Every adventure must begin with a happy tummy. So, before we set out on an hour-long river boat safari in Balapitiya, we had lunch in this tree restaurant built within the mangroves.
The authentic Sri Lankan meal is much like our South Indian cuisine in terms of flavors.
The star of this lunch was a river fish made in a simple yellow curry.
Our Sri Lankan meal also included dhal, sautéed vegetables, rice, papadam, onion salad and sambhol (which is the equivalent of chutney).
We specifically asked them to make everything less spicy, because of all the blogs we had read. And that’s probably why we felt it was slightly bland! If you’re an Indian who loves a little bit of spice, don’t give them any instructions and just enjoy the food.
Besides this, we also ordered their fried rice, curious to know if it tasted anything like our Indian version of Chinese – and it didn’t. Safe to say, all of us have different ways of making Chinese cuisine and it is no where close to authentic.
Introduction to The River Safari
It was back in December 2004, during the devastating tsunami that people truly understood the value of mangroves, which acted as a natural barrier protecting the area.
Today, hundreds of people like me set out to explore the beauty of these mangroves, calmness of the water and whatever is left of the 64 islands that dot the Madu river. For those of you who are wondering what I mean, well, most of the islands have sunk underwater, leaving only 25 of them that are habitable today!
Within the first few minutes of setting sail, we entered the safe refuge of the mangroves. It reminded me of the imaginary forts I’d make as a child with its cool and calm vibe. I wish I could just hop off, plop myself on a rock, read a book or paint and hope that no crab decides to pinch me!
At first, we were a little surprised to see a tempo on one of the islands, but soon realized that some of them are interconnected. The community of these islanders is very tight-knit and they are super helpful in general. Most of them either make a living from fishing, boat rides or the cinnamon industry.
Cinnamon Island in Sri Lanka
That brings me to the first island we hopped onto – the Cinnamon Island. Here, we were shown how hand-processed cinnamon is made as we sipped on some healthy cinnamon tea.
The Sri Lankan cinnamon is quite different from the Indian variety; these too look like rolled cigars but the bark is way thinner. I can’t wait to make Sri Lankan curries and some tempting cocktails with these.
Here’s Richard taking us through the entire process, first he cleans the branch by scraping the outermost layer.
Then he massages the bark, slits it open and peels the raw cinnamon like a pro.
After drying the raw cinnamon for a couple of days, this is what it looks like.
The cinnamon cigars are allowed to dry until they turn into a rich honey-caramel brown shade.
The people on the island have been making cinnamon from generations just like Richard’s family. The island is their home, their source of revenue and a window to the outside world. Some have picked up languages and Richard spoke about Shahrukh Khan when he asked us where we were from 😊. They sometimes visit the mainland for leisure and business, but most of their life is spent on the islands.
Island That Hosts The Once Secret Buddhist Temple
We stopped at one of the larger islands called Koth Duwa, which houses a Buddhist Temple that dates back to the days of the oldest kings of Sri Lanka. It is believed to have once sheltered the sacred relic of the tooth of the Buddha, circa 340 CE.
There are many legends and I still don’t know which one to believe, but this was the most interesting – a prince and princess secretly sailed to Sri Lanka with the tooth relic hidden in the princess’s beautiful tresses. Once they were safe, they built a temple near the mouth of the Maduganga estuary. There isn’t much about the centuries in between, but around the 16th century the temple was re-discovered. This was after the island had separated from the mainland. Till today there are many rumors about the relic’s whereabouts but there’s no concrete evidence.
It is also believed that the Bodhi tree on the island was planted from a bud of the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi, which is a sacred fig tree in the Mahamewna Gardens, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. And guess the source of the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi tree? It was the one under which Lord Buddha attained Enlightenment. Across Sri Lanka, there are many such Buddhist temples and sacred sites, and when you visit them you too will feel the positive vibes and peace!
As we removed our shoes, the tour guide advised us to not pose or click pictures with any of the statues, because there have been instances where people have made fun of the statutes by posing indecently and posting it online. I completely understand the sentiment of the locals; and believe that if they are opening their homes and land to us, we should respect what’s close to their heart.
There must be at least a hundred of these Buddhist monk statues, as you climb the top of this island. And many statues depicting Gautam Buddha’s path to enlightenment.
The island has a rich biodiversity, and there’s no need to be afraid, they are sort of terrified of humans too.
There are over 50 types of butterflies here! Paradise if you don’t have lepidopterophobia!
In the South Western part of Sri Lanka, you can literally stop anywhere and you’ll see a board that will convince you to hop onto a mini boat for the river safari. Though some reviews promise that you’ll spot many birds, crocodiles and baby monkeys; I can honestly tell you that we just spotted cormorants, kingfishers, chameleons and a dozen butterflies.
As we passed this island our guide told us that just one family lived here. If you ever wish for such a life, you now know one of the options, just keep your fingers crossed that the island you choose doesn’t submerge!
There were many shops selling refreshing king coconut water and snacks right in the middle of the river! Many people were also trying the fish pedicure.
So, there’s really a lot that you can experience; including some river boat traffic, if you miss your city, because of the number of tourists that showed up that day!
Bonus for us was the thrill of almost toppling over while getting in and out of the boat and the sunroof of the boat falling on Neha and Dipti!
Bye for now!
Besides the cinnamon, what souvenirs can one take back home from here?
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So, if you’re here, you can get the cinnamon sticks, cinnamon oil, and cinnamon powder. In general, there are many spice plantations you can visit to buy medicinal oils, creams and spices. Sri Lanka is also popular for gemstones, Batik print kurtas and different teas. I also brought back some woodapple jam and a popular curry powder to try my hand at cooking some Sinhalese food! 😀
Lovely post…No doubt, Sri Lanka is absolutely a gorgeous destination
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