Treasure Island

Rekha Balakrishnan takes you on trip to Sri Lanka, a land of myriad pleasures and breath-taking natural beauty

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As soon as you step into Sri Lanka, the phrase that greets you and resonates throughout your stay in the beautiful country is ayobowan. The greeting rendered in soft voices with the palms folded, much like the Indian Namaste, goes much beyond the normal ‘Hello’ or ‘Welcome’… ayobowan in Sinhalese is actually a blessing, ‘May you live long’. And that’s what you feel as you traverse through the island country… blessed to be in a land which celebrates contrasts, diversities and breath-taking natural beauty.

Immigration formalities at Bandaranaike International Airport are a breeze as residents of most countries are offered a visa on arrival and the process takes only a few minutes.

Since we had a packed itinerary over a week, we were soon on the road towards our first destination for some sun, sand and the sea! Bentota, around 94 km away from the airport is located on the southern tip of the Galle District of the Southern Province. Facing the Indian Ocean, a tropical lagoon and a major river, Bentota offers water sports of every kind. Swim, body surf, jet ski, windsurf, parasail or enjoy a river safari on the river and the lagoon. The late afternoon river ride is almost magical as the adventurous boat rider takes you in and out of mangroves, pointing out water birds and sometimes even crocodiles. And as the sun sets over the Bentota River, you can’t help but soak in that ‘far away from the madding crowd’ feeling. Our much-needed dose of R&R began here.

After a good night’s sleep at Bentota, we were all set for the long drive to Yala National Park more than six hours away. The coastal road offers spectacular views of pristine beaches, windswept waves and quaint towns where you can stop for a tea break if you wish. Once you get inside Yala National Park, it’s jungle country calling to those who are ‘wild at heart’. Here the landscape undergoes a transformation giving way to a blend of the browns and the greens dotted with little watering holes, with a few sandy beaches as well.  A four-hour jeep ride with a guide as excited as us made animal and bird spotting immensely enjoyable. Peacocks strut through the various clearings, shy sambar deer leap out of your way and water buffaloes laze in the reservoirs with only their heads bobbing above the water. In the Park, you can also see sloth bears, hornbills and plenty of crocodiles. But the star attraction is of course the leopard. We were lucky enough to spot one lying on a hill-top, oblivious to all the excitement below.

A night at Chaaya Wild, a resort in the middle of the jungle was an experience in itself. As we drew the curtains of our chalet at six in the morning, we were greeted by a wild elephant that had come visiting. Outside, monkeys darted up and down the many trees playfully and exotic birds made cooing sounds. This, we realised, was how it felt to be literally in nature’s lap, marvelling at her bounties.

Though we would have happily spent another night at Yala, it was time to make a visit to Hill Country, Nuwara Eliya. Rain accompanied us on our journey but this did not deter us from making different stops for some splendid views of valleys, meadows and mountains swathed in green. Splashing in the waters of the Rowana waterfalls by the highway is a must even for those ‘pretending-to-be-stoic’ adults. Ah! to be a child once again without a care in the world… that’s what Sri Lanka does to you! The mountain station is also home to tea plantations and if you are curious to know the different types of tea and how they are processed, a visit to a tea factory is a must. Nuwara Eliya has a colonial feel to it and like most places in Sri Lanka is enveloped in peace and tranquillity.

The next on our itinerary was Kandy, the cultural hotspot and we were fortunate to be in time for the Esala Perahera or the Kandy Festival, an annual celebration of the Sacred Temple of the Tooth Relic. The first night of the festival saw us huddled along with other tourists in a make-shift gallery on the road through which the parade passed. At US$62 per person, the fee may be a bit steep but the experience is definitely worth it. It’s a grand spectacle, seen by torchlight and includes elephant processions and in between them, participants performed different acts to the boom of the drums. Kandy is also famous for its sacred Temple of the Tooth Relic, the Botanical Gardens at Peradeniya, batik and gem factories.

The ‘capital idea’ came at the fag end of our trip. Colombo beckoned but not before an ‘elephant stop’ at the elephant orphanage at Pinnawala. It houses orphaned baby and adult elephants lost in the wilderness. When we arrived, elephants were frolicking in the nearby river enjoying a late afternoon bath. A perfect opportunity to see the pachyderms indulging in some fun!

Colombo is much like any other capital city with wide and clean roads and many tourist attractions. Make sure you pick a hotel near the Galle Face beach like we did. You can take a long walk on the promenade or step onto the grass for some kite flying or simply stroll over to the small bridge to watch the sun come down. A visit to Independence Square and Gangaramaya Temple, a ride on the lake and bargain hunting at Pettah are the other must-do touristy things!

In Sri Lanka, it’s not just the sights that enthrall you. The food is delicious, the people are warm and friendly and you do not need to stick to the itinerary your travel agent gives you. It’s also less crowded which means you don’t have to jostle with hundreds of other tourists at any place. Well, that’s close to ‘travel nirvana’ as you can get. Each journey also throws up many possibilities to discover something new, whether it’s a turtle farm on the coastal road or a food-stop where we sampled some fresh yoghurt with honey, slices of pink jackfruit and rambutan, the fruits of the season. And if you are a cricket lover, then you need not think hard about a conversation starter; the game is almost like a religion here like it’s in the Indian sub-continent!

After a week in Sri Lanka, we realised that it never could be a ‘one-trip’ country. It has a magic that will soon pull us back… for we know, more wonders are in store. And more blessings too… For, as Hillaire Belloc says, “We wander for distraction, but we travel for fulfilment.” Sri Lanka takes you on the path, in different ways!