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Beyond Words - Issue #29- Sri Lanka, one week, February 2017

Beyond Words - Issue #29- Sri Lanka, one week, February 2017
By Nandini Chakraborty • Issue #29 • View online
The Sri Lanka trip was a ‘big family one’. 3 generations. Six months later my father passed away. Very proud of his daughter who in his eyes was the best travel planner ever. (Just second to her doctoring skills).

This was another big family trip- husband, 15 year old daughter and me- from Leicester; joined by parents (grandparents) from both sides flying in from Kolkata. Seven strong and ranging from 76 to 15 and three generations, months of emails, phone calls and internet searches and here we were once more in a new country. However, after China in 2014 we were ready to take on more!
Some basics- We flew Oman Air, Heathrow to Colombo via Muscat. The seniors flew Air India, from Kolkata to Colombo via Delhi. The trip in Sri Lanka was organized with Blue Lanka tours, chosen for their TripAdvisor reviews (never been disappointed by my Tripadvisor choices in the past). I did however organize accommodation and meals myself. Blue Lanka would provide the vehicle for transfer, guide, site entries and the activities I had requested.
The reason for choosing accommodation myself was because I preferred homestays and guesthouses. Given a previous experience in a different country, I loved the flavour of local hospitality which was so different from a hotel. Blue Lanka Tours did only hotels, understandable, because homestays are not everyone’s cup of tea. Also for meals I am sure they would choose good quality, but I somehow preferred the local and cheap. Besides we are not great eaters and one heavy meal a day sometimes leads to skipping another. Hence we decided to be flexible with meals. Accommodations frequently come with their breakfasts and choices of dinner.
I had no problems choosing from a wide range of homestays on many popular websites. Very reasonably priced (if you are not wanting luxury, five star, swimming pools etc). Also realized once we were in Sri Lanka that the country is gearing up for tourism at every level. Anyone with a property or a couple of bedrooms to spare were taking in guests and most of the hosts were great people to get on with.
For food in general- look out for ‘roti shops’, ‘fried rice’ stalls and local cuisine. The big buffets with lots of tourists are good but extravagantly priced compared to what you can have for a fraction.
Day 1 (Sunday)- we reached Colombo airport in good time and were in our first guest house by 6 am. Our Blue Lanka guide Dilshen and driver Amilan informed us that our parents were safe and rested in the first of our series of guesthouses Nature’s Bliss Holidays. A large spread property with cool tiled floors, heavy wooden furniture and a grand chandelier that held a tiny bird’s nest with two closely nestling chicks- I was more than satisfied with my choice. The area was residential with plentiful trees, birdsong and air fragranced with tropical flowers. It felt like home. The property is around half an hour drive from the airport, in the Ragama area. So I booked this for our first and last nights in Sri Lanka, for convenience. It is a very well maintained property with an attentive housekeeper who cooks brilliant meals.
The host Nishan was on the phone checking that things were okay. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I had actually booked another property and had been upgraded to this one because it happened to be available. Nishan let the three of us rest and freshen up in our parents’ rooms with no extra charge. The housekeeper Rowan kept checking that we had all we needed.
Breakfast was a great spread of noodles, thick rotis and pancakes with lentils and eggs. Filled to the brim we hit the road for the five hour journey to Polonaruwa.
On the road we saw huge Buddha statues and lush greenery over fields, palm trees and low lying hills- the quintessential Sri Lankan scenery that was to stay with us for most of the trip. Our first toilet stop was near a small café. A snake charmer was displaying a cobra and a cute monkey. One for cuddles and the other for distant admiration- no prizes for guessing.
We stopped for lunch at a buffet with lots of vegetables and chicken curry with coconut milk. For 800 rupees it was good, but Sri Lanka can offer a number of cheaper choices if you look out.
5 hours after we had started, we were in the ancient city of Polonaruwa. Joined by a site guide, we went through a museum which gave us an overview of what had been the second capital for ancient Sri Lankan royalty. There were a few statues and ancient objects. There were models of many of the ruins as they would have stood hundreds of years ago.
