Shangri-La in Sri Lanka
Trip Start Oct 20, 2005
31Trip End Nov 04, 2006
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We had a short two-hour hop on Sri Lankan Airways and arrived 30 miles north of the capital city of Colombo. We describe Sri Lanka as "India-lite" since it didn't have the chaos and intensity of India (which, for us, definitely gave India its charm). The root of this basic difference seemed to be, at least to us, the huge difference in population - 20 million versus India's 1.5 billion!
Probably the best part about Sri Lanka was that you could smile and talk to people and they wouldn't stare at you
Given its proximity to India, one might think that Sri Lankan culture resembles that of its much larger neighbour. But it has maintained a distinct identity, perhaps most noticeably because of its thorough adoption of Buddhism. [Ironically, Buddhism enjoys a large numbers of adherents throughout Asia EXCEPT in India where Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) was born.] In Sri Lanka, Buddhism has helped create a vibrant culture that initially was based on agriculture. This started to change in 1505 when Portuguese ship captain Vasco de Gama accidentally came across the island after a storm blew his fleet off course. [The term "serendipity" - the making of happy accidents by chance - comes from the name Arab traders had for the island - Serendib.] Due to a shake-up among the European powers, the British took control at the beginning of the 1800's. It was the Brits who introduced tea production after a plant parasite devastated the lucrative coffee trade.
We drank many cups of Sri Lanka's famous beverage, starting our first morning in the country. After breakfast, we took the first of several bus rides that would take us across the country
A commentary on buses: There are two types of buses, the small "air-con" buses which we only saw in some areas and the much larger bus that is very much like a large school bus (though not yellow) and just as uncomfortable. We were lucky enough to get seats on most bus rides we took, but since this is the main form of transport for local and long distance travel, the buses can get quite crowded. Sometimes it is like being at the circus where they stuff about 30 clowns into a little Volkswagen. If you are not lucky enough to be in an originating city for the bus, chances are you will not get a seat. In the hot and sticky tropical climate (at least 90 degrees Fahrenheit at 85% humidity), a bus ride can test your patience. That said, we still found the people very courteous when they tried to manoeuver around for a place to stand.
Though distances in Sri Lanka are relatively small, it does take quite a while to get anywhere. Buses stopped about every 300 feet to drop off and pick up passengers
From Polonaruwa, we headed south to the rock fortress of Sigiriya. The ruins of Sigiriya are set atop an enormous rock that rises 600 feet over the countryside. In the 3rd century BC, the rock's caves were a Buddhist refuge before becoming the fortress and palace in the fifth century AD.
In Sri Lanka, we didn't always time our arrival well and so often got enmeshed in crowds of package tourists streaming off the buses (with their guides frantically waving little flags to shepherd their herd of foreigners). In order to avoid these crowds at Sigiriya, we found a shady spot to wait them out before the final ascent up the steep rock face. During this wait, we were surrounded by a group of about 100 pre-adolescent schoolgirls in their starch white school uniforms accessorized with green ties.
This was where Jamie had her 15-minutes of fame
Since we made a note about accommodations in India, we feel it is only fair to do the same about Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is a bit more expensive than India, but still cheap by Western standards. Yet the value of accommodations at a given price is much better here in Sri Lanka. For $10, you can get a very clean night's stay (translation - no cockroaches or rats). We mostly stayed in "guest houses," which are where people have built on rooms to their own houses for the tourists. The other good reason to stay at a guesthouse is that they are the best places to savour the Sri Lankan cuisine (there are relatively few freestanding restaurants).
The staple food for Sri Lankan lunches and dinners is rice and curry
"Kotthu Roti" is an interesting snack. After 5PM, you can hear this loud chopping-type sound - it's like Pavlov's bell. You hear the chopping and you start to salivate. This Sri Lankan snack consists of chopped veggies and shredded roti (a tortilla-like bread) grilled on a griddle and mixed with sauces
But one treat we couldn't get enough of was "curd and honey." This is a rich yogurt of buffalo's milk served with "treacle," a slightly spiced sugary syrup made from the sap of the kitul palm tree. It is prepared just like maple syrup, yet it's thinner than our syrup and not quite as sweet. When served over this slightly sour lump of buffalo curd, it is very pleasing to the palate. We actually bought a small bottle from villagers to bring home. [Does anybody know where we can get some buffalo curd?] Luckily for us, our time in Sri Lanka was quite active, so we could burn off some of those extra calories. Interesting to note though, we did not see many overweight people - maybe because they limit their consumption of pre-packaged foods?
Still following our stomachs, we headed out of the cultural triangle to the hill country where tea estates abound. The 2nd largest city (120,000 people) is Kandy, and we settled in for two days of this charming city. Probably the most surprising (remember we had just come from India) thing about the city was that buses, trucks, cars and rickshaws actually stopped to let pedestrians cross the street at the designated cross walks
Kandy is a bustling town with a lake at the center that provides some nice bird watching. It is also home to the most important Buddhist shrine in Sri Lanka, the Temple of the Tooth - said to contain the relic of Buddha's tooth. We spent a morning at the marvellous botanical gardens, wandering the bustling streets filled with clothing shops, bakeries and people and, of course, tasting many Sri Lankan specialties.
