Sri Lanka: The jewel of the Indian Ocean

Sri Lanka- the homeland of my heritage and the answer people often expect me to give to the question ‘Where are you from?’

Located in the Indian Ocean, south of India, it is a country that, up until recently,  experienced a violent civil war. Enduring a 26 years long civil war made travel and tourism challenging, however this is slowly improving. Although a small island, it is an island rich in history. Most notably, Sri Lanka’s history is known for its time under British rule. From 1817 to 1948 the British ruled Sri Lanka, then known under the name Ceylon. However the British weren’t the only ones to occupy the country. Prior to British rule, Sri Lanka experienced possession by the Portuguese  (1505-1658) and the Dutch (1640-1796) which contributes to it’s unique and rich culture. As a result of this diverse history, Sri Lanka is home to large range of religions and cultures. This is also represented with the colours of the flag: orange represents the Hindus (Tamils), yellow represents the majority religion Buddhists protecting the Hindus and Muslims, Green represents the Muslims and Maroon represents the majority Sinhalese.

Facts about Sri Lanka

Here are some other fun facts about Sri Lanka:

  • it’s currency is the Sri Lankan rupee
  • locals do speak English
  • there are two official languages; Tamil and Sinahelse
  • The capital is Colombo
  • It is a commonwealth country
  • It experienced vast damage during the 2004 Tsunami

For myself, I was dying to explore this country. This was partly due to my heritage but also because its repuation of beauty. I had only stopped in, very briefly on a stopover to Japan. At that time, the civil war was still raging and the military force was evident the minute you stepped off the plane. My friends and I only explored nearby Negombo (near Colombo) during our one day stopover.

However, last December my husband and I set out to visit Sri Lanka and explore as much as we could during my week off. Having booked and ‘planned’ (I use this term loosely) whilst working, I didn’t really know what to expect. I just knew that we had to see Kandy (the cultural capital set in the hills) and Hikkaduwa (a beach town in the southwest of the country). And with those two things in mind we set off.

Kandy

We arrived late in the evening. As it had been raining all day, the wet, windy roads needed to be carefully manouvered. We managed to arrange a driver from the airport and he set off on a 3hr drive non-stop to get us up to the hills. The roads are something I wouldn’t recommend a tourist taking on with a rental car. They are windy, poorly lit and frequented by buses rampaging through, whilst beeping their horn to cut through the streets! I watched locals walk on the side of the road, through the dark. As cars flew by, I was fearful for their lives.

Where we stayed

As the roads started to get more windy, we knew we were approaching Hill country. And from the steep climb (in a car) to our hotel, I knew the morning view was going to be stunning. We had booked  to stay at the Amaya Hills in Kandy, predominately for the views. And they didn’t disappoint. In fact, I got quite obsessed with the view. To read more about our stay at the Amaya Hills, click here for my tripadvisor review.

What we did

The Kandy hills are absolutely stunning and provides a wonderful backdrop for relaxation. However, being the cultural capital of the country, there were a few places I wanted to see. Mainly Kandy town and a tea plantation. Bare in mind, I did very little planning prior to this trip so much of what we visited beyond these two points was a beautiful surprise.

We arranged our day trips with the hotel which was fairly easy. Our first day trip, we visited Kandy town which is also home to the Temple of the Tooth relic and the Big White Buddha that overlooks the city. Our driver also suggested we see the Royal Botanical Gardens. We weren’t too fussed to see it previously but were so glad we did. It was stunning. And perhaps our reaction to it was stronger in light of the fact that we had spent the last four months in a world of beige with no lush vegetation. My favourite part of the Royal Botanical Gardens was the orchid greenhouse and my photos probably suggest as much as well.

Our next day trip consisted of visiting an elephant orphanage, a spice garden and a tea plantation. I did do a bit of research on the elephant orphanages and really struggled on a) whether we should go or not and b) if we did go, which one? There was a lot to keep in mind in terms of ethical care and protection of these gentle giants. For one, I wasn’t sure how I felt contributing to something that may harm them and was just a tourist trap. In the end we settled with going to Millennium Elephant Orphanage. You can read more about our visit here.

Our driver also suggested we go to a spice garden. We didn’t really know what to expect but the admission was free and it was right there… so we did. It was probably one of the coolest things we saw in Sri Lanka. Basically a medicinal garden, we learned all about plants and their medicinal properties and how it is extracted. Being a bit of a city dweller, it was nice to see what a plant looked like eg: a plant which gives us curry leaves. Beware of spice gardens though. Upon return we read that some really do try to rip tourists off eg: selling a natural hair removal cream which ended up being veet when they got home. This didn’t happen with us and they accepted donations for their tour rather than suggesting a price for us.

Our final stop was a tea plantation. Again, admission and tour was free to Geragama Tea Plantation. It’s hard to find information about the tea plantation on tripadvisor other than in a forum, so here’s my two cents on it. I truly loved it. We just showed up and a lady that worked in the factory took us around and showed us about the process of making tea. It was really cool to see these old machines still working and at the end we were rewarded with a cup of tea. You can buy tea from the little tea shop and make a donation to the tea plantation. We were also able to walk the grounds to take a look at the plantation itself, built into the hills. However we cut our walk short when two tea pickers were following us and asking for money.

Hikkaduwa

After 3 days in Kandy we headed south to Hikkaduwa. It was beautiful staying in the hills but I was ready for some sun and beach time.

Where we stayed

We were staying at the Citrus Hikkaduwa which was on the beach front. Our driver (the same one that took us to Kandy from the airport), recommended a good beach restaurant, Refresh, and it didn’t disappoint. I didn’t realise Hikkaduwa was known to be a surfing spot and it was amazing to see. We were spoiled with beautiful sunsets and started a vacation trend of sundowner drinks on the beach. This consisted of us racing down to the beach to get front row seats at a beach cafe for sunset.

What we did

Again, having not researched much about this trip there wasn’t much I was adamant to see. I just wanted to see the turtle sanctuary nearby. So once again, we arranged a driver (this time not through the hotel) and he took us out to the turtle hatchery. We had a very comprehensive tour and even got to hold a few turtles. Our driver also recommended the Madu River tour of a lagoon rich with wildlife. This proved to be one of the highlights of the trip, to be on the water, spotting wildlife and learning how cinnamon sticks were made.

There was a lot more we could have done, like a day trip to Galle, which would’ve been nice to see especially for Christmas eve (which is bigger than Christmas day for the country) however we felt it would’ve been too rushed. One thing to note for travellers visiting during Christmas time is that alcohol isn’t really served on Christmas eve and possibly Christmas day. Our hotel wasn’t serving alcohol that day but a few beach bars still were.

All in all, I loved our visit to Sri Lanka. I learned a lot about the country and felt a bit of sadness over the history this country had endured. It truly was paradise and I was sad my parents had to flee a country of such beauty and simplicity to better their lives.  The Sri Lankan people were kind, helpful and hospitable. There is definitely more we would like to do if we can return again. If you have any tips on what we should see the next time we visit, do let me know!

Note: Travellers with a UK passport will need to obtain an ETA visa (electronic travel authority visa). To find out more click here. You can purchase this online prior to arrival or purchase at the airport before going through customs.

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