Travel:

Scintillating Sri Lanka

BY: Sana Panjwani
With a fascinating history, a diverse wildlife, a myriad of delectable dishes and long, golden beaches – the pearl of the Indian Ocean should be on every globetrotter's bucket list
An island country in South Asia, Sri Lanka is an any season destination located just under five hours from the UAE. This teardrop-shaped nation is also known as the pearl of the Indian Ocean – a 65,610 square kilometre gem – and is home to a rich culture and landscape.

Once upon a time

Buddhism. Silk Road. Colonial rule. Independence. Civil war.

These are just five of the many milestones that Sri Lanka has witnessed in its documented history of 3,000 years with a pre-history going back at least 125,000 years, spanning the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and early Iron Ages.

Today, the island is home to many cultures, languages and ethnicities with most of the population being of the Sinhalese ethnicity.

The Sinhalese history is believed to have begun in 543 BC with the arrival of Prince Vijaya and his 700 followers. The prince was expelled from the Vanga Kingdom (present-day Bengal) and after arriving at what is now Sri Lanka, established the Kingdom of Tambapanni.

The dynastic rule continued for many periods before ending in 1815 when the island became part of the British Empire. It was over a century later, in 1948, that the country was granted independence as the Dominion of Ceylon (its name then) before becoming a republic and being renamed the Republic of Sri Lanka in 1972.

Through all this, Sri Lanka has risen to become one of the most popular tourist destinations, attracting tourists with its rich history and culture.

Into the wild

Sri Lanka is also one of the 25 biodiversity hotspots in the world and boasts the highest biodiversity density in Asia. A wildlife lover's paradise, the island is teeming with a diverse mix of animals including big game and a rich marine life. The country's varied landscapes - due to a wide range of altitudes - creates a variety of climates capable of sustaining many different faunae, a list extensive enough to warrant its own Wikipedia page with several subpages within.

The past 2,000 years have been spent preserving land after land as sanctuaries for the animals with the world's first reserve – Mihintale - being established on the island itself in third Century BC. Today, Sri Lanka houses an impressive array of national parks and protected zones such as the Yala National Park, the Udawalawe National Park, Horton Plains National Park, Sinharaja Forest Reserve and Maduru Oya National Park, to name just five.

Leopards, elephants, dolphins, birds, fish, deer, wild pigs, buffaloes, monkeys, mongooses, jackals, eagles – the list goes on. These are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the rich biodiversity at home on the island. Special highlights include the indigenous and highly threatened elusive sloth bears as well as the blue whales in the town of Mirissa.

Keep calm and curry on

The long history of the dynastic rule, trade routes and colonial rule has played a hand in shaping the native cuisine with strong influences present from Indian, Indonesian and Dutch fares.

Staples feature a mix of seafood - as expected from an island in the Indian Ocean - fruit and spices resulting in flavourful dishes like fish ambul thiyal (sour fish curry), kukul mas curry (chicken curry), polos (green jackfruit curry), wambatu moju (eggplant curry), pol sambo (coconut relish), and hoppers which are best described as sweet/savoury pancakes.

Sights to see

Sri Lanka's colourful past has also made it home to a mishmash of cultural attractions inspired by the many cultures it has played host to over the years. The country's own culture, in fact, is a mix of modern and traditional elements brought about by its regional diversity.

Influences of other cultures can be seen among the top attractions on the island such as the Sigiriya, the ruins of an ancient city from the fifth century; the Dambulla cave temple, a world heritage site related to Buddhism along with Adam's Peak; the Temple of the Tooth, another Buddhist staple; Nuwara Eliya where you'll find tea farms; and Koneswaram temple, a classical-medieval Hindu temple.

Sri Lanka is also a centre of spiritual and physical healing with Ayurvedic - herbal - experiences readily available, meant to cleanse and revitalise.

But sight-seeing and meditative experiences aren't the only things the island is known for. Being an island, beaches are a given and Sri Lanka has some of the most stunning ones with the wilted palm trees, ocean breeze and rope swings - picture-perfect.

A visit to its capital, Colombo, is also a must. Located on the island's west coast, Colombo is Sri Lanka at its most developed and populous, the true city experience. Idyllic resorts dot the area, making it a good place to set up house during a stay and there is plenty to experience in the sprawling capital from Pettah, its shopping district, to a number of museums. The people bring the place together though with Colombo being home to a melting pot of ethnicities.

Other hotspots in the country include hilly Kandy, historic Anuradhapura and the small town of Beruwala for some quiet, coastal fun. Each place holds its own attractions with plenty of faunae to fawn over.

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