A walk on the wild side
It is almost impossible to properly appreciate the wide array of fauna and flora which is native to the exotic confines of Yala, Sri Lanka’s most frequented national park, from the back of a moving vehicle. That is why game drives, although providing enthralling encounters with indigenous wildlife, are often limited in the level of interaction they allow. In order to fill this void, many visitors to Yala opt to supplement their experience with a bushwalk.
Conducted by a trained guide, the bushwalks organised by Chena Huts enable participants to hike through a jungle teeming with plants, insects, birds, reptiles and mammals that ordinarily would be missed on a drive.
Many of these species are indigenous to Sri Lanka and being exposed to them at such close proximity is as rare as it is exciting. Adding to this excitement is the trek itself, which is the perfect fix for people with a taste for the great outdoors.
The path taken by Chena Huts’ resident guide wends its way along the edge of the jungle past towering trees dappled in varying shades of greens, scurrying insects and animals and a kaleidoscope of plants.
Overhead, legions of Yala’s unique winged inhabitants, painted in a riot of colour, expertly weave their way through the dense forest canopy. Those birds less inclined to explore such heights, like herons, pelicans, flamingoes and egrets, stalk the nearby saline lake.
Occasionally, those on the Chena Huts bushwalk can espy some of the larger mammals Yala is renowned for roaming through the thick jungle scrub. These include elephants, spotted deer, wild water buffaloes and occasionally leopards.
The bushwalk’s trail back to the hotel straddles the nearby beach, which hosts a broad bevy of marine life. A mainstay of this group are the sea turtles that frequent the coast under moonlight to deposit their eggs deep in the dunes. They are a diverse brood since Yala’s coastline is one of the few destinations visited by all of the world’s endangered sea turtle species (leatherback turtle, loggerhead sea turtle, olive ridley, hawksbill turtle and green turtle), so encountering them in their natural surroundings makes for a rare and memorable experience.
Apart from witnessing the many animals, birds, reptiles and amphibians themselves, those hiking through the jungle can also observe their behavior by closely studying their habits and habitat. This makes a bushwalk the ideal activity to gain a thorough understanding and appreciation of everything that contributes to Yala’s billing as a premier sanctuary for the country’s wildlife.
Celebrating a truly Sri Lankan New Year
Like many of its regional neighbours, Sri Lanka does not limit its New Year celebrations to just one day of the year. Its Sinhala and Tamil New Year, known locally as Aluth Avurudu, conjures up several of the same sentiments felt on January 1 with an added cultural dimension that makes it uniquely Sri Lankan.
The origins of the festival, which is usually marked on either April 13 or 14, date back to ancient times when the local population staged it to herald the end of the harvest season. Over time it gained religious significance following the arrival of Buddhism to Sri Lanka and now commonly sees members of the island’s majority Buddhist population visit temples on its eve to seek blessings.
Similar to its foreign counterparts, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year sees much fanfare and merriment in the period leading up to it. For instance, the day preceding it is always designated a national holiday as families across the country busily prepare for the various religious and traditional rituals attached to the celebrations.
Some of the other activities people engage in ahead of the occasion include them sprucing up their homes, cooking local sweetmeats such as kavum and kokkis and replenishing their wardrobes with new outfits, which they don to greet the New Year.
In addition to its association with Buddhism and Hinduism, the national New Year shares a close link with astrology as it dawns at the moment when the sun crosses from the House of Pisces to the House of Aries. This has resulted in many traditional New Year activities being carried out at astrologically-assigned auspicious times.
The diverse nature of the Sinhala and Tamil New Year means that it is not restricted to a single community or religious group, allowing a festive spirit to spread across the island. This manifests itself with households preparing Kiribath (milk rice) and people congregating in the streets and lighting firecrackers to kick-start small parties.
There are also a range of special games that are played during and after the New Year. The scale of these competitions varies according to their location, with rural areas often attracting greater numbers of participants than their urban counterparts.
