The International Writers Magazine: Sri Lanka
Dreaming Sri Lanka
The country is enigmatic, almost like driving through a painting. Time and again, through the mountainous terrain, towns, and little side cafes, restaurants and shops, it was as if someone took a paint brush and drew bits of the country on canvas, exposés of a nomenclature that makes the mind continually spin in admiration, aura, and reverence.
Stupendous, astounding, breathtaking, spectacular, out-of-this world, tropical, lush and deliciously green, so green it rolls on and on, bludgeoning the horizons and beyond. Sri Lanka, Ceylon, Serendib, derivative terms that describe a modern nation and an island, just 31 kilometers from the tip of southern India, to the west of the Bay of Bengal, facing the Arabian Sea juxtaposes itself to Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and further up to Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia, is a strategic location.
Modern Sri Lanka is heavenly. It is here where religions—Islam, Christianity and Buddhism—meet, modern cultures intermingle and ancient civilizations interlude. In this island of about 65,000 square kilometers and a population of around 19 million where Muslims form roughly 10 percent, it is nature, environment and the intermeshing of unique eco-systems that speak of a dialogue of cultures.
||The unique terrains, mountains, rolling hills, woods, forests, nature reserves, gardens, trees, and the people living in between, underline a living cosmos uniting body and soul and providing a wondrous experience.
Sri Lanka is simply beautiful, captivating, bewitching, dazzling, a piece from the heavens, if one dares to say, for it is in this area, at what became known as Adams Peak, that the father of humanity, descended from the heavens to start the procreation of the human race according to Islamic and Christian teachings.
We were on a delightful, exuberant journey, a trip of discovery to wonder, see and dwell upon at what lay in front of our very eyes between the unique habitats and the harmonious existence between man, nature and the animals all intertwining in one thrall.
We witnessed firsthand the beauty of creation, an experience of an existence of a fertile, virginal land that continues to be touched and blessed by an upper hand constantly preserving its godly purity, away from the ills of industrialization and pollution that has marred many great countries and cities.
Here the air is clean as someone immediately noticed, you can breath as much pure oxygen as you want and give your lungs the freedom it deserves and master the utter paucity of the human universe.
Coconut, banana, mango, jackfruit and papaya trees amidst the temple, and teak trees, wild flowers and shrubberies simply grow and sprout haphazardly to the whims of nature. All this is due to the blessed rains, downpours and to the easy raindrops that makes the landscapes captivatingly green, emerald green, poignantly touching the heart, pleasing the spirit and serenity of the mind.
They were six of us, plus the guide, the bus driver and his assistant making our way from Colombo to the central highlands of the country at the UNESCO-listed fifth century grand Sagiriya rock fortress and moved on Trincomlee on the eastern coast.
Before that however, we meandered to the first point of our tour that turned out to be every bit unexpected as it was exciting and dramatic, my eyes were having trouble in taking it all in. We traveled a total of 268 kilometers on that first day, stopping for lunch at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, an innovative project of rearing baby elephants who are unable to look after themselves.
|At the Orphanage which is located near the river, you can see firsthand the quaint interaction between man and animals as if it is the most natural thing in the world.
They were baby elephants, but there were big beasts as well, and from a very near distance, they looked pliant, friendly, but there was a menacing touch. Suddenly, I found myself walking alongside the herd as they were walking back from the river to the orphanage.
Some of the Mahouts, those looking after them, waved for me quickly to move on. Despite the fact that Jaya, the guide, told us that the elephants had become domesticated and very near to man, their size looked awesome and it was best for the public to stand aside.
Sri Lanka has charm as well because the modern idea of urbanization and concrete structures are largely absent. Ours was a crash course in seeing is believing as we were seeing the country in a minibus, from an area to the next and one plus hotel to the other.
One can travel to Colombo anywhere in the world. We as a party left from Saudi Arabia from King Khaled’s International Airport in Riyadh for Colombo; we were transferred, cajoled and enticed from one environment into another that was didactically tropical and incessantly green.
Thus, our “green journey” through lush terrain and mountains, we roamed our way in Kandy where sightseeing and shopping were further highlights with its people sort of growing with the picturesque nature of the city. Then we plowed our way to Nuwara Elya, a mountainous highway of spectacular scenery and environs, of entrancing water cascades, most prominent being the Ramboda Waterfall. Many say this is good trekking country, and one can’t but stop and wonder with awe at the speed of the gushing water and refreshing the particles generating out.
It is the road of the waterfalls because at every short distance and nook and cranny, there is a waterfall that is just as charming as the one before and the one after it. You look around beyond the mountainous green and you see the cascading water naturally flowing.
And then there are the neat tea estates, and factories, where you can see women tea pickers on rolls and rolls of mountains. Tea was introduced to Sri Lanka in the 19th century and today its one of the mainstays and bread-and-butter productions of the Sri Lankan economy.
The country is enigmatic, almost driving through a painting, with the main color being green with varieties. Time and again, through the roads, the mountainous terrain, towns, and little side cafes, restaurants and shops, it was as if someone took a paint brush and drew bits of the country on canvas, exposés of a nomenclature that makes the mind continually spin in admiration, aura, and reverence.
