Serenading In Sri Lanka
The Pearl of the Indian Ocean
I have been on several world tours but never to Sri Lanka. The fact that it is a neighboring country, I never took this island country seriously. But all my preconceived notions about this gem of a tourist destination changed in a dramatic turn of events. Last year when I came home for my annual holidays at my native place in Bengal, my mom was desperate to go on pilgrimage to the island country.
At first I was surprised by her choice. When it comes to pilgrimage, India comes first in the list of holy places ranging from Amarnath in the North to Rameshwaram down South and Dwarka in the West to the holy Kamakshya temple in the East. But why on earth go to Sri Lanka when you have so many options in India itself?
But my mom had done all the hard work – collecting information on Hindu pilgrimage sites in Sri Lanka from one her colleague who went on pilgrimage to the island country, just a few months back. She had collected reams of information from her friend and came armed with brochures, folders and leaflets related to the island country’s tourist sites, thereby making my task easy.
She was hell-bent on visiting Sri Lanka’s Ramayana trail just like her friend had done. If popular Hindu folklore is to be believed, a tour of “Lankapura” covering a rich legacy of sites and temples in the island nation where some of the most significant events of the Ramayana epic took place is believed to impart immense spiritual merits to pilgrims undertaking this once in a lifetime pilgrimage.
I could spare just a week and so got busy organizing the travel plan with a trusted Kolkata based travel agent. As the D-day dawned, we boarded an early morning flight to Chennai and from Chennai to Colombo by Air Lanka. My father was initially hesitant to undertake the trip but changed his mind at the last moment... thereby providing me with enough breathing space to explore Sri Lanka’s famed beaches, tea estates, waterfalls, exotic wildlife, the hill country and what have you.
We checked in at Colombo’s majestic Taj Samudra hotel, and this choice was necessitated by the fact that it is an Indian hotel and that the Taj is a trusted name in the global hospitality space. The hotel’s in-house travel staff assured me of a hassle free pilgrimage of the Ramayana sites in the island and I was convinced that my parents would be well looked after by the Taj people.
Finally, we agreed on a package that would cover Seetha Kotuwa – Seetha Tear – Seetha Temple – Ussangoda – Ishtripura – Ravana Cave – Rumassala – Divurumpola – Muneshwaram. Sri Lanka is the proud custodian of more than 50 Ramayana sites, but it is never easy to cover all of them in a week’s time. An air-conditioned cab was provided by the hotel and the chauffeur could speak chaste Hindi, which came as a boon. My parents would spend the next 5 days crisscrossing the island nation in search of the Holy Grail and perhaps to add some good “Karma” into their lives.
They started off early in the morning and as I saw them off at the hotel’s exit gate, my mom in particular was a touch emotional, but then, she knew she was on a mission. This left me with enough time to explore a Lanka I never knew existed.
Day 1 was spent exploring the sights and sounds of Colombo city. This capital city has a throb and is pulsating with activity. I hired a cab from the hotel and set off on a sight seeing tour. The cab driver knew what I was looking for ... a little bit of peace. So he gave a goodbye to the usual Colombo tourist sites and instead took me to a narrow cobbled street bang in the heart of Colombo’s bustling Pettah bazzar to be face to face with the magnificent white washed colonial mansion that was conspicuous by its terracotta tiled roof.
We went inside and on further inquiry, I was told that this classic mansion was built way back in 1780 and served as the residence of the then Dutch Governor. Today, this fabulous mansion has been converted into a Dutch Period Museum and I was most impressed with the impeccably well-preserved antique wooden furniture, oil lamps, antique cabinets and even a few four-poster beds.
Leaving behind the cacophony of Colombo city, I ventured to the famed “Hill Country” which is literally synonymous with the “Tea Country” in this part of the world. A silent revolution is taking place in Sri Lanka’s “Hill Country”, not through terrorism but through Tea Tourism and the government I am told is playing the role of a catalyst to perfection.
My cabdriver Marvan was spot on when he said – “Gone are the days of hotel-sightseeing & back-to-the-hotel stuff that tourists were so used to. Instead of being guests of centrally located star hotels, they are now being offered with a chance to be guests of colonial tea garden bungalows in one of Sri Lanka’s most beautiful regions”. And how right he was!
