Journey to Sri Lanka
Story & photos by Rumit Mehta
Ask yourself: Where does a travel pro with limited time decide to spend his precious vacation? For me, the choice was clear: Sri Lanka, a tiny island nation that corners the market on superlatives and UNESCO Heritage sites.
As a seasoned, lifelong traveler, I have a high bar to meet when I visit a destination; my eight day trip to Sri Lanka last February definitely hit the mark. Futurist writer Arthur C. Clarke—who knew a thing or two about all kinds of travel—paid homage to his home Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon, when he said, “It may well be that each of Ceylon’s attractions is surpassed somewhere on Earth; Cambodia may have more impressive ruins, Tahiti livelier beaches, Bali more beautiful landscapes (though I doubt it), Thailand more charming people (ditto). But I find it hard to believe that there is any country which scores so highly in all departments.”
I could not agree more. Despite the tropical heat, I frequently experienced goosebumps, with spectacular sights around every corner.
While there are many glorious beaches in Sri Lanka, and I spent the day at an outstanding one at Beruwala not far from the capital Colombo, my preference is for active, explorational travel. My first stop was swinging by the coastal town of Galle, on my way to Yala National Park. Galle is a fortified city which dates from the 17th century. I wandered through Dutch-built streets and saw buildings now festooned with Sri Lankan color and style. Galle bears the trademarks of having once served as an important stop for European traders.
Yala National Park has one of the highest leopard densities in the world, making it the perfect place for a nighttime safari. Night vision infrared goggles, developed by National Geographic, provided enhanced opportunities for viewing while ensuring that the wildlife was not disturbed. Yala is also a birder’s paradise.
From there, I drove up the winding roads to hill country, which provided a much-needed reprieve from the tropical heat. My destination was the “city of light,” Nuawara Eliya. Surrounded by lush tea estates and fragrant spice gardens, I savored the fresh cool air. When in Ceylon, one must go tea tasting; only now do I fully understand the origins and subtleties of various types and grades of teas. My tea immersion was complete with a tour of the Ceylon Tea Museum.
Any trip to Sri Lanka should include a stop in the neighboring city of Kandy. Kandy is considered by the Sinhalese to be the holiest spot on the island. It is believed that a golden roofed temple there contains the sacred tooth relic of Buddha. A visit through the city ended with an hour-long cultural show at the local community center. It was a fascinating look at the breadth and depth of Sri Lankan history and heritage.
But there was so much more waiting. In Dambulla, I visited the iconic cave temples, another UNESCO World Heritage site that still draws pilgrims after twenty two centuries (http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/561), and bears the marks of indigenous civilizations. I made time to see all five of the separate caves with over one hundred and fifty stunning Buddha paintings and statues, the biggest collection in the country. Some were even tucked into the ridge of the hillside.
I was looking forward to loosening my limbs as I drove to another UNESCO World Heritage site, the city of Sigiriya. Here, I eagerly laced up my hiking shoes and headed to Sigiriya Rock, also known as Lion’s Rock. Once an ancient castle and fortress in the 5th Century AD, this architectural wonder has a massive towering shaft of granite nearly 660 feet high. Surrounded by a moat, rampart and extensive gardens at its base, my 3 hour hike to the peak, scored an impressive twenty four hundred steps on my FITBIT tracking device. Once I made it to the top, I was rewarded with a stunning view.
Then, I headed further north to Polonnaruwa, a centuries-old sacred pilgrimage destination, ancient capital, and archaeological site. Both the intricate carvings, sky-high sculptures and domed temple tell the story of a flourishing culture rich in trade, architecture, religion and agricultural innovation. To this day, ancient irrigation systems supply surrounding areas with water for paddy cultivation during the parched dry season. And for anyone who’s still counting, Polonnaruwa is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. This tiny island nation boasts eight in total.
My Sri Lankan sojourn was quickly coming to an end. By now, every breath I took felt enlightened. Lucky for me, there are still more Sri Lankan World Heritage sites in my future, and plenty of reasons to visit again; this country appeals to the adventurer, the historian, the anthropologist, and the nature buff. As part of my travel business, Immersion Journeys, next year I will lead a group of alumnae/i and professors from Vassar, Smith and Bryn Mawr Colleges to the island nation, and I cannot wait to share with them the awe that Sri Lanka inspires.
Postscript: My only regret is that I could not visit Anuradhapura, once an ancient capital, due to time constraints, but I would encourage anyone who is visiting Sri Lanka to make a stop. It is said that there, among the miles of temples, monasteries and luminous white stupa domes, one begins to understand the spiritual source of the time-tested transcendence of the Sri Lankans, who in my lifetime alone have had to face the brutality of war and the devastation of a tsunami.
Born in Kenya of Indian descent and raised in Tanzania, Rumit Mehta has a love for Africa that is unmatched. He lives in New York and is the founder of the award-winning Immersion Journeys, which takes travelers to Africa and Asia.