India Lite: An Overview of Sri Lanka

Sunset Sri Lanka

Sunset on Sri Lanka’s west coast, Pamunugama, Sri Lanka

After spending nearly three weeks touring the paradise island of Sri Lanka, traversing the varied natural and cultural landscape, and hopping from one World Heritage Site to another, I finally found a phrase that I believe best captures this exotically familiar destination: India Lite.

Years ago I described India as being “in your face“. Sri Lanka by comparison is more like an energetic tap on the shoulder. It has all the elements of a trip to India without any of the extremes. It’s not as noisy, crowded or dirty as India – while at the same time its attractions, ruins and architecture aren’t nearly as jaw-dropping either. Overall it’s a good trade-off, and if you’re someday planning a trip to India, it’s a great introduction.

But enough about India – Sri Lanka is a worthy destination in its own right. I will now share my insights on some of the top things to see in this tropical wonderland.

 

Geography

 

Sri Lanka is a teardrop-shaped island located just off the southeastern coast of that other country I inadvertently keep mentioning. Roughly the size of Ireland, Sri Lanka packs a lot of variety in a small package. Ranging from palm-fringed beaches, steamy jungles, rugged mountains and even semi-arid plains, you won’t have to go far for a little diversity.

 

Arriving

 

Since it’s an island, you’ll arrive in Sri Lanka either by air or sea. Assuming you’re not on a cruise ship, your international flight will land at Bandaranaike International Airport (CMB) which is closer to the beach/fishing town of Negombo than the capital Colombo. With many flights either landing or arriving in the wee hours of the morning, you might want to consider a brief stay here at either the start or end of your journey. The main beach is broad and (relatively) trash-free with many reasonable lodging and dining options nearby. It’s not the French Riviera, but still a pleasant place to spend a night or two around your flights.

 

Colombo

 

The capital is by far the most cosmopolitan destination to be found in the country. The area around the Dutch Hospital and World Trade Center is where you’ll find the fanciest hotels and most happening shops and restaurants. If you’re looking for a night on the town – along with some stunning sunset views from the rooftop bars – this is the place to be. Other than that, there are some great shopping opportunities in the Pettah Market, and for great city views and high brow accommodations (or even just afternoon tea) the classic Mount Lavinia Hotel in the southern suburb of (you guessed it) Mt. Lavinia is a setting right out of the 1800’s. It’s not a must-see world city by any means, but if your travels through the country leave you yearning for some more modern comforts, it’s certainly worth at least a night’s exploration.

 

Galle

 

Galle

Galle as seen from the ramparts, Galle, Sri Lanka

Heading south along the coast (or better yet, inland via the fast and traffic-free highway) the former Dutch stronghold of Galle boasts a fort and old town that comprise a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The fort walls jut out into the Indian Ocean, providing some great sea views and a scenic walking route along its perimeter. Within the still intact ramparts is a tightly-packed warren of heritage homes and boutique shops and restaurants. After watching the sun set on the west side, cross over to the east side to the Dutch Hospital (yes, Galle has one too) for dinner looking out to sea.

 

Unawatuna

 

Unawatuna

Catching rays at Unawatuna Beach, Sri Lanka

Just a few kilometers south of Galle is the beach town of Unawatuna. Set around a crescent of protected water, it’s a great place to catch some rays, and if you want to hang out for a few days there’s plenty of cheap accommodation to be found. If you’re looking for those iconic shots of fishermen out in the water up on stilts, just go a few more kilometers down the coast to Koggala – but be prepared to pony up if they catch you trying to snap off shots without offering some payment.

 

Adam’s Peak

 

Adam's Peak

View from the stairs on Adam’s Peak, Sri Lanka

Located well inland at the Peak Sanctuary area (it will take a good 4 hours from Colombo), this Buddhist pilgrimage site is a popular destination with nature lovers as well. Avoid coming on full moons and holidays unless you want a crowd, and be prepared for a grueling climb up seemingly never-endingĀ  stairs. The goal is to arrive by sunrise to see the amazing landscape materialize into view. In my case, I got a great view of the inside of a cloud, but still took pride in making it to the top. I learned a lot during my exhausting ascent (and equally exhausting descent) and have lots more to say on the subject, but I’ll save that for another post. Suffice to say, if you’re fit and up for a unique adventure, work this place into your itinerary. Worst case scenario, the lush greenery of the gorgeous tea country will be worth the trip on its own merit.

