The seeds for the short weekend break to Sri Lanka were actually first sown in Uzbekistan during our 21-days travel along the Silk Road in 2010. Central Asia proved to be exhilarating but exhausting and during this trip, both Bruce and I decided that our next trip would be … more luxurious.
The criterion for the trip were: (1) it had to be close to Hong Kong because this was planned as a long weekend break during Easter and we didn’t want to waste time with long travels; (2) it had to be a place that was culturally interesting; (3) and it had to be somewhere we’ve never been to before. After many hours of internet research, I’d narrowed the options to either Sri Lanka or Bali, Indonesia. In truth, we almost decided on Bali because logistically it was easier (lots of direct flights) whereas with Sri Lanka, we had to transfer at Singapore. But the vote swung over to Sri Lanka once I started looking at the country in more depth. We wanted a luxury holiday as an antidote to the Silk Road trip and luxury was absolutely possible in Sri Lanka — especially in the Hill Country.
We stayed in a converted hotel bungalow with a magnificent view of the surrounding tea plantations and pristine lakes. Our goals during the 3.5 days stay were quite simple: to read books, to take short strolls along the tea trails, to eat well, and most importantly, to relax. Eating well was easily achieved as the hotel had a private chef who catered to all of our wishes (prior to arriving, I’d contacted the hotel to advise them that I would like a chocolate birthday cake to celebrate Bruce’s upcoming special day … and the chef produced the most amazing creation!) and relaxing was unavoidable as we had butler service and the staff looked after us very well.
And of course, interspersed amongst the eating, relaxing and reading, we took advantage of our location to do short photography walks. Unfortunately, it rained often when we were there, however and thankfully, the downpour came in short bursts. More importantly, the rain cooled the afternoon heat and the moisture in the air enhanced the glorious landscape colours.
Sadly, the enjoyable weekend break ended rather quickly but both Bruce and I vowed that we would return again. Little did we know then that we would return to Sri Lanka just four months later! We typically don’t like to return to places because we like to find new travel experiences. That said, our short hop into the Hill Country was merely a quick introduction into one small facet of the country. As such, we felt no guilt returning again so soon thereafter.
On the advice of a friend who is a professional photographer and world traveler, we returned in August 2011 specifically for the Esala Perahera festival. Our friend predicted that the very nature of the popular festival would change in response to the surge in tourism following the end of the civil war. As such, it was her advice that if we wanted to see this festival, the time to do it was NOW before mass tourism spoiled it.
The night time festival spanned 10 days during which a procession of dancers, elephants, singers, musicians, etc. followed a route around Kandy. The highlight of the procession was the viewing of one of country’s holiest relics (the Tooth of the Buddha). The locals crammed along the procession route during the heat of the day to secure their viewing spot. For us (the tourists), we were there to see the festival; but for the locals, they were there to participate in a religious experience. As such, it was heartbreaking to see the devotees (particularly, the elderly) faint during the intense heat and be rushed away by the medical teams because it meant that they had lost their viewing position.
We timed our visit so that we would see the final three days. For the first two nights, we used the hotel seats because our hotel had the best viewing platform. On the third night, however, we decided to strike out on our own. It was a risk because we were not guaranteed a better location to photograph. But, we felt that we’ve exhausted the perspectives from the hotel seats and we wanted to capture the festival from a different angle. Unfortunately, all the seats along the festival processions were sold out and at one point we looked into purchasing a spot on someone’s balcony. Somehow, fortune bestowed a smile and we found a shopkeeper who had 2 seats directly on the street to sell. Needless to say it was costly. But, we managed to secure a great spot. (Word of caution: when we returned later that day to take our seats, the shopkeeper showed us seats six rows back from the street level; as a result, we protested and demanded a full refund. Given that we paid X times over the ‘official’ price, the shopkeeper relented and gave us the seats that he’d earlier promised.)
In short, the Esala Perahera was simply magical and I’m delighted that we followed our friend’s advice to go see it. Although I would love to go back and see the festival again, there is a part of me that is afraid to do a repeat. I fear that somehow a repeat won’t meet expectations — i.e. it would be hard to recreate that powerful magical first impression. That said, there is plenty more to Sri Lanka that Bruce and I have yet to visit. I understand that northern Sri Lanka is very different from southern Sri Lanka; likewise, central Sri Lanka (where we’ve been to) is vastly different from the other regions. As such, we have plenty of scope to make more (new) first impressions . . . . Succinctly, we’ll be back!
- The festival procession last for hours so make sure you have dinner beforehand, and/or bring along snacks and drinks.
- Hotel rooms during the festival period book up quickly – for the best rooms, you may need to book up to 6-8 months in advance!
- The hotel with the best view is the Queens Hotel. Despite this, not all the seats have unobstructed views therefore you’ll want the front row or the seat adjacent to the street. A request to the front desk/concierge is not sufficient. If you want the best seats, you’ll need to tip the staff to guarantee the best seat.
- Seats alongs the procession route can be purchased privately; you’ll need to negotiate terms with the shop owners. It is advisable that you book seats as far in advance as possible as these are in high demands.
- The festival route is long and the procession moves slowly. As such, the festival continues well into the wee hours (especially the last night). Thus, for anyone who is a light sleeper, be sure to ask for a room away from the main street to avoid the street noise.
- Before the start of the festival, the mahouts scrub and wash their elephants near the temple grounds. Thus, this is an excellent opportunity to get close to (and photograph) the elephants at play.
This festival was extraordinarily difficult to photograph. The first challenge is to find the optimal location with a good viewpoint. The second challenge is to suppress the gut inclination to use flash. Flash is often over-used and often used incorrectly. Photography with flash at this festival would be inappropriate as the harsh light destroys any sense of atmosphere and mystery. Instead, increase the ISO sensitivity, open the aperture, and/or decrease the shutter speed. Best to take sample shots of the crowd before the festival starts to get the right combination of ISO/aperture/shutter speed. In fact, some of my most interesting shots during the festival were taken during this experimentation phase.
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Appendix: Please note that all of our travels are fully funded by ourselves. Without exceptions. As such, the opinions/ viewpoints/ recommendations/ critiques on this website are wholly our own and are not influenced by commercial interests.
For the Easter Break trip, we stayed at the Summerville bungalow managed by the Tea Trails (www.teatrails.com) and had the lovely Garnet Room garden suite.
For the Esala Perahera festival, we stayed at the Queens Hotel in Kandy. Unfortunately, we had problems with the reservation (despite multiple email confirmations) and thus it is highly recommended that anyone staying here double/triple check their reservation status. In addition, I would also advise visitors to plan their fire exit route once you’ve have checked-in as the hotel is vast and the walkways are somewhat confusing.
As we wanted to avoid the hassle of staying in Colombo and wanted to be reasonably close to the airport, we stayed at the wonderful W-esque The Wallawwa hotel (thewallawwa.com). It was a gem of a surprise — it was close to the airport but without the hullaballo and noise. The hotel is small enough to provide personalized serivce and large enough to exude a cool, modern and yet colonial charm of a great manor house. Furthermore, food was amazing and we enjoyed the spa.
For information on entry visa to Sri Lanka, this site may be helpful: http://srilankavisa.org