With its misty mountains, golden beaches, majestic elephants, lush tea plantations, a glorious past and warm smiles, Sri Lanka displays a wealth of diversity across its length and breadth. This month Ankita Mamgain sets out to explore the natural and cultural bounty of the jewel-shaped island.
The Island Life
With its 1,340-kilometer coastline, Sri Lanka doesn’t make things easy for those trying to decide which beach to bum on. The western shores constitute some of the most beautiful strips of golden sand and well-developed cities and towns, complete with touristy attractions. Here you’ll find some of the busiest beaches in the country, dotted with shacks, restaurants and hotels for every budget. One area that is worth visiting is Kalpitiya towards the northwest. A pristine peninsula three hours north of Colombo, it’s on its way to developing a Maldives-style eco-resort based around 14 lagoon islands. Other beaches along the coast are Bentota and Induruwa. These run along south from the magnificent Bentota lagoon and are lined with a string of alluring hotels. For a more tranquil experience and slice of Sri Lanka’s colonial past, head south. This region rewards you with pristine beaches, colonial townscape, wildlife parks and Buddhist shrines and temples. The area also boasts the island’s most alluring selection of places to stay; from beach resorts to quaint villas. Unawatuna is a pretty little horseshoe-shaped beach backed by one of Sri Lanka’s most enjoyable villages. Mirissa is also one of the south coast’s most intimate beaches, with a picture-perfect arc of sand fringed by lofty palms.
Come All Ye Faithful
Sri Lanka is home to some of the world’s most spectacular Buddhist monuments and historical sites. Its ancient cities still carry the magnificence of the bygone era and are a treasure trove of many architectural and archaeological marvels.
The first major stop on our temple trail is the former capital, Kandy, home to one of the most famous Buddhist relics, the Sacred Tooth. Legend has it that it was saved from Buddha’s funeral pyre and has travelled a long path to finally settle here. Nestled in a temple, it is located in a quiet corner of the lake and is one of the biggest Buddhist pilgrimage sites. Gangaramaya Temple in Colombo is another must visit. This bustling temple complex has a library, a museum and an astonishing array of bejewelled gifts presented by devotees and well-wishers over the years. The temple is also the centre for the most extravagant Vesak celebrations in the city. The ancient ruins at Anuradhapura promise an amazing sight as well. The enormous dagobas, soaring brick towers, antique pools and crumbling temples were built during Anuradhapura’s 1,000 years of rule over Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka possesses abundant natural resources and is one of the finest countries in which to go wildlife watching in South Asia. The island harbours an enormous variety of habitats, and hence can support a wide range of plant and animal species. From the overawing sight of herds of gigantic elephants to elusive leopards, enormous whales, schools of dolphins, hundreds of colourful birds and reefs packed with vibrant-coloured fish, the diversity of the fauna here is astounding. The country has an impressive array of national parks, protected zones and safari options that welcome anyone, from dedicated naturalist to interested wildlife novice. Muthurajawela Marsh is a little-known gem of a wetland at the southern end of Negombo’s lagoon and home to purple herons, cormorants and kingfishers. You can also watch herds of elephants, wild buffalo, sambar deer and leopards at Uda Walawe National Park; an experience that rivals the savannah reserves of Africa. Water sport enthusiasts and divers can head to Pigeon Island National Park in the Nilaveli region. Here, powdery white sands and glittering coral gardens welcome you; however, the main attraction lies under water. The shallow reef is inhabited by dozens of corals and hundreds of reef fish, including blacktip reef sharks and turtles. If catching the beasts in the wild is not your cup of tea, I suggest you at least pay a visit to Pinnawala elephant orphanage, situated northwest of the town of Kegalla, midway between Colombo and Kandy.