Author CJ Bentley reveals the places that make Sri Lanka such an unmissable destination – from Yala National Park to Kothduwa, an island temple (home to giant squirrels) and a festival of light in Kaluta
South along the beach road from Aluthgama at Balapitiya, hire a boat to take you out on the Madu Ganga to visit a solitary Buddhist temple, set on an island, and over a four hundred years old. Called, Kothduwa, it home to a family of giant squirrels.
The squirrels are quite tame and love to be fed fruit. After visiting Kothduwa, make sure your boatman takes you to explore the mangroves. The biodiversity is extraordinary and it is not unusual to spot crocodiles and monkeys along the route.
Another experience, not for the faint hearted, is to submerge your feet amongst toe sucking fish that populate the river. Known as red tilapias, they will massage your toes with little bites.
Arugam Bay, situated on the south east coast of Sri Lanka, is known locally as surfers paradise. It is possible to walk along the sandy beach for miles, enjoying your own company or to people watch, as young men play football and others lie on their surfboards waiting for the waves to break.
Brightly painted fishing boats arrive back with their early morning catch and haggling for the best fish ensues. It is all over in less than an hour so you do need to be up early to get a good deal. It's well worth the reward of a tasty array of fresh fish for lunch.
Yala National Park is one of Sri Lanka’s crown jewels and a must-visit destination for every visitor. A safari in a Land Rover is a great way to spot the many different animals that call Yala home – 44 different species of mammals and one of the highest leopard densities in the world. Bird watching is excellent here too.
Herds of elephant and buffalo drinking beside crocodiles sunning themselves along river banks and, if you’re lucky, the odd honey bear hiding in the rocky outcrops. Nearby a touching memorial in the shape of a steel wave has been built to remember the many locals and tourists killed in the devastating tsunami of 2004.
Elephants are a revered animal to the Sri Lankan people and the elephant orphanage at Pinnawala is well worth a visit. Seeing these amazing creatures enjoying their baths in the river, with babies playing amongst the adults and others squirting water from their trunks onto their elders for the sheer fun of it, is memory that will stay with you for the rest of your life.
It is possible to get in amongst the younger ones, which are always watched over by alert handlers, to feed fruit and take photographs. Remember to be respectful and follow instructions carefully.
Vesak Poya is an important festival celebrated by Buddhists on the day of the full moon in May. If you find yourself in Sri Lanka while it is on, head to the stupa in Kalutara and join the festivities.
Situated beside a river, Kalutara is festooned with lights for the occasion. The long, wide bridge over the river is illuminated and people throng to the temple in their thousands – by car, motorbikes, scooters, push bikes and also on foot. Walking amongst the throng to reach the temple is a thrilling experience and one you’ll feel privileged to be a part of.