Sri Lanka the emerald jewel of the Indian Ocean
As with all educational trips, I’m always a bit nervous about the journey, the destination and the total strangers that I would spend the next week of my life with. On Tuesday 5th September after a busy day at work I headed straight to Heathrow Terminal 3. Upon check in at the Sri Lankan Airlines desk I found my fellow travellers. The trip was put together by one of the travel industries biggest and best tour operators Kuoni. I tried not to have any expectations but with a brand like Kuoni it’s hard not to expect some sort of high quality product.
My fellow travellers were already on the first round of drinks in a bar in the terminal. Robin Griffiths (Kuoni) had already broken the ice amongst our group. This comprised of Natalie Touvignon, Gillian Polyhios, Ian Cann, Rebecca Sanders, Claire Belsey, Kelly Hunt and AmyWilde. A mixture of ages ranging from 27 – 55ish. We all pretty much jelled quite quickly and all enjoyed a meal before taking our 10 hour flight to Colombo. The flight with Sri Lankan Airlines was on an Airbus A330-300 a very comfortable plane with an excellent choice of food and a variety of Movies and Games to keep you entertained. The crew were very attentive. My fellow passenger was a Sri Lankan lady who had recently lost her husband, I found her very friendly and she spoke of her country with such pride. I knew from that moment that we were in for a special treat.
We arrived in Colombo the following day in the afternoon; Sri Lanka is about 4.5 hours ahead of GMT so we were all a little tired. We all exchanged money at the Airport the rate was 192 Rupees to a Pound. The Sri Lanka Rupee is a closed currency and can only be obtained in Sri Lanka, any left over money needs to be exchanged back before you leave. We were meet by Bernard the Kuoni representative he was a fine stature of a man and very knowledgeable in all things Sri Lankan, life and Cricket (biggest passion of most Sri Lankans) along with Bernard was Rohwand the driver and Siri the drivers helping hand. Colombo is on the West side of the island and the first thing that shocked me was the awful weather. It was raining and quite heavily even though the temperature was a hot 32C. I must admit I was a little disheartened. I also noticed that the cars and the roads were all like the UK, Right hand drive and driving on the left. The other shocking thing is how clean everything looked. I have been to India before I noticed rubbish strewn across the roads.
In Sri Lanka every thing look spotless, no graffiti no rubbish. We arrived at our first evening’s place of stay the Jetwing Beach in Negombo. We were greeted by the hotel management with warm smiles, a cool flannel (much appreciated after a 10hour flight) and a drink of iced tea; we then lit a ceremonial lantern, signifying light. We all had to share so the ladies in the group all paired of and I and Ian became roomies. The room was clean and comfortable and an adequate stop for our first night stay. Negombo is like a stepping stone for most arrivals, it has a wide sandy beach and a long strip of hotels, bars and restaurants.
Most travellers use this as the first port of call as they make their way into the interior of the island and to get to the East coast. We all agreed to go for a drink at the beach bar and maybe a swim. Natalie and Gillian preferred to try out a spa treatment which they found very cheap. it was strange experience for me to go swimming in the rain but I don’t think anything would have stop us we were prepared to experience all Sri Lanka was willing to offer and a little rain was not going to deter us. I was also introduced to the local beer “Lion” a smooth lager which had a smooth taste and a little punch. The evening ended with us all dining at the hotel buffet. The hotel offered a vast spread of Sri Lankan specialities and western style foods something for everyone, all in all a very pleasurable experience. By the end of day one the whole group was already getting along as if we had been lifelong friends. I think everybody could feel this and we knew we would be in for a treat.
