An island of abundance, a gemstone rising from the Indian Ocean, the wonder of Asia. Calls, songs, voices fill land, sea and sky, telling stories of beautiful, bountiful Sri Lanka.
The island has evolved through many names: Serendivis for the Romans, Ceylon for the British, Lanka for the locals. The old Tamil word Cerentivu became Serendivis in Latin and Sielen Diva in Greek, which led to other European names such as Ceilão in Portuguese and Ceylon in English. The name Lanka comes from Ramayana, the epic tale of Sita’s rescue from the demon king Ravana by Prince Rama. Lanka can be translated as “that which glitters”; Serendivis is the root of the word serendipity. In words, as in life, Sri Lanka is a place of serendipity, an island that glitters. Waves shimmer over white beaches, jeweller’s windows gleam between the heat and horns of Colombo’s streets, golden sari’s glint in the sunshine lighting up the smiles of children and teachers. My days flowed into one another, often beginning in change and chance, and ending in connection.
Almost ten years have passed since the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War that began in 1983. Nayomi Munaweera’s historical novel Island of a Thousand Mirrorsgives an extraordinary insight into the 25 year struggle between the Tamils and the Sinhalese: “A rifle-toting tiger. A sword-gripping lion. This is a war that will be waged between related beasts.” When the violence peaks, the character Yasodhara Rajasinghe is living in Los Angeles and tries to answer the questions from her American friends about her home: “They say ‘Aren’t the Tigers like freedom fighters? Aren’t they fighting for a separate homeland because they are discriminated against so terribly? Like our African-American friends here?’ I try to explain. There are no martyrs here. It is a war between equally corrupt forces. I see their eyes glaze over. I realise they do not desire a complicated answer. They wanted clear distinctions between the cowboys and the Indians, the corrupt administration and the valiant freedom fighters, the democratic government and the raging terrorists. They want moral certainty, a thing I cannot give them.”
The two families in the novel – one Tamil, one Sinhalese – are pulled into conflicts of birth, friendship, love, violence, death. Their stories are woven through the story of Sri Lanka, this teardrop Island that lost 80,000 lives to the Civil War; “Eighty thousand: it is a number beyond comprehension. I must mourn for them. I must cry and shake and tremble for them. I shall cry for a long time. And then when my weeping is spent, when I have no more sorrow to give, I shall celebrate peace. I shall wake up from these long decades of war and begin to see what we can do in peace, what sort of creatures we are when the mask of lion or tiger falls from us.”
I feel so lucky to have spent almost three weeks discovering a peaceful Sri Lanka, smiling when I pass waving flags which show how the people have come together.
Lion: Strength of the nation, bravery, Sinhalese ethnicity
Bo leaves: Four Buddhist virtues of kindness, friendliness, happiness, and equanimity
Yellow: Other ethnic groups
The Island of a Thousand Mirrors begins in Colombo: “This is the humid and pulsating capital city where the crowd spills over the pavements and onto the belching buses that swerve around bullock carts, and every language and every god of the island is in attendance over the multitudes.” For those who chose to join the scuttling tuk tuk’s and racing buses of this overwhelming capital, I would recommend visiting the Museum of Colombo, filled with Buddhist sculptures and paintings. For more beautiful surroundings as well as delicious food, I would recommend Gallery Café and Barefoot Café near the Galle Road.
I have loved following the railways of Sri Lanka: Colombo to Galle, Galle to Matara, Ella to Kandy, Kandy to Colombo, Colombo back to Galle. My circle took me to beaches, National Parks and tea plantations before leading me back to Galle – my favourite stop.
Galle is a place to return to. The Sinhalese Gaala implies an enclosure – a cattle pen for Rama, a meeting place for traders from China, the Middle East and India, a sanctuary for travellers. The walls of the Dutch Fort embrace the quiet, stone roads where people wander to cafés and boutiques. At dusk, cricketers and travellers gather on the green as the sun sets over the water. Beyond the fort, Sri Lankan life hurries on, but within is a town of serenity and stillness.
The Fort was built in 1588 by the Portuguese, the first colonisers. It was later developed by the Dutch who arrived on Sri Lankan shores in 1658. One sailor who later became famous for his voyage to Sri Lanka was Robert Knox. The captain was captured by the King of Kandy in 1699 and only escaped 19 years later. His story inspired others including Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. It also brought Sri Lanka to the attention of the British who gained control of the island in 1796 following the Napoleonic wars.
