After our planned trip to Morocco fell through 8 weeks before we were due to go, we were worried that we would not be able to find a holiday that fitted in with the very restricted dates that we had given ourselves, due to work and other commitments.
Sri Lanka had always been on our bucket list, but most holidays we found in brochures seemed to be based around just one or two centres, whereas we always work on the basis that we may only visit once and therefore want to see as much as possible. I remembered that work colleagues had honeymooned on the island the previous year and having asked them about it I was given the name of Reece at Invite to Paradise who I was told had organised everything for them, including a personal chauffer driven car.
Our first thoughts were that not only was this not our style, but also that it would be way outside our budget. However, having nothing to lose, I emailed Reece with the dates that we wanted, the sort of things that we wanted to do (cultural, wildlife and beach) and our budget. After sending my email on a Saturday evening, we were pleasantly surprised when Reece not only replied but also phoned and spent an hour discussing our requirements on the Sunday and less than 48 hours from our initial enquiry we had our itinerary in front of us and the holiday was booked! Okay, it had exceeded our budget a bit but we were getting so much for our money including stays at 5 star hotels and a number of included excursions.
Reece’s personal knowledge of Sri Lanka and everywhere that we were going meant that he was able to answer any questions that we asked him between booking and our departure. He even phoned just before we were due to set off to wish us a great holiday and check if there were any last minute issues!
We had chosen to fly direct with Sri Lanka airlines, which although adding to the cost, meant that we did not waste hours hanging around in airports waiting for connecting flights – 11 hours in an airplane was more than enough for us. The meals on board were good quality and the choice on the entertainment system was excellent.
Once we had been through passport control and collected our suitcases, we changed our sterling for rupees and easily found Dimuth, our personal chauffeur, who was holding up our names in the arrivals hall. Once outside we were immediately hit with the heat and humidity that we were expecting. However, the air conditioning inside the car was wonderful and we were taken the short distance to the Jetwing Beach at Negombo which would be our hotel for the night. A cool towel and a refreshing drink awaited us as we checked in and after arranging a 6.30 am pick up with Dimuth and breakfast packs with reception, we were taken to our room.
The room was very large and looking out past the pool and palm trees we got our first proper glimpse of the Indian Ocean. Tired from the travelling we changed into more appropriate clothing and went down onto the beach where we spent the rest of the day relaxing and recovering before having a delicious meal in the restaurant and a relatively early night!
Dimuth was waiting for us when we checked out and we set off en route to our next hotel. Departure had been timed so that we arrived at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage in time to see the baby elephants being given their milk. There was an option to feed the elephants but we noticed that most tourists were only doing this for the photos and not because they had a particular interest in feeding! Besides, those elephants made very light work of guzzling down their milk and if you blinked you would have missed the experience altogether. Next we went down to the lake where we sat in a café and had a cool drink whilst we waited for the elephants to come and bathe. The elephants bathing and playing in the water was a wonderful sight and we managed to get quite close to them for a really good view.
Our next stop was Dambulla Cave Temples which was quite a climb in the heat, but one that we wanted to do. My shorts didn’t quite cover my knees but fortunately Dimuth had a sarong in the car and he lent this to me so that I could go into the temples at the top. Before we were allowed in we had to take off our shoes, which proved to be pretty unbearable as the ground was burning hot until we got inside the temples. Note to self – take socks on future days out! Dimuth guided us round the 5 temples and explained about the different positions that the Buddha statues were in. We learned to tell the difference between a reclining Buddha and one who is in his final resting position, just by looking at the placement of his toes.
On arrival at our next hotel, Jetwing Vil Uyana at Sigiriya, we were overwhelmed by the beautiful surroundings. Accommodation is in individual chalets modelled on traditional Sinhalese village architecture but luxuriously appointed inside with all mod cons. Our chalet overlooked the paddy fields and had its own little plunge pool – useful for cooling down purposes – as well as the hotel swimming pool which was annexed to the lake. The room itself was huge and open plan. It was also only a short walk to the restaurant which looked out over the aforementioned lake. After another very good meal we again had an early night in preparation for a 7.00 am start the next day.
