It was my second trip to the island nation but I still couldn’t hold back the excitement. As the small 70 seater Spice Jet plane landed, welcoming us to Sri Lanka was a huge coconut grove on the left and the inviting blue of the sea to the right, the humid sultry wind and yippee it’s the warmest embrace of the emerald island.
The crushing hordes of Bangalore seem light years behind and after just a 45 minute flight I am well into a beautiful country with lovely people, cleaner air and surrounded by uncharacteristic bonhomie.
There are so many things about this country, which is just about the size of one of the larger states of India that are still so fundamentally different and uniquely pleasant from its towering neighbor.
Colombo is prim in a gently, elegant sort of way. Broad roads straddled by clean, even footpaths, zebra crossing at regular intervals and if you are at a crossing, vehicles stop – from Prius to Trishaws as they are called in Sri Lanka. Drivers look out and smile and people are kind and sensitive to each other and to strangers too!
What really stands out in Sri Lanka are the perfectly flat roads in all the places I traveled, from Colombo to Kandy, Dambulla to Sigiriya. Not a single speed breaker. Drivers strictly follow the rules and if you are in a Prius, the drive is as comfortable as a flight or better actually.
Standing by the lake just off Gangaramaya Temple I ogle at Prius, Audis, BMWs and Mercs passing by. Owning a car is extremely expensive in Sri Lanka, taxes can be nearly two and a half times the price of the car, but the Lankan’s have class, it does not seem like they will settle for anything less than the best, and the Government likes to keep it that way. What you can’t fail to miss is organized Colombo is the noise, smoke and bustle of Indian roads. Vehicles don’t honk unless the driver ahead has broken a rule and in that way they monitor each other.
Most people speak English, are innately helpful, friendly and hospitable to others. It’s not uncommon to see lots of tourist from France and other Scandinavian countries with tiny kids in tow. Isn’t it hard to travel with children I inquired, “No” they said, “people here are extremely helpful if they see you have kids”. Lankan’s are also an honest and hardworking people and you can see it in the zest with which they are rebuilding the country to take its rightful place on the international tourism map.
The courtesy and law abiding mannerism of the Sri Lankan people really displayed itself one my first day there. A friend was taking a picture of Independence Square and a car actually stopped not to ruin her picture. Unthinkable from where I come from. On our way to Kandy the next day, we just about managed to get train tickets in the general compartment. Since there was a festival at Kandy, the compartment was crowded. Even though the second class boogie was empty, I was asked to desist from heading there and grabbing a seat by my Sri Lankan friend who said, “If people with tickets don’t get in at the next station, I will go meet the ticket collector and we will pay for the upgrade”. Chastened, I chose to enjoy the beautiful shades of green as the train gently ascended to higher climbs.
Did you know, the Lankan’s like to sing. They have ‘Only Bollywood’ radio stations and folks love to watch Hindi movies. Young boys and girls grow up with deep crushes for Katrina Kaif and Shahrukh Khan. Not only do they sing Bollywood song, they also sing Sinhala songs, set to Bollywood tunes!
Just like the lovely people, the food is soft on the pallet and low on fat and spice. String hoppers with fish, chicken or pork curry, egg hoppers, Kottu Parotta, fish, Buryani, Dodol, ginger beer, sweetened tea are all wonderfully delicious foods and beverages. If however you still want to grab a brunch or snack early evening, Perera and Sons or P&S as it is popularly known is a welcome respite.
For those who haven’t heard Sinhala, it sounds very similar to a South Indian language, yet without the emphatic highs and sharp edges. With gentle lilting contours, Sinhala can drone on and on in a melodious feminine way, like the hills to Kandy.
But what fascinated me most was the Sri Lankan currency. Paper notes come in a number of hues, sizes and prints, and brought back to me the childhood excitement at a game of Monopoly. The denominations range from Re 1 to Rs 2000, and I just couldn’t resist keeping back some colourful blue, pink and green.
Sri Lanka is steeped in Buddhism with a smattering of Islam and Christianity. There are little temples and statues of the meditating Buddha everywhere, and it is probably this rich tradition of non-violence, love for your brethren and search for equanimity that overarches and crafts Sri Lankan tradition and culture. Besides the Gangaramaya Temple, is the Kelaniya temple just 12 kms from Colombo, the tooth temple in Kandy is a sacred pilgrimage spot, the golden and cave temples in Dambulla are yet another sight and the Lion foot and the Pidurangala Cave Temples at Sigiriya offer panoramic vistas that are memorable. All the temple are rich is frescos from ground to ceiling, and display stories on the life of the Buddha, if you have a guide explaining along the way that would be most helpful, if not, would you care to do a week’s research.
Sri Lanka is also famed for its quite pristine beaches and snorkeling and with the decades of war at an end, once isolated beaches in East or North Sri Lanka are being developed.
However just because the country seems small don’t think you can wrap your holiday around it in less than a week, the roads are excellent, but narrow and driving is slow. That’s why zipping around Sri Lanka is just not an option, and I firmly believe one needs to know what they want before they head there. It’s either the beach or the pilgrimage sites. That makes for either a longer stay or two holidays. Relax, enjoy yourself, don’t waste your time trying to shop and just take in the wonderful ambiance called Sri Lanka.