June 21, 2011

Sunny Sri Lanka: A Miracle on a Budget

Travel has always been one of my loves. In my travel posts, I am going to try and stick to a kind of pattern, where I will write a little bit about the general facts of a particular country/place and the list of 3 Musts -Must See, Must Eat and Must Do. What I love more than simply traveling is if I can get the most out of the experience on a low budget (read poor college student) and so'll try and include not only the touristy, expensive stuff, but things you can do on a shoestring budget as well.

Well, to start these travel posts off, what kind of Sri Lankan would I be if I didn't sing about my own country first? (Sri Lankans, if you're reading this, bear with me. Who knows, maybe it will refresh your memory and give you increased love for your country). Here goes:

Sunny Sri Lanka
Picture this. Seductive beaches. Breathtaking blue ocean. Taking in the smell of the sea with a fruity (preferably alcoholic) drink in hand as you watch the sunset slowly fading away. Yes, you can find all this in Sri Lanka. But first, where on earth is this place, you ask? Why right here, of course:

This is how it looks like when you zoom out a little bit ;)

Alright, now that you know where it is, it's time for some general facts -
  • The words " Sri Lanka" mean "resplendent isle".
  • Sri Lanka gained Independence from British rule in 1948 and before that it was colonized by the Portuguese and the Dutch. From the Dutch Fort in Galle to British architecture in Nuwara Eliya, remnants of Sri Lanka’s colonial past are found dotted across the country today, giving this island nation a rich colonial heritage.
  • The country also has a rich history and one can still the see the awe-inspiring remains from the ancient times.
  • Sri Lanka is a place where people practice religious tolerance. It is home to Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Muslims.
  • The country suffered from a civil war that lasted more than 25 years. On May 19, 2009, Sri Lankan troops defeated the terrorist group known as Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam a.k.a. The LTTE. It can now be be the peaceful country it was once known for.

This is the main hub of the island. What I love about this city is that it is a place where the cultural and commercialized co-exist. It is located on the west coast of the island and adjacent to Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte, the capital. Colombo is a busy and vibrant city with a mixture of modern life and colonial buildings and ruins.  Due to its large harbor and its strategic position along the East-West sea trade routes, Colombo was known to ancient traders 2,000 years ago. Here are some pictures:

(Google Images)
Bella Woolf, a 20th century author said this about Colombo - "It palpitates with life and with the romance of those who wander the earth (1914).

Kandy is a city in the center of Sri Lanka - the hill country. It was the last capital of the ancient kings' era of Sri Lanka. Kandy is home to the The Temple of the Tooth Relic (Sri Dalada Maligawa) one of the most venerable places for the Buddhist community of Sri Lanka and all around the world. It was declared a world heritage by the UNESCO in 1988.

Another popular site is the Royal Botanical Garden at Peradeniya which is situated about 5 km to the west of the city centre and is visited by 1.2 million people per year. It is the largest botanical garden on the island.

   The Temple of the Tooth Relic   
     A Tea Plantation

                  A Temple

Kandy is very popular due to the annual pageant known as the Esala Perahera  in which one of the inner caskets used for covering the tooth relic of Buddha is taken in a grand procession through the streets of the city. This casket is taken on a royal tusker (elephant, for those of you who are not familiar with the term). The procession includes traditional dancers, drummers, flag bearers of the provinces of the old Kandyan kingdom, the Nilames (lay custodians of temples ) and torch bearers. This ceremony is annually held in the months of July or August and attracts large crowds from all parts of the country as well as the world.

   Esela Perahera

     Torch Bearers at Esela Perahera

Galle reached the height of its development in the 18th century, during the Dutch colonial period. Galle is the best example of a fortified city built by Europeans in south and southeast Asia, which shows the merging between European architectural styles and south Asian traditions. The Galle fort is a world heritage site and the largest remaining fortress in Asia built by European occupiers. Other important landmarks in Galle are the natural harbor, the National Maritime Museum, St. Mary's Cathedral founded by Jesuit priests, one of the main Shiva temples on the island, and Amangalla the historic luxury hotel.

View across grass-clad walls to the sea. Galle, Sri Lanka.

The old fortress in Galle (Google Images)
Fishermen in Galle

Since I have yet to travel to this part of the country (people often didn't  travel to Jaffna during the war), here is an excerpt from Wikepedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jaffna):
"Prior to the Sri Lankan civil war, it was Sri Lanka's second most populated city after the commercial capital Colombo. Since the 1980s insurgent uprising, military occupation, extensive damage, expulsion and depopulation has happened. Since the end of civil war in 2009, refugees and internally displaced people are returning to their homes and government and private sector reconstruction has begun. Historically, Jaffna has been a contested city. It was made into a colonial port town during the Portuguese occupation of the Jaffna peninsula in 1619. It changed hands to the Dutch colonials, who lost it to the British in 1796."

