This tear-shaped island, once known as Ceylon and located between India and the Maldives, offers an exotic respite for experienced travelers.
On my recent Sri Lanka travel adventure, a metaphor came to mind: the popular British sport called Cricket. We Americans may come close, but few will ever truly understand that game any more than we will ever understand the essence of life on this Indian Ocean Island where Cricket is the country’s national game. Even after 25 days of exploring what was once known as Ceylon, with its colonial influence, deep religious beliefs, war torn memories and history of natural disasters, much of Sri Lanka remains a mystery to me.
The island is shaped like a teardrop, reminiscent of its turbulent past. Just as well, the tear could be one of joy since its smiling population seems to be everywhere, defying the challenges of the past. After a 30-year war with the Tamil Tigers, a separatist militant organization that launched a civil war that ended in 2009 and a devastating 10-minute long 9.1 earthquake in 2004, the country is finally seeing a return of tourists.
Hotels are being built and infrastructure improved, and there’s a sense that something big is about to happen — a way of life is about to irreversibly change. If capturing a piece of the old, untouched world of this magical country sounds appealing, I suggest you run quickly to Sri Lanka before the “Waikiki-zation” occurs.
For now, Sri Lanka travel is a study in extremes with plenty of eye candy for adventure junkies. One moment you are greeted by white gloved waiters offering fresh avocado juice with live chamber music playing Beethoven in an opulent palatial hotel, the next you’re haggling with a barefoot tuk-tuk driver (a three-wheel motorcycle taxi) for the fare to the local Buddhist temple.
Ostentatious collides with abject poverty at every corner. The ridiculousness of this situation made it necessary for me to stay in more modest guesthouses. These establishments are friendlier, more organic and exude positive energy amongst the patrons and staff. Some were converted colonial houses rich in historical character and some included excellent communal meals prepared with local produce.
Like most travelers, my first impressions were created in the capital of Colombo where I was awakened early in the morning by the call to prayer from the nearby Buddhist temple. It’s a city congested with buses, tuk-tuks and bustling markets. Very few private vehicles are seen since the government imposes a 200 percent tax on cars to discourage car ownership.
The availability of public transportation throughout the country is exceptional but a harrowing experience for anyone accustomed to road etiquette and rule of law.
Colombo and its suburbs offer the only big city experience on the island with a sophisticated side to entertain the rich amid a poor underclass. Nightclubs, good restaurants, dancing and drinking are all available in this financial and industrial hub. A world apart is the south end of the island, in Matara, where surfers hang ten and the only sounds are waves crashing on pristine white sandy shores.
I attended a four-day yoga beachfront retreat in Thalalla and indulged in Ayurvedic massages until I thought I had died and gone to Buddha heaven. I eventually awoke to reality on a 3-hour packed eastbound bus to Yala national park for my rendezvous with criminals… the monkey types. My safari in Yala Park started at 5 a.m. and accomplished its objective of sighting all the necessary wildlife (leopards, buffaloes, elephants, peacocks and alligators) and getting my lunch bag stolen by delinquent monkeys who know how to open Ziploc bags and remove caps off Snapple bottles, and then cast condescending looks your way as they devour your lunch.
Heading north towards central Sri Lanka, my bus climbed curved, narrow mountain roads barely missing head-on collisions with everything from tuk-tuks to cattle. Eventually we reached the rainforest hill country teaming with lush vegetation and the most famous Sri Lankan agricultural product, tea.
In Haputale I took an eye opening and humbling tour of the Lipton tea plantation. Entire company towns have been created to house workers, mostly Tamil women who earn less than $4 per day picking 18 kilos of tealeaves by hand. Due to the lack of opportunity and a near tea plantation monopoly, generations upon generations of Tamils work the fields under the most basic of living conditions. But here’s the caveat, the Tamil are Hindu who believe in the caste system. They accept their lot in life as their destiny, giving me beautiful tranquil smiles, they seemed at peace and none asked for anything.
Wanting to leave the white-knuckle bus experience behind, I decided train travel was in order. Trains move slowly in the hill country, schedules are there for giggles. Who is going to rush Sri Lanka’s 100-year-old railway system?
I rode several, sometimes in cargo cars sitting on rice bags, lazily winding through green canopies of dense jungle, sticking my head out of the windowless door openings. I spent nights in several little tea villages, all hidden within valleys, all connected by the old hill train.
Then, like coming out of a dream, Nuwara Eliya appeared. This city does not belong in the hill country or chaotic Sri Lanka, it’s an aberration. Nuwara Eliya is a piece of England in Sri Lanka. It has all the trappings of a British town with pubs, bangers and colonial estates and is a get-away destination for the well-heeled.
It has a perfectly manicured golf course, a meandering central botanical park, a lake with goose-shaped wooden paddle boats floating by with lovers and the veritable British Hill Club where the members-only policy requires coat and tie to dine. I bought a membership just so I could eat in the immense formal dining room next to a huge granite fireplace with Queen Elizabeth II’s picture hanging above me.
Leaving hill country behind, I headed for the ancient cities for archeological experiences. Many occupy a triangle extending north of hill country. The highlights were Sigiriya, Kandy, Polonnaruwa, and Anaradhpura.
Buddhism is practiced by 70 percent of the population. Hindus (16 percent), Muslims (8 percent) and Christians (8 percent) make up the remaining population. Our Western notion of Buddhism being a passive, benevolent and peaceful practice does not pan out in the history of Sri Lanka. Buddhist militant extremists have been responsible for suicide bomb assassinations, terrorist attacks and general fear mongering.
Buddha statutes, big and small are everywhere, on top of mountains, in caves, on tuk-tuk dashboards. The spiritual places require that women cover up and everyone remove shoes. No alcohol is consumed and most businesses are closed on poya (full moon) days.
Nearing the end of my Sri Lanka travel adventure, it was time to rest so I headed east to Trincomalee for the beaches, an area heavily fought over during the war. Trinco, as they call it, has a large natural harbor and a main street lined by storefronts. I was told that an undercurrent of animosity exists between former adversaries. A large military presence is there to maintain order and religious tensions linger.
My $12 per night room at the local inn was minimalist and comfy with hot water and intermittent Wi-Fi. The management insisted on a 6:30 a.m. wake-up knock on my door offering tea. Apparently they thought a good cup of tea was more useful than sleep.
I traveled north along the coast by tuk-tuk looking for the perfect beach, I found it in Nilaveli. The deserted beach (if you don’t include the sun bathing cows) goes as far as the eye can see. I found one of a few hotels and requested a room with no tea service. That evening in the nearly deserted dining room I came across the only Americans I would meet during my 25-day journey, two couples, one from Washington state the other from Idaho.
My Sri Lanka travel experience came to an end at a restful beach retreat 30 kilometers north of Colombo in Negomo. Resting in a hammock and biking to local restaurants, I took time to reminisce on my journey — the people I encountered, the unique sites and the wonderful food I consumed. Indian food will set your mouth on fire; Sri Lankan will do the same to your eyes, nose, ears …
It was a challenging journey but well worth taking.
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