The much awaited break was more than a standstill from work, it was a trip where I stepped out of hues of tar and cement and embraced those in green and yellow along with the warm and welcoming brown.
There is much beauty in the island country of Srilanka, and planning an itinerary was challenging and not without flaws.
Where we traveled: Colombo-Anuradhapura-Sigiriya-Polannaruwa-Colombo
Anuradhapura : The resting place we chose, as we explored a section of the ‘cultural triangle’. Once the glory and capital of Srilanka, Anuradhapura is now rich with cultural significance. Magnificent ruins are abundant and many a times even line the roadways. Along the area, many man-made lakes add to the serenity and remain as reminders of the fantastic architectural planning and well planned irrigation system of heyday.
Basic online search will throw light on the culture, historical significance and the must visit attractions. We chose to go with no specific expectation and agenda, giving ourselves a chance to explore at leisure. Our visit, however was extremely informative, fun and relaxed thanks to the company of Anura(who took us around in his bluebird) and Charita(who was our tour guide for the city of Anuradhapura).I cannot stress enough on how important it is not only to visit the three places with an open mind , but also to get a good guide and a good ride (you can travel around the area in a tuk-tuk but the roads are uneven and the weather too hot).
There are many many ruins to see and without a guide, it would feel that you are walking around in circles, watching variations of the same monument/stupa/ruin without understanding the significance.
Personal recommendation: Fix an appointment with Anura (he will bring his blue bird promptly to take you around), and ask for his best friend Charita too – a guide with much knowledge, who will give you free history lessons as well 🙂 . Both these gentlemen are extremely polite and pleasant, and made sure we covered as much as possible without draining ourselves out.
Sigiriya: For me this was the highpoint of the 3 days spent at the cultural triangle. Right from when I saw the images of this rock online, I knew the trip would be incomplete if this place was missed. Not really a trek, this tour involves a climb along rusty spiral stairs to reach the highest point of the rock palace (the spot where the kings quarters once were). Unfortunately, during our visit the palace and its surrounding architecture was only partially excavated and restored.A lot of restoration work is in progress, but judging by the massive areas of the ancient city that still stay buried under, it is difficult to say when the city will be open for visitors in its entirety.
Personal recommendation: At the entrance, you will be approached by several local guides who charge tourists approximately 800 LKR to 1000 LKR for a guided tour. Go ahead and hire them to ensure a detailed viewing of the site.
The first glimpses, as we approach Sigiriya lion rock.
Polonnaruwa: Even a breezy trip along this ancient city, will be enough for you to admire the architectural genius reflected in its ruins. You can almost imagine the beauty of this extremely organized, well planned and ornate city.
Like Anuradhapura this city is also peppered with many man-made lakes and detailed stone carvings. On some occasions the significance of the carvings/walls/pillars remained a mystery, as even the information notices only provided a approximate guess on what the ornate stone structure could have been.
Personal recommendation: Spend some time at the Gal Vihara, the serenity and beauty of the single stone carving is not to be missed. Also unique is the posture of the standing image of Buddha, which has been reason of much dispute.
Unique standing posture of Buddha
All in all I am glad, that these places were a part of our itinerary. All along our sight-seeing here, the roads blended in beautifully with the wilderness and the jungles welcomed whoever ventured.I loved, how the roads vanished along corners, almost apologetic of being intrusive and sticking to being as narrow as possible. 🙂
Colombo: This city was our first as well as our final destination in the country. While we spent the first day of our trip relaxing on the beach in Mount Lavinia. The final days in Srilanka were spend shopping and walking around along the streets of the capital city.
Where we stayed:
Anuradhapura: Palm Garden Village resort
One of the better hotels to stay in Anuradhapura, while the living quarters were great, the service was good and the food could use a lot of improvement. I felt no warmth from the staff and there were hitches in the services.
It was from here that we ventured out to Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa.
Personal Recommendation: Choose between half board and full board options if staying here. There are no restaurants close by and for food you will have to travel to Anuradhapura town (reachable only by tuk-tuk).
Mount Lavinia (Colombo): Tropic Inn
Without any doubt the best accommodation in our entire trip. The rooms are cozy and clean, the staff uber friendly and attentive, what’s more the beach is 1 minute away. All the shopping centers are 15 minutes by tuk-tuk or bus and the train station is two blocks away.
