Monday, February 4, 2013

Exploring Sri Lanka, island of serendipity

Jan. 31, 2013, 10:14 p.m. |
A trio of novice Buddhist monks go down Mulkirigala rock monastery in Sri Lanka. After reaching the age of 20 they will be able to become Sangha monks and follow their way towards enlightenment.
© Oksana Faryna

One of the most inspiring ways to escape Ukraine’s cold, gray winters is to take a trip to Sri Lanka, the small teardrop-shaped island in the Indian Ocean. It’s got lush green coconut palms, pristine sand beaches and much more.
The best time to visit Ceylon, as the island was known under colonial Portuguese, Dutch and British rule, is during the dry season from November through April. That’s when the chances of tropical storms are lowest. It’s best to avoid the end-December to mid-January peak when hotels fill up and prices spike.
Remember also to buy tickets well in advance to save on the flight, the biggest expense, in order to make of the country’s otherwise low prices. Once travelers are there, Sri Lanka overtakes with its beauty and its residents’ laid back and welcoming ways.
After arriving in Colombo airport, take a taxi or a bus along a newly built highway to Galle, an old Dutch fort in the south, and head to one of the resorts nearby. Choose a good hotel in, say, Hikkaduwa or Uwanatuwa with a swimming pool and traditional Ayurveda treatment. The coasts are lined with hotels, restaurants, resorts and travel agencies, so there’s usually no shortage of places to go. Once accommodations are taking care of, it’s time to sip fresh papaya juice or lassie, a fruit and milk cocktail.
Resting on the beach can get boring, though, particularly on the picturesque but hostile shores of the country’s south, where strong ocean currents and waves make it impossible to swim sometimes. A stormy Indian Ocean can conjure up images of the devastating tsunami which hit three quarters of the island’s coastline in 2004 in the nation of 20 million people.
A good option, particularly for groups, is to hire a minivan with a local driver who also acts a guide to tour the island. Thrill-seekers can also choose a motorbike for getting around, but be warned that driving is on the left and the chaotic road culture can be challenging, especially when dodging cows and other animals. The narrow streets also keep speeds below 50 kilometers per hour.
Sri Lanka offers travelers lots of Indian Ocean beaches.
The tours are worth it because there’s such a wide range of sites: tea plantations in the mountain region of Nuwara Eliya, rubber tree plantations, spice gardens, elephant farms, the Royal Botanical Garden  and the Siharaja Rainforest Reserve, to name but a few.
The island also has some amazing ancient cities: Anuradhapura, the ancient capital in the north; the medieval capital Polonnaruva in the eastern part of the island; the central mountainous city of Kandy, the cultural capital and home to the Temple of a Tooth Relic, where a tooth of Buddha is believed to be kept. In between all these cities is Sigiriya, a rock fortress with ruins of a palace and monatery.
However, rushing through all the attractions will spoil the karma, so slow down and try to go beyond the beaten tourist path.
Tangalle is typical small city in Sri Lanka with streets full of people, busses, rickshaws, motorbikes and plastered with advertising posters. The billboard in the center depicts Sri Lanka’s president Mahinda Rajapaksa who ended civil war in the country in 2009 and made the island more attractive for tourists.
The best tea in Sri Lanka, for example, can be tried not in tourist guest houses but in unremarkable local eateries. It will be a strong black tea served with a large amount of milk and sugar and will cost a few cents.
Street food such as hoppers, rice flour pancakes cooked at not perfectly clean stalls and wrapped in a piece of newspaper, may look suspicious from a sanitary point of view. But they are extremely fresh and  tasty.
For those in the mood for a noisy and bustling local market, ripe mango fruit provides an answer. Every vendor will gladly peel and cut it upon request.
Visiting one of the numerous Buddhist temples is enchanting, especially when the full moon is out. According to local belief, Buddha was born, reached enlightenment and died during the full moon. So on this night people dress in white cloth, bring flowers, most often lotuses, and go to a ceremony to celebrate Poya Day.
Statues of Buddha, small and large, cover the island, reminding that Sri Lanka has a long and revered Buddhist tradition even as Hinduism dominates in Sri Lanka’s giant neighbor of India.
Sri Lanka has around 30,000 Buddhist monks, easily noticeable by their bright orange or red cloths. According to Theravada tradition, observed in Sri Lanka, only monks can reach enlightenment
Whether or not this is the case, however, enlightenment is something easily experienced after traveling to Sri Lanka. There’s so much spectacular scenery all around that lots of keepsake photos can be had and most of them are away from the beaches.
Sri Lanka prices
Air tickets Kyiv-Colombo-Kyiv (though Dubai, FlyDubai airline) – $750
Minivan transfer from Colombo airport to Kandy – $70 (100 km, 2 hours)
Express highway bus Colombo – Galle – $4 (120 km, 2 hours)
Mid-range hotel, double room – $20 per day per person
Fresh juice – $1 to $3
Hopper (rice flour pancake) – $0.20
Rice and curry – $3-$5