Travel: Tea, Temples and Tuk-Tuks

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In the first of a two part series on Sri Lanka, Alan Wooding journeys from the west coast of this tranquil Indian Ocean island up into the hill country, visiting tea plantations and temples while meeting the people and learning a little of their culture.

“Make sure you’re quick to take a photo as they drink very fast,” said the young mahout at Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage as my wife and granddaughter attempted to bottle feed one of the tiny pachyderms.

And, as the little elephant swallowed the entire contents of an oversized five pint baby bottle in around three seconds, you really do need to be quick!

As one of Sri Lanka’s top tourist attractions, the orphanage is around a two-hour drive from the island’s popular west coast resort of Negombo and is home to around 70 orphaned, injured and abandoned elephants and it promises to leave you with a lasting memory.

Taking a direct overnight Sri Lankan Airlines flight aboard an Airbus 330 from Terminal 4 at London’s Heathrow, we arrived at Colombo’s Bandaranaika International Airport some 10 hours later before making the 45-minute journey to our overnight beach hotel in the village of Waikkal, just north of Negombo. And as there is a time difference of five and half hours, we were all feeling pretty tired on arrival.

Having made our travel arrangements with specialist consultants Sarah Lockwood and Riannne Ojeh of Travelbag Ltd (London) – www.travelbag.co.uk – we had decided to stay at the splendid all-inclusive Club Hotel Dolphin resort as our 18-year-old granddaughter, Casey, would be more likely to meet with others her own age and not be saddled with a hefty bill for ‘extras’ come the day of our departure.

The following day meant an early morning start; our driver Ranjith Ramanayake helped load our luggage into Diethelm Travel’s air-conditioned Nissan Caravan Minibus for what was going to be a 750 kilometre round trip to some of Sri Lanka’s most popular attractions.

First up was an elephant ride close to the Pinnawala orphanage, the three of us straddled on top of Monica, a 25-year-old five tonne pachyderm who loved spraying us once we entered the nearby river.

However, staying on top was far more difficult that I had imagined as Monica’s mahout handler had simply placed a wetted bath towel over the elephant’s back. As soon as we all climbed aboard, it was obvious that when Monica moved, the very motion had us trying desperately to hold on with our legs which by now were almost in the splits position.

Thankfully we survived a 45-minute ride without mishap while the soaking in the river was so refreshing as the daytime temperature had already soared well above the expected 30 degrees Centigrade.

Next came the orphanage visit where we learned that the island’s elephant population is decreasing by around 200 free roaming animals a year. They so often come into contact with the local farmers who sadly have no other way of keeping them away from their crops.

On the other side of the fence, last year alone wild elephants were reported to have killed around 50 people in Sri Lanka. But it’s the orphans and injured animals which are rescued and saved by the Pinnawala trust which also has a sadly deformed three-legged pachyderm named Sama in its care.

A big forest elephant, Sama was unfortunate to tread on a landmine, and that’s an awful reminder of Sri Lanka’s bloody 30 year civil war which finally ended just four year ago.

Watching around 40 of the resident elephants cross the main highway then parade down the nearby shopping street before they plunge into the Ma Oya river is a marvellous sight and one not to be missed.

However the elephants – who apparently get to bathe twice a day – are usually outnumbered by the camera-totting tourists who also learn that the village locals can produce fine handmade paper from the animal’s droppings!

There are several major national wildlife parks in Sri Lanka and these are home to huge herds of elephants while leopards and sloath bears are also common. The best known parks are at Yala, Udawalawe and Gal Oya in the south while Wasgamuwa is in the centre of the country with Wilpattu further north and close to holy city of Anuradhapura.

Dodging hundreds of three-wheeled Tuk-Tuks and just as many scooters, motorbikes and careless pedestrians who try to protect themselves from the heat with an umbrella, an hour later we arrived in the mountain kingdom of Kandy, home to the Sri Lankan Buddhist’s most holy relics and until the early 1800s, a city that neither the Portuguese or Dutch invaders were able to conquer.

At 1,760 feet above sea level and as Sri Lanka’s second largest city – Colombo being by far the biggest with over three million inhabitants; Kandy is a UNSECO World Heritage site and has plenty of historic low rise buildings and wonderful monuments while it is surrounded by some spectacular green mountainous scenery.

However, the city’s biggest draw is the Temple of the Tooth, or Dalada Maligawa. We visited on a Sunday which, as in the Christians’ world, is also Buddhism’s holy day.