My first two nights at Pilgrim’s were spent as a guest, my last five as a workaway. I loved spending more time here and working with everyone at this hostel/restaurant/pizzeria. When I wasn’t trying more delicious pizza or seafood from the Pilgrim’s menu, I explored some of Galle’s many restaurants and cafés. For fresh salads try The Heritage Café or Calorie Counter, for homemade pasta go to The Pasta Factory, for unlimited rice and curry squeeze into Coconut Sambol, and for gelato head to Isle of Gelato or Pedlar’s. Exotic Roots and Poonie’s are beautiful shops with juice bars at the back and Stick No Bills sells gorgeous vintage postcards.
Just outside of Galle are beautiful white tea plantations, paddy fields and villages filled with palm trees. Sri Yoga Shala is a stunning place for yoga in the morning, followed by a swim in their salt water infinity pool and sea turtle spotting at Delawella Beach.
When I came back to Galle, I visited Koggala Turtle Hatchery where you can learn more about their conservation and protection. Unlike the Elephant Orphanages which have elephants chained up for six months and seem to exist for tourist photographs not conservation, the Turtle Hatcheries seem to be committed to helping injured turtles recover and burying eggs that have been found or buying them so that they are not sold and eaten for ‘health benefits.’ The baby turtles are then released into the sea after one day – time which allows the shells to harden and therefore gives a greater chance of survival. Visitors are shown how to hold the baby turtles between forefinger and thumb and then walk the short distance to the waves. Incredibly, they will return to this beach to lay their own eggs when the time comes; researchers have shown how turtles ‘imprint’ on the unique magnetic field of the beaches where they were born and use magnetic features of the coast to find their way back.
The South Coast is also famous for whale watching which I did with Raja and the Whales, a company which has a reputation for being more respectful of the whales than other boats which are known to be more intrusive. Having said that, we were one of a crowd of large boats all frantically seeking the whales. I was happy that we turned away from them after one sighting, hoping to find another. Half an hour later the engine was turned off as we watched a blue whale dive beneath the surface, alongside only one other boat.
Sri Lanka is the only country where you can see the largest mammals on land and sea in one day – the blue whale, and the elephant. A few days after seeing the blue whale at Mirissa, I was lucky enough to see two elephants as well as three leopards on my safari in Yala National Park with Eco Island, who I would highly recommend.
Yala is one of twenty-six national parks in Sri Lanka. The park is almost 1000km2 and reaches down to the sea. Something I hadn’t fully realised until visiting Sri Lanka was that it was the one of the countries most badly affected by the 2004 tsunami. Forty-eight of the thirty thousand who died were at Yala. However, very few animals were harmed – elephants were seen running in land an hour before the tsunami hit.
Mirissa was devastated by the three enormous waves that hit on Boxing Day. According to Jeremy Laurence, two thirds of families lost lives, livelihoods and loved ones.
The 2004 tsunami was the most deadly ever recorded, yet the response was also the most generous and immediate act of collective generosity; $5.5 billion were raised worldwide. Across South East Asia, the scars have faded and thousands of travellers journey to Mirissa to surf and swim. I loved staying with Iona, a friend from Scotland, in Madiha – Mirissa’s less busy and equally vibrant neighbour.
She opened her gorgeous guesthouse and café earlier this year and I can not recommend it enough. Meraki is moments from the beach and has the best smoothie bowl breakfasts, as well as daily yoga. Morning yoga classes are also available at Beach Inns on their rooftop which looks out over the beach. I would also pass on Iona’s recommendations of aubergine fries at South Coast Tacos in Mirissa, and Saturday Market at The Doctor’s House in Madiha.
Four thousand rupees (about £18) saved me a squished, sticky, six hour bus journey and I whizzed up from Tissa to Ella in just over two and a half hours. After trying to crawl up the final stretch, the tuk tuk was defeated and rolled back down the hill and I made my way on foot up to Tomorrowland – the hostel with the best bar, curry and views. Travellers tumble into tents and dance round tables in the brightly painted bar.
