One day in five fantastic beaches of stunning Sri Lanka?

Beach-hopping in Southern Sri Lanka…

An idyllic, mystical pearl-drop island in the Indian Ocean with 1340 kilometres of coastline. Bait enough. Active adventurer, laid-back lazy or photo-enthusiast…whatever your travel style, beaches will inevitably creep into your Sri Lanka itinerary. Problem: Too many beaches, too little time. Multiply challenging choices by dubious dilemmas, divide by greed, and get smart. If you’re stationed in Galle, like we were, beach-hop an entire 50-kilometre stretch southwards, in search of unadulterated Sri Lanka. Resurrected post-tsunami. Down an endless road with dazzling, tan-gold tropical sands, wave-drenched rocks and emerald palm clusters. Sleepy villages, red-roofed houses with white columns and cool verandas, modest home-stays, elite eco-retreats, sarong-clad fishing folk, cheerful red tuk-tuks and suntanned backpackers in chappals. Serenity. Untouched by mindless tourism. Game?

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Vibrant vibes at Unawatuna

The stream of family-run guesthouses, boutique hotels, pretty restaurants and shops selling beachwear and souvenirs on the Amerasinghe Road that winds through the Unawatuna village are indication enough. Popular, thriving night-life hangout ahead? Not so fast. If you’re bright and early, maybe not. Indulge in the luxury of solitude. Stroll the length of the shallow, broad crescent-shaped beach, feeling the waves curling beneath your toes. Oruva boats pose prettily, palms fringes offer comforting shade and vendors sell wood souvenirs. Let your ears guide you towards the cheerful music of the shacks. Settle in the comfort of the bright cushions of the straw-roof cabanas. Grab a mango shake. And drown in the sounds of the incessant waves.

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Solitary swings at Wijaya

This is where dreams of secret beaches with palms leaning over the water come to life. Insta-alert! There’s a celebrity swing tree nearby. Struggling against strong winds and supported by carefully planted cement bags and ropes tied at the right angles. Give it a shot. But first, lunch with the best view you could wish for, awaits at Wijaya restaurant. Drool over heavenly prawn mango curry on rustic benches, as you stare at the hypnotic sway of the palms overhead. Perch on the terrace ledge and dissolve into nothingness. Follow the rhythm of the froth and foam. Let the wind rustle your hair into a mess. Watch people walk hand-in-hand through the rocky cove below. Count the yellow king coconuts dangling from thick stalks of trees. Lost in paradise?

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Sad stilts at Koggala

Stilt fishermen perched on cross bars tied to slim poles stand in shallow water, so that they cast minimal shadows and fish come closer. Or are they posing locals…desperate to earn traveler tips so they they can afford two square meals a day? Maybe they aren’t fishermen and maybe they’re not fishing. But they are balancing skilfully on stilts, replaying leftovers of yesterday’s magical traditions. Sad, because even this sight may soon be a thing of the past. So, brush away your cynical side and psyche yourself to focus on the loveliness of the scene instead. Toothpick-thin tall palms, transparent aquamarine waters and pin-prick poles puncturing the soft sands. They ARE fishing…in your mind, they are. Give in to the fantasy. Who’s checking? And why do you care if they are?

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Fish frenzy at Welingama

A wide bay with a long rocky-strip jutting into the ocean. Boats named ‘Fast’, ‘Tulsa’ and ‘Deutsch Lanka’, decked with red flags and bamboo-stick masts rushing in by the dozen. Enthusiastic fishermen teams jumping into the water and pulling the vessels ashore with full gusto. Sailing ropes being thrown in and knots being tied with speed. Baskets full of fish being hauled away in plastic baskets. Fishmongers in short-sleeved shirts and sarongs crowding over makeshift stalls, brisk negotiations in progress. Loud, excited calls, busy movements and palpable action. All very infectious, isn’t it?

