“Very sorry, sir” our driver said with a wry smile. “Water finished.” We’d been driving many hours in hot weather on dusty, poorly-maintained roads and were looking forward to a shower at one of the few refuges inside Wasgamuwa National Park. We’d been told there’d be showers, and yet… “River just there, very nice for cooling!” We came to refer to these incidents as “Widgies” as our driver’s nickname was Widgie. He was a pretty good driver and fairly-reliable translator, but had a certain propensity for folly, which made life on the road interesting to say the least. One time our battery died, far from any auto parts store (he’d forgotten the jumper cables), yet with a bent and broken coat hanger connected to a single, rusty terminal he somehow got the car started again. So, wading into the river I lay down and let the refreshing water roll over my skin thinking our driver had it about right this time - smart guy, Widgie. Cool water, warm sun on my face, the primal yet peaceful sounds of the jungle… then two large splashes just downstream. “Definitely not fish jumping” I said to myself while struggling frantically through the current back to shore. Two crocodiles had entered the water not fifty feet away, just the tops of their spiny, prehistoric backs sticking out of the water, gliding slowly, easily, decisively in my general direction. As I scurried uphill and mounted the refuge steps three at a time, completely out of breath and spilling my story to no one in particular, there appeared exiting the bathroom door our ever-reliable driver, wet haired and smelling of soap. “Ah sir, water is working now!” Throw your preconceived notions and your itinerary out the window, this is Sri Lanka – welcome to the Land of Serendipity!
I had the opportunity to visit and photograph throughout Sri Lanka on two occasions, the first in 2009 just prior to the end of the protracted Sri Lankan Civil War (1983-2009), and again eighteen months later, in late 2010. Much had changed since my first visit as the government worked quickly to repair roads, remove landmines, dismantle military installations, construct hotels and rebuild basic infrastructure while preparing for tourism en-masse. Beach hotels that were nearly empty back in 2009 were completely booked in 2010, and the popularity of Sri Lanka as a travel destination has grown remarkably as restrictions on previously-closed areas have eased and amenities have vastly improved. Yet this is still a third-world country and travelers looking for a Michelin-type experience should be well-prepared for often-demanding conditions that include arduous road travel, heat and humidity, malaria, unsanitary conditions routinely associated with the third world, and the relentless noise and pollution of big cities like Colombo. For seasoned travelers with a strong sense of adventure, however, Sri Lanka is about as good as it gets when it comes to remarkable cultural experiences, breathtaking landscapes and rich biodiversity. With tropical jungles, dry savanna, white sand beaches, rolling hill country, mountains and deep valleys, you’re very never far away from a new and different adventure. And with one of the highest rates of biological endemism on the planet there are endless opportunities to view and photograph unique animal species in their natural habitat including Asian and Sri Lankan elephants, Langur and Macaque monkeys, leopards, crocodiles, deer, wild pigs and sloth bears in addition to over four hundred bird species. Culturally rich as well, Sri Lanka has been a major center of Buddhism for many centuries and maintains eight UNESCO World Heritage sites that include four ancient cities.
There’s so much to see and do in Sri Lanka that it’s important to research and plan your trip in advance, but allow ample flexibility for making adjustments along the way. I’d recommend a minimum of 2-3 weeks just to get your feet wet, and then return a second time if possible since the tendency for first- timers is to cram too much into the itinerary. This is a sure-fire recipe for frustration and disappointment since life moves much slower here and unforeseen events and serendipity are the norm. Most of your research can be conducted via the internet or by contacting tour information services in Sri Lanka directly (see the list regarding services at the end of this article). One destination that’s a must see is the Cultural Triangle located in the center of the island, which maintains five of the eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites located in Sri Lanka - Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya, Dambulla and Kandy. Each site presents important relics and significant aspects of Buddhist culture that have endured for centuries, and which continue to preserve Sri Lanka’s standing as a center of Buddhist culture and relgion throughout the world today. You can witness Buddhist monks dressed in their bright orange robes performing a puja ceremony below the sacred Bhoda Tree at Anuradhapura, view ancient statues and paintings in the many mysterious caves at Dambulla, and photograph the sunrise moving across the plains next to one of the rock pools from atop Sigiriya Rock. Needless to say, the opportunities for photography are extensive here.
One of my most memorable experiences was spending time with the indigenous Vedda people, also known as Wanniyalaeto, or forest-dwellers. The Vedda connection to the land and direct lineage has been traced back more than 16,000 years, and thus they are considered the original inhabitants of Sri Lanka. The Veddas are self-sufficient hunters and gatherers who live in relative harmony with nature, yet surrounded by the relentless forces of modernization and globalization, they struggle to retain their autonomy while safeguarding their ancient culture. This appears, unfortunately, to be a losing battle - many are still wearing traditional clothing and carrying handmade tools such as axes and bow and arrow, but more now are also seen talking on cell phones. Thanks to the efforts of my contact in Colombo, who made a commitment early on to spend time getting to know and earning the trust of the Veddas, we were not only invited to camp next to their huts in the jungle near Dambana, but also allowed to bring two Vedda hunters - Sudubandiya and his son, Pohda - to Gal Oya National Park, their traditional hunting grounds for many centuries. Though hunting is no longer allowed in Gal Oya, it was an incredible opportunity to spend time with these proud yet patient men on a deserted island in the “tank” (Senanayake Samudraya, the largest reservoir in Sri Lanka) while watching them construct makeshift shelters, build fire from flint and stone, catch fish by traditional methods, and sing around the campfire at night.