Outside we boarded our minibus again which stopped in turn at the Inner city, Outer city and Northern city. The area is over a huge spread. Walking from one end to the other would probably take an entire long day, cycling may be an option. With the elderly grans- we had the excuse of taking the easy option!
The history of Polonaruwa I suppose is the old history of human ambition and greed. Twelve kings over two centuries had ruled; three had left their mark. Intrigue, assassination and pride had led to bloodshed and a number of monuments. Even time, erosion and a number of malevolent fires could not hide the grand scale of the old city. It was not difficult to visualise how it might all have looked in the 11th century.
A palace has only two lower storeys of bricks that survived a fire that destroyed the upper five storeys of woodwork. The council house has a corridor lined by eight pillars on each side that once seated a king with his sixteen ministers or a judge with a jury.
Then on to Sigiriya and our first sight of the Sigiriya Lion Rock. After a few enquiries we found our guest house- Village Guest Sigiriya. Niluka made us feel welcome and we saw Sahani, a tiny girl, who had been doing the correspondence.
This is a family home with three en-suite rooms for rent. Meals are laid out in a large dining area. The decor is homely and warm, with bright colours and heavy wooden furniture. Family photographs line the cupboards and cabinets.There is a garden and fields around the property. Early in the morning we would hear peacocks crying out. It is walking distance from Sigiriya Lion Rock Fortress and from the tiny town centre with a number of eateries. The home cooked breakfast and dinners were authentic Sri Lankan. The host family were always nearby to make us comfortable and help us out with arrangements. They have other family nearby who can provide a car, driver and other rooms- all in all a very cosy atmosphere. The family living on site made it feel like a proper homestay.
There was confusion with our booking though. We had booked 3 rooms and there were only two available. The hosts made every effort to sort it out, by giving us a bigger room with five beds and we were not inconvenienced. It is a lovely place and I recommend it wholeheartedly. Many thanks to Niluka.
I sat down with Dilshen to plan the next day which would be complicated as the three of us had a different itinerary to our parents. However, Niluka helped by organizing the extra car that would take the three of us while the minibus took our parents with Dilshen and Amilan.
My husband and I then walked to the neighbouring centre which had lots of eateries and got some ‘devilled chicken’ to go with rice and potato curry. It was a fifteen minute walk and a bit in the dark. But with torches we were fine and faced no trouble.
Day 2(Monday) - We had a day to ourselves in the big family trip to Sri Lanka. Hubby, teenage daughter and I were going to do some hectic sightseeing while the 60 and 70 plus grandparents were sent off safely with the tour guide to explore Anuradhapuram. The three of us had seen Sigiriya Lion Rock fortress with its manicured gardens, painted maidens and the entrance guarded by massive lion paws which gave a hint of the cavernous jaws that would have once been on the gate. Dambulla caves were a magnificent set of five, deceptively hidden behind a modest whitewashed facade that disguised the huge halls behind it. Lined by dozens of Buddhas of every size and posture, walls decorated with intricate paintings, their colours glowing and vibrant; we emerged into the courtyard, into the bright sun rather dazed.
We left the seniors to make their relaxed start to Anuradhapuram while the three of us left for Sigiriya Lion Rock around 8 am. Niluca had cooked thick coconut rotis and lentils. Thick slices of pineapple completed our breakfast table. Niluca’s brother arrived with a small car to take us to the site.
We met our site guide, Karu who took us through the water gardens, fountain gardens and terraced gardens. Then we took the spiral stairs up to the painted damsels, then past the mirror wall to the wide landing with lions paws guarding the entrance that once upon a time went through the open mouth of a lion. Up on the top we had grand views and tried to imagine with the ruined ramparts what this might have looked like in ancient times. Swimming pools, thrones, a stage for dancers completed the picture of luxury.
Next on to Dambulla caves. Bit of walk to the ticket office but glad at the entrance. There were people turning up with no tickets and being sent off for a long walk. Our site guide Ranaveera took us to the 5 caves which are now covered by a white corridor which deceptively hides the vast halls within.
On the way back we bought two boxes for fried rice for 100 rupees each which came with omelette and pickles. There are road side stalls which advertise ‘fried rice’ and our driver told us that they are very popular. Not surprising considering the large portions and very reasonable price.
