Sri Lanka can be considered a small miracle partly due to the slight physical difference of this pearl-shaped island – however, this diversity extends virtually to every aspect of life. Fringed by variously-shaped sublime beaches, the island possesses a coastal plain boasting a host of geographic features such as lagoons, wetlands, rivers and various types of the wildlife-rich jungle. The open ends in the central area, where it starts ascending into mist-shrouded mountains, covered in forests of wind-stunted trees, plains known as patinas, and rolling tea plantations. Also, the hillsides are invariably punctuated by dramatic waterfalls.
Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural society where foreign immigrants mix with indigenous people, the Veddas, clans of traditional hunter-gatherers.
The main ethnic groups are the Sinhalese and Tamils, both from the Indian subcontinent. Then there are Muslims, Malays, Chinese, Portuguese, Kaffirs from Africa, Dutch, an assortment of European traders, the Burghers, the Chetties from South India and so on.
Whatever their situation in society, the people of Sri Lanka possess a warm and friendly nature reflected in persistent smiling faces and eagerness to help and invite people to their homes, however modest they may be.
Sri Lanka’s ancient civilisation endows the island with a legacy of colourful festivals relating to the Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian religions. Every full moon day is a public holiday known as poya. The most important one is in May – Vesak Poya – marking the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and Pariniwana (passing away). Worth seeing on this occasion is the illuminated pandals (bamboo frameworks), hung with pictures depicting events in the life of the Buddha.
Sri Lanka’s most tourist-oriented festival is the Kandy Esala Perahera, held in Kandy over ten days in late July to early August and climaxing on Esala Poya. Perahera means “procession”, and that’s precisely what occurs nightly – a magical passing-by of drummers, dancers, whip-crackers, acrobats and robed elephants, while a caparisoned tusker carries the reason for the festival, the sacred tooth relic of the Buddha for the people to worship.
Hindu festivals include Vel, held in Colombo in July, in which God Skanda’s silver-plated chariot and vel (spear) are paraded across the city, and the Kataragama Festival in the deep south, also connected with Skanda.
Sri Lanka has always been a place that refreshes not only the mind and body but also the soul and spirit. For thousands of years, the most popular method used to restore and rejuvenate tired bodies and weary souls has been Ayurveda – the oldest and most holistic medical system available in the world. Sri Lanka has been a centre of spiritual and physical healing for 3,000 years. Ayurvedic programmes consist of a range of herbal treatments and various types of baths and massages, together with cleansing and revitalisation techniques such as yoga, meditation and special diets.
Sinharaja is Sri Lanka’s last surviving stretch of virgin rainforest and a haven for an abundance of tropical birds: trekking through this bewildering land of exotic colours and beautiful sounds is an incredible experience. 34 out of the 36 species endemic to Sri Lanka are found here, including the Serendib Scops Owl and Red-Faced Malkoha. SINHARAJA RAIN FOREST was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988.
The need to preserve the environment is deeply rooted in the Sri Lankan society, as in 3rd century BC a Buddhist monarch set the world’s first wildlife sanctuary. Today, this tradition continues with 13% of Sri Lanka conserved as national parks, reserves, sanctuaries and jungle corridors.
Sri Lanka possesses a high degree of biodiversity. Conservation International has identified it as one of 34 world biodiversity hot spots rich in endemic species. Also, The Sinharaja Forest Reserve, the country’s last viable area of primary tropical rainforest has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A safari in one of the 14 national parks offers the chance to see some of Sri Lanka’s 91 mammals (16 endemics) – Elephants, leopards, sloth bears, sambhurs, spotted deers, hogs, mouse- and barking-deers, wild boars, porcupines, ant-eaters, civet cats, giant squirrels, and monkeys, over 233 resident species (33 endemics) and numerous amphibians.
