Explore Sri Lanka: 'India lite' is heavy on culture, colour & scenery
In many ways, Sri Lanka is a microcosm of India, but the gentler pace of life on this tiny island makes for a more relaxed travel experience, writes Richard Holmes
It's less than a decade since the end of the 26-year civil war that fractured the country, but Sri Lanka's tourism fortunes are on the up as travellers flock to the "teardrop of India".
And it's not hard to see why. From the colonial heritage of Colombo and Galle to the captivating cultural heartland, there's a wealth of history and tradition. There's no shortage of natural beauty either.
Udawalawe National Park is famous for its Asian elephants, leopards are the star of Yala National Park, while twitchers head straight for the Sinharaja Forest Reserve, one of the island's eight Unesco World Heritage Sites.
And, oh, the beaches! While tourist pressure and careless development has admittedly taken the shine off a few, you won't struggle to track down a quiet cove.
In many ways it's a microcosm of India, all packed into an island little more than 200km across. And it's with good reason that Sri Lanka has been dubbed "India lite". It combines all the culture, colour and scenery of its larger neighbour, only at a more gentle pace.
During 10 days in the country I felt much less hassled and more like a welcome visitor. The touts are few and far between, and will accept your polite rebuttal with a smile.
Ready to pack your bags? Here's a snapshot of the best the island has to offer:
Travellers have mixed feelings about Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital, and on the surface it's not an easy city to fall for. Construction cranes crowd the skyline, traffic clogs the streets and the heat, noise and dust make hard work of exploring on foot.
The trick is to discover the city in small doses. Start in the historic Fort district, the heart of colonial Colombo.
The centrepiece is the restored Old Dutch Hospital, now home to a cluster of charming cafés and boutiques. Barefoot is a fine place to stock up on authentic island souvenirs and hand-printed textiles, while down the street is Colombo's most famous restaurant, Ministry of Crab. Crustaceans of gargantuan size are the main event, made all the more delicious by a side order of chef Dharshan Munidasa's garlic bread and steamed clams.
After lunch, there's plenty to explore in and around Fort: St Peter's Church dates back nearly two centuries, Janadhipathi Mawatha is home to a grand avenue of colonial piles, and a handful of decent museums offer both insights and airconditioning.
But also seek out the peculiar temple of Sambodhi Chaitiya on the edge of the docklands. Resembling a rocket about to launch, it was built in 1956 to mark the 2,500th anniversary of the Buddha's death. There's no entry fee, and it's well worth climbing the 260 steps to admire the stupa's striking murals. Plus the outdoor terrace offers 360° views over the city.
The modest Maritime Museum alongside is home to a collection of models and recreations evoking the island's seafaring history.
If you're still ambivalent about Colombo, head for the Pettah. This grid of streets is the city's market place, and is perennially packed with traders, barrow-boys and a crush of locals.
It's a colourful, crowded corner of the city you'll either love or hate. But be sure to seek out Jami ul-Aftar; its red-and-white brick patterning making it Colombo's most eye-catching mosque.
To the south, Gangaramaya is Colombo's most important Buddhist temple, while around the corner you'll find the Seema Malaka temple. Cast away in a man-made lake, its striking design was dreamt up by acclaimed Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa.
Come evening, wander the seafront promenade of Galle Face Green where locals and tourists gather to fly kites and grab a budget bite at the food stalls that spring up at dusk. With a cold Lion beer in hand, there are few better ways to finish off a day in the capital.
From the crush of Colombo, the cool greenery of the hill country feels like an opportunity to exhale. The train ride between Colombo and Badulla is one of the most beautiful in Asia, as the colonial-era railway makes sharp turns on its switchback climb inland. I spend most of it by the open doors, talking cricket with the local travellers and munching on spicy dhal vade, the quintessential train snack.
After a few days in Ella, walking the hill paths and discovering the long history of the island's tea production, I follow the well-worn traveller's trail to Kandy and the Cultural Triangle.
Home to six of the island's World Heritage Sites, this was the birthplace of the ancient Sinhalese kingdoms, and today the likes of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya offer an evocative taste of the great cities that once flourished here.
Sigiriya is the star attraction, a hilltop citadel 200m above the surrounding plains. Dating to the 5th century, it's the heart of what was once a flourishing ancient city boasting lakes, gravity-fed water gardens and myriad temples. It's a fascinating place, but be sure to get there early: the long queues to reach the summit quickly erode the charm.
Less crowded but no less fascinating is Polonnaruwa, an hour's drive away. Amid the sprawling ruins of palaces and temples, I set off in search of the unforgettable stone Buddhas of Gal Vihara. Carved from a single granite outcrop, these four statues have been the icons of this ancient capital for more than 800 years. If you have time, add the ornate cave temples of Dambulla to your list, or head to Pidurangala Royal Cave Temple at dawn for the best views of Sigiriya.
The city of Kandy is another popular stop, for the revered Temple of the Sacred Tooth and because it's the main railway junction in this part of the world: south to the hill country, north to Trincomalee and Jaffna, or west for Colombo and the coast. At 5am one Sunday I buy a third-class ticket for the express service to the seaside.
Sri Lanka boasts some of the finest beaches in the Indian Ocean, and it's a foolish traveller who doesn't end their visit with a few days at the coast.
With easy access from Colombo, the south-west coastline is predictably popular and, as a rule, the further south and east you travel the quieter things get.
With the boom in long-haul tourism Hikkaduwa, two hours out of Colombo, has evolved from a hippy hangout to an over-developed beach resort popular with package tourists.
Unawatuna is not far behind, but still holds pockets of charm. It's also a short distance from Galle, where the historic Fort offers a fascinating glimpse into the days when the Dutch controlled Sri Lanka, and Galle was its most important harbour.
I found Weligama and Mirissa to be the Goldilocks combination: close enough to Galle for an easy day out, but far enough from Colombo to ensure quiet beaches and local colour. Weligama is the more developed of the two, while Mirissa combines postcard-perfect beaches with daily boat trips in search of blue whales.
And further east? Next time I'll visit the idyllic beaches at Tangalle and Talalla, or perhaps keep going right round to Arugam Bay on the east coast.
It's the surfing hotspot of this side of the island, while further north the coastline above Trincomalee offers some of the finest scuba diving on the island.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
Even on the rand, Sri Lanka is an affordable destination. A second-class train ticket from Colombo to Kandy costs just R19. In local restaurants main courses start from about R30, a draught of local Lion beer around R20.
BEST TIME TO GO
Lying just a shade north of the Equator, island temperatures are fairly constant year round, but avoiding the rains takes a little planning. Sri Lankan weather is dictated by two separate monsoons. If you're heading to the east coast the sunniest months run from May to September, while December to March is the best time for travelling the southwest coastline and the interior.
Train services link major towns, and a large bus network fills the gaps. Tuk-tuks are available for short journeys. Uber operates in Colombo.
Sri Lanka Rupee. ZAR1:LKR13
South African passport-holders require a visa. You can get one on arrival, but it's quicker to apply for an Electronic Travel Authorisation ($35) online before departure. See eta.gov.lk