We were in the Bogawantalawa Valley, which has carved a niche for itself as the “Golden Valley of Tea” in Sri Lanka and is replete with undulating hills, Victorian tea garden bungalows, fairytale scenes of women pluckers meticulously plucking the freshest leaves from the bushes and what have you! Being born and brought up in the Indian state of Assam, which is equally renowned for its tea, I was a touch emotional as I explored Sri Lanka’s tea country out here in Bogawantalawa Valley.
The Taj Samudra guys had already booked a room for us at one of the colonial bungalows of Dilmah Tea Estate for our night halt. After a sumptuous meal we retired for the night only to wake early next morning in a paradise like setting replete with early morning mist, thrilling birdsongs and rolling verdant hills. As the day wore on we made a leisurely trip to the tea estate and we walked for nearly an hour with one of the Managers of the Tea estate followed by a session of tea tasting. Here in this part of the woods, it’s a fascinating story that begins at the bush and ends in your cup!
No trip to Sri Lanka is ever complete without a visit to Nuwara Eliya, which in the quintessential touristy parlance is referred to as the “Queen of Hill Resorts”. This stunningly picturesque hill resort is a British discovery and is perched at 1900 meters above sea level. It is much like Ooty in South India. Here the nights are chilly, while in the daytime the weather remains pleasant.
We made a trip to Victoria Park and it left me completely dazed… the sheer variety of flowers on full bloom made for a truly kaleidoscopic vignette. Two days had gone by and suddenly I received a call on my mobile. It was great to hear my Mom talking about her incredible pilgrim experience. They were visiting “Seetha Kotuwa” located at a distance of 190 Kms from Colombo city and were in the last leg of their eventful “Ramayana Trail”.
Given the fact that the Gurulupotha region where Seetha Kotuwa is located is primarily a forested area, it was reassuring to know from my Mom that the Taj Samudra management had made arrangements for their night halt at a tourist cottage not too far away from the ancient town.
Onward we moved, this time to Hakgala Botanical Gardens, renowned for its sub-tropical plants and an incredible variety of rose gardens. As the cab swiveled to the left and took an upward hill road leading all the way to the extreme Southwest of Nuwara Eliya, the breathtaking sight of the surrounding countryside from atop the Adam’s Peak made for a truly ethereal spectacle.
Before our drive back to Colombo, we ventured North of Haputale all the way to Dondra Lighthouse, which happens to be the southern most point of Sri Lanka. We stopped by at the breathtaking Ella Gap and basked in the uninterrupted vistas of coastal plains below.
After light snacks and a steaming cuppa “Ceylon Tea” at a roadside restaurant, we began our journey back to Colombo city and I must tell you, the 180 Kms. drive to Colombo was one of the most beautiful drives I have ever encountered in my 38 years of existence.
As the cab glided past picturesque valleys, mountains and meadows, Marvan, my cab driver started giving a running commentary in his heavily accented Sinahalese English about the history of the “Hill Country”. From whatever little I could understand from his conversation, Nuwara Eliya was discovered by a British officer by the name of Major John Davy way back in the year 1819 and it took another decade for Nuwara Eliya region to blossom as a commercial hub. With the commissioning of the hill road by the then British administration, this fabulous hill country served as the much preferred hill retreat for the colonial British rulers.
By the time we reached the Taj Samudra hotel inn Colombo, it was almost 9 P.M. I hugged Marvan and asked him to report the next day for a trip to the coastal beaches close to Colombo.
That night I slept like a log and when I woke up next morning, the mobile phone once again rang and it was my mother on the other side. I was surprised to know from her that she tried waking me up for at least a dozen time and I wasn’t even aware of that. The sheer drudgery of the previous day’s touristy endeavor somehow made me feel drowsy and lethargic. However, it was reassuring to know that my parents would be back in Colombo by tomorrow.
After a relaxing shower and an impromptu breakfast at hotel’s elegant multi cuisine restaurant, I began looking for Marvan and spotted him at the parking bay, shining his cab and checking the fuel.