On my first day I got a tuk tuk to the ‘Secret Waterfall’ (somewhere past Balleketuwa) and walked back after an amazing afternoon climbing up to the waterfall and standing underneath the beating water looking out over to the tea plantations.
The following day, I went to the Nine Arches bridge with Sofia, who I had first met in Galle where she had been working at Thomas Galle School for three months. ‘The Bridge in the Sky’ was completed in 1921, built by P. K. Appuhami in consultation with British engineers and has become one of Ella’s major attractions.
The next morning, I caught the train from Ella station with Joe, Jake and Kat who I met at Tomorrowland. The journey towards Kandy is unmissable, the train as blue as the sky above it. Sitting in the doorway, feet swinging over the tracks below, eyes gazing out over endless green – One Day like this a year will see me through.
Joe and I jumped off the train at Hatton and were collected by Upul, the owner of Niwasa House. Upul was a such wonderful host, driving us and the other guests to the start of Adam’s Peak for a 2am start and waiting for us to return. We had anticipated the overabundance of steps (all five thousand, five hundred of them), we had not anticipated the overabundance of people. Even without it being a weekend or full moon, hundreds of tired feet followed the path which is a sacred pilgrimage all Sri Lankan’s must make in their lifetime. Every year twenty thousand people climb the mountain known as Sri Pada to the locals, meaning ‘Sacred Footprint.’ Each religion tells a story of the spiritual significance of the depression at the summit: Buddhists see it as the footprint of the Buddha, Muslims claim it as Adam’s, Hindus associate it with Shiva, and Christians link it to St Thomas. Moving with the swollen crowd past the fluorescent stands selling roti and wristbands, I began to wonder just how ‘spiritual’ the experience would be. But a few hours later, having rung the bell at the summit and settled on a rock to watch the sun rise out of the mist below, my mind had changed.
Later that day, we were reunited with Jake and Kat at Slightly Chilled rooftop to watch the sunset over Kiri Muhuda Lake. Kandy was the capital of the ancient kings of Sri Lanka. The city fell under British rule in 1815. The Treaty that marked Kandy becoming part of the British Empire was signed not by the King of Kandy, but by the Kandyan Chiefs. The chiefs retained the “rights, privileges and powers of their respective offices,” as well as civil and religious liberty. The Kandyan Chiefs of the early 20th Century were often photographed with the British Governors, including Sir Everard im Thurn. Everard was an explorer, botanist and anthropologist, and the husband of my great great aunt Hannah Lorimer.
Together, they lived in Guyana, Sri Lanka and Fiji, documenting the flowers and plants and gathering a fascinating collection of slides and objects, which they donated to the National Museum of Scotland. Very little is know of their time in Sri Lanka, where Everard was Acting Governor in 1903. I often found that Hannah was in my thoughts as I made my way through the country, wondering whether I had traced part of her journey over a hundred years ago.
Avoiding the crowds of the Full Moon festival, we rented bikes and zipped out of Kandy into the surrounding hills. We zig-zagged up to Amaya Hunas Falls and continued on to more spectacular views over the tea plantations. Back in Kandy, we headed to Café Secret Alley for juice and iced coffee before going back to pack at Hipster Hideout’s Hostel.
Thomas Gall School
By 7am, I was on the train pulling out of Kandy beginning my journey back to Galle. Spending time with Sofia meant that I had heard all about her three months in Galle working at Pilgrim’s a few evenings a week, and Thomas Gall School each morning. Joe, Kat and Jake had also worked at Pilgrim’s and I reached out to Nadia who luckily didn’t have anybody working that week. Even more luckily, it was the last week of term which meant that they were happy to have an extra pair of hands to help with the preparations and celebrations for Puthandu, the Buddhist New Year.
It was such a joy to be part of such a happy school. I spent most time with the three year old Kindergarten’s, the ‘butterfly’ class, clapping along to Sansalie and Thuhansa in their dance, running away from Kahlan roaring like a tiger, and endlessly pushing Sethun and Sanaya on the swings.
When Friday came, all the classes knew the steps to their dance, including the teachers who were also performing. I was dressed in a sari, lent to me by one of the teachers Nayomi, and spent the morning singing, dancing and playing games with the children and their parents. I could not have imagined a better way to end my time in this country – unforgettable laughter, colour and happiness.