SRI LANKA – ASIA’S HIDDEN GEM
By Michael Chinnici
Congratulations to Sri Lanka for having been ranked TOP COUNTRY FOR TRAVEL IN 2019, by Lonely Planet! What’s even more exciting for us… we arrive in Sri Lanka in just 50 days to begin our 12-day Photography Adventure through this amazing country. So please allow me to tell you a little more about Sri Lanka – Asia’s hidden gem.
Sri Lanka is an island paradise with a few thousand years of cross-cultural percolation. English sailors, Dutch traders, and Portuguese spice merchants – they’ve all called Sri Lanka home. And they left behind a colonial legacy that makes this tea-scented spice island a historical goldmine. One minute you’re climbing a 1500 year-old Kashyapa temple, the next you’re checking out a colonial church in Colombo, chatting with Tamil fisherman or sipping a Ceylon brew from tribe people in the misty highlands of Kandy.
Set in the Indian Ocean in South Asia, the tropical island nation of Sri Lanka has a history dating back to the birth of time. It is a place where the original soul of Buddhism still flourishes and where nature’s beauty remains abundant and unspoiled. Few places in the world can offer the traveler such a remarkable combination of stunning landscapes, captivating cultural heritage and unique experiences within such a compact location. This is an island of magical proportions, once also known as Serendib, Taprobane, the Pearl of the Indian Ocean, and Ceylon.
The capital city of Sri Lanka is a study in contrasts. It has a mix of shiny new office towers that stand tall above the sprawling street markets below. The city is full of modern hotels that sit near colonial-era buildings, cathedrals, mosques and temples. Traces of Arab, Portuguese, and Dutch history can be seen everywhere, but it’s the British influence that’s most obvious now. With grand structures like the Old Parliament Building, and the President’s House, the 19th century version of Ceylon lives on.
The Pettah Market, just east of the city’s central Fort area, is a maze of streets filled with everything and anything a shopper would be looking for. Sea Street, at the northeast corner, is one of the more interesting streets, for its abundance of goldsmiths and colorful Hindu temples. The 120-year-old Gangaramya Temple is a beautiful buddhist temple in the heart of the business district. This temple is world famous for its festivals every year.
Just south of Colombo, en route to Galle, you will still find some stilt fisherman, made famous by Magnum photographer Steve McCurry. The practice originated in the 1940’s when there was a food and a boat shortage. Although the practice has dwindled down since a tsunami in 2004, there are still pockets of activity along the coastline – ideal for photos like Steve’s.
A few hours south of Colombo is the fortified city of Galle. Originally settled by the Portuguese in the late 1500’s, the Dutch took over in the 1600’s and built the fortress that remains to this day. A UNESCO Living World Heritage Site, the Galle of today is filled with boutique shops, art galleries and cafes. Many of the narrow streets still bear Dutch names like Leyn-Baan street, Zeeberg street and Moderabaay street.
The small central town of Ella is a step back in time. Surrounded by the lush hills of the Central Highlands, with countless tea plantations and high peaks. The town has a hippie feel to it, with some of the best cafes in the country.
Probably what it’s best known for, and a highlight for photographers, is the train station and the bridge nearby. Because Ella is in a mountainous area, the tracks are elevated in parts, and tunnelled in others. The famous Nine Arches Bridge is a marvel of engineering, completely made of bricks, over a very deep chasm. A truly beautiful structure, in a truly spectacular part of the country.
The elevated town of Nuwara Eliya, the highest in the country, is a haven for those seeking a healthy retreat. The climate of this region attracts both local and foreign visitors to attend many of its festivals and sporting events. This is also the capital of the tea industry in Sri Lanka, which was established here in the 1870’s, and thrives today with countless Tea Estates occupying the rolling hillsides that surround the town. There is even a huge tea tourism industry, with estates opening their plantations up to explain the process to visitors.
Not far from the city of Kandy, you’ll find a sanctuary where the Vedda Tribe lives. This is a community of about 1000 indigenous people, who have had settlements on the island for millennia. Traditionally forest dwellers, they’ve subsisted on a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. The tribe once roamed the northern plains, but are now confined to a small area near Dambana. Their traditions of hunting deer, cooking over open fires, collecting bee honey, along with their songs and dances are in danger of extinction, as modernism takes hold in their community.
The Ancient City of Polonnaruwa, was once a capital of Sri Lanka, after the fall of the first capital Anuradhapura in 993. Today, it contains some of the finest relics of fallen kingdoms of the past. This is one of the Sri Lanka’s eight UNESCO sites, and one of its most important.
The Gal Vihara is home to four amazing statues of Buddha, carved out of a granite cliff. The largest is the reclining Buddha – which at 46 ft, is a figure of enormous and serene beauty.
An hour away is the rock fortress of Sigiriya, a monumental rock column 660 ft high. The palace of King Kasyapa once occupied the top of the rock, but was abandoned after the king died, and it became a buddhist monastery until the 14th century.
On our adventure, we begin and end in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. We’ll travel through the Lunugana Country Estate en route to Galle, photograph stilt fishermen on the beach. Enjoy and photograph the magical village of Ella and the train ride to Nuwara Eliya. Tea plantations and the famous Demodora 9 Arches Bridge. We’ll photograph Sri Lanka “Veddas”, indigenous tribal communities and their unique culture, and the ancient city of Polonnaruwa. And stay in stunning hotel properties that are bound to captivate your soul (like our hotel in Colombo).
We visit Sri Lanka in February each year, with the next trip coming on Feb 11 – 22, 2020, so please join us!