Guide to the Most Amazing Places in SRI LANKA

My three-week visit to the Island of Sri Lanka was a mesmerizing experience: The historic remains, the preserved natural richness, the white beaches, and colorful traditional attires were pleasing to the eye and soothing to the soul.

Mihintale, an amazing place in Sri Lanka
One of Sri Lanka’s most sacred places: Aradhana Gala where Buddhist monk Mahinda landed as he met with King Devanampiyatissa.

Let this guide take you to some of the most amazing places this beautiful country has to offer.

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Guide to ANURADHAPURA and MIHINTALE

I chose Anuradhapura as my first stop for my Sri Lanka trip.

Faithful rushing to the Abayagiri Dagaba in Anuradhapura Sri Lanka

These kids can’t wait to get to the Abayagiri Dagaba, one of the most sacred places in Anuradhapura.

Why? Because my friend Claudia told me so – and she has been to Sri Lanka many times and thought it would be a good point to start.

 

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Guide to POLONNARUWA

Polonnaruwa was not only the second most ancient of Sri Lanka’s kingdoms, but it was also my second stop on the trip through Sri Lanka.

Statue of King Parakramabahu I in Polonnaruwa Sri Lanka

Welcome to the Kingdom of  King Parakramabahu I

And although it is – just like Anuradhapura – divided into a modern, busy New Town and what remains as the royal ancient city of the Kingdom, I felt much more comfortable here and enjoyed cycling criss-cross on the historic trails. Probably though, because Polonnaruwa is smaller and more overseeable – also for a person without any sense of orientation whatsoever. And most certainly because I stayed with the most welcoming and friendliest host. Ever!

 

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Guide to SIGIRIYA and a daytrip to DAMBULLA

Dambulla is much bigger and a real city and Sri Lanka’s center of the vegetable distribution. However, Sigiriya is far more famous. It literally rocks.

Lions Rock in Sigiriya - Dambulla - Lionrock - Cave Temple - Sri Lanka - Asia

In the old times, you were entering the complex through the lion’s jaws. Today, only his paws are left.

It rocks because there is the almost 200 meters high Lion Rock. And the rock band – pun intended – shot some of the scenes from the music video Save a Prayer at the top.

 

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Guide to KANDY and a Temple Hike from Embekke to Pilimathalawa

Kandy is on every Sri Lanka-visitor’s list – at least on a day trip. Many travellers are even coming here more or less straight from the airport.

Lake in the center of Kandy

Perfect point of orientation is the centrally located Kiri Muhuda lake.

Honestly, I didn’t really get why. And even doing some additional online-research for this post proved me right: It is almost hysterically overrated.

 

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The Highlands: Guide to NUWARA ELIYA and HAPUTALE

In Asia, each of the colonial powers – be it the British or the French – installed a refuge for themselves in the highlands. There, they found a milder, cooler climate and fertile soil to grow for instance tea.

Tea Plantation in Nureliya - Haputale - Tea Plantations - Sri Lanka - Asia

Gardens and plantations dominate Nureliya’s sceneries.

In Sri Lanka, this place is Nuwara Eliya – and you really cannot blame the British that they fell in love with this earthly Garden Eden.

 

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Guide to UDAWALAWE

Whatever you like, you’ll find it in Sri Lanka: Whether it’s archeological sites, lush sceneries in the highlands, jungles, beaches – and animals, lots and lots of wild animals and endemic birds.

Elaphant at the Udawalawe Elephant Safari Sri Lanka

In Udawalawe, the animals let you get really close.

The best way to see these beautiful creatures practically undisturbed in their natural habitat, you go on a Safari at of the national parks. To enjoy an idyllic and intimate experience, I opted for Udawalawe – and I was not disappointed.

 

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MIRISSA – Beach Hopping

I know: It is very tempting to just stay in one place and enjoy the ‘dolce far niente’ – especially after weeks of roaming the island.

Stilfisher in Mirissa

The famous stilt fishermen waiting for a catch close to Coconut Beach in Weligama.

But why not doing nothing – but each day in another breathtakingly beautiful place? Beaches around Mirissa can be easily reached by bus, tuk-tuk, or a rented scooter – and every single of them is totally worth the “effort” of beach hopping.

 

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Guide to GALLE

Galle, the last stop on my trip through Sri Lanka, conquered my heart despite the fact that it’s very touristy.

Galle Sri Lanka

There is even a small beach next to Galle’s iconic lighthouse.

It is one of the eight sites being listed as a UNESCO World Heritage – and while places like Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya, Dambulla, and Kandy are on the list for really, really old structures and architectonic sites, Galle is sort of the baby of the family: The beautiful, historic Galle Fort was built by the Portuguese in the 16th century and expanded and finished by the Dutch in the 17th century.

