Sri Lanka’s largest city retains influences of east and west, past and present. It is Sri Lanka’s main seaport and the market at Pettah remains an important trading area. Slave Island and Independence Square are worth a visit together with some of the Buddhist and Hindu temples. It is said that in colonial times if you spent enough time in the foyer at the Grand Oriental hotel you would sooner or later meet everyone that you could ever possibly need to know.
In the hour before sunset many residents wander down towards Galle Face Green to fly kites, play cricket and paddle in the Indian Ocean.
Anuradhapura was the capital of the island from the 6th century BC to the 10th century AD. The ancient part of the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is dotted with Buddhist shrines, handsome dagobas, ruins with fine stone carvings, gardens, ponds and an excellent irrigation system of reservoirs and canals. Anuradhapura is home to the much venerated Sri Maha Bodhi tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. Travellers staying in the modern part of town can hire bikes to explore the area. Anuradhapura is an excellent base from which to visit Sigiriya, Dambulla and Polonnaruwa.
The largest and best-preserved cave temple complex of Sri Lanka dates back to the 1st century BC. It was first used by King Valagam Bahu who took refuge here following an invasion by rival powers. On regaining his throne he commissioned magnificent carved images to be built within the rock. Later kings made further improvements and the five caves here contain over one hundred and fifty images of the Buddha of which the largest is a colossal figure spanning fifteen meters. Well worth a visit.
The Sigiriya rock fortress is located in the central Matale District of Sri Lanka, surrounded by the remains of an extensive network of gardens and reservoirs. It is a tough walk to the top so you need to be reasonably fit (NB. vertigo sufferers may find it too daunting) but the frescos are interesting and the views are impressive. The Sigiraya was built during the reign of King Kassapa I in the 5th century, and it is one of the seven World Heritage Sites of Sri Lanka.
Polonnarruwa became the capital in the 11th century under King Vijaya Bahu but it was Parakramabahu the Great (died 1186) who constructed thousands of reservoirs and irrigation canals. He devised the Parakrama Samudra (Sea of Parakrama) as a vast man-made lake which he linked to other fortified reservoirs to circle the main city like a ribbon. This served to provide water and to defend the city against invaders. The lake continues to irrigate some forty-five square miles of paddy fields.
The royal city of Kandy is one of the most scenic cities in Sri Lanka, set in a valley of tea plantations. The people of Kandy take considerable pride in the city which forms the southernmost tip of the Cultural Triangle. Neither the Portuguese nor the Dutch were able to capture the city but it finally succumbed to the British in 1815. The Temple of the Tooth, Sri Dalada Maligawa, is a hugely important shrine and place of pilgrimage as it houses the important tooth relic of Buddha. The tooth itself is encased in seven gold caskets decorated with precious gemstones. The golden canopy which covers the shrine was built in 1987. The complex includes the Royal Palace and the Temple Museum which contains a stuffed elephant, Raja, which used to take part in the important annual parade (Kandy Esala Perahera). The festival takes place over ten days each July/August and includes dancers, musicians, acrobats and fire-eaters.
Nuwara Eliya is the highest town in Sri Lanka at 1,868 m (6,128 ft) and is surrounded by lush tea plantations. It is a pretty little place with a cool climate and unpredictable weather which became popular with British colonists in the 19th century who would come here for a spot of hunting (foxes, deer and elephants) and fishing, golf, polo and, of course, cricket. They have left their legacy with country houses in the Tudor-style with half-timbering and beautiful gardens, Gregory Lake and Victoria Park. Today Nuwara Eliya has a population of 27,500 and is known as “Little England”. It is worth spending a couple of nights here to explore Nuwara Eliya properly and to visit the Horton Plains.
With waterfalls and wildlife, ice-cold streams, marshland trails and dramatic views a visit to Horton Plains is highly recommended but it requires a pre-dawn start before the weather sets in and shrouds the area in fog. At ‘Worlds End’ the plateau plunges almost 1000m in a sheer drop. Butterflies and birdlife, rare lizards, hares, deer, monkeys, giant squirrels and wild boars are amongst the wildlife here.
Galle is the finest example of a fortress city built by Europeans in the whole of South-East Asia. There had been settlements here long before the arrival of the Portuguese in 1588. It is believed to be the Tarshish of the Old Testament, appeared in Ptolomy’s Geographia in the 2nd century AD and was mentioned by the 6th Century Byzantine geographer Cosmas Indicopleustes. The Portuguese built embankments and bastions which the Dutch greatly expanded upon after they captured it in 1640. The fort of Galle was handed over to the English on 23 February 1796, one week after the surrender of Colombo. The city retains considerable colonial charm.