 

Anuradhapura

 

Anuradhapura

Pilgrims come in all forms in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

Once a mighty religious center, this World Heritage Site still buzzes with Buddhist activity centered around the gigantic stupas that rise out of the surrounding jungle. For those less interested in religious affairs, you can still walk among the many ruins or admire the troops of langur monkeys that roam the sprawling complex. Be sure to buy your entrance ticket or else you’ll risk the wrath of the officials.

If you’re not Buddhist, you might not find this place terribly interesting, and honestly I was put off by the tremendous amount of trash thrown about by visiting pilgrims. This is the first time that I’ve ever visited a World Heritage Site for which it wasn’t worth going out of my way, let along the price of entry. But if you’re in the neighborhood, it is certainly not something you see every day.

 

Sigiriya

 

Sigiriya

View from the top at Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

Arguably the most-iconic site in Sri Lanka, this fortress perched atop a rocky outcropping is a World Heritage Site that is worth both the price of entry and the effort needed to reach the top. Meaning ‘Lion Rock’, there’s little to suggest a lion other than an enormous set of ‘paws’ carved at the base of one of the myriad stairs that wind their way up to the top. If you’ve already climbed Adam’s Peak, this will seem little more than a stepladder by comparison.

An ascent starts with a ground-level walk through stone pools and gardens before you hit the stairs. Once past the ticket check-point, you’ll be routed up a spiral staircase to view a collection of ancient paintings of buxom Sri Lankan women of days past before spiraling back down to continue your trek along the cliff face. Passing the giant lion paws, you’ll have some more vertical moments before reaching the ruins of a citadel up on top. The view is fantastic, with hills, mountains and the occasional statue poking up through the nearly uninterrupted jungle.

 

Minneriya

 

Minneriya

Family time at Minneriya National Park, Sri Lanka

Close to Sigiriya, is Minneriya National Park. This woodland of evergreens and scrub forest is home to a variety of wildlife, but the stars of the show are the herds of wild Asian elephants that roam freely. If you come during the dry season (June-September) they’ll likely be congregating around a series of artificial reservoirs in large numbers. My late afternoon visit (we were the last Jeep in) had us arriving to a group of herds that conservatively numbered around 100 elephants.

At the park entrance you have to pay an entry fee plus a little something for a required guide that will join you in your vehicle. Figure between $15-20 U.S. The route will take you through a rutted dirt road where you can see monkeys, peacock and other residents, before opening up to a grassy plain around the water. Be prepared to get up close as the elephants graze their way across your field of vision, and be extra prepared for some great photo opportunities as baby elephants weave their way in and among the adults looking to feed, run and play. If you care anything for animals, and the chance to see them in the wild, this stop is a must-see.

 

Kandy

 

Kandy

Relaxing riverside in cooler, dryer Kandy

Once the site of an enduring kingdom, Kandy is a bustling city perched in the mountainous interior of the country. Its main claim to fame is the Buddhist Temple of the Tooth. But even those of other faiths will enjoy its scenic setting and cooler, dryer temperatures compared to the coast. I’d suggest at least a day here to take in the sights or at least cool down a bit.

 

Pinnawala

 

Pinnawala

Bath time at Pinnawala, Sri Lanka

If you don’t feel like trekking all the way out to Minneriya, the Elephant Orphanage in Pinnawala is a decent stand-in. While a far more “pre-packaged” experience than an elephant safari in the north, it does allow for some up-close interaction, and is ostensibly, all for a good cause.

