From July 18 to Aug 2, I traveled to Sri Lanka with my 12-year-old son and another family with a 11-year-old girl. We had many memorable moments during the two-week trip. Many friends warned me of heat at this time of the year, but that turn out to be not an issue at all.
As always, I did my own trip planning and didn't use any travel agencies. One of the best decisions was to use a hired van and driver, which released ourselves from long driving which can be hectic at times and provided all the convenience when transferring from place to place.
The route starts from Negambo upon a late arrival from Hong Kong, follows the yellow line in the directions of the arrows and ends in Colombo, the capital. Each red spot is an overnight location with numbers in circles indicating nights spent. It proves a reasonable plan with an opportunity to form good impressions of different regions and aspects of the country without having to rush too much. It also leaves time for the teens to have their own fun. Below is the detailed itinerary:
Day 1: Arriving in Bandaranaike International Airport at around 23:00. Custom clearance was simple and fast with visas previously obtained on-line. Stay overnight in Negambo at Gateway Hotel Airport Garden by Taj, about 15 minutes drive from the airport, simple and convenient.
Day 2: Early morning trip to the local fish market, leaving hotel at around 5:00am. Because it was a Sunday, we didn't see the big ship activities but the small retail market was still interesting and lively. First time to see huge manta rays spreading on the ground. At 10:00am, met with van driver, the young and energetic Chathuranga and took off for Anuradhapura. Chathu turned out to be kind, honest and reliable, who knows a bit of Chinese and prays every time passing by a street-side temple or a bodhi tree (firstname.lastname@example.org, +94772666614, WeChat ID: chathuchathu. His website will be available at www.ceylonlotus.com from November 2015). Arrived in Anuradhapura mid afternoon and went for Mihintale on the hill for a few hours until after the splendid sunset. One is required to remove shoes at all religious monuments (same at Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Dumbula, etc) and the ground can be heated up to be very uncomfortable to step on bare-footed. Either go during early or late hours of a day or bring a pair of sock along. Overnight at Montana Rest Apartment, a quiet and simple guest house near the Sacred City of Anuradhapura.
Day 3: Anuradhapura. Lots of fine monuments to see. For me, the most interesting is activities at the monastery and the temples -to be among the crowds of devout, white-robed pilgrims holding lotus flowers and to sense how faith is deeply in the everyday life of Sri Lankans from the young to the old. Bike riding was not only the most efficient way exploring the place but also a great fun for the teens. They were especially fascinated by the red color of the soil they rode over. I was also able to make convenient stops to take photos of people along the way.
Day 4: Polonaruwa and Sigiriya, overnight at Cinnamon Lodge in Habarana. If one visits Anuradhapura for not just ruins from an ancient capital but religious activities still lively going on, Polonaruwa then is visited as a true ruin with beautiful statues and rock carvings much better preserved. We did bike riding again. Since we seemed to spend more time at each site of interest, we hired guides at both Anuradhapura and Polonaruwa so as to move around faster between sites. Kids started to ask "how many more ANCIENT temples to see" with a frown half way through Polonaruwa. Luckily, they kept happy companions to each other and could always find one or more very friendly dogs to play with when we adult marveled at a Buddha statue or an exquisite sculpture of lovers. Sigiriya is a site to save for sunset time. Hiking up was not as strenuous as expected, cave paintings midway up were beautiful and the view from the top was breathtaking. For accommodation, I recommend Cinnamon Lodge with no hesitation for family travelers. It is an oasis one simply doesn't want to leave.
Day 5: Sunrise safari at Minneriya National Park, Dambulla, and arriving in Kandy. Minneriya National Park was supposed to be the best park to visit during this time of the year, but our safari was not very eventful with just a few elephants to be seen around the tank. It might be a bit too early for the famous "Gathering" when hundreds of wild elephants came for water. The bumpy ride in a four-wheel drive during their first safari however was an excitement for kids, but the game viewing experience became much better at Uda Walawe later in the trip. After a long morning break at Cinnamon Lodge, we headed for the Gold Temple of Dambulla - simply beautiful with very well preserved mural painting and statues. One interested in religious art should definitely not miss this site. Arrival in Kandy was after dark and settling into the superb Baramba House was such a delight.
Day 6: Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage in the morning and Temple of the Tooth around 6pm when the monks conduct daily ritual worship in the inner chamber. Pinnawala was interesting although it was a bit like a zoo, but nothing is wrong with a zoo. Elephants are bathed in the river at fixed schedule each day and it was exciting to have many of them parading by you along the street lined with souvenir shops. Kids picked up notebooks made of elephant poo paper as gifts to their friends back home. I missed Temple of the Tooth because my son started to develop a fever during the day and the kids had really enough of temples by this time, so I stayed with them at the guest house to enjoy a quiet evening by the pool. Our hostess, Barbara, cooked us a wonderful dinner with fresh ingredients she picked up from the local market in the morning. The breakfast at Baramba was the best I had ever had at any guest houses in all my past travels.
