On the 6th of April I flew from Amman and Cathie from Melbourne and we meet up around 5am on the 7th at the Tamarind Tree Hotel near the Colombo airport to start our tour of Sri Lanka.
The morning was warm and peaceful, our guide collected us at 10.30am and we started out towards Habarana in the central area of Sri Lanka. On route we visited an Elephant Orphanage at Pinnawala, and it was simply terrific. The elephants were well looked after, the viewing areas great, with the highlight being the march of the elephants down to the river at 2pm. This is not to be missed, they simply stroll through the small village along a tarred road and spread out into the cool waters. The handlers have a some work to do stopping some break away groups heading up the bank on the far side.
All this is easily viewed from two hotel verandas where you can have lunch and touch the elephants as they march by. A lone water buffalo could be seen along the waters edge tendered by a small boy. The street is lined with small shops,seemed of good quality and the sellers were more than helpful.
The water is a food source for various types of bird, the egret and cormorant being prominent waders and divers.
It is a long drive from Colombo to Haharana, about 200klms, which takes about 5 to 6 hours driving. The driving is slow as the road is narrow, windy and is flanked on either side by endless rows of shacks, small shops, food stalls and its surface is treated as part of the village. The road is also home to a array of colourfully decorated tuktuks, that seem to be the cheap mode of transport – basically a small motor cycle with a cabin with either a 2-stroke or 4-stroke motor, costs about 10 rupee per kilometer, which is not much! There were also numerous trucks stacked perilously high with produce and old buses jammed packed with passengers – one passed us at speed, weaving its way towards Kandy, an express bus apparently: it was just full and one could not see how anybody could get on, but they did, it must have been hot and uncomfortable inside making London tube travel seem luxurious in comparison.
We were intended to see the Rock Fortress at Sigiriya but time prevented this and we made the lovely Cinnamon Lodge around 5.30pm, tucked away on the edge of the lake it was its own little world and certainly far removed from the surrounding village. However, there is a range of accommodation options, this time around I chose to go 5 star! We took a look at Sigiriya late the next day, did not do the 8klm walk nor the hike up to the top, thus avoiding 100US in entrance fees!
An early night after a Tiger Lankan beer or two and we were in bed by 9pm.
The next day started with an Elephant ride into the lake near the hotel. I am often dubious of these kinds of manufactured tourist adventures but this one was nicely done. The elephant seemed to not worry about us perched on its back and trundled off along the bank of the lake and took a dip with us clinging on! It was about 8am and the birds and wild life were still about as the heat of the day was a few hours off. The scenery of the lake was restful and the lotus flowers beautiful, overall a relaxing ride.
One thing you get used to quickly is that tipping is expected and that the costs of rides etc. are not included in the tour package – a fact that I was aware of from the small print. It is mostly a cash operation across most of Sri Lanka and like Jordan this does not include giving change. It is funny that the mystified look you get when you tender a large note is the one thing that I will remember most! It is the same here as it is in Jordan – often it is just a ruse to get you to hand over more cash, it is funny how the change eventuates if you stand your ground, often via a whip around with the standers by.
We then ventured to the ancient ruins of the city of Polonnarwa. This is one of the previous capitals, it is high up and was established to get away from invading Tamal Indians in the 11th century. There are many statues of Buddha and ruins of the Royal Palace. The ruler at the time build what are called Tanks to store water and these remain today. There was also channel irrigation. A most impressive sight and the monkeys provided a nice highlight.
The Sri Lankan peoples are mostly Buddhist and I think the island is seen as a bit of starting point for the Buddhist tradition. Being close to Southern India the Island was subjected to Tamal invasions who were Hindus. The recently civil war was a flight between the powerful south ruled by Buddhist against the poorer Tamal Hindus of the north, a simplification I know but nonetheless accurate and many refugees have left Sri Lanka and tell and non to pleasant story of their treatment. There is also a small section of Muslims who are related to the Arabs who arrived as far back as the 13th century in search of spices to trade, they named the place Serendip and hence the more famous Serendipity – place of unexpected beauty. There are even smaller groups of Catholics mostly in the north and the Burgher people related to the early Dutch colonisers. Whilst it is a democracy corruption is a big problem and equal treatment of all something of a distant goal!
