SRI LANKA: THE GENTLE TOUR
6 - 24 January 2011
with Richard Hunt
APPROXIMATE COST: £3259 to include scheduled flights, all internal travel by coach, accommodation in very comfortable and charming hotels in twin bedded rooms with half board; entrance fees, guides and tuition.
EXTRAS: Insurance; other meals and incidentals; single room -we regret that the charge is £945
"... On leaving the island of Andoman and sailing a thousand miles, a little south of west, the traveller reaches Ceylon, which is undoubtedly the finest Island of its size in all the world." Marco Polo, 1298 AD
Ceylon, called Sri Lanka since 1970, certainly lives up to Marco Polo's description. The superb beaches are world famous; the hill country offers wonderful and dramatic scenery; and the island has a fascinating culture - both ancient and modern - reflected in dramatic ruined cities as well as the life style of people today. There are extensive wild life preserves and lovely botanical gardens. Despite the recent history of communal unrest, the people are exceptionally friendly and hospitable, the food good and varied, and the climate is a wonderful escape from the British winter!
A VERY POTTED HISTORY: Sri Lanka is about the size of Ireland, with a population of around 20 millions. The first Sinhalese people (speakers of Sinhala) probably came from North India in the 5th or 6th century BC, settling in the northern plains of Sri Lanka and mostly absorbing the native Veddah peoples of the island. They established a kingdom with its capital at ANURADHAPURA. The kingdom was converted to Buddhism in 237 BC by Mahinda, son of the Indian Emperor Ashoka, who was appropriately accompanied by monks rather than soldiers. ANURADHAPURA remained the most important centre of Sri Lankan culture until the 10th century AD, despite invasions by the Hindus of South India. In the 11th century it was decided to move the capital further south to POLONNARUWA, and this great capital flourished for about 200 years. Renewed Indian invasions caused Sinhala power to move yet further south, but the new capitals were also attacked by Chinese and Malays. In 1505 the PORTUGUESE were granted a monopoly of the spice trade by the Sinhala King of Kotte (now part of Colombo) who hoped for Portuguese help against his enemies, including a Tamil Kingdom at JAFFNA in the north of the island. Instead, the Portuguese took over the south but they could not defeat another Sinhala King at KANDY in the hill country, who enlisted the help of the DUTCH against them. The result was that by 1658 the Portuguese were defeated by the Dutch who in turn ruled most of Sri Lanka. The turmoil of the French wars (in which the Dutch were unable to meet debts to Britain) enabled the BRITISH to take over the island in 1796, first as an adjunct of India, but as a Crown Colony in 1802. British planters developed estates - after the 1870's concentrating on tea - importing Tamil labour from South India in very large numbers. They became known as the "hill country" Tamils, to distinguish them from the more ancient settlers concentrated around Jaffna. INDEPENDENCE came peacefully to Sri Lanka in 1948 in the wake of Indian independence (1947). Opposition to the government came from Tamils mainly in the north and from Communists. There followed a period of dramatic politics, including widespread nationalisation of assets, fluctuations in world commodity prices and rioting. The Tamil population - slighted by anti-Tamil and anti-Hindu legislation - grew more militant, with one branch demanding a separate state. Communal conflict escalated in the 1980s, but has been almost entirely restricted to the north east corner of the island. Sri Lanka's strategic position has meant that she has attracted considerable overseas aid.
Sri Lanka has her own language (Sinhala), spoken by 75% of her people. Tamil - the language of Tamil Nadu in South India - is spoken by a large minority, and English is widely used in commerce and tourism. A very high proportion of people are literate - around 85%. The Sinhala majority are devoutly Buddhist, although there are several sects within Buddhism. The Tamil minority (around 18%) are Hindu. There are also about 7% Muslim (some descendants of Arab, Malay or Indian traders) and 7% Christian - Catholic converts from Portuguese times; Anglican and other denominations more recently. Agriculture and fishing is extremely important. Tea (which replaced coffee), rubber and coconut products remain major exports, but textiles, garments and tourism are now substantial earners of foreign currency and industry is growing rapidly.
DEPARTURE 6 JANUARY, ARRIVAL 7 January: The tour starts with a flight to Colombo, and we transfer immediately to our hotel in the centre of the Island for a stay of 5 nights. This to relax after the flight, and also is our base for exploring the ancient cities and the Giritale wild life reserve.
THE ANCIENT CITIES: The first part of our tour explores the ancient Buddhist and Hindu cities in the centre of the Island, many of which are World Heritage sites. To make for comfort and convenience we will use the very pleasant AMAYA LAKE HOTEL, Dambulla as our base for 5 nights for travelling out to the various cities and sites. The distances are not great and this centrally located hotel is better than those located very close to individual sites. It has a swimming pool, garden, good restaurant and comfortable rooms and is built using the beautiful setting beside Kandalama Lake.
