‘Why Sri Lanka?”
That’s the question I was asked numerous times when it was known that I was heading there recently for a vacation. And why not Sri Lanka? It’s been on my bucket list for a couple of years now as I have heard good things about this pearl-shaped island south-east of India. I’ve heard of their kind and humble people, its rich history and culture and of course, the delicious food! Sri Lanka is a diverse and multicultural country. With a rich Buddhist heritage, it is also home to many religions, ethnic groups and languages.
The towering World Trade Centre in Colombo
I got to know more about the country and its people during the 5 days I was there. With a civil war that ravaged the country for 30 years and finally ending in 2009, Sri Lanka is now on a fast-paced recovery mode. It’s not surprising that it is one of Asia’s fastest growing economy. There’s lots of construction going on in Colombo right now as I observed when we were in the city. Here’s a trivial fact: did you know that the very first woman Prime Minister was from Sri Lanka? She’s Sirimavo Bandaranaike who took office in 1960.
The Old Parliament Building, Fort District, Colombo
Although I didn’t cover many places in the 5 days – only Kandy and Colombo, I discovered that there’s really lots to like about Sri Lanka and there’s plenty more to discover.
Independence Memorial Hall, Colombo
Tuk Tuks rule the streets here!
Air Asia flies directly to Colombo from Kuala Lumpur and the flight takes 3 hours 40 minutes. Landing in Bandaranaike International Airport (located in the suburb of Negombo, 35km from Colombo), clearing immigration was a breeze. I have pre-booked our tour guide and transportation (details below are shared at end of post) so our tour guide, Don together with his manager met us at the arrival hall and whisked us off to Kandy immediately.
Passengers are met with this Buddha statue upon arrival at Bandaranaike International Airport
Kandy is about 102km away from Colombo. Now you may think that’s a journey that can be covered in probably 1.5 hours but because the roads were small and narrow, traffic was slow and it certainly took us much longer than 1.5 hours!
OK, let me share with you what’s interesting in Sri Lanka during my trip – let’s start with Kandy…
1. PINNAWALA ELEPHANT ORPHANAGE
Halfway to Kandy is the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. It’s established in 1975 by the Sri Lanka Department of Wildlife Conservation as an orphanage and nursery for orphaned wild baby Asian elephants. The orphanage provides feeding, care and as a sanctuary for the elephants whose population has increased to more than 80 elephants now.
Look out! Elephants crossing the street is a common sight here
Elephants bathing in the Maya Oya River
No, we didn’t buy any of these!
The orphanage is open to the public daily and there’s an entrance fee of LKR2,500 per person.
2. SPICE GARDENS
There are many spice gardens in Kandy and we visited one on the way up. A guide took us on a short tour of the garden, pointing out all the herbs and spices grown in the garden.
There’s a shop there that sells all kinds of ointments and ayurvedic concoctions made from the herbs grown. Some spice gardens offer cooking classes as well and if that’s your interest, go ahead and book it. We didn’t have enough time for that so maybe we’ll do that in the next trip!
3. ROYAL BOTANICAL GARDEN
It was a cool windy day so we decided to visit the Royal Botanical Garden in Peradeniya, some 5km from the city of Kandy. This 147-acre garden is immaculately maintained with beautiful landscaping. Popular among both locals and visitors, the garden is a nice place to visit for some fresh air and bonding with Mother Nature.
I love the orchid conservatory even though it’s smaller than what I expected.
Although I’m no botanical enthusiast, I was impressed by the huge ancient trees and mind-boggling variety of flora – it would take hours to walk the place. You can rent a buggy to take you round too but there was a long queue for this when we were there! The only one thing that’s lacking is the very limited number of benches in the garden. These were far and few and of course all occupied. A vast park like this should have lots of benches for people to relax and take their time exploring!
