Shangri-La in Sri Lanka

Trip Start Oct 20, 2005
Trip End Nov 04, 2006

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Green House

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Thursday, March 16, 2006

From the southwest shores of India, our journey took us beyond the tip of India, southeast to the teardrop-shaped country of Sri Lanka (formally known as "Ceylon"). Its biggest claim to fame is tea and chances are, if you are drinking a nice hot mug of tea right now, it probably came from this heavenly land.

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. Sri Lankans smile a lot and when they smile, their whole face lights up into a genuine display of warmth. We got addicted to their smiles.

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. Buses routes are quite extensive, and were the easiest and cheapest way to get around. After two bus rides, 5-hours and $2 (total for two of us), we arrived in the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, which was the former capital of the Sinhalese (the main ethnic group in Sri Lanka) kingdom in the twelfth century.

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. On one bus ride, we went 12 miles per hour - it was a 48-mile trip - and so four hours later, we reached our destination at Polonoruwa. We spent a hot afternoon roaming around the ruins. Not much remained: some temples, scattered foundations of palaces and many carvings of Buddha. The most interesting thing to note about these ruins was the mixture of Buddhist and Hindu temples that existed in harmony in this old city.

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. Girls started thrusting paper and pens in her hands wanting her name and address to become a pen-pal. When paper and pens weren't available, the arms came forward. That day, about 30 girls had "Jamie Waltz" written in ink on their wrists. Their mothers must have wondered what kind of obscenity that was. After much writing and picture taking by the girls, the crowds thinned and we headed up the rock face to the ruins of what was once the rock palace and place of worship. At the top, we had a couple of minutes to ourselves to view the surrounding countryside and ponder the greatness of this fallen kingdom. Soon the base of the rock became speckled with the bright orange robes of Buddhist monks coming to the top to pray.

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. Jamie felt that the best part about dining in Sri Lanka is that you get to eat with your hands and no one yells at you. Curries come in so many variations; it is hard to get tired of it. Curries here don't really resemble native-born Americans' idea of the dish. We had curried okra, pineapple, garlic, chicken, and many other variations. In addition to its fame as a producer of tea, Sri Lanka was also a "spice island" of yore where Arab merchants would trade iron for cinnamon, cacao, turmeric, etc. This is reflected in all the foods that are available. You are generally served 3-6 different curries with rice and coconut sambol - a delicious and interesting combination of shredded coconut and dried red chillies. Sri Lankans like their food hot! In the bigger towns and cities, you can always find a bakery selling sweet and savoury snacks. For breakfast and a late afternoon snack, "hoppers" and "string hoppers" take top bill. "String hoppers" are like a patty of rice-based spaghetti stuck together. They get topped with any type of curry and coconut sambol. Hoppers are like a pancake cooked in a special round pan and served with chilli or an egg in the middle, or eaten plain.

"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. The "Kotthu roti" maker goes at the food with a vengeance and uses what looks like a metal pastry scraper (for you cooks) to mix and chop the food together. Despite the effort that goes into this dish, it was not one of the more flavourful gastronomic treats on which we dined.

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. We watched in fascination from a sidewalk cafe. We knew we loved Sri Lanka!

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. There is something magical about climbing up the hill at that time of night, when things are still and the stars are out in full force. During the night, you can look up and follow the lights, which appear to be a pathway to the stars and it felt like you would never reach the summit. All along the way, we repeated our own mantra in response to the same questions by the locals:

Sri Lankans: Halloooo
Us: Halloooo
SL: Which country
Us: America
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 mile. Despite the early start, we ended up at the cold and windy summit 45 minutes before the break of dawn. So we huddled in a hallway with locals pilgrims and shivered until the sun came out to provide its natural warmth.

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). We then took the train to the "colonial" hill station of Nuwara Eliya. Much of the colonial charm of this town has been taken over by concrete eyesores. The redeeming features were the cloud forest, bird watching and tea estates that surround the town center. We hired a naturalist who took us bird watching and then spent the afternoon learning about tea production and consumption at Pedro's Tea Factory.

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. The "Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam" and the Sinhalese-led government have fought a fierce war that has devastated the north and east of the country and resulted in 50,000 deaths over 25 years. In fact, the two sides started another round of peace talks in Geneva the week we arrived in Sri Lanka. Since we stayed out of the north and east of the island, we didn't really see the effects of this conflict, but other travellers who had been there reported many checkpoints, minefields, and military units.

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 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!
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George on

Did not like your start up comment about Sri lanka as 'India Light'.
Sri certainly isnt India!
you might want to know, this is VERY VERY offensive to a Sri lankan!

D on

I'm Sri Lankan and I didn't find it offensive at all. I can totally understand how a tourist coming from India might experience Sri Lanka as 'india lite'.

wanderingwaltz on

When ever anyone asked what my favorite country was on this trip, my response was always 'Sri Lanka.' I loved the people (their kindness and resiliency), the natural beauty, and the food. I will go back some day.

SPJ Perera on

Great article on Sri Lanka! Now there's peace, I hope you would visit our country again and explore the places you couldn't visit last time!

Mirisa on

I would like to see it!

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