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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Serendib regains its place as a global tourist hotspot

Sri Lanka had a name in Arabic and Persian - Serendib - and it is this name that befits the extraordinary sights and sounds of the country.

The land of “smiling people” is always ready to welcome travelers from all over the world, and after years of turmoil, the island has regained its place in the world as a veritable tourism hotspot. Recent industry reports indicate a remarkable boom in the tourist trade with an over 32 percent increase in Saudi tourists’ arrivals alone.

The tear-shaped tropical island located in the Indian Ocean is already equipped with the necessary infrastructure to accommodate a million visitors annually. Tourist resorts dot the coastline providing sun and fun on golden sandy beaches and the cool, mountainous interior boasts of an abundance of scenic beauty with waterfalls, streams, flowers, forests and eco-friendly tourist hotels.

After a period of three decades, long isolated beaches in the east are now open. Though Trincomalee - one of the biggest natural harbours in the world, surrounded with places of historical interests - would be an ideal place in the East to visit, Passikudah is the most isolated private beach in the region, popular with German and Scandinavian tourists.
Negombo, in the west, has been the most popular beach resort, as well as the stop from which all tours kick off as it is located on a 20-minute drive from the Katunayake International Airport. From the west to the south, Kalutara, Bentota, Galle and Tangalla offer a string of beach resorts from five star hotels to economical guest houses and bungalows.

Adding to the picturesque beauty, the country can boast a proud, 2,500-year-old chronicled history, the evidence of which still exists due to ruins of old temples, palaces, irrigation systems, art and monuments at various locations where kings historically ruled the country. Aruradhapura - the old capital of Sri Lanka - was the domain of a long line of kings.
Sigiriya rock fortress is a UN World Heritage Site with the famous colorful frescos and nearby Dambulla rock temple displaying the marvels of old sculpture work with magnificent paintings dating back several centuries.

In the midst of this picturesque landscape lies the city of Kandy, the cultural capital of the nation and gateway to the central hills. One of Asia’s most remarkable spectacles, the Kandy Perahera - a parade of over a hundred elephants covered with richly embroidered clothes and illuminated with colourful lights bulbs alongside groups of folk dancers from all over the country - provide evidence of the rich culture and traditions of Sri Lanka that have prevailed for centuries.

Many a tourist comes to Sri Lanka to watch wild life, particularly elephants. The elephant sanctuary at Pinnawala, could well be the largest or the only one of its kind in the world to see abandoned elephants from various ages brought out of jungles and cared for in one place.

The sanctuary offers visitors the chance to view close to a hundred elephants parading one after another into the river to bathe and play. A number of safaris are also available which offer the chance to watch wild elephants, leopards and deer as well as excellent bird-watching opportunities. The ideal locations to watch birds are at Kumana, Bundala and Yala, where scores of migrant birds make nests for temporary periods of time.

Bio diversity is one of the key factors that brings the majority of tourists to the country. It is only few hours’ drive from warm beaches to the chill of the mountains. This kind of climatic diversity highlights the most visible element of diversity that is the gradual change of species of flora in the natural habitats.

Sri Lanka is home to hundreds of different types of plants and many are indigenous in that they cannot be seen elsewhere.

Nature has bestowed the greatest gifts of beauty to this tiny island. From cosmopolitan cities to isolated and tranquil villages and from sandy coast lines to the dense forests of the interior, any view would provide a photographic image to the visitor. While wild orchids could be an ordinary observation, the world’s rarest roses are grown at the Haggala Botanical garden.

If you are a lover of flowers or wish to see the world famous Ceylon Tea Gardens, the ideal place is to visit Nuwara Eliya, one of the most beautiful places in Sri Lanka. Situated in the midst of the mountains with mornings enveloped in mist, one can attain everlasting memories of the beautiful scenery.

The area was discovered by a British planter during the colonial period, and it became the weekend sporting and rest place for the planters. They called it Little England, as the houses and bungalows were built in the Victorian style.

For those seeking the thrill of adrenaline-laced activities, the place to visit is the Kelani River at Kithugala for some rafting fun. Passing several rapids, zigzagging through boulders and whirlpools, the experience is guaranteed to provide anyone with the thrill of adventure.

The last two kilometers of the 5-kilometer journey down the river are in comparative tranquility, providing the opportunity to observe the lush vegetation on the banks, as well as the location where the famous World War Two film “The Bridge on the River Kwai” was shot. Although the bridge is no longer there, the remains are still visible to the naked eye.

Public transportation is available through most of the country, with bus and train services to and from most hot spots. Rent-a-car services are also rife and available with the option of a native driver. Recently, the Sri Lankan Air Force has introduced scheduled helicopter services to various locations at very affordable rates.

For avid shoppers, local markets provide the option of inexpensive wooden handicrafts, brass work, batik wall hangings (and dresses) as well as precious and semi-precious and precious stones. A trip to the country is also incomplete without the purchase of the world-famous Ceylon tea and spices.

Serendib provides a plethora of holiday fun to cater to all types and ages of people. While the beach resorts provide various water sport facilities, most hotels provide folk dance, music, cultural programs, ayurvedic and herbal treatments. Add that to excursions of mountain climbing, boat rides in rivers and visits to places of biological and historical interest, and there is something for each member of the family.