After a nap my husband and daughter decided they had had enough for the day. Sadly, I did not manage to nudge them from their siesta after the walks on Sigiriya and Dambulla. Telling them that I would return after sunset I set off by myself around 4:30 pm. I decided to make it to Pidurangala rock for the sunset that I had read so much about. Watching Sigiriya rock at sunset from Pidurangala rock, just opposite it was on my to-do list. What followed was quite a story.
The van with our parents and the guide was returning when I was walking towards the rock. My mom exclaimed that I was a ‘bit crazy’, with my itinerary. But ah well…!
I met a tuk tuk, three wheeled vehicles that form local transport, who offered to take me to the rock for 300 SLR and I decided to take the offer. I was glad, as the distance looked more than I had estimated, went through some rather lonely forested areas but by 5 pm I was at the ticket counter. I met another lone lady who I tried to persuade to accompany me, but she had to get the bus to Dambulla by 6 pm. So lonely again, I started off on the stairs.
‘You should take a guide’, suggested the man behind the ticket counter. I was standing by myself, facing the monastery and stairs that lead to the top of Pidurangala rock in Sigiriya village in Sri Lanka. The hopeful guide was lounging nearby, casting glances in my direction- his body language torn between eagerness and a show of indifference. It was around 5 pm and sunset would be at 6:20 pm. ‘It gets dark very soon and it is easy to get lost,’ insisted the ticket man. ‘How much?’ I asked guide hopeful tentatively. ‘1000 SLR’, he said. ‘Forget it!’ I answered and pocketed my entry ticket for 500 SLR and an information leaflet, before striding off to the climb.
The stairs were straightforward and well-marked. Wherever there were forks, red arrows pointed out the way to take. In 20 minutes I had reached the Sleeping Buddha which is almost near the top. Expansive views of the forests of Minneriya and Sigiriya stretched before me. A few photographs and now it was time to tackle the scramble which I had read about.
I was hardly lonely now. Joined by at least another 6-7 people-a family and a group of friends, we embarked on the last 5 minutes of the hike on irregular rocks which needed all fours. Skirting around the head end of the Buddha, the outline of the top of Pidurangala was well visible. I was glad of the company and the help. Some push from behind and a hand ahead, I was finally on the top of the rock which was a flat expanse opening out to 360 degree views of greenery. Sigiriya of the morning rose from within the green in a blaze of orange highlighted by the low sun. It was around 5:30 pm.
Photographs, strolling around and listening to a variety of tongues from the at least 50-60 people who had congregated up there, it was finally time to settle down to a spot to enjoy the sun going down. It was my ‘me time’ in Sri Lanka. Watching the landscape, watching the colours, watching the birds fly home.
Just as the sun sank out of sight, a queue had formed to descend. The pace was automatically slow and easy. It did get dark, but with the crowds there was no way to feel unsafe or get lost. My little torch though was useful on the steps.
I made friends with two Croatian ladies Anna and Angelina who shared a tuk tuk back with me to town. We had a drink and a chat together before I started off towards our guesthouse on the road I had taken with my husband the evening before.
As I approached the narrow lane which led to our guest house, I could see our van emerging on to the road. ‘Oh God, the search party,’ I groaned inwardly, knowing my mother for over four decades. I ran up to meet our pale faced guide to assure him that I was back and safe. ‘You better go talk to your mum…..’ he let the rest trail off in the air.
 
Day 3 (Tuesday) – After more coconut rotis, we hit the road for Kandy. En route we stopped at a gem factory and a wooden crafts factory- both eminently skippable and touristy. To be fair our guide and driver did not encourage us to go at all but my mom wanted to have a look (she looked eminently recovered and I decided to humour her). We did buy some things at the wooden crafts place but we could have got them much cheaper elsewhere (there was a makeshift shack near shops in Mirissa along the road to the city centre) and even at the airport! However they will give you a show about ‘natural colours’ and ‘chemical colours’ and how the former is more long-lasting. We later bought another mask at the airport to spend our last amounts of currency. I have both masks put up side by side- time will tell which colours last longer!
