5 Ways Sri Lanka Crushed My Travel Bug (nearly)

The adage if you can’t say something nice, say nothing rings in my ears, especially as it pertains to travel and experiencing the unfamiliar, foreign or out-right weird. Conscientious travelers have a responsibility to be tolerant and non-judgmental, right? With that in mind, and coupled with the self-imposed obligation share the best of countries not my own, I reluctantly reveal 5 ways Sri Lanka nearly crushed my travel bug.

1. Oh the Driving

You need to hire a car and driver to expeditiously see the country, however road conditions and lack of direct routes (one main highway connecting not much) meant 31 hours of car travel, my least favourite form of conveyance, to cover just 700 miles up, down, and around the country. Beyond the sheer volume of road time, there’s also the take your life in your hands adrenaline rush involved. With narrow lanes, road-hogging lorries, and high-speed overtakers, nothing prepares you for driving (or riding as a terrified passenger) in a country where head-on collisions seem inevitable, avoided only by a system of flashing lights, hand signals, and an unwritten code of driver decorum. My road weary travel partner asked on day five, “have we been in Sri Lanka this whole time?” You do know it’s an island, I replied, but I know what you mean!

right of way goes to the biggest

safer to avoid the roads

2. Geckos, everywhere! Yes, I understand it’s a jungle out there. I understand geckos are harmless and necessary. Nonetheless tiny lizards in my shower, zipping around near my bed, and  scurrying towards my luggage, in every hotel room, every day. Give me strength.

hello little one

hello little one

3. Entrance Fees like Disneyland

While I appreciate and accept there will be “foreigner” prices, I don’t expect them to equate to home-country prices. For example the towns and ancient ruins of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa both cost $25 per person and you’ll pay $30 per person for the joy of climbing Sigiriya rock. In comparison the entrance fee for the Grand Canyon is $25 for a 7-day pass (USA); $12 to visit Stonehenge (UK); $16 to see the Mona Lisa and the rest of the artwork in the Louvre (France). Dear Tourist Board, A little perspective and if you would like to see more visitors, re-evaluate prices and consider some regulation.

No shoes allowed, best deal in town

no shoes allowed, best deal in town

4. Hawkers

The convergence of beggars and touts in every spot likely to be crossed by a tourist. According to my Bradt guidebook, “unlike hawkers in other countries, at least they are trying to sell something.” I could have funded my trip with the number of times I heard “it’s nothing to you.” The facts are you go on holiday for two weeks a year, take an expensive flight non-direct to somewhere like Colombo, and money is not nothing to you. I don’t live every day sparing no expense, so on holiday I want to enjoy myself. The steady stream of so-called vendors who invasively intruded into my adventure left me harassed and exhausted. Special mention goes to the “guides” and “helpers” at Sigiriya; despite my 2012 guidebook suggesting a small tip of Rs100 to Rs500 (a few dollars) depending on your rate of satisfaction, both asked or rather insisted on $20 compensation for their services at which point I really started to dislike Roytson Ellis author of Bradt Sri Lanka.

lower steps at Sigiriya, pre-daylight robbery, forced tip

lower steps at Sigiriya, pre-daylight robbery

5. 5-Star Prices

People travel to parts of the world where they get the best value for their currency. I didn’t expect absolute luxury, however with hotels rates of $250-$300+ per night I did expect more. For an out-of-the-way country determined to attract foreign visitors, it does not provide value for money asked. Honestly, if you are a back-packer, with tour-group, or a beach-going holiday-maker, you’ll be fine, avoid intrigue, and probably enjoy the country. Independent travelers like myself, who are desperately needed in a still-depressed tourism industry, may constantly feel abused beyond expected. My theories confirmed just prior to boarding my flight from Colombo where I needed $1.97 to buy a 500ml bottle of water; I subsequently purchased the same bottle 2 hours later in Mumbai International for a mere .39 cents. It’s the principle.

Day 6, "I'm never coming back!"

day 6, “too weary to smile for photos!”

Alright, time to make amends by saying several nice about traveling in Sri Lanka.

I am glad to be among the first throngs of tourists to rediscover the country. It is beautiful and I’d go as far to say, Lord Buddha painted Ceylon in a palette of yellow and green with the vast country-side specked with plantation style properties of the gentrified land-owning farmers.

road near Dambulla

road near Dambulla

road near Kandy

road near Kandy

landowner & property

landowner’s property

I am glad plans are underway to build a new super-highway.

I am glad there will be another airport connecting the deep south coast with the rest of the country but glad I saw the unspoiled, pre-developed southern coastline.

