While most people cancelled their trip to Sri Lanka, only the brave continued with their journey. My 75-year-old aunt (a diabetic and cancer survivor) and I arrived two weeks after the unfortunate bombings, and things were so breezy at airport immigration since there was no queue. However, security was tight, no cars were allowed to get close to the airport, and we had to take a bus to the car park area.
It was good to avoid staying in Colombo city. We headed 30 kilometres out of the city to Katunayake on the first night, where we had our stay at the Coventry Hotel upgraded. Interestingly, social media was blocked when we arrived until 9am the next day.
On our first day, my aunt and I visited the Dambulla Royal Cave Temple. Its rock ceiling is one large sweep of colourful frescoes depicting Buddhist mythology, some of which date back to over 2,000 years ago. The climb was tough for my aunt, and I had to hold her most of the time as the steps are broken and uneven.
We didn’t stay here long and made our way to Sigiriya next to visit the imposing Sigiriya Rock (or Lion Rock) which cost us USD30 per person to enter. Sigiriya Rock Fortress is home to the 5th Century Fortress in the Sky, which is perhaps the most fantastic single wonder on the island. Within its triple-moated defence, the huge rock rises almost to 500 feet. The staircases are well-built and maintained for tourists. Only the last part of the climb is challenging, where the elderly are unable to climb to the summit to see the lavish palace and gardens complete with swimming pool.
Next stop: Kandy. On day two, we visited the Spice Garden in Matale, Market Crafts Centre, and Gem Museum. We then got a hilltop view of the lake during sunset before heading to the Rivendell Hotel where we were the only guests.
Our visit to Kandy also included seeing the Sacred Tooth Relic. This sacred relic is the Buddha’s tooth and was brought to Sri Lanka hidden in an Orissan princess’ hair in the 4th century AD. The relic has grown in reputation and holiness in Sri Lanka and throughout the Buddhist world. So much so that it’s considered Sri Lanka’s most prized possession. So no surprises that the queue for the security check here was long, and required a body search.
We continued to Nuwara Eliya. Also known as the ‘Little England’ of Sri Lanka, we came here for a tea experience that entailed a plantation visit to observe the tea-making process. This starts at the plucking field with the picking of ‘two leaves and a bud’ and ends at the factory. We also had a taste of the popular Ceylon tea here.
We explored the picturesque Lake Gregory (actually a reservoir), where my aunt enjoyed a horse ride. Again, we were the only guests at the hotel we stayed in — the Stamford Star Hotel — so things were feeling really quiet in general. In the evening, I walked downtown and explored the area.
We proceeded to the wilderness of Yala the following day. Yala National Park has a total protected area of 126,768 hectares. On the jeep ride, we saw sambar, deer, wild boar, crocodiles, monkeys, pythons, and numerous species of birds. Some two hours later, we arrived at a place where others had gathered to watch a leopard hiding in a bush. I saw it clearly through my binoculars.
Sri Lanka has some amazing wildlife experiences, and it was indeed my lucky day to see all of the ‘big three’: elephant, leopard, and water buffalo. I did manage to capture the sunset too. At Yala, we stayed at Okrin Hotel, where the chef was accommodating enough to specially cook our meals without chilli. Unlike our previous hotels, we had a buffet breakfast at Okrin since there were a few more tourists staying there.
As we travelled along the beautiful beaches of the south, we got to spot some of Sri Lanka’s most iconic scenes — stilt fishing, Galle Fort, Marine Turtle Conservation in Kosgoda, as well as moonstone mining. Then, we watched cinnamon processing in the factory before arriving at The Palms Hotel in Beruwala. I was the only person to take a dip in the Indian Ocean and also got the chance to enjoy the sun setting over the sea’s horizon.
It was our last night in Sri Lanka before heading back to Colombo for a quick city tour before our flight back at night. Dinner on this night was by the Palms Hotel’s poolside, and we indulged in sumptuous fare while enjoying the sea breeze.
Faced with only minor inconveniences, our trip was still a good one. Despite the chaos that happened, the country was still as beautiful. My aunt and I can’t wait to return to see Sri Lanka in all her glory.