Sri Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon) is a country that has fascinated us for years. We first became acquainted with this alluring island in 2005, when we visited Colombo, the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, the ancient cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya rock fortress, Dambulla Cave Temple, Kandy, Nuwara Eliya (aka “Little England”), Yala National Park, and Unawatuna. Obviously, our first trip wasn’t enough as we have been back several times since then. For such a compact island, Sri Lanka has a lot to offer. We find Sri Lankans to be extremely hospitable, and would love to call this lovely island our home one day!
21 May 05: Colombo
Flew from Dubai to Colombo on the ever-reliable Emirates Airlines. Arrived right on time when our plane landed at 0900, and received a 30 day visa stamp at the passport control section. Luggage took a bit of a while to get off-loaded, but we finally grabbed both bags and were met by our tour guide and driver, Sri Muralie.
Sri explained that we were in fortune as our trip coincided with Vesak, a Buddhist holiday that was scheduled according to the lunar calendar. Vesak is a two day holiday (full moon and day after) which commemorates the birth, enlightenment, and death of Buddha. For us, this meant that the country was decorated with unique religious flags.
We were whisked off towards our very comfortable hotel in Colombo, the Galle Face Hotel. This hotel has been around since 1865, and was once the most posh hotel in all of Sri Lanka. Today its like staying at a museum, with staffed dressed in formal attire and a ready smile to greet weary travelers. We checked into room 101, and had a view of the beach if we craned our necks towards the right. Sri gave us about 30 minutes to shower and meet him back down in the lobby. So we hurriedly stripped, showered and dressed before rushing off to the Peach Valley, a Chinese restaurant, where the food was absolutely incredible. For some unknown reason, we find the Chinese food prepared in both Sri Lanka and India to be far superior to Chinese food served in China! At any rate, the cuisine was top notch, and we left satiated and ready to do a bit of shopping (we only brought two outfits each as we had planned on purchasing goods here in Sri Lanka’s fabric centers).
We read on the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree forum that Odel Unlimited was the place to shop, so we headed there for an hour of unadulterated shopping. Prices were shocking…for high quality clothes, expect to pay a fraction of the prices charged in the US or UK. Fantastic to stock up on clothes for a mere pittance. Once we had bought to our heart’s desires, we headed back to the Galle Face to relax by its salt water pool and soak in the late afternoon rays. We still slathered on SPF 30 lotion before taking a dip into the pool. Salt water is not what you’d expect from the pool, but it was a nice change of pace. The ocean’s waves were furiously crashing up against sea wall and we were constantly soaked by a light mist of ocean spray. What a way to relax! We passed out on our comfy chairs and woke up hours later to enjoy a drink while watching the sun set.
The Galle Face Green is a big park facing the Galle Face hotel and at dusk, it was filled with hundreds, if not thousands, of Colombo natives enjoying the cool sea breeze, while snacking on fresh seafood. We saw row after row of vendors selling a unique “biscuit” made of shrimp!
Saturday apparently is a good day to get married. Every hotel in Colombo was catering to a special wedding. The Galle Face Hotel was no different. In fact, there were two separate wedding parties going on at the same time! One was a very traditional Hindu wedding, while the other was a modern beach front wedding, complete with dancing on the outside veranda. Very romantic setting for a wedding, and we felt privileged to be outsiders witnessing these very special events. The Galle Face Hotel retains much of its rich colonial past, and was a grand setting for the wedding ceremonies. We really enjoyed listening to the music accompanying the wedding ceremonies, and briefly considered crashing them!
Dinner was served at the hotel and we ate a sumptuous spread of fresh seafood. Entertainment was from the wedding ceremonies, and we had a grand view of the entire affair. Fantastic first day to spend in Colombo. We joined the locals strolling along the beachfront promenade (adjacent to the Galle Face Green) and then retired for the night. We love Colombo and can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings!
