Wearing a dazzling smile and holding a placard, Azam, our cabby for the week, welcomes us at the Bandaranaike international airport in Colombo. “You will definitely find it alluring!” he announces, confidently. The initial few minutes of our drive are spent in awe of the unexpected fancy car models on the road — Honda Vezel, Toyota KDH, Hilux, BMW, Zotye. Impressive for a ‘developing’ country caught in an economic crisis! Yet another pleasant surprise awaits: disciplined traffic and no unnecessary rushing or honking. Sri Lanka comes across as more than a destination; it’s an embodiment of enduring history, abundant nature and profound culture. The countdown for the five-city circuit begins — Colombo-Kandy-Nuwara Eliya-Ella-Galle. It is doable in a week and offers a fine Lankan experience.
Colombo, the country’s capital, is a city of contrasts. An uninterrupted view of the ocean and the heritage walk give the city an old-world charm. Turn around, and the skyscrapers and the nightlife will engross you. A tuk-tuk ride, with fare settled in advance, is convenient for hopping around the vibrant city, ticking the heritage spots, strolling through Barefoot or Spa Ceylon, the popular lifestyle stores, and exploring cafes and street food.
Matter of Fact
- Apply for Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) by filling a form at eta.gov.lk/slvisa. It is approved within hours.
- Visa-free (no fee charged) regime for Indians is in effect till March 31, 2024.
- Currency exchange (1 INR = 3.3 LKR) is easy — at the airport and in city markets. Most tourist spots are ticketed.
- The country is facing high inflation so despite its lower currency value, the prices are fairly high.
- Tuk-tuk rides in Colombo cost 100 LKR for the first kilometre. For ride to the bridge and cave, check and confirm where exactly it will drop.
- Some high-end hotels charge a fee for using the washroom. Highway food joints offer the service for free.
- Hotels can be booked online as well as directly. A deluxe double bedroom (five nights) can cost around 35,000 LKR.
- For shopping: Buy Ceylon tea from Nuwara Eliya or Kandy. Folk dance masks can be good souvenirs.
Sample specialities like curry, sambol, kottu roti and Dutch lamprais on the street. The city tour must include a picture at the Independence Square, a glimpse of the Old Parliament building and sauntering through the Dutch hospital shopping precinct.
“Youngsters are Bollywood fans, even if they must manage with subtitles, as Hindi speakers are scarce,” shares Azam. But majority of those in the tourist sector are proficient in English. He has picked up some Hindi words from his Indian clients: “Bahut Indians aata hai, in bulk, many lakhs, followed by Russians.”
About a three-hour drive from Colombo is Kandy, the sacred Buddhist city and erstwhile capital of the Sinhala king. A day is good enough to explore this UNESCO World Heritage site, beginning with a visit to the Temple of Sacred Tooth Relic. The serene Kandy lake runs parallel to the road. For those keen on watching the traditional Kandyan dance, it is staged at the Kandy lake club in evenings. The city boasts of several tea factories and plantations. A breathtaking sight to behold is the 88-foot-tall Bahirawakansa Vihara Buddha statue in Nirvana position.
Kandy had to be a quick touch-and-go day trip for the more significant drive to Nuwara Eliya, the city of lights. The craggy green-capped mountains, streams and waterfalls and patches of dense forests, natural beauty is the high point. The entire landscape reminds you of Indian hill stations half a century back — more green and less commercial. A few kilometres outside the hamlet is Sita Aman Temple, believed to be where Sita was kept captive by Ravana. Hanuman’s footprint, under the canopy of greens and caressed by a gushing water stream, brings the legend alive.
A red-brick Tudor-style building with a clock spire stands magnificently on the hillock. Built in 1894, this oldest post office in Sri Lanka seems to have been dropped from another world. This is followed by a walk at the Gregory lake while the drizzle catches on, before the town snuggles cozily into the misty blanket.
Azam advises an early morning exit: we have a train to catch at 11 am… and capture it on our cameras as it crosses the nine-arch bridge. But before that, I must touch the altitude of 4,490 feet, up to the Ravana cave. The mythological treasure has been preserved in its primordial form and character. Climbing up the uneven, steep, narrow 650 steps cut in the rock, with many just like lying rocks, isn’t an easy task. It is believed that Ravana had hidden Sita in this cave. Sexagenarian Kalani, sitting at the turn of the climb with a tea kettle and mud cups, however, disagrees: “Ravana meditated here for years, and it has hidden passages.”
What awaits next is the stunning and rugged beauty of the magnanimous nine-arch bridge at Ella. Built during the British colonial era, the bridge is all rock, bricks and cement, for the story goes that all metal had to be diverted for World War I. But it still stands and at least four trains cross it every day. The winding drive up the hill in a tuk-tuk through the jungle adds to the enigmatic charm of this ‘Bridge in the Sky’.
The last in the circuit is the fascinating coastal town of Galle. Retro vibe comes alive as you go strolling through its quiet laneways. The colossal gates of the Dutch Fort are a match to the mighty waves and the ramparts or the outer walls on which one can walk, encircle the entire fort, with a timeless lighthouse at one end making for a postcard frame. The closing dinner is to be served at Hikkaduwa beach, a few kilometres from Galle. Take it all, or make a pick, in its diversity, Sri Lanka has something for every traveller.
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