Sri Lanka. The name conjures up images of a war torn country, poor country, “what is there to see in that country” and so on…
When I planned to visit Sri Lanka, I was met with some opposition from my family members but ultimately I was able to convince not just my wife and kid but also my parents, who agreed to be part of this journey. But this country can throw up a surprise if you visit this place with less expectations of a great holiday destination.
From the time we stepped into the Bandaranayake International Airport at Colombo on the afternoon of 28th December till we entered this airport again to leave for India on 2nd January, we were really enchanted by this beautiful Island and its truly lovely people.
The flight from Chennai to Colombo takes just over an hour. The view from the aircraft is really breath taking especially when the plane glides through the Indian Ocean and the beautiful lagoon to land at Colombo. Don’t miss the tip of Sri Lanka. The first impression we get of any country, is the Airport. I was bowled over by the Colombo airport which beats any International Airport in India currently. Be it the choice of duty free shopping or the smooth Emigration facility or the cleanliness and friendly charm of the officials. It resembled any mid-sized US airport to me. Our guide cum driver for the 6 days tour, Thilak, was waiting anxiously to receive us at the Airport. After converting our US$ to Sri Lankan rupees we were all set to tour Sri Lanka. Indian Rupees is not acceptable here and the conversion works out to 110 Sri Lankan Rupees for 1 US$ (Re 1 = Sri Lankan Rs 2.30 approx)
We were greeted with folded hands (like our Namaste) with an AYUBOWAN or May you live long (equivalent to our Ayushmaan Bhava).
The Tour started with a 5 hour long journey by Road to Sigiriya. We never felt as though we were outside India. The road to Sigiriya; the houses; the fruits or vegetable vendors all looked very similar. It seemed like a mixture of Kerala, Goa and coastal Karnataka. Thilak was quick to remind us after we left Colombo, that there was a blast near the Police headquarters. We were unfazed after seeing the smile on the faces of the local Lankans. On the way we stopped for a break – Tender coconut or King Coconut as they call because of the size and light orange color. Never have we tasted such sweet water before. We were also surprised to see Mangoes being sold in December. Although they look green and uncouth from the outside, they did taste very sweet and juicy.
We reached Sigiriya Resort at 7pm (Sri Lankan time zone is same as India). The Resort staff was extremely friendly and the smile seemed to be fixed on every Sri Lankan face we met. One of the staff members whispered in my ears that we had Ramu and his film crew for company. Yes, the famous Indian Film Producer Ram Gopal Varma was staying at this resort with his entire crew including Nisha Kothari and Nitin for about a month. They are shooting for a Bollywood film named Agyaat or Unknown. The Receptionist wanted to know if Ramu was a famous personality in India. When I told her that he is a maker of Rangeela, she was astonished and asked me to meet him seated at the lobby. Ramu later tells me that the story revolves around a film unit on a shoot, which gets trapped deep in a forest. The crew members get killed one after another. However, no one knows whether the killer is a person or an animal. The entire film was being shot in the deep jungles of Sigiriya. Films apart, the stay the Resort was very memorable. We had wild monkeys and iguanas for company. The swimming pool had a great backdrop – Sigiriya Rock (see the snap).
Day 2 we were set to climb the 5th Century BC Sigiriya Rock and Fortress which is a World Heritage site. The entrance fees to most of the sight seeing places in Sri Lanka could be very exhorbitive. Here it was SLR 2,500 per person but after we showed our Indian Passports we were given 50% concession. There are around 2000 steps to the top of this fortress which has a small lake. I decided to cut short the journey to the top and settled down for just 1000 steps which led us to the Frescoes or Wall paintings akin to our Ajanta cave paintings. On the way we saw ancient fountains, rocks that resembled a cobra and breathtaking scenery from the top. We retuned back after a grueling 2 hours of trekking. At Sigiriya we also enjoyed the elephant ride through the fringes of the jungle.
In Sri Lanka, you can try these delicacies like a) Hoppers - which is similar to our Aapam, b) String hoppers - which is similar to our Idi apam, c) Stew Sambol - which is a coconut chutney in various form, d) Pittoo, which is very similar to our Kerala Puttu. However these delicacies are available only in 3/5 star Hotels and not at common Restaurants. But food still remains a concern for us Indians since you do not get any Indian delicacy at the Hotels/Restaurants unless it’s a Speciality Indian Restaurant, which are few in entire Sri Lanka. We had to settle down for some Continental Lunch/Dinner on many occasions.
