Sri Lanka – Long Read

Share the streets with elephants

In the 19th century, British colonialists brought in 10,000 Tamils from India – like these women picking tea leaves in the foothills of Sri Lanka’s central mountain range – to work on the plantations of what was then Ceylon, turning it into one of the world's great tea producers. Ceylon originally produced coffee until a fungus destroyed the plantations in the 18th century.

Photo by Jochem Wijnands

Sri Lanka – Long Read

Share the streets with elephants

Hello Sri Lanka, whose culture is an irresistible mixture of Hinduism and Buddhism. Its landscapes are an equal mix, ranging from cool highlands where tea is cultivated to warm beaches where stilt fishermen perform their amazing routine in the late afternoons. Visitors should also be ready to share the streets with cows, elephants, tuk-tuks and orange-clad monks – all trying to forge their way past you.

Jochem Wijnands
Jochem Wijnands Founder / photographer

The rain is pouring down. The streets are deserted, but the palm trees cannot take shelter. They just sadly hang their heads. Coffee colored mud meanders down the dirt track, transforming it into a torrential river. Soaked in his red shorts and yellow flip-flops, a man runs through the puddles and disappears through an open door. My hair sticks to my face. Water, warm and thick, runs down my face, over my eyebrows, through my lashes and into my eyes and mouth. It tastes of cinnamon. Through the curtain of rain I can just make out dozens of fishing boats in full sail returning to the harbor after a long night at sea. A pitiful dog leaves the shelter of a hedge and comes shyly wagging towards me. He’d rather be wet with company, than dry and alone. We greet each other like good friends both far from home.

This is my first morning in Sri Lanka and my first excursion. Only after several hours, with my skin wrinkled and nearly dissolving from the rain, do I make it back to my hotel. The European winter and the trials of the flight are now completely washed away. I haven’t had such a delicious warm shower in years. Not a trace of jet lag remains.

Here it comes: the sun! Steaming earth, sizzling asphalt, blinding light, choruses of birds. My first destination is the wildlife park of Wilpattu, which covers 1,300 square kilometers and is the largest in Sri Lanka. The park claims that leopards here number anywhere between 30 and 60. It is green and lush. The overflowing ponds and meter-deep puddles are the only traces left of the monsoon that I caught the last vestiges of that morning.

We are on the lookout for the illustrious leopard, a quest that luckily seems to have penetrated even the heart and soul of our vehicle. The four- wheel drive growls and skids its way along without a hitch. At the entrance to the park, photographs of the glorious big cats form a welcoming committee. They lie languorously stretched out in the sun or draped high on a tree branch, looking bored with eyes half-closed, like a cat on a windowsill.

Like needles in a haystack

The photos create the impression that you need only wander a little bit before coming across one somewhere, anywhere, just like lions in a Kenyan reserve. Yet, after a full day of cruising, peering through binoculars, checking for dung and swapping information with other jeeps, our optimism turns to vain hope and then despair. “Like needles in a haystack,” comments our ranger.

My fellow companions start to lose the plot. They think they see leopards’ tails everywhere disappearing into the long grass. The mission takes on absurd dimensions. We start to feel like we are being watched from the bushes. That the leopards are scampering across the road behind us as we anxiously scan the edge of the forest. That they’re hitching a ride on the roof of the jeep. Jay, our host from Kulu Safaris, tells us that they’ve seen six leopards over several days, cubs and all! What a score. We start to feel as if we are searching for the abominable snowman, which we all know exist only in fairy tales.

The sun has already gone down and we’re driving back to camp when we hear the alarm of deer barking in the distance. In the twilight with the motor off, we wait. In the distance, backlit against the pale sandy path, we see the distinctive silhouette of a leopard for just a moment. Then he is gone, but that is enough for us.

That evening, back at the wilderness camp after a hot bush shower and a cold beer, with the full moon coming up over the lake, I feel completely at one with the world. I am exhausted as I dive into my bed and close my eyes. Out of my dream flies a pure white Indian Paradise Fly Catcher, the most beautiful bird in Sri Lanka. I have seen at least six today.

