Trunk and disorderly
Elephants permeate Sri Lankan consciousness and society. Even visitors who don't make it to a national park to see them in the wild will see them in captivity, in art, on fabrics, in temple imagery, on currency, on souvenirs and T-shirts, even being transported in trucks.
Ubiquitous they may seem, but be sure to include a national park in any visit to Sri Lanka. Herds of wild elephants there are larger than anywhere else in South Asia, and the interactions within the herds we saw ranged from adorable to funny to concerning, the mood of the scene sometimes changing within minutes.
We visited Minneriya National Park in central Sri Lanka, and from an open-roof vehicle we watched young males tussle, entwining their trunks and pushing against each other with all their strength. We saw babies trotting alongside their families with Disneyesque levels of cuteness and a large bull elephant who appeared to be offering unwanted affection to females.
We also spied axel deer, macaques and tufted gray langur monkeys and a dozen varieties of birds, from peacocks to storks to ibises to eagles. But most of our time was spent in the company of elephants and the tourists who migrated with them from one small freshwater lake to another.
Thanks to our local guide/driver, who suggested we also go down some isolated back roads, we were to be the sole witnesses to an unusual encounter. Toward the end of our drive, we came across a family of elephants with a (relatively) tiny baby calf still covered in lanugo, the fetal hair that's shed soon after birth. We cooed and oohed and shot photos of every movement of the calf, but after 10 minutes, my wife spied two jackals lurking in the tall grass nearby. The family of elephants, unaware, moved toward them. When the elephant family noticed the jackals, the females circled the baby, and the tusked bull turned to face the jackals directly, lifting his trunk and staring.
The jackals slunk away.
A usurper's mountaintop fortress
Habarana, the closest town to Minneriya National Park, is also the gateway city to Sri Lanka's finest and most extensive ruins, Sigiriya. The site, an elaborate network of roads, gardens and other court features, is often cited as the first example of urban planning in that part of the world.
It was built by a rebellious prince in the fifth century who killed his father and, fearing retribution from his brother, built a city around a 660-foot-high rock outcropping. He lived atop it in a fortress, worrying his brother would return with an army. (The brother eventually did show up and succeeded in breeching the fortress.)
Although the buildings are gone, their footprint and many impressive features remain. There are well-preserved murals still visible on the rock wall of the mountain (it's thought that the entire wall, hundreds of feet high, may have once been covered in murals). Two smooth, gigantic lion's paws remain at the base of the stairway leading to the highest level; Sigiriya means "lion rock." Elaborate defenses, royal courts and pools, some of which have been fully restored, are among the features.
We stayed outside of Habarana in a grand, modern property called Aliya (Sinhalese for elephant). It was designed by students of Sri Lanka's most famous architect, Geoffrey Bawa, and amplifies his aesthetic, which makes the most of natural settings while also imposing creative, sometimes flamboyant, overlays. It's primarily minimalist, but there exist few greater "wows" in hospitality than the scene that greets visitors entering Aliya's open-air lobby and finding themselves facing Sigiriya mountain in the distance, but with an enormous swimming pool and deck dominating the foreground. The lobby walls feature simple but stunning, elephant-inspired sculptures.
Where contemporary and colonial mix
Although stays or visits to hotels designed by Bawa himself weren't on our original itinerary, our guide indulged our requests to see a few of them.
Just outside Galle is Jetwing Lighthouse, which features a stairwell that winds among metallic warriors doing battle beneath a blue Moorish dome. Like Frank Lloyd Wright, Bawa also designed furniture throughout his public spaces. And, as is the case with Wright's furniture, one gets greater delight from looking at his chairs than from sitting on them. We also inspected an inspired Moorish suite whose balcony overlooked a turbulent Indian Ocean.
During our visit to Galle, we stayed across the road from Jetwing Lighthouse at the elegant, low-key, former 18th-century colonial mansion Tamarind Hill, a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World. Its quiet courtyard setting, excellent restaurant and dark-wood bar conveyed Galle's colonial past in ways that complemented and contrasted Bawa's contemporary vision.
Galle had been ruled in succession by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British, and it is characterized by a large, walled Portuguese fort that has morphed into the city's most interesting neighborhood. The area and the fortifications were the fourth and final Unesco World Heritage Site in Sri Lanka that we visited. (The others were Kandy city, Sigiriya and the Buddhist caves in Dambulla.) While backpackers haven't fully colonized the old city, they are a presence there, staying in inexpensive guesthouses, sitting at internet cafes and shopping at craft markets and boutiques.
But a colonial atmosphere pervades, symbolized by a lighthouse, the city's iconic structure, as well as a Dutch Reform church and Islamic teaching centers. Some colonial administrative buildings, however, have been repurposed. What was once a hospital now houses pubs and restaurants, and a 17th-century, colonial building across from the Dutch church is currently the five-star Amangalla.
While Galle has the most prominent Western influences, past and present, of anywhere we visited in the country, it's a popular vacation spot for Sri Lankans, as well. We saw many honeymooners and couples -- small production crews in tow -- shooting elaborate Bollywood-style videos and stills in and around the older buildings.