22 May: Colombo to Anuradhapura
Woke up and had absolutely no idea where in the world we were. Slowly, it dawned on us that we had left Kabul and were in wonderful Colombo instead. We got ready and went downstairs to check out. Sri wasn’t there yet, so we hung out in the lobby and waited for him. The Galle Face Hotel forgot about our box breakfasts, but quickly rectified the situation and we were soon on our way. The drive to Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage took a while since the roads were already congested early Sunday morning. At one point, we witnessed a horrific accident between a bus and a lorry full of logs. The logs had penetrated the bus and the people sitting in the front couple of seats were instantly killed. It was a terrible accident and we were backlogged for a while because of it.
The Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage is totally worth all its hype. It is one of the highlights of Sri Lanka and we were glad we made a concerted effort to visit it. We were just in time to see the elephant feeding, and the elephant babies were so cute drinking their milk straight out of a bottle! Next stop was the top of a ridge line where about 50 elephants roamed freely. What a titillating experience…it felt like we were in the middle of a wild safari, surrounded by nature at its best. 10 am is bathing time, and the elephants were herded down to the river to be given a bath. We had front row seats at a nearby restaurant, and marveled at these magnificent animals as they happily jumped into the river for a quick cool down. Elephants love to get wet and soak in the mud, and we laughed at their playful antics by the river. The baby elephants were especially cute, and we loved watching their every move. After several hours of eliphas maximus (scientific name for an elephant) entertainment, we decided we should head towards Anuradhapura.
Unfortunately, this morning’s rough ride resulted in a flat tire. Sri urged us back inside while he popped on the spare. We then loaded up into our ride in the quest of a tire shop. We were in luck and were amazed to see an entrepreneurial 10 year old boy agree to fix our flat! He definitely knew what he was doing, and in no time at all, we were on our way. His reward? 100 RS ($1) for his labor, and a simple offering of our oranges and apple for his prompt service.
We headed for Dambulla, which is the crossroads for several key destinations in Sri Lanka. We stopped for a lunch buffet at the Dambulla Transit Hotel, and then set off towards Anuradhapura. Sri recommended that we visit the main sights this afternoon, since tomorrow (Vesak Day) would be way too crowded. As it was, he was worried we wouldn’t be able to see everything we wanted to due the crowds that were already gathering at one of the most holy Buddhist shrines in the world.
Anuradhapura is famous for the sacred Bo tree. This tree sprouted over 2000 years ago from the branch of the original tree that Buddha sat beneath to gain Enlightenment. Sri advised us to walk barefoot, since it is very disrespectful to wear shoes near the temple area. So we followed suite with the thousands of locals already gathered at Anuradhapura and strolled along the hot ground with our bare feet. It was quite a bizarre experience to have to dodge land mines (massive turd droppings) while hopping along the hot pavement in search of a shadow to protect our delicate toes. We eventually made it towards the Bo tree, but this sight was not covered by the cultural triangle ticket pass. Right outside the Bo tree complex, the ancient Brazen palace ruins stand. It is now fenced off, and Sri told us that it was open to the public on special occasions only.
The sacred Bo tree is referred to as the Sri Maha Bodhi, and it is famous for being the oldest tree in the world. It is a very holy sight for devout Buddhists, and today the site was packed with devotees preparing for the Vesak holiday tomorrow. We spent some time here before heading off to the Ruvanveliseya Dagoba, which is another highlight of Anuradhapura.
The Ruvanveliseya Dagoba was featured on the front page of the Colombo Times, so we already knew what it would look like. It dominates the Anuradhapura landscape, rising an impressive 55 meters. At the base, it is surrounded by a frieze of elephants. A monk clad in a red robe was giving a sermon to some followers sitting at the base of the Dagoba, and the temple grounds were strewn with brightly colored prayer flags. The excitement in the air was building, and we could tell that this would be a very lively place come tomorrow, on Vesak day. Other sights that we took in while in Anuradhapura included the brilliant moonstone of the Mahasen’s Palace, Samadhi Buddha statue, twin ponds (also known as Kuttam Pokuna), and Ratnaprasada’s famous guardstone, which depicts a cobra-king.
