- Lifestyle & Sports
- 19 Mar 14
It used to be knows as a warzone, but not the Indian Ocean island of Sri Lanka is reclaiming its place as a little bit of paradise on earth
Where exactly is it?
Sri Lanka is a teardrop-shaped island in the Indian Ocean, off the south coast of India itself. Known as Ceylon until 1972, it was described by legendary 13th century explorer Marco Polo as “the finest island of its size anywhere in the world”. It’s roughly the same size as Ireland, so it’s obvious that the Venice native never landed on these shores. That aside, he certainly knew what he was talking about. Stunning beaches, teeming jungles, tea plantations and more wild elephants than you could shake a trunk at... Sri Lanka has all this and more.
How do I get there?
Both Emirates and Etihad operate regular services to Colombo Bandaranayake (CMB), via either Dubai or Abu Dhabi, while Sri Lankan Airways operate regular flights from Heathrow. In general, the first two options are cheaper. If you’re lucky, you can get return flights for under €600.
What language do they speak?
In most of the country, Sinhalese is the official language. In the predominantly Hindu north, Tamil is the dialect of choice. From 1983 until 2009, the country was embroiled in a bloody civil war between the predominantly Sinhalese government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, better known as the Tamil Tigers. For the last five years, Sri Lanka has been at peace. Travellers are welcome all over the island.
What is the local beer like?
While not exactly exciting, the ubiquitous Lion Lager is perfectly acceptable, particularly as it’s ridiculously cheap (around €1.50) and comes in 650ml bottles.
Arrack is the local spirit of choice, made from the fermented sap of coconut flowers. The milky sap is removed before the flowers bloom, when it ferments into a mild alcoholic drink called toddy or palm wine. This is then distilled in wooden vats to produce a spirit mid-way between rum and whiskey, which makes it all good in our book. Having attempted a range of arrack-based drinks, purely for research purposes, of course, we can tell you that, as with whiskey and rum in this part of the world, the quality varies greatly. You might be able to get an arrack and Coke in a Columbo hostelry for as little as you’d pay for a glass of cordial at home. The following day’s hangover could be like spending time in Dante’s seventh circle of hell. We recommend going the extra few rupees for a premium, aged variety.
What’s the transport like?
Trains are crowded and slooooooooooooow, while buses are crowded, dangerous and take an age to get to their destination thanks to the lack of dual carriage-ways (and despite the fact that the majority of bus drivers handle their ancient vehicles like Kimi Raikkonen in a blindfold). Seriously, the local bus drivers are happy to over-take on blind corners, half-way up the side of a mountain, content in the expectation that anything coming against them will pull aside. Trains are more pleasant, although prepare to spend hours making even a short journey. The good news, however, is that renting a car and driver is relatively inexpensive and generally safe, costing about €45-60 per day.
What’s the food like?
Superb, as long as you like curry. No joking, the national dish of Sri Lanka is ‘Rice & Curry’. Don’t let this put you off. Each region, and indeed pretty much each kitchen, has its own speciality. There’s as much variation in the taste as there is in neighbouring India. A typical ‘Rice & Curry’ meal is made up of six mini-dishes, which might include a potato curry, a daal, a fish curry and a chicken curry, as well as more local specialities, such as a bread fruit or jack fruit curry. The former is a pricky football-sized pod, while the latter is a starchy, meaty fruit that’s full of fibre.
What’s the nightlife like?
It depends where you go. Most of Sri Lanka is Buddhist, which means that while alcohol is accepted, it’s not really consumed in huge quantities.
Why should I go?
Sri Lanka has a bit of everything. Incredible ancient ruins and temples: check. Jaw dropping scenery? Indeed. An incredible diversity of wildlife? Yep. Some of the best and most unspoilt beaches in all of Asia? You bet. The best surfing in the region? Certainly.
What are the touristy things to do?
