Aidan journeys to Sri Lanka and finds the island formerly known as Ceylon, to be a very special brew
Continued from yesterday
Kandy and the Hills
Kandy is directly east of Colombo, lying in the very centre of Sri Lanka. It was the last place to fall to the British, and maintains a separate identity from the rest of Sri Lanka. Radiating out from the central lake, Sri Lanka’s second largest city still feels quite compact when compared to the sprawl of Colombo. The Temple of the Sacred Tooth draws Buddhist pilgrims from all over the world. Believed to be one of Buddha’s actual teeth, the Tooth Relic is now housed in an extraordinary reliquary within a temple by Kandy Lake. Anyone thinking of visiting it should read a history of both the object and the temple in which it is now housed, as what sounds like fairy-tale myth is often proven historical fact. As a result of a Tamil Tiger bomb in 1998, the temple is now protected by heavy security and barricades. But surprisingly perhaps, once inside the secure perimeter, the magic of the temple remains. Daily ceremonies open some of the outer doors to the Sacred Tooth, allowing pilgrims and visitors to get within about three metres of the casket. Although you cannot see the relic itself, the reliquary and the room in which it is housed are spectacular in their own right.
As with all cities, it is worth spending time away from any guides to explore the centre of Kandy on foot, getting a feel of the place rather than being herded from one site to another. Much like the rest of Sri Lanka, the local food is excellent, with Kandy boasting many ‘locals’ eateries which are easily accessible by even the most inexperienced visitors to the Indian sub-continent. If you have no idea what anything on the menu actually is, just ask the waiter what’s good! Trust me: you won’t be disappointed.
Galle and the beaches
Another World Heritage Site, Galle was originally a Dutch colony. The Dutch Church still remains, as do the impressive fort walls facing the sea. Galle was severely damaged by the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, but amazingly the 16th century walls protected the ancient fort. The actual fort area is relatively small, and feels like a cross between Venice and Havana: expect to see quaint buildings interspersed with jewellery boutiques, cafes combined with colonial architecture and some charmingly well-worn houses that give a sense of the unique set of circumstances which conspired to create the area that exists today.
That said, there is now supposed to be a growing community of ex-pats who have purchased and renovated houses in the old fort. It is certainly the main tourist focus in Galle, containing expensive quality hotels such as the Amangalla and the boutique Fort Printers (where we had a very enjoyable stay).
Heading north up the coast from Galle leads you to some of Sri Lanka’s main tourist beach resorts that you’re likely to see in you high street travel agent brochures. Being within a few hours’ drive of Colombo airport, it is easy to see why so many travellers drop in to unwind for a few days at the end of their sightseeing odyssey. One of the only problems is in trying to adjust to a Western mindset once more, after a taste of authentic Sri Lankan culture.
The wildlife is a key attraction for a number of visitors to Sri Lanka. I can readily believe the stories our driver told us of clients who come back year after year – just to visit the various wildlife reserves. As well as having one of the best beaches, Mirissa is also the best base for whale watching in Sri Lanka, and as far as blue whales are concerned, is arguably the top spot on the planet.
Yala is most famous national park, containing one of the highest densities of leopards anywhere in the world. Travelling around the park in your jeep, there is so much to see that it is hard to know which side of the track to concentrate on. As well as leopards, you’ll see elephants, boar, crocodiles, spotted deer and a staggering range of bird life, including eagles, hornbills, parrots, kingfishers, hoopoes, spoonbills and painted storks (those are just the ones I remember seeing). Although I was fortunate to see wild elephants and many species of birds (Indian Rollers are a new favourite) while driving around Sri Lanka, seeing so many different species together in the beautiful setting of Yala was something I would definitely recommend.
Sri Lanka is one of those rare places where you can be really greedy: the range of activities, hotels, scenery and sights available can be tailored to suit any type of traveller and budget. Careful planning and research of your trip to Sri Lanka will only improve your experience.