Reading a story in the paper on a lazy Sunday morning in 2005, about an expatriate’s life in Sri Lanka, was the beginning of our journey to a retirement sea change. A sort of, ‘if they can do it why can’t we?’ moment. The first step of course was to visit that beautiful island on a holiday. Sri Lanka wasn’t a totally unfamiliar topic of conversation, as my partner’s mother and sister were born there. Brian’s mother had never returned, his sister only once, and this would be our first visit. War and geographical remoteness had been deterrents but at the time of our planned visit peace talks were being broached between the Tamil and Singhala people. The trip also followed the devastating Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004 that ravaged the south and south west of Sri Lanka, killing thousands and exacerbating economic pressures on the tiny ‘tear drop’ island. Our holiday was filled with fantastic sights, sounds, tastes and people. But a fifteen hour delay at the airport on the way back to Oz and heartbreakingly, the resuming civil conflict, contributed to the realization that Sri Lanka was not going to be our ‘Island Home’ just yet. And so our story jumps to another island, or more correctly an archipelago, which we now call home. Vanuatu. Once visited, Sri Lanka remained a part of our life through family and stories shared with new friends made here in Vanuatu. And with four of these friends the planning began to re-visit the island in early 2014.
On our first visit, nearly 10 years earlier, we tried to hire a vehicle to drive ourselves but had no luck finding anything online. In the end, we pre-booked our first night accommodation and a driver to take us inland the next day. Five minutes into the drive we were literally laughing at our naivety in thinking we could drive ourselves! The road rules were governed by which driver could honk his horn loudest, giving way only at the last minute. Luckily the majority of roads were so bad that there was not great speed involved. We quickly employed our driver’s services for the rest of our trip, realising that his local knowledge was priceless too. Planning our next trip, with our group of Vanuatu friends, we decided to find a driver and book our itinerary online. An immediate email response from Derick told us we had found our man and we locked in accommodation and mini bus with driver for fifteen nights. A small island of 66,000square km, Sri Lanka is home to 25,000,000 people. Drop 2 zeroes for the population of Vanuatu. So we knew that although we wouldn’t be unfamiliar with bumpy roads and ‘island time’, Sri Lanka would be very different from Vanuatu.
Via Brisbane, we flew into Colombo airport at midday and were met by our guide, Derick and driver Ajith. Our mini bus took us to Negombo, a beachfront ‘northern suburb’ of Colombo, for the night. The next day we were heading inland to the cultural hotspot of the island and our hotel at Dambulla. The undisputed highlight of this cultural area is Sigiriya, which Brian and I were excited to revisit. This huge monolith, also known as Lion Rock, was the lofty domain of King Kashyapa and his many wives and concubines. The frescos of these ‘maidens’ once adorned the entire rock, but now only a few remain, protected in a small alcove. The rock is ascended by climbing 1,238 steps and it is worth every step. The 360 degrees views stretch forever across parkland and jungle dotted with small huts and the stonework ruins are Sri Lanka’s 500AD version of Machu Picchu. While staying in Dambulla, we also visited the Rock Cave Temple, a Buddhist shrine that houses more than 150 Buddhas in five caves, dating back to 1st century B.C. and a few monkeys as well. Even for those not interested in temples, this is a remarkable museum and engineering feat. As the name suggests, it is built on a large rock formation and the dress code includes walking shoes, and for men and women, clothing that covers your knees and shoulders to enter the temple. This central area of the island is known as ‘the cultural triangle’ and is home to three other major sites of cultural and religious significance. Anahwanapura, with the largest Stupa in the area and also the Bodhi tree, Mihintale, said to be the first place Buddhism was practiced in Sri Lanka and the site of the oldest recorded civilian hospital in the world and the intriguing ruins of Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka’s first capital.
Sri Lanka, besides culture, has also nature and although wild elephants can still be found in the national parks, the more accessible way to see these fabulous creatures is at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. Initially created as a home for baby elephants orphaned by poaching, it is now also a refuge for elephants rescued from cruelty. To observe these huge pachyderms as their mahouts take the herd to the river twice a day for bathing is great fun. You can visit the elephants as a day trip from the cultural triangle, or as we did, from the highland city of Kandy. Nestled in a valley in the hills, this picturesque city located around a lake, is the second largest city in Sri Lanka. It was once the capital of the Kingdom of Kandy and the last strong hold of 2,500 years of Sri Lanka’s monarchy. Next stop was the town of Nuwara Eliya, otherwise referred to as Little England which still remains the weekend getaway for the well-off. There is a hint of the English gentry left, but the town is in need of a good facelift. Sort of Bollywood meets Fawlty Towers, perhaps a quick look on the way would be all that is needed. The roads have been greatly improved since 2005, which allows more options for stopovers.