We left Anuradhapura and checked into the beautiful Palm Garden Village hotel. The Italian owners spared no expense on their 57 acre purchase, and we had to walk a distance to reach our suite. The tasteful decor was perfect, and we were disappointed we didn’t have time to dip into the pool as it was already nearing 9 pm and we still had dinner to attend to. A sumptuous buffet of barbecued lamb chops rounded out a perfect day, we crashed hard that night in anticipation of tomorrow’s agenda.
23 May: Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa
Woke up at a decent hour and enjoyed the breakfast buffet layout. Met Sri in lobby at 0830 to head out towards the Isurumuniya Vihara, our last stop in Anuradhapura before heading towards Polonnaruwa. Sri wanted an early start since he said that crowds would converge upon Anuradhapura later in the day we would be suffocated by the combination of heat and bodies. As it was, a large crowd had already gathered at Isurumuniya, and we joined them in admiring this rock temple. Some highlights of this sight included a stone carving of elephants descending into the nearby pool of water, a large reclining Buddha, and a famous sculpture referred to as “the lovers”.
Vesak Day was a colorful event, and we enjoyed being surrounded by Sri Lankan holiday-makers, as opposed to bus-loads of tourists. In fact, we didn’t run into any other tourists, and found that a bit odd since we were visiting one of Sri Lanka’s main highlights. Sri explained that it was because of everyone’s fear post-tsunami and that tourism numbers were down. Which is bad for Sri Lanka, but good for those intrepid souls who don’t mind visiting shortly after the recent devastation!
After leaving Anuradhapura, Sri asked us if we were interested in an elephant safari in Habarana. We declined due to the steep cost ($50 an hour but we could bargain down to $40), and opted for an Ayurveda massage instead. This ancient system of medicine uses herbs and oils to rejuvenate and heal. We decided to share a private room, and were given the full treatment (head massage with oil, oil body massage, steam bath and sauna). A blissful hour later, we emerged fully refreshed and ready to tackle the rest of the day.
Lunch was a quick buffet at a nearby restaurant, and then we headed directly to our hotel, the excellent Deer Park Hotel in Polonnaruwa. This hotel commands an excellent view of a nearby lake, but we rated it one of the best for the quality of its food! Our taste buds were very, very happy with this hotel, and our room was none too shabby either. Sri recommended we relax in our room for about 30 minutes, before heading into town to check out the sights (he wanted us out of the midday sun and we thought his rationale was sound).
Once we took off, he dropped us at a woodcarving center, and Becky got pissed and demanded to head towards Polonnaruwa’s main sights instead. He said the visit should only take 10 minutes, so we reluctantly agreed, but Becky made it very clear that all of Polonnaruwa’s sights would be visited or else! Mandatory woodwork shop later, we left and drove towards the archaeological museum.
By this time, it was nearly 1600 and packed with Vesak day celebrators. The museum guards recommended we bypass the museum and make a beeline for the main sights, and return to the museum later as it was opened to midnight tonight as a special accommodation of the Vesak merry-makers. So we headed towards the Royal Citadel Group where we saw the remains of King Parakramabahu’s Palace (described as originally having 7 stories, and 1000 rooms, although all the wood portions were destroyed by fire), the Audience Hall (two wonderfully preserved lions, as well as beautiful friezes of lions, elephants, and dwarfs), and the Prince’s bath (two perfectly preserved crocodile spouts).
The next stop included the very impressive Quadrangle (Vatadage or hall of the relic, Gal Pota, Bo tree shrine, and Hatadage) where we were really impressed at the quality of most of the buildings. The Vatadage was the most unique, and a procession of visitors grimaced and endured the ground’s scorching heat from the sun to pay their respects to the Buddha statues inside the circular enclosure. Yes, we were barefoot too and had to hop gingerly across the hot rocks. Our travel books advised us to wear socks to protect the soles of our feet, but we decided to endure the pain just like everyone else. Don’t know if it was such a smart move as the ground is VERY hot! We took a quick breather to try a refreshing lime juice concoction, and asked the vendor to use bottled water instead of local water. Did not want to suffer through a bout of diarrhea which would definitely have resulted from using the local water supply.
