If arriving into India was a relatively straightforward affair, getting into Sri Lanka was a stroll in the park.
Met directly off the plane by Razika, our partner’s airport representative, I was ushered through an immigration line reserved for crew, then taken to a lounge where I was served delicious Ceylon ‘orange flowering double Pico’ tea while someone else collected my bag and cleared me through customs. A few minutes later a police officer unlocked a back entrance to the arrivals hall which led directly to the waiting vehicle, and I was on my way. Touch down to leaving the airport in less than 40 minutes – and I was at the back of the plane!
Despite Sri Lanka opening up to tourists as far back as last summer, to travel here there are still protocols that need to be followed. Firstly, you need a visa, an incredibly simple and efficient online process that takes about 30 minutes to receive. Then you need to buy Sri Lankan government covid insurance, which costs about $12. And then, no more than 72 hours before departure, you need to fill out the government’s health declaration form. Not unlike the Indian Air Suvidha form, onto this, you have to upload your passport and vaccine information. Then you are good to go. NB – at present, if you are not double jabbed, you won’t be allowed in.
Having spent the night at a wonderful converted colonial villa twenty minutes from the airport, with my driver-cum-guide, Prasad, this morning we drove north to Sigiriya. I adore the tropics. The humid heat, the fragrant smell and the lush green landscapes thrill me. By the side of the road, mango, tamarind, palms, flowering acacia and rain trees soared. In the paddy fields and lakes, I saw egrets, herons, woolly necked storks and brightly coloured kingfishers. And stalls by the roadside sold bananas, papayas, melons and coconuts. We stopped at one and drank the juice of a large orange ‘king’ coconut, said to offer a host of medicinal properties, being especially good for gastric and urinary issues.
I’m staying for two nights at the Water Garden resort. Built on reclaimed paddy fields, with a clear view down to the famous UNESCO World Heritage site of Lions Rock, it has 30 rooms surrounded by lakes and canals.
Having had a quick rest, this afternoon we visited the Dambulla Golden Cave Temples. Situated high on a granite rock with spectacular views down over the plains, the date of the original temple to the 1st century BC. The existing statues of Buddha and the ordained monks, and the impressive frescos which adorn the walls and ceilings, have been added over the following centuries.
From here we visited Manika, a 38-year-old female elephant, while she was having a bath on the shores of Lake Kandalama. Sri Lanka is famous for its elephants. There are many wild elephants and just as many domesticated. What that latter term usually means is that they have been used for all kinds of difficult and degrading heavy labour, from construction to use in the logging industry. Our partners here in Sri Lanka bought Manika, found her a mahout and a home and now pay for her to have a comfortable retirement. I did feel slightly awkward feeding her watermelon and bananas as doing anything with elephants these days is a controversial business, but I feel this is about as ethically acceptable as is possible. And she was very sweet.
All in all, a great first day on this sacred island. I think I’m going to enjoy Sri Lanka.