The island of Sinhala, or Sri Lanka as we know it today, is a country beautiful beyond expectations. The warmth of its people, the neat and clean roads, the delicious food - everything is impressive. Most surprising were the smiling faces of immigration officers at the airport. I bet no one has seen that anywhere else in the world!
COLOMBO: BEGINNING WITH THE CAPITAL
The moment we stepped out of the Bandaranaike International Airport in Colombo, we knew it was a good choice as a destination. The guide said our hotel was by the sea, and it would take a while to get there, across traffic congestion, and so we should eat something on the way.
We decided to opt for something traditionally Sri Lankan. So we went into a restaurant. Among the various food items on display, we spotted something that looked like our 'Chitoi Pitha', with a poached egg on top, seeing which Nowshin exclaimed in excitement, “These are hoppers! I saw it featured on a show by Peter Kuruvita's 'My Sri Lanka' on Travel and Living! And this looks like Malu Paan (a type of triangular bread). We must have this!”
Some people seem to dislike Sri Lankan cuisine for its use of coconut and coconut oil, but we became instant fans of the delicious stuff after the very first experience.
By late evening, through traffic and across the city to almost its very boundaries, we finally made it to Hotel Berjaya at Lavinia, right by the seashore.
We were most surprised to see rail tracks by the water. The wild waves of the sea on one side, and the whistling trains sliding right by it every so often. How very surprising!
Right by the sea and the tracks are a whole alley of restaurants, where we had dinner. We finished dinner in the flickering light of the candles, and an enchanted ambience created by the sound of rushing waves, serenaded by the quiet Spanish and English melodies floating about.
The next morning we set out to see Colombo. The British made this city the capital of Sinhala after taking over power in 1815, but the port city was well known to ancient mariners and businessmen for its harbour, even more than 2000 years ago. It gained recognition as a port after the Portuguese came here in the year 1505.
The city abounds in the architectural creations of the Dutch, the Portuguese, and the British. In Colombo, you will find among others the Saint Anthony's Church, All Saints Church, Wolvendaal Church, Seema Malaka Temple, many Buddhist temples, the old parliament house, Premadasa Stadium, and the Old Town Hall. If you have time, you can also visit the museum, and the the Kailawasanathan Swami Mandir, the oldest and largest Hindu Temple here.
Colombo is such a clean city that it appears to be a city in the western hemisphere of the world. Even the sea beach is unusually clean. Multitude of people move about the Galle face sea beach, eating crab and shrimp fry, chips, and all other fried street food goodies, yet there is no litter at all!
The Sri Lankan cricket star Sangakara is quite a popular figure, and hence people in the group demanded we check out his restaurant “Ministry of Crab.” It's situated in an open mall at the centre of the city's main business district. I was quite jealous to see such open sitting space in the centre of Colombo's main business centre - the counterpart of our Motijheel.
I should mention, if you want to get any shopping done in Sri Lanka, do it in Colombo. There are quite a few large shops like ODEL and Cotton Collection. The items you can get from Sri Lanka are tea, herbal cosmetics, precious and semi-precious stones, cotton clothes, and spices. Fill your bag to your heart's content with various herbal cosmetic items from Nature's Secrets. There is also a Twin Tower, used as a commercial building. And that is how we used up two days sight-seeing in Colombo.
KANDY: WHERE BUDDHA RESIDES ON THE MOUNTAIN TOP
After two days of taking in the sights of Colombo, we headed to the mountain city of Kandy. Designated a part of World Heritage, Kandy is among the most sacred places for followers of Buddhism. The Sinhala king had been able to just keep this part of the island free of the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British colonisers, although it was finally annexed by the British in 1815.
While on the way to the city, we stopped over at an Elephant Orphanage, a sanctuary for pachyderms. We got there at bath time so to speak, and saw a number of elephants of various sizes being bathed in a beautiful hilly stream. Various shopkeepers lined the sides of the road to the stream, selling various kinds of masks, bead jewellery, souvenirs, and even 'poo paper'—made out of elephant excreta!
The elephants went back to their living area at noon, where they were fed with much care. Then it was time for them to relax. We grabbed lunch on our way out of he sanctuary, somewhat out of greed. Some people were sitting around what looked like a makeshift hotel, eating. A bit of potato 'bhorta', red chilli 'bhorta', coconut 'bhorta', fish fry, dry lentil curry, and small fish curry as well, with a plate of rice. It looked delicious to us, and it was! We ate to our heart's content.
Then we started off again. The road ahead kept getting higher, and we climbed the hill in our car, watching the train going beside the road as well. Sometimes the train was higher than us in the car, and other times we would look down to see it slither by. The road was lined by tea gardens, and we also saw some shops selling earthenware ad bamboo and fruit stalls. We took a break at a coffee shop for a while.
Kandy basically developed around a lake, and in the centre of the city, on top of the mountain, sits none other than Gautam Buddha, spreading peace over it, in the Bahiravokanda Buddhist temple. The Buddha here is beautiful, and serene. It is visible from all parts of the city below, and mot of the way is accessible by car. To reach the statue itself, you will have to walk a bit. Kandy also houses the Temple of the Tooth Relic, another sacred pilgrimage site of the Buddhists, where a tooth of the Buddha is stored. There is also the Lankatilaka Temple for the adherents of Buddhism and Hinduism. Kandy also has a tea museum, the Udawattakele jungle, and the Kandy lake. The last king of Kandy had this lake dug in 1807.
We felt great the minute we got off at the hotel on the mountain top, and all our fatigue vanished. It was green everywhere, the blue sky, and proud mountains standing tall. But the most interesting was the warning on the hotel door, written in bright red, “Keep the doors closed or monkeys will take your things.” We did see them the first thing after waking up in the morning—moving about with mischief in their eyes.
OFF TO GALLE: THE CITY MENTIONED
IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
From Kandy, we headed off to Galle surrounded by the sea. We were amazed by the expressway that was taking us to Galle. We drove at speeds of 140/150 kilomtres per hour, but there were no bumps or jerking at all! The tea we had in our cups was not spilling out either!
We dreamt of making four or five such expressways in our Bangladesh too. Not just the expressway, but all the roads here were smooth and clean.
Before entering Galle we saw the Indian Ocean, and the main road of the city is a marine drive, right by the shore. But where was the city? All we could see were the waves of the ocean hitting Galle shores.
You can find many Portuguese and Dutch buildings left over from yesteryears, which is why Galle is designated as a World Heritage site. Experts think that Galle is in fact the city of Tarshish, where King Solomon sent his ship full of goods for trade.
The most beautiful part of Galle is the Old Dutch quarter, and the old lighthouse. Visiting it will momentarily transport you to the 15/16th century. There are quite a few shops of antiques and masks here. From October to December, the ocean off Galle is a good place for whale watching. There is also a rain forest, a sea turtle hatchery, and a Dutch museum - if you have some time to spare.
We all loved Sri Lanka so much that we want to go again, soon.
By Ranjana Huda
Translated by Sania Aiman
Photo: Ranjana Huda