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Sri Lanka: Where to Begin?

 

“Ayubowan” – may you live long.

With hands in prayer pose and a broad smile, the Sinhalese greeting welcomes you to Sri Lanka’s warmth and hospitality.

Located in the Indian Ocean (southwest of the Bay of Bengal and southeast of the Arabian Sea) Sri Lanka may be a small island, but it’s big on diversity.

From exploring temples, tea and trains in the mountains to surfing, scuba diving and snorkelling on the coast, Sri Lanka is home to magnificent wildlife, extensive national parks, fascinating history, traditional arts, crafts and more.

Sri Lanka has something for everyone, the question is, where to begin?

Sri Lanka. Where to Begin?

 

From the Beginning!

Officially, Sri Lanka’s history begins in 543 BC when 700 people followed Prince Vijaya to Sri Lanka from Bengal, though signs of advanced civilisation date back to 600 BC.

Fast forward a couple of hundred years (250 BC) to the introduction of Buddhism, the practice 70% of the population follow today.

In 245 BC, a sapling from the Bodhi Tree Buddha found enlightenment under was planted in what is now the north-central city of Anuradhapura making it the oldest known human-planted tree in the world.

Also growing in Sri Lanka’s soil, an abundance of cinnamon. Exported globally, Sri Lanka’s cinnamon trade developed close ties with the Roman empire, close enough for Cleopatra to send her son, Caesarion, into hiding in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka’s geographic location, deep harbours, and cinnamon were enticing for South Asian neighbours. Their invasions were thwarted many times.

Not so the Portuguese. In 1505, soldier and explorer, Lourenco de Almeida arrived. In 1517 a Portuguese fort built in Colombo prompted control over Sri Lanka’s coastal areas.

Sri Lanka. Where to Begin?

In 1638, a deal was made with the Dutch East India Company to rid Sri Lanka of the Portuguese. The deal backfired when, in 1656, the victors retained the land they agreed to capture.

Not to be left out, Great Britain took an interest in Sri Lanka fearing French control during the Napoleonic Wars, and secured coastal positions.

1798 saw the death of Sri Lanka’s king and the coronation of his 18-year-old nephew. A few years later in 1803, the British tried their luck seizing Sri Lanka – unsuccessfully.

It wasn’t until 1815 that the British took Kandy and Sri Lanka’s independence.

Successful experimentation with coffee plantations saw beans become Sri Lanka’s top export only to stall through the 1847 depression. By 1869, a leaf disease was detected destroying the entire coffee industry within a fifteen year period.

Enter the humble tea tree. The small island’s tea production is now the fourth largest in the world.

Sri Lanka. Where to Begin?

 

Civil War.

In the early 1900s, Sinhalese and Tamil political leadership united to press Great Britain for democratic reforms.

Independence was proclaimed on February 4th, 1948, but the British Navy remained at Trincomalee until 1956 when S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike was elected prime minister.

Bandaranaike’s introduction of the Sinhalese Only Act, making Sinhalese the official language, posed a threat to the Tamil community’s language and culture. He was assassinated by a radical Buddhist monk in 1959.

By 1976 the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had formed to create an independent state in Sri Lanka’s north and east.

From 1983 followed 26 years of explosive ethnic conflict. Suicide bombings, political assassinations, and approximately 100,000 deaths.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa declared military victory over the LTTE on May 16th, 2009. A decade later and Sri Lanka is one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. 

 

Your Adventure!

Sri Lanka’s commercial capital, Colombo, is the obvious place to begin. All flights arrive at Bandaranaike International Airport and cruise ships at Colombo port.

**Ferries from southern India have ceased and since 2018, Sri Lanka’s second airport in south-west Hambantota only caters to Cinnamon Air, a small-plane taxi service for domestic air travel.

All roads (and rail) lead to Colombo but here’s where it gets tricky. Where do you go from there?

You could head into the mountains in central Sri Lanka. Kandy is the capital of the last king. Inside and around the palace and temple grounds, stupas, pagodas and cultural presentations share Sri Lanka’s history.

On the way, visit Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage or dip your toe into Ayurvedic medicine at Susantha Spice and Herbal Garden

Sri Lanka. Where to Begin?

Climbing higher, tea terraces appear on the steep mountainsides as elevation reaches over 6,000 feet. Temperatures drop with low-level cloud making the winding road an attraction in itself.

Train travel through the mountains is equally spectacular with tracks hugging the mountainside providing views across tea estates, waterfalls, mountain peaks and valleys.

Sri Lanka. Where to Begin?

The quieter east coast’s magnificent beaches lead to surf breaks and reefs perfect for scuba diving, snorkelling, and sailing. Whales and dolphins are prevalent through March to June and August/ September.

Experience serenity on the south-east plains in your own eco-bungalow, surrounded by indigenous fruit, vegetables, herbs and grains. Hidden waterfalls, mountain peaks and small villages are a bike ride away.

Sri Lanka’s second largest national park is on the southeast coast at Yala. This 979 square kilometre parkland is home to elephants, monkeys, water buffalo, wild boar and abundant birdlife. 35 leopards roam the expansive park and may be spotted in their natural habitat on a jeep safari.

