First Impressions of Sri Lanka


A light post-rain breeze and the smiling face of my Sri Lankan driver greeted me at the Bandaranaike International Airport in Colombo. I was on a short trip to the ‘Pearl of the Indian Ocean’ in the lucky month of August. It was that time of the year when the monsoon pauses for a bit and lets this island country enjoy some good winds.

I was excited to be on yet another foreign trip, and a little confused to see how “Indian” most things looked. The people, for instance, look exactly like those in my country and I found it very hard to stop myself from breaking into some Hindi when I spoke with them. The locals would give me a blank expression every time I absentmindedly asked them something in Hindi, and I would have to switch to English again. Sinhalese and Tamil are the other two widely spoken tongues here.

Palm Trees and Forests 

Sri Lanka is almost synonymous with palm trees

Sri Lanka is almost synonymous with palm trees

I had a very stereotypical view of Ceylon. I imagined the land to be full of trees and elephants, with tea gardens and beaches interspersed in the landscape. That was obviously very myopic of me. I did find an array of palm trees and dense forest cover in certain areas which made me feel good about how green this country is. But I also discovered the industrialized side of Sri Lanka.

Colombo’s streets are full of fancy and vintage cars. You will spot the classic Rolls Royce and an electric Tesla in the same parking lot. If you notice a stretch limo easing past the traffic on one lane, you will see a cute BMW Mini on the other. I gasped at the flurry of glamorous and powerful cars on the main roads. It felt as if I was in the States or some such place. I shouldn’t have been surprised, for Sri Lanka ranks high on the Human Development Index.

Diversity in Life and Way of Living

Paintings by a local artist which succinctly summarize the essence of Sri Lanka

Paintings by a local artist which succinctly summarize the essence of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is territorially small, but has a huge variety of flora and fauna. I went there in search of elephants, but I found more animals, and even more exotic birds. The tropical climate of this nation supports the existence of diverse life forms.

Diversity here, is not limited to life though, but transcends to the culture of the Sri Lankans. Ethnic and modern styles coexist in this land. Women wear traditional cotton skirts and also designer dresses. Sri Lanka has an extensive textile industry. If you look into your wardrobe and read the labels, you will certainly find a couple of clothes with the ‘Made in Sri Lanka’ tag. Elegant tunics can be bought for a fraction of the price quoted in other countries.

Tranquility and Tolerance

Buddha statues adorn the premise of the Gangarama Temple in Colombo

Buddha statues adorn the premise of the Gangarama Temple in Colombo

Multiple religions are followed in Sri Lanka, yet Buddhism stands out through its magnificent monasteries and shrines. Many of the island’s temples are distinct in the fact that they are surrounded by water. The afternoon temperatures can soar to an uncomfortable level at times, but the temple complexes remain cool due to their unique architecture and proximity to water – the natural temperature regulator.

Where Tooth is Treasure

Sri Dalada Maligawa - a royal palace complex in Kandy

Sri Dalada Maligawa – a royal palace complex in Kandy

There is a popular legend in Lanka – when Gautam Buddha was cremated hundreds of years ago, his left canine was removed by one of his disciples. The tooth changed many hands over the years, mostly staying in the possession of kings and warriors. The same tooth is protected in the ‘Sacred Temple of the Tooth Relic’ or ‘Sri Dalada Maligawa‘, inside the royal Kandy palace which is now a World Heritage Site.

No Glass Ceilings in Architecture

Timber is conspicuous in its presence in almost everything you see - roof, pillars, and more.

Timber is conspicuous in its presence in almost everything you see – roofs, pillars, and more.

Throughout my trip, I did not come across skyscrapers or too many tall buildings. The area I stayed in was a cul-de-sac of beautiful double storey houses with two entrances and spacious rooms. There was always a small garden or a string of pots charmingly hung from the roof. People in Colombo generally have large parking areas for the multiple cars they possess.

I noticed in Kandy the liberal use of timber in roofing. The rustic yet grand structures I saw in the Central Province told me that the Lankans like to stay close to their roots.

Calls of Nature

Spot Billed Pelican - exotic and endangered

Spot Billed Pelican – exotic and two places short of endangered

I thought Sri Lanka was very polite in how little noise they made. You will find crowded places relatively noiseless and streets largely free of honking. This always comes as a relief for someone travelling from India, where you could almost get used to all the noise.

If you listen carefully though, you will hear unfamiliar sounds. At Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, I heard the big animal’s trumpet. As I crossed the bridge of the Gangaramaya Temple in Colombo, I heard the echoing squawks of pelicans. In the Beira Lake, I saw a scoop of spot billed pelicans washing their plumage in the green water. I later found out that this specie is near threatened. The island is still very lucky to enjoy a tropical climate which nurtures so many rare species of plants and animals.

Birds of Another Kind

Kites fly in the burning sky

Kites fly in the burning sky

When I went to the Galle Face Beach to watch the sunset, what I saw in the skies were man made birds – kites. A mishmash of coloured rhombuses with long trails of bow-tied tails fluttered in the evening sky. They always tell you the Sri Lankan beaches are beautiful. What they don’t tell you is how surreally splendid the sunsets on those beaches can be. Sun can be an ace painter when it washes the sky in hues of warm yellow to fiery orange. The presence of clouds and the reflection of blue waters can sometimes lend the sky a soothing violet tone also.

Mornings in the Mountains

Kandy is crowned by hills

Kandy is crowned by hills

Ceylon surprised me everyday. One night I would dream of the gorgeous sunset at the beach, the next morning, I would wake up in the hills! Kandy was much cooler than Colombo as it sat on a plateau with a crown of hills locking in the cold. Whether I was in the plains or in the hills, the lakes and the lush green foliage was everywhere. It is no wonder then that the air is crisp and clean – just how I like it. 🙂

Spicy Much?

Kottu - Sri Lanka's spicy quick-meal

Kottu – Sri Lanka’s spicy quick-meal

After the day’s explorations, when you sit down to eat, you will have many dishes to choose from. I, being the true traveller I am, would always only order a local dish. I figured I couldn’t keep up with the Sri Lankan standards though, for the spiciness was a tad too much for me. I wiped my tears through plates of Kottu, jackfruit curry, salty tapioca string hoppers and other spicy things. I did enjoy watalappam (a dessert of coconut custard pudding) though.

Find Sanity in a Renovated Asylum

The Arcade Independence Square glitters in the evening lights

The Arcade Independence Square glitters in the evening lights

When you visit Colombo’s favourite shopping complex – the Arcade Independence Square, you will not realize that more than a century ago, this used to be a lunatic asylum. The building is immaculately white and looks inviting, especially at nights when the fountains come on. Behind the giant windows of the facade, you will find many restaurants and boutique stores. You may not be able to linger here for too long though, for everything closes by 11pm.

*  *  *

Today was a teaser. One of these days, when you revisit my blog, you will find spotlight posts on Colombo, Kandy and more.

What were your thoughts on Sri Lanka before you read mine? If you have travelled to this island nation before, did you discover something I didn’t? I look forward to your comments. 🙂

14 thoughts on “First Impressions of Sri Lanka

    • I did not get a chance to stop at any tea garden on this short trip. I’ll certainly do that the next time I visit.

      You must plan a trip in this winter. The weather will be lovely! 🙂

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