I have been meaning to write this blog since I returned from Sri Lanka in October this year. However it was one week before my return from sabbatical, and life took over. It has been hectic since my return to work however I am still keen to provide an outline of my Sri Lankan trip and adventures.
It was the first time that I had ever signed up for a ‘package-tour’. Being a misanthrope means it does not fill me with delight to know that I will be in strangers’ company for two weeks, often in a confined space (i.e. a coach)! On this occasion however I got off lightly as the majority were nice people and they didn’t demand undying friendship or express the need to exchange details, promising to visit soon….phew! There was one chap who clearly thought he was better than everyone else, accompanied by his equally irritating wife who felt she needed to share the story of her life at every opportunity, however for the most part they kept themselves to themselves.
We took a red-eye flight out of Heathrow direct into Colombo arriving 9th October (this reminded me that another of my pet hates is people putting seats back on planes and so this has been added to my dislikes on my ‘About’ page of this blog). We were greeted by what at first impressions appeared to be a rather jaded tour guide (turned out to be a good bloke actually). Having flown all night and excited about the pending trip I was hoping for a cheery “Welcome to Sri Lanka!!” however the reality was “stand over there – we are waiting for the rest of the group. I will be with you in a minute.” We transferred fairly swiftly to the amazing Jetwing Lagoon Hotel in Negombo, about 30-45 minute drive up the coast. This hotel did not disappoint and I have to say it was in fact the hotel highlight of the trip. We had a beautiful room with comfy bed and pillows and a stunning bathroom. The hotel is also equipped with the most amazing 100 metre swimming pool! The food was also the best we had our entire trip. We were very impressed and it was a fantastic start to the trip – we only wished we had spent more than one night there!
The following day I was greeted by the team who were to be with us over the next few days – our tour guide, our driver and a ‘handler’ who dealt with a range of things. The latter of which greeted the ladies every morning with a flower for their hair…very smooth! We visited the ‘drying fish’ markets as we headed out of Negombo toward the 1st century caves of Dambulla, a UN World Heritage site. The caves are within a vast granite outcrop, and each cave (there are five in total) are preserved with frescoes and Buddhist statues.
As a committed animal lover I was struck during the first day by the number of street dogs in Sri Lanka. Some of them were a very poor sight however they also seemed to live in a strange kind of harmony with the human communities. The other thought I was left with as a health researcher and encephalitis expert was why the Rabies vaccination had not been recommended before my trip given the level of street dogs (I also acknowledge the Sri Lankan Health ministry has made great strides in eliminating Rabies in the last few years). Perhaps my thoughts around vaccination will form part of a future blog! I can hear the controversy now! Stopping off for a refreshment on route to our next destination we also encountered a ‘snake-charmer’ and whilst I recognise the need to earn a living in often-difficult circumstances, I still couldn’t help feel sorry for the snake – the lid being lifted and it being poked to perform at even the most random sight of a potential tourist. As always I did not engage – it is only through tourists refusing to engage in such practices will they cease to exist. There is an irony in this statement however and a shame I feel which will come all too clear later tin this blog.
That evening we arrived at Habarana Village by Cinnamon. After the five star Jetwing Lagoon I would be lying if I said this didn’t feel a bit of a letdown. However it was three-star acceptable – each ‘room’ was in fact a stand alone ‘chalet’. The ‘room-service’ menu choices left something to be desire: Peanut butter, Nutella and bacon sandwiches, and fries served with Nutella and whipped cream to name just two! The hotel had a fantastic ambience in the evening (along with resident street dogs – mum, dad, and puppy) as well as a fantastic local band called ‘Apple’ knocking out anything from Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones to the Eagles!
The next day we visited Sigiriya Rock (Lion Rock), known locally as the Eighth Wonder of the World, and a highlight of my trip – a personal challenge to climb the 600 ft granite tower with sheer cliffs on all sides – the remains of a 1500 year old royal palace. It requires a good level of fitness to climb and given I had been working on my health and fitness during 2018 so it really felt like achieving this climb was evidence of the progress I had made. Sadly the toll the climb could have taken had I not have been investing in my body was made all the more evident when I later learnt that one of the previous trip the same time the year before, collapsed and died on the rock.
On top of Sigiriya Rock! Result!
The following morning we headed further inland, passing through traditional Sri Lankan towns and villages, and countryside that contained coconut groves, pineapple fields and paddy fields, often with resident water buffalo. We visited a spice garden where many plants and spices are grown to support the Ayurvedic medicine system of Sri Lanka – one of the world’s oldest holistic healing systems, developed more than 3,000 years ago. It is based on the belief that health and wellness depend on a delicate balance between the mind, body, and spirit. The tour and talk were very interesting. I also had a wonderful back and neck massage there. However then came the ‘hard sell’ in the shop we were all corralled into. Given I am a fairly robust individual with a scientific background, I can only assume it was the heady nature of being carefree and on holiday that saw me spending eye-watering sums of money that resulted in my husband having a strange, almost twisted look, that would, in other circumstances, have translated into an exclamation of “How much??” (you have to do that in a northern, preferably booming Yorkshire accent). Anyway the massage oils are lovely but the supplements for a range of other ills really do not work, I assure you! I was even asked if I wanted something for my Rosacea (redness of the face). I don’t have Rosacea (my head knows this to be a fact) and yet I still spent the next few days examining in fine detail my insulted face!
We then arrived at the Kandy Cinnamon Hotel where we had a lovely room and balcony overlooking the river. Kandy is the royal capital of Sri Lanka and is bordered by the Mahweli River on one side and steep forested hillsides not he other. In the evening we ventured out and experienced Kandyan traditional dance as well as fire-eating and walking.
