TikaWeeks #14/2018: Sri Lanka update

Posted by John on 8th April 2018

Lion's Paws Platform and staircase to the summit, Sigiriya, Sri Lanka
May/June travel in Sri Lanka – the ‘off season’

There is still the belief that the best time to visit Sri Lanka is during the winter and early spring of the Northern Hemisphere (November to April). However, with the whole island now free to explore, escaping from the winter or travelling outside of the southwest monsoon season (May to October) are no longer the only options. In fact, a lot of the island comes into its own from May onwards, particularly in the northern and eastern regions. As an aid to discovery, here are a few places to consider including in an itinerary when travelling in May and June, which also offer the best accommodation and flights prices of the year.

Mannar Island is one of the island’s ‘dry zone’ regions with a similar climate, topography and vegetation to Yala and Tissamaharama in the south-east, although here the typical dry zone scrub jungle gives way to a vast lagoon, mud flats and wading birds, one of the main attractions of this region. Talaimannar, where ‘Adam’s Bridge’, the ancient sand spit link between India and Sri Lanka, once made landfall with the island, is the most north-westerly point of the country. Still seldom visited, Mannar Island and environs has ancient and colonial-era sites of interest as well as a unique feel.

At the northernmost tip of the island is the ancient Tamil kingdom of Jaffnapatam. Jaffna remains off the beaten track to most visitors and consequently an ideal place to explore for those wishing to miss the crowds. Unlike most of the country, Jaffna has a real sense of Tamil identity and vibrancy, more akin to southern India than Sri Lanka in many ways. Jaffna includes the recently renovated fort and the city library, a World Heritage Site, and Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil, which is one the most sacred Hindu temples in Sri Lanka. Further afield, Nainativu Island is home to Nagadeepa Purana Rajamaha Viharaya, one of the sites the Buddha is believed to have visited and an important pilgrimage site for Buddhists, and Delft Island, with its free-ranging horses and Dutch colonial influence.

Famed for its World Heritage Sites, Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle encompasses the main historic sites delimited by Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Kandy. Anuradhapura was the first capital of ancient Lanka in the 3rd century BC and includes the preserved and partially restored ruins of the three principal monasteries of the time: Mahavihara, Abhayagiriya and Jetavnarama. Absorbing the atmosphere of Ruvanveliseya Dagoba and Sri Maha Bodhi, the sacred Bo Tree and the oldest recorded tree in the world, at nightfall is a truly spiritual experience. Dambulla is renowned as the island’s most impressive cave temples hidden beneath a massive rock overhang and a short, steep climb from below. Kandy is the seat of the last Sinhalese kingdom and home to the Temple of the Tooth, one of the island’s most revered religious relics. Enveloping verdant hills surrounding a lake, the city has an attractive position in the northern Hill Country. Polonnaruwa was the medieval capital and houses many well-preserved temples and statues, particularly the enigmatic Gal Vihara, which must be one the most exquisite rock carvings in the world. Iconic Sigiriya, or ‘Lion Rock’, is another favourite place to visit, which is a 5th century AD usurper’s pleasure palace and rock fortress.

Wildlife abounds on the island and has become one of the main attractions to visitors. Sri Lanka is an environmentally diverse country boasting 86 species of mammals (including leopards, elephants and sloth bears), more than 400 bird species (including 26 endemics), and a colourful array of flowering plants and trees, all contained within 21 National Parks out of 100 areas protected by the Government, and surrounded by the Indian Ocean alive with mighty blue, sperm and humpback whales as well as large pods of dolphins. Bundala is one of the island’s main bird sanctuaries with a variety of habitats including scrub jungle, lagoons, saltpans and shoreline. Gal Oya surrounds the largest lake on the island and it is the only reserve where you take a boat safari to see wildlife. The highlight is to see elephants swimming in the wild (potentially!). Kumana, previously known as Yala East, is principally a bird reserve but is also home to leopards, sloth bears and elephants roaming across the unprotected border from neighbouring Yala. Kumana hosts tens of thousands of migratory birds between April and July. Minneriya forms an ‘elephant corridor’ for the vast herds roaming the eastern region of the country from Trincomalee south to Gal Oya. The park is home to a variety of animals such as elephants, leopards, toque macaques, purple faced langurs, sloth bears, sambar and spotted deer, and about 160 bird species, including many endemics. Uda Walawe is the main elephant reserve on the island and home to the Elephant Transit Home, where orphaned and injured elephants are looked after before being reintroduced into the wild (supported by the Born Free Foundation). Wasgamuwa is known for its wilderness setting and abundant wildlife, particularly sloth bears and the ‘marsh elephant’, reputedly the largest of the Sri Lankan elephants. Wilpattu is Sri Lanka’s largest national park and much quieter than its more illustrious counterpart Yala. Principally a dry lowland zone, the main topographical feature in the park is the concentration of ‘villus’, basin-like fault depressions in the earth that fill with rain water during the monsoon season that attract a variety of animals including leopards, elephants, sloth bears, crocodiles, water buffalos and deer as well as a variety of resident and migratory waterfowl and forest or scrub dwelling bird life. Yala, the island’s principal wildlife reserve, is home to the highest density of leopards in the wild. Sloth bears, elephants, deer and over 150 species of birds are also resident.