ANURADHAPURA was the first capital of the Sinhala Kings, and is the largest of the ruined Ancient Cities. They were built largely of wood but only the stonework in important buildings survives: fine statues and carving decorate the ruins of palaces, temples and dagobas (or stupas - large votive mounds) which are spread out around the sacred Bo-Tree. From Anuradhapura we visit the beautiful monastery site of Mihintale where the king of Lanka was converted to Buddhism. On our return from Anuradhapura we will visit Aukana, to view the famous standing Buddha statue.
POLONNARUWA was a capital of the Chola dynasty from South India in the late 10th century, who built Hindu temples in the South Indian style. The city was taken by the Sinhala King Vijayabahu in 1070 and who made it his capital. A succession of kings built magnificent palaces, relic houses, temples and dagobas, including perhaps the most beautiful enormous statues of the Buddha [including the reclining figure illustrated on the front of this leaflet].
SIGIRIYA. We drive to Sigiriya for the climb to the top of the spectacular rock fortress, built about 480 AD, 200 metres above the surrounding plain. The climb is thrilling, passing the famous frescoes of young girls, the Lion Platform and finally reaching the summit where a huge palace once stood. The climb itself is easier today (or even a few years ago) as a staircase has replaced the irregular footsteps carved in the rock! However, it is quite strenuous and those not wanting to climb all the way can return to rest in the garden!
We plan to have lunch at a nearby hotel and then proceed to before returning to our hotel.
GIRITALE WILD LIFE RESERVE is not far from our hotel, and we plan an expedition into the reserve by jeep. The reserve is especially famous for the wild elephants, but there is a rich variety of other animals and birds as well as the wonderful trees and flowering plants.
THE HILL COUNTRY [12 January]: We set off into the Hill Country for KANDY stopping first at DAMBULLA to visit the fascinating rock cave temples, and also a spice garden. At Kandy we stay at the KANDY HOUSE HOTEL for 3 nights. This is a charming small boutique hotel converted from a planter’s bungalow, located a few kilometres from the town with lovely views. It has just 10 rooms, garden with pool, reputedly good food and personal service. A lovely place to relax but of course we will take guided tours of Kandy, including the market, Art Association and Royal Botanical Gardens. One evening we visit the famous Temple of the Sacred Tooth, attend a "pooja", and a classical dance performance. A wonderful drive to Pinnawela takes us to the elephant orphanage, where we were able to see very young babies bottle fed and the large herd bathing in the river!
From KANDY [15 January] we plan to take the small mountain railway. This climbs through wonderful scenery up to NUWARA ELIYA, arriving around mid-day. We stay at the GRAND HOTEL for two nights. This is precisely what the name suggests, and was built for visitors to this lovely hill station. It is next door to the Hill Club [whose members were mainly tea planters] where women are now admitted through the front door (except to one bar)! We may decide to visit here for a candlelit dinner - a proper dinner of 5 courses (soup and fish) is served to guests who are properly dressed (ties and jackets which can be borrowed from a rather ancient wardrobe).
While in Nuwara Eliya we visit the Hakgala Botanical Garden, and also travel by jeep to HORTON PLAINS, a wild and exhilarating grassland at 7000 feet! At WORLD'S END is an astonishing view, where the escarpment drops vertically 1000 feet and then descends very steeply for another 4000 feet. On a good day the Indian Ocean, 50 miles away, can be seen.
TRAIN TO BANDARAWELA [17 January]: After a morning at leisure, we return to Nanu Oya railway station and take an even more spectacular train journey to ELLA. Before arriving at our hotel we visit Ella Gap, a picturesque spot and have afternoon tea at the Ella Grand Motel. We then spend 1 night at the BANDARAWELA HOTEL, a small, rather ancient hotel serving a small hill station in the time of the British. Not much has changed, so expect simplicity!
THE COAST [18 January] From Bandarawela we descend on a most beautiful drive to the south coast, visiting the wonderful Buddha statue of Buduruvala near Wellawaya and then the ruins of an ancient capital at Tissamaharama. We reach the sea at HAMBANTOTA a picturesque fishing port, with a large minority of Malay Muslims, before setting off along the beautiful coast to GALLE on the south west corner of the island. Today we will travel on beyond GALLE to Hikkaduwa to check in at ADITYA - our deluxe small (only 12 rooms) hotel on the beach for 4 nights. From the hotel we can make a number of excursions, but of greatest interest is GALLE the largest port of the island. The Portuguese built a fort in 1589, which was destroyed by the Dutch who largely replaced it with an enormous new fort in 1663. Galle remains little changed and is one of the most interesting towns in Sri Lanka. The interior of the fort is criss-crossed with narrow streets of pretty houses (some now converted to chic hotels, restaurants and boutiques). The town now hosts an international literary festival. Our time on the coast will offer a sight-seeing tour of the town and opportunity for relaxing at the very pretty beach nearby (excellent fish restaurants).
RETURN [23 January]: From our beach resort we plan a leisurely late afternoon departure. We may arrange a short sightseeing tour of parts of Colombo before dinner at the old world GALLE FACE HOTEL. After dinner we check in at the airport at for an early morning departure, arriving at Heathrow later on the same day.