By K.M.A. Perera - Saudi Gazette
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Thursday, December 3, 2009

Peace Dividends

Just months after the end of Sri Lanka's decades-long civil war, tourist arrivals to the South Asian island nation are increasing, and Kandyan hoteliers and merchants are hoping to share in the wealth. A Unesco World Heritage site and long a popular tourist destination, Kandy is a showcase of culture, history and religion set in the lush hill country, about 500 meters above sea level.
"Maybe in 2009, 2010, Sri Lanka will be busy because of the tourism," said Tuan Rizan Jamel, front-office executive of Kandy's posh Theva Residency hotel. "Everything is over. We are very happy."
Down the hill from the Theva, at the Temple of the Tooth (or Sri Dalada Maligawa), Prabo Wijetunge agreed.
"People are so relaxed," said Mr. Wijetunge, a Sri Lankan expatriate who was visiting home for the first time in three years. Mr. Wijetunge and his family were among the throngs paying homage inside the 18th-century temple on the north side of Kandy Lake.

Trip planner

The best -- that is, the driest -- time to visit Kandy is December to March.
The U.S. State Department continues to caution about uncleared land mines and the possibility of Tamil Tiger remnants in Sri Lanka, especially in the north and east. (Kandy is near the center of the island.) You can find details at travel.state.gov; click on "travel warnings."
The Sri Lankan government, more upbeat, has dubbed 2011 "Visit Sri Lanka year" (see www.srilanka.travel and, for Kandy information, www.kandycity.org).
Getting there
Several Kandy-bound trains leave Colombo's Fort Station daily, with the first at 5:55 a.m. A first-class seat in the observation car -- of the 3:35 p.m. express -- (arrives 6:15 p.m.) costs
360 rupees (a bit over $3).
Staying there
Higher-end options include the Theva Residency (www.theva.lk), where the penthouse is $400 a night and a suite is $275, and the eight-room Kandy House, which occupies a 200-year-old manor home (www.thekandyhouse.com). The Web site www.kandyhotels.com lists a variety of places to stay.
What to do
Catch Kandyan dance and drumming at the Kandyan Art Association and Cultural Center; tickets are about $4.50. A shop next door offers an excellent selection of local art and crafts.
Admission to the Temple of the Tooth (www.sridaladamaligawa.lk) is about $4.50, with a surcharge of about $1.30 for taking in a camera.
Kandy's Tea Museum (www.pureceylontea.com/ teamuseum.htm) explores the history of a key Sri Lankan product.
Travel agent and hotelier Abdul Malik (www.palmgardenkandy.com) rents cars and motorbikes and has four drivers who also act as guides.
Robert Schroeder/The Wall Street Journal
The Temple of the Tooth holds a relic of the Buddha
The temple, the city's star architectural attraction, takes its name from the relic it houses: a tooth of the Buddha, kept in a stupa-shaped gold casket. Crowds of Sri Lankan devotees jostle past, carrying offerings of jasmine, lilies or lotus flowers. The tooth is also the focus of Kandy's famedperahera, or procession, held for 10 days in the month of Esala (which runs from July into August). The perahera features Kandyan dancing and drumming, and this year drew about 500,000 people on its final day -- more than in previous years.
The dates of next year's Esala Perahera haven't been set. But there is ample opportunity to hear Kandyan drumming and watch local dance -- Kandyan dancers and drummers are some of Sri Lanka's emblematic symbols -- at any time. At the Kandyan Art Association and Cultural Center, a quick walk from the tooth temple on the lake's northeast shore, the sound of a conch shell welcomes visitors to a show. Bare-chested men emerge in blue- and red-fringed white sarongs, with diamond-shaped headgear, beating geta bera with their hands. Women dancers pay graceful tribute to guardian deities and to their gurus. Before the evening is over, the dancers will enact the taming of a cobra and move like peacocks.
While the population is only about 112,000, Kandy is called Maha Nuwara, or Great City, by the Sinhalese. It has the feel of a town. Many of its temples, performances and shops are within walking distance of one another. But it's worth hiring a car or tuk-tuk (a motorized three-wheeler) to see, for example, the three temples on the outskirts, Embekke, Lankatilaka and Gadaladeniya. Buddhism came to Sri Lanka from India in the third century B.C., and these 14th-century structures display distinctive Buddhist statuary and paintings -- but also honor Hindu gods. The temples are still very much in use, with thrice-daily puja and drumming at the Embekke temple, for instance, and devout Buddhist worship at all three.
The Buddha practiced asceticism before achieving enlightenment, and famously preached that the root cause of suffering is desire. But tourists in Kandy can easily avail themselves of a steam bath or reflexology at one of the city's ayurvedic spas. And while many accommodations in town tend to be pretty basic, there are high-end alternatives. The rooms at the concrete, wood and glass Theva Residency, two kilometers from downtown, are adorned with modern Kandyan art; some are equipped with Jacuzzis. Little more than a year old, it's a world away from much of the other lodging in the area, and that seems to be the idea. Other high-end hotels include the Kandy House and the Kandy Panorama Resort.
Kandy isn't without its hassles for tourists, including persistent touts and unscrupulous tuk-tuk drivers. But escape is as near as the 59-hectare Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, where a visitor can find serenity broken only by the song of one of Sri Lanka's 430-plus species of bird. "Maybe the entire climate -- the flora and the fauna -- makes people more peaceful" in Kandy, says Bridget Halpé, a longtime resident and music teacher. "There's a soothing influence about them."
Robert Schroeder/The Wall Street Journal
Art to bathe by at the Theva Residency Hotel
Still, Kandy did not emerge from the long Sri Lankan conflict unscathed. In 1998, Tamil Tiger suicide bombers struck at the Temple of the Tooth, damaging the holy building and killing more than a dozen civilians.
But that, a Kandyan might say, was then, and the future is now. Sri Lanka is aiming to attract 2.5 million visitors by 2016. That would be more than five times the number that the country's tourism authority says came last year.
And war, in fact, is the last thing that comes to mind in Kandy, where the best thing to do may actually be nothing at all. Just close your eyes. Count your breaths. And listen to the heartbeat.
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