Situated off the southern tip of India, the tear-drop shaped nation of Sri Lanka has attracted visitors from far and wide for centuries. Its documented history spans 3,000 years, in which time it has fallen under Portuguese and Dutch influence in addition nearly 150 years of British rule. Despite obvious signs of past colonization, Sri Lanka has its very own rich cultural heritage. In addition to outstanding natural beauty, glorious weather and delicious cuisine, it’s no wonder the island paradise has become a hotspot for the modern traveler too.
My greatest motivation for visiting Sri Lanka was down to the plethora of wildlife that inhabit the forest-rich lands and white sand shores of the country. With Yala National Park boasting the highest concentration of leopards in the entire world, and the promise of witnessing Blue Whales – the largest creature ever to live on our planet – Sri Lanka was always going to be right at the top of the bucket list.
Following a long flight from Kigali to Colombo, I spent the first day resting in the beach town of Negombo.
As I made my way up to the Golden Triangle region, I made a few stops to some ancient sites including the Avukana Buddha – a 12 meter statue carved out of a large granite rock face during the 5th century.
A beautiful Bodhi tree decorated with prayer flags at the site of the Avukana Buddha.
The first stop in the Cultural Triangle region was Sigiriya, an ancient rock fortress referred by locals as the eighth wonder of the world. This ancient palace and fortress complex has siginificant archaeological importance and is probably the most visited tourist destination in the country.
The view from the top of the 600ft high black rock of Sigiriya.
Following Sigiriya, I then headed on to the ancient city of Polonnaruwa. It was first declared the capital city by King Vijayabahu I and has now been declared a World Heritage Site. Pictured is the Polonnaruwa Vatadage which is believed to have once held the Relic of the tooth of the Buddha.
One of the stone lions guarding the old Kings Council Chamber in Polonnaruwa.
Whether exploring the bustling city streets or trekking through the lush green forests, Sri Lanka is teeming with wildlife at every corner. Toque Macaques are one of the ever-present species around more developed areas.
Next on my journey was the Golden Temple and Dambulla Cave Temples. The former sits at the bottom of mountain which tourists climb to view the latter.
Situated within the rock which towers 160 meters over the surrounding plains are over 80 caves which host a number of statues and painting related to Gautama Buddha and his life. Tourists have the opportunity to see 5 of these caves which they can view a total of 153 Buddha statues, in addition to statues of Sri Lanka Kings, gods and goddesses.
A reclining Buddha statues in one of the Dambulla Cave Temples. It represents the historical Buddha during his last illness, soon before entering parinirvana.
Following my visit to Dambulla, I spent the night in Kandy and then headed to the picturesque train station at Peradeniya Junction where I was to embark on a long journey through Sri Lanka’s beautiful tea country toward Ella.
Some of the locals enjoyed posing for photos, including this ticket inspector.
Once arriving in Ella, I took a trek to the both Adam’s Peak and Ella Rock, both of which offered spectacular views of the surrounding landscape. Part of the hike toward the later included walking across the railway bridge.
A view of Adam’s Peak (left) and Ella Rock (right).
The next part of my trip entailed visiting Yala National Park. I stayed in a charming little lakeside B&B before heading off early next morning in the hope of spotting my first wild leopard.
As the morning began to fade, I felt my chances of spotting the elusive and nocturnal leopard would too. It was, in the end, meant to be as the first of two different sightings began with this enormous male.
Yala National Park is home to a number of iconic species such as the Asian Elephant, leopards, water buffalo and crocodiles.
Next stop was a relaxing visit to the beach town of Mirissa. The area is very popular with surfers and is famous for its stilt fishermen.
Stilt fishermen taking their daily catch on the shores of Mirissa.
The picturesque Mirissa harbor is a bustling marketplace from the early morning to mid-afternoon.
It was in Mirissa where I booked a tour to see Blue Whales. My first sighting breached within a few meters of the boat but further sightings came from distances much farther away.
After Mirissa came a short stay in the popular surfing town of Unawatuna before taking the train up from Galle toward the capital, Colombo. Pictured above is the vibrantly decorated Hindu Temple of Sri Kailawasanathan Swami Devasthanam Kovil.
Photos: Leigh Wood