My earliest impressions of Sri Lanka are courtesy of video footage and photographs taken during our first family trip in 1995. I was a boy of five, full of life and possessing only a serendipitous idea of these new surroundings. Now, at age 23 and still full of life, I had an idea of what to expect but knew that my upcoming journey through Sri Lanka’s history, landscapes, wildlife and ancient monuments would be a fascinating eye-opener. Indeed, nothing could have prepared me for the rich tapestry of emotions and experiences that were to come. All who travel to Sri Lanka experience it in different ways and are left with diverse impressions. As a boy, I was in awe and thrilled out of my mind. As a young man, I have now experienced the very same and am able to write down why.
No sooner had we checked-in at the Cinnamon Grand hotel in Colombo than we were indulging in a rich melting pot of spices, scents and cuisines. A peculiar smell of kerosene oil was in the balmy night air and evoked one of my distant memories associated with Sri Lanka. We followed a trail of flaming torches and arrived at an enormous banyan tree in the centre of what looked like a rural village. Soon we realised that this exotic area was in fact an open-air restaurant right in the heart of the hotel, offering a full-range of culinary delights! For me, this first buffet dinner at Nuga Gama was the most distinctive dining experience of my life to date and set the tone for a full, filling and very fulfilling culinary adventure ahead. From morning serves of mouth-watering string hoppers, egg hoppers and milk rice; Jaffna crabs on the Trincomalee beach; sipping fresh Lion Lager beer to tame the sizzling heat; and all the many delicacies we could eat each day at the hotel buffets. Everywhere we went offered a taste of Sri Lanka to satisfy my appetite and has since left me craving for more.
“Low points in life are evident, but at that moment on the Sigiriya summit I felt on top of the world.”
There had been many highlights within the first week of the holiday but none higher than climbing Sigiriya Rock. This 180 metre tall granite rock is considered by UNESCO to be the 8th wonder of the world and was a 5th century palace/fortified stronghold. Climbing the Lion’s rock was a challenge in the humidity and rain, which made the marble steps quite slippery. But we made it to the summit with no issues and enjoyed the panoramic view of the surrounding jungle. It was literally breathtaking. At the time I also received word that I graduated my honours university degree with distinction. Low points in life are evident, but at that moment on the Sigiriya summit I felt on top of the world.
With our friendly and knowledgeable driver to guide us, my family and I launched into a diverse range of landscapes, wildlife and experiences of cultural significance. We mustered a bit of courage and rode bare-back on elephants, towering above the ground and feeling the power of this majestic animal moving beneath us. The gentle nature of elephants was on full display at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, where we were able to see them bathe in the river, approach them at close proximity and bottle-feed a baby elephant some milk, which it gulped down within seconds! At the break of dawn, we hopped aboard a jeep and ventured into the Yala National Park with eyes peeled for any sign of a wild leopard. It eluded us this time, but we were fortunate to see an array of magnificent animals roaming freely in their natural habitat. In Ella, my brother and I took the adventure and antics to new heights with a mountain trek up Little Adam’s Peak. The diversity of the Sri Lankan landscape continued to amaze us and included lush tea plantations, windy mountain roads and distant waterfalls. Through our camera lens we could even spot mum and dad waving at us from our 98 Acres hotel chalet on the opposite mountainside!
Experiencing the spiritual side of Sri Lanka and walking barefoot through venerated sites was an enormously fulfilling part of this holiday. We stood before the sacred Bo tree of Anuradhapura, which is over 2200 years old and the oldest historically documented tree in the world. What makes this extra significant is that it was brought as a sapling from the tree under which the Buddha attained Enlightenment. We felt the hot Polonnaruwa sands beneath our feet as we walked up to the Gal Viharaya – giant statues of the Buddha carved out of rock. I could genuinely sit for hours and admire the reclining statue of the Buddha passing away – a stunning testament to ancient Sinhalese sculpting. But the most special of all was entering the temple in Kandy which houses a tooth extracted from the Buddha before he was cremated. It was humbling to glimpse the jewel-encrusted casket and join thousands of pilgrims offering their respects through lotus flowers. Thousands more come to the Temple of the Tooth every day, and I count myself lucky to have been there.