Day 7 - Day 9: Tea country. It was not easy to decide on a base to explore the area, because there are many. With preference of a smaller, quieter place to relax for a few easy days, I decided for Clove Tree House homestay in the middle of tea plantations near Bandarawela and Ella. Left Kandy in the morning toward Nuwara Eliya to take the famous picturesque train ride through tea hills. It was getting chilly now going up to the hills. Highlight of these days: (1) train ride definitely to relive the old time; (2) AMBA Tea Estate just next to guest house to learn about organic tree production and taste the fine teas;(3) Lipton's Seat at sunrise and sunset to take in the breathtaking 360-degree view of the tea country; and (4) simply walking or driving around, passing by creeks, natural pools, village temples, schools, etc. or spending lazy afternoons at the guest house writing journals, playing badminton or reading. I stayed quite a lot at the guest house with my son who still had fever. Clove Tree House homestay is a wonderful place to recommend without reservation. The staff cook took very good care of us, especially my son, who continued to have fever and a sore throat. We had the experience of visiting a local doctor with the manager of Clove Tree. It was such a relief when the doctor, sitting in a shabby, dark room in a road-side building enveloped in dust and noise, eliminated the possibility of malaria on the spot! Driving can take a long time here, even though the indicated distance appears not too far, so I would suggest minimize hopping between places and choose to stay close to what is most interesting to you.
Day 10: Late afternoon safari in Uda Walawe National Park was a highlight - the closest to a safari experience in Africa. Although the variety of games are much less, the display of countless elephants, big and small, roaming on open plain in the amber light of sunset was as magnificent and awe inspiring. The power of grandness in the wilderness and its natural inhabitants reminded man of his own insignificance and vulnerability. The best thing to do is to be a quiet observer, not an arrogant intruder. Teens enjoyed the four-wheel drive very much. We stayed at Kalu's Hideaway for its closeness and good TripAdvisor rating among the very limited supply of good hotels in the area. It was not as spotless as other places we stayed. Mind the mosquitoes.
Day 11-12: Marissa: Beautiful and relaxing beach days around Marissa, taking Villa Atulya at Ocean's Edge as our base. It's a beautiful Sri Lankan style villa on the ocean front decorated with art and crafts collected from all over the country. The stretch of beach here is hidden from tourist destinations and therefore very private but a short drive will take you to fish market and restaurants in Weligama for delicious seafood at a fraction of price one pays at home. The cook at the villa offered to cook the fish and prawns we bought from the local market. That was an awesome dinner by the pool in the evening breeze. What I enjoyed the most in Marissa was early morning and late evening strolls along the water to see the marvelous change of colors in the sky over the Indian ocean - the tenderest sunrise and sunset I could recall. During the two days, we also visited stilt fishermen who now put on show the ancient fishing scenes for tourist money. I myself liked it because it created nostalgic moments that still touched my heart with a history relived. At this season, southern and western beaches are not the best for swimming due to often sudden, dangerous big waves but still there are patches of safe swimming beaches around. Kids were having fun on the sand trying to catch hermit crabs, building canals and collecting sea shells and dead corals. A trip to Handunugoda Tea Estate in nearby hills is worthwhile, to taste its signature Virgin White Tea and to pick up a copy of the book Plantation Raj, written by its legendary owner Malinga Herman Gunaratne, who gave a vivid and personal account on history of tea industry in Sri Lanka.
Day 13: Galle. A picturesque world-heritage town is worth an overnight stay to give oneself enough time to stroll the city wall and to just sit together with the locals at the Fort waiting for sunset. Many gem shops dotted the old town and we got to know the owner of one, who claimed to be a gem professor and persuaded us on the street to visit his shop for a lesson. After fixing us the best ginger milk tea with cookies, he opened a box with many types of gem stones and told us tricks to identify real or fake saffires. He presented signature books with nice words left by numerous people from around the world, which came across as genuine. In the end, my friend did buy a piece of saffire from him. I took the early morning time to take photos around the town and was invited inside homes for friendly chats. One lady asked me from the door of her home "why you Chinese like taking photos so much?" I had to laugh and said "perhaps to keep a memory alive longer". Then she took me to her living room and showed me a photo of her extended family on the wall - a colorful, happy and proud family of three generations. We stayed at Tamarind Hill, a 250-year old mansion beautifully restored. It's located outside the town and the services were not as good as expected. Next time I would choose a more cozy place inside the old town to stay.
Day 14: Colombo. It was full moon day therefore a holiday when we arrived in the capital. The best way to spend the late afternoon and evening is to be with the locals on Galle Face - a long stretch of water front lined with food vendors and full of families and groups coming together to have fun. The most memorable of our time during our last day in Sri Lanka was the visit to our driver's home, which his parents built in 1980s. Chathu was so kind to invite us to dinner with him parents in Negombo before our flight back to China. His father is a former Navy officer who runs a book shop now. He still has an old style, heavy paper cutter to make notebooks for pupils. Chathu asked his capable friend to cook so many delicious dishes and he himself also did a Chinese-style stir fry of vegetables. Chathu's uncle and his wife also came and stayed in the house briefly, but they all insisted not to join us on the dining table. The gentle and a bit shy hospitality made us very much at home.
Travelling in Sri Lanka is easy and rewarding, with so many things to see and to do within manageable distances. On the island, history, nature, religion and charm of people come together to make one's experience unique, rich and unforgettable. It is one such destination that is not yet swamped by crowds of tourists and should be considered on a true traveler's agenda as soon as possible.