Journey to the Heart of Sri Lanka

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A tear drop in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka is a true treasure for the world to discover. As the years passed it became known by many names throughout its fascinating history. Rulers, conquerors and invaders through the ages left their mark on this land which resulted in a unique cultural, social and political blend. Braving the turbulent challenges of a more recent past, the tropical paradise moved swiftly in healing its wounds and became a sought after destination for leisure, spiritual and adventure travelers alike.

My journey into this Wonder of Asia began in Negombo. I had a comfortable flight with Srilankan Airlines and reached my hotel at the crack of dawn. The sun drenched the quaint west coast city and enhanced the splendor of the beautiful golden sandy beaches. My abode was at the Beacon Beach hotel, located in a major tourist beach resort area.
Fishing is a major industry in Sri Lanka and the town is largely inhabited by fisher-folk. Several buildings and churches from the colonial area can be spotted in this city.

After attending the PATA Annual Summit, the much anticipated tour of the country began. It was organized by Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau.
Our lovely hostess and guide made the journey exponentially more enjoyable.

Early morning after a hearty breakfast we were on our way to visit the Dambulla cave temple, a World Heritage Site (1991). Dambulla is known to be one of the best preserved cave temples in the country. This site is situated 148 kilometes east of Colombo.

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We visited the 5 major cave temples; each consisted of beautiful paintings that cover more than a surface area of 22,000 sq ft along with statues related to Gautama Buddha and his life. There are a total of ~153 Buddha statues, three statues of Sri Lankan kings and four statues of gods and goddesses. This temple complex dates back to the first century BCE. While walking towards the temple ground, numerous monkeys could be seen.

We came downhill the cave temple and a short distance away along the asphalt road, the more recently built monumental Golden Buddha Statue and The Golden temple came into sight.

Our next adventure for the afternoon the Safari at Minneriya National Park. For wildlife sustainability, the park is a protected area. Large herds of elephants are the major attraction here, but the Minneriya reservoir is home to various large water birds such as Lesser adjutant, Painted stork, and Spot-billed pelican.
The Purple-faced langur, Toque macaque, Sri Lankan Sambar deer and Sri Lankan Axis deer along with the endangered Sri Lankan leopard and Sri Lankan sloth bear also inhabit Minneriya.

PAS Tour Kandalama c)Saif Ismailji

Breakfast at the Heritance Kandalama Hotel

We settled in for the night at the luxurious Heritance Kandalama Hotel, its recluse location and harmony with the surrounding environment made it one of the best hotels I have stayed at while touring Sri Lanka.

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Sigiriya

Early morning we were cruising down the road once again, on our way to another UNESCO World Heritage Site, Sigiriya. This is an ancient city and a fascinating place to explore. We arrived at the Sigiriya Rock Fortress and learned about its dramatic and epic history, one laced with betrayal and murder.

DSC_3580The leviathan Column-like rock stands at 200 meters.  It has been chronicled that this site was chosen by King Kasyapa (477 – 495 CE) for his new capital.
The palace was built on top of this rock and decorated with colorful frescoes. We passed through the beautiful gardens at this site, namely the Water Gardens, Boulder Gardens and Terraced Gardens. We began to calmly ascend the massive rock, counting down the 1200 steps to the top. We were met with adorable yet mischievous monkeys along the way. After climbing about halfway up, we approached the gateway between two enormous lion paws.

The name Sīhāgiri has been derived from this very gateway, which translates to “Lion Rock”. Getting to the top is an exhausting endeavor, but undoubtedly worth the effort. The beautiful bird’s eye view of the surroundings and the gardens below had all the visitors in awe.

We left Sigiriya and continued on our journey. En route Kandy we visited the Ranweli Spice Garden in Matale. Our guide informed us about the importance of the various spices and herbs in  Sri Lankan cuisine and Ayurveda.

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After the relaxing and educational tour of the well-kept spice garden and a freshly brewed cup of herbal tea offered to us by our kind host, we once again hit the road passing the Mahaweli ganga (river) and arrived in the lush and beautiful hill city; Kandy.

Here we witnessed various traditional Sri Lankan dances and later a captivating fire-dance known as Gini Sisila took place outdoors. The talented performers manipulated the element of fire as though it were a natural extension of their being. They calmly guided the audience to where they should stand and began their daring four minute act. They walked briskly over a patch of hot coal and with that, the performance came to an end.

