On the Road to Sri Lanka

Leisure Team Leader Sue Sallmann ventured to Sri Lanka to bring us back her recommendations for experiential travel in this beautiful country on the verge of being the next big destination. 

Q: Your first city to explore in Sri Lanka was Sigiriya, a small town in the Cultural Triangle, which is renowned throughout the world for its once spectacular 5th century palace.

Sigiriya, also known as Lion Rock, was built on top of a huge boulder during the fifth century. A palace. A rock fortress. The hidden castle of King Kasyapa. A Buddhist monastery from the 14th century. Similar to the cosmic mountain of Meru, the eighth wonder of the world. No place in Sri Lanka has generated as many theories and legends as the 180m monolith, set amidst stunning scenery.

This palace was built atop a towering rock, flanked by protective garrisons, no less than a crocodile-filled moat and a juxtaposing, complex system of beautiful water gardens. King  Kasyapa, who built Sigiriya Rock Fortress as a refuge after he killed his father to take the throne, devised a system to transfer water between the top and the foot of the rock, which is one of the most incredible feats of engineering in Sri Lanka’s ancient history – and in the world’s ancient history, for that matter. The ruins of the palace can still be seen, including a giant lion’s paw which marked the entrance and the enormous baths which look out over the spectacular panoramic views, as well ancient cave paintings mid-way up the rock.

Q:  Tell us about your tour of Anuradhapura with a local host.

Ancient cities don’t get much bigger than Anuradhapura, and few capitals around the world have ever been as long lasting. Dating back to the fourth century BC, Anuradhapura was the spiritual and secular capital of the island for well over a millennium. At its height, the city was dotted with monasteries and home to over 10,000 monks, many of these monasteries and colossal dagobas can still be seen today.

I travelled through more than a dozen archeological sites of the ancient kingdom of Anuradhapura with a local guide who has spent much of his time in this part of the island. Rode alongside scenic paddy fields, hidden villages and cleverly thought-out irrigation systems which have withstood the test of  time.  I moved around some of the most architecturally stunning structures including Abayagiri Dagoba, the largest Buddhist monument in the world. Along the way I stopped at the Elephant Pond to enjoy a scenic picnic overlooking the pond.  

Q:  What stood out about the city of Kandy?

The last Sinhalese kingdom, Kandy is central to the history of Sri Lanka and is home to many of the island’s cultural gems. Meaning ‘hill’, Kandy once stood as an impenetrable fortress against invading colonial powers, withstanding all attempts of invasion until the British finally deposed the King in 1815.

Kandy houses the world-famous Temple of the Tooth, one of the most famous Buddhist temples in the world, which was built to protect the sacred tooth relic thought to belong to Lord Buddha, which has been enshrined in Sri Lanka for hundreds of years. As well as a host of other temples, visitors to the city can wander along Kandy Lake, stroll through the stunning Botanical Gardens – created by the British in the 19th century and still one of the most beautiful gardens in Asia – and visit Kadungannawa Tea Factory. Kandy is one of the best places to explore the art history of Sri Lanka and travelers should take the time to see a Kandyan cultural show.

I’d recommend visiting the Temple of the Tooth and then hop on the train from Kandy to Hatton (approx. 3 hours). This is one of the most scenic train rides in Asia. One fabulous way of exploring the tea country is to jump aboard the train. The dramatic landscape of the highlands stirs the senses as you wind past lush tea plantations, majestic peaks and rushing waterfalls. The Sri Lanka Railways – the government railway network was first started in 1864 during the colonial period.

One meets Sri Lankans from all walks of life on the train. There are old trains and new trains, and then there is the ‘observation class’, 1st class and 2nd class. Observation class and 1st class are a bit of a letdown – don’t expect white gloves and silver service. That said, the train ride is fabulous in that it is an everyday experience for Sri Lankans of all walks of life. On the train you will connect with and see a milieu of different people, including fellow travelers. The train wobbles a little so be careful when moving around and hold on to the rails!

Q: How was Hatton?

In Hatton the air is clean, fresh and ripe for peddling or walking around the spectacular surrounding hill country landscape. See workers in the tea fields and sample the fruits of their labor on a visit to a local tea factory. Hatton has beautiful tea-clad landscapes for you to marvel at from atop a hill or to admire as you pass serenely through on foot or by bike. Stay in a planter’s bungalow and get a taste of the island’s British colonial past, or trek up nearby Adam’s Peak at night in time to witness one of the most beautiful sunrises in all of Asia. 

Q:  Sri Lanka’s history with tea is very important. What did you learn by visiting a tea factory?