Around 1 pm we were joined by our local guide at the Temple of Tooth. The tour takes less than an hour. Grand as the place is, it is more the significance of the relic and what the place holds and signifies that brings the impact.
Lunch was at a very unadventurous Pizza Hut. My father was tired and we took the nearest option. Around 4 pm Dilshen picked us up and our minibus skirted around the lake to reach the cultural centre where we would be entertained by a two hour long Kandyan dance and drum show. We took seats right at the back row but it was a good thing! We could stand on our chairs for an unobstructed view and some great videos. The middle rows are the worst- you have rows of people ahead of you and you cannot stand up!
It was pouring as the show finished and we reached our accommodation Heavens Holiday Resort in the dark. An excellent property in newly refurbished condition, slightly away from Kandy but not far from attractions. It is attractively placed within greenery and the rooms sparkle with newness. The home cooked meals were sumptuous and traditional. The hosts were friendly and looked to our needs attentively. Slightly on the more expensive side of our range of homestays though. Business seems to be booming as the house was going through extensions and renovations to accommodate more en suite rooms. 
Dinner was a great spread of vegetables and spicy chicken.
Day 4 (Wednesday) - I decided to take a morning stroll outside our guesthouse. There were green fields and high mountains in the background and a narrow road that seemed to lead into a village. Back to the guesthouse, my mother-in-law insisted we take the steps to the flat roof which showed us the spread of greenery around. We were truly away from the city. Birdsong was a constant in all the places we had stayed and I was beginning to feel pretty smug about my choices in accommodation.
Back in the minibus we took the road to Nuwara Eliya, the tea country. It was clear that we were gaining altitude and the surroundings seemed greener (if that was possible in Sri Lanka!)
Around an hour and a half later we stopped at the Glenloch tea factory. A staff member took us around the various rooms explaining the process that tea leaves went through. Heady fragrance permeates the rooms, especially where the fermentation takes place. Back to the sunlight, we were offered cups of free tea of various flavours ranging from delicate to strong. A tea shop adjacent to the place where tea is served no doubt makes brisk business which keeps the free cups of tea flowing.
We stopped at Ramboda Waterfalls for a few minutes before taking the road again. Vendors were selling piles of fresh vegetables along multiple points on the road which bore testimony to the fertility and healthiness of the region.
I had set my heart on having lunch at the Heritance Tea Factory. Now this is not a factory any more but a very luxurious and pretty expensive hotel. Costs aside, the location which is at least 40 minutes from the town centre, made it inconvenient for an early start for Hortons plains the next morning. However, lunch was eminently doable.
We winded through the town centre where Dilshen pointed out the old post office and colonial building which buy Nuwara Eliya the title of ‘Little England’, and then we entered a narrow mountain road which spiralled its way towards Heritance Tea Factory. It was almost 2:30 pm when we reached the place. A silence away from the town centre is made magic by the swirling clouds which wind through miles of tea plantations where women with baskets on their heads were picking the leaves.
The staff at Kenmare restaurant were courteous and the manager offered us the buffet at a reasonable price with dessert added. We had a long table near the window through which we could glimpse Dining On Wheel’s Heritance Tea Factory’s railway carriage restaurant which provides an exclusive dinner service.
After lunch we were allowed to stroll through the ground floor and basement which still holds old equipment which has been tastefully incorporated into the unique décor of this hotel. Old photographs line the corridor in the basement that leads into the spa. Definitely the place to stay in if you have the time and the urge to splurge.
We now set off for our accommodation in Nuwara Eliya- Nidwalden Resort which turned out to be one of our best experiences of Sri Lanka. The house is perched amidst lush greenery, yet hardly minutes from the city centre. The host and hostess are friendly and go out of their way to make this a great homestay. The food is great and you can get South Indian as well as Sri Lankan, made to your spice heat tolerance level. The rooms have a colonial flavour and style. A TV plays in the front room with guests free to make their choices.
We spent a relaxed evening, looking at pics, me making notes whilst chatting to our host in the front room and going through our memories so far into the trip. Dinner was served on heavy wooden tables with our hosts making us feel like house guests rather than tourists. The yoghurt with local jaggery makes great dessert!
