Aidan journeys to Sri Lanka and finds the island formerly known as Ceylon, to be a very special brew
Thinking where to go is usually a trade-off between desires and practical considerations. What do you want in terms of things like weather, scenery, wildlife, food, culture and activities? On the practical side you have to factor in things like overall price, how hard it will be to get around, and flight time. Sri Lanka, on paper, covered nearly all the desires while offering flight times that are acceptable – the added bonus being that this island is reasonably cheap once you have arrived.
Having been to India before, I had assumed that Sri Lanka would be similar in many ways to its subcontinent sibling. However it turns out that apart from frightening traffic and an obsession with cricket, the two countries are quite different.
Sri Lanka truly offers something for every visitor – no matter what their budget is – and with so many options and potential itineraries you will almost certainly miss something which friends tell you is a “must see”.
Colombo Bandaranaike airport is well served by the national carrier, Sri Lankan Airlines, as well as by Emirates and Qatar Air via the Middle East. Flight times aren’t ideal: the usual Sri Lankan Airlines Colombo to Heathrow flight departs at 2.15 am or 11.15am signalling either a very early or very late start. It’s a good idea to book your flights first before confirming any itinerary as there will always be hotel options available, but flight availability might mean you have to make last minute changes.
Getting around Sri Lanka
Although a small island, Sri Lanka can take longer to get around than might be expected. The roads are mostly single lanes and driving is best being left to the locals who understand the nuances of how to overtake. They also have a highly developed sixth sense of where motorbikes will appear from which we don’t! We took the lazy option of hiring a car and driver for the whole time we were in Sri Lanka. While this may seem extravagant, it offers a level of comfort and is a stress free way to see Sri Lanka. Local buses are best left to locals or hard core backpackers. While being very cheap, they are usually crowded and uncomfortable, stopping frequently, meaning that even the shortest of journeys can take a ridiculously long time. Tuk tuks are a good option for short distances, but a car and driver will have to be used for longer journeys. Fortunately, hiring a car for a long one way journey is the norm, especially between the more touristy routes.
For a place which many will still associate with the British Empire, the train system is surprisingly limited. The only journey we did was a tourist classic, going from Kandy in the observation carriage into hill country. It was a beautiful journey, but long and not terribly fast. Book as far in advance as possible via a local agent as there are only a small number of seats (roughly 40) and they tend to go like hot cakes. Built by the British, it still uses the old system of signs and signal boxes which definitely add a hint of nostalgia.
Regions and itineraries
Some people will be entirely happy relaxing on one of Sri Lanka’s perfect beaches for two weeks. However, there is a great deal to see beyond the beaches and there are a number of well-trodden ‘loops’ which travellers of any level of experience can do.
To the north east of Colombo, lie three key historical sites: Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura and Dambulla (the proper town nearest to the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Sigiriya Fort, otherwise known as the Rock of Sigiriya). Personally, I found Sigiriya to be one of the most astonishing places I have ever visited. Its construction defies belief: built over a number of years starting around 477 AD, the Fort is on top of a remarkable natural rock formation known as the Lion’s Rock. Although nearly all of the Fort buildings have gone, water tanks and earth works remain, conveying the sense that people did somehow inhabit it. As a defensive base, it is impossible to imagine how it was ever taken. When I mentioned to a colleague that I was off to Sri Lanka, he helpfully told me “everyone says Sigiriya is amazing, and that you have to go, but it really is, and you really must”. He was right. Although there are a lot of steps (around 750), the climb isn’t difficult and both the Rock itself and the view from the top reward any effort involved. While the rock is the main attraction, the Sigiriya site has much more to offer. Even if you are unable to make the climb up the rock, do visit the rest of the site at ground level. The museum is worth a punt too.
Read the second part of Aidan’s article tomorrow, exclusively on CD-Traveller!