August 2017 and India – Sri Lanka test matches were going on in Colombo. And my husband had a brainwave for the next long weekend that was to follow.
Just like that, our trip to Sri Lanka was planned. We booked our tickets immediately and applied for the visa. Without even looking at an itinerary. Or the places we can visit. After all, it is just a tear-drop right? And we booked a day earlier than planned in the excitement of a random plan.
“We thought 4 days would be too many days and we would soon be bored with nothing to do.”
So the Sri Lanka visa or Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA) came through in 3 minutes right after we applied and we were amazed at how easy it was. Now came the planning part, which is my job. And I was determined to make the most of it.
The more I researched on it, the more the country intrigued me. Whichever direction I looked in to, I found some place that I really wanted to visit. I started to hate myself for the short trip we planned to the country which had so much to offer in each and every corner. If I had my way, I would have visited each and every location in Sri Lanka. While we heard Jaffna is beautiful, I was equally intrigued by places of historical interests like Sigiriya or Anuradhapura, wildlife sanctuaries and tea-estates (even though I am from Assam). The beaches were a must-do thing since my mother in-law is a total sea lover. So I began to look for places that can be done in 4 days and 3 nights that we planned to spend in Ceylon. Former name of Sri Lanka in case you are wondering.
Photo Source: Google
I got in touch with various local agencies in Sri Lanka since we needed to book a car to cover the the places in the short time we had. And finally, I got a reasonable deal through one of the agents from Travel Triangle for a car which would take us on the route that I had planned. Sans the hotels, as we decided it will be reasonable if we booked them ourselves.
TRAVEL DATES: 24th – 28th AUGUST 2017
We (I, my husband and my mother in-law) reached Bandaranaike International Airport, Colombo at 2 AM (it is just 1.5 hours from Bangalore) and the immigration procedure was a quick breeze. After taking the Sri Lankan Rupees (LKR) from the ATMs at the airport (much easier than exchanging into USD and then into LKR), we met with our guide cum driver for the entire trip. Even though I was expecting a small van or car, we were pleasantly surprised with a beautiful spacious van with comfortable seating for the long journey that was about to follow.
After 3.5 hours, our first stop was Lion’s rock at Sigiriya, which also happens to be the Eighth wonder of the world. It is an ancient rock fortress with a massive column of rock, nearly 200 metres (660 ft) high and about 1200 steps to the summit. Being the crazy planner that I am, the research itself gave me vertigo. But I was equally excited to try and get to the top of the rock. And my mother in-law who is about 57 years of age was too. We were among the first tourists to arrive at the spot. And I wanted to do it before the sun is at the top of our heads. The ticket counters open at 7 AM and after getting our tickets (2310 LKR or 15 USD for SAARC countries), we proceeded to climb that was to be the longest climb we ever did in our lives. At least till now.
With our tickets in hand, we walked towards the point where the stairs would lead to the summit. We crossed the ancient gardens including water gardens, boulder gardens and terraced gardens. Well-maintained and super clean, the surroundings felt royal and made me wonder how beautiful it must have been once upon a time. After a while, we started climbing the Lion’s Rock, stopping now and then to catch our breath and gasp at the view. There are variety of stairs.. some new, some old but not entirely difficult to climb. I just focused on climbing up and the only time I looked down was to enjoy the view. The spiral staircases leading to the frescoes were tiring but absolutely safe as they were enclosed. Seeing the old paintings from about 1600 years ago helped to forget the tiredness that came from the climb but we still had a few more miles to go. We crossed the mirror wall and arrived at the Lion Staircase. It has got the paws intact and as you look up, you can imagine how the entire rock resembled a Lion and hence the name.
Finally, we arrived at the summit for a majestic view of the entire valley on all sides. Though short of breath from the strenuous climb, the view made it every bit worth.
After enjoying the views far far away, we climbed down to proceed to our next destination. The route towards the exit was a different one from the Lions’s staircase and led us through some caves, asana halls and souvenir shops. What caught my eye was a postcard which had the drawing of what Lion’s rock must have looked like in its time (check extreme right).