The afternoon was a relax in the room before an safari into the Minneriya National Park to see wild elephants and whatever else was on offer. This was great fun and we saw plenty of elephants in their natural habitat and to the delight of the guide and the driver we were chased twice by ‘wild’, wild males when the driver ventured too close.
In the morning we visited a local village via a ox drawn cart and then a canoe ride on the lake. Very well done and the basic meal in the hut of the village was terrific – tea in coconut shells, roti made from millet and some grated coconuts and small amounts of chilli. The village is a cooperative tourist venture comprising 11 other villagers. It gave a small glimpse of how life would unfold around tilling the earth and growing small amounts of vegetables – the Elephant hideouts were evident as the they did come marching through from time to time clobbering everything in their path. Residents can keep a gun but only to warn off the elephants not to shoot them, there is joke there somewhere.
The rest of the day was visits to various tourist sights including a Gem factory, which Cathie loved!
We had done so much in three days and we were very happy with what we had seen and experienced so far. The 4th day saw us of to Nurara Eliya which is a town invented by the Brits as a hideaway from the heat. On route we visited the Dambulla Rock Temple, which I climbed and it is most impressive. It is a Buddhist temple. We also looked in on a Hindu temple in a local bustling town. Close to Nurara Eliya we start to climb up high, around 1800m and the temperature and humidity is replaced by much cooler air, and it is also the tea growing area and we visited a tea plantation, had a tour and a nice cuppa! Another thing became evident, namely Gum tress everywhere. These had been imported over many years starting as early 1800, used for plantation timber, electricity poles, pulping, railway sleepers, bees etc.
The Grand Hotel is grand and dates back to the 1800’s. It was a highlight as you got a bit of feel for how the Brits would have enjoyed themselves in the 18th and 19th centuries, there is a golf course and a race course that is used only once per year during the Buddhist New Year, which happened to be on during our visit. The big ball room now doubled as the eating area and the food provided was by far the best we encountered. On the whole the food across all the places we stayed was excellent, with more variety in the larger establishments. If you like curries Sri Lanka is the place.
On the 5th day we headed south towards our destination of Yala and the national park where we would do another safari. On route we visited the Devon & St Clair water falls and a beautiful little town called Ella, just lovely. But alas we needed to move on after a short stay for some refreshments.
Around 3pm with a little over 30mins to Yala, which is 3klms from the sea, as we were having lunch our guide informed us that there was a Tsunami warning following a large earth quake in the Ache area of Indonesia. Sri Lanka was heavily hit by the Tsnami of 2004 with 30000 people killed, including a group of Japanese tourists on safari in Yala when the wave hit, so, Sri Lankan’s take these warnings seriously. The end result was a quick conference and a decision not to go to Yala but to stay in a small local hotel – this was wise and the hotel was fine. In the end around 8pm the alert was lifted but it turned out the Yala Elephant Reach resort was evacuated so our decision proved sensible. We completed the journey at 7am the next morning, checked in, had a rest, a swim and waited to head out on safari at 4pm.
The Yala National Park is very big and the safari only takes in a small part, but we saw plenty of Elephants, birds, crocodiles, deer, buffalo etc. and even saw a leopard sunning itself, apparently a bit of rare site – there was a traffic jam as drivers jockeyed for viewing positions. The park borders the sea and is very different to the one in the Harbarana area up north.
The last day was spent driving along the coast from Yala to Colombo – there are some spectacular scenes, but all the time you are reminded of the devastation that occurred in 2004 when the wave hit. We visited a turtle hatchery and also Galle to look at the fort which in turn overlooks the cricket ground that was all but destroyed, thankfully things are back to normal and the ground looked in good condition.
We arrived in Colombo around 4pm and stayed at the opulent Cinnamon Grand, really a bit over the top for us, but what can you do. It is New Year so not many shops are open, the saving grace is that there is not much traffic, so a half day tour of the city was over quickly, but we took in the Fort area, an old Dutch Church, the ground floor of the Museum, a Buddhist temple, Hindu temple and drove past the Colombo cricket oval!
Here is a slide show of a selection of Cathies’ photos.
That is it, a great holiday, varied, friendly people, seemingly safe – not discounting the roads – and reasonably priced.
Recommended – we used Miraculous Tours at http://www.miraculoussrilanka.com