Get ready to be spellbound by SRI LANKA’s old-world charm, rich medieval and colonial heritage, pristine nature, amazing safaris – and more!
Located in the southwest of the Bay of Bengal, Sri Lanka spans across 65,610km2 with its shores hugged by azure waters. The topography of Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, comprises rolling coastal plains that make up most of the land – plots of rice fields generously occupying the island as stands of coconut trees reach for the sky. The south-central region, meanwhile, is home to misty mountains and cool, verdant highlands peppered with fruit and tea plantations as well as vegetable farms.
Along with the Sinhalese, Sri Lankan Tamils, Indian Tamils, Moors and Burghers (a Eurasian ethnic group), there is also a small community of Sri Lankan Malays, who arrived in the island from Dutch-occupied Java during the period of Dutch colonial rule.
Seventy-percent of Sri Lankans are Buddhists, while the remaining percentage is made up of Hindus, Muslims and Christians. Sri Lanka has the longest continuous history of Buddhism of any Buddhist nation in the world; its arrival on Lankan shores dates back to 246 BC.
Colombo is the commercial capital of the republic, a port city on the west coast that melds modern-day architectural nuances with rich colonial legacy, one that dates back to the arrival of the Portuguese in Sri Lanka in 1505, followed by the Dutch over a century later and the British in 1796.
Located just 40 minutes from the Bandaranaike International Airport, the city is clean and colourful, from the bright-coloured exterior of shops lining the streets to the endless stream of tuk-tuks as they weave through traffic. White private-owned and red government-owned buses transport locals as they go about their daily routines, as does the inter-city train service. The World Trade Centre Colombo in the Fort district dominates the skyline with its 40-storey twin towers scaling 152 metres.
If you’re looking to shop for handy souvenirs, head to the Pettah bazaar (next to the Fort district) which is a hive of activity with a Middle Eastern touch – the cobble-stoned streets are riddled with a variety of goods, from fabrics and jewellery to electronics and spices – even Ayurvedic herbs and roots – at great prices.
For the high-end shopper, Crescat Boulevard and Majestic City on Galle Road would do the trick. Also, check out the Old Colombo Dutch Hospital, which is now a heritage building offering shopping and dining options.
The Gangaramaya on Sri Jinaratana Road is the biggest Buddhist temple in the city. The building complex houses a chamber containing relics of the Buddha and a large collection of Buddha figurines made of gold with precious stones.
Away from the Sri Lankan coast and its hot and humid temperatures is Kandy, the country’s last independent kingdom. Founded in the 14th century, the city is about three hours’ drive from Colombo and is built in a wooded valley burrowed in the hills around a lake, exuding plenty of olden-day charm.
Of the numerous temples, the most revered is the Sri Dalada Maligawa or the Temple of the Tooth. The UNESCO World Heritage Site contains the country’s most important Buddhist relic – a tooth of the Buddha.
In July or August every year, the Esala Perahera, one of the oldest and grandest of all Buddhist festivals in Sri Lanka, is celebrated in Kandy to honour the Sacred Tooth Relic. Featuring traditional dancers and drums, musicians, fire-eaters and lavishly decorated elephants, the festival is considered as one of the most awe-inspiring parades in the whole of Asia.
Others attractions in Kandy include the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage, where mostly-domesticated elephants roam freely, as well as the gem-mining town of Ratnapura, which draws gem traders from all over the world.
To experience the cool highlands of Sri Lanka, make that journey up to Nuwara Eliya, located at an altitude of 1,868m above sea level. About 180km from Colombo, the drive lets your eyes feast on lush green landscape – rolling meadow, tea-laden hills, towering Eucalyptus trees, and vibrant flowers and locally-grown fresh produce, from beetroot and turnip to apple custard to avocado – even durian!
Founded in 1846, Nuwara Eliya served as a hill country retreat for British colonialists, who started referring to it as ‘Little England’ due do its temperate climate (the average low is 12°C), and so most of the city’s buildings showcase 19th century Victorian characteristics, such as the Hill Club, Grand Hotel and the Town Post Office.
Apart from tea factory, beer brewery as well as spice and herb garden visits, other attractions here include Horton Plains, a lush national park stretching across 19.63km2; discover stunning wildlife, along with awe-inducing waterfalls such as Baker’s Falls and Slab Rock Falls.
Nine Arch Bridge
Sixty kilometres from Nuwara Eliya is the mountain village of Ella, and one of the highlights there is the 30-metre-high Nine Arch Bridge, which connects Ella station to Demodara station. Almost a hundred years old, the bridge is considered one of the engineering marvels of the early 20th century as it’s built with blocks of stone and cement without any strengthening iron or concrete. The dense jungle and agricultural setting makes the train ride across this bridge, set on a curved path supported by colossal arches, a truly special experience.
The Sigiriya Fortress
Sigiriya is a rock fortress and a palace set in the Matale district. Located 169km from Colombo, the ruin is accessed by way of passageways cut into the rock face between a monumental pair of lion paws – and is surrounded by gardens, ponds and other structures. Believed to have been built in the 15th century by King Kassapa, Sigiriya (which translates to ‘Lion's Rock’) is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is the best preserved city centre in Asia.
Sri Lanka is home to an array of wildlife sanctuaries and national parks, including Wasgamuwa National Park, Yala Safari Camping and Minneriya National Park Safari where you’ll get to encounter herds of wild Sri Lankan elephants, along with species of mammals such as the leopard, spotted deer, wild buffalo, purple-faced langur, golden palm civet, mugger crocodile and Indian pangolin, as well as various birds and reptiles.
Sri Lankans love their spices, coconut and chilli, using these in almost every condiment. Keep an eye out for the green-coloured “capsicum”, which is stuffed, used in ‘sambols’ (not a typo) and curries. Seeni sambol (sweet onion sambal) and maasi sambol (maasi fish sambal) are must-try typical dishes with some heat. Also make room for the famous Sri Lankan appam – enjoy it with sweet coconut milk or with seeni or coconut sambol as a savoury meal.
Don’t miss out on local sweets and pastries such as ‘kalu dodol’ (similar to Malaysian dodol, except not sticky nor chewy) and ‘watalappan’, a traditional spiced coconut custard believed to be of Malay origin. A simple tea-time delight is ‘halapa’, made from rice and ragi flour, grated coconut and sugar – wrapped in Kande leaves and steamed.
A number of airlines fly direct from KL International Airport to the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) in Sri Lanka, including Sri Lankan Airlines, AirAsia, Malindo Air and Malaysia Airlines. Duration of flight is approximately three and a half hours. From the BIA, it’s just a 30-minute drive to the Colombo city centre.
When To Go
Though it’s a year-round destination, those who seek fun in the sun and sea are recommended to visit between the months of November and April. Meanwhile, the central highlands are cool and relatively dry from January to April.
Where To Stay
If you’re ready to bask in the lap of opulence, The Kingsbury in Colombo is a must. A stone’s throw away from the beach, the classically-designed property offers 229 sea-view rooms, along with the services and amenities you’d expect from a five-star hotel. www.thekingsburyhotel.com
The Mahaweli Reach Hotel in Kandy offers five-star accommodation with each of the 112 rooms opening out to beautiful views of tropical greenery. Facilities include restaurants, a large swimming pool, Ayurvedic centre and fitness as well as bike rental. www.mahaweli.com
The Grand Hotel is the one and only luxury colonial hotel in Nuwara Eliya, built in 1891. An architectural structure of the Elizabethan era, the hotel offers 154 deluxe rooms with beautiful garden views. thegrandhotelnuwaraeliya.com
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