After a delicious breakfast of coconut rice and fish, our next stop was Dambulla Cave temple. On seeing the giant Buddha statue, I was relieved that we would not have to climb more stairs for this one. I was wrong. The statue was only for the museum. The actual cave temple can be accessed only through a way which again had lot of stairs. My mother in-law is wise. She decided to sit back and rest. We proceeded in the heat. After all, we came to see the places, right? It was another strenuous climb. but at least it was not a 1200 steps (but Sigiriya felt much easier now). An American lady was kind enough to motivate me to keep going. Finally we reached the top; an amazing view again and we just needed to get across the gate to get in to the temple after depositing our shoes at the shoe stand (25 LKR per pair).
My research on Dambulla cave temple showed that they have removed the entry fees (my source) but the authorities stopped us and asked us to pay 1500 LKR per person, which we found too extravagant. The locals can visit for free though. Disappointed, we took some photos outside and walked down to proceed to Kandy. We meant to stop at the Spice gardens at Matale on the way.
We were introduced to the owner of the garden, who also happened to be a Doctor specializing in herbal medicines. The knowledge and practice came down from his forefathers. He told us how the pulse of a person can tell a lot about the health of a person.
A guide took us around to show the farm. I was sleepy from the heavy breakfast and tiring climb at Dambulla but the sight of plants with ingredients (like cocoa, spices etc.) that I had heard about but never seen, woke me up. It was an enlightening tour and we got to see many species of plants. The garden also specializes in making their own medicinal products with ingredients from their farms. We did not buy anything but it was a unique experience.
After an hour, we arrived at Kandy and parked our van. We wanted to see the famous Kandy cultural dance show and our guide/driver told us to book the tickets early so that he could reserve us some good seats. The show tends to get sold out, every single day. We took his advice, booked our tickets (1000 LKR per person), reserved our seats and went to see the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, which was within walking distance. It is right beside Kandy Lake and we spent some time roaming around until the show starts. We decided against paying another entry fee (1000 LKR) for the temple.
Is not it kind of ironical that one has to pay a fee to enter a place of worship? I find it very difficult to pray or have faith in those sticky situations. I have faced similar situations in India and try to avoid them as much as possible.
The Kandy lake, however is very beautiful and made me feel like I had landed in a hill station. Well, the weather was getting cooler too.
As the show was about to start, we took our seats. The entire hall was crowded in no time. The tiredness and lack of sleep was taking a toll on the three of us. Luckily, we found a coffee shop outside and though it tasted a bit odd, it helped. The show started and all our energy came back. The energy of the dancers was infectious and we were awe-stuck for the next one hour by their amazing and daredevil performances. My father has been involved in the cultural scenario of Assam in both personal and professional capacities. Hence, I have been fortunate to accompany him and enjoy many folk music/dances of Assam. I found the style of Kandy Cultural dance show a bit similar to Assam’s Sattriya music/dance. My mother in-law who is well acquainted in this field, agreed too. But we had an amazing time. Invigorated by their tremendous energy on stage, it was truly the highlight of our entire day. In the end, the dancers even put up a fire show, to my utmost horror and amazement.
After the show ended, we retreated to check-in at our hotel, Sevana City Hotel. We loved their rooms but they could have done something about arrangements to hang clothes or some shelves. But I am not complaining. After a quick and not-so-good dinner outside, we just wanted to sleep. For we had to start early the next day. For another beautiful part of Sri Lanka.
Today, we will set off for Ella. The plan was to enjoy the beauty of Sri Lanka on the train from Kandy to Ella. But we did not get any tickets as it was holiday season and the train tickets were all sold out. I was hugely disappointed but I hope to return again to catch this train some day. Hence, we had to go on the car. On the positive side, we could stop and enjoy many locations en route.