The hotel allowed us to have breakfast half an hour early so that we could set off at the appointed time, although because it was cooked to order it meant we were a little late so I sent Dimuth a text to let him know. The early start was necessary as we were going to climb the 1,200 steps to the top of Sigiriya Rock and it was a good idea to do this before it became too hot and too crowded. The Rock is only a short drive from the hotel and once there we were introduced to our local guide, who had an excellent knowledge of the history, but kept it at a level where we didn’t feel overwhelmed with facts. It is an ancient palace and listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site so it is definitely a ‘must see’ for anyone visiting the country. On the way to the top we paused numerous times to admire and photograph the various gardens, frescos and the mirror wall etc. Once at the top the views were breathtaking and we could see where rooms had been as well as a pool that was still full of water. Dimuth took the first of many photos of the two of us –this one was with us standing on a little stone that was the highest point on the rock. The walk down took us a slightly different way and through the King’s court area and then back to the car park and the relief of the air conditioned car once again.
We then went on to the ancient city of Polonnuruwa. Once again we had a very informative guide who took us first around the indoor museum and then around the many different areas on the large site, which we used the car to get to. This was the second ancient capital city in Sri Lanka and there are numerous temples to wander around so it was good that I had my socks with me this time!
We had the opportunity to do an elephant ride before returning to our hotel. When we arrived at the site our 26 year old elephant Rani was nowhere to be seen as she was being bathed, so we sat and watched the red kites flying over the lake. When she arrived, she was fed and then we watched the basket being strapped to her over a blanket, being glad that they were not using chains around her body. The ride not only took us all the way along the side of the lake, but also into the lake where we just hoped that Rani didn’t decide to roll over and have a bath! Our guide was excellent, pointing out all the wildlife along the route whilst keeping complete control. A man appeared at the side of the road selling bananas, so it would have been rude not to buy some and of course it was expected – by Rani even if not by anyone else!
The next day we could have had at leisure, but Dimuth had given us a number of suggestions and we plumped for the village safari. Fortunately this enabled us to have a little bit more of a lie in than the day before and we enjoyed a lovely breakfast in the hotel before being promptly picked up for the short journey to Habarana. We then transferred into a jeep for another short ride (during which the heavens opened) to what appeared to be just another ‘shack’ but behind it was a beautiful lake where our next mode of transport awaited us. The rain stopped just in time for us, but the wonderful Dimuth brought along the umbrellas that he kept in his car just in case we needed them later. We all climbed into the boat and set off across the lake which was awash with beautiful lotus flowers. Our guide made a necklace from one for me and something a bit more masculine from the stem for John. The boat ride was just wonderful and all the time the guide was pointing out the birds to us and stopping so that we could take photographs. After the circular trip, it was back into the jeep again for another short ride to yet another mode of transport – a cart pulled by 2 bullocks. This was another new experience that lasted around 30 minutes over a bumpy track but again we were alerted to all the wildlife that was around. This was followed by a walk to a farm, where we were shown around all the fruit and vegetables that were being grown. The produce is taken to a commercial centre to be sold wholesale. We were welcomed inside the farmhouse (which was traditional and extremely dark) where we were served coriander tea in a half coconut shell. We were also offered some jiggery, which is an unrefined sugar made from sugar cane juice. It is used as a sweetening agent and was eaten ‘on the side’ as opposed to being stirred into the tea! We did wonder if this is where our lunch was going to be, but no, we set off again retracing our steps and after seeing some eagles sitting at the tops of the trees, we climbed into a tuk tuk – except that the Sri Lankans call them tik tuks – for the next leg of our journey. Once out of the tik tuk and after another short walk, we arrived at the farmhouse where we were stopping for lunch. We were handed a banana leaf plate and invited to help ourselves from the delicious selection of curries and accompaniments that had been prepared for us (and others just leaving who were also on a village safari). I did look around for cutlery and then realised that we were expected to eat like Sri Lankans – ie with our hands. Messy when you are not used to it but I am sure there is a knack and there was a tap available for washing afterwards! The food was very colourful and the aromas were amazing. But surprisingly it was not too spicy and I have to say it was probably the most enjoyable meal that we had in Sri Lanka.
On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at a silk factory. Dimuth assured us that silk would be cheaper here than elsewhere as the taxes were lower and who were we to disbelieve him as we bought ties and scarves as presents! I also had the opportunity to try on a sari and have my photo taken. Of course I know they were hoping for a sale, but I don’t have much use for one at home so sadly it was left behind.
