Of Stupas, Tea and Beaches

Published in SouthAsia (November 2007)
Sri Lanka is a delightful fusion of the ancient and the modern, of peacefulness and energy, of the oriental and the western; alive with countless experiences, writes Ayesha Hoda

Call it Taprobane (Greek), Serendib (Arabic), Ceilao (Portuguese), Ceylon (English) or Sri Lanka (Sanskrit) – the “resplendent land”. Marco Polo, a fourteenth century trader and explorer, described it as the finest island in the world. The ‘Lanka’ of Ravana (in Ramayana, an Indian epic) is now also described as the “Emerald Isle” and the “Pearl of the Orient” or “Pearl of the Indian Ocean” and as “one of Asia’s best kept secrets.”

This exotic ethnic pearl-shaped island is home to three prominent cultures(Sinhalese, Tamil and the legacy of British colonial rule) and is fast becoming one of the hottest travel destinations in Asia. Unfortunately, tourism has suffered there due to natural calamities; in 2004 because of the devastating tsunami and in 2005, due to the Indonesian earthquake, which wiped out many tourist resorts, along with other areas (around two-thirds of the island’s coastline).

However, the industry (which contributes significantly to the Sri Lankan economy), has been more drastically affected by the violent ethnic conflict, between the Sinhalese government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which started more than two decades back.

Due to recent armed rebellion against the state, tourist arrivals fell by 23.7% in the first seven months of 2007 compared with the same period in 2006 (when there were around half a million tourists). Glorification and hype of horrifying and heart-wrenching incidents by the media has made potential tourists all over the world apprehensive about visiting this otherwise alluring island-country.

The Sri Lankan government and its tourism ministry are working hard to revive the industry against the backdrop of the seemingly endless civil war in the country. They have made efforts to ensure safety of the tourists and have taken several initiatives to win their confidence. They are also working in the direction of making the country a Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Events (MICE) destination in South Asia.

New luxury hotels have also opened up, adding to the already long list of big names of the world hotel industry present here, such as Hilton and the Taj Hotel Group. Some of the hotels there have received recent coverage in international press, for their incomparable services and unique splendour.

Rich in contrast and colour, Sri Lanka also has tropical forests, lush verdant resorts, evergreen tea plantations, high altitudes with enchanting aerial views and mesmerising, sandy beaches with very blue skies, to boast of.

Visiting the country can provide one with some varied experiences of leisure and pleasure. It provides an opportunity to discover what one is really interested in and choose from the multifarious activities and diverse topography. You can enjoy the heat of the plains, sun bathing, sea bathing and scuba diving at the charming, palm beaches or retreat to the peaceful sanctuary of the hill country.

This 405 km wide island is a treasure chest of ancient cities and ruins, comprising of seven world heritage sites: the truly ancient cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, the cave temples of Dambulla, the Sigiriya Rock Fortress, the royal city of Kandy, the Dutch Fort at Galle and the Sinharaja Forest Reserve.

Exploring the Cultural Triangle (including Polonnaruwa, Anuradapura and Sigiriya) with its ruined temples that hold amaranthine fascination, remarkable rock paintings and carvings and majestic statues of Buddha that are thousands of years old, can be a delight for a lover of history, culture and archaeology.

You may stumble upon very interesting facts: the sacred city of Anuradapura (the capital of Sri Lanka for ten centuries) is located within a jungle, which hid away monasteries and monuments for ages; the mirror wall in the Sigiriya Rock Fortress has scribbles (a common feature of most historical sites) but these are as old as the 8th century and have been well-preserved.

In contrast to this, the modern, cosmopolitan city of Colombo is the place to be if you happen to be a car freak or an admirer of Dutch-inspired buildings and British Victorian mansions and can even stay at one of the grand, colonial hotels. The city also has a happening nightlife, with numerous nightclubs and discotheques. Food is enjoyable because of the variety of cuisine available at most of the city’s restaurants, cafes and kiosks, proclaiming great culinary skills. Even the traditional food of Sri Lanka may appeal to some tourists, as it has its share of western influences. For tea lovers, it is something to be in a place that is reputed to be one of the best producers of tea in the world; Ceylon tea is served in every nook and corner of the island.

Shopping is also an established form of entertainment especially in Colombo, where the busy markets and bazaars offer traditional handicrafts as well as branded apparel and have entire streets, in some places, specializing in a specific item. A number of things, such as cigarettes, souvenirs, perfumes etc. are available duty-free in the country, up to a certain limit, since the past eighteen years.

Sri Lanka also captures your attention as it is a panorama of the Buddhist culture and has many pilgrims. Apart from the Buddhist temples, there are also a number of mosques, churches and Hindu temples in the region, with their unique architectural styles. Adam’s Peak or Sri Pada, a legendary mountain peak, is a place of pilgrimage for believers of several major faiths as it bears a foot imprint, which is deemed as holy by many. Differing opinions are that either Buddha or Hindu God Shiva or St Thomas or Adam left it, when he was expelled from Eden. For non-believers, it is still well worth experiencing the climb on what is said to be the longest stairway up a mountain, in the world, and provides a breathtaking view of the tropical forest.

To sum up, Sri Lanka offers a peaceful, luxury vacation. Your itinerary depends on taste, hobby and where you are coming from. Travel is also hassle-free. Nationals of most countries are issued a month-long visa upon entry and therefore can plan a holiday at a short notice. The tourist facilities as well as a modern transportation system make travelling easier.

The literacy rate is very high (92%) – the highest in South Asia – and English is spoken at most places so communication is not a problem. The South and South-eastern region of the country, which encompass the most beautiful beaches and towns, are not marred by indigenous terrorism. Sri Lankans are reputed to be a sharp-witted, frank and hospitable people, eager to promote their culture and their country, assimilating it with western cultures and trends.