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Sri Lanka is a small miracle partly due to the compact physical diversity of this pearl-shaped island – but, as we shall see, this diversity extends to virtually every aspect of life, fringed by variously-shaped sublime beaches, from straight expanse to rocky cove, the island possesses a coastal plain containing a host of geographic features such as lagoons, wetlands, rivers and various types of wildlife-rich jungle.
The plain ends in the central area where the land starts to ascend into mist-shrouded mountains, covered in forest od wind-stunted trees (in fact there are seven different types of forest in Sri Lanka) plains known as patanas, and rolling tea plantations, in addition, the hillside are invariably punctuated by dramatic waterfalls. For its size Sri Lanka has perhaps the largest number of waterfalls of any country.
Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural society, a reflection of the island’s encounter with successive foreign immigrants. But it all began with indigenous people, the forest people, hunter-gathers who exist today.
The main ethnic groups are the Sinhalese and Tamils, both originally from the Indian subcontinent. Then there are Muslims, who settled in the island from the time it became an ancient trading Centre. Similarly, Malay and Chinese were also attracted to the island. The Portuguese and British brought with them Kaffirs from Africa and the Dutch as assortment of European traders, the Burghers. These are other communities too, the Chetties from South India for example. The list is extraordinary.
Whatever their situation in society, the people of Sri Lanka possess a warm and friendly nature reflected in persistent smiling faces and eagerness to help those unfamiliar with aspect of local life. You will find that Sri Lankans are very hospitable and take pride in inviting people to their homes, however modest they may be. So don’t be surprised if a driver or guide, or indeed virtually anyone uncounted, request the pleasure of your company. And don’t decline, as Sri Lankan hospitality is taken very seriously.
Sri Lanka’s cultural depth is recognized by UNESCO, which has declared six archaeological World Heritage Sites in the country:
From enormous dagobos (dome-shaped structures) and remains of ancient buildings in the ruined cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, to the awesome stairways to the temple at Dambulla and the sensual frescoes of heavenly maidens at the palace at the rock of Sigiriya, visitors can experience these World Heritage Sites within a compact area called the cultural triangle.
In the hill country lies the former royal capital of Kandy, home to the Dalada Maligawa or Sacred Temple of the Tooth Relic, which houses the sacred tooth relic of the Buddha. With its distinctive architecture, art and music, Kandy is bastion of traditional culture.
In contrast, experience the colonial heritage of th country by heading south to the mid-17th century. Dutch fort at Galle, the best preserved in Asia. With 14 massive bastions, a grid system of streets, and some original Dutch bungalows, the fort bustles with life just as it did when Galle was the country’s main port. It’s simply one of the most unique attractions in Sri Lanka.
FESTIVAL YEAR AROUND
Sri Lanka’s ancient civilization endows the island with a legacy of colorful festivals relating to the Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian religions. Furthermore these are commemorated with the flair of a people with a genius of pageantry at ritual.
Every full moon day is a public holiday known as poya. The most important is in May – Vesak Poya – which marks the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and passing away. Worth seeing are the illuminated pandols (Bamboo frameworks), hung with pictures depicting events in the life of the Buddha.
Sri Lanka’s most tourist-oriented festival is the Kandy Esala Perahera, held in Kandy over 10 days in late July to early August and climaxing on Esala Poya Perahera means “procession” and that’s exactly what occurs nightly – a magical passing by of drummers, dancers, whip-crackers, acrobats and robed elephants. A caparisoned tusker carries the reason for the festival, the sacred tooth relic of the Buddha for the people to venerate.
Hundu festivals include Vel, held in Colombo in July, in which God Skanda’s silver-plated chariot and vel(spear) are paraded acros the city, and the Kataragama Festival in the deep south, also connected with Skanda, in which fire-workers participate.
AYURVEDA & SPA
Sri Lanka has always been a place that refreshes not just the mind tnd body, but also the soul and spirit, and for thousands of years. The most popular method used to restore and rejuvenate tired bodies and weary souls has been Ayurveda – the oldest and most holistic medical system available in the world.
Sri Lanka has been centre of spiritual and physical healing for 200 years, Ayurvedic programs consist of a range of herbal treatments and various types of baths and massages, together with cleaning and revitalization techniques such as yoga, meditations and special diets.
Sri Lanka now has a number of spas, mainly on th west coast, which not only provide Ayurveda but also other Estern and Western therapies, such as Thai massage, Hydrotherapy, Herbal baths, Refexology and Beauty treatments. For those seeking spiritual nourishment, meditation courses are also available.
The need to conserve the environment was deeply ingrained in traditional Sri Lankan society: in the 3rd BC, the country’s first Buddhist monarch established the world’s first wildlife sanctuary, today this tradition continues with 13% of Sri Lanka conserved as national parks, reserves sanctuary and jungle corridors.
Sri Lanka possess a high degree of biodiversity, indeed the island (together with the Western Ghat of India) has been identified by conservation international as one of 34 world biodiversity hot spots. In addition, the Sinharaja Forest Reserve, the country’s last viable area of primary tropical rainforest has been designed a UNESCO World Heritage Site. What’s remarkable is the high proportion of endemic species.