Amid some exuberant drumming, pipe playing and chanting as part of the Pooja ceremony, there were simply thousands of flower-totting pilgrims making their way to leave their offerings at the holy tooth shrine which is hidden behind ornate golden doors and is only on view at certain times of the day.

The temple, which was partially destroyed by a Tamil car bomb attack in 1998, is now back to its former glory and it also houses a museum in what was once the Royal Palace.

Each August, the temple becomes the focal point of all Sri Lanka’s Buddhists when it hosts the massive Esala Perahera festival. With dozens of elephants bedecked in splendid colourful garments, the biggest tusker is given the task of carrying the tooth relic shrine on its back.

Interestingly the last huge tusked (now departed) elephant to carry out that duty was named Raja. He has been lovingly preserved by a skilled taxidermist and now has his own special Tusker Museum within the temple grounds.

The temple is surrounded by a huge man-made lake which was dug by hand using forced labour in the reign of the infamous Sinhala king Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe, the swampy marshland finally being transformed in 1798 before the British arrived some 17 years later.

The Brits were to build roads and a railway link to the city from the coastal regions near Colombo which enabled far easier access to the spice plantations (especially cinnamon), rubber and precious mineral deposits in the surrounding areas.

With roadside fruit and vegetable stalls at almost every twist and turn of the narrow winding roads, we were spoilt for choice as our driver Ranjith kept us supplied with fresh pineapple, king coconuts, mango and those beautiful small sweet bananas which you are unable to buy in Britain.

We stayed for two nights at the Amaya Hills Hotel high above the city and were instantly reminded to keep our doors and windows closed as the resident monkey population were adept at stealing anything was wasn’t screwed down in your room!

As in all touristy areas, we watched what turned out got be a spectacular display of Kandyan cultural dancing, acrobatics and drumming – plus the additional fire walkers – while we also visited a beautiful spice garden, a jewellery museum (that’s really a shop to you and me), plus a batik factory where the local women were producing garments and wall hanging pictures of incredible quality.

Morning coffee was taken in the former Kandy Governor’s residence which is now the Queen’s Hotel while an afternoon visit to the wonderful Peradeniya Royal Botanical Gardens was a real highlight.

Originally founded as an quiet oasis as early as 1371 by King Wickramanahu III, the park covers some 147 acres and is packed with flora and fauna and some most amazing trees, many of which were planted by the British almost two centuries ago.

Home to millions of huge fruit bats who were flying overhead – I mistakenly thought they spent the daytime roosting! – the park is also the domain to tribes of green monkeys which seemed to surround us.

Leaving Kandy and its impressive universities, we drove past a small British War Graves cemetery. It’s the final resting place of many Scottish regiment soldiers who had to fight the Japanese at close quarters. We then headed up into what is the tea growing hill country region and its very British capital, Nuwara Eliya.

Reputed to produce the world’s finest tea from the higher slopes, we visited Mackwoods which is by far the country’s largest producer and was planted by the British, or more correctly, the Scots whose original names are everywhere – ‘Glen’ this and ‘Inver’ that, those names are prefixed on many of Sri Lanka’s 654 tea factories.

We picked some fresh tea leaves from the millions of bushes and sampled the results after visiting the factory – yes, and we also bought some tea despite being regular coffee drinkers!

The tea picking women are paid just 500 rupees (about £2.50) for a 20 kilogram basket of the precious leaves and while most are Hindu Tamils from the north of the island, their lives are spent on the steep slopes while living in shanty-type accommodation with their families.

Close to Nuwara Eliya is Mount Pidurutalagala. At 8,282 feet it’s Sri Lanka’s highest mountain and it towers above the town which to all intents and purposes, is extremely British… and it even boasts a stunning 18-hole coarse at the St Andrew’s Golf Club.

Many of the buildings are also very British in appearance like the Hill Club and our own accommodation for another overnight stay, the wonderful colonial-style Grand Hotel which seems to win the region’s ‘garden of the year’ contest on a regular basis.

We dined at the hotel’s fine Indian restaurant while I had the best breakfast I think I’d ever enjoyed anywhere in the world. After that we visited Victoria Park and sailing on Gregory Park Lake.

Passing close to what are known as the Seven Virgins mountains, there’s a sad reminder of Sri Lanka’s worst ever aviation accident back in December 1974 when the aeroplane’s Indonesian pilot was given the wrong altitude information.

