Updated 9 April 2019 — A week in Sri Lanka is the bare minimum: given the choice I would have spent two. But even in a single week, there is so much you can see of this country.
For decades Sri Lanka was torn apart by a horrible civil war that made it a no-go zone for most travelers.
And then in 2004 a vicious tsunami hit.
So why would anyone want to visit?
Because the war is over and most of the tsunami damage has been swept away, though not forgotten. Because Sri Lankans are welcoming us. Because this is a land blessed with a magnificently rich history and culture. Because... sheer, inescapable beauty.
Sri Lanka for me was a surprise.
Where I expected only beaches, I found wetlands and soaring mountains and an interior so green and lush you could be in Ireland. Anticipating more uniformity in culture, I found a jumble of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity and the richness that comes from diversity. Assuming a saddened society would be smarting from years of tragedy, I found joy and hope and an intense hospitality.
There is nothing unfamiliar about stepping off the plane onto this teardrop-shaped island. The air is hot and wet, the diesel fumes pungent, the traffic maniacal and the crush of people oppressive. I could say the same about many Asian countries.
But then I’m hit by color – every color, everywhere. No pastels, only the bravest, sharpest of primaries.
When I retired from my job at the UN in 2015 I decided to give myself a gift: three weeks in an ayurvedic retreat (traditional Indian medicine) to deal with a few niggling health problems. Read about my experiences in ayurveda Sri Lanka style.
But before burying myself under pills and potions I first wanted to see at least a small corner of the country: in this case I visited the Southeast. However, 10 days in Sri Lanka would normally be the very least I'd recommend - a two-week stay would be even better.
A week is no time to understand a nation so I’ll desist, sharing instead my Sri Lanka itinerary to show you that even a short time is enough to see an important part of the country.
I didn’t go to the cultural triangle. I didn’t go to the North or East coasts, both of which are well worth seeing. I only visited a tiny sliver of Sri Lanka tourist attractions but like anyone who loves chocolate cake can tell you, a tiny sliver is better than none at all.
I followed one of the more common circuits, from Colombo sweeping East into the hill country, then South to see wildlife and back up North along the coast to Galle before finally arriving at my retreat, just south of Colombo. A bit of an irregular circle, if you like.
I traveled the way I usually hate to travel – fast. I hired a car and driver once I realized that using public transport wouldn’t even get me halfway in the time I had available.
But I saw plenty. Certainly enough to make me want to return.
Here’s how my Sri Lanka trip plan unfolded.
I land in Colombo in the middle of a major poya, a full moon holiday during which most shops are closed and people go home to their families. Having heard the tales of crowds and traffic, this might not be a bad way to experience Colombo for the first time – empty.
I'm delighted to catch up with an old friend - and sleep off some of that jet lag.
I speed around the quiet city in a tuk-tuk, enjoying architecture, everyday scenes and vague thoughts of what might have been.
I ride from Colombo to Kandy (the first of my two train rides) in the vastly overrated observation carriage, an unkempt first-class wagon with a dirty panoramic window at one end. Warning if you have motion sickness: I am facing backwards the entire trip and the train rocks menacingly throughout. Shaken, not stirred.
At each stop men hop on for a minute or two selling food and drinks, but the train’s dance prevents me from even thinking about eating.
Along the tracks life unfolds: students using the rail lines as a shortcut to school; young men and women with bags and briefcases stepping gingerly across each railway tie, cautious not to get a sari caught or a shoe scuffed; dozens of dogs, clearly at home in the bustle of the railway.
Highrises give way to grey corrugated roofs jammed so closely together the houses are almost invisible. Once in the countryside emerald rice paddies unfurl through the murky window, giving way to fairytale vegetation. We climb along ridges, surrounded by flashes of flowers so brilliant I can’t help but give them outstanding names – vermillion rather than red, fuchsia, tangerine, amethyst. I'd take a picture but... the windows don't open.
My destination, Kandy, is a striking town bordered by a small lake and is worth far more than the few hours I can give it. I'm met there by my driver Gamage - he insists on a single name - and his smile and easy manner win me over immediately.
I manage to visit the Temple of the Tooth Relic, the country’s most sacred Buddhist relic, and walk around the streets in sunshine broiling enough to begin melting my open umbrella. I ask Gamage to take me to his favorite lunch spot and he does, feeding me a curry so hot I cry when I sniff it.
A few random observations: the weather changes every five minutes; the paving stones at the temple (which you negotiate in your bare feet) are fire hot - I think I'm walking over burning coals; shops selling particular goods are grouped together; the diversity of Sri Lanka is emerging, with shrines to every religion sitting nearly side by side.