The delightful sandy beach of Mirissa was once a well-kept secret, but has become more popular in recent years. Mirissa has a safe, palm-fringed beach. Off the coast of Mirissa, Blue Whales, bottlenose Dolphins, Sperm Whales and Humpbacks can often be seen during the whale-watching season, best between December and March. The beaches at Mount Lavinia, Wadduwa, Kalutara, Bentota, Hikkaduwa and Unawatuna along the coast between Galle and Negombo are quite appealing and offer accommodation to suit every budget from back-packer hostals to large all-inclusive resorts to small, sophisticated boutique hotels. We will be happy to discuss what is best for you.
Ella is surrounded by hills covered with cloud forests and tea plantations and wonderful views across the southern plains of Sri Lanka. This is one of Sri Lanka’s prime hiking destinations and a great place to unwind for a few days. A short hike to Little Adam’s Peak (1141m) will take only a couple of hours. The best weather is early morning when the skies are clear and the morning air is fresh and cool. To climb to the 7,329 ft (2234m) summit of Adam’s Peak itself is altogether another matter. The goal is to be on top of the mountain at sunrise. Climbing at night is an unusual experience and is best between December to May. During other months it is unadvisable due to heavy rains, extreme winds, and thick mist.
Jaffna is the principal city in the northern province and is an interesting combination of historic power, colonial legacy and strong Tamil and Hindu influence. While the centre and east of Sri Lanka were ruled by the Kingdom of Kandy and the south and west by the Kingdom of Kotte, the north was ruled by the Jaffna Kingdom which thrived from 1215 until 1624. With the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century, Jaffna came under Portuguese control and was then in the hands of the Dutch East India Company (1640-1796) until ousted by the British until independence in 1948. During the Sri Lankan Civil War (1983-2009) many Tamils emigrated or were displaced and Jaffna was out of bounds and isolated.
Yala National Park is Sri Lanka’s most famous National Park and with good reason. Yala hosts a variety of ecosystems ranging from moist monsoon forests to freshwater and marine wetlands. Although many come in the hope of glimpsing a leopard (if you do, regard it as a bonus), Yala offers herds of wild elephant and buffalo, boar, pythons, innumerable birds, bears, jackals, iridescent peacocks, plenty of birdlife and more. Keep your eyes peeled, binoculars handy and a camera at the ready. Nearby is Bundala National Park, an area of wetlands, lagoons and mud flats which host an abundance of migratory birds during the period from August to April. The park is home to spotted deer, pangolin and grey langur monkey.
Delft Island is a small coral and limestone island with clear waters, baobab trees, no cars, a 1000-year-old temple built by the Chola Dynasty, the ruins of a Dutch Fort and wild horses descended from those left by the Portuguese over 400 years ago. There are two ferry services per day, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon and the journey takes about an hour. The best way to get about the island is by bike or on the back of a tractor.
Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage
Pinnawela was founded in 1975 to nurture orphaned calves, treat the feeble and rehabilitate the injured. The twenty-three acre site has a refreshments area, a couple of stalls selling snacks and cold water, some management buildings (e.g. sleeping sheds and veterinary facilities) but little other infrastructure.
The animals are taken down to the Maha Oya river, around five hundred metres away, twice a day for a two hour bathing session. This walk takes them down the main street of the town which is lined with gift shops, stalls, restaurants and other tourist facilities. During the bathing sessions tourists can watch the animals playing in the river and being washed by their keepers.
Between bathing sessions the animals are left to graze at the main site whilst tourists can watch from a distance. At this time the baby elephants are brought to a feeding shed where they are given milk from bottles. Tourists themselves can pay to do this.
Trainers invite visitors to hose down the elephants and touch the animals both at the main site and at the river. They expect a tip in return.
Note: Originally the plan was to breed elephants and re-introduce them to the wild but whilst the breeding programme has been a success, none have been reintroduced. Instead, once an elephant reaches maturity, it is either sold, donated or retained for breeding. There is some concern that the elephants from Pinnawela are being sold or donated to temples, private owners or to organisations with a poor record of animal welfare. Indeed, there are question marks over the care and treatment of animals at Pinnawela itself. The elephants are not kept permanently chained, but it is often possible to see individual animals chained, often in distressing circumstances.
The Born Free Foundation has concerns about the facility at Pinnewala. In their 2010 report they describe Pinnawela as “much better than many captive elephant facilities in Asia, including for instance Sri Lanka’s Colombo Zoo with its elephant show.” But the report criticizes the site as a ‘sanctuary’, stating that it should be putting the welfare and care of the animals as its highest priority. They suggest that the way Pinnawela operates appears to be for the convenience of the management, or for the benefit of tourists, the local tourist industry and for the captive animal industry. The Born Free Foundation therefore discourages tourists from “visiting the facility and supporting its practices until they are appropriate to its self-proclaimed sanctuary status”.
Sri Lanka Revealed has chosen to mention the concerns of the Born Free Foundation so travellers can make their own decision on whether to visit.