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Harbour hues at Mirissa

Whale-watcher’s paradise? Surfer-snorkeler’s delight? Or photographer’s fabulous find? A rocky road leading to a fishing harbour. Hundreds of docked boats. And an explosion of colors, colors and more colors. Brilliant blues. Chirpy yellows. Raging reds. Soothing aquas. Gorgeous greens. Boats and catamarans fighting for space, yet bunched up in complete harmony in one joyous, cheerful scene that makes your eyes light up and your smile go wide. A bunch of happy fishermen folding and repairing meters and meters of green nets, giving you life lessons in contentment. And the final vantage point up on the hill. Vision of a perfectly curving beach, more gust-blown palm trees, rolling sands and paths cutting into cliffs. Balancing on the rough rock-wall that separates you from the Indian Ocean, think about how time goes by and yet stands still. A blue boat bounces over the sparkling silver, marking its presence with a red flag. A five-letter word comes to mind. Bliss.

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Beach-hopping in Southern Sri Lanka

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Three lost cities of Sri Lanka you need to find now!

Amazing ancient kingdoms of Sri Lanka…

Timelines like these. 200 million years ago, Sri Lanka, India, Madagascar, Australia and Antarctica were connected in one land mass, the Gondwana. Sri Lankan Tamils (Indians by origin) have occupied Ceylon since 3000 years. And the country has been a bastion of Buddhism since the 3rd-century, when Mahinda, son of the Indian Emperor Ashoka, introduced a new religion to the island. Flashbacking inspirations? Go, seek the spectacles of Sr Lanka’s Cultural Triangle.

Dock in Jetwing Blue, Negombo where lake-facing suites pamper you with balcony jacuzzis, handmade soaps, casually-parked beach boats, and a lavish spread in a palm-shaded breakfast space. Indulge in a heavenly 3-hour drive through lush green countrywide overflowing with mangroves and palms, coconut bunches, dangling jackfruit, paddy fields, lotus ponds, colourful cottages, mountains, mist and sun sparkle, till you reach the first of the fascinating ancient capitals. What? Already?

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Sigiriya: Fortress on a rock

Puncturing the green of the deep, dense jungles, stands a steep 656-foot monolithic rock doubling as a monumental 5th-century lion-shaped stronghold. A terraced city sprawls at its feet and a palace crowns its summit. Machu Picchu fan base alert! Dare you to miss Sigiriya.

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Know the story: King Kashyapa relocated the capital from Anuradhapura to Sigiriya, driven by throne paranoia and divinity delusions. After his defeat in 495, the citadel fell into ruin. Palace to pilgrimage to UNESCO World Heritage site…its journey has been anything but exciting.

Find the favorite feature: Sigiriya is an engineering feat and example of miraculous ancient urban planning. Flaunt-worthy are Asia’s oldest surviving landscape garden and a sophisticated pumping system located in the complex.

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Stock up on artistry: The oldest and best-preserved examples of Sinhalese wall graffiti half-way up the rock, on a polished wall enough to be deserve the name Mirror Wall. Think divine maidens decked with jewellery and flowers in complexions of red, yellow and green, painted more than 1,000 years back!

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Go deeper, immerse: Climb 1,200 steps up a stone stairway through the lion’s giant paws, mouth and throat to mount a plateau of ruined palaces and pools overlooking a sprawl of wild jungles. Breathe. Gasp. Wonder. Alternatively, for an offbeat adventure, hire a tuk-tuk and score high on 360-degree Sigiriya through the surrounding jungles, stopping at vantage points with different angles to gape at the hardened magma of the extinct and long-eroded volcano, with near-vertical walls reaching for the skies.

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Polonnaruwa: Sprawling lost city

Its an ancient garden city filled with palaces, pleasure gardens, Buddhist monuments and Hindu temples, sheltered in a serene 4-km woodland, enclosed by three concentric walls, on the east shore of a centuries-old 2100-hectare artificial lake. Ruin-lovers, pin Polonnaruwa on your travel map.

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Know the story: King Parakramabahu’s 12-century majestic capital replaced Sri Lanka’s long-standing power centre, Anuradhapura…and with such aplomb! Sadly, the city’s golden era was short-lived, courtesy a Kalinga king of North India. Classic plunder-and-rule. End of story.

Find the favorite feature: Eye-popping structures are scattered all over, but the piece-de-resistance is the Rankoth Vehera Dagoba. A stunning 55-fit brick masterpiece that resembles an over-sized bell is simple and unadorned, except for four engraving-rich altars at the centrepiece. Jaw-dropping continues at Gal Vihara, where four colossal Buddha carvings deck a granite boulder…including a 46-feet reclining figure.