From Kandy we drive towards Nuwara Eliya and I get my first real taste of Sri Lankan roads.
The guidebooks dispassionately describe bus travel as "interesting". What they don't explain is the passing on blind curves and hills, the races against one another, and collision course driving if it means gaining an inch. Here, size matters and lesser vehicles simply pull to the side (or into the ditch) to avoid larger ones, while swerving to avoid the hundreds of stray animals that sadly populate the country. Hence the importance of an excellent driver.
Whatever the danger, this is a spectacular trip, winding through Sri Lanka's - possibly the world's - best tea plantations.
Arriving in Nuwara Eliya I can see how it might have been a lovely British hill town once, its suburbs set on the edge of Lake Gregory, along whose shores visitors rode horseback, ate picnics and generally frolicked. They still do these things but now have to step through plastic bottles and paper wrappers and around the roaming dogs.
The town’s popularity has encouraged ugly concrete buildings, stripping away some of the English charm people say it was once known for. To my eyes it is unnecessarily unkempt but to my driver it is the nicest spot in Sri Lanka. So please, take my comments with a grain of salt. I may well have missed the best part in my drive-through. Or perhaps I'm just grumpy today.
On the plus side, if you’re melting in the Sri Lankan heat, Nuwara Eliya is the one place you’ll need a blanket at night.
I take my second train ride; Gamage sets off with my suitcase to meet me at Ella station a few hours away.
A derelict Third Class wagon chugs up to the platform and we are motioned to embark. It appears the First Class train from Colombo is not coming. It is "broken". My kingly substitute transport must date back to British rule and the Plantation Raj. At least.
No matter - I'm ready for what is considered one of the world's epic train journeys,
The engine roars and clanks, belching thick dark smoke as it fires up. The whistle blows, straight from a Humphrey Bogart movie. And off we go into the wilderness, rasping and rattling to the echoes of metal on metal.
This little ride of just under five hours turns out to be an engineering marvel. The rickety carriages chug at an average of 15km per hour through several dozen tunnels, braving a narrow mountain crest and creeping along steep hillfaces.
The tunnels are so narrow you’d never get out in an emergency: there’s no room for a human to slide between the wagon and the tunnel wall, not even a slim one standing sideways. And certainly not me. But they're short.
All repair work is done by hand and workers are conveniently stationed every few kilometers with a red or green flag. It’s an important job because there’s only a single track.
If one of these guys gets it wrong, it’s a head-on collision.
The hill country stationmasters pride themselves on their railway stations. Each one is landscaped with lovingly tended flowers, platforms swept clean, and somehow efficient.
While there are plenty of travelers, this is a local train. Sri Lankans hop on and off with their produce, headed for market or bringing shopping home. The seats fit two, yet I manage to be jammed between a rotund woman (a rarity in these parts), a peanut vendor, and two small children. We smile at one another gracefully.
The windows are open, I hang out with my iPhone, and the air is cool. Life is good.
After many hills and plenty of fog, we reach Ella.
This little town, without so much as an asphalted road, is somehow magical. It has clearly developed with tourism in mind, with a jumble of eateries catering to the hungry Westerners trumbling off the train here. There's something Far Western about it, a spirit of the frontier that provides a sense of accomplishment for merely getting here.
Ella also provides what may well be the best meal of my entire trip, and friends who have visited concur this is a little gastronomic gem.
The kicker, though, isn’t the town at all.
It is the hill behind it.
We drive up a treacherously winding road plied by buses and trucks but with room only for one vehicle at a time. Honk loudly, and pray the other person gets out of the way.
Heart in throat we make it to the top, to a simple hotel facing… this:
That glorious sunshine will give way in a few minutes to cloud and fog so thick I won’t see the bushes outside. After a quick bout of thunder and lightning the sun will return, a weather pattern locals consider normal. I can’t tear myself away from this vista.
In the morning I’m awakened by the smell of the forest and the sound of a thousand birds – and a train whistle.
And the ubiquitous tea. I am seriously aching for espresso.
Ella is our highest point and we now head downhill, where the plains rush flatly towards the ocean and the roads become busier. An amusing side trip takes us to a ‘nearly’ abandoned airport built by the previous political dynasty just outside the ex-President’s hometown. This airport boasts a single flight a day. I’m not even quite sure why.
As we get closer to the sea, the wetlands emerge.
I have high hopes for Yala National Park and I'm excited: it has snow leopards and I've never seen one.