Favourite areas for walking and trekking are in the Hill Country, particularly Horton Plains or trails around Ella, and in the Knuckles Mountain Range east of Kandy.

The best beaches in May and June are on the east coast as they are well away from the southwest monsoon. The sky is clear and the ocean calm. On the southeast coast, Arugam Bay is Sri Lanka’s surfing ‘Mecca’. North of Trincomalee (Trinco) is the relatively quiet beach area of Nilaveli, Uppuveli and Kuchchaveli, with access to Trinco, a few temples and hot springs as well as whale watching (March/April [best] to August). Passikudah, which is south of Trinco, is a much busier resort area with a selection of good quality hotels and a variety of water sports but little of interest in the immediate area outside of the beach, which is one of Sri Lanka’s finest.

How to visit temples without getting ‘templed out’

A lot of our customers are seasoned travellers who have visited impressive and iconic temples elsewhere in the world such as Angkor Wat, Ayutthaya, Bagan, Bodh Gaya and Borobudur. Although interested in Sri Lanka’s ancient cities, they are concerned that visiting too many sites, particularly in a limited period, will make them feel ‘templed out’ – and I quite understand the dilemma. Sensory overload in any form dulls the appreciation of the subject of interest and visiting Anuradhapura, Dambulla, Kandy, Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya over two or three days may stultify even the most enthusiastic sightseer. So, what to do?

Before you travel, do your own research on particular sites of interest in the Cultural Triangle to get a better understanding of what is involved. Remember that temperatures in the tropics rise quickly after sunrise so the best times to visit sites are either earlier in the morning or later in the afternoon when it is cooler – a pair of socks is always a useful item to carry in your daysack to protect your unacclimatised feet against the scalding heat of rocks and paving stones since shoes have to be removed to enter temple precincts. Would you prefer to visit a religious site (Anuradhapura) or an ancient city (Polonnaruwa)? Is climbing 1200 steps, including an exposed metal staircase, really for you? (Sigiriya) How about other, less frequently visited sites such as Aluvihara, Mihintale, Nalanda, Ritigala and Yapahuwa?

If you are interested, there are plenty of the other ancient and/or religious sites outside of the Cultural Triangle to explore including Buduruwagala, Jaffna peninsula, Kataragama, Maligawila and Mulkirigala.

Wherever you visit, please remember to dress decently in long skirts or trousers – shorts, singlets and swimwear are not suitable – with the shoulders and upper arms covered. Shoes should be left at the entrance and heads should be uncovered. Do not attempt to shake hands or be photographed with Buddhist monks or to pose for photos with statues of the Buddha or other deities and paintings. Remember that monks are not permitted to touch money so donations should be put in temple offering boxes. Monks renounce all material possessions and so live on offerings. Visitors may offer flowers at the feet of the Buddha, but should remember never to point the soles of their feet towards the Buddha, as this is considered the height of impropriety. When sitting or kneeling in Buddhist temples, it is best to sit in the 'mermaid' position, with your legs tucked beneath your body.

Food in Sri Lanka – #6 Flavours of the Island

Sri Lankan cuisine echoes its history. Situated on the maritime trading routes of the Indian Ocean, it has borrowed all sorts of recipes, from aluwa, sugared semolina from the Arab world, to dodol (coconut milk caramel with palm syrup), sathe (thin strips of meat on skewers) and sambol from Malaysia.

It has also incorporated the culinary traditions of the various peoples who have settled on the island over the centuries. Muslims sometimes prefer biryani, rice sautéed with spices, to local rice and curry. The Portuguese handed down new combinations of sugar and spices, such as the bolo de amor, a semolina cake with cashew nuts flavoured with cinnamon. Lamprais was inherited from the lomprijst of the Dutch. As for the British, they left the island a flavour to which it will always be devoted – tea. Together with the countless variations of rice and curry, all this exotic fare blends into a unique and very rich cuisine.

Where to stay in… The Knuckles

Amaya Hunas Falls is a secluded hideaway in one of the most scenic spots on the island, set in 25 hectares of forested grounds with Hunasgiriya mountain and the cascading Hunas Falls as a backdrop. Surrounded by tea and spice plantations, the relative cool of the mountain air makes for good trekking opportunities in the immediate area.

Ashburnham Estate (or Ash) is a renovated and funky 1930’s tea planter’s bungalow set in its own 100-acre tea estate and boasts stunning waterfalls and far reaching views up to and across the Knuckles Mountain Range, not to mention around 60 acres of lush tea fields, plucked each day.

Madulkelle Tea & Eco Lodge is immersed in a tea estate with deluxe lodges scattered over a terraced hillside and centred around a faux tea planter’s bungalow encircled by a colonnaded veranda furnished with reclining ’steamer’ chairs and a large swimming pool affording possibly one of the finest views anywhere on the island.

Categories: Accommodation, Culture, Sightseeing, Sri Lanka, Travel tips, Wildlife

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