Entrance fee: LKR1,500 per person
4. SRI DALADA MALIGAWA – TEMPLE OF SACRED TOOTH RELIC
This temple is one of Sri Lanka’s biggest attractions. The whole complex is huge and we actually visited one small portion of it only. Not only is there a temple complex, the premises also include the Royal Palace, library and museums.
Lotus blooms for offering in the temple
According to legend, the tooth was retrieved from Buddha’s funeral pyre after cremation. It was smuggled to Sri Lanka in 313 AD, hidden in the hair of Princess Hemamali who fled the Hindu armies besieging her father’s kingdom in India.
My favourite: the Purple Lotus Flower which is also the National Flower of Sri Lanka
The relic of the tooth is kept in a two-story inner shrine fronted by two large elephant tusks. The relic rests on a solid gold lotus flower, encased in jewelled caskets that sit on a throne.
We had to leave our shoes in designated counters before walking barefooted into the temple. There’s a ritual at 6.30pm every evening when the doorway to the room where the relic is kept will be open. We had to queue up long before 6.30pm and the queue went all the way from the entrance up the stairs. Once the ritual started, the queue moved slowly past the doorway to the shrine and we had all of 3 seconds for a glimpse of the doorway – and that’s all we got to see.
One of the many shrines and prayer rooms in the temple
Entrance fees for foreigners: LKR 1,500 per person
5. BATIK ARTS
Sri Lankan batik is made using pretty much the same system as our Malaysian batik as what we found out when we visited Henry Batik on our way down from Kandy to Colombo. However, the designs were very different as they reflect more on their cultures and traditions.
I fell in love with this gorgeous elephant!
There was plenty to tempt us at Henry Batik – just look at all those gorgeous colourful wall hangings, wraps, sarees and clothes!
Sri Lanka is a mecca of gemology. Its rich natural resources have made it a major producer of colour gem stones like sapphires, topaz, rubies, moonstones (found only in Sri Lanka) and many more. In Kandy, there are many gem manufacturers, showrooms and shops all along the main road. Many of the shops in Colombo have their factories and workshops in Kandy.
We visited Tiesh by Lakmini in Colombo mainly because the apartment we rented in Colombo belongs to them! The ground and first floors of the building are for their gems business while the upper floors have apartments for rent. Tiesh by Lakmini also has their factory and showroom in Kandy but we didn’t go there. Instead we spent quite some time in their showroom below our apartment!
There is a wide range of designs here, ranging from the traditional to avant garde to ultra modern innovative jewellery. Service was very courteous, attentive and not pushy. If you are really keen to buy, they are open to negotiation – we ended buying several pieces from them at very good prices.
7. TUK TUK SAFARI
As a first-timer to Colombo, seeing the city in tuk tuks is definitely more fun and interesting than the usual vans. Tuk tuks are the main modes of transport in the city, by the way – the whole city is full of them! There are hardly any taxis on the roads and I was told taxis have to be booked, a la call-a-cab. It’s not common nor convenient to hail for one on the streets but tuk tuks, yes! To me, most of them are like F1 drivers on the roads – it’s amazing how they maneuver their vehicles in the narrow and crowded streets.
That’s Bob Marley, one of our guides!
Tuk Tuk Safari offers just 3 types of tours in Colombo (check out their website here) and of course I chose their Food Tour. A convoy of 3 baby-blue tuk tuks together with smartly dressed drivers/guides appeared at our apartment punctually at 4pm to pick us for the tour. But first, we were greeted with garlands and king coconuts before starting off. The tuk tuks were spotlessly clean, complete with sound system, chiller for drinks and snacks. So, amidst the latest pop tunes, we set off to explore the streets and food of Colombo.
Our guide Randy was very knowledgeable about his city and country
We started off by visiting a fruit juice shop where we had the thickest and creamiest fruit smoothies. Next stop was to a tea shop. Then we proceeded to another part of town for the local favourites of hoppers, chutneys and curries. From there, we set off to Galle Face Green to have some Sri Lankan “tai chow” kinda food from the many stalls dotting that stretch of ocean-facing lawn. It was a Sunday night and Galle Face Green was really “happening” as there was an open-air concert taking place.
