I held on tight to my passport as I stepped into the Chennai International Airport—it was my first flight with friends and so, I had to be extra cautious about everything. In less than two hours, I was in Sri Lanka. The grand old Bandaranaike International Airport, Colombo, greeted me with a whiff of familiar humidity. After what seemed like an eternity in a land where my language was rendered useless, I finally arrived at the dorm—Colombo City Hostel. Parting with a bunch of Sri Lankan rupees, I was welcomed by a humble and modest room with bunk beds, lockers and a common shower.
You can never be bored in Sri Lanka, let alone in its capital city, Colombo. There is a long list of things to do: walk the markets of Pettah, have Ceylon tea and stuffed buns from the bakeries that adorn every nook and cranny, buy some posh souvenirs from boutiques at the Dutch Hospital, watch the kite sellers at the beach, sit in quiet at the Ganga Ramaiah Temple. The ‘veg kothu’ is a typical Sri Lankan street-food delicacy which is suitable only for the chilli-hearted. If you have your dinner after 10pm, be warned, this city sleeps early. The streets are clear of all traffic and most shops close by 8pm.
Tuk-tuks are the best means to hop on and off at any place. They run on meters and are colourful with funky seat covers (I especially loved the Bob Marley one). A visit to the country would be incomplete without this experience. The prominence of the Lankan flag is to be noted in the capital city, and it is a sight worth watching from the tuk-tuk. The fascination with flags does not stop with just the national flag; at the beach, I gazed at the colourful kites fluttering in the sky, each with an intricate design and sometimes with the combination of two different flags.
The journey from Colombo to Galle can be done both by train and bus, and both are equally scenic. While the train tickets have to be booked much in advance, the frequent buses can be taken from Galle Face Green. With the sea to the right and railway tracks to the left, I wasn’t sure where to fix my gaze. Flitting from one view to another, four hours flew by in a wink of the eye. Comparatively less sticky, Galle welcomed me to a minimally yet beautifully decorated hotel.
‘Rustic beauty’ got a different spin to it as I trotted the Galle Fort’s walls. Eroded by time, it overlooks the sea on one side and the town on another. One can only imagine the rich heritage it holds from being passed on from the Portuguese, who built it in the 15th century, to the Dutch, who took it over in the 17th. Dotted with shops that sell souvenirs ranging from life-sized colourful traditional masks to small fridge magnets, the streets with antique lamps and the sunset at the fort make for a picturesque view.
How can I be an Indian in Galle without talking about cricket to the locals when there is an India-Sri Lanka match going on? As I treaded along the fruit market looking to have a healthy, wholesome (and rather broke) dinner, I caught myself in a friendly argument with the shopkeepers over which team is better. The snorkelling and scuba diving adventures in Hikkaduwa are to die for. A short and scenic train journey from Galle, the crystal clear cold waters on the beaches of Hikkaduwa offered respite to my sunburnt, sticky skin. With rich, colourful corals, beautiful schools of fish and larger-than-life turtles, the experience is surreal. A wee bit of bargaining with the small-time local instructors can get you a pretty decent deal. One and a half hours in the sea with an instructor-guide and equipment for 400 SLR is quite a steal. With a never-before seen or experienced tan, I gleefully looked forward to the next day.
Nuwara Eliya, the place that made me crave the destination more than the journey, is a seven-hour scenic but tiresome bus ride from Galle. One can also reach this place by train and it works on advance booking basis. Rows of tea plantations, crisp cold air, and home-cooked Sri Lankan food made amends for all the tiredness, as I took in the beauty of this hill station, which is 1,800m above sea level. I cycled downhill to Lake Gregory Park. Horse rides, boat rides and jet skiing liven up this small town. I had a piping hot cup of Ceylon tea from a lake-side cart as I watched the sun go down, and returned to the homestay to a hot meal of rice and curry, salad, papad, and washed it down with another hot cuppa.
The next day saw me going downtown to the quaint little post office that is right out of the colonial times, picked out a few postcards to seal off to friends back home. I also took a tea manufacturing tour of the sprawling Mackwoods Tea Estate, and enjoyed a free cuppa there overlooking their estate. Back downtown, I purchased tea for almost everyone I know in the bustling market adjoining the post office. An anklet here and a magnet there, last-minute purchases for those friends were all done and dusted.
Where to stay?
Colombo: Colombo City Hostel, 35km from the airport
Galle: Galle Center Home, less than 2km from Galle Railway Station
Nuwara Eliya: New Sun Shine Holiday Bungalow, 8km from the Nuwara Eliya Post Office
What to buy?
A handmade traditional mask, Ceylon tea
What to eat?
Rice and curry, kothu, coconut roti