After buying your ticket, you can watch the handlers bottle-feed some younger elephants. And for about $2 you can buy a basket of fruit to hand-feed an adult elephant who will be more than happy to take it off your hands. Just a side note: elephant tongues are puffy and sticky, so you might want to bring some hand-sanitizer for when you’re done.

Next you are granted access to a side street brimming with souvenir shops (including the ubiquitous elephant print pants you’ll see everywhere) where you can also watch a herd being brought down to the river for a bath and some playtime. Bear in mind that you will be asked to show your ticket, so hang on to it. You can also run ahead to the Hotel Elephant Park which overlooks the river where they bathe. Order a snack or beer and revel in the sight of more than a dozen elephants spraying and splashing around in the swift-moving waters at the edge of the jungle.

 

Conclusion

 

Looking back on what I’ve written, it’s obvious that I saw quite a lot in my nearly three weeks in-country. But by no means did I see it all. However, I saw enough to clearly affirm that Sri Lanka has a wealth of attractions to keep a visitor busy across a broad range of interests, and that there’s enough to see, do and experience to justify the tedious amount of travel time to get there. If you’ve never been to the subcontinent, Sri Lanka is a great introduction to this fascinating region of the world. And if this is as far as you go, it will still be one place that is very much worth the price of admission.


Do you have any questions or comments about visiting Sri Lanka? Leave a message below!

 

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The Best-Kept Secret Spot in the Grand Canyon (Don’t Tell Them I Told You)

Shoshone Point

Enjoying a railing-free view at Shoshone Point

The Grand Canyon is a big place. Like, really big. In fact, it’s hard to describe just how big it is – almost as hard as describing just how amazing the view is. With all that space available, you’d think the last issue a visitor to this marvel of the natural world would encounter would be a crowd. But on the South Rim, especially near the visitor center, hordes of tourists from around the world can frequently be seen jostling for space at designated lookouts in search of the perfect canyon ‘selfie’.

The further you spread out from this epicenter of tourist activity, the more the crowds lessen. But if you’d like to have the entire canyon pretty much to yourself, allow me to share a little-known secret spot I discovered (after some ‘net research) that proved to be the highlight of my visit to one of the seven natural wonders of the world.

Shoshone Point

Shoshone Point 2

Contemplate the solitude at Shoshone Point, Grand Canyon, USA

At the South Rim visitor center you can help yourself to a complimentary map – not that it will do you any good. Shoshone Point does not make an appearance. Right there, that tells you that they want this place to remain a secret – which is surprising considering that it is equipped with a picnic area and working restrooms. Apparently it’s meant for groups, but if you’re traveling as individuals there’s nothing to keep you from wandering over.

Getting There

Shoshone Point 3

This is the only sign you’re in the right place

To get to Shoshone Point, it’s best to use your own private vehicle, though if you’re up for a long walk it’s not an impossibility. As you approach the visitor center, take a right on Desert View Drive. Not long afterwards you’ll pass a turnoff that’s only open to the free shuttle buses called Yaki Point Road. Just about a mile east of that is an unpaved parking area with no signage indicating where you are, located on the canyon side of the road. Pull in and get ready for a mild walk (approximately one mile) through pine forest to the lookout point. Alternately, you can take the bus to Yaki Point or the South Kaibab Trailhead (which is a great alternative and an excellent place to get down inside the canyon) then hoof it back down the road. Just a note: keep an eye out for wildlife. No sooner did I pull into the parking area when I came face to face with a coyote who decided my presence wasn’t his cup of tea and he skittered off.

When to Go

Shoshone Point 4

View from Shoshone Point

Naturally, the heat in the middle of the day is less appealing to hike in, so for comfort as well as better lighting for photography, I recommend coming first thing in the morning, or for a great show, come around sunset. Just bear in mind that there are no railings and it is a long (long) way down, so watch your step in the waning light.

Can You Keep the Secret?

There’s no point in knowing a secret and not being able to tell it. I think this post embodies that. So feel free to share this secret spot after seeing it for yourself – that is if you have any words after witnessing that view – and you’ll still likely have the whole canyon to yourself. And if someone asks you where you heard about Shoshone Point…you didn’t hear it from me.

