10,000-kilometres from home (10,851 to be exact) and there I was, playing cricket by the sea with a bunch of locals and in that moment, life couldn’t have been much better. In a Sri Lankan holiday that included everything from seeing elephants in the wild to cycling through tea plantations to exploring ancient cave temples, hitting a four through the covers off the back foot between two palm trees was right up there too. Never underestimate the simple joy in travelling where language and culture may separate you but a shared passion unites.
There were handshakes all round and I had time for a bit of a bowl as well. This was in the beach settlement of Bentota, about two-thirds of the way south from the capital Colombo to the famed historic port city of Galle. Day-tripping down the coastline between the two cities, we spotted the cricketers just as they were lifting their stumps from the ground and retreating to the shade of the palms.
Quickly parking the car, our driver and guide for the week – a wondrously unharried man in his early 30s named Dillan – ran over to the men and explained he had a New Zealand tourist who’d like nothing more than to play some cricket while in Sri Lanka.
Finding out they were a group of lifelong friends who were practicing for an upcoming over-60s tournament, I had a moment of guilt that I’d denied these retirees their rest from the tropical sun, but I shouldn’t have worried. The obvious delight they took in bumping into a Kiwi who loved cricket just as much as them meant the stumps were hammered back in, a bat was handed to me and phones pulled from pockets for photos.
“Kane Williamson! Very good!” Stephen Fleming, Ross Taylor, Martin Crowe, Richard Hadlee, Trent Boult and Brendon McCullum all got mentioned too. There wasn’t much English, but it didn’t matter and after saying goodbye and wishing them luck for their tournament, I came away thinking these men in a foreign land had more reverence for the New Zealand cricket team than many New Zealanders do. It also surprised me just how much of a thrill 15-minutes of batting and bowling with them had been. This is I sport I’ve played competitively for more than 25-years, so why was quarter of hour with a tennis ball beside a Sri Lankan beach so special?
Maybe it’s because as humans we long for connections; for things that bring us together. But beyond that, there’s also something humbly bucket-list worthy about doing one of your favourite things in an exotic setting far, far from home.
In many ways, that’s what our eight days in Sri Lanka were all about. My wife and I had chosen this country because it was somewhere we’d never been that seemed to represent so many of the things we cherish the most when we travel: culture, adventure, history, wildlife, nature, architecture, cuisine, beaches and sunshine.
Beginning with a night in Colombo, we got a small sense of how this city of five million people is suddenly shooting upward with the mostly unfinished construction of countless new skyscrapers. One, the soon-to-be opened 350-metre ‘Lotus Tower’, is now officially the second tallest building in all of South Asia (only India’s 471-metre INS Kattabomman military masts are higher).
Traffic remains a tuk-tuk-heavy, belchy-bus, stop-start headache and you shouldn’t expect to average more than about 40-kilometres an hour regardless of the time of day, but don’t let that put you off Colombo. Find a neighbourhood you’re interested in, explore it on foot and never be in an especially big rush.
We were staying at the Hotel Cinnamon Lakeside with its floating restaurant, manicured gardens (with hammocks) and the largest swimming pool in the city. One of Colombo’s most acclaimed 5-star hotels for the past 30 years, it was a shame to say goodbye so soon, but it was time to head both inland and north.
With a population of 21-million and a total land area of 65,000 square kilometres, Sri Lanka is an island nation approximately a quarter the size of New Zealand but with five times the population. That said, there’s a palpable sense that the pace of life is much less frenetic in every way than their neighbouring big brother, India, and indeed, it’s hard not to compare the two countries. In much the same way as travellers are forever spotting the similarities and differences of Australia and New Zealand or the States and Canada, the line we kept hearing over and over about Sri Lanka was that it’s like “an easier version of India”.
Which isn’t necessarily a criticism of India and there are few more rewarding destinations on the planet. But when it comes to things like standard of living, despite years of civil war, Sri Lanka’s life expectancy of 75 versus India’s 68 is substantial. There’s also a big variance in the cleanliness of the two countries and as such, many tourists who’ve battled the dreaded Delhi-belly in India have found Sri Lanka a welcome relief. Even the incessant honking of horns while in traffic – so ubiquitous in India – doesn’t exist on Sri Lanka’s streets. The roads may be clogged, but the noise just isn’t there.
So yes, Sri Lanka and India are far from being one and the same. However, something they do have in common is an outstanding network of national parks. Sri Lanka’s small size means its 26 national parks are often very accessible. For us, this was a huge drawcard and the prime reason we found ourselves 180-kilometres northeast of Colombo in Habarana, almost directly in the centre of the island.
Habarana itself is just a small town, but it’s positioning at the heart of some of Sri Lanka’s most compelling attractions, namely Minneriya National Park and Sigiriya (also known as ‘Lion Rock’) means it’s been on the tourism radar for many years.
