If there’s one thing you learn very quickly in Sri Lanka
it’s to expect the unexpected.
Think their national sport is cricket? Wrong.
Think it’s all tea plantations and colonial buildings? Wrong.
And think the drive from the airport to your hotel can’t possibly be more than a few hours on such a tiny island? Definitely wrong.
Having made our way through arrivals at Colombo airport we were soon met by our driver Donald, who looked over our travel documents with a concerned face before tutting in a way that could only mean bad things. “Hmmm”, he said. “You go long way”.
Oh. How far? “About four to five hours”, he said.
It later transpired that pretty much all journeys on our five day itinerary were “four to five hours” in local-guide time – but varied from between about three and seven in reality.
Luckily for us, Donald could tell we were keen to get to our hotel and get unpacked after our 12 hour plane journey, and took one of the main roads that runs from Colombo out to the middle of the island.
Just over four hours later we arrived at our first destination, Anuradhapura
, realising that we may have to rethink that “tiny island” idea. Sri Lanka, as it turns out, is roughly the same size as northern and southern Ireland combined and, while it has some fast, main roads, most are winding and pot-holey, and not conducive to getting anywhere quickly.
After settling in at our hotel, enjoying a quick swim and marvelling at the monkeys playing on our balcony it was time for an early night to prepare us for the five days ahead of us.
We’d opted for a ‘Taste of’ Sri Lanka tour, booked through Kuoni. Travelling with us in the minibus that was to become our home for the next five days were two other couples from the UK and our driver/guide Nanda, who was without doubt the star of our holiday. Never have I met someone so proud of their own country and so enthusiastic about its sights – but more of him later…
Our first stop on day one was the ancient city of Anuradhapura, a World Heritage Site and the most important Buddhist site on the island.
It is a vast, disjointed area that would be impossible to get around without a car or a minibus but it houses some architectural gems – including the astonishing Jetavanaramaya
stupa which is the largest brick structure in the world, containing more than 93m bricks. Stupas are dome-shaped monuments, and are a common site across the country, but the sheer size and scale of this one was breath-taking.
The Jetavanaramaya stupa
Other sights included the ancient Bodhi tree, said to be thousands of years old. We visited the day after a poya – full moon – day, a kind of Buddhist ‘bank holiday’ and the tree and surrounding courtyard were festooned with colourful flags and flowers laid by visiting Buddhist pilgrims the day before.
One of the many monkeys enjoys flowers left behind by Poya day pilgrims
Our next stop was Sigiriya, home of a very large, very ancient rock. After a relaxing night at the Sigirya Hotel we set out early the next morning in a bid to get to the top of the rock before the hordes.
From a distance it looked like a relatively easy climb, but by the time we reached the foot of the rock we realised why Nanda had been so insistent we got there early – scaling it in the midday heat would not have been fun.
The climb is mostly up fairly shallow stone steps, but there’s an option to trek up a vertigo-inducing metal staircase to view some of the ancient friezes painted on the walls of caves in the side of the rock.
Nearer to the top there’s a large rest point where you can take in spectacular panoramic views of the surrounding countryside, before climbing the remaining steps to the very top of the rock – something I was determined to do, until I noticed a crowd of people pointing at the side of the rock. More specifically, pointing at some very large, black lumps on the side of the rock.
Turns out, Sigirya is home to millions of nesting hornets.
We were assured they usually keep themselves to themselves, but found out that only the day before the insects had swarmed, stinging several tourists.
The scare had prompted tourism bosses to give those who wanted to climb up past the nests the option of wearing head-to-toe bee-keeping outfits (I’m sure there’s a proper name for them), but we decided to give it a miss, opting to stay put and admire the views from a safe distance.
The hornets nests that thwarted our climb
The next day was another of those four-to-five hours drives that took us away from the jungle-like surrounds of Sigiriya and up in to the hill country in the centre of the island.
It is here that the British settlers made their home and set up the tea plantations that the country is so famous for.
