Lonely Planet Sri Lanka (Travel Guide) (2015)
EXPLORE SRI LANKA
Sri Lanka is one of Asia’s ultimate island paradises, with endless miles of golden beaches and verdant tropical landscapes. But the island also boasts remarkable physical, cultural and ethnic diversity, as well as a long and dramatic history.
The shape of Sri Lanka on the map has been compared to many things: a teardrop falling from the tip of India, a pearl, a mango and (to Dutch colonists) a leg of ham. Tears were for many years the island’s dominant emotion, the result of 26 years of devastating civil war which blighted the island’s recent history. Since the conclusion of hostilities in 2009, however, Sri Lanka has boomed, enjoying its new-found peace and emerging once again as one of the pearls of the Indian Ocean. Indeed, this new tourism star has never burned more brightly, with large annual increases in the number of visitors to the country (up to nearly 1.8 million tourists in 2015, 17.8 percent up on the previous year, continuing a trend since 2010). And it’s no surprise - Sri Lanka has everything visitors could want from a tropical holiday: beaches, culture, natural splendors, unique attractions, wildlife and more.
Tea plantations near Ella
GEOGRAPHY AND LAYOUT
Sri Lanka is a small country: a modest 435km (271 miles) from top to bottom, and 240km (149 miles) from east to west. Lying a few degrees north of the Equator in the balmy waters of the Indian Ocean, the island has an incredibly diverse range of landscapes, from the sultry tropical beaches, coconut plantations and lowland jungles of the coast to the cool green hill country with its mist-shrouded mountains, crashing waterfalls and endless tea plantations.
New Kathiresan Kovil Temple
Exploring the country
The island’s relatively small size and recently upgraded main highways make it easy to travel between its best sights within the space of a few days. The starting point for most visitors is the commercial capital, Colombo (routes 1 and 2), easily explored either on foot or by hiring one of the motorised rickshaws (tuk-tuks) which can be see everywhere across the island. There are also various rewarding day-trips from Colombo, into the surrounding countryside (routes 3-5), or you could make an overnight trip up to Sri Lanka’s cultural capital, Kandy (route 6).
With a few more days spare you could drive north from Kandy to the ancient ruined cities and great Buddhist monuments of the Cultural Triangle (routes 9 and 10). Alternatively, head south from Kandy to explore the verdant tea plantations, spectacular scenery and engaging old colonial mementoes of the island’s breezy hill country (tours 7 and 8) and then continue on to Yala National Park (route 12) in the south before returning to Colombo via Galle (route 11).
Many visitors will stay on Sri Lanka’s west coast if they want to spend some time on the beach; resort areas include Bentota, Hikkaduwa and Ahungalla. While this area is lighter on sights than elsewhere, the miles of golden, sun-kissed beaches, tourist-oriented development and range of places to stay (for more information, click here ) make this a hugely popular choice for sun-starved European visitors, whether for a two-week package holiday or for some R’n’R as part of a tour of the country. These beach resorts are easily reached from Colombo or Galle.
A traditional vessel off Unawatuna Beach
The first humans to arrive were the aboriginal Veddhas, who walked across from India around 16,000 BC. Around the 4th century BC, immigrants from North India began to arrive, becoming ancestors of the modern Sinhalese.
Early development of the island was mainly in the northern half, where the ancient ruins of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa testify to a glorious Buddhist culture and pioneering agricultural development, including the creation of huge reservoirs (tanks) and a staggeringly elaborate network of waterways and irrigation works.
After the 13th century, the island became politically fragmented, with the inland Kingdom of Kandy vying for power with a series of smaller statelettes in the south. The 16th century also saw the arrival of the Portuguese, ushering in the long colonial period during which the island would change hands between no less than three European powers.
Painting a wall at the Gangaramaya Temple, Colombo
The Portuguese gradually seized control of most of the island - apart from the remote, inland Kingdom of Kandy - before losing the island to the Dutch in 1656. The Dutch made fortunes trading on the island’s spices, cinnamon, elephants and precious gemstones before being displaced at the start of the 19th century by the British, who gave the island the railways, roads, tea plantations and parliamentary democracy which survive largely unchanged to this day.
Independence finally arrived in 1948, although Sri Lanka’s post-colonial history was shaped by violent tensions between the island’s majority Sinahalese and minority Tamil populations, leading to a bloody 26-year civil war which raged from 1983 to 2009 between government forces and the rebel LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam - or Tamil Tigers, as they’re usually called). Many lives were also lost in 2004, when Sri Lanka was hit by the catastrophic Asian tsunami.