We fell for it straight away. Our hotel, the Cinnamon Lodge, was a series of Portugese colonial-styled cottages (complete with raised beds and grand in-room columns) set amidst 14-hectares of lush tropical trees that backed onto an enormous wetland. Those 14-hectares are reportedly the playground to as many as 138 varieties of birds as well as two species of primates.
Ah yes, the primates. Sri Lankan monkeys are generally inoffensive characters, but don’t forget to close your doors or you may find you’re sharing your cottage with more than just your wife. Monkeys, birds, lizards and tree-houses included (the property is dotted with rustic tree-houses for candlelit dinners and wildlife spotting), it all felt like we were on some sort of royal African safari. It was stunning.
That safari feeling was only to be ramped up when we boarded a Jeep – wrapped scarves over our mouths to keep out the dust – and bounced and bumped our way by dirt track deep into Minneriya National Park. A short drive from the lodge, the 89-square kilometre park (approximately the same size as Auckland’s Waiheke Island) is one of the best places anywhere in the world to see elephants in the wild.
Sharing the park are buffalo, deer, leopards and crocodiles, but it’s the elephants that bring in the tourist dollars and the elephants that you are guaranteed to see. During the dry season – April to October – as many as 200 elephants will gather by a lake in a phenomenon known as ‘the Gathering’.
Seeing baby elephants using their trunks to clutch their mother’s tails while bathing was magic, the only downside being the sheer number of jeeps with photo-snapping visitors like us. If the reason we we’re all here is to see these incredible creatures in their natural habitat, then it stands to reason that that habitat is kept as natural and as undisturbed as possible. The double-edged sword of tourism is writ large in a place like Minneriya.
From the thrills of the wild in Minneriya, it was to glories of nature at Sigiriya (Lion Rock), not to mention the mysteries of human endeavour that linger there. Like Sri Lanka’s own Uluru (Ayer’s Rock), the Unesco World Heritage Site of Sigiriya centres around a 200-metre high slab of rock that juts dramatically from the landscape. The sight of it when it first emerges into view is breathtaking and the whole experience only gets more intriguing, bizarre even, the more you learn.
The basic plot is that in the 5th Century, a ruler by the name of King Kasyapa occupied a lavish palace and garden on the summit of the rock. With outrageous views of jungle-draped mountains and wetlands, it was a beautiful spot that also served as a handy retreat from those upset – namely his half-brother – that he’d overthrown and murdered their own father. For 16-years King Kasyapa enjoyed the good life at Sigiriya, until the half-brother returned, still put out by the killing of daddy. As a result, King Kasyapa, sensing the golden days were over, took his own life.
Undoubtedly similarly gruesome and swashbuckling yarns took place involving Sigiriya in the centuries that followed until the whole complex (which includes moats and gardens at ground level) were abandoned sometime after the 14th Century. It wouldn’t be for several hundred more years that in 1898 that they were rediscovered.
So far, so interesting, but as we sweated litres climbing Sigiriya’s near vertical walls, we heard another story. Next to our modern stairs and handrails, in parts you could still see some of the ancient steps the brave and foolhardy would’ve used to ascend to the top. You’d have been taking your life in your hands every time you went up or down and yet a king somehow lived there.
This has given rise to the theory that some sort of rudimentary lift and pulley system must have been in operation, possibly powered by elephants. While yet to be substantiated by historians, the idea that the king rode up and down from his rocky palace in the clouds with a little help from his servants and his elephants makes Sigiriya even more fun.
That and the fact that while the palace has long since crumbled away, you can still see the massive outdoor swimming pool the king had constructed. To this day there’s enough rainfall that it’s constantly at least partially filled with water. Standing on top of Sigiriya with the midday heat giving the heavenly views an almost watercolour-like filter; the old-world luxury before you in the form of a somehow still-present swimming pool; those would’ve been a heady 16-years for ol’ King Kasyapa. Especially if he had that elephant-powered lift working.
All told we had three nights in Habarana that aside from the obvious highlights of Sigiriya and Minneriya, not to mention just strolling the grounds of our hotel, also included a traditional village tour. Away from the glamour of Cinnamon Lodge and those high profile tourist magnets, there was a very real charm in touring rice fields by way of a water buffalo cart and seeing backwaters courtesy of a wooden raft. We drank coconuts by the roadside, ate lunch on banana-leaf plates and experienced a warmth of hospitality that made us very happy we’d chosen Sri Lanka for our holiday.
Farewelling Habarana, our 100-kilometre drive south to Kandy was broken up by a visit to a spice garden where our inquisitiveness about the wonders of sandalwood and nutmeg somehow led to an impromptu head, shoulder and back massage. Rejuvenated, we then burned off the previous evening’s poolside cocktails by hitting the 160-metres of steps to the cave temples of Dambulla.
With Sigiriya just visible some 20-kilometres in the distance, Dambulla is among Sri Lanka’s most significant historic and religious sites. Calling it “significant” doesn’t do it justice though and the reality of being inside caves with upwards of 150 Buddhist statues and paintings where for 2000-years mankind has worshipped was profound.
