Travel writter Charlotte Griffin shares her experience of spending five weeks in Sri Lanka
This summer I was fortunate enough to take part in a 5-week advanced mental health placement in Sri Lanka through SLV.Global. As a psychology student wanting to pursue a clinical career, I had been struggling to find relevant placements in the UK. SLV.Global, however, offer mental health focused placements in India, Bali and Sri Lanka, allowing people to gain invaluable hands on experience while supporting communities that are severely lacking in mental health resources.
Sri Lanka is a ten-and-a-half hour flight, not the most attractive prospect, even for seasoned travellers. I would recommend booking your flights in advance; if you leave it to the last minute like me (less than a month before departure), it could potentially be the most expensive plane ticket you’ve ever purchased! SLV.Global sets up a Facebook group for each intake which meant that even before arriving in the airport I had met the group of other volunteers with whom I was going to be flying.
They had also provided us with instructions of what to do when arriving at Colombo airport. Following their guide, we all cleared immigration without a problem and found the SLV staff waiting for us in the arrivals lounge wearing their signature bright blue t-shirts. The staff then helped us sort out sim cards and change the right amount of cash, before guiding us into a minibus for our first taste of Sri Lankan driving – to say drivers are flexible with the rules of the road is an understatement.
I finally arrived at my homestay; I was greeted by my peer mentor, shown around my new home and introduced to all my housemates before falling asleep for some well-earned rest.
The first week for any new volunteer involves training. You have talks and introductions, basic Sinhala lessons to help you on projects, and supported sessions at various projects. This week was very intense, but I learned some valuable skills and was ready for the following weeks of placement.
At the end of training week, every new intake is rewarded with a trip to Kitulgala, a town in the lush rainforest Sri Lanka has to offer. The Friday and Saturday nights involve a larger than life buffet and dancing, but the days are filled with team building activities. Think white water rafting, jungle trekking and cliff jumping rather than awkward ice-breaker games. It was a great way to bond with the people I would be living, working and travelling with for the next month.
After the first weekend in the jungle, the remaining weekends are yours to freely explore more of the beautiful country you’re working in. I chose to spend my first free weekend travelling, with a group of other volunteers, 200km East to the small town of Ella in the Uva Province. After two weeks in Colombo, the high elevation and fresher air of Ella was an extremely welcome break. The small town is quaint despite being well stocked with multiple bars and restaurants to cater for the tourists that visit Ella for the views from nearby hiking trails. There’s also a large number of gift shops, with a great range of handmade presents (too many of which have ended up in my room back home, rather than making it to their intended recipient).
Three hikes I would highly recommend taking from Ella include; the 9 Arches Bridge, Little Adams Peak and Ella Rock. The 9 Arches bridge is a colonial era bridge, spanning a gorge and measuring 300ft long. It is surrounded by lush, green rolling hills and makes for a very aesthetic photo location. There are multiple trails to reach the bridge and, depending on your chosen path, this can be the easiest of the three hikes. Little Adam’s Peak is named for having the same shape as the much larger Adams peak further west in Nuwara Eliya. This is the easiest of the three climbs in terms of finding the path however the 1141m elevation is significantly greater than the 9 Arches. That being said, the path is clearly worn and there are steps for the majority of the trail, which takes you through tea plantations and offers stunning views of the surrounding valley. At the top, there is a golden Buddha shrine, colourful prayer flags and a view that makes the burning in your calves very much worth it. Ella Rock, however, is by far the most difficult climb of the three. Not only is it the most difficult path to try and find, but the final section of the trail, through a rubber tree forest, is very steep, but the views are phenomenal and the coconut water stall that somehow exists at the top is a welcome reward.
After work on Friday we travelled to Uduwalawe National Park in the Ratnapura district. At 5am we were up and out of the hotel, on our way into the National Park with the hope of seeing elephants. We’d been told that the best time to see them was at dawn or dusk so here we were, in an open sided Jeep speeding along in complete darkness. Spoiler: it was worth it. The majesty of seeing wild elephants is an experience I cannot describe but will never forget. Aside from the main attraction, we also saw crocodiles, peacocks, buffalo, monitor lizards and a whole host of birds.
Following our safari, and refuelled by a massive breakfast in our hotel, we took the short drive to the Elephant Transit home; a rehabilitation centre for orphaned or injured elephants to be cared for before being released into the park. This was an establishment that we had investigated thoroughly before deciding to visit. The elephants had minimal contact with humans, especially none with visitors, and the aim was to release all of them back into the wild. If you time it right, you can watch one of the daily feeds, and seeing baby elephants proudly tottering round swinging their branches of food was overwhelmingly heart-warming.
We spent the early part of the afternoon driving up a large stretch of the west coast to reach Hikkaduwa. This picturesque town is known for its white sand beaches and water sports. After such a busy time in Sri Lanka, spending an afternoon lying on the beach under a palm tree was well deserved!
On my final weekend in Sri Lanka, I visited Dambulla, home to the ancient rock fortress and cave temples. The rock fortress is a UNESCO world heritage site; a vertical rock column rising 200m out from the surrounding forest. The top was turned into a palace in the late 5th century and many of the remnants of the structure remain. Reaching the top involves climbing a vast number of stairs but on the journey, there are gardens surrounding the rock, sweeping views of the forest and ancient frescoes painted on the walls. It also invokes a real sense of achievement and is a great opportunity to appreciate the history of this beautiful island. The Dambulla cave temples are also a world heritage site dating back to the 1st century B.C. The system is comprised of 5 caves including 153 Buddha statues and countless paintings telling the stories of temptation by Mara and the Buddha’s first sermon. It’s humbling to think about how much work and dedication was put into the production of all the religious icons housed there.