Field notes from Sri Lanka

A mesmerizing journey through rice fields and ancient dagobas

What is fieldwork? To us, it means getting out into the world and really ‘being there’. Taking what we see, hear, taste, and feel as guidance and inspiration for the trips we design for you. Knowing that the people who planned your bespoke luxury trip have (in the best way) already ‘been there, done that’ (several times) is a sort of safety net, an insurance policy. And as luxury travel experts, we make sure that each of our luxury travel experiences and hotels is tried, tested, and loved by us. And ultimately by you, our travelers.

That’s why, recently, we sent Lauren, Christie, Shivani, Lydia, and Gabriella on an in-depth research trip across the dense jungles and ancient forts of Sri Lanka.

This is their story, as told by Shivani. Let’s begin.

rice field in Sri Lanka
elephants in Sri Lanka

Nachchaduwa – beyond the paddy fields

Our journey begins in the afternoon at Uga Ulagalla – a beautiful boutique hotel set amidst the green and ochre heart of Sri Lanka’s north-central ‘Cultural Triangle’. This’ll be our base from which to explore for the next few days (I’m not complaining).

After a quick moment of respite in our elegant villas – luxurious wooden structures with private plunge pools and sundecks encircled by lush vegetation – we meet up with Katharina, our local guide. An enthusiastic and lovely host, she takes us to a jeep. ‘We’re going for a drive’. We climb aboard, eager to explore more of the rural landscapes and wildlife that lie beyond the vast lime-green paddy fields. Our destination? Nachchaduwa – an expansive reservoir bordered by thick patches of woodland and distant mountains that meld into the brooding clouds above (monsoon season has arrived early this year, we’re told). As we weave our way along earthen tracks, I spot clusters of small bright green globular shapes hanging from some acacia trees. Noticing my curiosity, Katharina answers my unspoken question. They’re the nests of baya weavers, she says, yellow songbirds so-called for their talent for weaving their nests from leaves, grass, and twigs.

As we continue, Katharina tells us stories from her training as a guide; like the time a scorpion got into her tent in Africa and stung her. She explains animatedly that when she tried to find where it was hiding, she discovered it was down her t-shirt. A tale she tells with humor and light-heartedness. But that’s not all. As Head Naturalist at Ulagalla, she is also incredibly knowledgeable about all local wildlife, meaning we are in good hands (the best, really) for our scenic drive. Passing grazing buffalo, we come across a small herd of elephants (four adults and two calves). As we nudge each other excitedly and point out their movements and proximity, Katharina tells us about the Uga Elephant Research Centre which has the aim of helping to conserve the elephant population in and around the Anuradhapura area and to help resolve the Human Elephant Conflict. It’s insightful (and fascinating) to learn about such conservation initiatives, as well as witnessing their results firsthand.

Anuradhapura dome in Sri Lanka

Anuradhapura – sacred fig trees and ancient stupas

A short 30-minute drive from Ulagalla lies the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Anuradhapura – a vast stretch of land covered in dense jungle and dotted with glass-like ponds and white and maroon domes. Naturally, we go to explore it for ourselves. By bicycle.

We begin early in the morning, just as the soft yellows and pinks of sunrise cast a magnificent glow on this once royal city – one built by a people who ruled Sri Lanka for 1,300 years before its abandonment. We pedal along peaceful roads lined with fig trees – a reflection of this site’s sacred origins. It is said that this city was established around a cutting from the Buddha’s ‘tree of enlightenment’.

I’m struck by how quiet and peaceful the site is, but we’re told that in fact it is often like this. We continue past ancient monasteries and serene pools, catching glimpses of the magnificent dagobas (brick dome-shaped stupas) between and above the tree line. Eventually, we reach the ancient ruins of Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba – built from strikingly white limestone in 140 BC and guarded by 344 elephant carvings that emerge as if stepping out from the frieze in which they reside. It’s spectacular. Then to Jetavanaramaya Dagoba and the Sri Maha Bodhi. The former, a massive red-orange bulbous dome, consists of over 90 million bricks and towers above the eastern section of Anuradhapura. The latter is the scared bodhi tree, guarded by golden railings and vibrant prayer flags that flutter in the gentle breeze. Each one as striking as the next.

galle wall in Sri Lanka
galle beach in Sri Lanka

Galle – a taste of history

One UNESCO World Heritage Site down, one to go. Arriving in Galle, we explore the coastal fortress, strolling past Dutch colonial buildings with their red tiled roofs, stone built churches, and art deco villas. Our guide, Chirad, tells us about the history of his home, taking us to the old Dutch hospital (now playing host to a selection of small cafes, bars, and restaurants), the post box (a nod to British rule before independence), and to Flag Rock – once a Portuguese bastion, now a popular spot to watch the sunset over sweeping views of the Indian Ocean. A place where street vendors sell fresh papaya and rocky ramparts dusted with sand provide the perfect diving point for daring local cliff jumpers.

Having grown up within the fort walls, Chirad tells us about his childhood and the stories his family would share with visiting friends and family members before taking us to a café that he runs with his young family within the fort’s walls. Here, the focus is on sharing authentic local dishes and beverages, he explains, pouring us all a steaming cup of Cardamon tea. The sweet yet spicy aroma fills my nose, reminding me of fresh mint mixed with hints of apple and lemon. I take a sip. It’s sweet (and very refreshing). Next, we’re served a ‘must try’ dish in Sri Lanka called Kottu – chopped roti, sauteed on a hot griddle as it is chopped using cleavers and served with curry, egg, onions, and chilies. It’s delicious.

Ula Ulagalla hotel in Sri Lanka

Our hotels

Hidden away amid terraced rice fields and sweeping spiraled slopes of tea, we rested up at some of the best luxury hotels in Sri Lanka. From Tea Trails in Hatton – a series of elegant bungalows set within English-style rose gardens and the rolling tea-scented hills of the Bogawantalawa Valley – to the aforementioned haven of Uga Ulagalla. Both are perfect places to unwind in the heart of the countryside and to reflect on the natural beauty that surrounds you. If you’d like to stay in either (or both) of these hotels, just let one of our luxury Travel Experts know and they’ll make it happen.

Anuradhapura buddha statue in Sri Lanka

Final thoughts

Our journey through Sri Lanka was peaceful and chaotic all at once. But in a country so rich in diversity of landscapes, culture, and food, I suppose that’s to be expected. In the space of a few days I saw jungles formed from sacred fig trees, valleys coated in tea leaves, and beaches overlooked by magnificent ramparts. A feast for the senses, I felt like another colorful market or ancient temple was around every corner. I also loved seeing glimpses of local life, like the fisherman waiting patiently, the tuk-tuk drivers snoozing in the shade, or someone cracking open a king coconut to restock their street stall. If you’d like to experience this for yourself, our luxury Travel Experts will start designing your luxury Sri Lanka vacation. Just as you dreamed it.

Shall we begin?

Whether you’re seeking ancient dagobas or spiralling slopes of tea, our Travel Experts can’t wait to show you around, from Galle to Anuradhapura. Head below to find out more.

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