Being from Assam, it is not a new thing to see Tea plantations but I was looking forward to it after all the beautiful landscapes I had seen during my research. Our first stop on the way was the Shri Bhakta Hanuman Temple in Ramboda. Built and maintained by the Chinmaya Mission of Sri Lanka, it is believed that Lord Hanuman was searching for Sitadevi in these hills and jungles. The curtains in front of the Lord were not drawn when we arrived but I could have a momentary glance at the 40 feet tall statue of Hanuman inside the temple. The temple overlooks part of the Kotmale valley and the view was amazing with two hills, separated by the Kotmale river, even with the clouds.
We drove onward to Blue Field Tea Factory in Nuwara Eliya, which happens to be the second-best tea producer in Sri Lanka (the first being Dilmah tea). We stopped on the way to see Ramboda falls. It had started to rain and our guide/driver told us how weather is not uniform throughout Sri Lanka and it changes after every few hours of journey. The tea estate was beautiful and we were introduced to a staff member, who took us inside their factory and showed us first-hand how tea is made from the plucked tea-leaves and how the different varieties (green tea, black tea, leaf tea, dust tea etc.) were manufactured. Though we are from Assam, we had never been inside a tea factory and this experience was again an enlightening one. I was very happy as I always wondered how the actual process took place in practice, even though I read about it. After an exquisite cup of tea (complimentary), caramel custard (not complimentary) and shopping a packet of dust tea from their factory store, we continued our journey towards Ella.
Photo Copyrights – Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)
The weather was getting beautiful with every kilometer covered. After our quick lunch, we went to Sita Amman Temple in Seetha Eliya, claimed to be the only Rama Sita temple in the world. Even though we just passed by Nuwara Eliya, I could see it is a little city with pretty houses and offices. Seetha Eliya is believed to be the Ashoka Van/Ashoka Vatika – the garden where Sitadevi was kept captive by Ravana. It was Ganesh Chatturthi that day and we arrived at the temple at the exact moment when the deity was taken down to the Sita River for the bath. The Hindu people of Sri Lanka, specially women had gathered at the stream to pay their respects to Lord Ganesh. Moments like these make me feel blessed as I managed to reach the right place at the right time. Divine intervention, eh?
Hinduism has a long tradition in Sri Lanka. Hindus currently make up 12.6% of the Lankan population. According to a legend, Sri Lanka was formed when Lord Narada persuaded the God of Wind, Vayu to humble his close friend Mount Meru (a huge mountain where Gods lived). Vayu then spent the next year blowing strong winds at the mountain which was shielded by Garuda, a mythical bird. When Garuda took a break, Vayu caused part of the apex of the mountain to fall in the sea, forming the island of Sri Lanka.
Our next stop was Ravana Falls. It is one of the widest waterfalls in the country and legend has it that there is a cave inside the falls, where Ravana hid Sitadevi after kidnapping her from Panchvati. The waterfall is gorgeous and I even dared to walk a bit inside to get a better view. With the help of my fearless husband, of course. People, local and foreigners alike came to swim in the waters from the falls. We spent some time and decided to hurry so that we can finish seeing the Ravana Caves before dark.
It was almost evening but not dark yet. After buying our tickets (150 LKR per person), our guide/driver advised us to take a local person along so that we wouldn’t get lost. With his help and lot of water, we climbed about 640 steps to the top of the cave. The way leading to it had concrete steps but it got steeper once we entered inside the cave. It smelt funny but I and my mother in-law were proud of the exercise that we had been doing since the previous day. The local person did not know English but somehow, he managed to convey to us how the cave had various exits and each of them led to a different location. They are all closed now but one of them even led to Sita Amman Temple which falls on the way from Ella to Nuwara Eliya (about 55-60 kilometres away by road). I have always been fascinated by Indian Mythology and these kinds of stories elated me.
We managed to complete the last destination for the day before dark and now we were looking forward to a nice dinner and retiring to our room at Rawana Den. The hotel is located on a hill and is at walking distance from the town. Ella lit up after dark with all the hotels and restaurants switching on their neon signboards. It reminded me of Hauz Khas village in Delhi. Small, yet a party place. After freshening up, we set to explore options for dinner. We looked around and finally settled on a small and clean eating place. I was happy to see Kottu Roti on the menu, as I am a huge foodie and had been looking forward to try out the local delicacies. The place did not disappoint and I was ecstatic with what we ordered- Egg Kottu Roti. The process of making it is even more interesting with the chef expertly chopping up everything with a pair of steel blades.
