From a bird’s-eye view, Sri Lanka is a pear-shaped emerald in the Indian Ocean. The multi-religious island country has 3,000 years of documented history and evidence of pre-historic human settlement that dates back 125,000 years. From stilt fishermen and iconic tea plantations to the ancient palace built on a 200-metre-wide rock, Sri Lanka’s attractions hum of its own history. Read on to discover some of the highlights it has to offer!
Land of Ceylon
“Ceylon” has a long, interwoven relationship with Sri Lanka. More than 600 hundred years ago, people who arrived at the island from the Portugal Empire named the island “Ceilao”, which is translated into English as “Ceylon”. From then on the British colony was known as Ceylon.
British-born James Taylor developed the country’s first tea estate to grow Ceylon tea in 1867. The name Ceylon remained even when it achieved independence in 1948 and named itself the “Dominion of Ceylon”. To date, Sri Lanka has transformed into a tertiary economy in which agriculture only accounts for 28 per cent of its GDP. Yet, Ceylon tea remains its trademark national export.
A hike to Sigiriya Rock Fortress
Local legend says gods descended from the sky to create the Sigiriya Rock (Lion Rock) after the mythical abode of the god of wealth, Kuvera. The myth is not without reason: this product of an extinct volcano’s magma rises 200 metres higher than its surrounding jungles. A less mythical origin started with King Kashyapa, who usurped the throne from his brother—the rightful heir—in AD 477 and built the fortress in the shape of a monumental lion. Although the fortress was reputed to be impregnable, the king’s tragic defeat in AD 495 led him to take his life. His brother returned the site of Sigiriya to the Buddhist monks and thereafter the ancient fortress stood as a monastery until the 14th century.
Visitors enter the Sigiriya Rock Fortress through the lion-shaped main entrance (where unfortunately only its paws have passed the test of time). Stroll around the ruined palace surrounded by vast gardens, ponds, canals, alleys, fountains and fortifications. Look for the “mirror wall”, which was once so polished that the king and queen could see their own reflections in it. Murals also depict beautiful damsels or goddesses holding flowers, whom the archaeologists believe to be King Kashyapa’s courtesans. The Sigiriya Fortress is a wonder as it continues to reflect the unexpectedly advanced technology of that time. The “Palace in the Sky” is one of the seven UNESCO Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka.
Tip: Beware of bees stinging tourists at times!
Stilt fishermen of Weligama
Fishermen of the Weligama village have an unique set of fishing skills that test their balance, patience and techniques. They’ve taught themselves to balance on 20–50-metre poles, erected in the shallow waters, in order to then cast their lines out. Hence, the technique is called “stilt fishing”.
Visitors can climb onto the poles to get a taste of the primitive fishing method for themselves. The scene these stilt fishermen create is a picture of harmony between men and nature.
Meander in the old town of Galle, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, on a bike to discover its fortifications and Portuguese-style architecture.
Galle Fort was built in 1588 by the Portuguese and fortified by the Dutch during the 17th century to defend Galle against other colonial agencies. The fortifications on the seaward-side were added later in 1729 as the Dutch believed the side was impregnable. In the area, 14 bastions built with coral and granite can be found. A tower was built to commemorate the jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1883, and the Galle lighthouse was erected in 1938.
The fort has also been inscribed as a cultural heritage UNESCO World Heritage Site under criteria IV for its unique exposition of “an urban ensemble which illustrates the interaction of European architecture and South Asian traditions from the 16th to the 19th centuries”.
Tip: Best time to visit the fort is in early morning and before sunset.
Ceylon tea plantations
As Ceylon tea is an integral part of Sri Lanka’s culture and history, you absolutely must visit one of its plantations spread across the country. There are as many as 28 different grades of Ceylon tea, which becomes more subtle in flavour with elevation.
Sabaragamuwa is a region best known for gems. This area produces low-grown tea reaching altitudes of 2,500ft. The tea produced there is characterised by a dark yellow-brown with a reddish tint with a hint of sweet caramel in its aroma.
Kandy is the birthplace of Ceylon tea, producing mid-grown tea due to its 2,000-4,000-foot moderate elevation. Nuwara Eliya has the highest altitude of 6,000 ft. This region produces small-leaved tea with the lightest favour due to its high elevation.
Tip: Take the train ride from Ella to Kandy, which is known as “the most picturesque train ride in Asia”. Visitors may find themselves traveling back in time when they marvel at the scene of tea-picking women dotting the entire hillside.
Sacred city of Anuradhapura
Anuradhapura is one of the ancient capitals of Sri Lanka. and was built in 4th century BC by King Pandukabhaya. The Buddha’s fig tree (Bo-tree, or “tree of enlightenment”), brought there in the 3rd century B.C. by Sanghamitta, was the centre of the sacred city. The ruins of the once-glorious city include enormous dagobas (brick stupas), monastic buildings, pokunas (water pools for drinking or bathing) and crumbling temples.
Anuradhapura is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Apart from the unique cultural sites, the beautiful island of Sri Lanka also offers wildlife safari experiences at its national parks; close contact with the friendly mammals at Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage; and luxurious beach resorts by its pristine beaches.
With such rich culture, history and resources, Sri Lanka is truly a gem.
Written by: Angela Ng