South, at Mirissa, you’ll find a booming whale and dolphin watching industry with sightings of the incredible Blue Whale. Generally migratory, these blue whales remain off the coast of Mirissa all year but rough seas prevent whale-watching between May & October.

Sri Lanka. Where to Begin?

Galle, likely the most well known and well visited Sri Lankan town, takes you back in time at Galle Fort. This district was built by the Dutch as their stronghold in the 1600s.

Negombo Beach is a convenient place to chill before heading to Bandaranaike Airport for, what will definitely be, a sad departure.

It’s a decade since the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War and tourism hasn’t developed in the country’s north as it has in the south, west and east.

Jaffna, the Northern Capital, was established as a trading port. Some original temples and palaces remain alongside predominantly colonial architecture from Portuguese occupation.

 

When to go?

Sri Lanka has two monsoon seasons, ‘Yala’ in the west-south-west from April/ May to September, and ‘Maha’ in the east from November to March.

The heaviest rainfall occurs during Yala from April to June and Maha from November to December.

Take the monsoon seasons seriously. Wind and rain can cause major delays for road and train travel.

 

Here’s the thing…

With the diverse regions and variety of experiences, planning your Sri Lanka adventure may be overwhelming.  There are those who love creating an independent journey, and those who might consider Jetwing Travels a life saver.

Since 1981, Jetwing Travels, in conjunction with Jetwing Hotels, have been preparing visitor’s itineraries. With 33 hotels on the island and 38 years of experience, Jetwing Travels work your itinerary around your time, the season and your preferred activities.

Sri Lanka. Where to Begin?

Offering transport, informative guides, tickets to attractions and hotel reservations as a complete package, Jetwing Travels takes the uncertainty and, let’s face it, the hassle out of planning your trip.

Itinerary examples are prepared and discussed prior to confirmation and information is supplied for each suggested location. Tailoring your itinerary to suit your needs is the ultimate goal.

For first-time Sri Lanka travellers, Jetwing Travels is definitely worth considering. From our experience, we can highly recommend Sanjeewa. He did his utmost to ensure we saw as much of Sri Lanka as time allowed. With some email discussion, we ended up with an excellent itinerary.

Duminda (our guide/ driver) shared his extensive knowledge of Sri Lanka’s history, politics and culture, ensuring we were far better informed than had we been left to our own devices.

His years of experience with Jetwing Travels meant we avoided scams, took shortcuts to avoid traffic congestion and he introduced us to scrumptious snacks from the roadside.

Sri Lanka. Where to Begin?

There’s a risk when planning to spend 10 days with someone you’ve never met before, but thankfully in our case, Duminda has become part of our extended family.

 

What’s next?

Over the next few weeks, we’ll publish a series of articles from our Sri Lankan road trip. From arriving in the capital to spending time in the mountains, southern plains and coast, we’ll share our journey. We hope you’ll come for the ride.

Sri Lanka. Where to Begin?

Our first port of call will be Colombo, Sri Lanka’s commercial capital.

The National Museum, Independence Square, Colombo Waterfront and Pettah Market, all contribute to understanding Sri Lanka’s history and culture. Temples, mosques and monuments portray Sri Lanka’s mix of faiths.

Before arriving in Colombo, here are a few things to know before you go!

 

Visas.

Singapore, the Maldives and Seychelles Nationals are exempt from requiring a Sri Lankan visa (as are Flight crew, ship crew and children under 12). All other nationalities require a visa.

The online application is swift. The site recommends allowing 3 days turn around but our visas were approved on payment. It’ll cost US$35 per person for a 30-day double entry tourist visa.

Visa on arrival is available (US$50) but the online process is cost effective, time efficient and simple.

 

Currency.

Sri Lankan Rupees and US Dollars are accepted forms of payment.

The approximate exchange for Rs 100 = AUD 0.80/ USD 0.56/ EUR 0.50.

 

Tipping.

The average annual household income in Sri Lanka (updated April 2018) is USD 1,385.43 so tipping is appreciated. Rs 100 to 200 for bell boys and Rs 1,000 – 1,500 per day for a guide/ driver is acceptable.

 

Electricity.

Sri Lanka. Where to Begin?

 

Duty-Free.

Wine shops are dotted around the country selling local beer and spirits but you may prefer to BYO.

Your allowance is 1.5L of alcohol per person or 1L of spirits and 1 bottle of wine. Two people can combine and bring in 3L of spirits.

 

Getting around.

Distances can be deceiving. Few highways exist, though this is changing, single lane roads are what you’ll be taking for now. Although the road quality is pretty good, they weave and wind and the number of tuk-tuks make for slow going.

Your Über app works in Sri Lanka for private cars, taxis and tuk-tuks.

Trains are inexpensive and plentiful. From Colombo, Kandy can be reached in 3 hours, Nuwara Eliya in a bit over 6, Ella in just under 9 and to reach Galle on the coast it’s just 2 hours.

Sri Lanka. Where to Begin?

 

Questions?

Now you have an overview of Sri Lanka’s weather, terrain, attractions and history, and you’re prepped with visas, plugs and currency. If there’s anything else you need to know, please ask me in the comments. I’m happy to share any information I may have missed.

Next time we meet…..we’ll be in Colombo! It’s a place we love….

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Sri Lanka. Where to Begin?

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