The remainder of the day was spent exploring the northern temples, to include the Rankot Vihara, Lankatilaka (amazing 18 meter headless Buddha statue), Kiri Vihara (also known as the milk white Dagoba), and the awe-inspiring Gal Vihara. The Gal Vihara is one of the most common images seen in Sri Lankan advertising, although an ugly protective canopy now covers the 4 carved Buddhas and makes photography of the statues in natural light all but impossible. The Gal Vihara is undoubtedly the highlight of Polonnaruwa, and we were astounded to see thousands of visitors praying and worshiping in this area. All the devotees were wearing white, which contrasted greatly with the colorful prayer flags adorning the grounds.
The four Buddha statues are huge, carved out of massive pieces of rock. The reclining Buddha is 14 meters long! We left Gal Vihara and headed towards the Lotus Pond, after which we tried to see the Tivanka Image House (which was closed due to renovations). Dusk was now upon us, but we did make our way to the giant 4 meter high statue of King Parakramabahu holding a papaya (others claim it’s a book of law), before revisiting the archeological museum.
The museum is an excellent place to start one’s tour in Polonnaruwa, but it wasn’t a bad one to end one’s tour. We were able to see that most of Polonnaruwa’s main sights were consolidated in one section of town, and were astounded that given our limited time, we were able to visit everything. So Sri managed to survive the day unscathed from Becky’s wrath, which would have resulted in a very ugly scene if we had missed any of the major highlights! Dinner was enjoyed at the excellent Deer Park Hotel restaurant, and we savored the wide variety of mouth-watering dishes and deserts. Unforgettable day!
24 May: Polonnaruwa to Sigiriya
Woke and had a quick breakfast in the Deer Park buffet room. We ate a hearty meal, as today we were going to climb the Sigiriya rock fortress, and wanted to have plenty of energy for the hike. We left the hotel early, and reached Sigiriya before the mass influx of tourists had arrived. The Sigiriya fortress is sometimes referred to as the playboy’s palace in the sky, and it rises up some 200 meters across the horizon. Labeled as the eighth wonder of the world, this world heritage site is most famous for its alluring frescoes of scantily clad women hailing from Mongolia and Africa.
We entered through the well maintained winter palace’s gardens, and headed immediately up towards the frescoes. There used to be over 500 frescoes, but only 21 exist today. Those that survived are remarkably well preserved, as they are tucked away in a niche away from the elements. Hues of red, yellow, and green are still vibrant, and we happily snapped away a few photos in the early morning light.
After the fresco gallery, we walked past the mirror wall, where we met up with Sri (who went to park the car in the tourist car park location). We made our way up towards the lion terrace and gawked in amazement at the massive paws of the lion. If the original lion’s head were still intact, this would have been a phenomenal sight to behold. As it stands, the paws themselves are still awe-inspiring, and we took a quick breather to watch other hikers make their way to this point, before proceeding up the last set of steep stairs leading to the top of the summer palace grounds.
We finally started up the final stairway and were impeded by the crowds of locals ahead of us. Anyone afraid of heights will have a difficult time climbing up the final stairway. We watched in bemusement at some tourists who were visibly shaking while heading back down from the palace. Unfortunately, there are plenty of Sri Lankans willing to prey upon the faint of heart, and these little “guides” leach on to those who appear petrified, and offer to lead them back down to safety. We made our way to the top with no worries, and took in the summer palace ruins.
An interesting system of gardens, waterways, and dance halls emerged atop the Sigiriya rock complex, and after admiring the phenomenal views, we headed back down. On the route down, we took in the audience hall as well as the cobra gate (a huge, overhanging rock) before weaving our way back to our vehicle.
We ate a quick buffet lunch before heading towards Dambulla caves, our last main sight before checking into the posh Dambulla Culture Club Resort. The Dambulla cave complex is a definite highlight of any visit to Sri Lanka. Situated on a granite outcrop, there are a total of five caves that are richly painted. We climbed up towards the cave entrance, and stopped to watch the groups of monkeys who have inhabited the area surrounding the caves. No shoes are allowed inside the complex, but paying a guide to watch our slippers was well worth it as the ground was scorching hot. The caves were crowded with visitors and we joined the group in admiring the massive Buddhas inside them. Our favorite cave was the second one, where there are over 1500 images of Buddha located within. Sri Lanka definitely opens up one’s eyes to the Buddhist religion!