The last stop was at the Independence Square where our tuk tuk guides offered us sweet kurds for dessert. It was a very nice end to a unique and fun outing with Tuk Tuk Safari.
The Food Tour cost USD50 per person, inclusive of all food consumed.
8. BUY TEA
Everyone knows Sri Lanka is famous for teas. “Ceylon Tea” is known everywhere! Although we didn’t have time to visit a tea plantation, we did drop by a boutique tea factory – Glenloch. We were given a tour of the premises and shown how tea was processed.
Of course we ended buying some of their teas and then we bought more in Colombo too! You just can’t help it because there’re so many tea shops everywhere and the supermarkets have endless shelves of prettily-packed fragrant teas.
9. BUY SPICES
Go visit William Grinding Mill for freshly grinded spices. Although you can get spices from the supermarkets, nothing beats the fresh powders in William Grinding Mill. There are all sorts of aromatic spices and herbs for sale, stuff like lemongrass powder and curry leaves powder! Wow – curry leaves powder was definitely for me – such convenience! Now I don’t have to go hunt for these leaves every time I want to cook my curries!
Prices are very affordable, certainly way cheaper than what you’ll have to pay back home and then, you may not even be able to get certain spices in KL.
Last but not least, the food in Sri Lanka is definitely a main draw for us. Once we landed at the airport, we couldn’t wait to dig into some local food so we stopped by a small cafe for some kottu! Kottu is a very popular dish in Sri Lanka – chopped up roti (flat breads) stir-fried with meat, seafood and vegetables.
In Kandy and Colombo we had our fill of hoppers (apam), string hoppers (puttu mayam) and lamprais (similar to our nasi campur) in restaurants and little street stalls.
Our accommodation in Liyya Residence serves a delightful local breakfast of string hoppers, coconut chutney and curry.
In the few days that we spent in Colombo, we managed to have our fill of traditional Sri Lankan fares. Raja Bojun in Liberty Arcade just across the road from our apartment serves a mind-boggling array of traditional dishes. The crab curry was phenomenal and look out for the elephant greeting you at the entrance!
For an unforgettable village feast, Nuga Gama in Cinnamon Grand Hotel was fabulous. Looking at the photos, you’d never think that the venue was in a modern 5-star hotel! The food were laid out in traditional clay pots and more food was being cooked in cauldrons over woodfires. Wooden tables, chairs and benches set up beneath a huge 200-year-old banyan tree completed the rustic village ambience.
Listed as one of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2016, the Ministry of Crab at the Old Dutch Hospital in Colombo was an obvious choice for us crab lovers.
Ministry of Crab in the Old Dutch Hospital
Started by culinary maestro Dharshan Munidasa in collaboration with Sri Lankan cricket legends Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara (who both captained the Sri Lankan cricket team), Ministry of Crab showcased the very best of Sri Lanka’s famous lagoon crabs.
When you are in Sri Lanka, be sure to drink lots of King Coconuts water to cool your body and keep it hydrated. Even though we had lots of spicy food and didn’t drink as much water as we should, the king coconuts really helped and none of us was dehydrated.
King coconuts, red bananas and perhaps durians, too?
So, there you are, my Top 10 Reasons to visit Sri Lanka for the time being. I’m sure there will be more reasons to share, in my future trips! Ayubowan!
Tour Guide/Driver – Don Surendra Jayasinghe
Don is absolutely great in what he does – he’s knowledgeable, patient, kind and with a good sense of humour to boot. We spent 5 days with him and enjoyed the experiences shared.
Check out Don here
Accommodation in Kandy: Liyya Residence
Accommodation in Colombo: Tiesh by Lakmini
Both of these can be booked on Booking.com
The 3-room apartment we stayed in Colombo – Tiesh by Lakmini
Tuk Tuk Safari: Website here
William Grinding Mill
9A Galle Road, Dehiwala