“Together as a family we left our footprints along the shores of Sri Lanka, but it was this beautiful country that left within us the most indelible impressions.”
Perhaps the most captivating of all our encounters was at the Heritance Kandalama Hotel, located in the heart of Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle and amongst a canopy of lush vegetation. Coming from middle-class suburbia, it was an astonishing experience to be this close to nature, especially with the sight of Sigiriya Rock in the distance while monkeys leapt from tree to tree and climbed right up to our balcony! And so began our endless fascination with monkeys peering through our window and staring inquisitively at the bananas in our fruit bowl. Another intimate encounter with nature was at the Cinnamon Wild in Yala, where we came face-to-face with a wild boar and its piglet that had ventured into the hotel grounds looking for water. Here we would also go to bed at night with the curtains open in the hope of seeing a wild elephant walk by. It was surreal, even a little scary, to learn that we needed an escort to guide us to and from our room after sunset, just in case a creature of the night surreptitiously decided to say hello. A practical reminder that we were smack-bang in the middle of wilderness!
Momentous moments there were many, but it’s the simple things I treasure most from my Sri Lanka holiday. Above all was the quality family time. Prior to this trip, we knew the odds of another international family holiday were diminishing with work commitments, finances and emerging personal endeavours. To share one full month overseas and most of each day together is something we’ll forever remember. In particular, my brother and I were able to share rooms for a whole month like we did when we were kids: swapping stories before falling asleep and laughing about the events of the day. A deep brotherly bond was reaffirmed during this time. Together with our parents we would sip cocktails and mocktails by the hotel pools; play night tennis under flood-lights and before an audience of large bats; swim in pristine beaches and infinity pools; wake up early to watch the sunrise and, most remarkably, spend 24 hours as the only guests at the prestigious Maalu Maalu Resort and Spas in Passekudah. We had our beach chalet upgraded free-of-charge and the entire hotel staff at our beck and call. Talk about the VIP experience!
Our family relations have long since relocated from the island nation but we were immediately made to feel right at home. Our friends Naji and Fareeda were there to welcome us on our first night, treating us to the Nuga Gama buffet and assembling a lavish meal with some of the Old Aloysians a few days later. We were deeply overwhelmed by the genuine affection and generosity of the Indatissa and Mangalagama families, whom we met along the beaches of Hikkaduwa and celebrated Christmas with in Colombo. It felt like we had known these families for years and this reflected in the lengths they went to make our stay a memorable one. These wonderful people went way up and above the call of duty and demonstrated why Sri Lankan people are world-renowned for their hospitality.
This month-long tour afforded us the chance to revisit our cultural heritage and enjoy a nostalgic trip down memory lane. We journeyed to Badulla – mum’s birthplace and town of her upbringing. For as long as I can remember, St. Aloysius College in Galle has been regarded by my family with eminence and now, finally, I could set my eyes upon the school that meant the world to my Pa, Patrick Williams. Within the confines of the college library we were able to sit on wooden chairs hand-crafted by my great grandfather, Mr C.O. Williams. That these 60 chairs are used in the library to this day and remain in excellent condition bears testimony to the skill and expert craftsmanship of my late ancestor. We were fortunate to visit the workshop in which he made these chairs, the quarters wherein Pa lived in Galle, and had the chance to attend Sunday mass in the very same chapel my great grandmother once attended to. Words fall short of adequately describing how deeply these experiences meant to mum and dad, but seeing their faces light up served to amplify my appreciation.
Together as a family we left our footprints along the shores of Sri Lanka, but it was this beautiful country that left within us the most indelible impressions. The walls of our family home are now adorned with hand-made paintings and intricately woven batiks. Photographs of our trip inundate our Facebook profiles and memories of our journey occupy our waking thoughts. We have since reunited with the friends we made and are keeping in contact with those abroad. As we departed on our return flight, my central impression of Sri Lanka was like that of a close friend waving goodbye to me – I was sad to be leaving but was filled with the confidence that I would see them again, greeted with a warm embrace and buoyant Ayubowan!
[Via Justin Visser]