Sanjiva Wijesinha -writer and physician

Short stories, Travel and Health Information

Paradise Island

polonnaruva_buddhastatueMy article Paradise Island was published in the December 2016 issue of Holland Herald, the inflight magazine of KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, which introduced direct flights between Amsterdam and Colombo this year.

“Do you know, Sir” asks our driver Athula, his Toyota breezing along the motorway taking us on our thirty minute journey from Colombo’s international airport to the capital, “what makes Sri Lanka so special?”

We wait for him to continue.

“It is that we provide so much for visitors to experience on such a small island: beautiful sunny beaches, ancient archaeological treasures, tea-covered mountains, wildlife parks – and such smiling friendly people!”

Our friend Johann’s eyes widen. “That’s true” he agrees “at the airport so many people smiled at me, a complete stranger. Even the immigration officer who stamped my passport returned it to me with a smiling “Welcome to our country!”

Johann, an American, is visiting for the first time to spend a fortnight experiencing the surfing beaches he has heard so much about. My wife and I who migrated from here in our twenties are returning after decades to visit the land of our birth.

Seated next to Johann on our flight here, I had offered him a ride into Colombo in the car I’d arranged to collect us from the airport.

“Being at the mid-point of the ancient Spice Route between Europe and China”, Athula went on, “many different races – Indians, Arabs, Portuguese, Dutch and British – came here to trade and conquer. They have all left their influence and their descendants in modern Sri Lanka.”

He takes us expertly to our destination, the rapid motorway journey a marked contrast to our slow progress along crowded city streets. Unperturbed by three wheeled tuk-tuks and unhelmeted cyclists weaving their way amidst a cacophony of horns through lanes of traffic, Athula matter-of-factly observes “To drive on the streets of Sri Lanka, Sir, you must either be crazy – or a Sri Lankan!”

The Elephant Orphanage

Breakfast next morning at the magnificently refurbished Galle Face Hotel – built in 1864 during British colonial times, its imposing façade overlooking the Indian Ocean – is a great treat. After feasting on fresh papaya, banana, watermelon and passion fruit in addition to local delicacies like Biththara Appa (crisp wafer thin crepes of rice flour with a just-set egg in the centre) and Thosai (large flat pancakes of rice and lentil flour) plus cups of aromatic Ceylon tea, my wife and I are ready for Athula to collect us for our journey to Kandy, the former capital in the central hills about two hours and a hundred kilometres away.

We drive through the city of Colombo, an eclectic mix of leafy suburbs, modern high rises and Victorian buildings – with Buddhist and Hindu temples, Christian churches and Muslim mosques a co-existing testimony to Sri Lanka’s different faiths.

The A1 main road passes through verdant rice fields, resembling on this August morning a sea of green interspersed with coconut and papaya trees. We even spot the occasional group of water buffaloes lazing in the water. Many of these fields belong to small-holders who utilise the water buffaloes, as their ancestors have done for centuries, to plough the fields before planting and thresh the rice at harvest time.

We stop at some of the roadside stalls – to buy pineapples (Sri Lanka, claims Athula, has the juiciest and tastiest pineapples in the world!), taste delicious marinated cashews, and savour a refreshing drink of king coconut water. After the top is sliced off, the clear sweet liquid (refreshingly delicious!) inside the hollow coconut can be sipped through a straw.

And as always, we are served with a Sri Lankan smile!

Eighty-five kilometres from Colombo we reach Pinnewela, site of the famed elephant orphanage (http://nationalzoo.gov.lk/elephantorphanage/) established forty years ago by the Wildlife Conservation Department to provide a home for baby elephants orphaned in the wild. The 25 acre plot is now home to about 80 elephants at various stages of life.

“The daily highlight here” says volunteer Jo Packer from Britain, “is the walk from the orphanage to take the herd down to the river so they can bathe. It is so amazing to watch an entire herd splashing around and rolling in the river just a few feet in front of you!”

Next stop is Kandy, a city with a beautiful artificial lake as well as one of Buddhism’s most sacred temples, the Dalada Maligawa housing the tooth relic of the Buddha. Four-fifths of Sri Lankans are Buddhists with 7% each of Hindus, Muslims and Christians. We have reserved our stay at the Queen’s Hotel, giving us a vantage seat that evening to watch the Perahera, the colourful pageant taking place over ten days each August.

