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An island of Buddhist pilgrimage

An island of Buddhist pilgrimage

Sri Lanka’s capital city of Colombo offers cool urban finds

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Published : 2013-12-06 19:45
Updated : 2013-12-06 19:45

This view of Sigiriya, literally “Lion Rock” in Sinhalese, shows its 180-meter rock face and 1,200 steps to the top, where Buddhist monks worshipped until the 14th century. It is located in the Matale district of Sri Lanka’s Central province.  (Han Jae-chul/Planet Sri Lanka Tour)
Sri Lanka has for centuries seduced travelers and traders alike with its pristine palm-fringed beaches and reports of majestic elephants, spices and precious stones.

Its natural beauty and diversity has for years placed the island nation on the travel industry’s list of must-see destinations.

One look and the reason is clear: Its coasts are ribbed with idyllic beaches; its lowland jungles are rich with wild elephants, colorful birds and monkeys; and its misty hill country is blanketed in immaculate tea plantations.

The Sri Lankan government boasts of man-made treasures, too: Two thousand years of Buddhist art and architecture provide a benchmark of national identity for the island’s Sinhalese population, making the island a stronghold of Theravada Buddhism.

What is more, the country’s unique location at one of the most important stopping points in the Indian Ocean trade route laid it open to generations of Arab, Malay, Portuguese, Dutch and British settlers, which transformed Sri Lankan cuisine and culture ― all the while the Tamil population in the north and east has infused Sri Lanka with a vibrant Hindu influence.


Prismatic sunsets and pristine beaches lapped by the Indian Ocean have inspired travelers to indulge in salubrious quantities of flop time at the friendly, trendy town of Galle, 50 miles south of the Sri Lankan capital city of Colombo.

Galle’s tropical beaches and loungy resorts have long made Sri Lanka a top destination for Europeans in search of “me time.”

The denizens of Galle have in turn sought to accommodate them. Dubbed by some as “Sri Lanka’s Goa” for its elegant colonial mansions and historic churches, nowadays the locale’s slackeresque bars and divey restaurants dot the coast, which happens also to look out on some of the world’s best beaches.

Galle’s granite-faced Dutch colonial walls, constructed in the mid-17th century, are credited with saving its town center, a World Heritage site, when a tsunami devastated the country in 2004.

Disemboweled buildings still stand sentry along a winding one-lane road ― which feels like a two-lane thoroughfare ― along 30 kilometers of the coastal highway connecting Galle with Colombo. Nearly 50,000 people were killed or injured in the disaster in Sri Lanka.

The full story of the tsunami is documented in Galle’s Maritime Archeological Museum, which opened in 2011.

But these reminders are easily forgotten on Galle’s quaint lanes and European whitewashed buildings and in its turquoise waters that glow in warm magenta hues at dusk.

Sri Lanka could become even more popular in the near future, with direct flights announced by British Airways. In March, Korean Air cut trip times to seven hours from a grueling 15 with its own direct route.

Some 30,000 Koreans visited in 2012, but with better flight times and new packages being launched all the time, that could easily double by the end of 2014.


Of course, all this is made possible by virtue of peace wrested from 25 years of civil war in 2009.

Four and a half years later, in the capital city of Colombo, it almost feels as though the civil war occurred during some bygone era. It seems the whole country ― the people, its wildlife, the new buildings and the businesses ― is jammed together and competing for space. Roadside stalls sell everything. Naturally, traffic is a nightmare.

With political stability and a booming economy comes a Sri Lankan nouveau riche hungry for the good life. Colombo offers plenty.

One place to check out is “Gallery Cafe,” located near the coast. This trendy eatery has elegant outdoor seating and occupies the former offices of one of Sri Lanka’s most renowned architects, Geoffrey Bawa. It is a great place for crab and prawns.

Another cool place that has sprung up with the country’s renewed peace and prosperity is Brewery By O, located in one of Colombo’s new shopping districts. The mall was a colonial-era Dutch hospital reincarnated into a buzzing arcade overflowing with noisy cafes and restaurants.

Brewery By O is a fun and lively watering hole populated by Sri Lanka’s new class of cosmopolitan young professionals. A pint of the national lager, Lion, costs 200 rupees (about $1.80).

If bars, restaurants and beaches are too routine and, instead, things ecclesiastical are more appealing, then a short jaunt over to the country’s second-largest city, Kandy, is in order.


Kandy is home to the last remnants of the Sri Lankan monarchy, which held out against successive waves of Dutch and British colonial expansion until the early 19th century. It is also home to the Buddhist Temple of the Tooth, which claims possession of an actual tooth of the Buddha.

Adorned with plenty of elephant tusks, the Temple of the Tooth is the holiest shrine in Buddhism, akin perhaps to St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.

The shrine receives many visitors, including throngs of religious worshippers.

As with most religious sites, there is a dress code. Visitors should not wear shorts or tank tops, and must remove their shoes upon entrance. During the puja, a time of offerings and prayers, the heavily guarded room housing the holy tooth is open to tourists, as well as worshippers.

One never actually gets a glimpse of the tooth. What one does see is a casket-shaped gold stupa, called a dagoba, which is said to contain, in Russian nesting doll-fashion, another six successively smaller dagobas.

Visitors can only see the dagoba casket from the doorway, which is at arm’s length from the gilded altar. Guards keep the queue moving so no one gets more than 15 seconds inside the shrine room.

For more information on visiting Sri Lanka or on vacation packages, contact Han Jae-chul at Planet Sri Lanka Tour by calling 070-7124-1400 or visiting

By Philip Iglauer (

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