Our holiday to Sri Lanka was planned quite a while ago and when the time arrived to catch a plane to Colombo the focus was on finding some time to relax, a break from the upheaval of moving. Looking out over the beach at Tangalla on the south coast was the perfect way to achieve that. Our accommodation faced the Indian Ocean and with no glass in the windows (only shutters) and open rafters the sound of the waves crashing against the beach was part of the ambient noise. The southwest Sri Lankan countryside, viewed from the road, is rich, lush and green. Egrets line the rice paddies and water buffalo can be seen lumbering along the back roads as local farmers move them from field to field. Then there are the peacocks. Just like sheep wonder the roads in rural Scotland or kangaroos in Australia, in Sri Lanka the peacocks are in abundance – drivers beware!
Our fist bit of culture came in the form of the Mulkirigala Temples, also known to tourists as the rock temple. Even the drive to the temple is fascinating as you pass through a green forest of coconut trees. Tucked away amongst the greenery are basic homes for local families, looking idyllic nestled beneath the trees. Coconuts are obviously an important food source here as stacks upon stacks of empty shells lay in piles just off the road. The rock temples comprise of seven caves over five terraces. Each contains a large reclining statue of the Buddha with additional seated statues nearby. Perhaps the real surprise though comes from the images overhead, painted directly onto the rocky roof. It’s said that temples in one form of another have been present on this site for 2000 years although the one you see today dates from the 18th century. In 1826 a Pali manuscript was found in the monastic library which was used for the first translation of the great chronicle. This allowed Europeans to shed light on Sri Lanaka’s early history. I studied a reasonable amount of Buddhism as part of my training to be a docent at the Asian Civilisation Museum in Singapore. Here at the rock temple Hindu Gods are depicted alongside Buddha and as is often the case the more you learn about Buddhism, the more you realise there is so much left to understand. Its spread across Asian was complex and by no means uniform!
A few days later we went on Sri Lankan safari, heading to Uda Walawe national park. Here the guidebook promised us Elephants, crocodiles, water buffalo, deer and plenty of birds. We saw all of these although sadly there were no elephant herds. We did see four individual elephants and we had a really fantastic time. What the guide book doesn’t tell you is that the safari jeep experience is quite memorable. As we climbed aboard this raised vehicle with no windscreen and headed across the entrance road we were blasted with cool morning air. Around us an atmospheric mist could be seen in the dawn light and almost immediately the looming shape of an elephant at the roadside. Soon we were bouncing around the park with our eagle-eyed driver spotting and pointing out wildlife. After an hour we had seen so many peacocks we were tired of photographing them! The springy suspension of the jeep on the rough safari tracks made the whole experience quite a giggle and I’m still not sure how our driver managed to spot crocodiles way off in the distance amongst the water buffalo.
Our final day of Sri Lankan culture was a trip to the fort town of Galle. The first small fort built here was constructed by the Portuguese in 1589 but the Dutch later destroyed most traces of it and rebuild during the 17th century. Galle was the main Sri Lankan port for over 200 years and it remains the administrative capital of the southern province. It is also a world heritage site as it is the largest remaining fortress in Asian built by European occupiers. Galle is very much a working town and as our driver dropped us outside the court house we saw the day to day life was thriving. As well as the busy legal business afoot the quaint streets of the old town are lined with shops selling Sri Lankan jewels and other art gems from around the world. With trendy cafes and pretty hotels Galle is the sort of place you could easily immerse yourself for a few days.
Finally I cannot go without a mention of the wonderful Sri Lankan people and food. Tasty curries and vegetables, buffalo curd pudding and hoppers for breakfast, the perfect gluten free egg roll. We were well looked after by the house staff and I really didn’t come across any element of pushiness at the markets that is so often off putting in Asian countries. Perhaps that is down to the pace of life there, where a restaurant meal may take an hour or more to arrive and even waiting for a drink at a sandy bar is long enough for you to get eaten alive by sand flies and mosquitoes, but hey we live in Africa now, waiting for things is our normality!