The next morning we set off for Kandy, the second largest city in Sri Lanka. It is the home of the Temple of the Tooth, which is one of the most sacred places of worship in the Buddhist world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. En route to the temple, we stopped at a spice garden where we were taken round free of charge. It was really interesting learning how natural herbs and spices are used in products we use at home as well as herbal medicines. At the end of the tour we were offered a massage by a student masseuse. This was very nice indeed and we then paid what we felt that it was worth. After this we were taken to the shop and realised that these natural ingredients come at a high price! After leaving there we were driven to the Temple of the Tooth. It houses the Relic of the tooth of the Buddha. Originally part of the Royal Palace complex of the Kandyan Kingdom, it is one of the holiest places of worship and pilgrimage for Buddhist around the world. It was last of a series of temples built in the places where the relic, the actual palladium of the Sinhalese monarchy, was brought following the various relocations of the capital city. The sacred tooth of Buddha is kept closed in a chamber on the upper floor. Buddhists pray at the front of the chamber sitting around the closed area of the entrance of decorated with their beautiful lotus flower offerings. There are a number of buildings to visit on this complex but I was particularly interested in the little museum housing the stuffed remains of Raja the elephant. He was apparently one of the most celebrated elephants in Sri Lanka during his lifetime and in 1986 he was declared a national treasure. He died in 1988 aged 75.
Dimuth asked if we wished to go to a Gem factory – what a silly question! We went with the intention of looking only as we expected everything to be well out of our price bracket. The gem factory is well set up for tourists. There is a video area where you first spend around 20 minutes learning about what gems are found in Sri Lanka and how they are mined. Gems of all types are found in Sri Lanka and the next part of the tour had examples of the different gems and where in the country they are found. Then we walked through a small workroom where several people are cutting and polishing the gems. So finally we are taken into the showroom where we did end up spending more than we intended on some blue sapphires! Oh well, I guess I am going to have to work a bit harder to pay for them.
After this we were taken literally across the road to wait for the cultural show. This was a traditional drums and dance show by around a dozen performers wearing national costumes. We were provided with a list of dances which briefly explained what they were about; however we were confused by the fact that the show did not follow the order on the list and therefore we lost interest a bit! The end of the show was followed by some fire eating dances which was outside the building and a little more interesting.
It was now time to check in at our next hotel – the Amaya Hills in Kandy. It is situated up a steep and windy road and the views from our room were magnificent. However, this was not the best hotel in terms of service and facilities so we were thankful that we only stayed for one night. We had some extremely heavy rain during our stay here so it was good that it coincided with night time!
The next morning there was a wedding taking place in the hotel. The bridal party were having photos taken when we went for breakfast at 7.00 am. The costumes were magnificent and Dimuth explained to us that in the high country they wore the King’s costume which was much more ornate. After being treated rather rudely during check out, we were relieved to set off for Ella which is in Hill country. This was quite a long way so we had plenty of stops en route. One of the places we called at was a Mlesna tea shop where we had 2 pots of Ceylon tea and 2 pieces of butter cake for about £2.75. Costa will never be the same again. We also bought a variety of Ceylon teas to take home.
We also drove through Nurawa Elya and Dimuth showed us the gardens of the Grand Hotel which were quite stunning. The place is known as Little England and many of the buildings a re in the colonial style. We stopped by the lake but the wind was biting so we decided not to stray too far from the car. Before we reached there we also stopped at Ramboda falls which are accessed through the Ramboda Falls Hotel. It is a little bit of a trek to get to the best vantage point, but definitely well worth the effort!
We eventually arrived in Ella at the beautiful 98 Acres Resort and Spa, situated on the tea hills and ove rlooking the pickers in the plantations. Once we had settled in we decided to stretch our legs on a walk to one of the hills that we could see from our balcony, Little Adam’s Peak. The path took us around the outside of a tea plantation and then up onto the top of a hill where we had some magnificent views. However, we sensed rain in the air and being rather concerned that we were a long way from any cover, we decided that we had better not hang around so made our way back to the hotel.