Sri Lanka is one of the world’s largest exporters of tea with a roaring tea industry that dominates the island’s central highlands. Introduced to the country by British tea planter James Taylor in 1867, tea irreversibly changed the topography, and even the demography of the country. In the wake of Sri Lanka’s coffee blight, British planters were quick to discover that tea was a more lucrative industry.

As the number of tea estates rose, there was an increased need for human labour. The production of tea involves a tedious procedure of plucking, withering, rolling, oxidizing and drying – a process that requires heavy machines and plenty of manpower. Workers were shipped over from Tamil Nadu in India to maintain the plantations, and these people, an often-overlooked ethnic minority in Sri Lanka, are still the main employees in the tea industry today. A visit to a tea factory has become a staple of every Sri Lanka travel itinerary, and for good reason! If you look past the crowds of tourists and the sometimes amusingly gimmicky tea tours on offer, you’ll find a fascinating subject matter – the epic story of the tea industry, a central theme to the story of not only Sri Lanka, but also the post-industrialized world.

Tea tourism has been long-established in Sri Lanka and almost every tea factory offers a tea tour of some sort. The tours don’t take too long and can be done en route whilst you are travelling through the tea country. Your guide can help you pick out a suitable tea factory based on your route or preferences. Once in the tea factory, you would generally start out in the plantation itself to learn about how tea is cultivated, then visit the factory where ancient machines pre-dating the industrial revolution wither, roll and dry the tea. There is normally a little time at the end of the tour for a tea tasting, either of one specific type of tea or occasionally of the various specialties of that particular factory. Much like a wine tasting, a traditional tea tasting would involve drinking tea (without milk), swilling it around the mouth to get the taste, and then spitting it out into a spittoon. A few tea factories stick to these traditional methods, although the spittoon method is not so popular these days! Some of the larger tea factories can get extremely crowded with tourists so do be prepared for the fact that this is a very touristic experience, but entrance costs are usually nominal or free, and it’s definitely worth your time to pay a visit, even if only to get a chance to see the antique machines at work. If you would prefer a slightly more private tailored experience, this can be arranged by your Executive Edge Travel Advisor.

Q:  After a 7 hour transfer, you arrived in Yala to safari country in hopes of spotting a leopard. How were the game drives?

Spanning 100,000 hectares of dry thorny scrubland interspersed with small patches of shady glades, Yala’s arid boulder-scattered parklands are dramatically different from the lush jungles and paddy fields that cover so much of the island. Famed for having the highest leopard density in the world, Yala is also home to much of Sri Lanka’s wildlife, including the country’s ‘big game’ like elephants and sloth bear, as well as spotted deer, crocodiles and wild boar to name but a few. Birds, especially breath-taking peacocks, are also abundant in the park.  We were fortunate enough to see both leopard and sloth bear which was a huge highlight.

Q:  Explain about the highlight of Galle.

Galle is one of Sri Lanka’s most enchanting destinations, home to the famous 17th century Dutch Fort which houses many beautiful pieces of colonial architecture behind its walls, as well as an absorbing collection of quirky shops and restaurants. Wander the quaint streets and stroll along the ramparts. Galle is an expansive area, encompassing not only the famed fort but also a variety of beach towns, including lively Unawatuna and tranquil Thalpe, as well as stunning rural inland villages surrounded by rice paddies and cinnamon plantations.

 One evening we took a Galle Fort tour.  The history of the iconic Galle Fort dates back many centuries and was a well-known natural harbor used by Persian, Arab, Greek and Roman traders, among others long before it was discovered by the Portuguese in the 1500s. Through historic trading, European colonization, the tsunami in 2004 and the tourism boom in the island in more recent times, the landscape of Galle Fort has changed significantly. Commonly referred to as the Dutch Fort, after those who fortified it after it was built by the Portuguese, the fort has 14 bastions and granite and coral ramparts, fitted with cannons to protect Galle from seafarers. At present, Galle Fort is a melting pot of cultures and communities and a favored destination of many.

 Q: Last but not least, Colombo!

Colombo, Sri Lanka’s enigmatic coastal capital city, is a bustling metropolis that once functioned the main port for the Portuguese, Dutch and British. Colombo is a colorful tapestry of various cultures and is one of the best places to explore all of Sri Lanka’s history, from ancient Buddhist temples and stunning colonial architecture to the modern shops and art galleries that line the capital’s streets. Those seeking an exciting nightlife will welcome the wide range of bars and restaurants that have emerged in recent years, which cover a variety of international cuisine as well as offer traditional Sri Lankan delicacies. Wander round Colombo (or go on a tuk tuk tour) and see the historic, sea-facing Galle Face Green, a host of temples, churches, kovils and mosques, the tranquil Viharamahadevi Park, National Museum, Colombo Fort and various art galleries selling local pieces.