With our morning excursions complete, we headed towards the culture club resort for some rest and relaxation. The hotel is beautiful, and we spent the afternoon washing laundry and relaxing by the pool. Dinner was an amazing buffet spread, with a wide selection of deserts to sweeten the deal.
25 May: Sigiriya to Kandy
Checked out of the culture club hotel, and we headed towards Kandy. First, we had a slight obligatory detour at a spice garden in Matale. Be careful of these so called “spice garden tours” since there are a lot of high pressure tactics to lure you into purchasing Ayurvedic oils and herbs. We were met by Morgan, who gave us the ultimate car salesman like pitch for all his oils and spices that could be found in natural plants throughout his garden.
Afterwards, we were treated to a full body massage by two of his “students”, who did a rather good job! The tour of course ended in the pharmacy, where all of the products Morgan covered (weight-loss honey, coconut hair growth potion, sandalwood oil, red oil, tiger-balm ointment, etc) were outrageously priced. We succumbed into purchasing two bottles of oil (sandalwood and red) since both felt wonderful in our massages, but would caution everyone to compare prices outside first since the prices at these so-called spice gardens are astronomical. As it stands, we were overcharged for our purchases, but didn’t realize it until too late.
Next stop was with a family who showed us 1001 ingenious ways to utilize a coconut. We were amazed at how quickly and simply they were able to make twine out of coconut husks, (which were combined to make thick, durable ropes capable of serving as anchor ropes), as well as honey, grain, roofing material, kitchen utensils, and even door mats!
Kandy is the second biggest city in Sri Lanka and our tour books were full of warnings about touts and so-called guides. So we were on our guard and prepared to expect an onslaught of mandatory tours at so-called factories. Sure enough, right after our Chinese lunch buffet, Sri pulls into a sari shop and asked if we wanted to pose in saris and sarongs to take a “photo”. Becky was intrigued about how a sari is wrapped, and was urged to try one on. The sari is quite a simple and beautiful garment to wear. Not only does it drape beautifully across any woman’s body, but one size fits all!
All a sari consists of is a large sheath of fabric that is folded, tucked, and pinned up against the body. One sari and several souvenir t-shirts later, we left and were dragged to a gem-museum (aka gem store). The gem museum portion was actually very interesting. We surprisingly learned a lot about how gems are mined, identified, created, and sold. Prices here were quite high so we held off on a purchase, although we did have the famous Sri Lankan blue sapphire gem on our minds.
Now onto our real tour of Kandy, which is world famous for the annual Perahera festival that occurs in July/August of every year. During this festival, elephants and man alike are decorated with costumes for a 10 day parade throughout the city. Our first stop was at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Peradeniya. Neither one of us is really into gardens, but this was highly suggested due to its reputation of being one of the best gardens in Asia! We were surrounded by enamored botanical lovers, and strolled around the peaceful grounds admiring the many different plants and trees. There are over 4000 species of plant life, but our favorite was the amazing orchid display.
We stopped to have a refreshing lime juice drink before heading over to Kandy’s most famous sight, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. This site inspires millions of devout Buddhists, and today was no different. There are only three public viewings of the Buddha’s tooth (actually, you don’t get to see the tooth. It’s enclosed in several containers, and even then, there is dispute if the relic on display is the original Buddha’s tooth) and we were really impressed with the beauty of the temple. Huge elephant tusks adorn the outside of the temple, and there were hundreds of Buddhists reverently praying in front of it.
The Buddha’s tooth was brought to Sri Lanka in the 4th Century A. D., hidden from sacrilegious hands within an Orissan princess (East India) hair. Today, the tooth is considered one of Sri Lanka’s most prized possessions, and we felt honored that we were allowed so close to it. Apparently, the Tamil Tigers tried to bomb this temple just a few years ago, and security is very tight these days.
We had to rush off to get good seats at the Kandy Lake Club Dance Ensemble show, which was held nearby. This one hour dance performance showcased numerous Sri Lankan dances, although we read that the fire walking dance performance was not authentically Sri Lankan.
