Monday, January 2, 2012

Sri Lanka: A Gem of a Holiday

Taking interesting vacations is one of the great benefits of living where we do.  So any opportunity that we get to leave this God-forsaken can't-drive-after-one-glass-of-wine Christmasless place called Doha for a bit should be met with excitement.  But I was meeting this vacation with reluctance, head-on.

Who in their right mind, I asked myself, and then my husband, and then his parents when they arrived in mid-December (who wondered why I would ask such a question, when they had just flown half way around the world to come with us), and pretty much anyone else who would listen, would take a vacation for the week leading up to Christmas, returning with a day to spare?  How could I possibly get everything done before we left?  Who would pack? Wrap presents? Bake cookies? Take out the turkey?

And why would we go to a country where only a small minority even celebrated Christmas?  We wouldn't experience that pre-Christmas spirit that I so desperately craved.  No thanks—I've read THAT novel in Doha.  In fact, I think I WROTE it.

Well.  I've been wrong before.  Shocking, yet true.  There was that one time...I forget exactly when.  Ask Dan.  I'm sure he remembers.

Turns out our trip to Sri Lanka was exactly what we (I) needed.  On Day 3 I declared it one of our top three vacations yet.  It might be even higher.  We had hired a tour company with a big van and a friendly, knowledgeable Sri Lankan tour guide/driver named Lahki (which is short for some 17-syllable name which I had already forgotten the instant I heard it).  Here are the highlights:

Scenery, Greenery...Surprising Pristine-ery
What a treat to leave beige, dusty Doha behind for a week and visit a place that is lush, green and unbelievably humid.  (I want you back, Sri Lanka hair!)  Through the course of the week, we drove from Colombo to Dambulla, then to Kandy, and Ude Walawe, and Tangalle, and finally back to Colombo.

Before climbing Sigiriya Rock.
We made it to the top!
Our travels didn't afford us a lot of vistas, as we pretty much stuck to winding roads bordered by canopies of palms, ironwoods, jack and fig trees.  We visited Sigiriya Rock fortress, climbing to the top of the 180 m rock to the palace ruins above, giving us a panoramic view of the area.  During our  visit to a spice garden in Matale, we saw first-hand how black pepper, cinnamon, coffee, tea, vanilla, and other culinary staples grow.  Other interesting stops included a gem museum and a The Temple of the Tooth (a Buddhist Temple) where we watched a traditional dance ceremony.  Larger-than-life Buddha shrines are everywhere in this country, as are Hindu temples.  The latter Dan referred to as "yard-sales"—hundreds of porcelain dolls stacked up to make a tower.

It wasn't until we were well into our drive from Colombo to Dambulla that we understood why it would take four hours to cover 150 km.  The roads wind their way through the island, which seems to have a continuous string of villages and small cities dotting its path.  Dogs and cows wander freely across the road, and we rarely caught sight of third gear.  Car-sickness aside, we were struck by how clean the country is.  Compared to other countries where straying from a resort leads to filthy streets and rivers filled with sewage, Sri Lanka is downright pristine.  When I asked Lahki about how the country deals with garbage collection, he pointed out the tractors towing flat-beds.  The workers towing these tractors collect garbage daily, and everything that is collected is either recycled or composted.  Pretty impressive for a "Third World" country.  Sri Lanka also just opened its first highway (Southern Express Highway), connecting Matara with Colombo, and we were able to use it for the last half of our drive from Tangalle to Colombo.  Clearly this project was well thought-out—it has interchanges and everything!  Doha, take a lesson.
Welcome, and Ayubowan
Without a doubt, Sri Lanka's natural beauty is only exceeded by the generosity of its people.  We were humbled by the level of hospitality time and again.  The staff at each hotel greeted us as if they had been anxiously awaiting our arrival all day.  On Day 4, after winding slowly down a muddy road through the jungle in the rain, we arrived at Kalu's Hideaway, and were greeted by staff with umbrellas who led us into the lobby where a group of about 15 carollers were singing Christmas songs in Sinhala, and then in English...just for us.