The room at Rawana Den was comfortable with clean bathrooms and spacious beds. I could see that it is surrounded by the hills and we could hear the train whistling away. We all dropped tired in our beds and I was looking forward to how the view from hotel would be early in the morning.
As expected, we woke up to a beautiful view from the hotel. We got ready to go out and explore a few locations in Ella before we headed to our beach destination in the afternoon.
After a light breakfast (tried Egg hopper too), we set off to hike to Little Adam’s Peak. Mounting the Sigiriya fort made us confident that we could now climb anything. The car dropped us off at the point till where the cars go and we set off to conquer the little hill. The climb was easier than our earlier ones, although we kept stopping to catch our breath and I read that it is much easier than its namesake, the Sacred Adam’s Peak located further west in Sri Lanka. Also known as Punchi Sri Pada, the name Little Adam’s Peak stuck due to the striking similarity between the two mountains. Reaching the summit, the view was magnificent, with a beautiful Buddha statue on it.
The Nine Arch Bridge at Demodara was not very far and it was time for the train to cross the bridge (around 11 AM). Our guide/driver advised us to take a tuk-tuk till the view point as it was difficult for a van to enter the narrow road. We hurried and started climbing down and to my horror, it had no stairs. Just a slope that led all the way down towards the bridge. One sloppy footing and you would roll down to the bottom. I already have an intense fear of heights and I managed to climb down only till a point. My fearless mother in-law and husband went ahead though. I found a location that provided me a good view of the train on the arched bridge and sat down with the camera, adjusted the lens so that I could get a good photo of the “Hogwarts Express” and waited patiently. Soon, we could hear the whistles of the train and people who were on the bridge taking photos were cleared away for the train to pass. The viaduct was built to connect the two railway stations – Ella and Demodara during the British Colonial Period and is the largest in Sri Lanka. The massive bridge is built entirely of solid rocks, cement and bricks without using a single piece of steel.
We were now ready to leave Ella and head towards the coastline of Sri Lanka, for the beaches. Though our accommodation was booked at Hikkaduwa, we planned to go via Galle and Tangalle. We stopped on the way for lunch and it was the best place where we had authentic Sri Lankan food for lunch. It was a buffet place and we thought we could have unlimited food for that price. But the owner could see how much we loved his food and charged us a little bit extra for hogging. We continued our journey south for Tangalle beach and I was getting worried that we wouldn’t reach Hikkaduwa before dark.
The Tangalle Beach was a pleasant surprise and I totally fell in love with their blue-green waters. My mother in-law who is a thalassophile (I recently found this term and I love it), could not wait to go deep in to the sea and I had to remind her not to get into the waters as it would wet the car and to wait until we get to Hikkaduwa. Roles exchanged but it made me so happy to see her child-like self in the sea. We knew that we made the right decision to book a hotel by the beach, as a surprise for her.
Even though this beach is not frequented by travelers, I felt it should be. The locals were enjoying their day though. The beach is clean, with blue waters and there was one stretch on the beach where the waves came from two directions and overlap with each other. We had never seen anything like it before.
Photo Copyrights – Priyam Kakoti Bora (@nookandcorners)
We had another couple of hours journey ahead of us and so after spending half an hour at this beautiful beach, we drove onward to Hikkaduwa, where we had booked our accommodation for the night. The fascinating part of this journey to Hikkaduwa was that we were travelling along the coastline of Sri Lanka. I could imagine us moving along the map of Sri Lanka’s coastline, like what it shows when you are tracking an Uber car. Even though the air had the distinct smell of fish, I was enjoying the ride along the coastline. Never have I ever seen a coastline so close to the main road. I used to love the East Coast Road (ECR) while traveling from Chennai-Pondicherry or vice-versa but this coastline outshone it.
