“Ayubowan” said the hostess, welcoming me with a warm smile as I boarded my late-night flight to Colombo from Bangalore. Nostalgia took over as I closed my eyes and lost myself to a beautiful dream embellished with serene beaches, ancient temples, delicious food and vibrant markets.
It was fifteen years ago when I had my first glimpse of Sri Lanka and I was just a rookie tourist then. Sri Lanka was not even on my itinerary as I was on transit, travelling to Singapore and Malaysia via Colombo. While my experience of the island country was limited to just a few hours of transit in Colombo and Negombo, it left me wanting more. The country eluded me for over fifteen years until I got an opportunity to travel this month. Although it was just a short trip for three days, I immediately pounced on the opportunity and booked my tickets to Colombo for just a song.
There is something familiar and yet exotic about Sri Lanka. It is so close to home and yet feels like a far-away island cradled by the oceans. Being a slow traveller, I chose my itinerary in such a way that I could immerse myself in experiences than just tick off places from my list. I was spoilt for choice. There were so many destinations to explore and I had just three days. Perhaps if I had more time, I would have included a wildlife safari at Yala National Park at Hambantota or the Madu Ganga River Safari at Balapitiya, both, perfect getaways from Colombo. I might have also planned a trip to Kandy to see the Temple of the Tooth and to Nuwara Eliya to soak in the tea plantations besides some water sports at Bentota. However, with three days in my hand, I decided to explore Colombo’s heritage and enchant myself with the nostalgic charm of the Dutch colonies of Galle and Negombo lagoon, which was largely a nostalgic experience for me.
Planning a trip to Sri Lanka is relatively easy and convenient than any other popular international destination. Once the tickets were done, I applied for my visa online. It just takes 24 hours to get it online, provided you have all your documents like return flight tickets and hotel vouchers with you. While the Sri Lankan Rupee (LKR) is equal to almost 40 paise of the Indian rupee (INR) it is advisable to carry LKR or USD with you. However, I strongly recommend credit cards to cash, when you travel overseas. And with your Mastercard, you will hardly feel the need for cash anywhere as there are several discounts and deals available for you, be it at restaurants or lounges, casinos and cafes, making your journey seamless and hassle-free.
It is always better to acquaint yourself with the cultural and political climate of a new country before your travel. Colombo is a great destination if you are looking at an extended weekend getaway with a relaxed vibe and vibrant nightlife. Steeped in history, the city is the perfect mix of local culture and colonial atmosphere. The country has just opened its doors to tourism after a bitter two decade-long civil war and yet it has so much to offer to a tourist from cultural and spiritual experiences to wildlife safaris, water sports, scuba diving, tea plantations to colonial town tours. I can follow Buddha’s trail or head on a Ramayana trail. I can do some whale watching or visit an orphanage for elephants. This diversity lured me there. If you are still wondering why Sri Lanka was on my bucket list this year, then here are some of the many reasons why:
1. Eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites - From caves, temples, ancient cities, ruins of monuments to mountains, dense forests, highlands and national parks, Sri Lanka has not just one but eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites scattered across the country. The Buddhist heritage can be seen in the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy and in Golden Temple of Dambulla. Old ruins of ancient cities like Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya besides the colonial architecture of Galle will mesmerize you. For those who love nature and wildlife, the Sinharaja Forest Reserve and Central Highlands of Sri Lanka are superb attractions. It is this eclectic variety coupled with rich heritage that makes Sri Lanka one of the most exciting destinations.
2. Adventures Galore - There is no dearth of activities for adventure enthusiasts in Sri Lanka. From water sports to treks, there are several beaches, mountains and national parks in the country. Wildlife safaris at Yala searching for the elusive leopard and whale watching at Mirissa rank high among such tourist attractions. There are several diving spots from coral reefs to wrecks. Some of them include Hikkaduwa, Unawatuna, and Nilaveli Beach along with Trincomalee among others.
3. Ramayan Trail - Although Sri Lanka is known for its Buddhist heritage, it is also the land of Ravana and the tourism department has identified over 50 sites connected to the epic. There are several Ramayana tours that take you across the country and these tours can take anywhere between a week to a fortnight to be completed. Every site here tells a story and I would like to one day come back and explore them all.
4. Sri Lankan Tea Trails - You cannot travel to Sri Lanka and not taste the tea or lose yourself in the charm of the tea plantations. The world’s fourth largest producer of tea has several plantation towns tucked away in some of the most beautiful vistas in the country. There are even tea plantation hotels as well. High on my bucket list is Nuwara Eliya among other places.
I can think of many more reasons to visit Sri Lanka and although only a few of these were fulfilled on my present trip, I have already started planning my next visit there.