The next day we did a tour of the Uva Halpewatte Tea factory, which is one of the largest in Sri Lanka and the main one in Ella. We had a very informative tour of the factory and learned a lot about tea production and the different processes that are involved. Before this, I naively thought that each tea came from a different plant but now know that is not the case! At the end of the tour we had an opportunity to taste a variety of black teas and then we purchased yet more Ceylon tea to take home.
Arriving back in Ella, Dimuth took us to the local train station where it is possible to catch a train to either Kandy or Columbo. We had originally been given an option to take the train from Kandy part way to Ella as it is ridiculously cheap, but we had chosen not to do so. The station itself is very quaint and as you would expect not at all modern. There was grass growing between the tracks and a dog was wandering along the line without a care in the world which all added to the charm. Driving back into the centre of Ella, we stopped at the Ella Mount Heaven hotel for some more tea.. The weather was nice enough for us to sit outside and take in yet more views of the plantations.
One of the local attractions is called Nine Arch Bridge. We had seen it in the distance so when Dimuth asked if we would like to go there we said yes. Having driven towards it but not got any closer, Dimuth stopped the car and said that he had arranged for us to undertake the rest of the journey by tuk tuk. Our driver duly arrived and the 3 of us squeezed into the back and held on whilst we negotiated a bumpy downward hill. We stopped an alighted at the bottom of the hill where we could see the railway track but there was no sign of the bridge. It was only at this point that we realised that we would be walking along the train tracks to not only see the bridge, but also walk over it! This was indeed a novelty and felt so wrong, but very enjoyable. Once we arrived, we walked backwards and forwards across the nine arches, just hoping that Dimuth was correct about the train times. Although it was very hot, we took his advice and waited for the next train to arrive – he thought it was due in about 10 minutes but in fact we waited over an hour. However, we spent the time watching the locals using the bridge to go about their daily business, carrying their wares on their head. Eventually it arrived and came within a few feet of where we were standing. It was just as I expected, with the passenger carriages being very full and people hanging out of the doors.
The next morning we were on the move again, this time to Yala, which is the main National Park area in Sri Lanka. En route we stopped for photos at the beautiful Rawana Falls, just outside Ella. The weather was still hot and sunny and we were grateful when Dimuth stopped at a roadside ‘kiosk’ and purchased some king coconuts for us to drink. These are, as the name says, very large coconuts, which contain refreshing coconut water that aids rehydration . The tops were sliced off and they were passed to us with straws to enjoy by the roadside. Delicious!
We soon arrived at the Cinnamon Wild Safari Lodge in Yala and used our free time to stress our legs and explore the hotel grounds which are by a large lake. It wasn’t long before we saw egrets, spoonbills, pelicans, water buffalo and of course, crocodiles. There was a path heading through the lodges to the beach and we stood and watched the waves break against the rocks whilst marvelling at how deserted it was. Heading back and into the main grounds we saw some very cheeky monkeys which we were told were Langurs. They were very prevalent around the hotel pool and especially the sunbeds and the babies were incredibly playful. We decided we would brave the pool to cool ourselves down so walked back to our lodge, passing a lovely Sri Lanka iguana en route. The monkeys were playing around the lodges and climbing all over the roofs so when inside you could often hear a thumping sound! Once back at the pool, having survived a swipe from a Langur we settled down to relax, with the knowledge that there were crocodiles doing just the same not too far away.
We were told that after dark we had to phone for an escort from our lodge to the main hotel as there were wild boars in the area. We certainly saw the boars but were not lucky enough to see any elephants roaming the grounds even though that had apparently happened before.
The next morning was a very early start for our safari. We collected our packed breakfast which the hotel had prepared and climbed into the jeep with our little shadow Dimuth. Then we were off on the very bumpy ride into the safari park. There were so many different birds it was amazing. There were many other packed jeeps in the park, all hoping like we were for a glimpse of a leopard so we were very excited when we heard reports that one had been spotted. We sat and waited and watched for a while and then just turned our heads in time to see one disappearing into the undergrowth. No time for a photograph but we were happy to have seen it! Around half way into the journey, we stopped by the beach with the other jeeps and ate our packed breakfast. This is an area that was very affected by the Tsunami and there is a memorial in the shape of waves which gave us just some idea of how high the water came. It was certainly an emotional place and during the course of our holiday, Dimuth told us of people he knew who had lost family and who had been mentally affected by what they had seen. The Sri Lankan people follow the Buddhist religion and believing that everything happens for a reason, so felt the Tsunami was a punishment. Many were afraid to go near to the coast for fear of it happening again. Life is gradually returning to normal but that normal will never be as it was before. Standing in a spot where the waves caused so much devastation, it was impossible to comprehend the scale of the disaster, Even as we wandered through the remains of a house, it was difficult to imagine the size of the waves and the fear that would have gone through the minds of the Sri Lankan people at that time.