The new era of post-war peace has presented fresh political and financial challenges, although a booming economy, a resurgent tourist industry and a merciful absence of war and natural catastrophe mean that the island is finally able to look once more to the future with renewed - if cautious - optimism.
Winds of fortune
The trade winds, on which the monsoons are carried to Sri Lanka, not only keep the island watered, but also helped make it rich. In former centuries the winds provided a reliable shuttle service for traders from Greece, China, Arabia and Rome, sailing in search of spices and gems. Since these seafaring merchants had to wait for the winds to change direction before they could sail home, many decided to stay and set up business instead, developing the island’s trade.
Worshippers at Sri Maha Bodhi, sacred to Buddhists
The island’s climate is so diverse it’s possible to travel in just a few hours from the tropical heat of the coast to the cool and misty uplands of the hill country - to start the day sweating and end it shivering. There are two separate monsoon seasons, one in the northeast, the other in the southwest - from October to April, the climate is kindest in the southwest, while there is less rain in the northeast from May to October. Expect high humidity and temperatures on the coast of around 27°C (81°F). Kandy, at 305m (1,000ft), averages 20°C (68°F), and Nuwara Eliya, at 1,890m (6,200ft), just 16°C (61°F).
While Sri Lanka’s racial diversity has caused much strife, it compensates with a diversity of culture and mutual respect between the different races despite the long-raging civil war. Interracial rivalry is fought out with games of ‘we got here first’, with both the Sinhalese and the Tamils arguing about precedence. The British colonial period brought about the introduction of English as a link language between the Tamils and the Sinhalese, but this link was lost when S.W.R.D Bandaranaike made Sinhala the official language. Tamils found their aspirations thwarted unless they learned Sinhala.
Around three-quarters of the island’s population is Sinhalese Buddhist. The Sinhalese migrated to Sri Lanka from North India around the 4th century BC. The Tamils are Sri Lanka’s second-largest ethnic group, comprising around 18 percent of the population. They claim that their Dravidian ancestors got to the island even earlier. Some five percent of the Tamil population are descendants of immigrants brought by the British for plantation labour. Most Sri Lankan Tamils are Hindus, although there are also many Tamil Christians.
Sri Lanka’s Muslims have been living on the island for over a millennium, having arrived as merchants, and now mostly live on the east coast. One of the island’s smallest but most colourful ethnic groups is the Burghers - white, English-speaking Sri Lankans descended from European settlers, mainly Dutch and Portuguese.
The population is mainly rural (about 80 percent), although since vast tracks of mountainous jungle and arid plains are largely uninhabited, the population density is high in settled areas around the coast, and particularly in the major cities.
Don’t leave Sri Lanka without…
Climbing to the top of Sigiriya. Ascending this unforgettable rock-fortress, one of Sri Lanka’s most dramatic natural sights, gives you incredible views over the surrounding plains. For more information, click here .
Hitting the beach. Sri Lanka’s coast is fringed with sun-soaked golden beaches and luscious palm trees; if you’re short for time, head to Negombo, just half an hour from Colombo airport. For more information, click here .
Paying homage to the tooth. Time your visit to Kandy’s Temple of the Tooth right and you’ll be rewarded with a glimpse of the golden casket containing the Buddha’s Tooth Relic, at this most important of pilgrimage sites in Sri Lanka. For more information, click here .
Sampling hoppers. A Sri Lankan breakfast staple, also found at most street cafés, these delicate little bowl-shaped pancakes are great on their own, eaten with curry or cooked with an egg in the centre. For more information, click here .
Catching a Kandyan dance show. Spectacularly costumed dancers perform acrobatic choreography to an insistent accompaniment of high-octane drumming. For more information, click here .
Visiting a tea plantation. Travel past spectacular waterfalls, verdant hills lined with tea terraces and roadside fruit sellers to reach Sri Lanka’s working tea plantations, where you can have a brew and learn all about the process from plant to cup. For more information, click here .
Catching a cricket match. Join the crowds at a test or one-day match for an insight into Sri Lanka’s other major religion: cricket. For more information, click here .
Taking in the view at Ella Gap. The staggering view from Ella Gap, in a charming hill country village, takes in miles of peaks, valleys and - on a clear day - the southern plateau all the way to the coast. For more information, click here .
Learning about Ayurveda. Ayurvedic wellness centres are found everywhere and even if you’re not looking for a specific cure, the natural science behind it is fascinating to discover. For more information, click here .