Where do we start? Much of Sri Lanka is given over to natural parks, where the wildlife can be spectacular. Head to the northern park of Minneriya to see elephants in their natural habitat. Lucky enough to be there during the dry season (July-August), we saw upwards of 200 wild elephants during one afternoon in the park. Further south, you might be lucky enough to meet one of Yala National Park’s jaguars: just don’t get too close.
There are also spectacular ancient world heritage sites at Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, where you can wander the ruins of former cities and monasteries. The Temple of the Tooth in the mountainous city of Kandy houses one of the Buddha’s actual teeth in a gilded box: although you will pretty much only get to see the ornate entrance to the room where the sacred relic is stored. Close by is the tea country of Nuwara Eliya, known as ‘Little England’ for its cold, wet climate. Here, you can dine at the fabulous colonial Hill Club, which is like stepping back to the time of the Raj.
Smack bang in the middle of the country, there’s the stunning Sigirya rock, an imposing 200-metre reddish bluff that pokes up from the dusty landscape like a mini Ayers Rock. What’s even more impressive is that after a hair-raising climb, you get to see 7th century frescoes of topless ladies, before continuing to the top, where a thousand-year-old citadel provides a combination of ancient engineering marvels and stunning views to the nearby Buddhist caves at Dambulla.
Then there’s the lively and colourful Hindu north, which is (whisper it) not unlike a little part of India that has been cut off from the ahem ”mainland”. After years of civil war, the north is starting to gear itself up for tourists again, with some of the most unspoilt beaches in the entire country, particularly compared to the relatively western resorts of the west coast.
Surfing, dude. Arugam Bay, or A-Bay for short, on the east coast, offers some of the finest surf in Asia, and is just about perfect for beginners to learn how to ride the waves. Chock-full of hotels and guest houses, A-Bay is a little slice of paradise, with beachside cabanas, wonderful restaurants (with fresh seafood a speciality) and water that feels like stepping into a heated pool. Be warned, however: July and August are peak season in the east and accommodation should be booked in advance. Even if you’re not into surfing A-Bay is the perfect spot to relax, with some guest houses even offering on-site yoga lessons.
Also, Sri Lankans are also absolutely cricket mad, and if you can take in an international in Columbo or the southern stadium of Hambantota, it’s well worth the experience.
Anything to avoid?
Aside from stupa fatigue (after a while, all the mound-like Buddhist structures start to look the same), just the usual mixture of scammers and unofficial ‘guides’ at the major sites. Unfortunately, you can’t avoid the costs. The Sri Lankan government, in its wisdom, charges foreign tourists up to 10 times the local admission fee to national monuments and parks, which means that a day in Sigirya will cost you around €25. We’re all for making culture accessible to the local community, but after a few days of this, you do start to feel a bit ripped off.
What should I bring home?
A sun-tan, a surf-board and a bottle of arrack. As many high end clothes are also produced in Sri Lanka, you can also pick up some designer labels for a song in some of Colombo’s outlet stores. And Sri Lanka is one of the world’s foremost tea producers, so you can impress your mates with a high end cuppa straight from the source.
When should I go?
Perhaps the best thing about Sri Lanka is that there isn’t a bad time to go. Roughly the same size as Ireland, it enjoys two distinct climates – in the east and west, with two monsoons to boot (sounds a bit like Cork, with less monsoons). What this means, effectively, is that no matter what time of year you travel, there are bound to be sunshine and high temperatures.
What’s my challenge?
To fit in all Sri Lanka has to offer into one holiday: beaches, jungles, temples, safari, surfing, shopping, partying.
What’s the currency?
The Sri Lankan Rupee, of which approximately 180 equals €1. So your money will generally go a long way. If you eat like a local, lunch for three people should set you back less than a fiver.
Something to remember...
Sri Lankans are seriously proud of their country, and regularly describe it as paradise. If you want to make friends, avoid mention of President Rajapaksa’s allegedly dodgy human rights record.