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Da Nang, Vietnam – Where Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad

Hoi An

Time to party in Hoi An, Vietnam

Sometimes in travel – as in life – it’s not always a question of this and that, but rather this or that. But as opposed to those unpleasant times when you have to choose between the lesser of two evils, there are times when you can see or do most of what you’d like, even if it isn’t everything. It may not be ideal, but as the song goes: Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad.

Not too long ago I was faced with one such situation. Our ship was docking in the Vietnamese city of Da Nang (technically Chan May), and from there we had a choice of visiting two of the three UNESCO World Heritage Sites within striking distance of a one-day tour: The ancient capital of Hue, the ancient ruins of My Son, and the former trading village of Hoi An. With limited time available, we opted for the latter two on a whirlwind tour that gave us a taste – though not a full mouthful – of all that’s on offer in central Vietnam. It wasn’t an ideal way of visiting this fascinating region, but as I said before, two out of three ain’t bad.

My Son

My Son

Let the past (and rain) wash over you at My Son, Vietnam

My Son (pronounced mee- sahn) is an ancient site of worship tucked well inland from the emerald waters of the coast. Though a good portion of the site was reduced to rubble courtesy of the U.S. Air Force, there are various temples, halls and other religious buildings that either escaped bombardment or are in the process of reconstruction.

At the entrance, you’ll need to take a stretch golf cart up the winding road to the visitor center proper. I wasn’t looking at the odometer but I figure it was at least a mile if not more. Given the fact that we were experiencing a full-on torrential downpour, the golf cart seemed the best option.

The cluster of ruins that awaited us looked like a scene right out of every adventure movie ever made. There were artifacts, strange writing carved in stone, and various figures represented – not to mention the most gigantic centipede I’ve ever seen scuttling through the undergrowth outside. Surrounding the complex is thick jungle, and on the day of my visit there rivers were swollen to capacity and at times our feet were underwater. So if it’s a rainy day, I recommend that you wear foot gear that you wouldn’t mind getting wet. Don’t let that discourage you though – sloshing through the jungles of Vietnam really fleshed out the experience.

Unless you really care about every temple and building, a few hours here will suffice. And if the weather is clear, it should be a photographer’s playground.

Hoi An

Hoi An Riverside

Follow the River in Hoi An World Heritage Site

The ancient trading post of Hoi An is a colorful amalgam of Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese culture and architecture. Once a major port for international trade, the town has been reborn as a tourist destination for its scenic riverfront and charming ambiance. In town you can busy yourself with a visit to the intricate Japanese Bridge or even more elaborate Chinese Temple. But most of all, take some time to wander the vibrant side streets which are filled with souvenir shops, a small museum and some of the most delicious Vietnamese food to be found anywhere. On the day of my visit, they were gearing up for a festival, so the streets and trees were decked out with colorful lanterns of all colors, shapes and sizes. Not only did I leave wishing I could see what it looked like at night, but also wishing I had at least five to seven days to fully explore the town and all the activities around it.

Marble Mountains

Marble Mountains

Scene from the Marble Mountains, near Da Nang, Vietnam

The Marble Mountains are close to the coast and not far out of the city of Da Nang proper – which, incidentally, is a city undergoing rapid modernization. These five mountains rise almost vertically from the relatively level coastal plain, and host a number of temples that can be visited by those who have more time at their disposition. Below are numerous artisans that sculpt the marble into all sorts of beautiful figures, fountains and statues. If you’re on a guided tour, you can be certain that you’ll be making a stop to see ‘how things are made’ which is code for: tourist trap, please buy something. Despite the obvious commercialism, this would be the place to buy that giant marble elephant you’ve always wanted.

Final Thoughts

The most obvious observation of a day tour from Danang is that you really need more than a day tour to do the area justice. With the royal city of Hue not too far away, and one of the largest cave systems in the world within range, you can easily spend an exciting week of discovery in this Southeast Asian playground. So if you can do so, stay for awhile. If you’re on limited time like I was, content yourself with the wonders you’ve seen, and accept that in reality – you guessed it – two out of three ain’t bad.