   Hindu Temple in Jaffna                              

Sunset in Jaffna
The ancient city of Polonnaruwa remains one of the best planned archeological relic sites in the country, standing testimony to the discipline and greatness of the Kingdom's first rulers. The green environment, admirable ancient constructions, Parakrama Samudraya (a huge lake reservoir built in 1200 A.D.), and tourist hotels have always attracted local and foreign tourists.  The ancient city of Polonnaruwa has been declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO.

  Statue of the Buddha carved into stone                  


 Ancient writings on a book made from stone
After all this sightseeing, you might be in the mood to change course and do some totally different things, so let's move on to the other "Must" on my list.

Of course, I'd pick shopping first! Seriously though, you can get some epic shopping done in Sri Lanka. We don't have a lot of giant malls and things, but we do have variety and bargains! Keep in mind that $1 = 100 Sri Lankan Rupees so you've got a good deal right there! Some of the places you might want to visit:
ODEL Unlimited: Colombo's hotspot department store, Odel is certainly no Harrod's but it does have very cute stuff. Tourists and locals are always milling around the place because of it's pleasing decor and the array of goodies from branded clothes, accessories and perfumes to items for the home, food, and Sri Lankan souvenirs.


Paradise Theme, ODEL

Barefoot: Designer Barbara Sansoni’s beautifully laid-out shop, located in an old villa, is popular for its bright hand-loomed textiles, which are fashioned into bedspreads, cushions, serviettes and other household items (or sold by the metre). You’ll also find textile-covered notebooks, lampshades and albums, and a large selection of stylish, simple clothing.

Lakpahana and Laksala: These stores carry traditionally crafted items made from brass, batik, leather and woodcarvings. Items for sale include jewellry, furniture and tea.

Woven Bags

  Rattan Furniture
@ Laksala

I don't have one particular place that I shop at when I'm home in Sri Lanka. I'm more of a I-like-this,-it-looks-well-made-and-it's-affordable kind of girl. Plus, you can buy a lot crafts from roadside boutiques. Sometimes clothes boutiques will also let you bargain.

Handicrafts Shop

Adventure Sports et all.
For the adventurer in you, Sri Lanka has a lot of choices. From white water rafting and surfing to safaris and golf, there's something for everyone.

Safaris in Sri Lanka

The Sri Lankan Leopard
White water rafting

Hot Air Ballooning

Bird's Park - Polgahawela

Of course, just lazing around at the hotel and reading a book by the pool is also great!

And there are the beaches, an island's best asset!

The Fortress
What I love about Sri Lanka's shores is that a lot of it is pretty much undiscovered and you can still have a beach to yourself - and the thought of just you and a plus one? Now who wouldn't like that?

Nilaveli Beach, Trincomalee

And don't forget the sunsets!

Unawatuna Beach

View from Ayurveda Paragon Hotel

Mirissa Beach

Just looking at these pictures makes me want to go back home, just for a little bit. Those beaches are to die for!

Okay let's take a look at the food culture in Sri Lanka.


Sri Lanka has a very authentic kind of cuisine - it has long been renowned for its variety of spices and spicy curries and other dishes are a big part of our cuisine. The island nation's cuisine mainly consists of boiled or steamed rice served with curry. This usually consists of a "main curry" of fish, chicken, beef, pork or mutton, as well as several other curries made with vegetable, lentils and even fruit curries. Side-dishes include pickles, chutneys and "sambols". The most famous of these is the coconut sambol, made of ground coconut mixed with chillies, dried Maldive fish and lime juice. This is ground to a paste and eaten with rice, bread and pretty much anything else, as gives the meal a kind of zestiness.

We have quite the diverse cuisine since there is a lot of influence from colonial times and foreign traders. There are a great number of places to eat in Sri Lanka from the 5-star hotels to street-side eateries (you must have the Malay Street, "Burger's King" experience, trust me it's nothing like the fast food joint you think you know), and there is also access to food from the rest of the world - Arabic, Chinese, Indian, you name it.

Rice and Curry

Some Sri Lankan spices
Amazing Seafood!

Well, there it is. Everything I can possibly tell you about Sri Lanka in one looong blog post. But there's still so much more - like the happy, smiling faces of hospitable Sri Lankans, the crazy congested streets, or amazing tropical weather that makes life a little bit better every day. I guess you'll just have to pay this lovely place a visit and then you'll have your own Sri Lankan experience...!

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