DSC_3756Later that evening, we bedded down at the beautiful Mahaweli Reach Hotel.
Next morning we went to explore the renowned Sri Dalada Maligawa or the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. It is located in the royal palace complex of the former Kingdom of Kandy, which houses the relic of the tooth of Buddha. This is one of the most important places of worship for Buddhist all around the world. The temple has numerous statues and paintings depicting Buddha’s life story. One of the more notable architectural features of the temple is the golden canopy, built in 1987 over the main shrine.

Within the massive temple complex we visited the Sri Dalada Museum and the Raja Museum, the latter is the resting place for the renowned elephant, Raja Atha (also known as Maligawa Raja). He was a Sri Lankan tusker elephant that passed away in 1988 at the age of 75. Raja participated at the annual Esala procession in Kandy for around 50 years and was the sacred casket bearer of the final Randoli perehera for 37 years. He was known for his noble behavior and became one of the most celebrated elephants in Asia during his lifetime. He was declared a national treasure due to his valued services.

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We were on the road again and on our way to escape the tropical climate, heading for the refreshingly green, temperate hills of Nuwara Eliya. The view from our vehicle window was mesmerizing. The lush tea gardens rolled past and enlivened our spirits. We stopped at the Glenloch Tea Factory where we were given an informative tour with explanations regarding the cultivation, drying and packing process of the world famous “Ceylon Tea”. We were told about the different kinds of tea made and how they differ from one another. Our hostess at the factory told us the main process difference for black tea as compared to green and white tea is that black tea gets fermented and the oxidation gives it the signature dark brown color, whereas green tea and white tea are not fermented. The factory also has its own secret tea blend; the Golden Flush, the preparation process for this is kept hidden. After the tour we were offered various freshly brewed tea samples.

We retreated later that evening at the charming Jetwing Saint Andrew’s Hotel, the beautiful mansion lends a glance into the British colonial era.

DSC_3988Sun-up we were all packed and ready for a 5 hour long road trip to Mount Lavinia (colombo). We arrived just before sunset at the historic Mount Lavinia Hotel and made it in time for a demonstration held by Sri Lanka’s most renowned chef, Dr. Pubilis Silva. He showed us that Sri Lankan cuisine is not only healthy and delicious due to the herbs and spices used, but is also surprisingly easy to make.

With that our tour came to an end. We said goodbye to our lovely hostess and guide who showed us what Sri Lankan hospitality is all about.

The day before our flight back home, we stayed at a cozy service apartment overlooking the beach at the Marine City Complex, courtesy of Serene Vacations, Dehiwala.

The journey was an unforgettable one. The contours of the beautiful island nation have a poetic allure. The warmth of the people and their optimism is contagious.

 

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Mount Lavinia Hotel

Thank you for reading and do check out my previous posts about Sri Lanka as well!

@maria9saif

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PATA Annual Summit ’17 – Negombo

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This year’s PATA (Pacific Asia Travel Association) Annual Summit 2017 was held in Negombo, a laid back city along the west cost of Sri Lanka, lined with golden sandy beaches and friendly, welcoming locals all around.
Negombo is approximately 10 km from the Bandaranaike International Airport, our point of arrival. We flew with SriLankan Airlines; the PAS 2017 Official airline. The friendly staff, delicious menu and comfortable interior made my first experience flying with this airline a delightful one.

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We arrived in Sri Lanka before dawn and the beachfront hotel, Beacon Beach, became our temporary home in Negombo. The welcoming staff raised our spirits and made our first day in this island nation a happy memory to look back upon.
After a good night’s rest it was time to attend the anticipated PATA Conference held at Jetwing Blue hotel, close to where we were staying.

The theme for this year’s PATA Annual Summit (PAS 2017) was “Disruption. Innovation. Transformation: The Future of Tourism”. The four-day event began on May 18th with 406 delegates from 39 countries, a true melting pot of cultures.
Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau hosted the event along with the Ministry of Tourism and Christian Religious Affairs of the government of Sri Lanka.
Various dynamic, innovative and knowledgeable individuals spoke at the event and gave valuable insights with respect to the theme.

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PATA CEO, Dr. Mario Hardy perfectly summed up the objective of the Summit, he said “The PATA Annual Summit brings together international thought leaders, industry shapers and senior decision-makers who are professionally engaged with the Asia Pacific region. At PATA we understand that to overcome the challenges and issues facing our industry, the public and private sectors must work together

On the conference held on Friday, May 19th, opening statements were given by the Hon. John Amaratunga, Minister of Tourism, Lands and Christian Religious Affairs, Sri Lanka, and by UNWTO Secretary General Taleb Rifai.

