|And there was that swoon in the
air which one associates in the tropics, and that smother of
heat, heavy with the odors of unknown flowers, and that sudden
invasion of purple gloom fissured with lightening, - then the
tumult of crashing thunder and the downpour – and presently
all sunny and smiling again.
- Mark Twain writing
on Sri Lanka in Following the Equator
The topography of the country features lowlands along the perimeter
and inland from the coast, which give rise within a short distance
to the central hills, that rise above 8,000 feet in altitude. Careful
examination of the topography reveals that the island can be divided
into three planes or steps, first described by the Canadian scientist
Adams in 1972. The lowest is from 0 – 100 feet, the second rising
to 1560 feet and the third rising to 5,850 feet.
Sri Lanka can be broadly divided into three regions (Hill Zone,
Low Country Wet and Dry Zones) resulting from the interactions of
rainfall and topography. Rainfall is affected by monsoon changes
which brings rain during two seasons, namely the Southwest Monsoon
(May-August) and Northeast Monsoon (October-January). Their precipitation
heavily influenced by the central hills, these monsoons deposit
rain across the country and contribute to the demarcation of climatic
The Climatic Zones
- Low Country Wet Zone
The humid, lowland wet zone in the south west of the island does
not show marked seasons, being fed by both the Southwest monsoon
and by the Northeast monsoon. The low country wet zone receives
200 – 500 cm (79 – 197 inch) of rain from the Southwest
Monsoon and afternoon showers from the Northeast Monsoon Humidity
is high, rarely dropping below 97%, while temperatures range from
27 C to 31 C (80-87F) over the year.
The low country wet zone is the most densely populated area in
Sri Lanka. The coast is well settled, while the interior has coconut
and rubber plantations, some rice (paddy) cultivation and small
industries. Remnants of rainforest and tropical moist forests precariously
exist in some parts of the interior, under pressure from an expanding
population. It is in these forests that much of the endemics that
are a draw to eco-tourists can be found.
- Hill Zone
The mountainous interior lies within the wet zone and rises
over 8,000 feet. Rainfall is generally well distributed, except
in the Uva Province which gets very little rainfall from June
Temperatures are cooler than
the lowlands and can vary, from being chilly in the mornings
to warm by noon. In the mid-elevations such as the
area around Kandy, the temperature will vary between 17C to
31C(62-87F) during the year. Temperature variations during
a 24 hour cycle will, however, be far less varied. The mountains
are cooler, within a band of 14C to 32C (57-89F) during the
year. There may be frost in the higher hills in December and
January, when night time temperatures fall below zero.
The central Hill Zone is intensely planted with tea but has small
areas of remnant forest and open grassland.
- Low Country Dry Zone
The rest of the country, three quarters of Sri Lanka’s land
area, consists of the Dry Zone of the northern, southern and eastern
plains. These region receive between 60 - 190 cm (24 – 75
inch) of rain each year, mainly from the Northeast Monsoon. The
Dry Zone is further divided into the Arid Zones of the Northwest
and Southeast, which receive less than 60 cm (24 inch) of rain as
these areas are not in the direct path of the monsoon rains.
The coastal plains in the Southern Province where Yala and Bundala
National Parks are located, and the North Central Province where
the cultural sites are located, are dry and hot. Much of the dry
zone is under rice and other field crops, irrigated by vast man-made
lakes (the ‘tanks’), many of which are centuries old,
built by royal decree to capture the scarce rainfall in these areas.
Once the ‘granary of the east’ exporting rice as far
as China and Burma, wars and invasion, malaria and other diseases
laid waste to vast areas of the low country dry zone. The once bountiful
rice plains were reclaimed by scrub jungle, the haunt of elephant,
bear and leopard. Since independence in 1948, successive governments
have vigorously promoted colonization and resettlement of these
areas. Sandy beaches fringe the coastline and it is always possible
to find a beach that is away from the path of the prevalent monsoon.
An intermediate zone is also recognized in the transition zone
from the wet zone to the dry zone.