As we climbed the winding mountain roads in our little white bus, it became obvious just how diverse Sri Lanka is, in just a few hours the surroundings changed entirely. As the temperatures dropped the air became thinner and we entered ‘tea country’.
Everywhere you look the green bushes surround you and, after a visit to a the Glenloch tea factory – established by the Scots in the late 1800s and virtually unchanged since – we enjoyed a cup of proper Sri Lankan tea in a hill-top cafe overlooking the green valleys. Now, I’m not really a tea-drinker, but even I enjoyed that cuppa.
The green valleys of tea country
We spent the night in the St Andrews Hotel in Nuwara Eliya, named after the Scottish golf course it was reminiscent of an old manor house and the temperatures were so cool up there that we were even given hot water bottles for our bed. Not something we ever expected to happen in Sri Lanka!
The next day we enjoyed a quick stop at the Hill Club -a kind of Gentlemen’s club established by the Brits -and did our best to ignore the drizzle before heading back to warmer climes in the south of the island, passing through thick forested areas and acres of lush green paddy fields.
Lunch that day was by far the best food we had all week. We ate in a traditional mud hut close to the Udawalawe national park and were presented with a selection of delicious vegetable dishes and rice.
Sri Lankan food is notoriously spicy but until this point we’d been eating toned-down hotel versions of their food, so it was great to try a taste of the real Sri Lanka.
After lunch came one of the highlights of the trip – a chance to get up close and personal with some of the country’s most famous residents – its elephants.
Climbing in to a jeep we set off in to the national park on a mini-safari. Within minutes we’d come across our first herd, grazing serenely and barely noticing us. The cameras came out immediately and we could barely believe how close we got to them.
The elephants of Udawalawe
They were obviously used to the passing jeeps and acted as though we weren’t there, just casually wandering out in front of us, oblivious to the excitement they were causing.
As well as the elephants we spotted monkeys, lizards and even a crocodile or two, although admittedly they weren’t very big – £10 for anyone who can spot the croc in this pic!
There is a crocodile on here – promise!
The next morning was our last one in Sri Lanka and we were expecting just to go to straight to our last hotel near the airport – but Nanda had other plans! Eager that we didn’t miss a thing he took us on a fascinating drive up the west coast of the island to the town of Galle. Colonised by both the Dutch and Portuguese at various points during its history, its old walled town is a charming slice of Europe. As soon as you step inside the walls of the fortress the pace changes and you’re transported back in time. Morris Minors line the cobbled streets and trendy cafes are hidden down every alleyway. The area is very popular with arty types and hosts its own yearly arts festival. Our stop was brief, but was a welcome pause and a great place to catch our breath amid the craziness of the rest of the island.
A typical Galle street scene
The onward drive took us past some of Sri Lanka’s best beaches, where the roadsides are lined with stalls selling fish about as fresh as it can possibly get – just yards from the sea.
We watched in awe as fishermen balanced on impossibly small sticks while reeling in their latest catch.
Traditional Sri Lankan fishing
It was also on this side of the island that we got our first taste of the devastating impact of the 2004 tsunami. Graves and shrines were dotted along the roadside, while some buildings remained completely flattened. It’s impossible to comprehend the impact of the disaster on a country that relies to heavily on the sea for so much of its income. Nanda explained he does not like to talk about it, not only because of his sadness for those that were lost, but also because people are still so scared about the devastating potential of the waves.
He is also keen that tourists look beyond the events of that day and focus on the amazing things Sri Lanka has to offer, rather than dwelling on the past – whether that be natural disasters like the tsunami or its civil war.
While we packed a lot in to our five days, it was merely the tiniest snapshot of life on the island. From its lush green valleys and tea plantations to the wild, windswept beaches, its tiny remote villages to its bustling towns, there is so much to see that it would be impossible to fit it all in to a week’s stay. Few places of its size can have such a vibrant history and wide-ranging culture.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering – the national sport? Volleyball.
Proving once again that Sri Lanka will defy all your expectations…