Happy New Year in April

The Sinhala & Tamil New Year explained.

This is Sri Lanka’s single largest celebration and festival and usually takes place on the 13th and 14th of April every year. It is also one that is celebrated by both of the island’s main races, the Sinhalese and the Tamils. The Sinhalese refer to it as ‘Aluth Awurudda’ and the Tamil community refers to it as ‘Puthandu’or ‘Puthuvarudam’. It can be said that the festival combines aspects of astrology, Hinduism and Buddhism. It is also a harvest festival.



Astrology is at the heart of the Sinhala and Tamil New Year

The sun has been worshipped by the people of this part of the world from time immemorial. And the origins of this festival can be traced to this connection. Today every aspect of this festival is interpreted through Astrology and in simple terms is all about the Sun moving from the house of ‘Meena’ (Pisces) to ‘Mesha’ (Aries). This celebration also coincides with similar celebrations of many traditional calendars in South and South East Asia.



Lead up to the festival


Sri Lankans start preparing for New Year as early as February. The radio and TV stations start promoting the New Year with traditional music and reminders. Shopping picks up and houses are colour washed. New clothes and gifts are purchased. As the dates get closer you will also hear the call of the ‘Koha’ bird fill the air. This bird call is synonymous of the coming celebrations. As the days get even closer the roads get busy. So do the markets and malls. By about the 12th of April, the locals take leave from work and travel to their hometowns and villages. By the time the first auspicious time descends the country comes to an almost standstill.


If you are travelling to or in Sri Lanka this time, it is best to avoid the direction of travel of the locals. Catching a train or bus out of Colombo from about the 10th should be avoided. But transport towards the city will be relatively easy and less crowded. The opposite happens after the New Year. While most places of tourist importance will remain open, most food outlets will be closed and transport will be difficult to find at the peak of the holiday. This may last for a period of 48 hours. Most Sri Lankans take about a week off and so it will also take time for life to return to normal after the holidays. If you are travelling without the assistance of a tour company, you should plan your travel and meals in advance. It would best to book hotels with all meals.



Auspicious times and the sequence of events


Unlike the celebration of the new Gregorian calendar year at midnight on December 31, the Sinhalese traditional New Year begins at a time determined by astrological calculations. Also unlike 31st night celebrations, where old year ends at midnight and new year begins immediately afterwards; the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the new year occur several hours apart from one another (this span of time is usually 12 hours and 48 minutes, which starts when the sun, as a disk, starts to cross the astrological boundary between 'House of Pisces' and 'House of Aries' and ends when the crossing is complete. 


The auspicious times are published in advance and can be found online. As each time comes and goes, the locals light crackers and engage in a specific activity. The first auspicious time to be celebrated is the one for bathing for the New Year. This involves rituals of cleansing and spirituality. Next up is the actual dawn of the New Year. The inauspicious time is a period of no festivities or importance and most people use this time to visit temples or to reflect on their lives and plans. The lighting of the hearth puts the festivities into full swing as the fires are lit and the food is prepared. Next is the time to partake in meals and transactions. All of these times will happen at different intervals and is different every year. The anointing of oil happens a few days later and the auspicious time for leaving for work can happen a full week from the first auspicious time of that year’s festivities. So as you can see it can be all very confusing for a person who is used to a countdown on New Year’s Eve.



Is there an actual festival?


Technically the whole duration from the first auspicious time to the last is a time of the festival. But you may not see much happening other than people walking about. In that sense, it is more a holiday. You will see people attending temples and Kovils, and then visiting friends and family. They will also be wearing the auspicious colors of that year. Most villages will also hold ‘Aluth Avurudu Uthsawa’ meaning New Year Festival. Here you will see people playing traditional drums, engaging in sports activities, song contestants, cooking feats and even beauty pageants. Bicycle races, cross country running and musical shows also happen. So it really is a lot of different activities happening at different times.


As a tourist, the best way to experience this is to be invited to the home of a local. Most large hotels and even the smaller ones will also conduct their own festivals.



Should you avoid this time as a traveller?


Absolutely not! In fact, it is one of the best times to travel to Sri Lanka because everyone is on holiday mood and happy to welcome you to their homes or play traditional games. The days are usually the hottest of the year and fair weather is common. Although the occasional April Shower will come down and cool everything down in the late afternoons or evenings. If you are travelling on your own then it may be advisable to spend the peak festival time chilling out in one area without travelling around too much. But if you are travel with a tour company like Foozoo Travel you can count on having all the fun aspects of this unique holiday explained and included as fun activities.



Aluth Avurudu with Foozoo Travel


This tour package lets you spend 2 days and nights with a local family and experience the various festival highlights. It can be incorporated into an existing tour or enjoyed on its own as a special experience.


Image credits: Sri Lanka College of Journalism

Image credits: Kingsbury Hotel

Image credits: TimeOut

Some helpful Dos and Don'ts fo..