The period January to April is the warmest in the lowlands but is
the favored time for tourists as it is generally the driest and also
coincides with the Northern winter. In the highlands around Nuwara
Eliya and Horton Plains for example, frost may be experienced in January
|Temperatures in the wetter parts
of the lowlands (including Colombo), vary between 22C to 30C
(71F – 86F) during the year. In the drier parts it will
be a few degrees higher. But you are more likely to be troubled
by the heat in the humidity of the wet zone lowlands. In the
mid hills around Kandy for example the temperature will vary
between 17C to 31C (62F – 87F) during the year. Temperature
fluctuations during the day will be much less and not on the
scale of the annual variations mentioned. But it can vary from
being chilly in the mornings to warm by noon. In the mountains
it will be cooler within a band of 14C to 32C (57F- 89F) during
As is evident the pronounced climatic zones have their own seasonal
variations and the climate across the country cannot be generalized
- Source: “Where to Watch Birds & Wildlife in Sri
Lanka” by Gehan Wijeyeratne
Geography & History
|Physically, Sri Lanka is a tear
drop shaped island in the Indian Ocean separated from the Indian
peninsula by the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Strait, the width
of the narrowest stretch of water being 32 km. It is 432 km
from north to south and 224 km from east to west. It is about
twice the size of Belgium or a third larger than Switzerland.
It enjoys fine sandy beaches almost all around the island with
the strip from the west coast to the south, with its sandy bays
and delightful coves, developed heavily for beach based tourism.
The beach resorts at Negombo to the north of Colombo, and those
to the south at Bentota and Beruwela are magnets for beach lovers
and water sports enthusiasts. Further south in Unawatuna and
Hikkaduwa are fine beaches with good prospects for snorkeling
and diving. Swimmers share the ocean with turtles.
Heading further south on the coast are the Dutch fortress towns
of Galle and Matara. Continuing south, the sanctuaries of Kalametiya
and the national parks of Bundala and Ruhuna (Yala) are reached.
Here, the jungle belongs to elephants, leopards and dozens of other
large animals that can be seen on safari. Tissamaharama, previously
the center of an ancient kingdom, is now a thriving safari center.
As with elsewhere in the country ,wildlife and culture are inseparable.
Tissamaharama has a number of ancient lakes around it that are still
in use. Deeper in these harsh dry zone scrub jungles are hermitages
where the way of life is little changed from what it was two millennia
The exciting mix of wildlife and culture, created when cultural
outposts hold back the jungle tide, is nowhere more evident than
in the ancient capitals of the north central plains. Culturally,
the ancient kingdoms of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa rival those
of other ancient cultures such as the Egyptians, Mayas and Incas.
But in the latter, ancient religions have been extinguished with
the passage of time. In contrast, many of Sri Lanka's ancient temples,
dating to pre-Christian periods, are still flourishing in a Buddhist
and Hindu culture that is still vibrantly alive. In the travel trade,
the island is referred to as Buddha's Island, in reflection of its
long association with Buddhism and the impact the religion has on
the physical landscape as well as the social and political fabric
of its society. The legacy of ancient cultures is much in evidence
in the hundreds of ancient man made lakes that dot the country,
especially so in the dry lowlands. Some of these have been in continuous
use for over two thousand years.
A historical legacy survives
of many examples of an early appreciation of aesthetics. From
the sublime rock cut sculptures at the Gal Vihara in Polonnaruwa
to the sheer hedonistic delight of the fratricidal King Kasyappa
who sought to reconstruct heaven, on an isolated rock monolith
at Sigiriya. The gardens and palace at Sigiriya are an early
example of the organic movement of architecture, sympathetic
to the in situ landscape. Today, very little survives intact,
and what does survives includes the famous frescoes of beautiful
maidens who provoke much debate.
Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa form the two apices
of a cultural triangle. The third, to the south of them is
the hill capital of Kandy. This became the seat of the Sinhalese
kings after successive invasions and internal dissent led
to the abandoning of the magnificent capitals in the north
central plains. The route south to Kandy from the north central
plains runs past the cave temple complex of Dambulla and the
Aluvihara in Matale. Unlike the kings, the monks never deserted
their monasteries and continued to uphold the monastic traditions,
unbroken over a stretch of several centuries. Dambulla is
breathtaking. Cave after cave has its walls covered with ancient
paintings and a bewildering array of religious statuary has
been constructed by generations of royalty and lay donors.
The ascent to Kandy takes you into a cooler climate, although in
the hot season, you may wonder why it is supposed to considered
cooler. Kandy is still the center of the nation's Buddhist soul
and has one of the holiest of shrines in the Buddhist world. The
Dalada Maligawa or Temple of the Tooth Relic, houses a tooth of
the Buddha, retrieved from his funeral pyre. Every year, the Esala
Perahera, one of the most spectacular pageants in the world, is
celebrated with over a hundred caparisoned elephants and thousands
of drummers and dancers taking to the streets. Kandy is also home
to the influential Asgiriya and Malwatta chapters, who have carved
out between them the Buddhist administration of the island. A number
of ancient temples are dotted in and around Kandy, and the highlands
uphold much of the traditions of Sri Lankan culture that have its
roots in medieval times. Kandy is also a gateway to the remote countryside
of the Victoria Randenigala Rantambe sanctuary as well as the traditional
homelands around Mahiyangana of the Veddas, the island's aboriginal
The British, who finally subdued the Kandyan kingdom, set their
sights higher and established the hill station of Nuwara Eliya,
up in the highlands. The hill station still retains a colonial elegance
with its mock Tudor and Queen Anne style houses. A journey to the
highlands will take you through mile after mile of tea plantations,
forming green carpets that cover the mountainsides. A stop at a
tea factory will reveal how the famed Ceylon Tea is brewed.