The following day we visited the very beautiful Royal Botanical Gardens in Kandy, planted over 150 years ago and covering 150 acres. They hold thousands of plant species and tropical trees as well as a range of commemorative tress planted by UK royals. They also have some cheeky Macaques playing among the foliage and entertaining those passing through.
The following morning we were up very early as we were to visit the Temple of the Tooth – the most sacred shrine on the island. It was to be very crowded later in the day and so our guide had us there at the crack of dawn (Ok, maybe a bit after that). It was most impressive but I guess buildings and shrines dedicated to religion don’t give me as much pleasure as other things and so my overwhelming memory from this is of Raja – a stuffed tusker elephant! He was majestic and massive but I admit to shedding a little tear when I considered his life – captured, sold, enforced obedience, loneliness and isolation, and even after his death being stuffed.
We then proceeded to drive into increasingly mountainous terrain as we headed toward Sri Lanka’s tea-growing areas. Winding upwards we snaked through tropical jungle and tall pine forests where the tea plantations covered the landscape like a huge green carpet. We visited Glenloch tea plantation and learnt how tea there is rolled, dried and graded.
We finished the afternoon 7000 ft above sea level at Nuwara Eliya where it was a little chillier to say the least and stayed for one night at the Jetwing St Andrews hotel – a colonial style hotel but one in need of some work I’m afraid.
The following morning we left the mountains and headed toward the ‘dry zone’ where we saw the beautiful Lake Gregory as we left and the planting flats. We made our way out of the mountains and to the Centauria Wild hotel – a relatively new hotel which was very nice but which has an unfathomable problem with flies which I spent much energy eradicating in our room. We witnessed a tropical thunderstorm one afternoon from the comfort of our room and balcony and I learnt not to leave chocolate on my bedside as it became a haven to an army of ants when I returned later that day!
The following day we experienced a safari in Udawalawe National Park where we saw a range of animals and wildlife. Although not all in the park, I recorded sightings of the following during my two weeks in Sri Lanka: A range of Lizards, Egrets, Greater Egrets, White-necked Storks, Fruit Bats, Macaques, Goldfish, Koi Carp, Elephants, Dragonflies, Butterflies and Moths, Large ants, Mosquitoes, Feral Dogs and Cats, Cows, Cobras, Pelicans, Ducks, Terrapins, Chipmunks, Frogs, Bare-faced Monkeys, Crocodiles, Water Buffalo, Peacocks, Monitor Lizards, Jackals, Storks, Spoonbills, Ibis, Eagles, Bee-eaters, Kingfishers. Not at all bad – methinks!
That afternoon we visited the much-anticipated Elephant Transit Home run by the Born Free Foundation. I have to say that before booking this holiday I did much research into the places we would be visiting particularly those responsible for animals in order to ensure we would only be supporting responsible animal welfare. This was made easier by the help on the Responsible Travel website where I am able to reassure myself that the elephants at this sanctuary would be reintegrated back in to the wild where possible and that tourists were kept a good distance from what are ostensibly wild animals. We had the best seats on the viewing platform and it was an absolute treat to see the babies running for their milk and feeding. Personally I generally never feel the need to touch or invade the space of animals and wildlife I encounter – I simply gaze in awe of nature and the gift of being able to share a few precious moments that leave me feeling humbled and grateful. As you will read shortly however this turned into a bitter pill later in my trip and one that still provokes anxiety in me.
The following day we travelled to Galle stopping on one of the many beaches (in this instance Tangalle) to buy a few gifts and to stare in awe at the traditional Sri-Lankan fishermen. In Galle we explored the fort walls and lighthouse, as well as shopping at Embark, a charity shop dedicated to transforming the lives of Sri Lanka’s street dogs, before arriving at our final hotel destination of the tour the Jetwing Lighthouse Hotel, where that evening we enjoyed a buffet dinner and more traditional dance.
The following day we visited the Mangroves by boat and Cinnamon Island where a local family explained the process of extracting cinnamon oil from leaves and preparation of cinnamon sticks from the bark of the tree. Later we visited a Turtle Conservation Centre which, like Raja the stuffed elephant, reduced me to tears. First was because I am not convinced this conservation centre had the best interests of the turtles at heart. They were lifted out of tanks and we were encouraged to hold them. I am ashamed to admit now I did this as I it is completely out of character for me to want to invade the space of any creature I encounter. My husband refused and my shame enveloped me as soon as I realised my folly. The second reason was that some of these creatures, often blind and deformed and who would never be reintegrated back into the wild, thus forced to spend their life in a concrete tank with nothing in it, should in my personal view have been euthanised. Finally some turtles who appeared healthy were, we were told, not able to be reintegrated and yet they seemed to be being retained for the purposes of tourists in my view. Finally the way our human actions devastate their environment and lead to often slow, tortuous death for these magnificent creatures. I was overwhelmed by sadness and was grateful my sunglasses hid my shame and distress.
The following two days were relatively uneventful, strolling the hotel beach and chilling out in our room. We relished this after such a busy ten days – perfect time to rest before the return flight home. We agreed we were a bit tired of buffet dinners so we treated ourselves to the tasting menu at Nihal’s one of the hotel’s restaurants one night and dined there a la carte on our final evening. The food was divine!
Then came time for the flight back to Heathrow. So what do I make of my time in Sri Lanka. It is a very peaceful country in both its people and its environment – there’s a tranquility about it that is calming and soothing. I learnt that I can still be vulnerable to tourist trap sells despite thinking I won’t have the wool pulled over my eyes – there is something humbling in this and profound, at least for me, lessons to be learnt. All in all it was a wonderful break and I did realise that if you are time limited then a package tour is the way to see the best a country has to offer in a short space of time.
Thank you Sri Lanka – you certainly left an impression on me and I am grateful for your teachings and the treasures you shared with me.