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Good Morning Vietnam/Goodnight Saigon

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Streets of Saigon

When I was a boy, back before Desert Storm, Desert Shield and basically any other U.S. involvement with wars in the desert, the war most often depicted in movies and on television was the conflict in Vietnam. As a result, I grew up seeing and hearing more about a backwater country in Southeast Asia far more than an average Long Island kid ordinarily would. Among my favorite songs growing up was Billy Joel’s (another Long Island kid) haunting ballad Goodnight Saigon. Sure the references went right over my head, but it – along with other classic rock tributes – served to create a mystique in my young mind. Sadly, I’m not a young boy anymore, but it was still subconsciously satisfying to see this mainstay of 80’s pop culture references firsthand just last year.

Upon landing it felt like I was in a scene right out of the war, as throngs of Vietnamese swarmed the arrivals gate like it was the last chopper out of Saigon. I’d say that the scene was surreal, but with the million percent humidity I’d more accurately describe it as ‘sticky’.

Since my party was due to meet up with our cruise ship docked in nearby Phuy Muy, I thought I’d make the most out of the full day at our disposal in this, the largest and most congested of Vietnamese cities. So I booked us a city tour to catch the highlights and – more importantly – avoid navigating the choking traffic and general chaos on the city’s roads.

The War Remnants Museum

Though the war ended decades ago, its effects still reverberate today. Fortunately, today the social climate is far more welcoming toward visiting Americans, and even though the Vietnam conflict is not considered to be a chapter of great pride in American history, the majority of visitors to this tasteful museum were Yanks who slogged it halfway around the globe to see it firsthand.

Inside the building, there are displays showcasing a vast gamut of American military memorabilia such as uniforms, weapons, ordinance and personal effects. There are also photo galleries documenting the horrendous toll American bombing had on the local civilian populous. Due to the graphic nature of the images, those with a low trauma threshold might do well to skip this portion.

The conflict was presented from the point of view of the victors (isn’t it always?) and instead of gloating and portraying the atrocities in a way to foment rancor, it focused mainly on the idea of self-determination. Regardless of anyone’s personal views on the causes and issues the war was fought over, no one can leave without shaking their heads at the senseless carnage wreaked mostly upon innocent civilians.

For those interested in more serious ‘hardware’, surrounding the grounds are various tanks, aircraft and other military vehicles that were left behind, which can make for some interesting photographic backdrops.

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War Remnants Museum

Other Buildings of Interest

Saigon (technically Ho Chi Mihn City) isn’t exactly dripping with famous monuments, but on a city tour you’ll likely be brought in front of the Reunification Palace for a photo op and to the Central Post Office. It is here at the latter that you’ll see a strong example of French architecture, hinting to its past under French colonial rule. It’s not exactly a not-to-miss destination, but is an interesting place to stretch your legs and take in the atmosphere. You can also buy a few sticky doughnuts from vendors carrying them around in a giant conical heap atop their heads, if only to just say that you did (they’re tasty without being too sweet).

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Reunification Palace, Saigon

Lunch: Your Highlight…Trust Me

Included in our tour was lunch in a literal back-alley restaurant called Cyclo Resto. Here we were able to sample some fantastic Vietnamese cuisine family style, including some delicious Vietnamese egg coffee. While the landscape and culture in Vietnam is both fascinating and appealing, I think you’ll agree with me that the food is what launches a visit here to the top of a traveler’s list.

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Try some amazing egg coffee

A Farewell

After some extremely sticky shopping in the close quarters of a tourist flea market, it was time to make our way out of the city and out in to the Mekong Delta to catch our ship. While Vietnam is an amazing tourist destination, I can honestly say that Saigon does not belong on a list of top sights. But if you have a day to kill and want to see a city that has been immortalized in both film and song, take the time to say “Good morning Vietnam” and the inevitable “Goodnight, Saigon”.

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