Finding family zen on the island of gems

2017-07-02 18:24 - Shalini Tewari
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Family holidays are never easy. They take a lot of patience and planning – neither of which I know much about. Most families tend to opt for package holidays because it’s just easier that way – no decisions to make, family drama potentially avoided.

My family made a decision a long time ago to use any money for gifts and holiday celebrations toward an annual family vacation instead.

Sri Lanka isn’t on most people’s bucket list, but it should be.

Much to my mother’s frustration, my incentive for researching places of interest disappears when it's comes to family vacations. I’m not sure if it’s because I think if I make a bad choice, I’ll never hear the end of it, or if it’s because it’s nice to let go of the reins and let someone else plan the trip.

Since 1983, the island suffered a 26-year civil war that brought on a lot of hardship for the population, environment and economy. The tsunami in 2004 added another strain and took the lives of more than 35 000 people. Tourism made a significant increase from 2010 and the country was named as ‘Asia’s Leading Destination 2017’ at the World Travel Awards this year.

While it might be known for its beautiful beaches and great surfing, it is less known for its many other gems. The country is home to eight inscribed UNESCO World Heritage sites; Ceylon (former name of Sri Lanka) tea plantations; thunderous waterfalls in tropical rainforests; diverse wildlife – including the largest animal on earth; plentiful reefs; unique architecture; lush landscapes; friendly people; great food; and actual gems.

'Easy going in Colombo'

We begin our journey in Colombo and hire a taxi to show us around.

Sri Lanka has an administrative capital and a commercial capital. Colombo is its commercial capital with a population of just over 750,000. The entire country’s population is just over 20 million. Sinhalese make up almost 75% of the population, followed by Tamils of both Indian and native origin and Arabs. There is a small group of people of mixed European descent and Malays from Southeast Asia living in Sri Lanka, and finally an even smaller population of Vedda – the indigenous minority in threat of extinction.

Colombo is easy to get around and is well worth spending a few days. 

Seventy percent of Sri Lankans are Buddhists and some of the most beautiful temples can be found in Colombo. Gangaramaya  is one of the oldest temples in the city and a great place to start an aspirational Zen family journey.  

'Aspirational Zen family'

The temple is a mix of Sri Lankan, Thai, Indian and Chinese architecture, which was built in the 19th century. Today, it is a place of Buddhist worship and a centre for learning. 

We explore the temple in silence, enjoying the hundreds of Buddhist statues and the calming effect they have on us. Locals come and go in prayer; lighting incense and candles that symbolise the illumination of wisdom from the darkness of ignorance.  

(Photo: Shalini Tewari, Find Your Place in the Sun)

(Photo: Shalini Tewari, Find Your Place in the Sun) 

No family trip is without sibling comedy though, and the monkeys sitting on the heads of Buddhist statues wasn’t the only monkey business going down. 

(Photo: Shalini Tewari, Find Your Place in the Sun)

(Photo: Shalini Tewari, Find Your Place in the Sun)

(Photo: Shalini Tewari, Find Your Place in the Sun)

We visit a Hindu temple – 15% of Sri Lankans are Hindu, and St. Anthony’s Church – 6.2% are Christians; the Old Parliament Building; and the Lotus Pond Theatre for performing arts.

WATCH: Hindu and Buddhist Temples in Sri Lanka:

We end the day at Independence Square – a beautiful landmark representing Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948. We arrive at dusk to a lively atmosphere of people taking selfies against an impressive architectural backdrop. 
Our next plan is to drive north-east to the centre of the country to visit the Golden Temple of Dambulla. It was declared a World Heritage Site in 1991 and is located just 2 hours from Colombo. 
This is the largest and most well preserved cave temple in the country. Within the caves are 153 Buddha statues and paintings depicting Gautama Buddha’s life. The atmosphere is slightly eerie with dark passageways with dim lighting reflected onto scenes such as temptation by the demon Mara.  