After this break we set off again through the park and were thrilled to come across an elephant walking along the road. We stopped for photos and at one point it was right next to us. No more leopard sightings unfortunately but we did see a toucan hiding in a tree. We also took at picture of a pair of pelicans in the distance and it wasn’t until we looked at this back in England that we saw there was a baby pelican in between them. After many more birds, boar, water buffalo and crocodiles, we arrived back at the lodge and spent the afternoon relaxing amongst the monkeys by the pool.
The following day we set off for our final destination, Galle, for some sun and sea. En route Dimuth stopped by a roadside kiosk where we had buffalo curd. It is stored in clay pots and served with bee honey which makes it quite sweet but absolutely delicious. Whilst we sat there eating our curd (no, there was no big spider coming down) I notice loads of raffia bags hanging up and realising they were for sale, I asked Dimuth to find out how much they were. It turned out that the cost was the equivalent of £1.50 so I bought a couple to take home.
As we got closer to Galle, Dimuth pointed out the stick fishermen and asked if we wanted to stop and take a closer look. He said that we would have to pay them to watch but we were happy to do so. There was only one fisherman on his stick whilst we watched, but another signalled to us and pulled what looked like a small octopus out of the water, then proceeded to kill it on the beach. It was a bit stomach churning but just a normal way of the life for the Sri Lankan fishermen!
Our next stop was a sea turtle hatchery where we learnt about the rescue and conservation work that is being done. Some of the turtles have been injured and were being nursed back to health. They also retrieve the eggs and hatch them before releasing them back into the sea. There were not many young turtles there when we visited and none were ready for release but it was still a very informative trip.
Just outside Galle we stopped at Unawatuna which is a resort with a semi circular beach surrounded by bars and restaurants. It had quite a hippy feel to it but was deserted, may be because it was now very hot!
We also stopped at the fish market and saw many different species that we were not able to identify, although we saw a very large tuna being chopped up for customers to buy. The market was buzzing and it was good to watch the locals buying their fresh fish from the selection in front of us.
We continued the final part of our journey, arriving at the Jetwing Lighthouse in Galle in time to relax by the pool which was right next to the beach. We decided to have a walk along the beach too and took the opportunity to dip our toes in the Indian Ocean. The waves crashed against the rocks in the distance and again it was a reminder of the dreadful Tsunami that took place on Boxing Day in 2004. It was still hard to imagine.
The next day Dimuth took us for a drive along the coast where we visited a Tsunami photo museum. Sri Lanka had the second highest death toll after Indonesia and 40,000 lost their lives. This museum is located at the site of a house that was destroyed by the waves and contains a collection of very moving photos and personal accounts. The museum itself is free and run by volunteers but of course donations are very welcome. We spent some time here and the stories were all very emotional.
From here we went to a mask factory at Ambalangoda, a coastal town famous for its ancient devil masks and devil dancers. T he masks have different expressions as they take on their own individual roles. It was fascinating to hear about history of different types of masks including when and why they were used. The masks are created for 3 different types of dancing, one of which is the ‘devil dancing’, used in a type of exorcism ceremony to heal people of persisting illnesses believed to be inflicted by demons. There is a very good shop on site and we purchased a few carved mementos to bring back home for our wall!