Spotting leopards. Tracking down this elusive big cat at Yala National Park is an experience even if you don’t manage a sighting, with elephants, wild boar and more to keep you diverted. For more information, click here .
Street life in Batticaloa
Sri Lankans are a very friendly and helpful people, and will often ask you where you are from. However, beware of touts who make a living out of preying on tourists. Do not be surprised if a villager invites you home for tea or a meal. In the evening it is the custom for Sri Lankans to have a drink together before eating quite late; people generally go home immediately after the meal rather than stay on for more drinks.
People generally are not camera shy, but if you want to take a photograph, always ask first. Sometimes they will request a copy.
Sri Lankans will forgive many breaches of etiquette, such as your eating habits (for more information, click here ). However, when entering temples, remove your shoes and headgear as a sign of respect. Remember to be sensitive to local religious and cultural customs.
Sri Lanka is a parliamentary democracy with an elected executive president. The 225 members of parliament are elected separately through a complicated proportional voting system. The 2015 election, regarded as the most significant one for decades, ended the long-running dynastic rule of the Rajapakse family. The newly elected president, Maithripala Sirisena, has pledged to bring in constitutional reforms to reduce the power of the president and return the country to a parliamentary system with a Prime Minister as its leader.
Travelling by tuk-tuk
The top foreign-exchange earners are the manufacture of garments exported to the West and inward remittances from Sri Lankans working overseas, mainly in the Gulf. Tourism comes third. Agriculture (especially tea exporting) has lost its relative importance to the Sri Lankan economy, employing around 31 percent of the working population but accounting for just 7.9 percent of GDP.
The service sector is the largest component of GDP, at 56.6 percent in 2015. Industry accounts for 26.2 percent of GDP, with manufacturing of food, beverages and tobacco being the largest subsector.
The per capita income of the almost 22 million inhabitants stood at US$3,637 in 2015. The people of Sri Lanka enjoy free education and healthcare, and a literacy rate of 92 percent - one of the highest in Asia and the highest in South Asia. Since the end of the war in 2009, the nation has hoped it is time for its full potential to be realised.
Drummers guard Sri Maha Bodhi
Women working in the tea plantations
Top tips for exploring Sri Lanka
Travel visa. Visitors to Sri Lanka should obtain an Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) before they travel ( www.eta.gov.lk/slvisa ). This allows tourist entry for up to 30 days, for US$30. Visas can be extended to three months at the Immigration Service Centre in Colombo. Fees vary depending on what country you are a national of. Visitors from Singapore, the Seychelles and the Maldives are exempt from needing a visa.
Staying healthy. The risk of malaria is increasingly minimal in most areas that tend to be visited by tourists, but be sure to ask your doctor for the latest advice. If you are advised to take prophylaxis, you may need to start a course of medication up to a fortnight before you leave for your trip. There is, however, a risk of dengue fever.
Sun and heat. Sunburn and even sunstroke are a risk in lowland Sri Lanka, whether you’re lying on the beach or exploring ancient monuments. An umbrella is never out of place, both for warding off rain and sheltering from the sun.
Giving gifts. If you are lucky enough to be invited to a local home, a present of a box of biscuits or even something you’ve brought with you from overseas, like a souvenir ornament or duty-free chocolate, would be appreciated.
Tuk-tuk touting. The drivers of motorised rickshaws, called tuk-tuks, can’t bear to see a foreigner walking; you’ll need to be firm in refusing them.
Road sense. Many of Colombo’s streets have been changed from dual traffic to one-way, and some roads are closed occasionally, so be patient when you discover you have to negotiate an unexpected diversion.
Safe swimming. Swimming from Mount Lavinia Beach (see route 4) is safe and very popular, but make sure someone you know guards your belongings, otherwise you might not have any when you return from the sea. Note that there are places where swimming can be dangerous because of riptides.
Take the train. An intercity express train with seats that can be booked in advance leaves Colombo Fort station at about 7am every morning and arrives in Kandy at 9.45am. The return express leaves Kandy at 3pm and arrives in Colombo at 5.35pm, in time for dinner.
Nature reserve. Even if Adisham isn’t open, the Tangamalai Nature Reserve (open access; free) directly beyond it is worth visiting, protecting a beautiful area of tropical forest, it is home to a rich array of bird life, with lots of monkeys too.
Park formalities. To visit Yala National Park, you will have to hire a jeep and a tracker, as well as pay an admission fee per person and per vehicle. Jeep safaris cost less the nearer you stay to the park. Be prepared for a long wait at the visitor centre as entrance fees are calculated and your passport details laboriously copied into a ledger by hand; no passport, no entry.