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Adam's Peak (2,243 m)
At the summit of this mountain peak is a rock with a huge "footprint" in it. The legend goes that it was Adam's when he was kicked out of heaven. Others believe it belongs to Buddha or Shiva, but in any case it's a major sacred site that many, old and young, visit at least once in their lifetime. It's a 7 km (normally about 3-4 hours) ascent on stairs with several fellow pilgrims. Many choose to do it at night, so they can experience the famous sunrise from the summit. Though the sunrise is nice and anticipated after a very cold night, the shadow the mountain casts in the early morning light is even more spectacular and so is the view over a good chunk of Sri Lanka. It's a magnificent experience, especially on Poya (holy) days, where the number of pilgrims can exceed 20,000 and extend the journey by several hours.
Capital of Sri Lanka
If you come directly from India, you will find Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo, refreshingly small, orderly and friendly. For the others, Colombo can seem dirty, worn-down and confusing - but still friendly. The city is spread out over 15 zones, each with their own characteristics, but without an actual centre. Grand colonial buildings stand among empty lots and fenced off drab residential houses. The few shiny modern office buildings often look misplaced in the sea of concrete and corrugated iron, and no street is too exclusive for wandering sacred cows. When seeing the ocean down at Galle Face, you ask yourself why this perfect sea side location isn't more embraced. But this just means you need to work a bit harder to appreciate what Colombo has to offer. The best way to explore the city is probably randomly. Let fate (or a mad rickshaw driver) take you through parts of the city you otherwise would have missed if you had focused on the few sights the city holds.
Dambulla Cave Temple
72 km north of Kandy
Over the flat plain of central Sri Lanka rises a small hill of rock. Since the 1st century BC it has been used as a Buddhist cave temple, with more than 80 smaller and bigger caves. There are five main caves, all dimly lit with ancient Buddha statues and precious wall paintings, along with the usual religious mismatch of statues of Hindu gods and old kings. The Buddhist monastery, which is believed to be from the 2nd or 3rd century BC, is still functioning to this day and local visitors still use the caves to pray. By being such an impressive historical place, Dambulla Cave Temple was of course declared an UNESCO site. As a bonus, you have a magnificent view from the top and Sigiriya Rock can even been spotted in the distance, 19 km away.
The government-run Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage is a sanctuary for rescued and injured elephants. It is home to about 70 elephants, where some were orphaned as babies because their mothers were the victims of poachers or accidents, while others have been injured by landmines or have been in conflict with farmers. They roam free in the parkland, but are controlled by mahouts who ride working elephants. The daily highlight is the bathing (twice daily), when the herd is lead across the road and down to the river for their much loved bath. The feeding is equally fascinating to watch, particularly the bottle feeding of the cute baby elephants who happily guzzle down large quantities of milk.
Some visitors have been unhappy about how mahouts deal with the elephants and beg for tips. So if wild elephants is more your thing, Yala National Park is a good place for spotting those.
Festival of the Hindu War God
Mayurapathi Sri Pathrakali Amman Temple, Wellawatte, Colombo
Once a year, the war god Kataragama, son of Shiva, is celebrated in the streets of Colombo. Hindu devotees honour him and pray for his healing and blessing through a rough day of sacrifices. Some worshippers are pierced through their mouthes and tongues and hung by huge hooks pierced through the skin of their backs, while others, also tongue pierced, roll all the way to the temple. Everyone can participate as the audience is getting blessed by the self-sacrificed disciples. A hand on the head and some holy dust in the hair and Kataragama's strong power might be transferred. It's a holy madness that only Hindus can make sense of and a not-to-be-missed experience.
Galle, which is pronounced "Gawl", is an old trading town 120 km south of Colombo. Its history goes way back, but the boom time was under the Dutch colonial period in the 17th and 18th century. Built on an island stands the impressive Galle Fort. It was built by the Dutch in the 17th century upon an old Portuguese fortress. The fort is actually a walled city with narrow streets, beautiful restored houses, churches, temples and even a mosque for the later arrived Muslim traders. The iconic lighthouse is a bit newer, namely from the British colonial time in early 20th century. Though Galle Fort is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is still inhabited by ordinary people, probably some with colonial ancestors, and some of the beautiful houses have been turned into classy boutique hotels, swanky cafes and art shops for the few tourists. The wide encircling wall is a favourite place for snogging among young couples.
Hikkaduwa is one of the longest going beach places in Sri Lanka. Though there are beaches right at Hikkaduwa town, the best stretches are further south. The recipe is simple: sand, palms and sea. The density of restaurants and guesthouses varies widely as you move further south. There is the stylish stretch with fancy resorts, the party stretch with the usual gang of beach boys, the quiet stretch for those not planning to do more than having their coconut shake refilled, and the local stretch with nothing more than palms and fishing boats. The strong waves attract a fair amount of surfers, locals as well as foreigners.
The Hill Club is a quirky resort located at the cool hill station of Nuwara Eliya. It was established by British coffee planters in the late 19th century as a real gentlemen's club. Here could the colonial masters enjoy a cup of tea and some fresh strawberries among stuffed animals and mounted fish. The fine English country house was originally off limit for women, but everyone is welcome today - but there still is a men-only lounge. There is a dress code for men, meaning tie and jacket. If you don't have the appropriate attire, you will be led by a white-gloved waiter to a closet with an obscure selection of ties in kitsch colours and ill-fitted jackets, as a complimentary service. The Hill Club is a living relic, a Sri Lankan "Fawlty Towers".
This cool little hill town on the southern edge of Sri Lanka's hill country has some of the most magnificent views. On a cloud-and-mist-free day, the coastal plain will open up 1000 m below with the Indian Ocean in the distance. Besides cloud forest, waterfalls, and small peaks with splendid panoramas, the hills are covered in neatly picked tea plantations looking like a thick green carpet. Here you have a great opportunity to get close to the "oh so" famous Ceylon tea and the pickers, who are usually very friendly.
Between Weligama og Matara
Mirissa is another great beach in Sri Lanka for the independent travellers. The curvy beach is mostly warm sand with some rocky outcrops at both ends. The water is shallow for a long distance, which is a bit unusual in Sri Lanka, but it means calm sea to swim in, unless it is one of those days where the Indian Ocean covers the whole coast in big surfer-friendly waves. For snorkelling, head to the ends, but be careful with rip tides and strong currents (which is the case all over Sri Lanka). If you are looking for peace, Mirissa will do perfectly. It is very laid back and chill out and doesn't have the same bar and "beach boys" scene as Unawatuna and Hikkaduwa further up the coast.