Today, I would be venturing to the beaches of the West Coast – Bentota, Beruwala, Aluthgama, Kalutara, Negambo, Mount Lavina etc…. The weather was hot and humid, but as we hit the West Coast road, the serene sea breeze had a balmy effect. When it comes to beaches in Sri Lanka, a stunning collection of beaches vie for attention and the choice is never easy.
As advised by the Taj management, we decided to drop anchor at the stunning Bentota Beach…a jewel of a beach in this miniscule island nation. Since we had time at our disposal, we made a quick detour of the other beaches - Beruwala, Aluthgama, Kalutara, Negambo, Mount Lavina…and found each one of them unique in their charm and ambience.
It is a fact that the beaches of the West Coast are more popular with the discerning beach bums because they have access to good water sports activities and the Ayurvedic therapies on offer are simply awesome. Also, the fact that the Taj hotels have a presence here was very reassuring courtesy the magnificent Taj Exotica.
Bentota is a coastal town, which is ideally located at a distance of 62 Kms. from Colombo and enjoys a 130 Kms. long coastline (West Coast) that are dotted with stunning beaches. Bentota’s Ayurvedic therapies are renowned the world over and the quintessential local brew –“Toddy” , which is extracted from the locally available Coconut is a outright hit with foreign tourists. On the hindsight, it would also be proper to mention that the city of Bentota was one of the most heavily damaged places in Sri Lanka when the Indian Ocean Tsunami hit the island nation in the year 2004 on that fateful day of 26th December.
I had my lunch at the hotel’s laidback outdoor eatery – the S.H.A.C.K., which has a romantic ambience and stands out with its fusion cuisine. The Seafood spread was absolutely gorgeous.
At quarter past four, I had my appointment at the hotel’s outstanding Spa – the Jiva Spa for a 2-hour session of the humorously named “Pehelwan Malish” that made me conjure up visions of earthy Haryanvi Jat lads engaged in wrestling duels in rugged Haryana villages. Most Spas that I have been to are inside the concerned hotel. But the Jiva Spa at the Taj Exotica in Bentota was an aberration ... tucked away from the hotel and on the beachfront, making for a truly sensuous hideaway. The “Malish” was every bit energizing and very Indian with the main ingredient being the pungent Mustard Oil.
I woke up early next morning and made a dash for the shower room and after a hurried breakfast, hopped into Marvan’s finely polished cab that would take me to the fabulous Yala Wild Life Park for a date with the resident Leopards.
Today, being the penultimate day of our trip to Sri Lanka, I was hurrying up things since on the back of my mind, I was worried about my parents. I couldn’t contact them on the mobile, probably because they were on a remote location. Seeing me anxious and apprehensive, Marvan reassured me that we would reach Colombo well ahead of my parents’ arrival from their “Ramayana Pilgrimage” trail.
And indeed he was right. We reached Colombo at 4.45 P.M. and it wasn’t till 7 P.M. that my parents made their entry into the hotel. The reunion was very special. My aging parents were tired, no doubt about that. But in their heart of hearts, there was a sense of fulfillment. A spiritual fulfillment, which words fail to describe.
It was a perfect culmination of the tour to the emerald island. Memories of Sri Lanka will linger on for a lifetime.
Traveler’s Fact File
Getting There: most visitors to Colombo arrive by air at Bandaranaike International Airport, which is located at Katunayake, 18 miles from Colombo city centre. Flights are available to most Asian destinations including Thailand, India, Malaysia and Singapore, from where transatlantic connections can be made, while there are also many flights offered to the Middle East and some to Europe. Arrivals can reach the city by taxi, while some of the more up market hotels offer pick-up services. Alternatively, buses operate from 04:30 until 23:00, with bus number 187 travelling to Pettah every 30 minutes.
Sri Lanka offers a wide variety of accommodation options ranging from super deluxe 5 star hotels to informal guesthouses. For the discerning visitors who wish to become acquainted with the Sri Lankan way of living – Bed & Breakfast units too are available. It is also possible to stay in Tea plantation sites on colonial bungalows.
For further information on Sri Lanka:
Sri Lanka Tourism
80 Galle Road
Tel: + 94 11 243 7059/60