Sri Lanka: Ancient Cities, Holy Places and Wild Nature
This is the story of a trip that starts in Negombo, once a fishing village and nowadays a small city, at around 40 km from Colombo. Traveling with my friend Diana, I crossed some of the ancient cities of the country until we finally reached Back of Beyond, an enchanted place completely immersed in the lush nature of Sri Lanka.
This is the story of a country that many consider an appendix of India, and that I came to realize has little to do with India. It is the story of a legendary country where the image of Buddha has always had an important role in the life of its people.
Last, but not least, this is the story of the first week of my trip across a country and a people which couldn’t be further from my life, both geographically and culturally.
“Like many,” some would say.
Yes, like many – but also much more than others.
I only spend one night in Negombo – just enough time to rest after 24 hours of traveling. Aside from the fish market, which swipes me away with its pungent, penetrating smell, it doesn’t seem too interesting to me. I am still in limbo, adapting to a place that is so far from what I am used to. Like always, I tip toe my way to the country, and spend some time in its lobby, slowly savoring its exotic smell.
Sri Lanka is often called the teardrop of India but the difference between the two couldn’t be more striking. I don’t see the garbage and the poverty that shocked me when I arrived to Varanasi, less than a year ago.
Someone – I don’t remember who! – told me that traveling by public transportation in Sri Lanka is pure madness. Before getting here, I had contacted the tourism board which had offered me and Diana a private car with a driver – something which would have made the trip a lot easier and way more comfortable. But we decided to refuse the offer in the end. Part of the beauty of traveling is getting to know the local culture, and public transportation is the best way to fully get the local way of life and to observe the local people. Sure, it is slow and uncomfortable, but the time “wasted” on those slow, crazy buses is repaid by the incredible people I meet along the way.
Diana and I leave early in the morning, set to go to Anuradhapura. We have yet to understand the bus system. After a short ride to Kurunegala on a small AC bus, we wait in what appears a never ending line to get on a bus to Anuradhapura. I have traveled across Central America on the crazy chicken buses. I should be used to this – but trust me, between the heat, the manic driving of the conductor who God only knows how he got a driving licence, the terrible road conditions, the amount of people literally sitting on top of each other and the idea that I will be stuck there for something like 5 hours to drive a mere 130 km makes me regret refusing the offer of a private car with a driver.
It is just a momentary thing though: once I come to terms with the fact that it takes about 1 hour to drive 30 km, I start actually enjoying those bus rides. And in fact, public transportation in Sri Lanka is, though slow, very reliable and the entire country is well connected.
At a first glance, people in Sri Lanka are very friendly and the first impression of the country is extremely positive. A group of women sees me struggling to get on the bus, with my backpack, and saves a seat for me, pointing to sit next to them. They are all wearing white skirts and shirts. I learn that this is the color they wear to go to the temple. They are keen to talk, sharing whichever little English they speak. They smile, they pose for a selfie. They ask to see photos of my country.
A trip between the ancient cities and the holy places of Sri Lanka
Anuradhapura, the ancient capital of Sri Lanka, is famous for the ruins. It takes me and Diana about 5 hours to visit the site. We rent bikes which we are told are brand new, but on a second glance they are rusty and at least 10 years old. The atmosphere of the site is magic; but the site, in all honesty, is nothing special – or at least, I don’t think it is worth a $25 USD entrance fee. The city isn’t pretty either, though we enjoy the atmosphere.
After two nights in Anuradhapura, we are ready to move on. We decide to head to Dambulla, to visit the Royal Rock Temple, one of the religious icons of Sri Lanka. We drop our backpacks in a shop for 100 Sri Lankan Rupees and set to explore. We hike up a steep hill to get to a series of caves which are used as temples and where there are various Buddha statues.
I can sense the holiness of the place through the fervor of the prayers of the locals, but once again I regret paying the $10 USD fee to get inside. I don’t think the place is worth the price. I suppose it is too late now anyways.
