7 Things to Know Before Traveling to Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is a delightful destination that is full of surprises. The pearl-shaped island sits in the Indian Ocean at the foot of India. The island is less than 40 kilometres from India at its nearest point. Yet it is very different in ambience and infrastructure from its larger neighbour. Sri Lanka is about one-sixth of the size of California and has a population of about 22 million people. It is a fascinating and picturesque country with a long and varied history.
I have found that Sri Lankans are often quietly spoken, gentle souls with good manners and a warm welcome for visitors. It is hard to believe that in recent memory the country was riven by civil war. This began in 1983 and gradually faded in the early 2000s. Parts of the north of the island have only recently become accessible again to tourists. The internal strife of the island is too complicated to go into in depth, but it evolved around a long-standing tension between the two largest ethnic groups – the majority Singhalese, (predominantly Buddhists) and the Tamils who are mainly Hindu.
7 things to know before traveling to Sri Lanka
From 1815 until independence in 1948, Sri Lanka was part of the British Empire. Known then as Ceylon and not officially renamed until 1972. One of its largest industries was (and remains) tea growing. A shortage of local labour resulted in the British Colonials transporting large numbers of South Indian Tamils to work on the tea plantations. Unfair treatment of some of the Tamil population led to an uprising. A rebel organization ‘The Tamil Tigers’ was established, became organized and started a campaign of civil disobedience and military activities to try to establish an independent Tamil state in the North-East of the country. Since the peace initiative, political developments have resulted in a much fairer government power-sharing system. Tamil and Singhalese members sit on the democratically elected legislature and for the majority, past tensions and difficulties have been laid to rest.
Sri Lanka is proud of its high literacy rate and since peace has come to the island, prosperity has climbed and tourism escalated. Sri Lanka now has the highest standard of living of all the South Asian nations. Education is high advanced scholars attend the major universities within the country and overseas. Although poverty still exists, especially in the rural areas, the government has been successful in reducing it and life expectancy of Sri Lankans is the highest in the region.
How to Reach Sri Lanka
Most visitors will arrive at Bandaranaike International Airport that is about 23 kilometers north of Colombo, the country’s capital city. Sri Lankan Airlines is the well-respected national carrier that connects Colombo with many Asian and European destinations. There is also a passenger ferry service from the Southern Indian city of Thoothukudi.
Getting Around Sri Lanka
The country has an extensive network of good roads between all major towns and cities. There are a National rail network and an efficient highway bus system. Metered taxis are plentiful. Hiring a car is possible in Sri Lanka, but it is a great idea to hire a driver as well. The roads can be difficult to maneuver, especially in the mountainous areas. Often tourist drivers will be very knowledgeable and will give some local advice. An alternative way to see the island is to join a local tour – there are many to choose from.
The island consists of flat and rolling coastal plain with a mountainous area in the southern central part of the island. The highest point is 2524 meters above sea level. The highland areas are usually significantly cooler (but not during my stay) than the rest of the island and it is here that many colonial planters built their homes to escape the relentless heat. Coral reefs lie just off the coast.
Language and Currency
Singhalese and Tamil are the national languages of Sri Lanka but English is widely taught in schools as the second language and is often used for official and commercial purposes. There are several English language national newspapers. I had no problem finding a friendly English speaking local to help with directions. One day in Colombo I was approached by a local man who politely asked if he could walk with me merely to practice his English.
Sri Lankan rupee notes come in denominations of 20, 50, 100,500, 1000 and 5000. At the time of writing 1000 rupees is worth approximately US$6.53.
Weather in Sri Lanka. What to Expect
Coastal Sri Lanka has hot weather throughout the year. But you can notice that various sides of the island can be affected by heavy monsoon rains at different times. On December 26th, 2004 there was a tragic loss of life (more than 30,000) on the island caused by the Indian Ocean tsunami. Since then an efficient warning system has been implemented. The first four months of the year are usually the most stable with regard to the heavy rains. It is usually considered ‘high season’ for travelers. This said the island enjoys a steady stream of visitors all year around.
Top Things to Do in Sri Lanka
You are spoilt for choice in Sri Lanka and there are many places of interest. The island has many excellent beaches and water sports opportunities (read more about my experience in Sri Lanka) but the history and culture of the island are varied and amazing.
The commercial capital and by far the largest city is Colombo. It is a bustling port city where I found a melting pot of ethnicities. Five million people live in the Greater Colombo area. There are many interesting old buildings in various states of repair, which reflect the city’s colonial past. Influences of the Portuguese, the Dutch and British respectively show how the island had been invaded and colonized over the years. The city has a natural harbor and several nearby beaches, of which the Galle Face Beach is the most famous. The Galle Face Hotel at the end of the beach is a very well preserved colonial building, which proudly boasts some famous individuals who have stayed there – such as Harrison Ford and Mark Twain.