Making it to Kandy, we were staying in the hills surrounding the city in the almost Italian-feeling Amaya Bungalows. We had our own private garden and pool, as well as the services of a butler and there may’ve been a high five between me and my wife once the door had been closed after our bags were dropped off. Our own bungalow! In the hills of Kandy! We were pretty chuffed and as is often the case when you happen upon a hotel you really love, it’s not always easy leaving it.
Luckily we did. Kandy is famous for many things, including world-class botanic gardens, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic (said to house a tooth of Buddha’s), tea plantations, gem stores and a hotel as strange as any in Asia. I’m not entirely sure how we managed to fit all of that into a two-night stay and it’s fair to say the temple was only worth it for the unintentional hilarity of grumpy monks hurrying along the curious and trudging faithful. “Keep moving!” barked one monk with a repeated air-swishing flick of his hand, oblivious to the feelings of those who’d patiently queued.
The whole thing felt as far from whatever pure spirituality may be with people paying money to get a fleeting glimpse through a doorway into a room where a box may or may not have been holding a holy tooth. We didn’t hang around, which must have pleased the angry monks.
Far better were the Royal Botanic Gardens with a history dating back to the 1700s. Immaculate lawns, flowerbeds and oversized trees from across the globe (including kauri) make this as popular with young doughy-eyed couples as with tourists.
Swapping the greenery of the gardens for the greenery of the tea plantations, we hopped on a couple of bikes to explore the hill country. In the cooler air, some of the non-plantation scenery reminded us of New Zealand. We passed small churches, temples and schools, laughed with kids who jogged alongside us as we rode and took as many photos as we could when we needed breaks to catch our breath.
That night, showered and rested after the day’s temple, garden and plantation exercise, we decided to take a friend up on their suggestion that no trip to Kandy is complete without a visit to Helga’s Folly. Described by Lonely Planet as an “anti hotel”, words and pictures will never do justice to this unforgettable oddity, but haunted house + LSD + 1950’s movie set hopefully gives some idea of the vibe.
For a start, kudos to Dillan for finding it because poor signposting and Kandy’s narrow, steep streets make that no mean feat. Yes it’s a hotel, but Helga’s Folly is more the bonkers mansion of an elderly aristocrat, Helga, who decided somewhere along the line that less was definitely not more. What does this mean? Christmas trees all year round. Creepy four-poster beds. Dim lighting. Giant gramophones. Floor to ceiling paintings from Alice In Wonderland. Dripping wax candles. Crooked photo frames. Endless memorabilia. Mid-20th century ostentatious furnishings. Cobwebs. Goblets. The best food of the entire trip.
Helga’s Folly was once upon a time a more conventional hotel and folks like Gandhi are even in the guestbook (and on the wall), but for some years it’s been evolving into the setting of the most surreal night of your vacation. And the food really was that good.
With our two action-packed days in Kandy over, it was time for a change of pace. Returning to Colombo for our final two nights of the trip, this time we stayed south of the city in the suburb of Mount Lavinia. The Mount Lavinia Hotel is a historic seaside hotel with a backstory to rival Sigiriya’s. The former residence of a British governor, his illicit affair with a local lady caused him to construct a tunnel underneath the property to whisk her in and out. The tunnel still exists to this day.
The hotel itself has the potential to be among the great colonial hotels of Asia (like Penang’s Eastern & Oriental, Kuala Lumpur’s Hotel Majestic and Singapore’s Raffles), though that is likely a multi-million dollar refurbishment away.
Nevertheless, if you splash out on a suite like we did, you get an authentic snapshot of colonial indulgence. The rooftop pool with its views down the beach and the crashing waves of the Indian Ocean leads your eyes all the way to downtown Colombo and the cranes of this country’s rising skyscrapers.
Sri Lanka is changing, but as would be reaffirmed the next day with our excursion south to Bentota beach and onto Galle, some things, like those simple joys of cricket with your friends by the sea, remain as present as before. For the Sri Lankan people as much as any of the amazing things we saw, we can’t wait to go back.
Tim Roxborogh travelled through Sri Lanka in 2018 as a guest of Mondo Travel. Pre Covid-19, Mondo Travel offered many tours throughout Asia, including a 6 day/5 night ‘Heritage Tour’ of Sri Lanka starting at $1562 per person, twin share. Mondo provided clients with an expert driver/guide on the ground in Sri Lanka. Tim suggests that post Covid-19 you ask for Dillan to be your guide! Visit mondotravel.co.nz for more details.
Tim’s flights were with Air Asia’s long haul division, Air Asia X. While Air Asia is a highly successful low-cost-carrier, Air Asia X offers limited flatbed services with a standard of service and comfort more aligned with what customers may expect from a traditional business class. Visit airasia.com for more.
This article was originally published in Let’s Travel Magazine in 2018 and is reprinted here on the Roxborogh Report with kind permission. Visit LetsTravelMag.com for more from New Zealand’s number one travel magazine.