Upon conclusion of the dance show, Sri rushed us out of the club, since the Kandy city gates would close in just a few minutes. If we didn’t hurry, we’d have to add an extra detour of travel around the lake to get towards our final destination that day, Hunas Falls Hotel.
Hunas Falls is owned by Jetwing Travel Company, and it’s about an hour drive north of Kandy. Hidden in the middle of lush mountain scenery, the Hunas Falls hotel is very popular with honeymooners. In fact, there were only three foreign couples staying at the hotel that weren’t on their honeymoon, us included!
26 May: Kandy
Our only relax day of the tour! We literally had nothing planned to do today, and it was great to simply relax. We actually woke up early and had breakfast downstairs on the balcony overlooking the Hunas Falls Lake. This is a prime area for bird watching and hiking, and we dabbled in a bit of both. One of the highlights of today involved stumbling across Sri Lanka school girls returning back from school (they were shocked to see us on the mountain pass, and bashfully posed for a photo with Becky), as well as exploring a beautiful waterfall.
27 May: Nuwara Eliya
After breakfast, we departed Hunas Falls and headed for Nuwara Eliya, an area considered famous for its very mild weather. Nicknamed the “Little England” of Sri Lanka, we would see evidence of the British influence in this area of the island (country cottages, Queen Anne style mansions, tea at high noon, etc). The drive to Nuwara Eliya was spectacular, and we were amazed to see tea estate after tea estate occupy vast tracts of land. The tea bushes adorned every inch of the countryside, and we learned that they are on a seven day cycle. From the time the leaves are picked, they can be re-picked only a week later!
We stopped at a tea estate/factory en route to Nuwara Eliya. Here, we were able to witness the backbreaking labor that goes into the tea production process. The women were in the fields, lugging around canvas sacks strapped across their foreheads (hanging loose on their backs). Each woman has to pick 18 KG of tea leaves in a day, but anything over that amount will result in bonuses. These women were amazing, methodically picking tea leaf after tea leaf without breaking a sweat. The factory was really efficient, and we were walked through the entire tea making process. Very fascinating tour, and we actually learned a lot about how those Tetley tea bags are created!
Next stop was St. Andrew’s hotel, another one of the Jetwing Travel hotels. St. Andrew’s is a colonial style hotel, but sadly there were hardly any guests staying here tonight. Set against a beautiful backdrop of gardens, manicured lawns, and forestry, we felt badly that tourism was at an all time low. A classy place like St. Andrew’s should be at full capacity at all times, but unfortunately this was not the case. We ventured out of St. Andrew’s to explore downtown Nuwara Eliya. The market is the most colorful place to wander, as fresh fruit and dried fish aromas hit you as soon as you enter. The seafood section was amazing (vast variety), and the meat section was colorful. After exploring downtown, we stopped at the Lion Pub for a couple of cheap beers.
Dinner at St. Andrew’s is a fanciful affair. We can only imagine what dinner at the posh Hill Club (nearby golf course) would be like! We were served by waiters in formal white jackets and bow-tie. Dinner was a five course meal, and we were invited to peruse the wine cellar for our selection of wine to accompany dinner. Two hours later, and a whole lot more tipsy, we stumbled into St. Andrew’s jewelry store and bought a blue sapphire pendent (after a bit of protracted bargaining. Somehow, we think that the store had the upper hand since we were both a bit drunk from dinner).
We returned to our suite, and Robby commented that his back was hot. Little did he realize but he was lying on top of a hot water bladder (designed to keep us nice and toasty on Nuwara Eliya’s more chilly nights)! We both slept very well that night…Nuwara Eliya is a definite plus on one’s itinerary of Sri Lanka.
28 May: Yala
We left St. Andrew’s and headed for Yala National Park. Along the way, we had a few detours to make. First was a quick visit to a nearby Kovil (Hindu Temple), which was conveniently located 7 KM into the Nuwara Eliya to Bandarawela road. The Seetha Eliya Kovil is a quaint little temple found nearby a babbling brook. Hindu temples are usually quite colorful and sometimes garish, and this one was no different.
