Sri Lanka October 2011

I can’t explain why it’s taken quite so long to get round to visiting Sri Lanka.  We first visited India over 20 years ago – and I’ve been back there several times for both work and vacation over the years.  I added Pakistan to my sub-continent collection a long time ago too, and more recently we added both Nepal and Bhutan to the list.  But, somehow we managed to keep leaving out Sri Lanka.

It’s not that we were deliberately ignoring the country – we’ve been to England Sri Lanka Test matches, and just after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami we talked about visiting in response to the pleas for tourists to come back to the country.  Somehow other plans and destinations kept getting in the way.

We didn’t even plan to go to Sri Lanka this year – we were on the point of booking a trip to Japan, when the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami struck – but after a bit of thrashing around we decided that Sri Lanka was going give us some decent wildlife watching with a bit of culture thrown in.

We based our itinerary on a 10 day trip that WildlifeWorldwide offer, but decided that we were just going to stretch it a bit – so we added in an extra night in the Cultural Triangle (more culture), an extra night in the Hill Country (more cool), an extra night in the national parks (more wildlife) and an extra night on the coast (more luxury).

The Culture Bit
Rock Temple, Dambulla
Sri Lanka has an impressive inventory of UNESCO World Heritage sites – we clocked up six of these on our trip (Anuradhupura, Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya, Dambulla and Sri Dalada Maligawa in Kandy, in the Cultural Triangle) in the middle of the island, plus Galle down on the south coast).  The first three, although impressive in some ways, didn’t really provide either much sense of inspiration or excitement.  I think this is partly because there were very few other visitors, either from Sri Lanka or overseas, around at these sites – and they really felt a bit unused and unloved.  This changed as we got to the sites in the southern part of the Cultural Triangle.  There was a definite buzz to Dambulla, and a short but hot climb past the new Japanese-funded Golden Temple took us up and into the old Rock Temple complex.  This was the first site in Sri Lanka that both intrigued and impressed.  A huge temple complex with hundreds of made-to-fit statues tucked into an over-hanging cleft in a cliff is a bit mind-blowing when you read about it – and still more mind-blowing when you get to wander round.  The final cultural episode was to visit the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy.  Our guide recommended that rather than visit this late in the day (as our itinerary suggested) we would have a much better visit early in the day.  I can’t comment on what we would have seen in the afternoon, but we managed (by good co-ordination I’m sure) to get into the Temple just in time for the morning puja, and were expertly navigated, by a local guide, around the various parts of Temple despite the huge number of locals visiting on a Saturday morning.  Huge crowds of people, in a confined space, can be a bit daunting – these crowds were so cheerful and good spirited that the experience was thoroughly uplifting.

The Hill Country Bit
Gregory Lake, Nuwara Eliya
After the heat and the culture we headed a little bit south and up into the Hill Country in the middle of Sri Lanka.  This is the area where you turn off the air-conditioning in the van, where the hotel rooms have extra blankets and electric fires, where the locals wear woolly hats and where your guide asks if you have warm clothes with you.   Our thick high-latitude blood didn’t really register the climate as being cold, but it was nice to be able to wander round in shirt sleeves without dripping sweat, and to get a decent night’s sleep without the background roar of an air-conditioning unit.  We were based in at The Grand Hotel in Nuwara Eliya for a couple of nights, and had a completely untimetabled day.  This gave us the space to wander in the local parks, to talk with the locals and generally just relax.  I think this is the first time we’ve decided to add in a ‘do-nothing’ day on a trip like this, and we’ll certainly do it again.

The Wildlife Bit
Leopard, Yala National Park
After getting de-stressed in the Hills (after all, several days of full-on culture do need a bit of recovery time) we dropped down into the low-lying southern coastal plains to spend four days in three of Sri Lanka’s showcase National Parks – Yala, Bundala and Udawalawe.  These parks were everything we’d hoped for.  They were relatively quiet (particularly Bundala and Udawalawe) and the wildlife did its stuff.  We got positively blasé about the number of kingfishers and bee-eaters that were on display everywhere, and got wonderful opportunities to watch lots of waders particularly in Bundala.   The highlight of the first day in Yala was the large number of elephants around – the elephants are of course always there but we got lucky in being in the right places at the right time.  The star turn that didn’t show up on the first day were the leopards.  Our guides were clearly making leopard spotting the top priority on the second day – and we spent a lot of time touring the areas that the leopards frequent.  We had one fleeting glimpse of a leopard in mid-morning as it headed into the deep undergrowth beside one of the huge tanks (reservoirs) that are at the heart of the public bit of Yala – I was fortunate to swing my binoculars into exactly the right place as the guide shouted ‘leopard’ and got an amazing view of a leopards back beautifully lit by the sun.  Our next view of a leopard was many hours later. One of our guides got a tip-off that a leopard had been seen close to where we had seen the one in the morning, the down-side was that at this point we were about as far from this tank as it was possible to be in Yala.  As we hurtled at breakneck (not literally) speed across the rutted park tracks we spotted other land-rovers heading in the same direction – news of a leopard spreads fast!  We were rewarded by seeing not just one leopard gradually tracking his way round the tank, but encountering another leopard in the faded evening light.  This is what wildlife watching is about.

