Sri Lanka is steeped in heritage yet its essence is also a result of a myriad of influences from three colonial rulers. The Portuguese, Dutch and the British interacted with Arab, Chinese and Malay merchants, a combination that is amply reflected throughout the country by way of customs, cuisine and architecture.
With a history that dates back over 2000 years, Sri Lanka is home to some of the best preserved Asian monuments and showcases no fewer than eight UNESCO World Heritage sites, all remarkably preserved to surpass more well-known world-class attractions. To this day Sri Lanka’s centuries old heritage lives on, in the culture and the way of life of the Sri Lankan people. The rich tapestry of cultural practice, beliefs and the traditional way of life renews and revives this island nation’s historic ties, creating an oasis of cultural richness in the modern day.
Sri Lanka has been known by many names. The early Europeans in Asia knew it as Zelian or Seilan, the British as Ceylon, and it has also been called the Teardrop of India, Resplendent Isle, Island of Dharma and Pearl of the Orient. Colombo, the commercial capital has lots of open spaces and gracious colonial buildings.
The governing capital was shifted in recent years to Sri Jayewardenepura, 15 minutes from Colombo. Other major cities include Jaffna, Kandy and Galle. Anuradhapura is Sri Lanka’s first capital and the most important of Sri Lanka’s ancient cities.
The southern half of Sri Lanka is dominated by rugged hills, while the north is mostly a large plain from the edge of the hill country to the Jaffna peninsula.
The southwestern tropical rainforests are home to ebony, teak and spectacular orchids. The country has an abundance of fauna including elephants, monkeys, leopards, wild boar, crocodiles, dugong and turtles. Flamingos and other migrating birds flock to the lagoons, wetlands and sanctuaries during the northern winter.
Sri Lanka offers over 1300 kilometres of idyllic sandy beaches. With its year-round summer and two different weather systems, whatever the time of year, there’s always a beach with sunshine and a choice of calm seas or steady surf depending on what you feel like. Beyond the stretch of calm, indigoblue sea, a line of breaking waves marks the coral reef where recreational divers discover vividly coloured tropical fish and living corals.
The ancient city of Anuradhapura was the capital of the island for more than 1400 years with its Buddhist monuments and royal ruins dating back 2000 years. Some best known sites include the Sacred Bo-Tree grown from a sapling of the tree under which Buddha achieved enlightenment; the Thuparamaya Dagoba, built in the third century BC and believed to contain the right collarbone of Buddha; Ruvan, the oldest historically documented tree in the world; and the seven storey Lovamahapaya, also known as the Brazen Place.
The ancient city of Polonnaruwa is southeast of Anuradhapura while the amazing Sigiriya Rock Fortress is the site of a sixth century fortified palace. Built by an obsessed monarch in the fifth century, Sigiriya, or Lion Rock, is an astonishing feat of engineering and construction.
The most striking portion of Sigiriya, a terracotta and grey core of rock set in the cultural heart of Sri Lanka, rises a sheer 200 metres above a forested plain, its flattened summit sloping gently. A series of moats, ramparts and water gardens, remnants of an ancient city, spread out on two sides of the rock, with the remains of a pair of giant stone lion’s paws still guarding the staircase that leads to the summit, once occupied by a royal palace.The sacred tooth relic of the Buddha is preserved here at the Temple of the Tooth.
Visit Kandy, which is 116 kilometres from Colombo and built around a peaceful lake that is surrounded by picturesque hills. Enroute to Kandy, and about 90 kilometres from Colombo visit the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, home to more than 109 elephants including adorable baby elephants that you can bathe and feed (with gigantic milk bottles!). Bathing time is 10am and 2pm, with feeding time an hour before.
Unawatuna Beach is a lovely semi-circular stretch of golden sands bordered with coconut palm trees located four kilometres southward around the coast of Galle. This is paradise for those who just want to enjoy to the silence of the sea and dive deep into the blue waters of the ocean.
There is a reef protecting the beach making it perfectly safe for bathing. Unawatuna Beach was voted as one of the “Top 10 most beautiful beaches in the world” by the Discovery Channel and Mark Ellingham, the founder of Rough Guides.
Where to stay
Travelling in Sri Lanka is quite economical and travellers can experience five-star luxury at very reasonable prices in the countryside, while budget travellers can find delightful traditional ‘rest houses’.
Food and entertainment
Traditional Sri Lankan food is dominated by rice and curry, and is usually very spicy and hot. Colombo teems with restaurants that offer a spectrum of international gourmet and fusion cuisine. If the high end fine dining isn’t what you are after, there a number of places offering good and reasonably priced fare. To experience local cuisine and roadside dining, Colombo offers numerous roadside cafes that serve up the tantalising kottu, a Sri Lankan favourite, and string hoppers (a tangle of rice flour noodles that are eaten with curry), pittu and rotti. Sinhalese dancing resembles Indian dance but the story is told using acrobatics and symbolism. Sri Lankan folklore is recreated in theatre using dance, masked drama, drumming and exorcism rituals.
Things to do
The southwestern coast offers good swimming beaches. The dive centre at Hikkaduwa is a good base to explore the reefs in the region such as Dodanduwa, Gintota and Ralagala.
The Bentota River is ideal for sailing, windsurfing and waterskiing. Climb Adam’s Peak for a taste of trekking, or walk across the Horton Plains near Nuwara Eliya to see the 700-metre drop at World’s End.
On the road linking Colombo and Kandy is a series of ‘monoculture’ villages. One sells clay pots while others sell brooms, roof tiles, cane chairs, cashews and coconuts. Not surprisingly, the most popular purchase is tea, sold in many flavours and all manner of gift containers and teapots.
Woodcarving, weaving, pottery and metalwork are all popular crafts and Sri Lanka is especially renown for its gems and jewellery.
Sri Lankan rupee (SLR) consists of 100 cents. Tipping is appropriate and major credit cards are widely accepted in shops Most hotels, restaurants and shopping centres accept credit cards.
The climate is tropical, hot and humid during the day, cooling off in the evening while in the hilly regions cooler temperatures prevail.
Train travel is comfortable but slow, with modern coaches a better option. Local transport consists of buses, taxis and auto-rickshaws. Car and motorbike hire is becoming increasingly popular. Renting a car with a driver is not expensive, but it is important to negotiate beforehand.
What to wear
Cotton clothes are useful at any time of the year but you will need light woollens for the hills and waterproof clothing or an umbrella. Modest dress for women is advisable especially off the beach and when visiting religious sites.
Don’t forget comfortable shoes, sandals or trainers and cotton socks. If you are planning to trek and climb go prepared with suitable gear.
Nationals from several countries who visit Sri Lanka for tourist purposes are exempt from visa requirements and automatically receive a free 30-day visa on arrival.
Going To Sri Lanka
Flights to Sri Lanka are served by the Colombo-Bandaranayake International Airport from most cities in Asia, the Middle East and Europe. If you are traveling to Sri Lanka from another country, plan for strategic stopovers to travel more efficiently, or sail to Sri Lanka by cruise ship via the American cruise operator Zegrahm Expeditions.