Slobodanka Graham

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How to explore beautiful Sri Lanka and enjoy light travel

How to explore beautiful Sri Lanka and enjoy light travel

Sri Lanka - just the name is exotic and enticing. Sri Lanka - or Ceylon, as the island nation was previously known - is a place I’d like to visit. I imagine natural beauty, age-old culture, colonial influences and high-mountain tea plantations. When my friend Susan Lever announced she was going to Sri Lanka - and travelling light - I asked her to tell us about her experiences. This is what she said:


Sri Lanka

In November I led a group of friends on a 12-day tour of Sri Lanka, organised for us by Chris Carter’s Time Travel Australia. Most of the 14 travellers are retired literary academics and our goal was to give context to our reading of Australian and Sri Lankan literature, including a visit to Yasmine Gooneratne’s family bungalow near Haputale. Yasmine taught literature at Macquarie University for decades before she and her family returned to Sri Lanka. She is an expert on Jane Austen’s novels and has published several novels of her own. The bungalow was called ‘Pemberley’ for a while, when it served as a writers’ retreat, and it still has accommodation and a conference centre.

Ritigala Forest

We began by travelling from Negombo near Colombo to the Cultural Triangle, north of Kandy, staying at the beautiful Geoffrey Bawa-designed Herritance hotel in Kandalama in jungle near Dambulla. From there we visited the hill fortresses of Yapahuwa and Sigiriya, the ruins of a vast Buddhist monastery in the Ritigala Forest and the sacred sites of Anuradhapura, and the astonishing frescoes on the Cave Temples at Dambulla.

Walking past a step-well ruin in the Ritigala Forest

Walking past a step-well ruin in the Ritigala Forest

We had a night in Kandy, visiting the Temple of the Tooth Relic of the Buddha and having a brief look at the Peradeniya University campus which features in many fictional accounts of Sri Lanka. Then we travelled into the high country of tea plantations and spectacular views, stopping for lunch at Nuwara Eliya, a high-country resort town like so many set up by Europeans in the colonies.

Look familiar? The Colonial Hotel at Nuriwa Eliya

Look familiar? The Colonial Hotel at Nuriwa Eliya

Vihiragala

Yasmine and her daughter Devika Brendon were at Vihiragala to greet us in the evening, and the next day we had a morning of conference papers and a play-reading, with lots of good discussion. Though we had moved beyond the comfort zone of the regular tourist track, we agreed that we learnt a lot about Sri Lankan society and history (and its reptilian wildlife) in our two days there.

On the verandah at Vihiragala Estate Bungalow

On the verandah at Vihiragala Estate Bungalow

Udawalawe Park

We moved on to luxurious hotels near Udawalawe Wildlife Park—the safari is recommended—and in Galle, before returning to Colombo for our last two days.

Jeep safari in the Udawalawe Park

Jeep safari in the Udawalawe Park

The Bawa-designed hotels in Negombo, Kandalama and Galle are all beautiful and responsive to their different environments of lagoon and sea, jungle and beach. A few of us became Bawa enthusiasts as a result, seeking out other buildings designed by him in Colombo. Some of us finished with a ‘reading group’ discussion over high tea at the Galle Face Hotel in Colombo, a perfect place to talk about the complexities of colonial culture and history. We discussed books about Sri Lanka by Michael Ondaatje, Michelle de Kretser, Rajith Savaranadasa, Chandani Lokuge and others—all, of course, written in English.

Travel light Sri Lanka style

So, what to pack? I travelled with only a carry-on case, thinking we might have to lug our own cases around—though we had a bus with driver and helper all the way. I managed this with a sturdy backpack for 14 days a few years ago in Greece (where some of the hotels required walking over cobblestones or steep staircases) so it seemed like a wise idea. Taking Bobby’s advice I didn’t pack much anyway. As you can see, most of the trip required walking, sitting in jeeps or climbing temple ruins and the weather was hot, though mostly dry. So, we needed to wear light but protective clothing. I used Bobby’s lists as a guide and packed:

In the small case: 5 underpants, 2 bras, 4 pairs socks, 2 trousers (one navy, one light colour) 3 singlets (black, white, beige) 3 overshirts (black, cream, patterned) 1 cotton jersey summer dress, long T-shirt for sleeping, swimming costume, travel towel, scarf, necklace, hat, rain jacket, rain poncho, sandals, Merrell shoes, toiletries, warmer long sleeve top, 1 book and tour booklet, phone charger and adaptor.

Wearing and in light backpack on the plane: underpants, bra, long sleeve T-shirt, travel pants, jogging shoes & socks, warm wrap, another book, spare underpants, iPad, toothbrush and hairbrush, tissues and handcleaner, water bottle, travel documents.

I put my case in the hold, even though it was within the carry-on limits, because I didn’t want too much effort at the security checkpoints. The laundry service at most hotels was same-day service and inexpensive.

We all got hot and sweaty during the day, so we spruced ourselves up for dinner. I regretted not packing another good light dress for this and bought one in Colombo. I also bought another light overshirt at a batik factory near Dambulla (noticing that I’d torn one of the old ones) and a much more ‘killer’ necklace to go with the dress. I admire Bobby’s colour coordination but I stuck to the two combinations I already had—navy blue/cream and khaki/black. My tops were okay with both navy blue and khaki. We were advised that light colours are most appropriate in Buddhist temples, so I wore the cream pants those days.

I didn’t need the rainjacket or poncho (good weather), wore the warmer top only once, and I found the wrap was a bit bulky. I bought some gifts and carried them in an extra shopping bag and gave one of the books away. So, I managed the trip with the minimal carry-on bag.

It was a great trip through a beautiful and culturally rich land. I particularly recommend the hill fortresses and the Buddhist monastery ruins at Ritigala, and the safari at the Udawalawe park. The National Museum at Colombo is also excellent.


About the author

Susan Lever in Sri Lanka

Susan Lever in Sri Lanka

Susan Lever is a literary critic committed to the discussion and promotion, in particular, of Australian writing in various forms.

Susan was an Associate Professor at UNSW @ADFA where she taught Australian literature, researching and publishing mainly on contemporary Australian writing. Susan served as Deputy Rector (Research) for two years, developing postgraduate support programs and managing the research grant process.

Susan’s publications have been mainly in literary history, and, at present, she is writing on the history of television writing. At the same time, Susan continues to edit and publish on more traditional literary work.


Comments and discussion

Have you had an interesting trip you’d like to share with Planepack? I’d love to hear more about your light travels. I’m Slobodanka (Bobby) Graham, extreme light traveller, content entrepreneur and digital sketcher.

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