Days three and four were in Bundala and Udawalawe.  Bundala is a coastal park – which is Wader Central – and a really important wintering place for migrants.  The migrants were just starting to appear in small numbers – our guide kept saying that we should here a little bit later in the year.  For me the highlights were the terns (particularly the Caspian tern, which is huge) and the “tickny”, which our guide got very excited about.  It took us ages to realise he was saying ‘thick-knee’ – the other name for the stone curlew!

Udawalawe is back inland, and was created about 40 years around a new reservoir to ensure that reservoir water feeds couldn’t be disrupted by development activity.  It is often described as being Sri Lanka's answer to the African savannah - it offers lots of elephants plus huge numbers of birds. Early October is the end of the dry season and the birds and animal are all concentrated around the waterholes and the hugely shrunken main lakes. Once the rains get started the water levels in the lake rise by several meters. It’s more than slightly tempting to go back later in the winter to see the transformation.

The Luxury Bit
Closenburg Hotel, Galle
To end our trip we decided to spend a couple of days in Galle (at the Closenberg Hotel) and Colombo (at the Galle Face Hotel).  These were contrasting luxury experiences.  The Closenberg oozes colonial style (and still has four-poster beds and colonial era electrics), and has the feel of a country house hotel overlooking the sea.  The only downside there was that we were the only guests apart from a 50-strong French coach party (watching the end of the Wales-France World Cup semi-final was a slightly tense moment!).  The Galle Face Hotel  (modern 5-star luxury in a fantastic location) was our pick to end the trip – our alternative to the airport hotel originally proposed – this gave is the chance for a late evening walk along the Indian Ocean waterfront on Galle Face Green – amongst hundred (maybe thousands) of locals and a few tourists.  I’d strongly recommend either starting or finishing (or both) a Sri Lankan trip by a day or two looking out over the Indian Ocean.

In some ways Sri Lanka did exactly what it promised to do – there was a really rich mix of culture and wildlife.   On this trip the wildlife did undoubtedly leave the enduring mark. We saw a fantastic collection of bird life (well over 100 species) plus many mammals and reptiles in the parks – particularly the elephants and, of course, the leopards.  The people of Sri Lanka were incredibly welcoming, particularly when we spent time away from the main tourist sites, and were clearly pleased that we were visiting their country.  The biggest revelation on this trip, however, was the food.  I’d somewhat naively assumed that the food was just going to be ‘sort of like south India’.  The Sri Lanka version of ‘rice and curry’ is a fantastic cuisine all of its own, and we also found (to our surprise) that the ‘international’ cuisine offered up everywhere from major hotels right through to little lunchtime restaurant stops was also of an amazingly high standard.  I’m not sure I’ll ever get to the stage of hiring my own cook, but if I do, I’ll start my recruitment in Sri Lanka.

Next time
At the end of every trip I wondered about what we might have done differently.  In some ways a first trip to Sri Lanka needs to include at least some of the cultural places, but if I was re-doing the trip now I’d cut out the few days at the top of the Cultural Triangle, and start around Kandy.  An extra day in Yala would always be good, and on a return visit I’d want to add in the National Park at Sinharaja and I’d try and time things so that whale watching off the south coast was an option!

Wildlife Worldwide put together the itinerary and handed us over to Baurs (a Sri Lankan/Swiss company) to do all the ground handling.  Our local guide was Sunil de Alwis – who did a wonderful job in driving us over 2000 kms and in sharing his knowledge and expertise about the wildlife of the island.  We flew with Sri Lankan Airlines – who have both direct flights, from London to Colombo, and slightly-longer indirect flights that go via the Maldives.  Don’t get too excited if you get on a flight with a Maldivian stop-over – they don’t let you get off the plane, unless you’re actually due to spend time in the Maldives.  Maybe next time.