It’s certainly possible to avoid much of the raw tension and high adventure that are integral characteristics of Sri Lanka by limiting your visit to the popular sites and staying at beach resorts and nice hotels. This would be a mistake, in my opinion, as the many National Parks– Yala, Gal Oya, Uda Walawe, Madura Oya, Wasgamuwa, etc – teem with wildlife, thanks in part to their relative disuse during the 26-year civil war. There is limited lodging available inside the parks, which makes viewing and photographing wildlife in the early-morning or late evening hours logistically more difficult, but not at all impossible. Exceptions to this can be found at several National Parks where modest yet comfortable accommodation can be found in refuges booked well in advance. We spent one night in an open-aired , elevated refuge (to protect visitors from predators) at Uda Walawe National Park, where we’d timed our stay to coincide with the full moon. Photographing from the balcony via moonlight was nearly the same as for daylight exposures, and it was not at all difficult to see water buffalo and crocodiles on the lakeshore 100 meters away at midnight. A professional guide is nearly always required for visits to the parks, and rightly so as there are hidden dangers that those of us lacking jungle experience would know nothing about. Elephants are particularly dangerous - though they appear quite lazy and docile, they’re unpredictable and incredibly powerful not to mention much faster than humans, and kill many Sri Lankans each year. Poisonous snakes, crocodiles and sloth bears are also worth avoiding.
Arugam Bay on the east coast is one of the more popular destinations for surfers though less so for tourists, who tend to flock to coastal resorts around Galle on the southwest coast. On my first visit to Arugam Bay I was immediately struck by the abundance of tombstones seemingly placed at random across the landscape. On December 26, 2004 the Indian Ocean tsunami struck Sri Lanka without warning, killing more than 35,000 people, the south and east coasts taking the brunt of its catastrophic force. The massive numbers of dead had to be dealt with rapidly to reduce the spread of disease, and were thus buried or cremated where they were found. One man told me the story of how he lost his wife that day, and how he considered himself one of the fortunate survivors who actually located their loved ones, allowing for proper burial and what’s commonly referred to as closure. Hearing him tell his story, I suspect his search for closure will last a lifetime. Remains of the tsunami could still be seen on the beaches north and south of Arugam Bay– a tennis shoe partially buried here, a broken doll lying in the rocks there, and up and down the coast hotels once bustling with activity now severed at the foundations and left in ruin. But again, with the end of the civil war there are concentrated and ongoing efforts towards rebuilding these areas, often located next to long stretches of unpopulated, pristine beaches. Hire a taxi or tuk tuk and travel north from Arugam Bay on the Panama-Kumbakkana Road while watching the landscape become more remote and desolate with each passing kilometer, eventually arriving at the entrance to Yala National Park, one of the best parks in the world for viewing and photographing leopards.
For photographing in Sri Lanka plan well ahead of time to bring everything you need as little is available in country should your equipment malfunction or break while on the road. I carried two camera bodies and an assortment of lenses along with four batteries, two chargers (plus adapter), six memory cards, polarizing filters for all lenses, two and three stop split ND grad filters (soft step), remote release, tripod with ball head and quick release plates, flash and diffuser, Photoflex white/gold Litedisc diffuser, and a repair kit consisting of allen wrenches, duct tape, small screwdrivers, super glue, etc. This all fit into a Lowe Mini-Trekker camera backpack, though I frequently carried the second camera body in a LowePro OffTrail waistbelt carrier. I also brought a laptop computer, not only to backup my images, but also to communicate with family members from afar. Wifi is becoming more common now, along with other modern conveniences.
Sri Lanka is tropical, with distinct dry and wet seasons. The seasons are slightly complicated by having two monsoons. From May to August the Yala monsoon brings rain to the island’s southwestern half, while the dry season here lasts from December to March. The southwest has the highest rainfall – up to 4000mm a year. The Maha monsoon blows from October to January, bringing rain to the North and East, while the dry season is from May to September. The North and East are comparatively dry, with around 1000mm of rain annually. There is also an inter-monsoonal period in October and November when rain can occur in many parts of the island. The driest (and best) seasons in Sri Lanka are from December to March for the west coast, the south coast and the Hill Country, and from April to September for the ancient cities region and the east coast. December through March are also the months when most foreign tourists visit, the majority of them escaping the European winter. During the Christmas to New Year holiday season, in particular, accommodation anywhere on the island can be tight due to the huge influx of foreign visitors.
Either way, Sri Lanka is an incredible year-round destination, and there is always a good time to visit at least some part of the country.