Day 5 (Thursday) - Early morning start again for the three of us as we hit the road at 6 am with packed breakfasts, destination-Horton’s plains to hike up to the World’s end. It was around an hour from Nuwara Eliya, spiralling up a mountain with great views which excelled with every turn in height.
The ticket lines and the checking of bags (no plastics allowed. They even strip the bottles of plastic wrappings) before you start the hike, take some time and we started the hike properly around 8 am. The hike can take anything between 3-5 hours. Having seen our pace in the past five days, Dilshen’s estimate for us was around 3 hours and he was not wrong!
We walked through a well maintained dirt rocky road which comes to a fork where you have a choice- circle so that you do Baker’s falls first or start such that you do World’s end first. Dilshen’s suggestion was Baker’s falls first- this is the easier way, counter clockwise. There is a steep section near Baker’s falls which you would rather do downhill compared to uphill.
We saw Samber deer in the park, a bright green lizard and some monkeys.
Baker’s falls was around 25 minutes from the fork. We stopped around 9 am for breakfast. It was around 9:20 am when we reached World’s end and sighed with relief to see a clear view. Later towards the afternoon, the famous point is covered with a hazy mist which makes the walk a bit pointless. The view point was pretty crowded and people tend to cluster in the edge where photographs take the classic picture. I had one of my boots hanging off the edge, sheer 300 feet of cliff with roads and a ‘toy village’ at the bottom.
Another half an hour and we were at ‘Little World’s End’ which is lower in altitude but the views are just as great. You can walk up a little higher than where the sign board is placed and get a view of ‘World’s end’ with its crowds from afar.
By 11:15 am we were back at the fork. It is a leisurely walk, not difficult at all but a long one. Good walking shoes and plenty of water is a must. The views at World’s End are a crowning glory but the park itself on a beautiful day is like a painting. We were blessed with bright blue skies and the grass was glowing golden and green. The rocks at some places are multi-coloured. It is a beautiful place and worth exploring if you like walking. There are no motorable alternatives within the park.
On the way back we saw a large family of monkeys on the road. We also had a clear view of Adam’s peak.
Back at Nuwara Eliya, we picked up our parents who had loved their Dosa breakfast and had a long chat with the host and hostess. After goodbyes to our hosts we had a short stop at the city centre to exchange money (the gold shops gave us a better rate than the airport!) and have lunch. We found a place selling fried rice which we wanted to try again and were not disappointed. There is a prominent complex within the city centre that houses both jewellery shops and a number of eateries.
Another three hours on the road and it was around 6 pm that we reached Udawalawe. We had stopped shortly near Rawana Water Falls. Nothing greatly spectacular but it had a pool at the bottom where some people seemed to be having a great time.
On the road between Nuwara Eliya and Udawalawe, we also had views of Piduratalagala, the second highest peak in Sri Lanka. We also passed through Ella, a quaint tea plantation town, much like Nuwara Eliya and possibly more popular. (The train journey from Kandy to Ella is supposed to be greatly scenic if you can fit this in, we just could not, our logistics did not allow)
 Now other than the slight blip at Sigiriya, all my accommodation bookings were going fine till this point! Dilshen rang the contact number on my booking confirmation, to be told that the place no longer existed and that the person answering was an ex-employee who was willing to arrange another place for us for the same price. Utterly suspicious, I insisted we go to the address and check and truly there was no such property as ‘Big House Udawalawe’. We asked the taxi and tuk tuk drivers around and were told that the place closed three months ago. (Yet the last email I had received asking whether I wanted to book a safari through them was six weeks ago!). The tuk tuk drivers further volunteered that plenty of tourists had been in the same situation and had reported the matter to the police. By this time the contact number we had, had gone into voicemail. Deciding to put it to the back of my mind and deal with Booking.com later, I turned to Dilshen for help. Dilshen spoke to an acquaintance who opened up a bungalow that he was preparing for guests but which had not yet gone online. I might as well mention here that ‘Udawalawe Big House’ did try to charge my card for no show later on, but Booking.Com dealt with the matter swiftly and efficiently on a phone call.
Our accommodation in Udawalawe was a traditional house, much like the one we had in Sigiriya but with a more modern décor. The bathrooms had been clearly newly done up. A long verandah in the front and a vegetable garden added to the atmosphere.