From Nurwara Eliya we enjoyed one of the most memorable experiences of our trip. A four hour train ride high into the ‘tea country’. The beautiful tea growing area of the highlands is green and lush. Rising up to 2540 metres above sea level, the mountain’s misty cool air and manicured tea plantations are transfixing in their beauty. As we arrived at the train station to catch the 9am, Derick went to purchase our first class tickets for the equivalent of $1.50 but sheepishly returned to tell us that the 9am train was all third class and we would have to wait until 1pm to catch the train with the first class carriage. In the true spirit of the holiday, the six of us conferred and decided to buy the 50cent tickets on the 9am train that eventually arrived sometime after 10. After rushing for seats as advised, the train lurched onward and upward. We relaxed into its rocking gait, appreciating the quiet patience of the local people. Another 50cents bought fresh peanuts cooked with curry leaf, and we sat or stood in the open carriage doorway to experience the spectacular mountain views. Our third-class ride was only surpassed on arrival at our first class accommodation for the night, just outside the town of Haputale. We had realized that for a small island, the variety of landscape was quite amazing, but the beauty and serenity of the hill country is truly an awe-inspiring experience.
After our mountain sojourn, we were ready to hit the beach. The beautiful southern beaches of Sri Lanka are palm fringed, with rocky outcrops and sandy bays. On our first visit in 2005, Brian and I stayed in the quaint fishing village of Tangalle. Modest huts on the beach cost us the princely sum of $30 a night including breakfast. There was a small bar and restaurant on the beach were we would sit and sip the local beers while watching the waves, noting that there was no landfall between us and the Antarctic. We became friendly with the proprietor and a young fisherman who lost his whole family in the 2004 tsunami. We arranged for him to bring seafood for us the next day and had a feast of prawns and lobsters cooked over one small gas ring in the corner of the restaurant for a grand sum of $10 a head. Brian and I noticed the cost of seafood had risen this trip, particularly as we headed up the coast, so a tip here would be to try seafood where it is caught in the south coastal regions. One thing that hadn’t changed was the great curries. All our hotels served authentic curry buffets and at about $10 a head, it was an easy decision to dine in. Many also offered buffet breakfasts with curry options, and curry and rice or roti with chili coconut sambal for breakfast suited me just fine. I think I got extra points from the chefs for eating in the traditional way with my fingers, after expert tuition from Brian on the etiquette involved. His mum used to cook the family curries and he was versed in the curry etiquette: work the curry and rice into a neat ball with your fingertips, no curry past your second knuckle, and use your thumb to push the small pile into your mouth. Ok in theory!
As we were travelling a little outside of peak season, our stop at the beautiful Galle Fort was a delight as tourists were few. A walk along the waterfront during the morning display of fish mongering was entertaining, not to mention aromatic! Within the walls you can dine or stay at grand colonial hotels and boutique accommodation, or just walk through the shady central plaza and cobbled stone streets. The Galle Fort is rich in history as Sri Lanka was a major destination on the spice route between Asia and Europe. The walk around the fort gives a glimpse of the battles fought over this lucrative spice island known as Ceylon. Centuries of warring between the Tamil and Singhala kingdoms, gave way to battles from the outside with the Spanish, Dutch and British empires all claiming their prize until Ceylon won its independence in 1948, becoming the Republic of Sri Lanka in 1972. Our last stop was Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, and our arrival was thankfully, not heralded by soldiers carrying automatic rifles on this visit. The hustle and bustle of Colombo is starting to reflect its regained prosperity, as it opens up to the European tourism market, with fine dining, fancy shops and the port area, until recently a strategic target, becoming a hub of ‘urban chic’. A long stroll down Colombo’s Galle Face Green with its kites flying and colourful food vendors, and a sundowner at the historic Galle Face Green Hotel, was the perfect way to end our holiday. We reflected on the country’s vibrant culture and charming people, before a tuk tuk ride back to our hotel and our departing flight. A wonderful country of striking contrasts.
Story by Anne Smith. Photography by Sabine Hollerer, Brian and Anne Smith.