17.07.2013 - 26.08.2013 30 °C
Over the last 5 months we have visited most of Sri Lanka at a leisurely pace. With "the kids" coming for their summer vacation, we put together a 1 month, best-of tour. It was over in a blink. As they discovered the many facets of Sri Lanka, we enjoyed returning to our favorite places, seeing familiar faces and the wide smiles when people recognized us. Everything seemed the same yet different.
The heat was much more tolerable than the stifling hot and humid weather we endured the previous months. Retracing our steps down the west coast we were shocked to see that the wide sandy beaches we had strolled on in March had been swallowed by the ocean and sandbags now provided a figurative barrier between the crashing waves and the hotel terraces. The turbulent sea reflected thick heavy clouds as they passed over stopping briefly to unload buckets of water before rebuilding their loads. Yet most days were beautiful and there were few tourists. Many of the guesthouses and restos were closed, hastily renovating or expanding to meet the increasing demand. Come November, the sea will have retreated and with Lonely Planet's label as destination of 2013, as well as several recent TV features, resorts like Bentota, Hikkaduwa, Unawatuna and Tengalle will be throbbing at capacity.
Aching to see leopards, we returned to several national parks and this time Yala National Park, did not disappoint. However, as it was now high season in this part of the country, there were dozens of jeeps jostling for position when one was spotted. We were not as lucky as those just a few yards ahead of us, and for an unbearably long time we had to endure watching the joy on their faces as they wielded their cameras in front of the spectacle. Our driver did his best to inch into view and at one point someone motioned to me to stand on the roof of the jeep. As I clambered up searching over the vehicle in front of me, a leopard nonchalantly strolled across a clearing about 30 feet away! I was unable to capture the moment and unfortunately my jeep-mates only caught body parts, but four safaris later we were elated to have seen a leopard.
Elephants on the other hand are plentiful throughout the country and we saw them doing everything from crossing busy roads, bathing in rivers and lakes, devouring leafy greens, carrying heavy loads and marching in processions elaborately dressed.
We headed back to Ella, our favorite hiking base in the Hill country with hands-down the best laundry service on the island, great coffee and all the western food one could crave: These things begin to matter after 5 months! The area offers easy hiking through rolling hills blanketed with a patchwork of tea plantations. Trains putter through the countryside dotted with waterfalls in strict contrast with the seascapes of the coast.
From a town called Haputale, the 4 of us squeezed into a 3-wheeler winding along a narrow road up to the estate once owned by Sir Thomas Lipton. At the pinnacle, appropriately named Lipton's Seat, is a breathtaking 360° view which was, to our dismay, completely socked in. But as we sipped a cup of namesake tea, a strong wind gingerly pushed away the dense fog ever-so-slowly revealing a good part of the majestic view.
Next up were the beaches of Passikudah and Kalkudah on the east coast where the season is in full swing. Although much busier now, we were still practically alone swimming in the clear waters of Kalkudah beach. It's obvious though that this will not last for long as all the virgin land has been sold and properties are sprouting like weeds in a garden.
We returned to Sigiriya and Pidurungala to walk where monks once scaled sheer blazing rock, without modern-day stairs and hand-railings, to admire the expansive vistas as we reflected on the willpower and determination required to lead a life of meditation and self-discipline in such austere conditions. We rode bicycles around the ruins of the ancient cities of Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura and revisited the large lying Buddhas of Dambulla Rock Temple.
Perhaps the only area left in Sri Lanka that doesn't require advanced booking during the high season is Jaffna in the north. Bastion of the Tamil, Hindu culture, the area was the headquarters of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelan) during the war and was severely damaged including the railroad which was completely annihilated. The wounds are still open as attests the sole military checkpoint we encountered in the country, but rebuilding is in full-swing. The landscape is flat and arid making it ideal to visit by bicycle. Sights include the Dutch fort and several elaborate Hindu and Buddhist temples both on the mainland and surrounding islands which are reached by questionably sea-worthy vessels, reeking of petrol. The boats are packed with devotees carrying offerings for their respective gods and we are welcomed aboard with the usual, "What is your country? What is your name? Where are you going?"
We board another one of several buses to spend few days on what we consider one of the nicest beaches in Sri Lanka, Nilaveli, just outside of Trincomalee. It's high season now and lodging is limited and overpriced compared to our previous visit, but the soft sand and clear blue sea are delightful for swimming. We pack a picnic and motor out to Pigeon Island once again for a day of great snorkeling.
Sri Lanka's largest and most important Buddhist festival is the annual Esala Perahera in Kandy honoring the (Buddha's) sacred tooth relic, preciously guarded in a gold reliquary within the Temple of the Sacred Tooth. For 10 days, actually nights, participating temples parade dancers, drummers, and glittering elephants through the streets. People flock from around the country in growing numbers as the festival reaches its climax on the full moon. Some pay for the wood grandstand seats, others pay more for chairs dubiously set-up on balconies, but most just claim an inch of pavement with a piece of plastic and sit on the street all day waiting for the evening's festivities to begin. A few hours before the festivities, around the temple grounds, elaborate preparations are in motion. Elephants are bathed, fed, dressed and their costume lights tested, dancers don their costumes, and buckets of coconut shells are gathered for the torches that accompany the entire procession. At nightfall, we watch the 2 hour procession from our hotel balcony (booked months in advance). What a privileged view!
At the same time, another major festival is taking place in Kataragama, a sleepy town in the southeast part of the country that springs to life when thousands of (primarily Hindu) pilgrims end their 45 day trek from Jaffna in the north. Here devotees perform acts of sacrifice and self-mutilation to endear themselves to the gods. The festivities end with a symbolic "water cutting" ceremony in the hopes of bringing bountiful rain to the area.
With just a few days left before we leave the country, we decide to head back to Hikkaduwa, the beach resort where we started our trip 6 months ago for a very special reason. In 2004, we had planned to spend the winter holiday here but opted for New York instead at the request of a family member who adores everything Christmas in NY conjures. On December 26th, we watched the horror of the Tsunami on TV including images from Hikkaduwa! Last year as we prepared our trip, it seemed logical that we should start our travels here.
The monsoon waters are slowly receding and while many guesthouses, restaurants and shops are still closed, a few of our favorite places are open and the weather is beautiful. It's the perfect place to end this first leg of a very, very long journey.