 

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i am not a dark tourist, the world is a somber place

Arriving in Sri Lanka end of January this year, it struck me that over the past one and a half years, this was the third country with a really dreadful past that I was travelling.

bye:myself - Renata Green - byemyselftravels: Rijeka Croatia
Visiting a country and learning about its history can lead you to quite dark places. 

I’m not talking ’bout Stalingrad and WWII. No, here, dreadful past has been so recent that I do remember it being present, watching the news as a child.

How is that even possible? Am I subconsciously searching for terror and horror? Am I a dark tourist? Or is the world, sadly, just a quite somber place?

So between November 2017 and February 2019, I’ve been i. a. in Cambodia, Croatia, and now Sri Lanka. Albeit all three are beautiful countries with a rich cultural heritage, breathtaking sceneries, and very friendly people, I knew about them mainly from the news. Bad news. Civil wars. People slaughtering each other. Ethnic cleansing. Unspeakable things.
And actually, at least in the blogging community, I seem to be one of the very few travel writers mentioning these things – and explaining backgrounds in the measure they are explainable.

I wonder why that is. Isn’t also a somber side of a country still a side of that place? It certainly has an impact on the locals – I mean, I’m talking about conflicts that took place in the 1970s and even more recently.

The other day, a woman got defensive in a travel group on facebook: That specific page wouldn’t be about politics. How can a travel group possibly not be about politics? Even if you are an airhead who doesn’t really care on which beach you’re hanging out – already that is a political statement; and a very bold one.

Ex-Yugoslavia

When you go to Dubrovnik, you actually don’t need to take a Game of Thrones tour to get goosebumps: In 1991 and 1992, the city has been under siege for more than seven months – this is far more spine-tingling than any fiction.

bye:myself - Renata Green - byemyselftravels - Dubrovnik Croatia Dalmatia
The Graves of Croatian soldiers who died in the Croatian war between 1991 and 1994 shows that there has been more violence than GoT shows.


Although I was born in Czechoslovakia, I do have a German passport and I’m based in Germany; in a country that initiated two world wars and left a bloody trace throughout the European continent. Albeit WWII ended 74 years ago, Germany is packed with memorials and these Stolpersteine*, tripping stones, located in front of houses where Jewish people used to live – Germany seems to be in a neverending process of coming to terms with its past.

Stolpersteine vor der ehemaligen Villa der Familie Nussbaum
The “Stolpersteine” – tripping stones – remembering German painter Felix Nussbaum and his parents in front of their erstwhile villa at the Schlosstrasse 11 in Osnabrück. All three of them were murdered at the concentration camp in Auschwitz.

Maybe that’s the reason why I was so shocked that other countries like the former Yugoslavian people where ethnic cleansing took place, too, villages including their inhabitants were basically erased, people were put in camps….crimes very similar to those that German soldiers committed….they seem to have moved on so quickly and easily; and visitors seem to be totally unconcerned by this recent history.

Southeast Asia

In Sri Lanka, where the civil war ended only ten years ago so that many of the victims, as well as the perpetrators, must be around, you don’t notice anything if you don’t want to. You basically have to search for traces and scars – in books, in the media like for instance the award-winning documentary called Killing Fields of Sri Lanka, produced by the British TV station Channel 4. Before I opened this link on YouTube, I was asked twice if I wanted to continue due to the more than disturbing images this documentary contains.
This film shows events that happened where now package tourist groups are enjoying their vacation.

bye:myself - Renata Green - byemyselftravels: Nuwara Eliya Sri Lanka
Judging from these placards, picking tea is not the fanciest trade; a job mostly done by the Tamil minority.

What to me is far more irritating, though, is the fact that even individual travellers, backpackers, flashpacker – my peers – don’t seem to be aware – let alone care.

However, it’s a bit different in Viet Nam. You must be living under a gigantic rock if you haven’t heard about the Viet Nam war – respectively the American war, as the Vietnamese call it. And probably that’s exactly the point: This war has been covered by the media also because the United States were involved.

bye:myself - Renata Green - byemyselftravels: Dummies at Cu Chi tunnels Vietnam
Irritatingly, the Cu Chi memorial is a bit Disney Land-ish: Viet Cong dummies at your disposal. You can buy some of their attire at the gift shop.

So people know and most visitors are going to see the Cu Chi Tunnels which according to my experience is a farce – I wrote an entire post about how I perceived this theme park.

In Viet Nam’s neighboring country Cambodia, things are a bit different: No trip to Phnom Penh is complete without a visit to the Tuol Sleng prison and the Killing Fields. It’s good that here, the horrific genocide against the own people is documented – however, I found it more than disturbing that it is referred to as an attraction.

bye:myself - Renata Green - byemyselftravels: Choeung Ek Killing Fields Cambodia
Yes, there are still bones. And there are rags that the people were wearing when they were murdered.