Heading out of Kandy, we travelled on Sri Lanka's railway system (another benign legacy of the British) further into the hills to Delhousie where we climbed Sri Pada or Adam's peak. As the "Rough Guide" guide book states, "Adam's Peak is simultaneously one of Sri Lanka's most striking natural features and on of its most celebrated places of pilgrimage." Rising 7360 feet above sea level is a mysterious impression said to be a "sacred footprint." Buddhists claim it is Buddha's footprint; Muslims believe it is the footprint of Adam; Hindus say that the depression is that of Shiva; and some Christians claim it is from the foot of St. Thomas. Despite all the claims from different religions, Sri Pada is primarily a Buddhist place of worship. During the pilgrimage season (December - May), thousands of people from multiple faiths make the climb
We stayed at the Green House (yes it is green) at the trail head for the long slog up (5.8 miles and 4800 steps up). We ate a hearty meal of rice and many curries with ten Europeans, which turned out to be quite entertaining. As expected, we took a good-natured ribbing about President Bush though we were quick to point out that we came from a "blue state." Actually, people are much less harsh than they probably should be. We've noted that throughout our time in South Asia, we've run into few Americans.
We headed for bed at 9pm and set our alarm so we would be up and ready for the 3am start time. It is not often that we see this time of night (or morning), so it was with some childish joy and anticipation that we pulled our sleep weary bodies out of bed and bundled up (yes, it was cold) for the 2.5 hour ascent to see the sun rise over the spectacular country. Climbing Adam's Peak is not like getting on a quiet trail on Mt. Hood - here the path is lit and lined with tea and snack stalls to energize you as you make the pilgrimage. During our climb, we passed Sri Lankans coming and going, as there is a constant stream of people through this pilgrimage season. Along the way, you can pause and pray at the many Hindu and Buddhist stupas that are lit with candles; incense wafts over the area
Sri Lankans: Halloooo
SL: Which country
SL: Where are you going?
Us: to the top
SL: What is your name?
Us: I'm tired and he's sore
The steady climb of 5.6 miles took us 2.5 hours with a few tea stops (ahem, caffeine fixes for Justin) and rest breaks. Luckily for us and our fellow pilgrims, someone was thoughtful enough to install stairs and handrails up the last steep ¾ mile. Despite the early start, we ended up at the cold and windy summit 45 minutes before the break of dawn
As a religious site, we weren't terribly moved, but the scenery, as the sun painted the sky red, orange, purple and pink was breathtaking. The only way we can describe what it was like up there was like being on an airplane flying over land. We were on top of the world - well, ok, not really, but we were above a layer of clouds looking down upon the hill country below. We stayed for the morning prayers which were sung over a loud speaker, and then went through the shrine hoping to get a glimpse of this sacred footprint, but it was not to be seen. We had to just imagine it. Along with the crowd, we made our wish and rang the prayer bell. We'll get back to you and let you know if our wishes came true. Sadly, the descent was not quite as magical. Light exposes so much and in the broad daylight, you can see how much trash lines the path. It's a pity given the religious significance and high reverence that Sri Lankans have for this holy place.
Back at the bottom, our exertions of the night were rewarded with a feast of a Sri Lankan breakfast. And after a shower, we headed out on a crowded bus, where we stood for a twisty and windy 1.5 hours (Justin actually turned green)
The hillsides (once forested) were cleared by the British to make way for coffee plantations, which once thrived here. But disease struck and wiped out the coffee plants, which were then replaced by tea. You can see the 2-tone green shrubs carpeting the hills and colourfully sari-clad Tamil women moving swiftly among the plants picking the leaves.
Once tea was introduced around the 1870's, labour demands became a year around need (coffee was a seasonal harvest) so this led to the settlement of thousands of indentured servants from South India - the Tamils. Soon after Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948, there was some effort to classify this population as "foreigners" even though they had been living in the country and contributing to Sri Lankan culture for 100 years. As is unfortunately the case in so many other places in the world, this simmering discontent broke out into full-fledged civil war in the 1980's
Back to the calm and benign topic of tea production. If you are still sipping that tea, you may now be wondering how these green leaves turn into that satisfying brew that warms you on a cold day. The process is surprisingly quick. In 24 hours, green leaf on plant becomes a cup of tea. Leaves are leached of most moisture at a constant temp for 13 hours. The dry leaves are crushed which induces a fermentation process. The tea is then heated to terminate fermentation, in the process, turning the leaves brown. The leaves are then sifted and graded into anything from tea dust (used by the Sri Lankans) to the finest leaf teas, the "pekoes" or "orange pekoes," which are all exported. Only the pure tea leaf leaves the hill country, goes to auction in the capitol city and then gets adulterated and blended into tea bags or flavoured teas in the purchasing country and then lands on our shelves in the markets at home. Chances are, you can't find the pure stuff that leaves the factory, or if you do, it will be quite expensive, but in our humble, tea drinking opinions, unadulterated tea is quite worth the expense.