Indian Ocean

Indian Ocean

When I eventually return once the country has a handle on the “tourism thing” I have two must do’s that I missed this trip:

1. Start an ascent of Adam’s Peak at 1:00am to reach the summit at dawn. The country’s holiest pilgrimage, you’ll find an indentation at the summit that Buddhists believe is the footprint of Gautama Buddha, Hindus believe is the sacred footprint of Lord Shiva, and Muslims insist, and Christians agree, is Adam’s footprint left when he was cast out of the Garden of Eden. A convergence of religions in amicable disagreement ~ and a spectacular view.

2. Stay at another Taprobane property. Having patronized the Dutch House  which exudes excellence in abundance, I can not say enough about these wonderful boutique hotels.

Taprobane Island, private mansion Weligama Bay

Taprobane Island, private mansion Weligama Bay

~ 31st August 2013: Happy 2nd birthday to my blog-baby.

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Sri Lanka ~ 8-days and 7-nights

After booking my holiday to Sri Lanka, travel articles via Wanderlust, Condé Nast Travel, Trip Advisor, and Lonely Planet started appearing in my inbox hailing ancient Ceylon as a top 2013 travel destination. The tiny island just off the southern tip of India recovered from the devastating 2004 Boxing Day tsunami and long political unrest in 2009 when its civil war ended, to once again claim tourism as a major income source.

As I planned my own ambitious itinerary, I was determined to maximize limited time and see everything. Given the dimensions of the island, just slightly larger than West Virginia (in European terms roughly Belgium plus the Netherlands), I was optimistic.

Here’s my itinerary including sites and hotels:

My flight landed into pre-dawn darkness at the international airport, just 20 miles north of capital city, Colombo. Having arranged a car and driver with our hotel, we started in early morning light and drove inland on near deserted roads.

First stop, Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage founded in 1975 as a refuge for orphaned and abandoned elephants and now home to around 70 elephants. We arrived in perfect time for the first feeding at 9:15am followed by the first bath time at 10:00am.

feeding time

feeding time

up close and personal

up close and personal

he stopped and looked right at me!

he stopped and looked right at me!

bath time

bath time

We checked-in to our first hotel in the afternoon, the Heritance Kandalama, an ecological wonder built straight into a cliff by architectural legend, Geoffrey Bawa. We called it the jungle hotel, not because of the monkeys on our balcony or geckos everywhere, but because its dirt road goes so deep into the wild, we were genuinely concerned if we needed to get out.

The hotel was an excellent base for exploring the archaeological monuments of the Cultural Triangle, the triangular area between the cities of Kandy, Anuradhapura, and Polonnaruwa, and from it we visited four of Sri Lanka’s eight (yes eight) UNESCO World Heritage Sites:

The sacred city of Anuradhapura Sri Lanka’s first capital founded in the 5th century BC and capital city of Buddhism:

In front of the Old Shrine

In front of the Old Shrine

reclining Buddha

reclining Buddha

sitting Buddha

sitting Buddha

Stupa (Buddhist burial mound)

Stupa (Buddhist burial mound)

The Sri Maha Bodi or Sacred Bo Tree grown from a transplanted branch of the tree under which Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment. A revered Buddhist holy place, it is the oldest documented tree in the world (2,200 hundred years old).

Sacred Bo Tree

Sacred Bo Tree

closer look

closer look at a holy branch

Polonnaruwa medieval capital city with ruins and shrines dating from the 10th to 13th century AD:

Buddha shrine at Vatadage

Buddha shrine at Vatadage

close up at Vatadage

base of the stairs, Vatadage

standing Buddha at Gal Vihara

reclining Buddha at Gal Vihara

close up of standing Buddha at Gal Vihara

standing Buddha close up, Gal Vihara

Sigiriya rock fortress a massive stone monolith dating from the 5th century AD also known as the Lion Rock. Views from the once royal palace at the summit are worth the 180m (591 ft) vertical climb:

Sigiriya

Sigiriya

Lion paws

traversing up above the Lion paws

cave with 5th century frescoes

Cloud Maidens, 5th century frescoes

view from the top

view from the top

what goes up must go down the narrow caged in stairs!

what goes up, goes down narrow caged-in stairs!