We had dinner in a circular thatched room just outside the verandah. The staff were attentive to their sudden surprise guests and we felt very welcome.
Day 6(Friday)- An early morning Jeep Safari at Udawalawe National Park was the highlight of the day. Two jeeps arrived to pick us up and take us to the park entrance where there was a considerable queue. It was just after 7 am that we started our safari in earnest. It is a beautiful park with lush greenery. The sun was just rising above the trees as we started off, the skies turning pink and delicate orange.
We saw plenty of elephants, some deer and a variety of birds including eagles; a couple of monitor lizards (iguana), crocodiles and buffalo. Peacocks can put up a colourful dance show, their rainbow feathers in full display. A cheeky monkey was perched on a jeep in a place where we were allowed to disembark in the park. It looked perturbed by its reflection in the glass and put up some battle show, baring its teeth and challenging the perceived intruder, which was very amusing!
We returned to breakfast and then set out for Mirissa around 10ish in the morning. We arrived around lunch time, three hours later and first checked into Rainbow Guest House-A very reasonably priced guest house with good home cooked food and close to all that Mirissa has to offer. There is no lift and there are rooms on the first and second floors, so be careful if you have heavy luggage or knee problems.
The city centre where most of the restaurants are located are hardly a 10 minute walk away, but with our elderly parents, Dilshen and Amilen were kind enough to give us a lift with the minibus. We found a modest looking roti shop around the corner with a mixed crowd of tourists and locals. We had a hearty lunch of stuffed rotis to our choice and some kotu rothy before we returned to the guest house.
Evening was a relaxed couple of hours on the beach where we watched sunset and ate ice creams. We took a takeaway from the roti shop for dinner as we liked it so much.
Day 7(Saturday) - My parents decided to give the early morning a miss. So we left them to a traditional relaxed breakfast at the guest house while the five of us took the early morning cruise from Mirissa to do whale watching with Mirissa Water Sports (I later realized that I had planned four mornings consecutively with very little sleep involved!) A total of five hours from port to port, it was definitely more water than animals. Not having done whale watching before, I was enthralled to see the great creature, spraying tall columns of water into the air, before diving into depths with a flick of the tail. With the speed of happenings and the sway of the boat, pictures can be tricky but I managed one video which showed the tail of a blue whale.
We saw bright whales, blue whales, some dolphins and toward the end a whale shark which displayed its sharp golden spotted fin. Thankfully none of us were sea sick!
The pattern would be swaying in the sun, until we were almost dozing and then a call would ring out, something like ‘one o’ clock!’ Then by the time, we woke up and clambered to the railing, the shouts would go ‘Nine o clock, now twelve o clock, now three o clock!’ …..and so on.
It was lunch time by the time we were back. Our minibus picked us up and directly hit the road. My parents had come directly with our packed bags from Rainbow guest house.
We had lunch at a small local shop, which tried to hand us an extravagant bill which ultimately turned out to be one-third after I persisted with asking for the breakdown details.
We had a short stop at Galle and a quick stroll on the fort which also has views over the local cricket stadium. I later wondered whether it would have been better to skip the whale watching and spend the day in Galle…….but ah well, one trip is never enough for one country.
Back to Colombo and then to Ragama, we had reached the apartment of our first night. Where had the week flown? The owner Nishan came to visit us on our last evening. He is friendly attentive.
Day 8 (Sunday) - Due to ongoing work at the airport we had to be there 5 hours in advance. It was only after a few hours of sleep that we left but it took less than half an hour to reach the airport. Shops and money exchanges were all open even at that early hour.
At the airport we parted after lots of family hugs and great memories.
PS: My father’s health deteriorated six months later. He passed away in August 2017. We have since continued our ‘big family holidays’ with him looking over us, I suppose- Bangladesh and Kenya in 2019. And then COVID struck. Time to get planning another trip.
                                                            
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Nandini Chakraborty

Stories from travel. There is nothing that teaches us more than human interaction, culture, and history. Travel breaks misconceptions, challenges assumptions and teaches us the true worth of this world of ours.

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