Seven Unesco World Heritage sites

The history of Sri Lanka is one of a highly sophisticated culture and an irresistible mixture of Hinduism and Buddhism. The interior of the island is littered with archaeological sites, at least seven of which have been cited as Unesco World Heritage sites. They have witnessed war, patricide, divine inspiration, megalomanic dictators and religious chaos, but luckily I don’t have to worry about all of that now as I jump from site to site thrilled by the pomp and circumstance that I encounter. The collection of historical places that I am visiting is known as the “Cultural Triangle.”

I begin my journey back in time at Anuradhapura, founded approximately 2,500 years ago and the original capital of Sri Lanka. The city is spread over 40 square kilometers, with here and there a gigantic stupa (a Buddhist shrine, temple or pagoda that houses a relic or marks the location of an auspicious event). To the west lies an enormous water reservoir that has been supplying the local people since at least 430BCE.

The city was razed to the ground countless times, with hardly a stone left standing. The ruins lie under meters of sand, although some foundations have been excavated, creating an eerie impression. My imagination cannot take it all in and I wander aimlessly until I come across the Jetvana Vihara stupa. Standing at 120 meters, it is by far the highest building in the city and made entirely of brick. Unbelievable.

The cupola is so drastically overgrown that Unesco has been busy with the massive, unprecedented restoration for years. Mesmerized, I follow the dozens of workers, with wheelbarrows full of bricks, over the fragile scaffolding. There are enough bricks here to build an entire city. This alone gives an indication of the greatness of this historical era.

From here I travel onward, through the temples of Minhintale, with its medicinal bath hewn in the shape of a man into a massive rock. I’m short of time, so I have had to skip Polonnaruwa, dating from 900 AD, the second capital of Sri Lanka. Time becomes a precious commodity in Sri Lanka. I could have happily spent days in places where I had only a few hours.

A citadel just as spectacular as its history

In the middle of a tropical rain forest, visible from far and wide on the top of massive rock, lies perhaps Sri Lanka’s greatest treasure: Sigiriya, a citadel just as spectacular as its history. In the fifth century AD, Prince Kassapa was forced to leave the capital of Anuradhapura to come to Sigiriya as he no longer felt safe, and with good reason. In order to gain the throne, he had his father the king, captured and then entombed alive. Mogellana was the rightful heir, but he was forced to flee to India where he spent the next 18 years building an army to reclaim the throne. However, before Mogellana could have the pleasure of capturing his brother, Kassapa killed himself with a dagger, or so the story goes. Mogellana, now crowned king, established himself once more in the capital and gave the mountain rock back to the monks who had previously lived in the grottos.

Meanwhile, Sigiriya had been transformed into a pleasure palace with massive swimming pools, palace gardens, canals, the palace of clouds, the mirrored wall and fabulous frescos of dancing girls. After only 20 years, these were deserted, silent witnesses to this most tumultuous period in the history of the country. Now, hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the world marvel at their faded glory.

Sri Lanka is a land of diversity. There are three official languages: English, Tamil and Sinhalese. Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Muslims live peacefully side-by-side, though they seem to marry within their own religion. Religious differences are apparent on the street. Tamil women with their golden jewellery and colorful saris walk alongside veiled Muslim women and orange clad monks. Cows and elephants are to be found wandering along public roads, which are also used by pushbikes, handcarts and tuk- tuks as well as taxis and buses. Throughout the country you can see jovial groups dressed in blinding white robes. They are on Buddhist pilgrimages, a popular family outing for which there are any number of holy places to choose from.

Everywhere, Sri Lankans play cricket

On fields, along the roadside, at the beach, everywhere, Sri Lankans play an improvised game of cricket. All they need is a ball, a piece of wood and a chair. I don’t see anybody playing volleyball, which is officially Sri Lanka’s National Sport.

Colorful Hindu temples with their extravagant Ganesh and Shiva images abound and there are fabulous processions on the full moon, both Buddhist and Hindu, with decorated elephants, music, dance, flaming torches, fireworks and in some cases, self-mutilation. Despite the chaos and relative poverty, Sri Lanka is beautiful and safe. The people are extremely friendly, with the predictable exception of ultra touristy places, such as the popular bathing spot of Hikkaduwa and the present-day capital of Colombo.