On day 2 we woke early and after breakfast we set off for Kandy it was a journey of around 3 hours we took in the sights of villages, hills ,fields, beautiful vegetation, monkeys and rain!!. On route we stopped at a Tea factory. Here they dry and dehydrate the leaves that are brought in by the local farmers to make tea. They blend it and sell back to tourists and the community. The tea in Sri Lanka is probably the best you will ever taste, its rich in flavour and light in colour and can be drank with or without milk, the best brand is marked with the letters BOPF which means its made of a high quality blend
We eventually arrived at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic this is a Buddhist temple in the city of Kandy. It is located in the royal palace complex of the former Kingdom of Kandy, which houses the relic of the tooth of the Buddha. Since ancient times, the relic has played an important role in local politics because it is believed that whoever holds the relic holds the governance of the country. Kandy was the last capital of the Sri Lankan kings and is a World Heritage Site mainly due to the temple. It is important to be aware that you must be dressed appropriately. Ladies and gentlemen must have there legs covered to below the knee and shoulders cannot be exposed. You also must remove your footwear and walk barefoot whilst inside the temple, socks are allowed. Your footwear is looked after by a stall outside the temple and its customary to tip 25 rupees for the service they provide.
After the temple we paid a visit to the Cinnamon Citadel Hotel were we had lunch. This beautiful four star property is nestled on the banks of the Mahaweli River the largest river in Sri Lanka. Its breathtaking views and natural beauty are absolutely stunning and above all else what comes across is the peace and tranquilly of this area. Our journey then continued to a traditional Sri Lankan dance show. The show was great fun, mainly a team of men and woman dressed in traditional costumes and dancing to a rhythmic beat of several drummers. The climax of the show was a couple of the dancers walking across hot charcoals.
Our day ended with us arriving at the Earls Regency hotel a premium 5 star property in the heart of Kandy. The hotel is a superb place to be located to take in all the sites of this area has to offer.
Day 3 we boarded our coach and headed north east to Dambulla approximately 2 hours drive to visit the Dambulla Rock Temple also known as the Golden Temple of Dambulla this is a 1st Century BC UNSECO world heritage site. Here we find the majestic statue of the Lord Buddha lying in state and carved from the solid rock that forms the cave. The area is high on a hill side with breath taking views of the surrounding country side; the area is teaming with wild monkeys.
Ancient paintings and several caves full of statues of the Buddha make this a must for any person wishing to see what Sri Lanka has to offer. Once again shoes must be removed to enter this holy areas and appropriate clothing must be worn. We then went for a hotel inspection of the Heritance Kandalama a unique property sitting on the edge of a manmade lake known as a Tank. Bernard constantly reminding us even though it was raining that part of Sri Lanka are suffering from a prolonged drought. The hotel is one of the most ecologically friendly properties on the island it has breath taking views and is flanked by Dambulla on its left and the Ancient Sigiriya Fortress to its right. The position of this property makes it an ideal place to explore this whole area.
It was an early start to this day and for me the day I was looking forward to the most. Our group was bound for the famous Sigiriya Rock Fortress another Unesco site which the Sri Lankans like to consider it as the 8th wonder of the world. We drove approximately 40 minutes from the Vil Uyana to join the crowds and make our ascent to the top. The walk to the Rock is made up of Gardens with ancient fountains and surrounded by a man made moat. A staircase of 1250 steps is leading to the highest point of Sigiriya. The way from the bottom to the top lasts approximately 2 hours. Because of the high temperatures during the day it is better to visit this place in the morning. Wear comfortable clothing, take water with you and don’t forget to bring a hat and sunscreen. The climb is hard if but the view from the top is breath taking and well worth the effort.
After the slow climb down we headed to the Hiriwaduna Village Walk were we boarded Bullock carts which were pulled along by mini tractors. We arrived at a village gathering place to have some tea and taste some local specialties. Once again the warm friendly nature of the Sri Lankan people was what came across.
After our village excursion we headed for lunch at the Amaara Forest another eco-friendly hotel set in the jungle of the Sigiriya area. We then transferred to the Cinnamon Lodge hotel in Habarana for the evening. Robin then surprised us all with the news that we could go on an Elephant safari which for me was one of the highlights of the whole trip. Of course the rain was coming down thick and fast but that did not deter us from rolling the roof down on the jeeps and getting socked to the core, just to see the elephants wondering around in their natural environment liked being blessed by the Buddha himself.