A few of these games comprise long-distance runs, cycle races, pillow-fights and tug-of-war contests. There are also a number of traditional recreational activities which populations residing in Sri Lanka’s outlying towns and villages engage in. Playing the Raban (a big drum) is one such practice, with clusters of women gathering around it to drum out rhythmic beats called Raban Surai.
The Sinhala and Tamil New Year showcases many of Sri Lanka’s distinct cultural practices while bringing its people closer together. All these intriguing aspects can be observed by guests who stay at Ulagalla in Anuradhapura, where they have the option of visiting nearby villages deeply involved in the celebration of this traditional festival. This enables visitors to have uninhibited access to a quintessentially Sri Lankan experience.
Measuring the true depth of the Batticaloa Lagoon
Sri Lanka’s Batticaloa District is a geographical melting pot with many defining features. Those who doubt this fact need only gaze toward the Batticaloa Lagoon to encounter an emphatic and resplendent rebuttal.
With an area of 11,500 ha, the Batticaloa Lagoon significantly dwarfs its neighbours, the Valaichchenai and Vakari lagoons. It stretches for 56 km from Eravur in the Batticaloa District to Kalmunai in the Ampara District, drinking from multiple rivers along its way. It greets the sea at two points – Batticaloa and Periyakallar – which, when the rains subside and give rise to the dry season, are blocked by sandbars.
But these numbers do not adequately convey the immense beauty and significance of this extraordinary natural landmark. Bathed in a multitude of golden hues, the Batticaloa Lagoon at sunrise wields an ethereal aura, as though birthed on an artist’s canvas.
Oftentimes fishermen assemble at the lagoon’s edge during this time, readying themselves and their vessels for a relentless pursuit of the day’s catch. With its bountiful supply of fish and shrimp, the Batticaloa Lagoon plays an integral role in neighbouring communities by acting as a principal livelihood provider. Additionally, large tracts of the fertile land which surrounds it are used to cultivate a number of crops including rice and coconut.
With its abundant clusters of mangroves and intermittent expanses of sea grass beds, the lagoon is also a hub for a rich vein of biodiversity, amongst which are several brightly-coloured waterbirds.
All of these diverse aspects have made the Batticaloa Lagoon a central component of Sri Lanka’s east which over the years has grown into a mandatory item on many visitors’ travel itinerary. Guests at Uga Bay can make this trip fairly easily since it is located less than an hour away from the Batticaloa Lagoon. This guarantees that they leave the island with a deeper appreciation of this integral environmental, social and cultural edifice.
Basking in the spiritual glow of Vesak’s lanterns
Vesak is recognized universally as Buddhism’s most sacred occasion since it marks three epochal events in the Gautama Buddha’s life – his birth, enlightenment (nirvana) and passing (parinirvana). This reverence is best evidenced in Sri Lanka, a country with a majority Buddhist population, where Vesak is celebrated in a way scarcely witnessed anywhere else in the world.
To begin with, the streets are bathed in a sea of colour as traditional multihued Vesak lanterns, known locally as Vesak kuudu, hang outside houses and places of business. The lanterns, which signify the light of the Buddha, Dharma (Buddha’s teachings) and Sangha (ordained community of monks), vary in design from the small and simple to the large and elaborate.
Most junctions in the country’s major cities also sport ornate pandals depicting scenes from the Jataka tales, which outline the previous lives of the Buddha. These pandals, as well as the slew of creatively-crafted lanterns, draw large crowds from the country’s outlying towns and villages.
It is not unusual to sometimes see mini-convoys of small trucks carting people toward pandals and dansalas, another much-loved staple of the Vesak experience. These food stalls which provide free food and drinks to passersby frequently generate long queues of excited citizens from all religions. This broad interaction, coupled with the general sense of excitement felt throughout the country during Vesak, is what makes its celebration in Sri Lanka truly unique.