A Photography Road Trip in Sri Lanka, Part 1, Stupas, Buddhas, Elephants and Monkeys

Sri Lanka is going to be the next destination that I offer for a photography workshop and tour as it is a country that I have visited several times on particular assignments but never been able to explore properly in my own time.  I spent absolutely ages researching the trip on the internet before leaving as things change fast.  I contacted some friends who had been the previous year and jotted down a ton of useful tips.

The good news is that there are plenty of offers for cheap air fares to Sri Lanka.  I left from my home base in Paris but I checked out departures from London too and all well priced.  In the end I chose Etihad as the stopover was the shortest at just over an hour in each direction.  The drawback (there usually is one) is that we arrived at 3.30 in the morning local time! 

As a photographer on a mission I decided that a car and driver was the way to go.  After buying a local sim card for my phone, I went off to the travel desks at the airport and negotiated a car and driver.  I had a little apprehension about finding one at such an awkward hour but finally sealed the deal with Europcar and before 5.00 am we were on our way.  I can’t say that I fell upon the most helpful or well informed driver in the country but thanks to all my hard work I don’t think I missed much.

The first destination was to be Anuradhapura, the oldest archaeological Buddhist site in the country, dating back to around 300BC.  We stopped off en route at a local restaurant for breakfast, a curry buffet that was a little hard to stomach at 6.00 in the morning but great coffee was on offer and a necessity!  I took a couple of photos and we set off again with the dawn breaking to a rather overcast sky with the odd glimpse of sun every now and again.

The hotel room was not going to be ready until 2.00pm and by 11am we were there!  Quick change of clothes in a café in the modern part of town as the sun had broken through the clouds and it was boiling hot, so off we went in pursuit of the site.  Anuradhapura turns out to be a vast sprawling city and the stupas are in groups and quite far apart.  The driver had quite clearly never set foot there and appeared to have trouble understanding his own people or reading the directions on our maps or phones.  Patience is a great virtue!  We finally found the ticket office and set off on the discovery of these extraordinary ancient monuments.  

The Dagoba (stupa) of Abyhayagiri was absolutely stunning and my favourite out of all the stupas and ruins that we saw.  Absolutely spectacular!  We were lucky to see a group of monks from Bangladesh, their bright orange robes adding a splash of colour and contrast in the harsh overhead light.  A lot of Anuradhapura is in ruins amongst beautiful trees and almost jungle like in places.  There are monkeys everywhere, and here we saw 2 types, the Toque Macaque which you see all over Sri Lanka, and the Grey Langur that are bigger and more striking with a long tail like a question mark.  I went crazy taking pictures!  This is my first day in Sri Lanka and I know it is going to be a fantastic destination for a photography workshop, yeahhh!!!  To my great disappointment there was no sunset as the clouds came back as the day wore on.  I had been dreaming of a silhouette of a stupa against a yellow/orange or pink sky but it was not to be.

Our hotel, which I chose with great care, was terrific and we absolutely collapsed after the long flight and all day sightseeing carrying a camera bag.  I am going to impart a very important tip:  Wear or bring socks.  You have take off your shoes walking around the temples but not your socks.  The ground is burning hot and my first walk was one of the most painful I have ever made!

The next day we set off for Sigiriya which was to be our base for the next 2 nights on the cultural triangle that is a recommended itinerary for any traveller to Sri Lanka and one of particular interest to photographers interested in landscapes and wildlife. Our first stop was Polonnaruwa, once a capital city ruled by Sinhalese kings.  We decided to hire a guide and to make sure that we saw it all.  I thought it absolutely fantastic, offering such diversity with the temples in the jungle reminiscent of Cambodia and the amazing and photogenic Gal Vihara where we stayed for ages taking pictures of the monkeys clambering over the massive Buddha lying in nirvana.

After lunch we set off for Habarana in search of wild elephants and were not disappointed!  The first we saw were just by the road on the way to the National Park.  I made the driver stop the car and jumped out.  First I saw 2 elephants masked by the huge trees as the area is heavily forested, then 2 more appeared behind them and to my delight started eating the leaves masking them so I snapped away.  The light was getting better and better so we hired a jeep and took a safari in the Eco park where the wild elephants hang out in March apparently. It was great fun even though we were not the only jeep enjoying the trip!  We saw lots of elephants and at sunset climbed up a steep hill to enjoy an amazing view of the neighbouring jungle.

Third day into Sri Lanka and we’re off to climb the rock at Sigiriya.  It is dark as we get up and take an early breakfast before heading for the entrance to the rock.  It is a cloudy morning making the climb easier but I growl at the fact that both mornings have been cloudy.. It happens.  We discover that we are in Sigiriya over a long weekend and throngs of Sri Lankans are enjoying their country.  I would far rather have them in my pictures than foreigners wearing shorts that really ought not to!

Up, up, up and we reach the Lion's paw, it’s colossal, click, click.  We continue the hike up to the top where the gardens and ruins are with it’s 360° view over the gardens and jungle below.  The Chinese take mega tons of pictures of themselves in every pose possible.  The weather is hazy and I make a note that perhaps the late afternoon is better than the mornings. It's beautiful, there's no doubt about that.

We head off after the climb to discover the surrounding area before going to Dambullah to visit the Golden Rock Temple.  From the outside it is all glittery with a massive gold Buddha to welcome you, then it’s a steep climb up to the top where the troglodyte caves are.  Hundreds of cheeky toque macaque monkeys are on the path and in the trees, their antics making for great pictures.  There is a group of Sri Lankan children and they are both terrified and delighted!   The beautiful white temple built into the rock suddenly appears.  There are a number of magnificent caves housing the most outstanding and superb collection of buddhas I have ever seen anywhere in the world. WOW!!  The ceilings are beautifully painted and there are buddhas of all sizes everywhere. It is magical.  I regretted not having lugged a tripod up as I would have made better pictures.  There are so many pictures to take.  It is awesome.

We drive back to Sigiriya for the night.  Day 4 we are going to Kandy via Dambullah in order to photograph the biggest wholesale market of fruit and vegetables in all Sri Lanka.  Our photography tour still has masses to see.

I download the rest of my pictures, copy them on a hard drive and drop from exhaustion after having climbed all day! 

The next part of the Sri Lanka road trip to follow next week!