With over 1,600 km of coast, Sri Lanka is an ideal location for wind-surfing, water-skiing, surfing, sailing, scuba-diving, wreck-diving, snorkelling, speed-boating and banana-boating. Prime water-sports sites located in the Negombo region on the west coast, plus Wadduwa, Kalutara and Beruwela on the south-western coast, and Bentota, Hikkaduwa, Galle, Unawatuna, Koggala, Tangalle and Hambantota on the southern and south-eastern shores.
Sri Lanka boasts over 100 hundred rivers, together with lagoons and so-called “tank” (irrigation lakes), so there are plentiful opportunities for year-round kayaking and canoeing, possibly combined with a camping trip. Two popular locations from this viewpoint are the Kalu Ganga and the Kelani Ganga rivers.
The Kelani Ganga near Kitulgala has fast headwaters and rapids ideal for white-water rafting (from November to April only), with names such as Virgin’s Breast, Head Chopper, Killer Fall, Rib Cage and Slot and Drop.
The varied landscape, wildlife, and archaeological sites offer excellent opportunities for trekking and hiking in the Sinharaja rainforest, the cloud-forests of Horton Plains, the Knuckles (mountain range), and Hakgala Strict Natural Reserve.
Finally, you can also try paragliding, rock climbing, cave trekking and mountain biking.
Sri Lanka has a varied choice of accommodation options. Colombo features not only a host of modern five-star hotels but also iconic colonial-era hotels characterised by the charm and romance of a bygone era. The island is generally blessed with impressive hotels usually situated in stunning settings.
The coastal areas, especially on the west and south, have many boutique and resort hotels, where package tourists mostly stay. Several are designed by Geoffrey Bawa, one of the 20th-century’s leading Asian architects, whose vision encompasses a style referred to as “tropical modernism” where modern shapes are beautifully softened and enriched by traditional influences and surrounding landscapes.
Hill country towns such as Kandy, Nuwara Eliya and Bandarawela feature colonial-era hotels, while people willing to indulge in adventure sports can choose beautifully converted colonial homes, tea and rubber plantation buildings, jungle cabins, tree-houses and eco-lodges as well as campsites.
The cultivation of many types of rice, spices, vegetables and fruit, together with past foreign influences, ensures that Sri Lanka enjoys a varied and high-quality cuisine. Basically, rice is consumed with an assortment of colourful curries (eggplant, potato, green banana, chicken, fish) that range from delicately-spiced to near-dynamite.
Other Sri Lankan staples include hoppers (a pancake-like snack), string hoppers (steamed rice noodles) and Pittu (a mixture of flour and coconut). Lamprais – rice and accompaniments baked in plantain leaves – is a legacy of the Dutch colonists. Seafood lovers will rejoice at the fresh fish, prawns, crab, squid and crayfish available. Desserts include buffalo curd eaten with palm-honey and the Malay-derived caramel-like Wattalapam.
Sri Lanka has a wonderful array of snacks, known as short eats, like cutlets, patties, Malu pang (fish bun), and Kimbula Bunis (crocodile-shaped bun) that are excellent for trips. Delectable fruit includes the popular mango, pineapple, banana and papaya, but also many lesser-known but notable examples such as sapodilla, mangosteen, Rambutan, wood apple, custard apple and Beli.
Shopping in Sri Lanka can take on many forms: haggling with a handicraft-seller while sunbathing on the beach; choosing fruit from the traditional village store, the kadé; or checking out the bargain-priced latest international fashions (Sri Lanka is a major garment exporter) while enjoying the atmosphere of a luxurious shopping centre in Colombo. Furthermore, we advise you visit a handicraft shop and familiarise yourself with traditional designs such as Makara (a mythical animal, lion, swan, elephant and lotus) depicted on brasswork (boxes, trays, lanterns, vases) and silverware (ornately carved and filigree jewellery, tea-sets) that make excellent souvenirs. Also, ritual masks, lacquerware, batik and textiles, lace, and wood carvings are popular.
Last but not least, Sri Lanka has the most extensive variety of precious stones among the world’s gem producing countries – blue sapphires, star sapphires, rubies, cat’s eye, garnets, moonstones, aquamarines and topazes being just a dazzling handful.