Jane and I knew very little about Sri Lanka before we ventured there in mid-2010. A civil war which had gripped the country for nearly 30 years had only recently ended and the scars of the devastating tsunami of 2004 still ran deep but despite this, it sounded like a great place for our honeymoon and we were not disappointed at all.
After a couple of nights in Negombo we caught a train north to explore the ancient cities of Anuradhapura, Mihintale and Polonnaruwa. If located anywhere else in the world these ancient and well-preserved UNESCO World Heritage listed cities would be crawling with tourists however we could count the number of other foreign visitors there on one hand. This proved to be case throughout much of Sri Lanka: tourists were almost nowhere to be seen. The magnificent rock temple of Sigiriya which rises out from the dusty plains of central Sri Lanka was next on our list, as were the frescoed cave temples of Dambulla. During our travels Jane and I have visited a vast number of temples however those in Dambulla are certainly up there as being some of the most beautiful – and different – that we’ve ever been to. The view from the tops of Mihintale and Sigiriya temples were very special too.
Heading south by tuk-tuk we arrived in Kandy – a hilly town built around a large man-made lake and home to the Temple of the Tooth Relic which is one of the most important places for Buddhists in Sri Lanka. Every year in July or August a huge religious festival called Esala Perahera is held in Kandy. The ten day festival is one of the most colourful in Asia and includes processions of whip crackers, Kandyan dancers, drummers and lavishly dressed elephants. Given that we weren’t in town for the festival it was a very quiet and relaxing place to spend a few days in, with one of the highlights there being a visit to the very impressive Peradeniya Botanical Gardens.
Sri Lanka is renowned for its’ Ceylon Tea so from Kandy we caught a rickety old train further up into the Hill Country to a lovely little town nestled in amongst the tea plantations called Nuwara Eliya. With its’ English colonial style houses and heavily manicured gardens, Nuwara Eliya is a little bit of England in the heart of Sri Lanka and a quirky place to explore. There isn’t a great deal to do in the town itself but this adds to the charm and the lack of distractions gives the visitor plenty of time to soak up the atmosphere and have a few hot cuppas.
Whilst in the Hill Country we spent a fantastic day trekking through the Horton Plains National Park to World’s End. The national park itself is perched on a plateau which is over 2000 metres above sea level and often shrouded in mist. The scenery was barren and eerie, not unlike the moors of Scotland actually, and as the early morning mist lifted we were blessed with views of some of the highest peaks in the country. Fresh leopard prints marked the muddy paths on which we trekked although we unfortunately didn’t see any big cats that day. After taking a break beside a magnificent waterfall we continued on our way to where the flat plains dropped away to nothing but swirling mist and green rolling hills far below. World’s End is an escarpment on the edge of the Horton Plains plateau and when you’re looking down from the cliff there you could easily be mistaken that you’re standing on the edge of the world. It was amazing.
From Nuwara Eliya we caught a train through the Hill Country to the village of Ella. Dozens of waterfalls tumbled down the side of emerald green mountains which were blanketed by countless tea plantations. It was hard to focus on the gorgeous scenery around us though as the friendly locals in our carriage all erupted in to song and dance to pass the time on the train journey, insisting that we join in with them. We didn’t speak their language and they didn’t speak ours but a few smiles and a lot of laughs helped in breaking down the language barrier. I have absolutely no doubt that their desire to sing, dance and laugh has helped the Sri Lankan people cope with the hardships that they’ve experienced in recent years and it was great to be surrounded by so many happy and friendly people during our time there.
A frightening bus ride from Ella to Tissamaharama was followed by a couple of really exciting days in Yala and Bundala National Parks where we spotted wildlife from open-top four wheel drives. Both Jane and I had been on safari in Africa but didn’t expect that we’d have a similar experience in Sri Lanka. The national parks were rich with animals and birdlife and we managed to see two leopard, dozens of elephant, crocodiles mating and an incredible variety of birdlife ranging from Painted Storks, Hornbills and Eagles to colourful Bee-eaters, Kingfishers, Woodpeckers and even the odd Flamingo. Sri Lanka easily proved itself to be a Mecca for nature lovers and was something that we had not expected from the country at all. It turned out to be the highlight of our trip.
To finish our loop of the teardrop shaped island we skirted the south coast towards Galle. The graves of countless tsunami victims lined the roads, as did the bare concrete slabs of buildings that had been washed away in the natural disaster of Boxing Day 2004. It was a very sad reminder that even though Mother Nature can be a very beautiful thing – as we had seen in the stunning scenery and wildlife of Sri Lanka – her wrath can cause complete and utter devastation. Galle was an interesting little town though and a pleasant place to unwind at the end of our trip. We stayed inside the walls of the fortified old town, wandered the cobblestone streets and took our last breaths of fresh air before returning to the hustle and bustle of Colombo to catch our flight home.