One week in Sri Lanka: Road tripping around the “Wonder of Asia”
Sri Lanka has always been a mystical place to me, a tiny island off the coast of India with its own distinct culture. As our plane started to descend into Colombo, my entire vision of the country was a patchwork of green. We only spent a week in Sri Lanka, but were able to pack in so many incredible sights and experiences.
- Sigiriya, the Lion’s Rock: the ancient civilisation high up on a mountain rock should be a contender for a World Wonder designation
- Safari in Habarana National Park: elephants galore!
- Train ride from Ella to Kandy: seven hours of stunning, lush scenery
Our first stop was the Dambulla Royal Cave Temple and Golden Temple. Hiking 364 steps to the top is worth it to see stunning and imposing Buddha statues. But make sure to keep your belongings close to you to avoid monkeys snatching your purse!
That afternoon, we went to Habarana National Park for a rugged jeep safari. We bounced along the rugged terrain to find ourselves surrounded by almost 60 elephants. With the top and sides of the vehicle open, the giant beasts were so close to us, we could reach out and touch them. But we were on their turf, and they couldn’t be bothered by the gawking tourists. Every day, elephants eat approximately 10% of their body weight in food, and they rarely stopped tearing tufts of grass from the ground and constantly chewing. However, the little elephants took eating breaks to playfully wrestle atop each other.
The next morning at sunrise, we began our trek up Sigiriya, the Lion’s Rock. Signs were scattered throughout the country branding Sigiriya as the 8th Wonder of the World, and I could see why. Once an ancient civilisation, Sigiriya rock cradled King Kashyapa I’s palace, 800m off the ground. The hike up the side of the mountain took about one hour, including photo snapping along the way. Before the last stretch to the top, we paused to snap a photo between the two enormous lion’s paws that still guarded the ancient king’s habitation. When we reached the top, the 360 degrees of scenery amongst the clouds was breathtaking, worthy of a “Wonder” designation.
From Sigiriya, we drove to the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, the once capital of Sri Lanka. We rented bikes for $4 USD so we could visit as many of the 25 temples as we could. Starting from the museum, we cruised along the lake to witness the stunning summer palace from afar, isolated on a small island so the king and his family could stay cool in the humid summer months. We stopped first at the Royal Palace and Audience Hall, whose walls were still in tact. Then it started to pour. Lucky for us, there were plenty of opportunistic locals selling umbrellas to desperate tourists like us. We paid a few bucks just to rent the umbrellas for a bit, and then were lucky enough to avoid the torrential downpours for most of the afternoon. We then cycled to the most important and popular temple: Gal-Vihara, which featured numerous carvings of Buddha as well as a reclining Buddha. To be respectful of Buddha, Sri Lankans never pose for photos with their backs to Buddha. Our final destination was the Thivanka Image House, a smaller temple but with incredibly intricate carvings into the stone.
From Sigiriya, we time-traveled back to the present to Kandy, Sri Lanka’s second largest city after the capital of Colombo. On the way, we stopped at a spice garden and purchased some herbal remedies for itchy mosquito bites and skin moisturisers. Once in town, we headed straight for the famed Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, which at three times a day, reveals a tooth from Buddha during a special ceremony.
That evening, we watched an incredible performance of a dozen different traditional Sri Lankan dances at the Kandy Lake Club. Each dance uniquely charmed us: from flipping acrobats to women gracing the stage with peacock-like movements. But the most impressive stunts of the night involved fire: two men braced themselves to eat fire, not even batting an eye. Subsequently, they didn’t even wince as they skittered lightly across the glowing orange coals. We put our feet to the stones to ensure that — yup! — they were definitely smouldering hot.
Instead of driving to Ella, we opted for the more scenic mode of transportation: the famous train ride through the countryside. The 6.5-hour ride gave us plenty of time to decompress after several days of more strenuous physical activity. As we rode 150 km, we passed through tiny villages with kids gawking and waving at the lumbering train. However, the majority of the scenery involved lush landscapes of every imaginable shade of green. The rolling hills sometimes gave way to terraced rice paddies or cascading waterfalls or mountains crowned with delicate cloud wreaths. We passengers could even dangle precariously from the car doors, with no one reminding us to keep our limbs inside the train.
After arriving in Ella, trains were still on our mind, and we hiked to Nine Arches Bridge, an impressive 24-m high architectural construction that still supported trains bellowing towards Ella. Our tuk tuk driver dropped us off and we had to descend an incredibly muddy hill as we were pelted by the rain. We flirted with danger all in the name of a photo opp, and traversed the train tracks. Thank goodness for the multiple horns that resonated throughout the hills to announce the impending train. We immediately scurried off the tracks and merrily waved to the passengers on the train.
A stop at the Grand Hotel in Nuwara Eliya for High Tea is a must. For $8 USD, you can get unlimited tea and 12 different types of delicious finger foods, 4 hot, 4 cold, and 4 desserts. The food was delectable, and spending the afternoon exploring the grounds was like transporting back to Sri Lanka’s colonial past. Built in 1819, the hotel used to be the residence of Governor Barnes, the last governor of Ceylon under British rule, before becoming a luxury hotel.
That night we wanted to destress and opted for a Sri Lankan Ayurvedic massage, with a unique ending: a steam bath. I climbed into a coffin-like box with a cut-out to stick my head through. The steam mixed with the oil to create a tingly sensation on my skin. The smell could only be described as a sweet ginger cake fresh from the oven, and I felt rejuvenated.
The next morning we headed to Damro Tea Lounge, one of the biggest tea plantations in the country, spanning 5,000 hectares. They offer hourly treks into the tea fields amongst the workers, and you get a sense of the back-breaking work that the women do for eight hours every day. The women seek out the young, pliable buds to produce the delicious green, black, and white teas that people consume globally. They must product 16 kg of tea leaves in their straw baskets that they balance on their heads. When we returned from the fields, we sipped (gratefully) on a delicious cup of tea, reminding ourselves of the intensive labor that went into producing one cup.
We drove back to Negombo and witnessed the sunset along the beach. Though the beach wasn’t as beautiful as others in Southeast Asia, it was a pleasant stroll along the shore before our nice dinner at Lord’s Restaurant Complex. We were delighted and pampered by our week in Sri Lanka, and can’t wait to visit this beautiful island again.