Our evening came to a close with dinner and a stay at the Cinnamon Lodge a very colonial looking property. The “Kuoni Squad” as Robin our group leader had christened us was so buzzing from our most awesome day, we all were in a great mood to drink dance and party and thanks to the hotels resident 2 piece band we did just that.
Before we left Habarana in the morning we had a site inspection of the Habaran Village by Cinnamon, this wonderful property is set in lush gardens teaming with wildlife especially monkeys. We set off on a 2 hour drive to the East coast to a place called Trinomalee. As we drove through the countryside it was noticeable the difference in the vegetation that this area was a lot dryer than the west and central part of the island. This is why Bernard kept on telling us that there was a drought. We arrived for a site inspection and lunch at a hotel called the Trinco Blu by Cinnamon. We had arrived early and for the first time we had an opportunity to relax a bit and enjoy the beach and the weather. After lunch we headed on for about 30 minute drive to reach our place for the evening and for me the best property of the whole trip the amazing Uga Jungle Beach. We were all allocated different rooms and mine and Ian’s was a villa that had its own pool that was shared by two other villas. We all went for a swim on the beach then everyone came back to our pool for a get together.
The day came to a close with an evening meal hosted by the Uga Jungle beach.
A shocking 5am start, we rose early to drive back to the Trinco Blu hotel to board two speed boats to go dolphin watching. Even though I enjoyed the boat ride and seeing a temple or two along the way the dolphin experience was not exactly what we thought it would be. Initially we thought it would be just our party out at sea, but we soon came to realise that there was a hoard of boats deep out at sea all spotting the dolphins then giving them chase whenever they moved away. I thought it was a bit cruel but as it was pointed out to me, no dolphins are harmed and if they did not like the attention, the dolphins would not come to the same place everyday.
After the morning excursion we headed to Pasikudha to do an inspection visit of a couple of hotels first was the Maalu Maalu Hotel a very simple property sitting on an amazing beach. Here we were greeted with the adorning of a bindi spot on the forehead and a cool drink.
Next we moved on to Uga Bay hotel the sister property to the Uga Jungle beach her we had a site inspection followed by Lunch. This property had one of the best rooms I have seen in Sri Lanka a villa with its own pool and two bedrooms.
After lunch we headed to the Anantaya Hotel a property sold exclusively by Kuoni. We had an afternoon and a morning by the stunning beach and dinner hosted by the hotel management.
Our journey was nearly coming to an end, but first we had to get from the east coast to the west coast and the fastest way to do this was by Air. The Cinnamon Group who owns the chain of hotels on the Island has its own small Airline known as Cinnamon Air. We travelled from Pasikudah for about 45 minutes south to get to Batticaloa to a military airport to catch the flight back to Colombo.
I must admit I’m not very fond of small planes but the 45 minute journey went quickly and we were safely on the ground in rainy Colombo. We transferred to our last night’s stay at the Jetwing Sea.
The Jetwing Sea is a simple property nothing flash but is located at one end of the Negombo strip. It’s an adequate property for a quick stop. The management held us an evening meal set up on the beach, but it soon had to move inside as the rain had started again.
Our last night ended with a group of us going to one of the local bars in Negombo called Rodeos. We finished the fam trip with a real fun evening.
After a short sleep we were up and out and heading back to Colombo Airport for our flight back home. We said our goodbyes to Bernard, Siri and Rohwan.
Thank them for looking after us for the whole week and showing off their beautiful country. I can honestly say that having been to many other countries, that Sri Lanka and its gracious people is by far one of my favourite places. I believe the hospitality shown to us was so real and genuine it is hard not to like Sri Lanka.
I would like to thank Robin Griffiths and Kuoni for giving me this opportunity to go on such a wonderful journey and for the new friends I made along the way.
If you like what I’ve written and you wish to explore Sri Lanka please call me at Travelmania on
020 7700 4844 so we can get your Sri Lankan adventure on the way.
John Neophytou – Travelmania Ltd. September 2017