Priyantha's family, at his home
The highlight of the trip for us was our visit to Priyantha's house.  Priyantha is a young man from Sri Lanka who works in Dan's office building, serving tea and coffee to the company employees.  He has been living in Doha, apart from his young family, for over a year, and has a year left in his contract.  His earnings here are allowing him to build a modest house back home.  Prior to our trip, Dan told him that we were going to his home country, and he couldn't have been more excited.  And when he found out that we were going to be travelling within two kilometers of his family's home, he insisted that we go for lunch.  No amount of negotiating could talk him down to just tea.  Priyantha's wife and much of his extended family greeted us and served us not just lunch, but a veritable feast.  There were more dishes than I could count, including chicken curry, vegetables and rice, curried jack, aubergine with wild boar, and fresh papaya, mango and pineapple.  I don't think I'd be misguided to assume that they did not eat like that every day, or any day.  We were truly welcomed guests.  It's hard to think of a way to repay that amount of kindness.

All elephants, all the time!
If there was a theme to this trip, elephants were it.  The seven of us shared the backs of two elephants for a half  hour long walk through the jungle and swamp in Dambulla.  We visited the elephant orphanage at Pinnawala, where the kids bottle-fed a young elephant, and then sat for an hour while watching the herd bathe in the river, while sipping Cokes (us, not them).  At Ude Walawe, we went to the Elephant Transit Home, which is not a home for wayward pachyderms, but a spot for calves to recover after being orphaned, abused, or abandoned, and some have been released back into the wild.  After visiting the wood-working shop in Matale, we will soon have our own two-foot tall, beautifully carved elephant in our home.  (Clearly the shopping addiction is not exclusive to Doha.)

Beds, breakfasts, and beaches
We were booked into several four-star accommodations, which, given how standards can vary depending on the country, had me a little worried before our arrival.  Turns out, I had nothing to fear.  From our two nights at Amaya Lake hotel cabins in Dambulla, to beautiful Amaya Hills resort in Kandy, and onwards, we were very pleased with our rooms.  And I should mention that every single hotel we stayed at had at least one decorated Christmas tree, if not more.

With Kalu
On our fourth night in the country, our tour company arranged our stay at Kalu's Hideaway, a seven room hotel in Ude Walawe.  The company cautioned us that the hotel was very basic, but in hindsight, they must have been setting us up...the place was intentionally rustic, yet gorgeous.  It is an eco hotel set deep in the jungle, with a pool, walking paths, a tree house, and a comfortable open-air restaurant.  Kalu's Hideaway is the result of the vision of owner Romesh Kaluwitharana, arguably Sri Lanka's most famous cricketer (who knew? not us!), and he and his family happened to be staying there the night we were there.  And in small-world fashion, the only other guests that night were a family of Canadian expats.

View from Claughton
We were looking forward to the end of the week and our stay in Tangalle, on the south coast, and we weren't disappointed.  Claughton House was our home for two nights, an estate in a bay on the Indian Ocean.  The seven of us occupied the main building with three bedrooms, while two other guest stayed in the guest house.  Although Claughton House is a hotel, it felt like we had our very own staff:  we were asked in the morning what we would like for lunch and dinner (one time we requested fish, and I'm sure I saw them catching it off the rocks later that day!), and again at night what we would like for breakfast.  We spent our time there jumping in the ocean waves, swimming in the pool, and playing cards.  And of course, eating.

Mount Lavinia
Our last night was spent in Colombo at Mount Lavinia, a colonial heritage hotel.  We enjoyed the great restaurant, the pool, and the beach, and it was a perfect place to stay for our last night in the country.

So long, Sri Lanka
Beautiful country, beautiful people.  We will have fond memories of this place for years to come.  And it's even OK to go the week before Christmas.


  1. Thanks for sharing your experiences - sounds like a "must see" place. Better add it to our list! Awesome post!

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