Thinking he was some 3,000 feet higher than he actually was, the Martinair McDonnall-Douglas DC8 crashed into Saptha Kanya Mountain killing all 191 Muslim passengers and crew who had been bound for the Haij in Mecca.

Making the scenic return trip towards the coast on a series of windy and often heart-stopping roads, we stopped off at Kitulgala, synonymous with legendary director David Lean’s 1957 film, The Bridge on the River Kwai… and we were quickly reminded of its famous signature tune, Colonel Bogie.

While the film depicts the plight and bravery of the British Second World War prisoners of the Japanese who were forced to build the Burma Railway (known as the Death Railway), the film was actually shot in Sri Lanka on the choppy Kelani Ganga River.

And we actually met one of its ‘stars’, 71-year-old Samuel Perera. He is listed as ‘Jungle Boy’ in the film credits and he played alongside Alex Guinness, Jack Hawkins and William Holden.

Proudly pointing to his name in what was left of a tatty film magazine, Samuel was more than happy to whistle the ‘Colonel Bogie’ march in exchange for a 100 rupee note as we walked alongside the river to the actual location of the ‘bridge’ which of course was blown up in the film so it doesn’t actually exist any more.

As an added bit of fun, we then went white water rafting on the Kelani Ganga, making our way down a seven kilometre run and negotiating our way through a series of rapids and small cataracts before meeting up with our driver Ranjith further downstream. We then made the long journey back to Waikkal and the Club Hotel Dolphin where we spent the remainder of our holiday.

Communication was rarely a problem as most Sri Lankans in the larger towns speak English. The majority of the population (around 75 per cent) are Sinhalese while Tamils make up 18 per cent, Muslims and Burghers (the descendants of the Portuguese and Dutch settlers) accounting for the rest.

The second part of Alan Wooding’s Sri Lankan trip will recount visits to the country’s commercial capital Colombo and the nearby town of Negombo besides taking a boat trip to see hundreds of bottlenose dolphins far out into the Indian Ocean together with a more sedate journey along one of the island’s inland waterways.

Sri Lankan Fact File

Alan Wooding’s Sri Lanka trip was booked through Travelbag Ltd (London), 205 Kensington High Street, London W8 6BA, telephone 0844 846 5651 – www.travelbag.co.uk – with special thanks to travel consultants Sarah Lockwood and Riannne Ojeh.

Flying non-stop overnight with Sri Lankan Airlines from Terminal 4 of London’s Heathrow Airport direct into Colombo’s Bandaranaike International Airport takes around 10 hours although some airlines call in at Dubai for a short stopover.

All Sri Lankan overland travel was courtesy of Diethelm Travel Sri Lanka (PVT) Ltd, Level 06, Hemas House, 75 Braybrooke Place, Colombo. Telephone 0094 11 231 3131 – www.diethelmtravel.com – and their driver-guide Ranjith Ramanayake.

Hotel accommodation

Serendib Leisure’s Club Hotel Dolphin, Kammala South, Waikkal, Sri Lanka, telephone 0094 31 487 7100 – www.serendibleisure.com/club-hotel-dolphin – for reservations call 0094 11 479 0500 – inquiries@serendibleisure.lk

Amaya Hills Resort, PO Box 16, Heeressagala, Peradeniya, Kandy, Sri Lanka, telephone 0094 81 223 3521 – www.amayahills.com

Grand Hotel, Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka, telephone 0094 52 222 2881 – www.grand-hotel-nuwara-eliya-sri-lanka.ww.lk. For reservations thegrand@sltnet.lk

Sri Lankan currency: The Sri Lankan rupee comes in banknote denominations of 10, 20, 50, 200, 200, 500, 1000, 2000 and 5000 while there are coins of 1,2, 5 and 10 rupees together with smaller cents of 5, 10, 25 and 50 although these are rarely seen by tourists. Although exchange rates change daily, there are approximately 210 rupees to the British pound while for Euros its around 175 and the US dollar 130.

Climate: Being a tropical country located just 880 kilometres north of the equator, Sri Lanka’s low lying coastal regions have a year round temperature of around 30 degrees while in Kandy it’s nearer 25 and in Nuwara Eliya 20. The hottest time is March to June and the coolest November to January. The southwest monsoon (May to July) affects the southern, western and central regions while the northwest monsoon (December to January) affects the eastern and northern areas.