A safari in one of the 14 national parks offers the chance to see some of Sri Lanka’s 91 mammals 916 endemic) – elephant, leopard, sloth bear, sambhur, spotted deer, hog, mouse, barking deer, wild boar, porcupine, ant-eater, civet cat, loris, giant squirrel and monkeys such as the macaque, purple faced leaf monkey and grey langur.
The island is an ornithologist’s paradise, with over 233 resident species, (33 endemic) but migratory species stretch the number to an astounding 482. There are 171 reptiles (101 endemic including two crocodile species). Thankfully, only five of the 83 snake species are lethal. In recent years there has been a surge in the discovery of amphibians, so that by the time you read this, the figure of 106 (90 endemic), will no doubt have risen.
ADVENTURE AND SPECIAL INTEREST SPORTS
With over 1600km of coat, Sri Lanka is an ideal location for windsurfing, waterskiing, surfing, sailing, scuba diving (including wreck diving), snorkeling, speed boating and other motorized or non-motorized water sports. Prime water sports sites are located in the Negombo region on the west coast, Wadduwa, Kalutara, and Beruwela on the south western coast and Bentota, Hikkaduwa, Galle, Unawatuna, Koggala, Tangalle and Hambantota on the southern and south eastern coats. Water sports providers are run by local and foreign professionals (including PADI qualified instructors) and rent state-of-the-art equipment.
Sri Lanka possesses over 100 rivers, together with lagoons and tanks (irrigation lakes), so there are plentiful opportunities for year around kayaking and canoeing, perhaps combines with a camping trip. Two popular locations are the Kalu Ganga and Kelani Ganga (rivers).
The Kalani Ganga near Kitulgala has fast headwater and rapids ideal for White Water Rafting (from November to April), with names such as Virgin’s breast, White quarter, Butter Crunch, Head chopper, Cock’s snapper and Killer falls.
Varied landscape. wildlife and archaeological sites offers excellent opportunities for trekking. Nature trails of exceptional interest include the Sinharaja rainforest, the cloud forests of Hatton plains, the Knuckles (mountain range) and Hakgala strict nature reserve.
In addition, Para gliding, hot air ballooning, rock climbing, caving and mountain biking are possible throughout the year.
Sri Lanka has an assortment of accommodation options, Colombo features not only a host of modern five star hotels but also iconic colonial era hotels with the charm and romance of a bygone era.
The island generally blessed with impressive hotels usually situated in stunning settings. The coastal areas, especially the west and south, have innumerable resorts and hotels, where package tourists mostly stay. Several are designed by Geoffrey Bawa, one of the 20th century’s foremost Asian architects. Bawa’s vision encompasses a style referred to as ‘tropical modernism’ in which forms of modernism are beautifully softened and enriched by traditional influences and surrounding landscapes. There are also an increasing number of boutique hotels on the west and south coast, mainly centered at Galle.
Hill country towns such as Kandy, Nuwara Eliya and Bandarawela feature colonial era hotels, and for those who venture farther afield, perhaps to indulge in adventure sports, there are beautifully converted colonial homes, tea and rubber plantation buildings, jungle cabins, tree houses and eco lodges as well as under canvas.
The cultivation of many types of rice, spices, vegetables and fruits, coupled with past forieg influence, ensures that Sri Lanka enjoy a varied and select cuisine. As a staple, rice is consumed with as assortment of colorful curries (eggplant, potato, green banana, chicken, and fish) that range in potency from delicately spiced to near dynamite.
Other Sri Lankan staples include hoppers ( a pancake-like snack), string hoppers 9steamed rice noodles) and pittu ( a mixture of flour and coconut). Lamprais – rice and accompaniments baked in plantain leaves – is a legacy of the Dutch. Seafood lovers will rejoice at the fresh fish, prawns, crab, squid and crayfish available. Dessets include buffola curd eaten with palm honey, and the mayaly-derives caramel-like wattalappam.
Sri Lanka has a wonderful array of snacks, known as short eats, named cutlets, patties, buns that are excellent for trips.
Delectable fruit included the popular mango, pineapple, banana, and papaya, but also many lesser known but distinctive examples such as sapodilla, mangusteen, rambutan, woodapple, custard apple and beli.
Shoping in Sri Lanka can take many forms, haggling with a handicraft seller while sunbathing on the beach; choosing fruit from the traditional village store. Or checking out the bargain prices latest international fashions (Sri Lanka is a major garment exporter) while enjoying the ambience of a luxurious shopping centre in Colombo.
And there’s much in-between, visit a handicraft shop and familiarize yourself with traditional designs such as makara (a mythical animal), lion, swan, elephant and lotus which are most evident on brass work (boxes, trays, lanterns, vases) and silverware (ornately carved and filigree jewelry, tea sets) that make excellent souvenirs. In addition, rural masks, lacquer ware, batik and handloom textile, lace, and wood carvings are popular.
Last but certainly not least, Sri Lanka has the widest variety of precious stones among the world’s gem producing countries – blue sapphire, star sapphire, cat’s eye, garnets, moonstone, aquamarine and topazes being just a dazzling handful. What’s more, Sri Lanka naturally has a tradition in jewelry making, so you can bring your gems to life.