Afterwards, we made a quick stop at Hakgala Botanical Gardens. Because this garden is only frequented by locals, we enjoyed this one a lot more than the Royal Botanical Garden in Kandy. In fact, we enjoyed a quasi-celebrity status, with locals repeatedly asking to take photos with us. When they found out we were Americans, they inevitably replied, “Oh Bill Clinton, George Bush in Colombo today…for Tsunami meeting”. We found it a bit disconcerting at first, having everyone take photos of us. But after breaking the ice, we were surrounded by broad smiles and eager conversationalists. Everyone wanted to know what we were doing in Hakgala, and we were given tons of helpful advice on what other cool sights there were to see that were off the tourist trail.
Afterwards, we had a quick break at Ella, which offered some of the finest views of Sri Lanka through the Ella Gap. We lunched at the Grand Ella Motel garden, and enjoyed the beautiful panorama views across the entire valley. Ella is the perfect resting point from Nuwara Eliya to Yala National Park.
Sri recommended that rather than embark on our safari tour tomorrow morning, we should do an evening safari instead. He felt that we would enjoy a full day lounging on Unawatuna’s beautiful beach tomorrow, rather than rush through a morning safari and catch a half day at the beach. So we arrived to Yala and immediately went to the ticketing office to buy two passes for the national park. The passes are a bit pricey at $40 but renting our 4×4 jeep was reasonable for $35 (incl driver and naturalist guide).
We were in for a treat at Yala Park. While we did not see the elusive leopard, we did see a wide variety of the park’s other animals (deer, peacock, crocodiles, wild boar, eagle, flamingos, pelicans, elephants, samba, water buffalo, wild rabbits, and iguanas). The highlight was spotting a wild male elephant with massive tusks. There are only 10 tusked elephants in the park, so we were lucky to spot ours. He stared at us intently for a while, and we feared that he might charge us in our vehicle. However, he slowly seemed to wink before crossing the road and disappearing into the bush on the other side.
We stayed at the very eco-friendly Yala Village and loved the decor. The village hotel is very conscious about keeping harmony with nature, and we were under strict rules on engaging the wild life. And for good reason! The wild boar literally walk between our huts, and we border the national park. Elephants sometimes roam here too, and it was forbidden for us to wander around at night unescorted by hotel staff.
We enjoyed our much to short stay here at Yala, and crashed hard after a great day exploring Sri Lanka’s diverse wildlife. Oh, one side note to consider: Yala was devastated by the Tsunami. Miraculously, the Yala Village survived intact, and did not have a single fatality. Every other hotel resort in this area was completely demolished (to include Jetwings Travels hotel where over 40 guests and hotel staff were killed by the Tsunami). We wondered how Yala Village was spared, considering its close proximity to the ocean. God sure does work in mysterious ways, although we could not scientifically explain how Yala Village was spared any damage. By our survey of the hotel grounds, it should have been demolished just like everything else in the area…but it wasn’t. Go figure.
29 May: Unawatuna
We got up early to enjoy the scenery around Yala just after sunrise. A large pack of wild boards strolled through camp just like they owned the place. We ate breakfast, and then rushed to the beach to admire Yala Village’s strategic location just outside the national park. This eco-friendly hotel is simply marvelous, and we wished we had more time to spend here. But it was not to be, as Unawatuna (voted one of the world’s best beach spots by Discovery in 2002) was next on our agenda.
We had bad luck today, as the entire island of Sri Lanka was undulated by torrential downpour. We kept praying that the rain would let up, but it continued to pelt us mercilessly all day long. The drive to Unawatuna was long and miserable, and we were unable to see the famous stilt fishermen because of the heavy rain.
When we arrived to Unawatuna, Sri gave us the option of checking into the hotel (Unawatuna Beach Resort) or going directly for Galle for lunch and a bit of sightseeing. We opted to continue towards Galle, which is a beautiful Dutch town that still retains much of its European look and feel. We loved Galle so much that we started considering owning property here. Prices are surprisingly very cheap, although the Sri Lankan government must have realized this since they implemented a 100% tax on all land purchases in 2004. Even doubling the price, you get a decent deal!