Dimuth gave us some ideas for excursions, although would have been equally happy for us to return to our hotel and relax. However, when he told us about a boat trip on the Madu River around some islands, including a visit to a Buddhist temple, an island where we would be shown the art of drying cinnamon and another where we would have a fish spa and hold a crocodile, we were tempted enough to say yes! After a refreshing drink of orange juice, we climbed into a boat and set off on a massive lake for our trip. Within a few minutes, a man came alongside the boat and held up a huge crab for us to photograph – for money of course! The boat ride set off through a tunnel created by Mangrove trees was extremely smooth and very relaxing and we saw kingfishers and comorants , the weather was beautiful and there were very few boats around. Apparently there are 64 islands on the lake and although we could see some of them, we had no idea which ones we would be stopping at. We soon landed at an island where there appeared to be signs of life and found out that one family lived there, making their money from the cinnamon that grows on the island. We were given a a demonstration of how the cinnamon is cultivated and processed but the end product for sale was expensive so we did not buy anything.
The largest island in the river is Maduwa Island, with a couple of hundred families residing on it. This is the only island linked to the mainland via a long footbridge which we saw people using.
Setting off again, sailing through yet more Mangrove tunnels, we soon reached our next island where there was the Kothduwa Buddhist temple, which was over 200 years old. It looked like the island was only inhabited by Buddhist monks, but visited by a lot of tourists so it was no surprise to be told by Dimuth that we could make a donation to help with running costs. However, mindful of the fact that we were deriving a lot of pleasure out of our holiday, we duly donated to a monk and received a blessing coupled with a Buddhist bracelet – a piece of white string around our wrists.
Next stop on our island tour was the fish spa. This is something that I have thought about doing in England but never got round to it. Here in Sri Lanka it was much cheaper, only 200 rupees which is around £1. We were given some food to throw to the fish and attract them to our feet and then we just sat and ‘enjoyed’ the sensation. I must admit that the fish looked so much larger than the ones that we had seen back home! Whilst we were having our feet nibbled at, we had an opportunity to hold a baby crocodile. I assumed that its mouth would be taped up but this was not the case, but fortunately we left with all our fingers (and toes) intact!
The afternoon was spent back at the hotel, relaxing by the beach and in and out of the pool in the sunshine. As the sun went down, we watched the colour of the sky change to a beautiful orange, accentuating the palm trees which stood out in the shadows on the distant rocks.
It was then sadly onto our final day. We had asked Dimuth to take us in to the UNESCO listed Galle Fort first thing, before it became too hot and busy, and after he parked the car, we walked inside the walls that surrounded the old fortified town. The fort is surrounded by the sea on 3 sides and it is possible to walk the walls about three quarters of the way round. Galle has a very interesting history, being first established by the Portuguese then taken over by the Dutch before the British having a turn. Dimuth left us to walk along the fort walls, although he said he would not be far away as it was possible we might get hassled by some locals. From here we had good views of the Indian Ocean as well as the old town. Just outside the walls was Galle International Stadium, one of the stadiums used by the Sri Lanka cricket team. It looked very small and apparently the capacity is only 18,000. Dimuth told us that the fort walls are often used by spectators to watch the cricket matches. He was very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about cricket but surprised us when he said that the national sport of Sri Lanka is actually volleyball!
Our final afternoon was once again spent by the hotel pool, next to the beach, watching and listening to the waves of the Indian Ocean crashing against the rocks. We made sure that we watched every second of our final sunset too. The next morning as Dimuth collected us to take us back to the airport, we felt that we were closing the chapter on the best holiday ever, thanks to Reece. He had kept in email touch during the holiday and also contacted Dimuth to check that we were happy with everything. It was his personal attention to detail that made the trip what it was. We had 100% confidence that if there had been any problems, he would have dealt with them as speedily as possible and when you are so far from home this service is extremely comforting. After a relatively short trip to the airport, we exchanged emails with Dimuth and thanked him for being the most perfect guide and chauffeur, then made our way into departures for the long flight home. We have returned home with amazing memories of Sri Lanka from the people who were charming, friendly and welcoming, to the timeless ruins and endless beaches – the most magical experience ever.
This holiday is suitable for anyone of reasonable fitness as long as they are capable of coping with the heat.
Beware the rainy seasons which affect different sides of the island at different times of year.
All the hotels were luxurious and the wifi was generally excellent. There are no ‘mid range’ hotels – if you don’t want the luxury then the alternative is not very nice and will not have air conditioning.
The mild curries are much hotter than in England and I would recommend that you have some form of medication containing loperamide with you in case of poorly tummies! The toilet facilities at the various