Day 3 we set out for Kandy – 4 hours drive from Sigiriya. Kandy was the Capital of Sri Lankan kings and now it is the 2nd largest city in Sri Lanka after Colombo. Kandy is known for the world famous Temple of the Tooth Relic, which has the tooth of Buddha kept inside it. This is also a world heritage site. Before going to the temple we witnessed Sri Lankan traditional dances to the beat of the drums at the Cultural Center. The temple is heavily guarded and entry is restricted to just 1 hour in the day and late evening. The tooth is kept within the Relic and hence not exposed to the visiting public. We liked the overall ambience and the setting within the temple. A real visual treat if you like History especially Gautam Buddha and Buddhism. At Kandy we also saw the Indian High Commissioner’s office located near the serene and beautiful Kandy Lake. Kandy is a beautiful city and the weather was just right. You will notice almost all the billboards sporting their favourite Cricket players and Jayasuriya seems to be their hot favourite and must be their top model. Cricket is played at every nook and corner of Sri Lanka and sometimes on roads at some places.
Day 4 we set out from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya (combination of our Munnar and Coonoor near Ooty). Nuwara Eliya is a 4 hours drive from Kandy. On the way we visited Dambulla Golden Temple dedicated to Buddha. It has the biggest Buddha statue in the world. The distance from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya is short but half the distance was to be covered through ghats leading us to 1,850 meters above sea level. The temperature suddenly dipped to around 10-15 degrees Celsius. The road to Nuwara Eliya seemed as if we were traversing through thick green carpet of tea gardens… so soothing to the eyes. We visited a tea factory and were shown the entire process of making Ceylonese tea. It tasted bit different from our Indian tea…little light. Do you know that Sri Lanka is the largest exporter of Tea in the world? Most of the tea pickers are Tamilians and hence we can see small Hindu temples around Nuwara Eliya. The entire ecosystem around Nuwara Eliya was breathtaking. Its green cover and forests with almost zero pollution makes it a great place for healthy living. No wonder Ravana built his famous Ashok Vatika near Nuwara Eliya, where he kept Sita under his custody after abducting her from Tapovan (near Nashik-Maharashtra). We did not visit the Botanical garden, which people say was built by Ravana but we did visit Sita Eliya, a temple dedicated to Sita and as per local Tamil folklore she was kept there in captivity by Ravana. The temple is surrounded by a forest and a small waterfall. However Sri Lankans do not associate Ravana with their country, which came as a surprise to us. In fact Sita Eliya is not recommended on the travel itinerary and many Indians thus miss out on this important place of worship.
We had to spend the New Year’s eve at Nuwara Eliya . We were put up at St Andrew’s, one of the oldest Colonial Resort type Hotels in Nuwara Eliya dating back to mid 19th century. The entire country seemed to celebrate New Year which is a great occasion for the Sri Lankans. People burst crackers till early morning and dance on the streets. I decided to skip the New Year program organized by the Hotel and instead played a game of Snooker with my son and went to bed early.
On the 1st of Jan we left for our final destination that is Colombo. We were eagerly looking forward to seeing this old Port city of Colombo. It took us almost 7 hours to reach Colombo from Nuwara Eliya, a distance of 180kms through long winding roads.
Colombo is a very beautiful city. Clean and wide streets; no cattle on the roads; no honking but disciplined traffic; vehicles respect pedestrians. There are some parts of the old City which resembles any Indian city especially the bazaar areas. The new City is swank with tall buildings lining up the city roads. The beach along Colombo city is not that great but the view of the Harbour is really breathtaking.
There are couple of Indian restaurants and finally we were able to eat real good Indian food. We visited an old Dutch church; a Hindu temple; Independence Square and Convention Center. On this day, the Sri Lankan army captured Killinochchi and the Maldivian President was also visiting Colombo. There was tight security in the city, which was very similar to what I witnessed at Srinagar. There is an army man every 50 metres. However they were very polite and not once they inconvenienced us. Our guide introduced us to them as friendly neighbours and we could see the smile on the young faces…most of them young ladies. We could see children playing cricket on the Colombo streets which were deserted due to a local Holiday. We took time to shop at Odel, a swanky Mall in the city. Here you can shop for great clothes and fashion accessories.
