A weak golden hue had just started to appear in the skies of Sri Lanka when my flight touched down at Bandaranayake International Airport in Colombo at dawn.
The airport, whose design evokes the ambiance of a 1970s spy movie, was abuzz with a crowd of tourists, lining up for visas on arrival at immigration.
After exchanging some rupiah for rupees, I booked a local taxi. With no fixed plan, I was following my heart to see what Sri Lanka had to offer the spontaneous tourist.
An Enchanting Capital
The taxi sped along an empty toll road that was lined with green and had as its backdrop an urban landscape that was fit for a vintage postcard.
Lacking sleep after a red-eye flight from New Delhi, I could hardly wait to reach my hotel. Fortunately, the universe heard my prayers–at least as far as accommodations went.
The Residence by Uga Escapes is a gorgeous hotel located in a stunning colonial building that was once the house of Sheikh Salehboy Moosajee, a wealthy lawyer.
An energetic yet kind bellboy shared that the hotel has hosted extravagant receptions for many visiting members of royalty since the late 18th century.
After a power nap, it was time to explore Colombo. Thanks to the hotel’s strategic location, it was possible to see some of the city’s best landmarks on foot.
About five minutes’ walk away was the sacred Gangaramaya temple, a 120-year-old Buddhist place of worship that also serves as a learning center and museum.
Offering an eclectic mix of Sri Lankan, Thai, Indian and Chinese architecture; Gangaramaya comprises several buildings, including a shrine located outside the compound on an island in Beira Lake, which itself is another 5-minute-walk away.
This temple is a place to admire intricate woodcarvings and ancient artisanship.
The main temple, for example, boasts a great hall with a massive statue of a meditating Buddha that is surrounded by sculptures of heavenly creatures and ceiling murals depicting Buddhist stories.
The wooden Simamalaka Shrine, part of the complex that lies near Beira Lake, was designed by the renowned architect Geoffrey Bawa and built under the patronage of a wealthy Muslim.
While the humidity of Colombo reminds me of Jakarta, the Sri Lankan capital is quite enchanting and very clean.
My initial “vintage” impression of the city faded after I passed by many high-rise buildings, as well as by the beach, where many new five star hotels, such as the Taj and Shangri-La occupied the horizon.
Not too far away was another heritage site, The Dutch Hospital, which dates to 1677 and has since been converted into a great hang out and shopping place.
The oldest building in the historic Colombo Fort area, the Dutch Hospital has two lovely courtyards.
Among the more contemporary attractions is the Ministry of Crab, founded by Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara and Dharshan Munidase. It has been named one of Asia’s Top 50 Best Restaurants.
Highlights include chili and pepper crab dishes, featuring crustaceans that can top 2 kilograms. Reservations are a must.
Further exploration of Colombo, however, had to wait until the future. It was time to catch the morning train to Kandy.
Into the Heart of Sri Lanka
As my train ventured uphill (and upcountry), the natural vistas afforded by Sri Lanka grew more and more spectacular.
My excitement peaked as I arrived in Kandy, the historical city that inspired my trip.
Located high in the center of the country, Kandy, the last capital of ancient Sri Lanka, retains a regal ambiance. Its beauty has been renowned for centuries.
Take, for example, sites such as Kandy Lake, built in 1807 by King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe, as well as Sri Dalada Maligawa, home to a sacred relic tooth said to have belonged to the Buddha.
Sri Dalada Maligawa is a complex that hosts a royal palace, a museum and a royal boathouse.
Dominated by white; the temple, which dates to 1595, features design highlights such as its Ambarawa entry passage, which is covered by creepers and lotus blossoms from floor to ceiling.
The region is home to many historical Buddhist sites, such as the UNESCO-recognized Golden Temple of Dambulla, about 80 kilometers north of Kandy.
The largest and unspoiled cave temple compound in Sri Lanka, Dambulla is thought to date to the 1st century BCE, when it was a human burial site.
Its five caves are capped by overhanging rock, carved with a drip line to keep the interiors dry.
A Kandyan architectural touch was added in 1938, leading to some beautiful embellishments, including colorful intricate religious images that trace the silhouette of the rock.
Dambulla, which also hosts a monastery, has an otherworldly feel to it. Take, for example, one cave, which is dominated by a 14-meter-high statue of Buddha hewn out of rock.
Statues sacred to the Buddhist and Hindu faiths share this space.
While stamina is needed to make the climb to the cave compound, those who make the light trek are in for the treat of a lifetime.
Kandy also offers traditional fun activities involving Lord Buddha’s renowned animal, the elephant.
The Sri Lankan elephant is one of only three subspecies of the Asian elephant.
Those wanting to see more can venture to the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, about 40 kilometers west of Kandy, to see the majestic beast, which is renowned for its intelligence and calm.
You can enjoy a ride around the 25-acre property on a cute baby elephant and feed them, too. Those who dare can also enjoy some wet fun with an elephant at Maha Oya River.
I chose to make Galle Fort, which lies in the city of Galle, as my last stop for this impromptu trip.
I knew little about the place, save that it had become a favorite of globetrotters over the last few years—and that it was home to an Aman resort.
While the 130-or-so kilometers separating Colombo from Galle, which sits almost at Sri Lanka’s southern tip, can be traversed via toll road in about two hours; in the spirit of adventure, I spent three hours and made the trip by a commuter train.
The fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, reflects the design ethos of the Portuguese, who built it in 1588; the Dutch, who expanded it in 1649; and the British, who erected a host of buildings and landmarks in the city.
Galle Fort is fun to explore–something that can be done by foot in a day. While many of its colonial buildings have become boutique hotels, cafes or shops; there are still many houses where local residents live.
Highlights include Galle Lighthouse, Meera Mosque and the gorgeous Dutch Reformed Church, which showcases the great Doric style of the period.
Visit Amangalla inside the fort for an afternoon tea that will bring you back to the colonial era.
Built in 1684, this beautiful hotel, which originally housed Dutch commanders and their staff members, was converted into the New Orient Hotel in 1865, catering to European passengers.
It became the Amangalla heritage hotel in 2005, boasting a unique design history.
As in Colombo, the fortified city also has a renovated-and-preserved Old Dutch Hospital that has been transformed into a cool hangout.
Any number of great shops, make their home there, from tea boutiques to another great dining institution, The Tuna & The Crab, founded by the people behind Ministry of Crab.
It is an outstanding restaurant where one can savor fresh seafood flavors, Sri Lankan spices and modern fusion Japanese cuisine.
Following my heart to Sri Lanka led to one of my most memorable trips ever.