A parade of elephants, dancers, drummers and dignitaries accompany the sacred relic as it is taken around the city within a golden casket on the back of a richly caparisoned elephant.  The smell of kerosene torches and smouldering copra, the sharp crack of whips snapped by members of a marching troupe, the plaintive wail of oboe-like horanaevas and the throbbing staccato beats of various drums plus the sight of performing acrobats and stilt-walkers parading past the thousands lining the streets – the Perahera with its cast of thousands is a not-to-be-missed spectacle of vibrant colours and exotic sounds.

“Many tourists arrange their visit to coincide with this annual event”, says travel agent Indika Kodikara “it is certainly the most spectacular of our religious festivals and one of the most colourful pageants in Asia, dating as far back as the fourth century ”.

Tea Plantations

Centuries old festivals are not this island’s only attractions.

Since the British in 1867 established tea plantations in the central hills of Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon), the country has acquired a reputation for high quality tea, becoming one of the world’s top three exporters. We ourselves will spend a night at the Heritance Tea Factory – a modern hotel ingeniously created out of an abandoned tea factory on an old plantation where high grade tea is still grown in the traditional way.

We watch tea pluckers at work (the fresh shoots have to be deftly and delicately harvested by hand – no room for machine-harvesting here!). In the past, harvested leaves were processed on site – but nowadays they are transported to the factory on a neighbouring plantation, which we later visit to watch the green leaves being processed into the fragrant black tea that the world recognises.

Culture and archaeology – or sun, surf and sand?

Now we must make a major decision – drive northwards to visit the Cultural Triangle (http://culturaltriangle.com/) or southwest to spend time on the beach?

The Triangle – containing no less than five UNESCO designated Wold Heritage sites – boasts of archaeological treasures far older than the 450 year European colonial period. Within the Triangle’s ancient cities are found exquisite rock sculptures, lifelike fresco paintings – and massive stupas (dome-shaped Buddhist shrines) as large as Egypt’s pyramids.

We, however, opt for the beach. As children growing up in Sri Lanka we were taken by our parents to see the wonders of the Cultural Triangle: the ancient capitals of Anuradhapura (4th century BCE to 11th century AC) and Polonnaruva (11th to 14th century) with their inspiring archaeological sites, the Dambulla cave temples containing many Buddha statues and colourful wall paintings from the first century BCE and the 5th century rock fortress of Sigiriya with its beautiful frescoes of celestial maidens.

There will be time to visit these places properly on our next visit to Sri Lanka. 

We drive down from Kandy to Galle, using the relatively new expressway for the final 115 kilometres of our journey to this ancient walled city on the southwest coast, a major seaport since antiquity. It was a hub of the spice and gem trade for centuries – Sri Lanka is still one of the world’s largest exporters of cinnamon and Marco Polo himself wrote “…this island has the best sapphires, topazes and amethysts in the world’!

When the Portuguese managed to conquer the southwest coast, they built a strong fort in Galle to protect their monopoly over this trade. Defeating them in 1656, the Dutch strengthened the fort with granite walls and three formidable bastions. During the mid-17th century Galle became the main port which the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie) used to control the spice trade from Sri Lanka – and became virtually a small Dutch city. Although modern Galle has expanded beyond the confines of the old fort, the area within the fort still resembles a medieval European town. Exploring the place on foot, meandering along quaint narrow streets past old spice warehouses and 17th century merchants’ houses, we finally climb the ramparts to view the surf down below.

Deciding not to stay in one of the upmarket hotels within the fort we go on to The Lighthouse Hotel a few kilometres away to spend the next few days just “chilling out in the warmth” on the tropical beach. There are many beachfront hotels along this southwest coast – in towns like Wadduwa, Bentota, Beruwela, Galle and Unawatuna – to suit different budgets.

What better way to end our visit to Sri Lanka than spending a few days under the palm trees, the sound of the surf in the background, with the warm tropical sun filtering through the coconut leaves? Unlike many beaches elsewhere, the sands of Sri Lanka are powdery soft, the waters warm. The folk are unfailingly friendly. We often experience the smiles Athula told us about!   

Sri Lanka is a tourist destination that packs so much into one small package. This time we have had time only for the capital, the elephant orphanage, the Perahera, the tea plantations and the beach. We will have to come again to experience the Cultural Triangle and wildlife parks.

Perhaps next year!

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This entry was posted on December 24, 2016 by in Uncategorized.
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