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Stock up on artistry: Swoon over the best preserved moonstone (Sandakadapahana) that adorns the northern entrance to the upper terrace of the Vatadage. A conventionalised half-lotus dominates the centre and is enclosed by concentric bands, decorated with processions of lions, horses, elephants and bulls. Contemplate its deep symbolism of shunning worldly temptations and striving for nirvana.

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Go deeper, immerse: Walk or cycle all over the royal palace complex and the cluster of religious buildings (Sacred Quadrangle), gloating over the finest ancient architecture in all of Sri Lanka. Buddhist monasteries rub shoulders with Hindu temple. Look for the horizontal level decorative sculptures in dancing positions, inspired by the classical Indian dance form, Bharata Natyam. Culture cauldron.

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Yapahuwa: Staircase to heaven

An isolated corner of Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle, enveloped by secluded countryside calm hides a temple carved halfway up a 100-ft high rock, protected by double ramparts and a 10-km long moat. Cambodian fantasy-seekers, Yapahuwa is a dream come true.

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Know the story: King Buvenekabahu set up a a rock-fortress capital here in the late 13th-century to safeguard the Sacred Tooth Relic. Years of flourishing followed, replete with close diplomatic ties with countries including China. After his death, a sweeping famine and Pandyan invasion, the Tooth Relic and other treasures were looted. In the mid-16th century, the Portuguese struck the last blow and destruction was complete.

Find the favorite feature: Three sets of narrow, precipice-steep flights of steps up an ornamental stone stairway. First two are functional and the final one is embellished with exquisite art with distinct South Indian influence…exultant dancers, joyful musicians, playful dwarfs, mythical animals. Two magnificent lions guard what was Lanka’s most precious possession in grim silence, the only ones of its kind in the country.

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Stock up on artistry: The elaborate doorway is flanked by heavy stone walls and two empty frames occupy what used to be two intricately carved windows, greco-style columns and extravagant sculptures. This is the Foundation of the Temple of the Tooth. Or the crumbling, proud remains of its glorious past.

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Go deeper, immerse: Stand at the threshold of the stony doorway, trying to reconstruct remains of its elegance and grandeur. Visualise devoted believers ascending the steps. Study the minute details carved in stone. Feel the quiet. Be. Then scale the summit of the Yapahuwa rock by a rough path leading off from the left of the temple to witness more ruins and remains. Feel the rambling jungle, rolling hills and sunbathed rocks below. Invincible much?

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Amazing ancient kingdoms of Sri Lanka

The most astounding wildlife adventure in Sri Lanka

Wild elephant adventures in Habarana, Sri Lanka

Deep in the north-central jungles of Sri Lanka, at the shores of an ancient reservoir built by King Mahasen more than 1,700 years ago, a centuries-old communal ‘Gathering’ tradition lives on. Each dry season (June to September), hundreds travel here from all across the region for the world’s biggest pool party. The place: Minneriya National Park. The species: herds of elephants. The spectacle: pure magic. Naturally, we are stoked at the prospect.

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Courtesy: Wikipedia

Jetwing Lake, Dambulla makes a perfect base for our wild elephant adventure in the heart of the cultural triangle. The expansively-designed hotel in the midst of the verdant nature with lake-facing rooms, large window-less ground floor restaurant, and benches hidden under a leafy corner of vast gardens…sets the right tone for the wildlife experience that would be the highpoint of our trip.

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Rains drenching the Minneriya-Kaudulla forest reserve means herding would be a no-show. But how could we give up that easy? The nearby (and drier) Habarana-Hurulu Forest Reserve, home to another few hundred elephants, becomes an obvious choice. A rainy breakfast does nothing to rise our optimism levels, but we book the afternoon safari slot anyway…maybe the weather will turn. And it does! Cloudy but drop-free skies by the time we stop outside the ‘Hurulu Eco Park’ signboard, just a few metres away from the Habarana railway station. Do we want to pay an additional $25 dollars for a Park Guide to accompany us in our 4X4? Of course…anything to increase chances of spotting wildlife. He would know which dirt-track to take, he would be able to smell out the elephant trail. Would we see any elephants? Keeping my hopes low. Please, please, give us at least one!