We left Colombo and Sri Lanka for India with a very heavy heart. Although we heard there was a blast again on the day of our return, we were glad that our trip was very eventful and successful. We faced no hardship and we really enjoyed the warmth and genorosity of the Sri Lankan people. Now we know why they greet us Ayubowan since they live life happily despite the internal turmoil this country is facing. I hope they come out of this phase very soon. They love Indians and love our Bollywood films very much.
Some highlights of Sri Lanka:
· The inflation rate is very high. You may find the rates at Hotels or Restaurants or Entrance to sightseeing places very expensive. A decent meal for 2 can cost you SLR 3,000 OR Indian Rupees 1,400. Most Hotels serve Beef and Pork and alcohol is served almost everywhere.
· Auto fares are SLR 60 minimum (they call Tuk Tuks). You need to learn the art of bargaining to deal with some Vendors or Auto drivers.
· Most of the vehicles – the autos, the cars and the buses are India made. However taxis are mostly Nissans or Toyotas. The trains look very old fashioned except the Colombo locals which are made in China.
· Fish is available in plenty and so are various fruits and vegetables. We visited a Bazaar at Kandy and it was very similar to our Indian bazaar.
· Petrol costs SLR 100 per litre which is almost similar to Indian rate after conversion. Rice, their staple diet, costs SLR 135 per kg average which we thought was expensive for the average rice eater.
· Indian rupees is not acceptable in Sri Lanka. Carry US dollars instead.
· You don’t need a Visa to visit Sri Lanka. You can get a Visa on arrival and it took us just few minutes to get one. The Customs and Emigration folks are very friendly.
· Sri Lanka is very tourist friendly. You will see lot of Europeans and Japanese tourists and very less Indians. This was surprising.
· The toilet facilities are very good and even the remotest place have clean toilets unlike India.
· Shop for Tea; Medicinal or Ayurvedic products and Clothes. Batiks and handicrafts are expensive.
· Sri Lanka is also known for gems and jewellery. Emeralds from Sri Lanka are famous. However the prices are exhorbitive unless you know how to bargain and get a good deal.
· The local people speak Sinhalese and it is not at all similar to any South Indian language except for some words, which are derived from Sanskrit like amba for mango etc. The script is similar to Kannada/Telugu but only in appearance.
· Tamils form 15% of the population and we can see most of the sign boards in Tamil
· There are no milestones on Roads with distance mentioned. You have to wait for a major junction to see what the distance is to the destination
· Roads in small towns are not very good and could be bumpy. But very few speed breakers could be found and people respect the traffic rules
· An average air trip costs Rs 10,000 per person and a travel package another Rs 15,000 for 6 days tour. Jet Airways, Sri Lankan Airlines and Air India Express fly to Colombo daily from Chennai. Kingfisher is starting a flight from Bangalore to Colombo in end January.
· We asked Thilak the average salary of a Sri Lankan. We were told it is SLR 25,000 TO 30,000 per month for an average Sri Lankan.
· They have a strict dowry system like in India. The bride has to give property, gold, cash etc.
· Do not ask about Ravana or Ram or Sita with the local Sinhalese people. Most of them have not even heard these names. Their history books talk nothing about the old Ramayana folklore. Only the ethnic Tamil people are aware about Ramayana and the key actors.
· Don’t ask locals about LTEE and Tamil Eelams in detail. Some of them may think we empathize their cause and hence better to avoid this discussion.
· The current President of Sri Lanka, Rajapakse is well respected by the Sri Lankans especially for his bold stand on LTTE
· The local TV channels do not show Indian TV channels except for some Colombo Hotels.
· Ghajini and Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi were being shown in their theaters. We could see long queues for tickets. The Bollywood films have English sub titles.
· On TV, the Bollywood films and serials like Saas Bhi Kabhi…. are dubbed into Sinhalese and shown on local channels. Most of the TV channels show Sinhalese serials and there are very few advertisements. Smoking and Drinking scenes are blanked out.
· Greet people with a smile; folded hands and say Ayubowan. This is the jadoo ki jhappi for the Sri Lankans especially coming from their friendly neighbours.
I hope you enjoyed reading this long and lengthy travelogue. Please await my next write up till I identify and visit another exotic location…..
Wish you a Very Happy New Year.