Saturday, November 01, 2014

Sri Lanka

Recently Amy and I grabbed our bags and visited Sri Lanka. We've wanted to visit Sri Lanka since we first arrived in the U.A.E. It's actually one of the cheapest destinations from DXB, and we've seen plenty of deals listed on the U.A.E.'s version of Groupon, Cobone.

Sri Lanka is located off of the south eastern coast of India. Known as Ceylon until 1972, Sri Lanka has a long and interesting history that dates as far back as 100,000 years. Home to Sinhalese, Tamils, Moors, and Kaffirs, the Sri Lankan people are diverse, and their religions reflect this. Buddhism is the primary religion of the country, but there is a significant population of Hindu, Muslim, and Christian followers as well.

Sandwiched between a sprawling beach, mangrove forest and molasses colored river the Bentota Beach Hotel was our starting point for the trip.

Our first full day started with a visit to a turtle hatchery. The hatcheries in this area have been created by the local population to help combat the destruction of sea turtle habitat due to tourism and development. The turtle eggs are protected and monitored, and when ready the baby turtles are released into the wild. The hatcheries also rescue injured adult turtles that will not survive in the wild.

After spending some time with the turtles, we hopped on a local tour of the mangrove forest. It was interesting to see the mangroves, but more interesting to see the people who live and work in the forest. There are tidal fisherman who've created fish traps throughout the forest. Wading through the water they monitor their traps while keeping an eye out for the random crocodile. We were flagged down by a father and son who wanted to show us the newest member of their business, a baby purple-faced langur.

We then visited a traditional cinnamon farmer and his family that inhabit a small island in the forest. They demonstrated how cinnamon is harvested, which is an incredible amount of work. An island away we stopped at a Buddhist temple and received a blessing from the resident monk. Because of the monk's approval, or because he knew he had a sucker on hand, the boat's captain put me in charge of the helm. Our visit to the mangrove forest finished with a visit to the spa... or at least the forest's version of a spa. We dipped our feet into a pool of hungry fish who eat the dead skin off of your feet. Though novel at first, I don't think this will become a regular treatment!

Our day continued with a stop in Galle. Galle is known for the fort that was built by the Portuguese in the 16th and 17th centuries. The fort is the largest remaining fortress in Asia built by European occupiers. (So big in fact, that it simply doesn't fit into the camera frame when you're on the ground... check out this photo  I found online taken from the air)

Our first day ended with a delicious meal of fresh seafood and Sri Lankan Lion Beer.

The following day we left for Nuwara Elia. Sri Lanka is known around the world for its tea. The mountains of Sri Lanka are home to internationally renowned tea plantations.

The mountains have been landscaped into steps to enhance the growth of the tea. The workers can be seen dotted among the rows and rows of plants. You may also see monkeys taking a break from the day and enjoying lunch!

The drive to Nuwara Elia was intense. Driving in this part of the world to put it mildly, is thrilling, but when you mix it with 7,000 foot mountain landscapes, and the fact that they drive on the left hand side of the road, it becomes absolutely heart pounding. I'm glad that we chose to hire a driver, because otherwise we never would have made it out of Colombo. Before we stopped for the evening we decided to take a quick rafting trip down some white water. The rafting was great, but getting to our drop in point was fun too. This was my first Tuk-Tuk ride, and the first time I've seen a raft strapped to the top of one.

After a pleasant night in Nuwara Elia we headed to a local tea plantation named Mackwoods to see how the tea plants are cultivated and harvested.

We toured the grounds and enjoyed a spot of tea before heading towards Kandy, the cultural center of Sri Lanka. On the way we ran into some cute kids selling flowers on the side of the road.

It's hard to describe just how beautiful this area is. The intricate manicuring of the tea plantations give the mountains an unearthly feel, as if you've been swept into a fantasy land where around every turn is a cascading waterfall.

We arrived in Kandy with enough time to peruse the botanical gardens. On our way to the hotel we were able to catch a glimpse of the Temple of the Tooth at night.

The next morning we were off to a special elephant orphanage that rescues abandoned and injured elephants. It's become quite an attraction that draws tourists from all over. The orphanage parades the elephants through the town as they make their way to bathe in the river.

After a morning with the elephants, we went to tour the Temple of the Tooth. The temple's namesake comes from the fact that it houses a relic claimed to be the tooth of Buddha.

The day ended with a cultural show performed by local volunteers who are trying to preserve Sri Lankan heritage and customs.

The next morning we set off for Dambulla. On our way to the town we stopped by the largest Hindu temple in Sri Lanka. The temple was fascinating. There's a seemingly endless number of gods and deities depicted in, around, and on top of the temple. The entire building felt like a piece of art.

Located close to the center of the island, Dambulla is home to the largest Buddhist cave temple complex in Sri Lanka. The hike up the mountain to the entrance of the cave temple leads you through prime monkey habitat. These guys were more than happy to show off for the camera.

 The complex has 5 caves that contain statues of Buddha and other religious figures. Some of the largest statues, including two reclining Buddha's, were carved directly out of the cave walls.

A full moon was to occur on the night that we visited the temple, so many locals were making the hike up the mountain to pay their respect and pray at the temple.

Of course, we were completely busted while trying to photograph one of the monks from behind... it's almost like he knew?

Completely amazed, we left the cave temple to settle in at our hotel for the night. The hotel turned out to be an attraction of its own. The Heritance Kandalama is not so much of a hotel as it is an extension of the forest. Overlooking the Kandalama Reservoir it seems like it was grown instead of built. Vegetation is everywhere. On the balconies, outside the restaurant, around the pool. Just like the human guests, the animals treat the hotel like a home away from home. And all I have to say is BEST. POOL. EVER.

This hotel is special. I can't think of anywhere in the world I could wake up and find this...

After one of the most interesting breakfasts ever, we headed to Sigiriya or the "Lion Rock". Sigiriya is the site of an ancient palace built on top of a sheer rock column 200 meters high. The rock itself is imposing, but knowing that people essentially built the Sri Lankan version of Machu Picchu on top was mind boggling. We had a difficult time getting to the top, and we were on stairs. Back in the day, they climbed up the rock using small handholds carved out of the rock face!

After the grueling climb to the top, we were rewarded with 360 degree views of the surrounding valley. Dambulla is gorgeous, and we were lucky to have had weather as nice as the scenery.

We were also lucky to have avoided a hornet attack. We read this TripAdvisor review posted days before our hike recounting a horrible hornet attack that left a man in need of medical attention. One of the interesting things about a primarily Buddhist country is that they don't kill things... they take the stand that hornets are living things and who are we to kill them because they might inconvenience us. So... there are enormous hornets nests all over the rock and there were a bunch of noisy people around us, so I was on edge the entire time we were climbing up and down. But, the gods smiled on us this day, and the hornets had better things to do than mess with tourists.

The next morning before leaving for Colombo, we took an elephant ride around the Kandalama reservoir. We met our hungry guide Monica (the elephant) and she provided us with some beautiful views of the hotel and surrounding area.

Our last night was spent in Sri Lanka's capitol, Colombo. Though I'm sure there's plenty to see and do in Colombo, after such an amazing trip we were ready to relax and take a night off. We ate at an interesting restaurant in the middle of our hotel that was built to look like a traditional village.

Our last day in Sri Lanka was spent sight-seeing around Colombo. You can really see the diversity of Sri Lanka's people on the streets of Colombo and along the beach boardwalk.

Sri Lanka is an amazing place. The island is beautiful, and the people are some of the most hospitable I've ever met. If you have an opportunity to visit, go for it. I'm certain you'll love it!

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