Tea came at a price. A great deal of the island's bio-diversity
was lost, before science could catch up with it. What is left, clings
to harsh mountain tops ridges and some protected areas like the
Horton Plains National Park, once the hunting grounds of the British.
Although much diminished in size, the highland plateau and forest
continue to be a refuge for many plants and animals found nowhere
lese in the world. The beautiful leopard still holds sway all the
way from the jungle fringed beaches of the lowlands to the cloud
forests of Horton Plains.
One trail starts all the way from Ratnapura, the city of gems. The
gravel beds around Ranapura are rich in precious minerals and a thriving
prospectors’ town has built up around an industry that makes
Sri Lanka one of the world’s top five producers of gem stones.
The Ratnapura area is home to another gem, the Sinharaja lowland
rain forest, where half the tree species are found only in Sri Lanka.
It has simple accommodation and several trails cutting across it,
which acts like a honey pot to naturalists and bird watchers.
An ancient network of
footpaths across the island, making it ideal for trekkers
and mountain bikers to explore "off the beaten track".
Perhaps the best known trails are those leading to the sacred
peak of Sri Pada or Adam's Peak. For centuries, pilgrims of
all religious denominations have found significance in the
impression of a footprint on the summit and have made their
way through dense rain forests (and now tea estates) and the
cloud forest on the upper reaches of the Peak Wilderness Sanctuary,
to pay homage to the shrine on the peak. Notable visitors
to the peak have included travelers like Marco Polo and Ibn
In contrast to the rustic simplicity of the facilities of Sinharaja,
the country's business capital Colombo has the usual third world
mix of five star hotels and luxury apartments competing for land
with unsightly slums. Visitors new to Asia are often shocked at
the contrast of the opulence between the ‘rich’ and
‘poor’. The urban sprawl of Colombo spreads ever outwards,
smothering the countryside in its wake in a pall of pollution and
traffic congestion. Even here, however, are havens of peace and
refuges for wildlife. The Bellanwila Attidiya marshes are a wetland
jewel under siege from urban grime. The Muthurajawela Wetland Center
offers boat rides for a memorable family excursion. For those with
money, Colombo has other attractions. It's night life has a character
and sophistication of its own. The many elegant colonial mansions
speak of an elegant past. The city, like much of the country, once
derived its wealth from trade winds that brought merchants and adventurers
to its shores in search of spices and elephants for export. Today,
the new merchants of Colombo fly business class, taking their garments,
spices and software to the east and west.
- Source: “Where to Watch Birds & Wildlife in Sri
Lanka” by Gehan Wijeyeratne
When visiting religious sites you are expected
to dress conservatively. Some sites may request you to do
so, if deemed to be inappropriately attired. Shorts for both
sexes and sleeveless tops for women can fall into this category,
however innocent such attire may seem. Donning
a simple wrap or local sarong is a handy, hassle free solution.
Buddhist monks are treated with high respect
by the local Buddhist’s, therefore avoid photographing
them or having any physical contacts with monks. If a monk
initiates a conversation, he may also readily agree to stand
for a photograph, but it is better to tread cautiously than
risk an offense.
Visitors are often unsure of themselves when they visit a temple
that is not on the tourist circuit. Generally you will be welcome
at almost every religious place, provided you are dressed conservatively
and are respectful in your conduct. Remember to take off any hats
and caps and you must remove any footwear before entering the temples.
Observe what the locals are doing. This applies for Buddhist and
Hindu temples (known as kovils). In Buddhist temples the image house
(Budhu Ge) is often locked. If you ask someone at the temple they
will often open it for you. Always ask permission before you use
a camera or video camera. Permission is seldom refused.
Generally speaking if you are civil and courteous, you will find
yourself as welcome as at any place of worship in your own country.
- Source : Extracts from “Where to Watch Birds & Wildlife
in Sri Lanka” by Gehan Wijeyeratne