For a haven of peace in the heart of the city, Independence Square is well worth a visit. The park here is a favorite for locals to take a stroll when the temperature cools a little in the evenings. About ten kilometers north of Colombo is the world famous Kelaniya Buddhist temple. Its history dates back more than 2500 years. Residents believe that it is one of the most venerable Buddhist monuments anywhere in Asia.
I spent a day visiting the Galle Fort situated within the city of Galle is a two-hour drive from Colombo. It is a world heritage site, which contains a labyrinth of narrow streets within a walled compound. It was built by the Portuguese over 400 years ago and has changed very little over the years, providing a unique sense of time appearing to stand still as you wander the streets at your leisure.
Nuwara Eliya is in the hills, about a four-hour drive due east of Colombo. It is several degrees cooler and a pleasant retreat from the lowland and coastal heat. Here you will find many examples of colonial homes and hotels built by the British tea planters to escape the heat. There are some excellent walks nearby.
I loved visiting a tea plantation. The view of the endless tea bushes will stay with you. The tea pluckers neatly trim them and they are arranged in very picturesque rows, which follow the contours of the hillside. The plantations often have a museum nearby where you can learn about Sri Lanka’s long-established tea industry and browse old photographs. There is usually a tea shop where you can sample the product to refresh you after your visit.
Another unique phenomenon of the country is the stilt fishermen who stand serenely on forked branches just off the waterfront along stretches of the south coast. They balance on long poles a few metres out to sea and cast their rods from the pole. Their silhouettes provide stunning photographs against the setting sun. However, don’t be surprised when you take a photograph if the fisherman or an accomplice appears to ask for a small fee.
Sri Lanka has lots of stunning beaches with the clear waters of the Indian Ocean. Among other things that made me visit Sri Lanka is water sports opportunities. I found the West Coast to be more developed while the coastal resorts such as Negombo and Hikkaduwa can become crowded because of the proximity to the capital city. The latter has a coastal national park with protected coral reef housing exotic fish and sea turtles. For less developed resorts head to the east coast, which is, redeveloping slowing after the 2004 tsunami wrecked many of the hotels
Kandy is Sri Lanka’s second city, about 115 kilometers inland from Colombo. It is a picturesque place built around the Bogambara Lake. Expect to find lovely walking paths that are popular with locals in the evenings. Alongside the lake is the famous Temple of the Tooth that is a place of pilgrimage for devout Buddhists throughout the world. The temple houses the Buddha’s tooth relic. Every year in July or August the celebrated Esala Perahara Festival takes place.
This is when one of the caskets is used for covering the tooth is paraded around the city. The procession is a wonderful spectacle and includes traditional dancers and drummers, decorated elephants, jugglers, fire eaters and flag bearers – all lit by torchbearers holding flaming coconut husks. At the end of the procession is a magnificently attired and painted tusker carrying the casket. It is a splendidly exuberant parade and I was mesmerized by it.
If you are at all interested in Art or History then you must visit the painted frescoes at Sigiriya. This UNESCO Site is about a two-hour drive north of Kandy. These were created as far back as the fourth century and commissioned by the king as a tribute to the beauty of women. The frescoes are truly amazing and well worth the effort of getting up close to.
I found the surviving frescoes (many have been lost over time) on a sheltered part of the side of a cliff face. But I had to climb an outdoor spiral set of stairs reminiscent of a fire escape to view them. Believe me, they are worth the climb. If you are nervous of heights, you may have a dilemma, but if you can cope with the climb, it is worth a little discomfort. Their age, skillful execution and minute detail are truly awe-inspiring.
Wherever you go on the island, you will see the national game of cricket being played. On any open space, boys and increasingly girls will be bowling, batting and fielding very skillfully. The country has an excellent national team, which competes very successfully against much more heavily populated nations. Sri Lanka’s victory in the 1996 Cricket World Cup was a source of national pride and celebration.
Food in Sri Lanka
Like neighboring India, Sri Lanka is famous for its curry and rice dishes, some of which can be very spicy. As well as mutton, fish and chicken curries, lentils are also popular. Numerous pastries and sweets are enjoyed and seasonal fruits are widely grown – favorites include pineapple, mangosteen, and bananas. Tea, of course, is the drink of choice for many Sri Lankans and the most popular beer is Lion Lager.
Shopping in Sri Lanka
Sri Lankan towns all have their shopping malls and markets. Local souvenirs include batiks, sarongs, embroidered pictures, wood carvings, gems, leather products, handicrafts, and tea. Although shopkeepers are keen to sell, they are not aggressive. Good-natured bargaining is expected in the markets.
Some parts of Sri Lanka have been overdeveloped and tourism has certainly made its mark. But I learned there are still many unspoiled places to visit on the island. I think that it is a wonderful place to visit and I found the local people warm, charming and anxious to help. But don’t take my word for it, go and see for yourself!