Gateway Countries – Sri Lanka
Welcome to a new series of Friday articles which will tide us over for the next four or five weeks until the podcast resumes called ‘Gateway Countries’. People often talk about ‘gateway cities’, a good place to start if you’re going to a new country, one with plenty of transport in and out etc, but I have decided to write about countries that provide a good introduction to a region. If you want to explore a certain part of the world, and you’re somewhat nervous about it and looking for perhaps a gentle introduction, what’s the best country to go first? What’s the best place (of course, it will just be my humble opinion) to dip the toe in the water and see if the region is too hot, too cold, or just right for you?
Thusly, I have chosen these areas to start with at least (obviously, my opinions are limited to my experiences, hence there won’t be a ‘South America’ post as I am sadly yet to make it to this part of the world) –
The Subcontinent (i.e. India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka etc)
South East Asia
The Middle East
Okay, so that’s more than four or five, we’ll see how it goes. Let’s begin with today’s country – Sri Lanka!
As far as the sub-continent is concerned, Sri Lanka is in my opinion the best place to start. It’s smaller and more manageable than India, without denseness of population that India/Pakistan/Bangladesh have. It’s not so hard to get around, has good connections by bus and train, most people speak English which helps with communication, and is frankly a pretty awesome place to visit.
If you’ve been thinking about going to India, but have been a bit nervous about dealing with the hassle, the poverty and the people, then why not try Sri Lanka first? Sri Lanka is blessed with so much to see and do, beautiful beaches, historical temples, interesting cities, tea fields – it simply is a wonderful place to visit. Oh and the people there are incredibly kind and friendly. Yes – I did get pick pocketed at Colombo Fort Station, but frankly that could have happened in Europe and I put 99% of the blame on myself for not be as careful as I usually am.
Colombo is in fact a pretty pleasant sort of city, and after the drama of losing my wallet, my wife and I were taken in by a family for a few days before we flew out. The only real negative in the end, apart from the loss of money, was that we never got to go to Galle. When we are able, though, Sri Lanka is definitely a place we will return to.
Most of my experiences in Sri Lanka revolved around Kandy. Kandy is a bustling city a few hours from Colombo, the capital. It’s surrounded by beautiful hills and mountains, and has an amazing temple complex in the centre of town known as the ‘Temple of the Tooth’.
If you want an experience of real serious crowds, then come to the temple at a festival time and like my wife and I you can find yourself moving slowly up stairs and along walkways, shuffling toe to toe with thousands of others to get in. Inside, you’re in a UNESCO World Heritage site. A beautiful temple complex, with a small museum, and in the ground elephants. It’s a must see in Kandy.
Kandy also has a wonderful market not too far from the train station, as life pulses and moves in and about the streets. And not too far from Kandy, a fun bus ride up a nearby hill, is the Ceylon Tea Museum. It’s something a bit different, and the perfect place to learn about the process of making tea. The building itself is amazing.
Sigiriya can be reached on a day trip from Kandy quite easily. This amazing location features the stunning Lion Rock, that sprouts up out of the ground and on top is the location of an ancient citadel. Climbing the rock is probably my favourite highlight of visiting Sri Lanka. Parts of the walk are challenging, others seem very dangerous, with walkways sort of hacked into the side of the rock, but there is an amazing view and great sense of achievement once you arrive at the very top.
Dambulla is not too far from Kandy, and the cave temple there can be seen on a day trip from Kandy that includes Sigiriya. It’s a bit of a walk up a lot more steps (which is tough going if you already did the Lion’s Rock earlier that same day!) but when you get there you’ll find a series of beautiful caves with many different Buddhas inside. It’s another highlight of the region.
Although I didn’t see a lot of the capital Colombo, spending a few days with a local family, going our to the beach with them and getting to know some people of Sri Lanka was the most rewarding of all our experiences there. Such kindness and warmth seems to find me somehow when I’m out travelling, and it’s very humbling. A family member even had an auto-rickshaw and I had a brief ‘go’ in it, which was quite unique!
Galle, in the south, is a beautiful place with great beaches and history. Or so my research told me before I went as we didn’t get there in the end. In fact, as you can see we barely touched the tip of the iceberg when it came to Sri Lanka sadly. Negative experiences were far outweighed by positive ones, and comparing Sri Lanka to my three trips to India, I would say it’s far more manageable. There is much less of it too, being a much smaller country.
That’s why I think Sri Lanka is the perfect introduction to the sub-continent!