In fact I don't see much of anything at Yala. A mongoose, some barking deer, plenty of wild cattle, and a lonely elephant in the distance, indistinguishable from the trees around him. Or her.
Yala is unpleasantly bumpy, and more than once it takes all my strength not to be ejected from the safari jeep. The park is one long road, with offshoots explored by crowds of jeeps when news of a spotting comes through. I’m quite sure the animals have wisened up and are sitting a distance away, giggling at us, because - even if I don't see them today - I know this park teems with wildlife.
I'm not happy with the crowds and wonder whether we should be here at all, or at least in a more regulated way. At one point we get the message that a snow leopard has been spotted. When we arrive, the jeeps crowd around a tree, with iPhones flashing. The entire scene makes me regret I came and I sit stubbornly in the car. I leave convinced these beautiful animals should be left alone.
I settle for the savage scenery, the lagoons and wild, wonderful beach along which I can visualize animals, cantering.
Next time I’ll try one of the smaller, less frequented parks and remember my dislike of the mechanized gallop at which we feel compelled to pursue our prey… I understand how tourism helps fund conservation efforts so yes, I'll keep visiting parks.
But not at any cost.
This drive unveils yet another set of sceneries: the postcard coastline, with its perfect clichés of fine white sand, tall coconut palms and fronds swaying in the breeze. From the moment I reach the coast until I leave it, the sound of the surf is my most constant companion.
Some of the village names might be familiar… Hambantota, home of the former government’s Rajapaksa dynasty and of white elephant projects, like that airport and an even bigger but equally controversial Chinese-built deep-water port… Mirissa, where tourists congregate to watch blue whales… Weligama for surfing… Hikkaduwa and its tsunami museum…
I arrive in Galle Fort determined to dislike it, the hellish heat annihilating even the strongest explorer fiber in me. I ride a tuk-tuk for one reason only: the gentle breeze skimming in through the opening. Walking here at high noon in the middle of summer would be slow suicide.
In this heat even the shutters droop and most cafés are bleak or empty.
If not for the heat I feel I might just be in Europe: whitewashed houses, tiny boutiques (the few that dare open), bicycles leaning lazily into the shadows, and enough Dutch colonial architecture to dull you into questioning your present time and place. The town is stuffed with houses of worship of every denomination – Christian, but also Buddhist and Hindu temples and a Mosque, as though God had thrown everyone together into this small space and said, “Make it work.” And it seems to.
Galle (pronounced as in gallstones) is a city at the crossroads, a bit like Stone Town in Zanzibar, welcoming – often against its will – a flurry of conquerors and traders. This might well have been the spot King Solomon got his spices but the fort itself was built by the Portuguese in the late 1500s. It was later destroyed and rebuilt by the Dutch, who occupied it until the British arrived to take over Ceylon.
Galle is both the New Town and Galle Fort, the older part. It was Sri Lanka’s largest port for centuries. Now it is a haven for artists and home to gem cutters and brokers of all stripes.
Ensconced within Galle Fort, a World Heritage Site, a compact grid of tiny streets is lined with houses and businesses, giving it a feel of realism: this is a place that is lived in as well as visited.
The magistrate’s court, for example, is the venue for weddings – and post-wedding shots.
Not surprisingly Galle Fort has plenty of small museums charting its history but I am particularly taken by the Historial Mansion, a jumble of rooms more packed with antiques and collectibles than a Victorian living room. A few of the halls are actual shops but others overflow with old objects once used in town and now displayed for admirers like me.
In my whirlwind tour of a small corner of Sri Lanka, this is one of my favorite places. Despite the scorching heat.
The beauty of this coast is marred only by its memories: this is the scene of the 2004 tsunami, a word some of us had rarely heard before this killer wave swept tens of thousands in Sri Lankas to their death (the death toll was far higher in India). That memory is somehow tangible, projecting an aura of sadness upon those, like myself, who are merely passing through.
It’s not hard to understand the devastation. The beach is often narrow, the road impossibly close to the sea, and buildings right at the edge.
I stop and pay my respects at one of the several tsunami memorials I’ve seen in the country.
Sri Lanka may have moved beyond this disaster but no one forgets. The sun, the fun and the beauty have come at a high cost, but Sri Lankans want to put it all behind them. To the untrained eye, they seem to have moved on.
Today, they want to rebuild and start anew, leaving the years of violence and pain behind. And welcoming visitors from abroad is part of that healing.
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So yes, seven days. A week in Sri Lanka. I would recommend more. But you can see a lot in seven days.