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Barely a few minutes into the Park and our convoy of jeeps is winding its way down a tire-tracked sandy path through the dense shrubbery, 10-feet wild-grass and thick tree cover. We stand on the seats of our open-roofed vehicle, clutching the front handrails, all prepped for the best views, ducking low branches that claim the space uninhibited. Parrots chirp, hawk eagles scan the surroundings for dinner, and rare birds play hide-and-seek through leaves. In the distance, rocky terrains loom large. We throw hopeful, questioning glances at the guide. He grins confidently. Camera strap check. Zoom lens check. All senses full alert.

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Just over few kilometres in, and we spot a bunch of jeeps parked up ahead. “Elephant”…our guide announces triumphantly. What, already…wow! We near up with speed, maintaining respectable distance. Hush!! Silence, except for noisy engines and clicking cameras. Should have been noiseless jeeps…won’t they run away? Apparently not. Large patches of pigmented brown start moving through the tall wild grass…wait there’re two! Oh, a third and a fourth around the bend. They’re not that tall. Our guide explains that the Sri Lankan elephant is much smaller than the African one. An average male adult is 11 feet in shoulder height and females are much smaller. Two youngsters trot across the path, eyes half closed, and they all disappear into the bushes, oblivious to our presence. Episode one and I already have a satisfied smile pasted on my face. My gut says this is just a start. And it is!

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The jerky off-roading continues…as do the multiple episodes with multiple herds, ranging from 5-15 elephants, always led by the oldest female, the matriarch. A playful two-month old calf slides over a mound close where the jeeps wait, and two protective adults quickly huddle it away to safety. No adult males in the herds…they move away as soon as they are 4 years old. Females, on the other hand, reach maturity at 8-10 years, give birth every 4-6 years (with a gestation period of 18-20 months) and have 6-7 offspring in their lifetime. Interestingly, 6 females, including aunts and grandmas, share feeding responsibilities for each calf. Girl gang rules to live by.

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200 females and just 20 males in the Eco Park…and that’s a good balance for their species, we are told. We practice recognising the differences between males (with well-rounded tapered backs) and females (straight backs). We spot 2 of the 8-9 male tuskers that live in the area. We play guessing games about their age, using their height and size as clues. The older ones have heavier pinkish pigmentation around the ears, face and trunk, looser skin and wrinkled ears. An average life expectancy of 65-70 years…just like humans. What happens when an elephant dies?? It is abandoned by the herd…but it is gratifying to know that the forest department plans a burial site here in the future.

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Further ahead, a lone male rips up a long stemmed bunch of leaves with his trunk, but rejects it even before putting it in his mouth. Decided it was too thick to bite and digest? Then he vigorously shakes the dry mud off a trunk-full grass and chomps it down with full gusto. His trunk has two finger-like protrusions, unlike the African cousin’s, which has one. These gentle giants consume 100-150 kilograms of herbivorous food daily, and wash it down with 100 litres of water. Funny part is that they can digest only half of it, the rest passed through undigested. Such poor metabolism, despite the fact that they sleep only 4 hours and walk 20-25 km a day?

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Its a relief that in general, the elephants ignore us and don’t seem bothered by our presence. Then one of the jeep drivers gets too close to comfort. One male loses his temper…maybe his first time alone from the herd or he’s an aggressive sort. He raises his trunk and throws out a loud growl like a bear, approaches the jeep and forces it to retreat. He gathers some loose mud and scatters it on his head and body to cool off. He then celebrates his victory with a powerful roar…or was it a call for backup…in case the vehicle returned?

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Over three hours, we cover 5000 hectares of the total 25000 hectares in the Eco Park, seeing as many as 50 elephants in all! When the jeeps approach a high rocky outpost with a sturdy observation hut, we know the safari is concluding. The view of the Habarana-Hurulu Eco Park is panoramic in the soft glow of the early evening sun. As the cool breeze ruffles my hair, I flashback to the 19th century, when over 19,500 wild elephants roamed this stunning tear-drop island. We encroached their space and they were forced to seek solace in ours. Thankfully, the 2,000 that remain are protected under the Sri Lankan law and killing an endangered member of the tribe carries death penalty. About time we understood the importance of visiting wild animals in their natural habitat like guests. From a distance. No fun, no games, no play, no rides, no teasing, no torture. Just respect. One creature to another.

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Wild elephant adventures in Habarana, Sri Lanka