With our newfound tea knowledge and ability to identify some local birds, we headed to Ella, a stunning village perched on more hills ("Hill Country" earns its name). We spent three days there hiking, eating, hiking and eating. Again, we climbed up to peaks that afforded views of the plains below, which made us feel quite small in the vastness of the land before us. During our hikes, we were rewarded with the sights of bright yellow, blue, red and green birds flitting about. During one of our eating periods, we met a fun couple from Holland and decided to share a cab (and forego a fun 3-bus, 9-hour bus ride) to the tsunami-ravaged coast.
We were not prepared for the emotions that hit us when we came upon the first signs of the devastation from the tsunami, particularly after the relaxing atmosphere of the hill country. Our taxi driver pointed out boats, partly destroyed, still sitting where they landed - a sort of monument to the horror. Looking out at the calm, sparkling blue ocean on that sunny day, it was hard to imagine the terror that occurred at 9AM on that nice Tuesday morning in December 2004. Despite the smatterings of the skeletons of what used to be homes and accommodations for tourists, most of the debris had been cleared away and regrowth and rebuilding was seen everywhere. We couldn't help but think of our own water disaster in New Orleans. It would be wonderful if the folks there prove to be as resilient and hardworking as coastal Sri Lankans.
Though a year later, we passed by areas that were labeled "temporary housing for tsunami victims." Tents from the UN High Commission for Refugees were still erect. Many new buildings had signs designating which country or company had helped fun the rebuilding. It was a reminder that when a disaster fades from the global news cycle, the horror doesn't go away for the people affected. Despite the tragedy, Sri Lankans are not a people who play victim. Good humour and graciousness were a constant among those that had been touched in some way by the wave. In fact, when people found out we were American, several thanked us for our tsunami aid.
After a 5-hour, bumpy ride, we landed on the beach of Mirissa, which is on the southern tip of the country. We didn't move for five days. At first we worried that we would get bored of sitting on the beach, but it is amazing how quickly lethargy sets in and all desires to accomplish anything go out to the sea with the receding waves. Mirissa is the idyllic beach scene - white sands, clear blue water, and palm trees providing shelter from the roads and villages. The beach is not built up with 5-star resorts and big hotel complexes....yet! Guesthouses line the shore, but they are small and quaint. For $10 a night, we had a beach cabana where we could hear the ocean waves and be lulled into sleep. Here we finally saw our first rain in 5-months, but at least it cooled things down a bit and never lasted long (unlike Portland!). We idled away hours in the evening sipping Lion beer and hanging out with our new Dutch and British friends. We learned fun new words and, of course, talked politics. Here we also discovered the refreshing qualities of drinking coconut water (this country even has a Department of Coconut Cultivation - Jamie wonders if they are hiring!).
After 5-days on the beach, we pulled our bodies out of idle mode and took three buses to Deniyaya, which is the closest town to the Sinharaja Rainforest reserve - the last remaining virgin rain forest. We headed out with our naturalist guide, Bandula, for a 6-hour hike. The rainforest is not the impenetrable jungle one's mind may conjure up, rather it is an intricate system of layers of flora that interact in complex and mysterious ways that only nature can be ingenious enough to create. Lineas, or strong vines are found all over the forest, so if one does want to play "Tarzan and Jane" the opportunity exists. Insects abound and being a rain forest, it is prone to lots of rain and wet, which means the leeches come out in full force. We put salt on our shoes and socks as a preventive measure; however, Justin ended up playing host to one leech.
After our hike, we decided to head down that evening to Unawatuna, another beach "town." Bandula's brother, Lalith, owns the Saadanah Bird House, a lovely guesthouse about ¼ mile from the beach. In Unawatuna, most of the ocean front has been taken over by a string of restaurants and guesthouses. So much so that you can step off the terrace of a restaurant right into the water. Here we didn't spend much time lazing on the beach, as it wasn't as conducive to doing so. One day we took a field trip into Galle, Sri Lanka's 4th-largest city which is home to a Dutch fort, built in the late 1600's. We took long walks through villages and found our way to little beach alcoves tucked away between some rocky outcrops. We idled away time sipping fresh fruit juice (and later pina coladas) and reading some great books we picked up from other travellers. Jamie learned how to make rice and curry, and we spent time getting to know Lalith and his family who made us feel at home.
On March 9th, we headed back up the western coast to the beach town of Negombo, which is the closest town to the airport. After five amazing and eye-opening months in the Indian sub-continent, we left at 3AM for our long trip back to the Western world (and some of the comforts we'd been missing - like tap water you can drink!) to meet some family - Sandra and Ralph in Portugal. Sri Lanka has become one of Jamie's favourite countries and will hold a fond place in our hearts. If you have the time and inclination, we highly recommend a trip to Sri Lanka. It caters to every lifestyle and budget - from first class to no class (that would be us) and will not disappoint!