Esala Perahera and English Colonialism in Sri Lanka
As well as the bustling cities and sweeping beaches there’s a lot happening away from coastal Sri Lanka. You can go on safari, escape to the jungle, hike through mountains and tea plantations or celebrate the country’s bounty at a beautiful thanksgiving festival. There’s something to inspire all in Sri Lanka.
The Yala National Park was certainly a first for me, a jungle haven teaming with wildlife that also hugs the Indian Ocean and has beautiful beaches. Double value! This is leopard country with the world’s biggest concentration of these elusive creatures. Ironically the area was originally a hunting ground for the elite under British Rule. Now you’ll find 44 varieties of mammal (including elephants) and 215 bird species – fortunately, the only shooting you’ll witness these days is from keen photographers. The region was also affected by the tsunami of 2004 which killed 250 people yet intriguingly no animals. It seems their sixth sense steered them out of harm’s way.
We stayed in the lovely Jetwing Yala just outside the park. Fabulous, spacious, luxury tented villas with two showers (indoor and outdoor – I don’t think I’ve ever been cleaner) in peaceful seclusion in the jungle. How I loved showering under the blue Sri Lankan sky. The huge terrace overlooked dense foliage with the stunning beach in the distance and I awoke at dawn to birdsong.
From Yala, it’s a short drive to Saraii Village, one of the most eco-conscious lodges in Sri Lanka. A series of mud chalets and open tree houses are all built out of sustainable materials. A great way to get back to basics and experience some real local life. Like discovering the secret of making perfect buffalo curd the traditional way. This farmer has 50 buffalo which produce around 10,000 litres of milk a day which is prepared by heating it over a fire, stirring continuously. It’s then poured into clay dishes and left to cool a bit before the curd is added. It’s a deliciously tart concoction that’s eaten mainly as dessert with the local jaggery syrup to sweeten it up.
From buffalo curd to chena huts and delicious lunch prepared by local farmers. The huts are set in the fields providing shelter from which farmers can guard their crops – elephants are apparently the biggest threat. They’re also a great place to have a chilled-out lunch. We tucked into a wide range of rice, vegetable and fish dishes cooked by the farmer’s wife from local products – which we were surrounded by – fields of okra, tomatoes and chillies.
It’s fair to say that by now I was feeling very at home in Sri Lanka. There’s such a warm welcome everywhere and nowhere more than at the Jetwing Kaduruketha. It’s in the peaceful village of Wellawaya, overlooking paddy fields and forests with a backdrop of majestic mountains. The chalets nestle around the extensive property with far-reaching views across working farms where you’ll spot rice being harvested and can wander through the peace of the fields and streams.
Meals are served in a central area overlooking the tempting pool. The a la carte breakfast menu offers an impressive selection of Sri Lankan and Western dishes. I tucked into their fabulous eggs Benedict which had an Eastern twist with the addition of curry leaves.
One of the best breakfasts ever, well it’s true that food tastes better with a view.
From Wallawaya it’s time to go up…and up. We’re heading to the heights of Nurawa Eliya and the vast tea plantations. A precipitous journey with plenty of the usual Sri Lankan traffic exploits. I was constantly amazed at the weaving and overtaking as roadways expanded simply because of the volume of traffic to four or five lanes from their normal two – amazed because I never witnessed any accidents even with plenty of swerving to avoid monitor lizards crossing or dogs having naps in the road.
On our way up we stopped to view the stunning Ravana Ella Falls. It’s a truly lovely sight, tumbling down through rocks and trees from a height of 25 metres.
The Falls is a popular attraction, so be prepared for plenty of fellow explorers. Which also means ample eating opportunities with a range of food stalls set up on the roadside offering tasty local produce – freshly cooked on demand. Oh and watch out for the monkeys, too, they like nicking sunglasses (or food, obviously) and are always up for some general mischievous behaviour.
Nurawa Eliya is at an altitude of nearly 2,000 metres and is known as Little England as it was the favoured hill station of the hardworking English and Scottish pioneers of the Sri Lankan tea industry. There’s still a golf club, racecourse and plenty of Colonial hotels – and the weather’s even pretty British, too. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful region with mist swirling through the hills which are covered in carpets of greenness.
You can smell the aroma of tea in the air. And the climate’s a real refresher after the heat of the lowlands.
We stayed at the Blackpool Hotel (more of that British connection) a newish hotel offering the best of Sri Lankan service, beautiful large rooms and a selection of fabulous food.
From the land of tea, we started our descent to Kandy. The second largest city in Sri Lanka, it lies in the midst of hills and is the capital of the Central Province. It’s the home of The Temple of the Tooth Relic (Dalanda Maligawa), one of the most sacred places of worship in the Buddhist world. The temple houses the relic of the tooth of the buddha and is the starting point for the amazing annual festival of Esala Perahera. And as luck would have it our timing was perfect and we became part of an amazing ritual.
The streets reverberate with the buzz of 200,000 excited people anticipating a spectacular procession. It’s the chance to pay homage to the tooth relic, celebrate the country’s bounty and give blessing. The people from five temples dressed in vibrant colours give thanks with fire dances, whip-dances and myriad other cultural rituals and elephants adorned with lavish garments and decked in colourful lights as they parade through the streets.
After the festival, which was amazingly easy to leave at the finish, despite the crowds – I’ve had a harder time getting out of Wembley Stadium – we travelled through the night to Elephant Bay. And awoke to sunshine and lots of elephants bathing in the river below.
Elephants are highly revered in Sri Lanka and there’s been a huge cultural link between them and humans for over two thousand years. Which is why no religious procession is complete without its retinue of these magnificent creatures. And you’ll have plenty of opportunities to appreciate their dignity, power and surprising gentleness. They are a huge part of this country and a true reflection of its amazing people, too.
Here’s where we stayed along the way.
Jetwing Yala, Yala National Park
Jetwing Kaduruketha, Wallawaya
The Blackpool Hotel, Nurawa Eliya
Other useful information
Saraii Village organises a range of great excursions that I’d highly recommend. A chance to experience the real Sri Lanka saraiivillage.com
I was a guest of the Sri Lankan Tourism Promotions Bureau on this trip.
I flew to Colombo on Emirates via Dubai. A seven-hour flight from London, a brief changeover in Dubai and then just under five hours before arriving in Colombo.
Thinking of travelling to Sri Lanka? Why not pin this post for later