(Photo: Shalini Tewari, Find Your Place in the Sun) 

(Photo: Shalini Tewari, Find Your Place in the Sun)

'A different path to family harmony'

There are five caves in total, all of which were built at the base of a 150m-high rock. The largest cave measures 52m from east to west, and 23m from the entrance to the back. It is 7m tall at its highest point. Once again, we are forced into silence as people meditate and set intentions of gratitude and love around us. It’s hard to bicker with family in this environment – spiritual family holidays for the win!  

A short one-hour drive south of Dambulla is Kandy. Also located in the Central Province, it was the last capital of the ancient kings’ era and is a popular destination today. It’s situated in the midst of hills and home to the Temple of the Tooth Relic – declared a World Heritage Site in 1988.
It was believed that whoever held the relic, held the governance of the country, and therefore played an important role in local politics. We were lucky to visit on a Wednesday when symbolic bathing rituals take place. The water used to bathe the relic is considered to be holy and we are surprised by a sudden splash of the water on our faces – perhaps another path to family harmony?

(Photo: Shalini Tewari, Find Your Place in the Sun)

(Photo: Shalini Tewari, Find Your Place in the Sun)

According to Sri Lankan legends, the relic is the left canine tooth of Gautama Buddha, and it became a royal possession that was fought over by kings who wanted the rights to rule the land. Now it sits at this temple where rituals and ceremonies are conducted in honour of the Buddha.

'A bit strange and anticlimactic little tooth in a box' 

It is very crowded and we have to wait our turn to climb the stairs to get a glimpse of this ancient relic. It ends up being a bit strange and anticlimactic to view this little tooth in a box through a glass casing after all the rigmarole. But the entire temple itself is definitely worth a visit.

We stay overnight in Kandy in a hotel on top of a hill with spectacular views of the surrounding mountain ranges. The city sits 500m above sea level and has a tropical rainforest climate. It had been raining, so the skies are grey and the river water has turned brown. But the contrast in colours and clouds lifting from the valley feels rejuvenating, so we take a walk through the city and come upon a bustling spice market. 

Our next stop is further south to Nuwara Eliya – a city also in the hill country of the Central Province. The name is Sinhalese for ‘city on the plain’. Situated at an altitude of 1 868m, it is much cooler here. It is the coolest area in the country with temperatures averaging 16 °C. 

Little England, City on the plain

Its climate serves as the perfect place to grow tea and is home to the most important tea plantations in the country. British colonialists spent their days here, coined it ‘Little England’, and enjoyed hunting and playing polo, golf and cricket.

The region is known to produce some of the world’s finest orange pekoe tea and we choose to visit Mackwoods’ tea plantation

This is one of the oldest tea plantations in the area and the only one that chose to display its name in Hollywood-style – with huge white letters atop of the green plantation hills. 

(Photo: Shalini Tewari, Find Your Place in the Sun)

(Photo: Shalini Tewari, Find Your Place in the Sun)

Despite this eyesore, the plantation offers stunning scenery that can be explored on foot. We walk through the plantation and down to the waters edge where local women are busy picking tea leaves by hand – providing a beautiful backdrop for yet another sibling album cover. 
The Tea Centre offers tea tastings in a warm and cozy room served with a variety of delicious pastries and desserts. We get a little carried away purchasing an embarrassing number of boxes of tea on the premise that they’d be ‘great gifts’ – a repeat source of arguments after the overweight luggage hassles and leftover boxes that still sit in all of our homes today.  

Before leaving the region, our driver drives to a couple of the many waterfalls in the area. We visit Ramboda Falls –a popular fall that reaches 109m in height and Lovers Leap – a 30m-fall infamous for being named after two lovers who leapt to their deaths to immortalise their love.

Chilling by the sea at Hikkaduwa

We make our way back to Colombo to catch a train to Hikkaduwa – a small town on the south-west coast to enjoy some beach time. We almost miss our train thanks to too many overweight (see above) bags as my poor brother makes several trips running up and down flights of stairs to grab the bags from my watch to my mom’s watch on the platform.