5 Rafat Ali

Mr. Rafat Ali, CEO & founder of Skift presented his keynote address; “Managing disruption through innovation”

He talked about “Mega Travel Trends” such as the consumer behavior of wanting to book tours and activities last minute, aversion from packaged tours, over-tourism, low cost long haul airlines, “festivalization” of meetings and events; for example innovative conferences such as SXSW and TED.
He gave his insight on how the idea of luxury has changed over the years, new luxury is small brands with larger than life stories and how dining out has itself become a huge event which has resulted in restaurants becoming destinations themselves while pushing airlines to noticeably improve the quality of food the serve.

Summit attendees listened to numerous international industry leaders and innovators including Aleandre Kwan, Philanthropies Asia Programme Manager – Microsoft; Andrew Chan, founder and CEO of ACI HR Solutions; Andrew Craig, Head of Corporate Communication India, South Asia and Southeast Asia – Visa Worldwide; Faeez Fadhlillah, CEO and Co-founder – Tripfez; Greg Klassen, Partner at Twenty31 Consulting Inc.; Ha Lam, Co-founder and COO – Triip.me; Jesse Desjardins, Global Manager, Social & Content – Tourism Australia; Joe M. Naaman, Senior Executive Advisor – Global Advisory Council, Skylight Intelligence; Joe Nguyen, Senior Vice President, Asia Pacific – comScore; Jeremy Jauncey, founder & CEO – Beautiful Destinations; Muna Haddad, Managing Director – Baraka; Oliver Martin, Partner at Twenty31 Consulting Inc.; Sarah Mathews, Head of Destination Marketing APAC – TripAdvisor; Thao Nguyen, Head of Strategic Partnerships, APAC – Airbnb; Vijay Poonoosamy, Vice President, International Affairs, Office of the President & CEO, Etihad Airways, and Wong Soon-Hwa, Regional Director APAC – Blacklane.

The conference focused on the idea of embracing the disruption and using it as an advantage to triumphantly stride forward into this rapidly evolving digital age. Other topics discussed were: ‘‘The Transformation of Marketing”, “Research Innovation”, “Disrupting the Travel Industry”, “The Real Future of Tourism: Young Tourism Professionals”, and “Embracing Disruption: A Blueprint for the Future of Tourism”.

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For the remainder of the ongoing summit,  we stayed at the Jetwing Ayurveda Pavilions, Negombo. The tranquil atmosphere of the hotel can soothe the anxious and instill an aura of peacefulness. Staying here made it clear why this hotel is known as the best Ayurvedic resort in the country. Ayurveda is an ancient traditional system of healing with its roots in the Indian subcontinent. The resort offers its guests treatments customized to each individual’s body, mind and soul.  

On May 20th, in partnership with the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), PATA held a Ministerial Debate. The panelists for the debate included Datuk Seri Mirza Mohammad Taiyab, Director General – Tourism Malaysia; Mr. Deepak Raj Joshi, CEO – Nepal Tourism Board; Mr. Wander Meijer, Director Asia Pacific – GlobeScan; Mr. Hiran Cooray, Chairman – Jetwing Hotels; Mr Jon Nathan Pangilinan Denight, President and CEO – Guam Visitors Bureau; Mr. Lawrence Leong, Former Assistant Chief Executive (International Group) – Singapore Tourism Board; Ms. Thao Nguyen, Head of Strategic Partnerships, APAC – Airbnb, and Mr. Erick Stephens, Chief Technology Officer-APAC, Microsoft. Concepts such as Sustainability Leadership and the Sharing Economy, or as emphasized by Mr. Eric Stephens; Access Economy were discussed and how they affect the travel and tourism industry. BBC Correspondent & Presenter Yogita Limaye moderated the debate.

7 Dr. Taleb RifaiDr. Taleb Rifai inspired the audience with his heartfelt speech regarding the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development 2017.

In his speech, Dr. Rifai expressed, “Asia and the Pacific, which leads the world in international tourism growth, can and should, be a leader in sustainability and innovation; a leader in utilizing the transformative power of travel and tourism in building a new and better world, the world which is today without any doubt, steered by the Pacific. That is why PATA, bringing together the two margins of the Pacific is today a truly global and not only a regional organization.”  

He also highlighted the importance of travel and the tourism industry.
“Our Industry is one of optimism and hope…
The more we travel the better we become, the more our eyes open…”

8There were performances by extremely talented groups at the event. My favorite was the cultural dance.

2018

The PATA Annual Summit 2018 will take place in Gangneung, the Republic of Korea.
To learn more about PATA, visit their website: PATA.org 

Photos courtesy of e-Travelers Club
*Facts for this post partly obtained from PATA’s press release

Thank you for reading.
Connect with me on Instagram: @maria9saif