We did not stop at Galle Fort as it was already dark but we crossed it and had a glance at it. Our hotel, Coral Sands Hotel was next to the beach but I kept my expectations low because one could never judge from internet or photos (bad experiences on previous travels). I am thankful that it proved me wrong. The hotel is delightful with swimming pools, dining area with live music, party areas and lovely corridors. We could hear the waves from our rooms. After checking-in and a little walk at the beach, we decided to go out for dinner. We checked out a couple of places before we settled for a diner with tables next to the beach. Since we were living near the beach, why not enjoy a dinner by the sea side? It was a great decision as it served delicious meals in ample quantity. My husband was ecstatic with the generous bowl of fish curry with a big portions of fish, along with his rice.
We retired into our room tired but happy with the plan to wake up early to enjoy the beach. It was our last night in Sri Lanka and I decided to take the next day a bit slow as my mother in-law loves the beach more than any city tours.
We woke up around 6 AM, brushed our teeth and set off for the beach immediately. I had heard about glass boats that allows one to see the corals and the marine life of Hikkaduwa. As we were enjoying the beach alone, a boatman came and asked us whether we would be interested in a glass boat ride. Since we had no other plans and were curious on how it would be, we accepted the offer (3500 LKR per boat). It was not a mind blowing but an experience nevertheless. I had a hard time balancing myself, camera and my mobile phone while the fishes played peek-a-boo around our boat. The boatman used to lure them with bread that he brought along with and we could see the fishes and corals through the glass bottoms of the boat.
Coming back to the beach, we found a stretch where schools of little fish swimming near the shore can be seen with naked eyes. We had never seen fish come so close to humans and that too, on a beach. There were snorkeling options but we just walked deep in to the waters and enjoyed our time, awed by the beauty of all of it.
Moments like this makes me feel so peaceful that I often forget that we must return to our lives soon. But that’s what traveling is all about, right?
We checked-out in the afternoon and next thing on our agenda was the Madu River boat safari, which was about half an hour away. I wore saree for the first time on travels this day. I took a travel resolution this year, inspired by some girls on Instagram to wear sarees on travels. Even though I love sarees, I never thought it would be a comfortable option. But it is. I just did not realize it until that day and now I have decided to pack one for every single trip I take.
We reached the venue, had brunch, wore our life jackets and boarded the boat which would us take us on the 1.5-hour ride through the river and the mangroves. This was included in the package when we booked the car for the tour. But I read that it can range anywhere from 2000-4000 LKR per boat, depending on the tour operator. The journey for the day started and the speedboat took us through the river towards the mangroves and islands. There were two low bridges where we had to crouch really low and we even saw a water monitor lizard along with some cormorants on the way.
Our first stop was the Fish Farm, where one can get fish spa by the little red tilapia fishes (400 LKR per person for 15 minutes). They keep on going on in circles until they find a person’s feet to nibble on. I am naturally ticklish and so stayed away while my husband and mother in-law got their feet cleaned up. The enclosures were made of bins which were tied together and I feared falling in the waters. The boatman who brought us was a naughty guy and he kept trying to scare me more. But it helped my nerves and I was busy taking photos and videos in no time.
Next, we stopped on an island named Cinnamon Island. A boy explained to us the step-by-step process of cinnamon oil and powder extraction while demonstrating how they remove the bark from the cinnamon tree. They also gave us a refreshing cup of cinnamon tea. Listening to the health benefits, we bought cinnamon oil and powder as it was not expensively priced.
A few minutes later, the boat took us to a Buddhist temple. We spent only a few minutes there and proceeded with the boat ride. We crossed an old and dilapidated Hindu temple in the middle of the Madu Ganga river on the way. Our boatman expertly navigated the boat through the Mangrove tunnels, which was what I was looking forward to. I had seen some videos by earlier travelers and I was anxiously waiting for this part of the safari. End verdict – I felt like a little girl enjoying her first ride inside the tunnel. And my husband and mother in-law were ecstatic too. After all, it was a unique experience.