Golden Temple of Dambulla and 1st century cave-shrines:

museum and temple

museum and temple

Buddha's view of Sigiriya

Buddha’s view of Sigiriya

another long climb to the caves

another long climb to reach the caves

After the sequence of stairs to reach the temple inside the hill, some 340m above the entrance, depositing our shoes to walk barefoot though the five caves, here we had the best guide who kindly shared his historical knowledge and beliefs about the philosophy of Buddhism.

cave paintings and carvings

cave paintings, carvings and statues

lots of Buddhas

lots of Buddhas

giant reclining Buddha

giant reclining Buddha

close up reclining Buddha

close up reclining Buddha

good place to rest before the walk back down

good place to rest before the walk back down

On Day 4 we relocated to Kandy and our second hotel, Mahaweli Reach. The royal city of Kandy is another UNESCO World Heritage Site and the last capital of the Sinhalese Kings. From here we visited the Royal Botanical Gardens, Peradeniya surrounded by the Mahaweli Ganga (River) and extending nearly 148 acres. The grounds, with giant fig trees, beautiful manicured lawns, and stunning flora, are an idyllic, peaceful place to relax.

the gardens

the gardens

Orchid House

Orchid House

pretty flowers

pretty flowers

lovely orchids

lovely orchids

bird-watching

and a little bird-watching

Kandy’s main attraction is Sri Dalada Maligawa or Temple of the Tooth. The Sacred Tooth believed recovered from the ashes following Buddha’s cremation hence making the temple a spiritual place of veneration for Buddhists. We visited during one of the daily formal prayer offerings or puja, when pilgrims can join the procession to see the casket containing the tooth. The drums pounding throughout as monks in bright saffron robes chanted, the rewarding  glimpse of the gold-gilded casket and experiencing the sacred, the transcendent. Unforgettable.

Temple of the Tooth

Temple of the Tooth

join the pilgrims

joining the pilgrims

monks everywhere

monks everywhere

the sacred housed behind those golden doors

the sacred tooth housed behind golden doors

One can’t see everything, so we consciously missed the Central Highlands, the cold, wet tea-growing region also known as Little England. I live in London, I passed. Instead we started the long, long drive from Kandy to the deep south coast. Turning right “near the 214km post on the Tangalle highway” and way-off-any-beaten-path we found Turtle Bay in Kalametiya for a few relaxing days at a remote beach hotel on the southern tip of Sri Lanka, just 6º from the equator and facing Antarctica.

Turtle Bay Hotel

Turtle Bay Hotel

view from the pool

view from the pool

Indian Ocean sunset at Turtle Bay

Indian Ocean sunset at Turtle Bay

Day 7. No missed opportunities. Sightseeing on the two-hour drive from Tangalle to Galle.

Indian Ocean

Indian Ocean

Weherahena Temple near Matara

Weherahena Temple near Matara

fishing villiage, Weligama Bay

fishing village, Weligama Bay

famous stilt fisherman, Weligama

famous stilt fisherman, Weligama

refreshments courtesy of king coconut vendor

refreshments courtesy of king coconut vendor

Onwards to the Dutch fortifications in Galle, the sixth UNESCO World Heritage Site on our agenda. Spent a lazy afternoon walking the charming streets and alleys of Old Galle and the ancient walls around the colonial fort. Stopping for tea at the luxurious Amangalla Hotel is a must.

Galle Fort, Moon Bastion

Galle Fort, Moon Bastion

watching cricket on the ramparts, International Stadium

watching cricket from the ramparts, Int’l Stadium

Old Galle

Old Galle

All Saints Church

All Saints Church

verandah, Amangalla Hotel

verandah, Amangalla Hotel

Galle promenade, from the lighthouse

Galle promenade, from the lighthouse

Our last night in Sri Lanka at the Doornberg (The Dutch House) was perfection with bouquets of flowers, gentle background music, detailed room decor, and plentiful artwork. Dinner across the street at sister residence, the elegant Sun House, and its 3-course menu won best meal of the trip. The staff was so attentive, I sneezed and a tissue appeared in a blink. In appreciation of your visit, owner Geoffrey Dobbs kindly donates a planted tree on your behalf to preserve the country’s coastline. Amazing.

my chamber, the Doornberg

my chamber, the Doornberg

happy, dinner at the Sun House

happy, dinner at the Sun House

Last day in Sri Lanka started with a Simpifly chartered helicopter flight over the hill country from the tea plantations to Adam’s Peak. That was awesome.

co-pilot

co-pilot

southern interior

hill country

tea plantations

tea plantations

central highlands waterfall

central highlands waterfall

The rest of the day we spent in Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, had lunch at Galle Face Hotel and walked on the promenade of Galle Face Green.

Galle Face Hotel

Galle Face Hotel

promenade, Galle Face Green

promenade, Galle Face Green

snacks, Galle Face Green

lots of snacks, Galle Face Green

sunset, Galle Face Green, Colombo

sunset, Galle Face Green, Colombo

That is how you squish a 14-day itinerary into 8-days and 7-nights. Should you have any energy left, Bandaranaike International Airport has a tea village with up-market tea-shops towards departures gate 14. Enjoy.