You are planning for an adventure in Paradise and want to be fully prepared. This write-up is all about providing you with essential and helpful tips to aid that preparation. The dos and don’ts mentioned here have been drawn up for the regular traveller but if you are travelling with Foozoo you can count on everything to be taken care of. Also, these points will not only help you bridge the cultural gap in no time but also give you a chance to enjoy Sri Lankan way of living.


Drinking water. Unless you are particularly sensitive, general tap water is good to drink. But to be on the safe side and not ruin your holiday, stick to bottled water. Most hotels will provide these at a cost. If you are staying at a Foozoo run guesthouse or hotel you will notice that they will provide free drinking water from a dispenser. Also if you tour with them, they provide water for the entire journey. Do make it a point to take a refillable glass or metal bottle to help the island fight its battle against Single Use Plastic. One good way to stay hydrated however is to keep downing those sweet and cooling king coconut water which you will find in abundance.


Sugar and Spice and all that’s nice: Try everything once and be amazed and delighted. And note that every cup of tea or fruit juice is too much too sweet. So if you are particularly trying to avoid sugar, give the restaurant or cafe a heads up. This mostly happens in rural areas and street-side shops. The same goes for spices. Remember you can always ask to have the spices a bit toned down if you know the food is made to order.


Insect Repellent: It’s a tropical paradise and that means the insects are abundant and the locals have adapted well to live with them. So don't be alarmed when you see way too many creepy crawlies and winged insects everywhere. Mosquito-borne diseases are however a big issue. Although concerted efforts have helped keep some of the dangerous diseases like Dengue Fever in check it is always good to stay protected. So do keep your favourite mosquito repellent or all-purpose insect repellent handy. We recommend you try out the many organic ones available which are good for you and the environment. And by the way, if you tend to swell up or have allergic reactions to insect bites, maybe see a doctor before you travel and get some medication.


No Selfies with the Buddha: Don’t take a selfie with the Buddha or any other religious statues such as Hindu gods etc. Sri Lankans hold their religion in high regard. To the extent, a female tourist with a Buddha Tattoo on her arm was recently refused entry to the country for disrespecting Buddhism. Always remember to show respect to religious statues. Avoid facing your back to religious statues or worse yet taking selfies with them. Also, make sure your shoulders and legs are covered when visiting places of religious or cultural importance. Also, no hats when entering such places.


Ahem. No PDA, please. Sri Lankans are a prude lot. You will rarely see people kissing in public, let alone couples holding hands. Showing affection in public is something we tend to avoid like the plague. So unless you enjoy being stared at, it’s best to avoid PDA (Public Displays of Affection) at most times when you are out and about. Of course, this applies to the times when you are in public.


The pace is super slow: What is a 15-minute drive on the map could take an hour if you set off at the wrong time. Sri Lankan roads are small and packed with an ever increasing number of cars, motorbikes and tuk-tuks! Rush hour traffic can come to a virtual halt. Also, bus travel can be slow because they to stop whenever they see the potential of taking on another passenger. So Intercity express is more a concept here vs a reality. And it only gets worse on holidays, festival days and so on. While this is all fun for the adventure or budget traveller you will end up precious time staring blankly into another vehicle for long amounts of time. Therefore plan ahead and leave space for delays. If you can afford it, Sri Lanka is one destination where using the services of a tour operator makes perfect sense.


No Meter? Girl Bye! Yep. If the slow pace was bad, being ripped off at the end of a long journey is the worst. Being in the industry we know. And it keeps happening. So always agree on a price beforehand or stick to a taxi with a meter and ensure the meter is running. You could be paying multiple times the cost of an actual trip and have a bad experience overall. So always look for the meter. If there is no meter, simply refuse and walk away. To make matters easy, we have Uber which offers tuk-tuks and a host of transport options as well as the local version, Pick Me, Sri Lanka. The latter, however, requires a local sim to be operational.


Watch out! It’s a fact. Some of us (yours truly excluded) drive like maniacs. Especially the Bus Drivers, Tuk Drivers and motorcyclists. They swerve and cut through in the most unimaginable ways, an innocent drive to the shops sometimes does feel like a rollercoaster ride. There have been occasions too many, where even the pedestrian crossing has not proven to be safe. Make sure to look and look again, before you cross the road. Double the level of alertness if you are brave enough to wield a bicycle, motorcycle or drive.


How does one book a train? Well, this does seem tricky indeed. The general rule is to go to the station, buy a ticket and travel. Scoring a seat is like a winning a lottery. A private website under the title Malinda Prasad provides an easy to understand the time table of trains. The government website can be a bit perplexing. Some train lines, particularly the ones on the upcountry line (Colombo - Kandy - Nanu-Oya - Ella) line offer carriages where the seats can be reserved one month in advance. But they also sell out before you say ‘one ticket please’. Work with Foozoo or other local agents to have your train tickets reserved on these busy lines and act at least a month in advance. For those who fail to get one, know that you can still travel on these trains. A seat may become available as the passengers alight from different stations.