The way trees willingly sprout from the fertile earth, their different shapes and sizes, their length and width towering upwards is a blessing in disguise. And then there is the thick branches horizontally moving outwards happily and gaily dancing and waltzing the sky. It is homage to primordial instincts.
This is creation beyond man’s abilities, its mother earth and Mother Nature sumptuously and resoundingly bespeaking about a universe that is bigger than all of us. Such scenes are repeated over and over the country, they are replayed, fast-forwarded, and stood still since time immemorial when Father Adam first set foot on earth in search of Mother Eve.
The best way to visit the country is through hiring a mini-bus or a car together with a driver who may serve as travel guide. There are many ways to go about the country, it’s easy, intrepid and exciting. East, west, north, south, all can be reached. For the high-powered in search of a detour from the high-skies a helicopter charter through Deccan Aviation Lanka (www.simplifly.com) can take you anywhere, and the country is just as magical from the skies as it is from the ground.
But rather than the plush and the luxurious, it might be a good idea to experience the country through its roads, off-the-beaten tracks its alleyways, corners, dirt roads and modern slick highways, to devour and consume what’s upfront, sideways, and from your back.
||A professional guide, one recognized by the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau, is essential whether, you are a single tourist, a visitor with a friend, in a group, bringing your family or as business associate and executive. Sri Lanka is not only a big wide nature reserve but a cultural pedestal, a civilization that goes back to 2,500 years ago.
It is difficult to fathom all the information from a guide like the one we had in Jaya. He provided a breadth of information on the country, but at least there was insight into the historical character of Sri Lanka, the fact that it was once an ancient Kingdom with Kandy as its capital ending in 1815 at the start of British rule and proceeded by Dutch and Portuguese occupation.
It’s interesting to learn that with India and Pakistan, Sri Lanka became independent in 1948. There is an Independence Memorial Hall of the then Ceylon and a statute of its first Prime Minister Don Stephan Senanayke, affectionately known as the ‘Father of the Nation’ that stand at the heart of Colombo, a city with its own “White House” being the official residence of the mayor.
Other than that we learned Sri Lanka is a democracy governed by political parties and has elections and 92 percent of its population is literate and the country has 16 public universities and more private ones are on the way.
It is thanks to its people that Sri Lanka has become a great tourist destination as underlined by the New York Times recently, which ranked the country as number 1 among 31 global destinations to be visited in 2010. It is a retreat of international repute.
Apart from the scenery, this has to do with the top standard service in hotels which has been gaining international reputation. All the hotels we stayed in are brilliantly matched by the surroundings and great hospitality.
First was the Heritance Kandalma (www.heritancehotels.com/kandalama/ or res.kandalama@ heritancehotels.com), an exquisite eco-lodge that is a five-star hotel set in magical surroundings with excellent food and is an excellent retreat for just about anyone through its palatial suites that is a perfect place to unwind. Top international personalities like UN Secretary-General Ban-ki Moon and its former chief Kofi Annan stayed at the eco resort as well as prime ministers, ministers and foreign ambassadors.
There is the Mahaweli Reach Hotel (www.mahaweli.com), which sits on the banks of the Mahaweli River, Sri Lankia’s longest. It’s a majestic compound with captivatingly large rooms and balconies that compete for the guest’s attention.
The Nuwara Elya’s Grand Hotel (www.tangerinehotels.com/thegrandhotel), is a magnificent Elizabethan house that goes back to the colonial days and but which serves as a picturesque reminder of English tradition. Elevated at around 6000 feet above sea level, it provides dramatically different temperature vanes than the rest of the country.
And lastly there is the Cinnamon Lakeside (www.cinnamonhotels.com), an auspicious façade in the heart of Colombo that characterizes the country’s more vigorous openness to the world and Arab world.
On our recent trip to the country, there were many tourists from Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, India, Europe, and some returning Sri Lanki expatriates and even investors who want to put their hard won cash back into the country. Some came alone, many with their wives as a sort of second honeymoon and many still with their families.
It was a refreshing feel with hospitality expressed in the tourism trademark and through its people who always welcome incoming visitors with unexpected friendliness and an engaging smile. At the Mahaweli Reach Hotel for instance, me and my colleagues were showered with flowers as we entered the hotel lobby. It was an auspicious beginning.
The staff were helpful up to the point of embarrassment. Men and young women waiters would stand behind you helping in your chair as you sat down and got up, with the smile never leaving their faces. Women wearing beautiful Saris with bright moving colors were a delight to look at. I got to know Redma, Kandyan and Michelle who are all vivacious and helpful and agreed to be photographed.
In the Grand Hotel, there was a bride to be wed on that day of our visit. In her beautiful red dress she posed for us. Minutes later, her groom emerged sitting next to the bride and we shot photos till our hearts content.
In the Cinnamon Lakesides Muzanif, and Nadia took us around the beautiful large complex of a hotel and to the plush executive rooms that are very competitively priced. Shortly afterwards Yasmin, an auspicious lady with her beautiful sari, entered the room, appearing as if we had been chatting with each other for years.
Sri Lanka is certainly about images and sketches and landscape. Once you’ve been there you get hooked. The country grabs because of its dramatic color and diversity, because of its fauna and flora and because of its wildlife, its butterflies, birds elephants and monkeys, straddling on the rooftops and balconies. It is the land of dreams to discover. Bon Voyage!
© Marwan Asmar Ocotber 2010