As I continue my journey southward, the landscape begins to change. Mountains now dominate the horizon, rice paddies terrace the hills, small rivers stream by us, and the air becomes much cooler. Young men cycle, sometimes with great difficulty as their giggling girlfriends or sisters perch nonchalantly on their handlebars. At the edge of a mountain lake, young women wash their long, shining hair. I stop enroute for a last coconut, cheaper than water, which are both unavailable to buy in the mountains.

The city of Kandy, the former capital, fails to captivate me despite the special access I gain to the greatest of Buddhist relics (the Tooth of the Buddha). However, the setting of high peaks veiled in mist, followed by deep ravines and waterfalls, is ravishing. Indeed, over the next few days I count myself lucky that I added this tour of the high country to my journey. The narrow roads snake through tea plantations with exotic nose-ringed women in woolen jerseys plucking fresh twigs for their baskets. From a distance they look like herds of mountain goats slowly grazing on the slopes.

The picturesque cultural landscape that now unfolds dates from the 19th century when the English hacked back the jungle to plant tea and coffee bushes. Crop workers came from Tamil Nadu, a province of southern India, to work the land. Along the way, the only structures that I come across are simple Tamil villages, where after nearly 200 years the spirit of India still lives on.

I am eating before an open fire

Only later in Nuwara Eliya, a city at 1,900 meters under the shadow of Sri Lanka’s highest mountain, do I see the huge colonial villas the English had built for themselves. I’m staying a little outside the city tonight, at the Tea Factory. As its name suggests, it is a beautifully restored tea factory on a hill in the middle of the plantations. Outside it is chilly. I am eating before an open fire.

The next day, I finally reach the coast. I had once associated it with blinding white sand and swaying palm trees, but now I can think of only one thing, the tsunami. How are the villages doing? The beaches? The hotels? When I get there, I can still see traces of the disaster, but hotels are back to normal and the beaches are clean. Some parts of the coast were miraculously spared; other areas have been forever scarred.

Ravinatha Aryasinha, director general of public communications at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, says: “The tsunami, while obviously tragic, gave us a clean slate. It’s a chance to reposition Sri Lanka as an ecodestination rather than just a beach holiday.”

If you are planning a beach vacation to Sri Lanka, avoid the coast between Colombo and Galle. The beach is bursting with big hotels but there is a busy road alongside it with trucks and buses running by day and night. The locals have all left, making way for people from Colombo and other cities to try their luck. Further south, between Galle and Ambalantota, Tangalle and Mirissa, is much more attractive. There is no grand scale tourism. The beaches are deserted; the locals are friendly and relaxed. The only problem is there is no nightlife. No bars, no clubs. A night out here is a coconut with rum under the stars on a deserted beach.

Hidden in the sludge are rich rubies

Sri Lanka is not just about paradise beaches and picturesque fishing villages, there are also amazing excursions. In the neighborhood of Weligama, there are the fishermen who, with simple rods, just flick fish out of the water. A day-trip to the Yala National Park is definitely worth it, with its leopards, bears and elephants. If you are a tea connoisseur then you must visit the Handunugoda Tea Centre where they make “white tea,” claimed to be the most expensive in the world. In several places along the coast, people mine precious stones and make their own jewelry. It is often no more than a deep pit into which the miners lower themselves. They return to the surface with buckets of mud. Hidden in the sludge are rich rubies and milky-blue moonstones.

However, the absolute highlight is the historic fort of Galle, built in the 17th century by the Dutch. Its colonial past, in all its facets, is still tangible. As soon as I pass the outer walls I enter another world. The chaos and haste is left far behind. Kissing couples hide in corners while families promenade along the walls. A band of white uniformed schoolgirls are marching between the historic buildings as the imam raises the call to prayer.

At the Lady Hill Hotel, with its fantastic view over the city, I contemplate the vista of the Great Church and the rest of this open-air museum and am transported back to old Ceylon. Just a few hundred meters further up is the Sri Lanka of today. They are playing cricket here as buses hurtle by with horns blaring, and a mahout forges a way through the dense traffic on his elephant.