If you’re someone who likes to have it all on your holidays then we need to talk about Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka you can indulge your every curiosity or whim; unleash your history geek in the morning, get your spa on in the afternoon and end the day with an elephant safari.
I’ve written before about what a diverse and culturally rich country Sri Lanka is. It’s got UNESCO World Heritage sites, surf spots and leopard safaris all wrapped up in one perfectly formed teardrop of an island. My trip to the North Central Province last week (an area I missed and wish I hadn’t on my previous visit) was a perfect example of how Sri Lanka can educate, awe and win you over in the space of 1 week.
The main draw to this region for me was Sigiriya; a rather regal rock that juts out from the forested landscape and challenges you to climb it – even if the prospect seems a little scary once you’re staring up at it. Sigiriya is a UNESCO world heritage site, significant for both its natural and historical attributes, that was once a palace and fortress built by King Kassapa (477 – 495 AD).
To climb it gives you a sense of not only the fantastic surrounding scenery but also of what it once was – an elaborate home perched high on a rock, complete with a lion’s claw staircase, a moat and water gardens.
I won’t deny the climb can be daunting, especially when you get close to the steep sides of the great monolith and have to tackle some of the uneven flooring. But if you break it into chunks, stopping to observe the frescoes and carvings, considering what this place once was and wondering how on earth they built it, you’ll find yourself at the summit in no time. (Well approx. 45 minutes if you’re counting.)
As one of the most famous sites in Sri Lanka it was fascinating to see so many locals climb it – young, old and what you might consider inappropriately kitted – tackled the climb in saris, sarongs and even white school dresses. It will really make you reconsider the whole active wear market!
From our base at the luxurious Cinnamon Lodge Habarana we were surrounded by significant heritage sites. Each day bought new learning’s as we explored the cave temples at Dambulla or the stupas at Anuradhapura. We were so lucky to be accompanied by a leading Sri Lankan archaeologist and professor who had worked on the excavation of these sites and told us about their significance with a child-like glee mixed with scholarly professionalism. (When asked by one of the group if the professor had worked on the magnificent large brick stupa we stood in front of, he cheekily replied ‘mine was bigger’!)
The Central North province is not just the heart of Sri Lanka geographically but spiritually too. Another of our excursions (which were interspersed with delicious Sri Lankan cuisine – I literally ate Dahl for days) took us to Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi, a sacred Buddhist tree, which is the oldest historical tree on record and another of this region’s World Heritage sites. The sacred sapling, which was introduced from India, is a sprawling fig tree, propped up by gold poles and hosting a temple under its branches. It’s understandably a sacred site for Sri Lankans but a sad one too as pilgrims were massacred here during the horrific ‘bloody war,’ as our professor calls it. It’s a reminder for our group that Sri Lanka is still in the process of emerging from a terrible period of turmoil and terror, although the waves, welcomes and sometimes even hugs we receive from the pilgrims we encounter demonstrate the Sri Lankan peoples’ tremendous spirit.
It was not only the people of Sri Lankan that won me over but the nature too. (Well, maybe not the boisterous monkeys who hung out at the hotel, I must admit I was a little nervous around them!) A short drive from the hotel is Huluru Eco Park, a vast area of forest that we visited in open top jeeps which picked us up from the hotel. Sri Lanka is said to have the largest population of elephants in Asia and I couldn’t wait to meet some of them. (A family of 3 did cross the road in front of our coach one evening but it was dark so hard to see them – luckily the driver did!)
Within minutes of entering the park we spotted a female elephant munching on flowers a mere metres from our vehicle. It was so incredible to see her surrounded by foliage, looking pretty content to be honest, and if the safari had ended there we would have gone home pretty content too. What came later, however, was simply astounding. Our guide heard via Walky Talky that a herd were heading through the park in our direction. He said something about there being 16 of them and I thought perhaps someone had miscounted. We headed towards where the herd were spotted, no longer giggly and distracted but alert and looking a like a bunch of meerkats. Suddenly a hushed voice says ‘there’ and points towards some grey lumps moving through the bushes.
The reports were right. One lucky male and his many wives and children were making their way through the park. We approached slowly and watched as their big bums moved through the trees. Grazing as they walked, the herd slowly made their way through the park, a mother feeding her Dumbo-like child with her trunk as they went. One by one the whole herd crossed the dirt track just in front of us; I didn’t know where to look as more and more kept coming. Elephants are one of my favourite animals on the planet and this safari is something I’m going to treasure forever.
From sacred sites to safaris, the Central North Province of Sri Lanka has a lot to offer its visitors. (I haven’t even mentioned the cuisine and spa visits yet. That’s coming next, I promise!) It’s been a while since I’ve had such an enriching travel experience. When can I do it again?