The safari ended on a happy high with my mother in-law also riding the speedboat like a pro.
We left Colombo to catch up a few things in the capital city before the flight back to India. Two hours later, we reached Colombo and it did look like a capital city with sophisticated buildings, clean roads and extravagant cars. There was nothing much to see except for the Gem Museum and ODEL – the shopping mall. At the Gem Museum, a guide explained to us how the gems were made and showed us the original stones as well as their polished output. They persuaded us to buy some gems but neither I nor my mother in-law were interested in jewellery. ODEL was undergoing renovation but we have seen so many malls in India that we did not spend more than a few minutes there. Even the souvenirs were extravagantly priced and we regretted not buying them on the road. It was evening but our flight was after midnight. So, we wanted to hang around in Colombo at least till dinner time.
After discussing with our guide/driver, we decided to head to Colombo beach although we had no prior plans about it. Being a Sunday, the entire city was there and we had to go a long way to park the van. It turned out to be a great decision. People were flying variety of kites and there were kids and adults alike, enjoying their day out. The atmosphere was lively . Suddenly, my eyes were drawn toward a group pf people crowding around a street food vendor. Approaching them, I found that he was selling a disc shaped item with prawns. Being a foodie, I was intrigued and wanted to try them too. Since people were crowding to buy that item, it was obvious that it was a local delicacy. My 10 minutes of patience paid off and I was handed a plate of Isso Vadai with onion sambal.
It was mouth-wateringly delicious. I was so proud of myself for being a curious foodie. We looked for other street foods but could not find anything else that caught our attention. But we found a stall which sold Nescafe coffee and we were so relieved. Since the last 3 days, we had bad experiences with coffee and finally, on the last day, we got a decent cup of coffee. That’s all we needed with a packet of biscuit. The beach can be accessed only by walking down a few steps. As it got dark, we did not go but the entire area looked like a local fair was going on. We spent a peaceful couple of hours, walking and looking around. We decided to have our dinner at the Indian place we spotted earlier, as we did not want to look around. Even though we had many hours left till our flight, we had to let the guide/driver (Rilwan, the slim guy in the pic below) go at the earliest and we were sad to see our trip to Sri Lanka came to an end.
Days do pass soon when you are enjoying with your loved ones. But we hope to be back soon to cover the rest of Sri Lanka. The warm smiles of the people and their hospitality wherever we went will stay in our hearts forever.
TOTAL EXPENDITURE ON OUR TRIP: 86,000 INR (for 3 adults including flights, visa, accommodation) ,
I decided to skip Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage and Kosgoda Sea Turtle Conservation Project even though they were in our routes because it made no sense to see Elephants (in chains) being bathed all time of the day and sea turtles being conserved only for commercial purposes.
Understand that those with tattoos or other images (t-shirts) with the Buddha may be turned away. There are no issues with other non-religious tattoos.
Photographing with your back to statues of the Buddha for a selfie or posing in an inappropriate manner next to them is strictly prohibited. All the persons should be facing the statue.
Sri Lanka is nearly a smoke-free country and smoking in public places is prohibited including inside buses and trains.
Tickets for visiting any cultural attraction sites or shows should be purchased only from authorized ticket selling counters.
Many websites offer e-visa to Sri Lanka at exorbitant rate. Make sure you apply at the original website link here.
It is customary to remove shoes before entering a Temple premises. Or even a Sri Lankan home.
Public nudity is illegal in Sri Lanka unless in private beach resorts, which may allow it.
Exercise caution when discussing politics or avoid the subject as it can be a highly controversial topic.
Photography is not allowed in sensitive locations. So, ask for permissions before photographing anywhere.
Sri Lankan culture is largely friendly and accommodating but public display of affection is not appreciated.
While opting for hot beverages, it is better to choose tea (mention whether you want milk tea or not) over coffee.
As a non-vegetarian, it would be better if you opt for sea-food rather than chicken.
Note: All my photographs are copyrighted with all rights reserved. Please do not download/use my work and never for any commercial use without contacting me in advance for purchase or licensing rights.