After picking up our backpacks, we head to Sigiriya, who everyone says to be splendid. To be fair, the sight of it from a distance is truly astounding. The rock fortress sits proudly in the middle of luxurious vegetation. It used to be a royal palace and military fortress during Kassapa reign in the 5th century AC, though recent studies believe that it used to be a theravada and mahayana Buddhist monastery of the 3rd century. The view from the top is incredible.
But that’s about it – once again, the actual site isn’t worth the $30 USD entrance fee. The ridiculous fees for sites that are worth about a fifth of the required price leaves me wandering what, in proportion, should be the adequate fee for places like Petra and Machu Picchu.
For those who are unwilling to pay an extortionate fee just for a beautiful view, the good news is that the nearby Pidurangala, another rock fortress, only costs 500 Sri Lankan Rupees ($3 USD), it is significantly less touristy (Diana and I were the only ones on top for a good while) and the views from there are simply spectacular.
After battling with the heat and a sometime difficult path (tip! wear shoes and carry lots of water), we made it to the top to be rewarded with the most impressive view of Sigiriya and the lush nature around it. We didn’t stay along for sunset (we were exhausted after a day of exploration) but rumor has it that it is one of the best sunset views of the country.
Back of Beyond, the marvel in the Sri Lankan jungle
What does a “hotel” (the inverted commas are appropriate in this case, because Back of Beyond is so much more than just a place to stay) have to do with a post on ancient cities or holy places in Sri Lanka? Nothing, apparently. Yet it deserves a special mention. Located at a stone’s throw from Sigiriya, and completely immersed in the jungle, Back of Beyond is the perfect place to unite a love of nature at its best, and an interest in culture and history which can be found nearby.
It may well be that green is my favorite color and that Sri Lanka is by far the greenest country I have ever seen, but Back of Beyond to me is love at first sight. There are just 7 rooms in the property, 3 of which are tree houses. Had anyone told me when I was a child that one day I’d sleep in a treehouse cabin, I would have told them that they were mad. I guess dreams come true, because that’s exactly what I did at Back of Beyond.
The view from the tree house opened up to show the lush of the vegetation. We spend the late afternoon hours reading books, soaking in the light breeze, and listening to the sound of nature. We are warned not to leave any of our properties around, and to store any food we may have carried with us in safe boxes, unless we want to share it with the animals. With this in mind, we go to bed, hanging our dirty clothes on the rack before falling asleep.
When we wake up, we do realize what the staff meant: Diana’s cotton pants and top have literally been chewed, most likely by a squirrel. She shrugs it off, wondering how come the squirrel didn’t pick to chew on her older clothes. I guess my hiking pants were too filthy even for a starving squirrel.
After a scrumptious breakfast, we pack our backpacks to move to the boulder cottage. The style of the room is very similar to that of the tree house, but here the bathroom is completely built around a boulder. I shower in the company of a small frog, who stares at me, probably thinking I have invaded her place.
In fact, at Back of Beyond nature rules. All the rooms are built in full respect of nature. The management struggles to involve the local community in projects of re-forestation, and strives to educate the locals not to hunt and poach animals, and to respect the ones that live in the area – including the elephants of which unfortunately we only see a large footprint. But I guess it is ok, as long as I know they are respected and free.
It is comforting to know that places like this exist, where tourism is used in a responsible manner to protect the environment and to promote the respect of animals. It is even more comforting to find out that more and more places like Back of Beyond exist in Sri Lanka.
For a comprehensive guide to Sri Lanka, read my post The Nicest Touristy And Not So Touristy Places To Visit In Sri Lanka.
Have you visited any of the holy cities in Sri Lanka? Did you enjoy them?
Legal disclaimer: I was a guest of Back of Beyond during my visit to Sri Lanka. All the views and opinions expressed are my own and based on my personal experience. The views expressed are honest and factual without any bias.