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Sri Lanka: The nation of smiling people

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Upon finding out that Sri Lanka is known as the ‘land of smiling people’, I couldn’t help being bemused. I laughed it off thinking it was merely a punch line to promote the island country. After all, aren’t most, if not all, host country nationals friendly to tourists? But after my visit to Lanka, I was convinced that it’s not a punch line; Sri Lankans exude a different kind of warmth. Despite the fact that the country has suffered an over two-decade long civil war, was hit by a massive tsunami in 2004, in no way does it garner your sympathy. On the contrary, it catches you off guard with its resilience, stunning landscapes and rich heritage and traditions.

Nestled in the Indian Ocean between India and Maldives, Sri Lanka is well and truly worthy of Marco Polo referring to it as the finest island country ever. You don’t even have to look too far to see why. It has something for all kinds of travellers – whether you want to have a beach vacation, a quiet mountainous retreat or a lesson in history.

Colombo – the commercial capital of Sri Lanka – is a mix of modern meets old. A dichotomy of rick colonial heritage and metropolitan life, the city has much to offer. An ode to the country’s increasing modernisation is the Arcade Independence Square – which boasts of several eateries and shopping outlets – and is a must see. Sample some of the local cuisine like kottu rotti and fish curry.  Take a city tour. Get a taste of Colombo’s nightlife, which has seen the emergence of many bars and casinos. However, don’t concentrate too much of your time in the city as there are many breathtaking spectacles you need to conquer.

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Rajapaksa theatre in Colombo. – Photo by author

If you’re a safari lover, drive to Habarana, which houses the popular Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. It was formed in 1975 with the purpose of providing care to many of the orphaned elephants found in jungles and entails an orphanage, nursery and breeding ground. Complementing the orphanage is a range of shops selling elephant artifacts, elephant pants in gazillion styles and variations and even paper made of elephant dung. Tourists are found in large numbers here and boy, do shop sellers capitalise on this! Do not give into their prices; make sure you bargain yourself hoarse. Shopkeepers at tourist locations in Lanka are infamous for ripping off innocent, unsuspecting trippers. Avoid becoming a victim.

Situated close to Habarana is the rock fortress of Sigriya, which you absolutely don’t want to miss seeing. It is a UNESCO listed World Heritage Site and has tourists flocking in hoards. It was home to the kingdom of Kassapa. If you want to know all of its intricacies, book in yourself a guide at the fort and savour an hour-long history lesson amidst your way to the top of one of Sri Lanka’s most mesmerising sights!

Providing a warm, colourful insight into rural living is the trekking village programme at Sigiriya. From the bullock ride to the coconut roti that you get to sample if you sign up for this activity, this is indigenous Sri Lankan culture that you get to experience at its best.

Having had your fill in history, get going to Kandy, which is the second largest city in Lanka, and hard to part with once you enter it. The artificial yet picturesque Kandy Lake is the epicenter of the city. If you are travelling in July and August, you will get to witness the Esala Perahera festival in Kandy, which is a tribute to the Sacred Tooth Relic of Lord Buddha housed at the Sri Dalada Maligawa. The latter was also declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988. The gemstone and wood carving factories in Kandy are also worth visiting as is the tea factory for which the country is famed.  However, don’t make your Kandy tour too hectic. Take some time out to soak up the city’s unpretentious scenic beauty.

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A view of Kandy. – Photo by author

If you’re intrigued to know about the World’s End, you definitely want to visit Nuwara Eliya, popularly known as Little England. The journey from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya will be, in every sense of the word, a bejeweled feast for a nature lover. Stunning waterfalls, lush greenery, rain-drenched rice fields are some of the amorous sights that will greet you. Nuwara Eliya – a quaint, exquisite hill station – is the main reservoir for tea plantation in Lanka. The city is also home to one of Asia’s oldest golf courses and stunning to its credit. Be sure to catch the Ramboda waterfall while you’re in Nuwara Eliya.

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A waterfall that we glimpsed while we were en route to Nuwara Eliya from Kandy. – Photo by author

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A view of the Victoria Golf course in Nuwara Eliya. – Photo by author

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A tea estate in Nuwara Eliya. – Photo by author

After having quenched your thirst for natural beauty, drive to Yala and visit the Yala National Park to experience wildlife. On a lucky day, you may catch a glimpse of leopards and bears, but do not be too disappointed if you only end up seeing elephants, aquatic birds and water buffaloes.

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– Water buffaloes at the Yala National Park.

As the country has gained a reputation for some of the best palm-speckled beaches in the world, you don’t want to miss going down South. Unwind yourself at the beautiful beaches in Galle and tour the city’s World Heritage listed town centre.

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– A beach in Galle. – Photo by author

If you happen to visit the coastal town of Balapatiya, do hop on to the Maduganga boat safari and enjoy the ecosystem of mangroves and islands. Keep an eye out for the humungous lizards on rocks that can double as alligators. Beat the heat with the immensely popular king coconut.

Sri Lanka delivers everything that a traveller wishes to see. Even though it deserves to be at par with the top-ranked tourist destinations of the world, I secretly wish that it remains just like it is now – an island for the discerning traveller.


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