From backpacking to 5 star hotels, Sri Lanka’s well established tourist infrastructure allows you to explore this exotic paradise at your own pace.
Last month, we were invited to sample the sites of Sri Lanka by the ONYX Hospitality Group, who took us to two of the most popular destinations frequented by visitors to the island - Kandy and Colombo.
After a short four-hour flight from Dubai with Sri Lankan Airlines, we landed in the capital, Colombo. But that wasn’t our first destination; instead we climbed aboard an air conditioned minibus and went on a four-hour drive to Kandy. The single lane highways make the roads very interesting, and with an average speed of 40 km/h, it’s difficult to get anywhere fast. But don’t let that put you off; it’s actually part of the experience, and travelling by road is a great opportunity to see life on the island first hand.
On the road trip to Kandy, you will pass some amazing sites, with beautiful views of the tropical rain forests covering the mountains and valleys, and we were even lucky enough to see a group of monkeys sitting at the side of the road, watching the world go by.
When we arrived in Kandy, we were pleasantly surprised by the high standard of the OZO Hotel. This is easily on par with any of the 4 star hotels in Dubai, and you will not be disappointed with the level of food, service and comfortable rooms (with free Wi-Fi). Make sure you book a room with a balcony and a view of the lake (the higher the better!); you will get some spectacular views of the mountains.
That afternoon, we went for a walk around Kandy Lake, a must-do activity due to its central location, and a great opportunity to photograph the local scenery. On the way round, we visited the Sri Dalada Maligawa Temple (Sacred Temple of the Tooth Relic).
Buddhism is the main religion in Sri Lanka and the Temple is home to the actual tooth of the Buddha, recovered from his funeral pyre. The golden-roofed Temple attracts a combination of devout Buddhists and tourists, each paying their respects through the offering of prayers, or just taking a moment to reflect on life. From the Temple, you can wander through the market stalls on your way back to the hotel, taking in the sights, smells and friendly atmosphere of this idyllic mountain town.
Back at the OZO hotel, we had dinner at the roof-top bar ‘BOMMU’. This is a great open-air location which doubles as the pool bar during the day. With stunning views across the city and mountains, a live DJ and a bartender who worked at the Burj Al Arab, you can’t help but feel relaxed. Because it is a hotel, it also attracts the local party-goers, and can turn into a lively night out.
The next day, we travelled to the Pinnalanda Elephant Orphanage, about a two-hour drive from Kandy. The orphanage looks after orphaned calves, and also dangerous elephants that have attacked villages. Although captive, they are looked after very well, and walk calmly through the town every day to swim in the local river and play together. You will find a number of restaurants along the riverside where you can sit and watch these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat, all while indulging in a nice cup of tea. There are plenty of souvenir shops, and you can even buy elephant poo paper - yes, paper made from recycled elephant poo!
On our drive back to Kandy, we stopped at the Geragama Tea Factory. This is one of the many local factories that supplies quality tea leaves to the world’s largest tea companies. Upon entering the factory, you are transported back to the olden days, with 100 year old machinery in full operation and still going strong. Even today, the leaves are still picked and sorted by hand to segregate the 9 different varieties (from black tea to gold tips and silver tips), with some of the staff dedicating their entire working lives to the trade. This factory alone produces 4500 kg of tea per day, making sure you get top grade produce on your breakfast table every morning.
The following day, we moved to Colombo. But as we had already experienced the colourful road trip, we went by express train. The train from Kandy to Colombo takes two and a half hours and has three classes - First, Second and Third. We opted for First Class, with a meal, water and on-board entertainment all included in the reasonably priced ticket. The train cuts its way through the mountains and rain forest, giving you another great opportunity to capture those amazing photographs of the islands natural beauty.
Throughout the trip, we encountered seasonal thunderstorms. Although Sri Lanka is a year-round holiday destination, you need to know which side of the island to visit in any given month. There are two monsoon seasons. In the south-western region, you can expect monsoon rain between May and September, and dry weather from December to March. While in the north and eastern regions, expect wind and rain between October and January, and dryer weather between May and September. Due to the weather, December to mid-April is considered peak season, and can get very busy. But travelling either side of this period can bring the best of both worlds - great weather and fewer tourists!
On arrival in Colombo, we dodged the rain drops and drove straight to OZO Colombo. OZO Colombo was on par with OZO Kandy, and the ONYX Hospitality Group take pride in maintaining consistency across their hotel range. The room had an amazing, uninterrupted view of the Indian Ocean, and watching the thunderstorm in full swing from the comfort of the room was an incredible sight. That evening, we were entertained by the staff at ON14 rooftop bar and lounge, which is a great location, looking out across the open-air swimming pool towards the ocean. We then had an authentic Sri Lankan curry dinner at EAT restaurant before retiring for the night.
The next morning, the rain had cleared and we headed into Colombo. Our first stop was the Gangarama Temple, home to Buddhist head priest, Galboda Gnanissara Thera (Podi Hamuduruwo). Gangarama is a fascinating combination of deep religious worship, education centre, tourist attraction and museum, and you can spend hours exploring the vast array of worldly antiquities one minute, and humbly pouring water on the Bodhi tree the next.
After the enlightening visit to Gangarama, we headed down to Pettah Market district, one of the most famous historical neighbourhoods in Colombo. This is a perfect place to pick up souvenirs, and a great opportunity to see the authentic colonial buildings dating back to the British occupation. The old town hall even has a room fully decked out with mannequins holding a meeting while overlooking the town square. For lunch, we stopped off at Barefoot Café, a popular spot with tourists, and they have an amazing Blues Night on Wednesdays. Later that afternoon, we said our goodbyes and set-off back to Dubai, just as the rain came again…
We had a great time travelling through South West Sri Lanka, and would highly recommend a trip to this wonderful island.
For more information on Sri Lanka and ONYX Hospitality Group, visit www.srilanka.travel, www.ozohotels.com and www.srilankan.com. - P.C.