Lunch was enjoyed at the Rampart Hotel, where we sat on the veranda patio and overlooked the fierce rain pelt all poor souls who were caught in the rain. We visited Historical Mansion Museum, which had a diverse collection of antiques and shipwrecked remnants on display. Of course, there was the obligatory gem section, followed by several showcases attempting to sell these wares.
We left Galle and checked into the Unawatuna Beach Resort, a circa 1980 style hotel right on the beach. Although it had suffered tremendously from the Tsunami, the owners already had the breakfast area rebuilt, and we could hardly notice any significant damage. Not true for some of their neighbors, as we saw evidence of building ripped to shreds all along the incredibly gorgeous beach. Part of the problem is the zoning…buildings are literally built right up on the beach and waves splash mere feet away from the outermost walls. We heard a rumor that Sri Lanka was going to impose stricter building guidelines in the future, and wondered how that would affect us if we were to purchase some beachfront property.
There were a lot of Americans partying at the hotel that night. We could hear the boisterous group from our hotel room, and decided to join them in the dinner revelry. They were here for a month as volunteers to help rebuild houses that had been destroyed by the Tsunami. We were amazed that so many of them decided to spend their summer vacations here in Sri Lanka. Then again, they did choose one of the best beaches in the world (Unawatuna) to base their stay at…not such a shabby choice.
30 May: Negombo
Today we woke to a brilliant sunny day. Our luck to have our main beach day (yesterday) rained out! But we shrugged it off, and were ready to head back towards Negombo (adjacent to the airport). First, a quick detour in Colombo for lunch and a bit of shopping.
The drive from Unawatuna wasn’t too bad (nice roads), and we had a nice stop at the Kosgoda Sea Turtle Conservation project. The baby green turtles (only 3 days old), were sooooo cute! The care-keeper told us that when the Tsunami swept through, all the turtles were pulled from their pools. In fact, two of the bigger turtles had been found several kilometers inland, and donated to the project for safekeeping. One of them had been blinded by the Tsunami, hence the keepers were reluctant to release it back into the wild. Only 10% of the sea turtles that are hatched at the nursery stay at the conservatory, whose primary purpose is to serve as an educational tool for school children and tourists. Of the 90% that are released back into the wild, most get devoured by awaiting prey. We spent a lot of time playing with the turtles as they are really cute and we can’t get up this close to them in the wild!
We had a delicious Chinese lunch in Colombo (yes, it truly does live up to its reputation as being a “foodies” paradise). Afterwards, Sri took us to the House of Fashion, where we shopped amongst Colombo’s locals for the latest rage in clothes and fashion. House of fashion is more downscale than Odels, and we had to try our purchases out in the open with everyone else preening themselves in front of the mirror. The clothing bargains were fantastic though, and worth the aggravation of pushing elbows or tackling competitive shoppers. After shopping, we headed towards our final hotel for the vacation, the Blue Oceanic Beach Hotel. Located close to the airport, the hotel was located in a great beach spot. We could easily see why so many tourists base themselves out of Negombo for day trips around Sri Lanka.
Robby stubbornly insisted on plunging into the sea (despite the ominous red flag and lack of life guards). One of the beach touts quickly ran up and informed us that each year, numerous tourists get killed due to the riptides. Even with that dire warning, Robby wanted to hang out in the water, so we decided to head towards the Oceanic’s pool instead. What a fabulous way to round out our very exciting vacation. We stayed by the pool until the sun set, and then enjoyed our last batch of delicious seafood for dinner. At midnight, we checked out of the hotel, and checked in for our return flight back to Dubai/Kabul.
Sri Lanka is truly an unforgettable destination. We really enjoyed our trip there. Surprisingly, hassles and touts were kept to a minimum, and as long as you keep your wits about you, you will have a fantastic time on this beautiful island! We expected to deal with aggressive gem sellers, or get scammed at least once on the island. However, it never happened and we emerged stunned from Sri Lanka’s raw beauty and friendly smiles.