A fun and short 1.5-hour train journey later, we arrive in Hikkaduwa to chill by the sea. 

(Photo: Shalini Tewari, Find Your Place in the Sun)

(Photo: Shalini Tewari, Find Your Place in the Sun)

My brother and I decide to go diving for the first time together. I am a little nervous because he hasn’t dived that much and I know he won’t take tips from his younger sister. 

I have seen nervous divers risk their lives by trying to surface in a panic, so I keep a watchful eye on him as we dive. He is a natural though, so we are able to enjoy a relaxed sibling diving experience – you can’t fight underwater. 

'You can't fight underwater'

As an ocean fanatic, I knew that Sri Lanka is one of few places where the largest animals in the world can be seen. The southern tip of the island is close to the deep waters of the continental shelf and therefore the likelihood of seeing blue whales is very high. 

A whale sighting is an exciting experience that transforms even the most stoic into a jubilant child left uttering only ‘ooo’s and ‘aaah’s at every sighting.

Blue whales incite a rather different response though, as the sheer magnificence of its size is enough to shock and awe a crowd into silent appreciation. They can measure up to 30m long, roughly equivalent to three buses in a row. 

We have one more historic site to visit on the agenda before kicking back to relax. The Galle Fort 
is another UNESCO World Heritage Site inscribed as such for its unique cultural mix of European architecture and South Asian traditions. 

'Optimism in the face of tragedy' 

Our taxi driver tells us how the south-west coast was badly hit by the 2004 tsunami, but the fort withstood the disaster with minimal damage. He also tells us about how he was away for work and came back to find his entire family gone. He relays his tale with such optimism in the face of tragedy that it is difficult not to feel inspired and moved by his positive attitude.

We settle into our hotel on the beach and enjoy the last week by the beach, exploring Hikkaduwa. It’s a quaint little town with interesting shops that sell clothing, spices and unbelievably well-priced and amazing artwork

(Photo: Shalini Tewari, Find Your Place in the Sun

Sri Lanka is also known as ‘Gem Island’ and the country has the highest density of gem deposits to landmass with an estimated 25% of its total land area being gem bearing. We visit a gem factory and learn about the traditional methods of processing still used today. A blend of tradition, experience and modernisation lend to the production of some of the world’s most precisely cut stones in the world

Three weeks have gone by – we’ve seen incredible things and met inspiring and hospitable people in Sri Lanka. Brighter than the gems we carry in our pockets is the twinkle in our eyes as we say goodbye until next year’s trip.

We walk away with heavy bags and hearts, but held by the strength of a bond only families can possess.

What you need to know if you do go:

Visas: South Africans qualify for a short stay e-visa.

- The 30-day visa is issued electronically by the Department of Immigration and Emigration of Sri Lanka via on-line application system with a processing fee of about $10 or R130 at R13.10/$.

- No passport copies, documents or photographs are required. You must have your passport with you at all times in Sri Lanka and it needs to be valid for at least six months after your return date.

Click here to apply

SEE: Warning: Your passport 'expires' three months before it expires!

Medical: A yellow fever vaccination is required.

- Other recommended vaccinations for Sri Lanka include for childhood diseases of Tetanus, Diphtheria and Poliomyelitis, Measles, Mumps and Rubella as well as cover against the food and water borne diseases of Typhoid and Hepatitis A.  

Flights Route Access:  There are no direct flight routes to Sri Lanka from South Africa.

- Air Malaysia offers a one-stop flight via Hong Kong to Colombo. Other well-known airlines also offer multiple stop route, including Qatar, Emirates Turkish  Airlines and KLM.


National CarrierSri Lankan Airlines

Airport Hub: Colombo International Airport (code CMB) is a hub for Cinnamon Air, Expo Air, Lankan Cargo, Mihin Lanka, Millennium Airlines and Sri Lankan Airlines.

PLAN AHEAD: Click here to search flights 

*Shalini Tewari is a freelance travel writer, follow her on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

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