri Lanka, you see multiple tsunami memorials. They are all touching. You also see a LOT of roadside Buddha statues– sprinkled with some Hindu and even some Christian shrines. There are quite a few stupas as well – huge dome like structures which hold Buddhist artifacts. There is an especially large roadside stupa on the drive from Yala to Unawatuna, and a roadside canal filled with bathers readying themselves to worship at the stupa – quite the sight.
From Yala, it was a long drive to Unawatuna, but we stopped along the way at many sites, including a stop to see the famous stick fishermen. They sit on top of large poles/sticks in the ocean and fish. Our driver knew right where to stop to see several of them, and indicated that we should pay the guy in the shed where we stopped 300 rupees. Which we did, then went to see the fishermen, who I think were probably actors and not the real thing. The cost of commercialism. I don’t know if thereare truly still “real” stick fishermen out there or not. But we were happy to see the stick fishermen, actors or not, and it was an interesting picture.
Unawatuna is a beach town, and much different than the other towns we passed through in Sri Lanka. The streets are very narrow, and the buildings are right on the streets, with lots of restaurants, shops, tourists, and tuk tuks (it’s hard to navigate a large car through the narrow streets, so the tuk tuks made sense). We were staying at Thaproban Waves, which is past the quaint area with narrow streets, but you do drive through them to get there. You also pass a HUGE hotel being constructed right on the water that already seems to be hurting the ambience of the small beach town, and made us wonder how all the traffic was going to get there when it opens – ?
Thaproban Waves has such a cool setting – built right on the edge of large rocks where waves crash over regularly. The infinity edge pool looks as if it empties into these rocks (in truth there is a small beach below before the rocks). In the winter we are told the waves come all the way up and hit the glass walls of the restaurant. Certainly unique. Our room opened out to the pool (just steps from our room) which we loved. There were dampness and cleanliness problems, but overall a great and unique place to stay Part of the uniqueness was due to the lack of safety features. For instance, there’s a small walkway of slippery steps up to the top of a boulder that was also wet and slippery, from which you could watch the ocean waves. I gingerly made my way up there and was bombasted by a strong wave crashing over the rocks and threatening to pull me to sea. All part of the experience. An experience you will never have in the US, where regulations would never allow it.
Thaproban Waves is one of those places that seems like it is out of a dream – not a total dreamy place, but the one-off dream where everything seems surreal, from the water crashing so close to the dining room to the pink and green color scheme that seems a throwback to the eighties. The next morning we left the hotel to walk around and took a walk to Jungle Beach. As was the case often in Sri Lanka, we could not seem to get great directions to where we were going, so we just took off and tried to figure it out ourselves. We had a nice walk in the jungle –very green and tropical, and despite some trash the beach was interesting. The green jungle is what I thought we would experience at Ella Jungles and did not, as I told Jimmy. We found it in Unawatuna instead. Sri Lanka definitely had surprises around every corner.
That night we headed to Galle Fort which was a fun walkaround. It’s an old Dutch fort where local boys hang out in the evenings, looking for the scarce girl (there aren’t many to go around). There’s a scenic lighthouse and lots of shops and restaurants. We walked around and ate here, with a strange experience at dinner. We had a very long wait, and the waiter pointed out to us that our drinks were not on the bill. We presumed they were comping the drinks because of our wait, but that wasn’t it – the waiter wanted us to pay for the drinks separately in cash. We did, not thinking, and afterwards figured out that the waiter was perhaps pocketing the money for the drinks and not turning it in. It was too late to go back to report to his manager at that point. We did not pay more than we should have, but unwittingly participated in a waiter’s theft (we think). While there were plenty of occasions where we were asked for money, generally in Sri Lanka we did not run into much nefarious activity at all, and felt safe from scams/tourist danger.
The next day we visited the Tsunami Memorial near Unawatuna on the southwestern coast. The memorial is a gigantic Buddha statue that is the height of the second wave of the 2004 tsunami, and the site of the commuter train disaster. This is were the tsunami hit a commuter train of folks heading home from work on December 26, 2004. 1700 people died, making it the largest train disaster in history. There’s a small building with pictures from the aftermath, and the proprietor talked to us about the disaster and recovery, which he had seen. This was a great place to stop and very moving. The repaired railway still operates between Columbo and Galle, and the locomotive and two of the carriages were rebuilt.
Next we went to Lunaganga. Sri Lanka was the home of an architect famed for “tropical modernism”– Geoffrey Bawa -who died in 2003. We paid a visit to his home, Lunugunga. The home is also a hotel, and we would love to stay there one day! It is a bit off the beaten path and staying there was not in our plans this time around, but would love to do that in the future and I would definitely recommend it if you are an architecture enthusiast. We arrived at Lunaganga more than an hour early, and you can’t get into the gates except when the tours start. So we walked down the road and serendipitiously found the Pure Nature Ayurveda House, on an otherwise wild stretch of road. There we had massages and were given tea and a tour. This would be another great place to stay, especially if Lunaganga is full (it also has a pool and spa, which Lunaganga does not). Then back to Lunaganga. Bawa is Sri Lanka’s best known architect and Lunaganga was his private estate. There are multiple buildings and gardens overlooking a lake. The tour is of the exterior and gardens only, but includes a look at several interiors (from the outside) and was fascinating.
Not surprisingly, there were other architects taking the tour, and Jimmy had a grand time talking to some of them. The tour guide was a local well versed in the architecture and gardens, and he told us that he also works at the hotel as a housekeeper. He was a great guide! Some of what we learned was that Bawa used a mixture of styles: east, west, and local culture. He loved Italian architecture, and that shows in his work He liked checkerboard patterns and symmetry, and often treated things to make them appear more aged. Bawa believed that “one can only appreciate architecture by experiencing it” and it is definitely an experience to visit Lunaganga.
Our last night in Sri Lanka was spent in Columbo, where we visited the cool Buddhist and Hindu temples near the central river and marveled over Mosha Sofdie’s building from across the water. The Sofdie building is the “Altair”, a residential tower, and looks like one domino leaning against the other. Our boutique hotel was across the water from it and felt very “tropical modern” itself. Our hotel was “Lake Lodge”, and was walking distance to the lake and close to the Columbo Museum). It was Jimmy’s favorite hotel of the trip. That night we went to the Old Dutch Hospital District to hang out and eat dinner. It is a relaxed but festive place with outdoor music and “the” place to eat there is Ministry of Crab, but we could not get a table (make a reservation if you go). The next morning, early, we headed to the airport I loved Sri Lanka, more than I imagined, and would love to go back and experience more of it!!