Lush jungles, rural villages and wild beaches — Sri Lanka is the Garden of Eden down south, quietly tucked away in secrecy away from the well-trodden tourist path. It’s just a leap away from the chaos and madness of India, and yet it seems like a world away. In place of the maddening crowd and traffic is a soothing sense of serenity, zen-like vibes and poetic beauty.
The island may be small in size, but it’s got it all. First, the variety of natural environment found here is overwhelming, with habitats ranging from thick tropical rainforests to verdant green rice paddies and misty highlands. Then there’s the rich wildlife — Sri Lanka is home to some of Asia’s last remaining leopard, bear and elephant populations. Let’s not forget the Buddhist heritage that has blessed this spiritual island nation with a slew of ruins, temples and religious (including eight Unesco World Heritage Sites). The British and Dutch have also left their legacy here with charming colonial flair and characteristic architecture.
Don’t believe me? Here’s a look at some of the highlights of my trip:
Elephant Safari in Kaudulla National Park
Just 197km away from Sri Lanka’s largest city, Colombo, is the Kaudulla National Park — one of the best places in the country to see wild elephants roaming freely. Historically Kaudulla was one of the 16 irrigation tanks built by King Mahasen. Following a period of abandonment it was reconstructed in 1959 and converted into a national park in 2002. The best time to visit is between August and December, when up to two hundred congregate at the tank for the annual “gathering”. Besides elephants, there’s a slew of other wild animals that can be found in the park – including Sri Lankan sambar deer, Sri Lankan axis deer, chevrotain, wild boar, Sri Lankan leopard, and sloth bear.
Spiritual Icon: Sigiriya Rock
Rising from the floodplains of the central valley, the Sigiriya Rock is undoubtedly the icon of the country. The UNESCO World Heritage Site not only boasts impressive archaeological importance but also evidence of the country’s ancient history. Once at the foothill of Sigiriya Rock, you’ll see how it gained it fame. The world-famous attraction features vertical walls topped with a flat-topped summit that contains the ruins of an ancient civilization. It’s quite a steep climb up to the top, but the view of the valley beneath is well worth it.
Colonial Town of Galle
As one of Sri Lanka’s most well known cities, Galle is a charming little colonial town located in the southern part of the island oozing old-world charm and flavor. I loved wandering through its alleyways, weaving between tuktuks (auto rickshaws) and admiring its well-conserved architecture dating back to the European colonial era. One of the main sights to see in Galle is the 17th century fort, which is a world heritage site and the largest remaining fortress in Asia built by European occupiers. Other prominent landmarks in Galle include the city’s natural harbor, St. Mary’s Cathedral founded by Jesuit priests, and Amangalla the historic luxury hotel.
Village Trek in Hiriwaduna
Another one of my favorite activities was the village trek around the Hiriwaduna area organized by Chaaya Village Habanara. Wandering through the village and learning about the traditional Sinhalese way of life was like traveling back in time. With a knowledgeable guide in the lead, we met locals who still live in the area, visited their traditional mud houses, tree huts and agricultural farmlands. Half way through the hike, we hopped on board a wooden catamaran to cross the man-made reservoir. Gliding on the glassy water surface amidst beautiful purple water hyacinth and little schools of fish was a surreal experience. The excursion ended with an ox-drawn carriage ride past rice paddies and vegetable farms, with the sun setting in the distance forming a perfect backdrop.
A River Safari on the Madu Ganga
Proclaimed a Ramsa wetland area in 2004, Madu River has a high bio-diversity and supports a healthy population of birds, monkeys and fish. On our boat safari, we spotted lots of beautiful birds, from the cormorant to kingfisher. The purple leaf monkey also made an appearance, cheekily hiding in the tree canopy and peering at us from a distance. The best time to do this safari is in the evening as the sun is setting, making for a beautiful backdrop.
Wild, Empty Beaches of Beruwala
Another place we stayed at was the Cinnamon Bey Beruwala located right on the beach in the southwestern coast of Sri Lanka. Beruwala is the starting point of the 130 kilometres (81 miles) long stretch of beach with a shallow reef that reveals itself at low tide. This is the spot for the first Muslim settlement on the island, established by Arab traders around the 8th century AD. A large population of Sri Lankan Moors, many of them are gem merchants, still live in the town. Today, it’s a quiet and lazy beach town jiving with local vibes and it’s an excellent spot to immerse in the Sinhalese way of life.