- Aarushi Saxena
A Teardrop in the Indian Ocean - Sri Lanka in 7 Days
Sri Lanka may be equal in size to one South Indian state – but every corner of it unpacks experiences for the soul. In seven days, I flitted across central and south-west Sri Lanka, boating through dense mangrove forests, bathing and feeding elephants, releasing baby turtles into the sea, watching sunsets at the beach and rock climbing to century old ruins and Buddhist cave temples. Another week would have done justice to the island country but I returned with no regrets and the taste of Sri Lankan curries imprinted on my taste buds.
My visit was planned at the brink of a major political and economic climate change in the country; more on that later. Despite reservations, induced primarily by exaggerated news and media – I landed in Bandaranaike airport, Colombo around noon. Within 45 minutes at the airport, I had a visa stamp on my passport, currency exchanged from INR to SLR and a new SIM card recharged with an ‘unlimited social media’ plan. For a country that relies on tourism – kudos times three.
The seven days were planned in collaboration with an agency that provided me with a driver, Mr.Jagath for the entire duration of the trip. While I would’ve loved to be behind the wheel, cruising along Sri Lanka’s smooth roads, this was a blessing in disguise. The economic crisis in Sri Lanka led to an acute fuel shortage. Case in point: drives across dense green groves of coconut palms were intermittently marred by kilometre long chains of vehicles crawling towards the petrol pump. Jagath often spent up to two hours post-duty waiting to refuel the car.
My road trip spanned across culturally vibrant Sigiriya, the hill station of Kandy and culminated with coastal towns, Bentota and Colombo. Monkeys, iguanas, herons were my constant travel companions and the coastal town Bentota, added turtles to that list.
DAY 1 – 2
A scenic 4.5 hour drive away from the airport brought me to Sigiriya. At dusk I checked into Fresco Water Villa, a beautiful property with jackfruit trees, green lawns, a pool and small ponds teeming with koi, guppies and a turtle! Exhausted from a day journeying by air and road – after a short walk and light buffet dinner (spent eavesdropping over a large Russian tourist group), I passed out in preparation for an early start to day 2.
Sigiriya, is a UNSECO world heritage site, internationally acclaimed for Lion’s Rock – a fifth century fortress build atop a 200 metre high humungous rock. A 2000 step climb (mix of natural and man-made stairs) takes around 45 minutes with no complaints, if done early morning, before 9:00am, before the sun beats down on you and before the crowds queue in. The heart-thumping ascent is rewarded by 360 degree views of surrounding blue and green plains.
Tip: Carry your original passport for a 50% discount on the ticket price (15 USD), applicable to travellers from all SAARC countries (Yes, India)
Another 30 minutes to descend, and a short ten minute drive back to the resort: I took my second-shower of the day. Breakfast, checkout and sight-see Sigiriya: you can choose from a jeep safari to spot wild elephants at Hurulu Eco Park (tickets up to 50 USD) or steel yourself for a 400-step climb up another hill to be immersed in the peaceful environment of the Dambulla Buddhist Cave Temple. A pilgrimage centre for over 22 centuries with over 150 statues of Buddha and cave murals, this is another UNSECO world heritage site worth the climb.
Including a pit stop for lunch and a spice tour at Ranweli garden, in three hours I checked in to Oak Ray Regency, at hill town Kandy.
DAY 3 – 4
At Kandy, heavy rain clouds grazed the tops of coconut trees. Not unexpected in central Sri Lanka where sunny with a chance of rain, is the perennial weather forecast. The idea of lazing in a hotel room for an entire day, albeit one with a view, does not appeal to me. So, soak in the fresh pure air and step out to the local jaunts or go wide and explore some of the hiking trails across the Knuckles mountain range.
Oak Ray Regency has a wonderful kitchen staff, which is where I absolutely fell in love with the Sri Lankan cuisine – primarily string hoppers and spice fish curry. The property also has a rooftop pool surrounded by tiny green heels, making for a refreshing swim; though the lack of lounge chairs, leaves something to be desired.
On Day 4, less than an hour away from Kandy, we drove to Pinnawala; it is recognised for its namesake elephant orphanage, a tourist trap. I gave this a hard pass and instead spent half a day volunteering at Millennium Elephant Foundation. There, I met Raja, an elephant whom I fed, took on a walk, bathed in a river and got hosed down by, in return. Elephant’s eat more than 200kgs of food a day and poop out three-quarters of that amount daily. Walking Raja brought back memories of taking my own Dalmatians out – there are so many similarities in behaviour. In Sinhalese ‘aliyah mehda’ means ‘elephant come’; despite my many attempts to get Raja to respond to my requests, all the elephants are trained to respond to just one voice, their personal mahouts’. This wholesome experience costs between 5 – 20 USD, depending on how long you stay. They also offer you a guided visit to a neighbouring factory that makes high-grade paper and stationery from elephant poop!
A stop for lunch at The Stage Café, right off Kandy Road Highway, by-passing Colombo and at 2:00pm I checked into Turyaa Kalutara; a gorgeous beach-side resort in the vicinity of Bentota. High up on the 17th floor, with a balcony opening out onto the sea and the sun poised to set right in front of me, this was the perfect end to the most perfect day on the trip.
DAY 5 – 6
Bentota is where the sand is white and the sea is turquoise. It’s where most tourists go to indulge in water sports. Bentota’s coast is dotted with turtle hatcheries and conservatories. These organisations care for injured turtles, buy eggs from locals who consume them and preserve them till hatching season (March-May). I was lucky to release four babies, just days old, smaller than my palm, straight into the sea at Ahungalla Sea Turtles. And yes, I named them: Riya, Andy, Kalu and Mambo (inspired by the places I visited in Sri Lanka).
Bentota is a great anchor for places to visit along the south-west coast. Go on boat safari through mangrove forests in the Maduganga River (25 USD), where locals have made their villages. Drive to Galle and Mirissa for an early morning whale watching tour (60-80 USD) and get OG IG pics clicked at Coconut Tree Hill. I also made sure to swim at the resort pool and laze at the beach.
On the last evening of the trip, just an hour’s drive away from Kalutara - I found myself at a sky-rise in Colombo, Move ‘n Pick hotel: floor to ceiling glass windows, a view of the ocean at sunset, an infinity pool and a five star restaurant. Instead of feeling spoilt in the lap of luxury, I soaked it all in and then some.
The Bandaranaike airport is under an hour away from a Colombo connected by a highway. So an afternoon flight holds out two fingers: a lazy luxurious morning with a scrumptious breakfast OR an early drive to the Gangaramaya temple and Red Mosque in the city. By now, you know - I chose the former.
- A king coconut a day, keeps the heat at bay. Priced at just 150 SLR = 0.50 USD, this natural drink has got nothing on South Indian yelnir.
- An ETA, Covid Insurance (both available online and approved within 2-4 hours) are needed to travel to the country + a double vaccination certificate
- Thrillophilia has well-priced packages on offer, consider those but customize.