Personal recommendation: If in Colombo for leisure stay at Tropic Inn, even if you have the budget for a fancier hotel. I very highly recommend this place, for not only is it in the middle of all the goodness and convenience, it is also very easy on the pocket.
Colombo: Taj Samudra
This was the regular comfortable Taj experience, I have nothing to complain about (except that they forgot to pack our breakfasts well and hence we had to leave the same back). To reach the beach from the hotel you need to cross a road.However after 6 pm, you can only view the sea from a raised platform as the sea rides up and covers the narrow beach front. After the cozy experience of the Tropic Inn, Taj fades in charm.
Personal recommendation:If you must stay at the Taj Samudra, choose the sea facing rooms. Also, the spread in the lunch and dinner buffet is enticing and sometimes really good as well, for non-vegetarians that is, as a vegetarain while you may not go hungry, you will certainly miss on variety and taste.
What we ate:
Hopper in the making, this is a plain one. Another popular variation is the egg hopper.
The food in Srilanka is a blend of many cultures. What you immediately notice is the striking similarity to Indian cuisine (specifically with the cuisine from Kerala), abundance of fresh baked homemade bread, spiced curries that are milder on the senses and definite influences from the eastern as well as the western countries . Tea and coffee is a common accompaniment with all the major meals. (I even tried a cold beverage, which was a blend of tea, coffee and milk with sago). I spotted different eateries that advertised authentic European, Malaysian and Chinese dishes.What I loved most though, was that no matter where we went there was always access to fresh fruit juice and delicious at that (our trip was in the middle of the Mango season and we tried several sensational mixed fruit blends). If nothing else is available, the sweet coconut water is available in even the most remote areas. Sea food as expected is plenty, and is a popular snack along the beach front.
Kottu at the Taj (the best we had)
String hoppers with the Sambal at Tropic Inn
Watalappam at the Family restaurant in Anuradhapura Town
Egg hopper at any local eatery (Divine!!)
I have deliberately left out the places we visited within our pit stops, for much information exists on the same, and the experience of a first hand visit is something else.
1. Mosquitoes are plenty, carry a repellent cream, or make sure it is the first thing you buy there
2. The only issue we encountered was that the ignorance of the language made us venerable. If you are from India, there are very high chances that you can pass off as a Srilankan, I recommend you learn some Sinhala prior to your trip. This can also save you some money :).
3. Shop wisely. You could not be saving much and carrying extra baggage back.
4. Srilanka is a safe, civilized and organized place. However, check at the hotel counter before venturing out too late in the night.
5. Once again, if you are from India, take some saris as gifts for people you may like there. You can often hear the locals complain about how marked up these are sold there. 🙂
6. The most comfortable footwear to wear are slippers, for three reasons: around the cultural triangle you will be expected to remove the same, the weather is hot and humid, you will spend a lot of time on the beach.
7. As much as possible, plan the details of commute between destinations prior to the travel.
Useful links that will help you plan your trip:
If you need any specific information and think I can help, do leave a comment.
One of the many lakes around Anuradhapura- teaming with life these man-made reservoirs add to the beauty of the area.
While first impression’s may allow you to think that the sights of Srilanka are reminiscent of those in India, almost immediately the differences are visible everywhere. The lack of chaos, auto rickshaws replaced by the more colourful tuk-tuk’s, everyone dresses for comfort (even the locals always look like they are on vacation, the women dress up in colourful shirts and white flowing skirts, the men in ‘Hawaii’ shirts), trucks are few and far between and it is the buses that are ornately painted and decorated, fruit sold on the streets are hygienically packaged. There are no stray dogs, but plenty of road-side pet stores that urge you to “make a good dog, better”, always a nip in the air and wide open sea along the local train track.
Srilanka is a country that I could resonate with, not just because of its wonderful people and beauty but because it allowed me to be a tourist- living my life elsewhere, while always making me feel at home.
For those wondering about the title of the post, Stuti in Sinhala means “Thank you” :).
UPDATE October 2011 : Detailed inputs on sights, experiences, culture, food and staying options in Mount Lavinia can be read here.
Below are two short videos that I took during my trip to Srilanka, one shows making of the Srilankan dish Kottu and the other gives a fair idea of the view from rooms at Taj Samudra (Colombo, Galle Face).