Frankly, I had not heard of Srilanka as a travel destination until one of my friends told me he was planning to go there for his honeymoon. That was some 10 years ago. I, fortunately, got a chance to visit Sri Lanka finally after all these years. Here are some of the notes I scribbled from my last trip to Sri Lanka.
The war-torn bloody history of Lanka
For all the hype that now exists around Srilanka among travellers, there was once a time, not long ago, when it was hard to imagine having tourists in the country. Since the locals themselves were barely managing to survive. This was when the country was ravaged by civil war. The Srilankan civil war was one of the bloodiest and longest that the world has seen. The 26-year conflict claimed the lives of thousands of people. India even lost one of its sitting Prime minister to this war.
When our host in Colombo took us to the independence square and recounted the horrors that everyday Lankans had to face during the war, we were left speechless. She told that while leaving for work each morning, mothers and fathers used to take separate routes to work since there was no telling if either of them will make it back home in the evening to greet the kids. You wouldn’t see a soul past 6 pm on the roads due to the curfew.
We took one look at the hordes of people happily strolling and jogging in the vast park to our left and groups of children playing without a worry in the world. We both were relieved that we were now in much better times.
Growing economy and tourism industry
The end of civil war is everything an average Srilankan could have asked for. There is peace in the country now. The country has come a long way since. Tourism is booming and the economy is growing. A lot of 5-star hotels chains are upcoming. Hilton already has its hotel in Colombo. Grand Hyatt’s construction is underway. The Lotus tower, being constructed as a symbol of modern Srilanka stands testament to its growing economy. We had a fantastic view of the lotus tower from our hotel room.
Buddhism in Srilanka
Buddhism is huge in Srilanka. Buddha is just about everywhere. All other religions form a tiny minority in Sri Lanka. Apart from Buddhism, the second largest section is of Muslims and Hindus. In spite of Dutch, Portuguese and British rule for long durations, Christianity is a distant 4th or probably 5th.
One particular incident was very curious and tells you a lot about how deeply the locals hold Buddha to their heart. An auto guy who was driving us back from Galle to our hotel in Bentota late at night. He asked our permission to stop on a petrol pump. After another 20 minutes or so (it was a long drive), he saw another vehicle going past us and waved to the driver. The driver was apparently his childhood friend and they were meeting after a long time. He again asked our permission to meet his friend for two minutes. Both vehicles parked on the side while they chatted. I was pleasantly surprised to see their friendship. After another 10 minutes, he stopped again. This time at a temple to pray. This time, however, he did not ask for permission. Instead, he asked for Rs. 10 to offer at the temple. I, of course, was happy to help.
It is a sad irony that the country which is so supportive of the most non-violent, peaceful religion witnessed two-decade-long violence of civil war.
An important thing to note is that the recent bomb-blasts which happened a few weeks back in Srilanka (which have made a lot of people again apprehensive about travelling there) were not related to the civil war in any manner. They were linked to religious fundamentalists, which the country has never seen in the past.
People of Sri Lanka are similar to Indians in pretty much all respects. InThe Sinhalese have an accent that sounds much like Malayali. Most of the locals are polite and soft-spoken. We took a street food tour in Colombo where our kind host drove us around the city and gave us a tonne of useful information.
No doubt there are touts and sellers everywhere and sometimes they will just piss you off. But during the entire trip, I did not feel unsafe. In Bentota, a restaurant manager helped us catch a bus from Balapitiya to Galle. He not only walked us to the bus stop but even waited with us for 20 minutes until finally, a bus arrived.
I found the Lankan people to be very helpful and tourist friendly.
In Colombo, we met many friendly locals who guided us with directions and also gave us travel tips. One particular elderly gentleman had a long chat with us and gave us quite a lowdown of the city. The bus conductors helped us info about return buses.
I think that the locals understand that tourists contribute to a large part of the economy and are very important in the country’s growth. Hence they are more than happy to welcome them.
Our host in Colombo tools is a lot about life in Colombo. Most People who work in Colombo, don’t actually stay in Colombo but stay either in outskirts or commute from nearby towns. Which is true for most international cities. Colombo is also filled with a lot of rich folks which you can get a sense of by observing the number of Audi, BMW and a whole lot of other expensive cars all over Colombo.
The food in Srilanka is very similar to Indian food in taste and form. They like their food spicy and hot. I explored and enjoyed Lankan food to the core. You can read my Srilankan food adventures here.
Local transport in Srilanka
One pleasant surprise was that, much like some European countries, first right to pedestrians was practised in most places. Also, zebra crossing was honoured pretty much everywhere in Colombo. That’s quite a pleasant experience for anyone coming from India.
The tuk-tuks are the most popular way of getting around within the town in Srilanka. There are also private and public buses. However, the most convenient and cheap way of long-distance transportation is by trains. However, the trains are few and get packed easily in the peak season. It’s also not possible to book it online and you have to visit the station for reservation. So the reason journeys require meticulous planning.
What not to miss
Srilanka is famous for its (Ceylon) Tea. So its a heaven for tea connoisseurs. It is also famous for precious gems. You’d find hundreds of shops selling these pretty much in every city.
I found the Srilankan beaches extremely clean and turquoise. Some of them are much better than Goa beaches. There is no holiday like spreading all day over a beach drinking beer.
Hope you guys have as much fun on your Srilanka trip as I seem to have above.