Covid-19 has restricted travel largely, but the memories of past travels are still fresh in the minds of travel enthusiasts. Amongst them is this account of a memorable trip to Sri Lanka, a region known for its Buddhist temples, tea, elephants and... blue whales
Covid-19 has been a testing time for travel aficionados. The feet itch for a ride to the airport to see new lands and discover the least expected. While we all value time at home, there is a certain indescribable hollowness. It is for a reason it is said (a quote attributed to the king of travellers Ibn-i-Battuta): “Traveling leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.”
But stay put we must for our benefit and for the benefit of those near and dear to us. This has also been a time to recharge the travel batteries. I have spent (more than) considerable time on YouTube looking at travel v-logs and shortlisting where I would like to go next.
I reminisce my past travels and relive the highlights. As I delve into my itinerant history, some trips stand out. Amongst them is the trip to Sri Lanka.
Initially, I was not keen to go there. The country did not seem foreign enough. We share the same South Asian heritage and an identical colonial history. But the cricket fan in me compelled me to go to the land of Silky Sangakkara and Murali the Magician. Plus, the trip budget worked out to be incredibly reasonable.
And I was not disappointed.
I planned my trip carefully as I had a week to play with. I decided to focus on the southeast region of the Emerald Island. Due to its ancient Buddhist history, Sri Lanka is replete with temples and other Buddhist landmarks. All worth seeing but, as I had learnt from experience, this could easily become a case of too much of a good thing. I structured my trip to be a mix of history, nature, culture and the culinary.
I booked a van to explore the region by road. The most interesting part of this arrangement was my driver/guide, Aseetha (full name too long to mention). A thoroughly agreeable fellow, unfortunately suffering from a neck sprain. He had a serious-looking brace on. This meant he had to turn his whole body towards me to have a conversation. In normal circumstances, this would not be an issue. However, Aseetha continued this practice while driving at breakneck (pun intended) speeds on busy roads. It also meant that I asked him a minimum of questions while moving.
I forgot to mention that Aseetha barely spoke English but was fluent in Japanese. This was the result of 12 years he had spent in Japan. For some reason, the agency felt I could do better with a Japanese speaker in Sri Lanka. I decided to overlook these matters and was rewarded with Aseetha’s enthralling company. It only added to the fun.
The journey started in Colombo, a city with character. A mix of ancient Buddhist temples and, more recently, buildings of European colonial heritage (Portuguese, Dutch and the English). One such building is the Old Dutch Hospital which now houses chic restaurants and boutique stores. The highlight is The Ministry of Crab, a high-end seafood restaurant owned by none other than cricket legends Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayewardene. The beachfront at Galle Face offers the views of a stunning sunset. In the evening, the beach and the adjacent park are full of local families enjoying kite flying and delicious street food freshly caught from the sea.
With 10 percent of its population Muslim, Sri Lanka boasts a healthy Islamic heritage. Most Muslims are involved in trade and commerce and it is not unusual to see many Muslim-run shops in bazaars. The beautiful Jami Ul Alfar Mosque in old Colombo is an example of this.
The cities are clean, there is no garbage strewn around and no stench that is home to many South Asian cities in India and Pakistan. Maybe it’s the Buddhist influence, maybe it’s the local culture, I don’t know. Whatever it is, we should find out and replicate it.
Kandy is a picturesque city with a famous lakeside temple which holds Buddha’s tooth. Olde Empire Cafe in Kandy merits a mention. It offers a modern twist to the local cuisine in a beautifully restored colonial building. The Sri Lankan cuisine is quite delicious and would suit the Pakistani palate. In addition to seafood, a typical meal would be coconut-based with rich aroma and spices mixed in.
For me, Galle was the surprise of the trip. I went there to see the cricket ground Galle Cricket Stadium. Arguably the most breath-taking location for an international cricket stadium. Flanked by the Indian Ocean on two sides and a Dutch fort on another, it is hard to choose between the cricket and the views. Surrounded by old city walls, Old Galle is a treasure trove of small whitewashed lanes teeming with trendy cafes, restaurants, and hotels. One could easily spend a couple of days walking around this area. My only wish was I had more time to explore this beautiful city.
Sri Lanka is also blessed with nature. It is named the Emerald Island for a good reason. Everywhere you turn you are greeted by a wall of green. It is lush and never-ending. The vegetation stops where the sea begins.
The famous Sigiriya Rock sticks out of the lush green forest and views from the top (with another temple) are worth the climb. This does involve negotiating with energetic monkeys and frequent attacks by the wasp colony that inhabits the rock. Every few minutes a warning is sounded, and we lie down to let the flying squadron of wasps go by.
Ceylon tea. The very definition of quality and flavour. It is grown in high altitude tea gardens on an endless series of rolling hills. Most famous of these is the tea town of Nuwara Eliya. This is the only time I parted from Aseetha as I had to take the famous train ride. As the train chugged towards Nuwara Eliya it also took me back in time. Pretty colonial houses, pristine waterfalls and lush jungles pass you by on this, one of the most beautiful of train rides. En route, there was a heavy downpour which meant the train slowed down, just as time seemed to do as well. I sipped piping hot tea grateful for just being there. Recommended.
A less mentioned aspect of Sri Lanka is the wildlife. Apart from the popular elephant sanctuaries, there is more to discover. I spent a couple of days at two nature reserves: Yala and Udawale. Impressively cared for, they offer African safari-style pickups to drive visitors around. I saw large varieties of monkeys, peacocks in full splendour, wild bear, crocodiles, deer and a glimpse of a leopard, to name but a few. I am surprised this does not get highlighted as a high-quality attraction.
Mirissa is a pretty seaside town known for its beautiful sandy beaches replete with palm trees and copybook sunsets. But there is more to it. Recently it was discovered that Mirissa sits on the migration path of the largest mammal on earth - the elusive blue whale. As an avid whale watcher, I can vouch that a sighting of a blue whale is a rare occurrence. Here, on a single boat trip, I saw no less than 16 blue whales. As far as I am concerned, this experience alone is worth a trip to Sri Lanka.
Since independence Sri Lanka has had its ups and downs. The latest being the long-drawn conflict, with the Tamils in the north, which came to a bloody end a decade ago. The country is now relatively peaceful, and the civil society has handled the recent bombing by Islamic extremists quite well. The government is promoting tourism aggressively and given the prices, it is certainly a high value-for-money destination.
This region was devastated by the 2004 tsunami. More than 40,000 lives were lost and a sombre memorial on the beach at Yala Reserve is a reminder of this tragedy. Yet the people stood up and rebuilt their homes, schools and the infrastructure. For tourists, the facilities are first class.
Earlier, I mentioned similarities between Sri Lanka and its South Asian neighbours. Now let me highlight the difference. Cleanliness. The cities are clean, there is no garbage strewn around and no stench that is home to many cities in India and Pakistan. Maybe it’s the Buddhist influence, maybe it’s the local culture, I don’t know. Whatever it is, we should find out and replicate it.
Lastly the people. I found them warm and hospitable. They are curious to talk to foreigners. Aseetha, for example, surprised us with a stopover at his home to meet his family who wanted to see us. We were treated to a wonderful Sri Lankan home-cooked lunch.
My advice for those thinking about Sri Lanka once the Covid-19 crisis is over: go.
The writer is a finance professional based in Dubai