Hand sanitizer and tissues: Sri Lanka is humid and before you know it you are feeling hot and sticky. So passing on or attracting germs is easy. This is why having a bottle of hand sanitiser is a good idea. Especially when there is such a lot of good street food to be had. And you don't want to pass one by. And wet tissues are a genius invention. Not just to wipe off the dust and feel a temporary cool respite. They also help clean your hands after a quick bite or prove helpful in the case of a toilet emergency.


To tip or not to tip: Tip away. It is not essential. It is not expected. But a lot of Sri Lankans you will meet on the road, at cafes, at hotels etc really struggle to get by. So a standard tip of 10% will have a large impact on their lives and families.


Where’s the toilet roll? Why wipe when you can wash? And here’s a delightful hand shower to change your life. If you are going to a public washroom or staying with locals (other than a guesthouse or hotel) you may find a handy shower you can aim at the ‘you know what’ and clean far better than a piece of paper ever could. It’s really nice. Try it.


A mess of a tax system. There are way too many tax systems even for the locals to understand. So don’t try. But if and when booking hotels and services in advance, be mindful that the figure you agreed on may not be the final. But as a standard, you will have to pay VAT, NBT and service charges.


We hope the above these Sri Lanka travel tips will be useful for your upcoming holiday.

A Spiritual New Year's Eve

Are you exhausted by the idea of a new year’s eve party? All the noise from the fireworks and the loud music can seem inescapable. You either join the party and drink till you can enjoy it, or you hide away at home, calming your pets as they fear for the end of the world. What if it didn’t have to be that way? What if you could have a meditative, spiritual experience instead? Keep reading.

While it may be a tradition in the West to countdown to midnight on new year’s eve, in Sri Lanka, it’s not as big a deal. Sure, every hotel will throw a party and a put on a fireworks display, but apart from the bourgeoisie in Colombo, the rest of the country doesn’t really celebrate it. We actually have our own new year, a harvest festival, and it’s celebrated in April!

If you’re up for an uphill climb (there are stairs, don’t worry!), a boat ride on a lake, or a campsite in a grassland, here are our suggestions:

Peak Pilgrimage

Being a multicultural country, Sri Lankans share religious sites to which they make pilgrimages. People of all faiths begin the ascent to the top of a mountain, known to some as Sripada, Ratnagiri, Samanala Kanda, and Adam’s Peak. Yes, that Adam. Why do they climb? There is a footprint on its peak that Buddhists believe to be of the Buddha, Hindus believe to be of Lord Shiva, and Muslims and Christians believe that it was left by Adam as he set foot on earth upon exile from Eden.

What’s really to be marvelled at, though, is the view. If you make the climb at night, it will take about five hours to reach the peak. Once you’re there, settle in and look forward to the sunrise. Words can’t do justice to the sight, it simply must be seen and experienced. Watch as the sun leaps over the eastern horizon, drawing a shadow of the mountain in a perfect triangle over its western backdrop.

Cloud Forest

At an elevation of 2000 meters, there is a plateau rich in biodiversity, populated by endemic species. It is known as Horton Plains, a world heritage site that spans grasslands, a waterfall, a cloud forest and a spectacular view dubbed World’s End. It’s about a nine-kilometre walk, with a circuitous route, so you can decide in which order you want to experience it. Keep an eye out for the birds and lizards as you make your way through the cloud forest. In the grasslands, you’ll likely come across some sambar deer.

We suggest camping in the grasslands. The wildlife department operates three campsites, each about 500 meters from the visitation centre. You can spend a quiet night under the stars and then take the walk in the morning.

Ancient Reservoir

Man-made by damming one of Kala Wewa’s tributaries, the Kandalama Reservoir is a serene, placid water body that stands testament to this country’s ancient irrigation knowledge. Formed with masses of hewn rock, with stones ten feet thick at the base, placed like steps, it would have been quite a daunting task to complete. It’s actually often called Kandalama “Lake” as it’s so easy to mistake it for being a natural phenomenon.

You can look forward to birdwatching by boat, early in the morning. Imagine being greeted by birdsong at the dawn of a new year. Your view of the lake transforms over the course of the day, as the misty morning gives way to crimson skies at sunset. Other activities available in the area include hot air balloon rides as well as climbing Sigiriya, an ancient rock fortress, just a few kilometres away.

Where To Avoid

In any case, if you want to enjoy a peaceful night on new year’s eve, you’d want to avoid major hotels, especially along the coast, and stay far away from the capital and larger towns. If you’d like to have a custom tour tailored to your needs, write to us and we’ll see right to it!