When you advertise for an infamous place like this as if it was just another tourist attraction, you cannot be surprised that people treat it that way: Everyone takes pictures of the victims’ skulls that are stacked in a stupa.
Why?
While I understand that in a Buddhist country it has a meaning storing these remains in a stupa, I presume that no one needs to see a picture to understand that these people were killed. When you visit and you see the mass graves and the tree they smashed the babies and you listen to the audio guide, you really don’t need a picture of a tower of skulls.
I don’t like the idea that the remains of these poor victims are being used to get the creeps.
Whatever happened to R.I.P.?

bye:myself - Renata Green - byemyselftravels: Choeung Ek Killing Fields Cambodia
Most people take pictures of the skulls that are on display at the Choeung Ek Pagoda as a memorial for those who were murdered there. To me, these pictures have something almost voyeuristic to it. Everybody knows that we have skulls and what they look like.
I find that a sign that stops you from trampling on mass graves underlines the horror in a much deeper way.

Colonial Heritage

Whether Viet Nam, Cambodia, or Sri Lanka, the internal differences that lead to conflicts and eventually to wars were seeded by colonialism: The Portuguese came, exploited, imposed their language and religion and what not on the people until the Dutch took over and later the Britons.

bye:myself - Renata Green - byemyselftravels: Galle Fort Sri Lanka
Agreed, colonial architecture – like this wall around the Galle Fort in Sri Lanka, built by the Dutch – is pretty. But the historical and political background is much less so.

Actually, there was little tension among Sri Lanka’s ethnic groups. The conflict between the Sinhalese and the Tamils was fueled by the British Governors of what used to be their crown colony Ceylon: They filled governmental positions with Tamil officials and a Tamil, Ponnambalam Arunachalam, was even appointed a representative in the national legislative council of both – the Tamils as well as the Sinhalese. Naturally, this lead to a counterblow by the Sinhalese who began to discriminate against the Tamils who then intended to establish an independent state on Sri Lankan grounds, Tamil Eelam. Point is, if the British didn’t mess things up in the first place, the mutual adversity wouldn’t have been there or at least not to the point of a civil war.

bye:myself - Renata Green - byemyselftravels: Foto Shoot in front of Notre Dame at HCMC Viet Nam - Vietnam - Ho Chi MInh City HCMC - Notre Dame
French colonial landmark Notre Dame cathedral in Ho Chi Minh City, once called Saigon.
that besides the name has nothing in common with the Parisian relative: instead of Gothic,
 this one is built in a neo-roman style from stones imported from Marseille.

Same goes for Indochine, i.e. what now is Viet Nam, Cambodia, and Laos: The French settled down, introduced what for them was the savoir vivre, brought their culture including Catholicism which divided the people. Some wanted to become some sort of an Asian version of Europe, others wanted to preserve local culture and heritage. Together with first European and later US-American economic and mostly political interests, it was an – literally – explosive mix.

Unfortunately, Europeans didn’t have the wish to explore, they felt the urge to conquer – and many Asian, African, and Latin American countries are still suffering from the ramifications.

bye:myself - Renata Green - byemyselftravels: Belem Lisbon Portugal
Monuments like this one in Belem heroize the brave men who set out to crusades but never mention how they behaved at their final destination. What happens in the colony stays in the colony.
Sad.

Conclusion

I do not want to botch things up for anybody and of course, nobody is obliged to dig in the past. It’s just that to me, every aspect of a country I’m visiting is relevant because I’m convinced that it has an impact on the locals – the locals I’m dealing with so obliquely also on me. And since I’m a travel blogger and do want to inform people as good as I can, these information are also part of my guides.

bye:myself - Renata Green - byemyselftravels: Statue of Leopold II at  Brussels
There are still voices claiming Leopold’s great deeds for Brussels. That’s a bit like when people are praising Adolf Hitler for construction of the Autobahn. Merits that are drowning in the blood of the people aren’t merits at all.

Being a traveller, I am responsible for where I’m going and how I travel.

Being a travel blogger takes this responsibility to a whole different level.

But do you know what’s nice?
In the countries I’m referring to in this post, the terror and the wars and the bloodshed are over.
Some of them could still work a bit on freedom of speech and freedom of the press, but now, in 2019, we can pay them touristy visits –
and that’s a silver lining on my personal horizon**.

* You can learn more about the historic, political art project Stolpersteine on this site.


** I’m very sad that by the time this post has been written, a terrible terrorist attack overshadowed the positive development on the beautiful island of Sri Lanka. I feel very deeply for all these wonderful people that I met on my recent trip.







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