I love visiting cities, even Colombo, but most have become so “globalized” in the last 30 years, I feel like I learn more about the people and their traditions by getting out of town. So I signed up with G Adventures for a road trip through Sri Lanka’s interior. We set out last week from Colombo to visit some of the country’s most important temples, ancient kingdoms and wild animals.
There are ten of us between the ages of 30 and something north of 75. We are Scottish, Irish, Polish, English, Canadian, and Californian. Plus our four Sri Lankan hosts. We begin every day at our white touring van where our driver, Kolum, is waiting for us with flowers, sampans, and the Sinhalese greeting, “ayabayon.” The air around the bus is filled with the fragrance of the burning incense Kolum has attached to the wind shield wiper. I love this ritual, a reminder to be mindful and grateful.
On our first day, we headed north for an overnight at a tent camp and a jeep safari through the country’s largest national park, Wilipattu. The park is home to hundreds of endangered Ceylon Leopards. Leopards are notoriously elusive loners so we didn’t see any but we did see a lot of water buffalo, deer, monkeys and birds.
The tents were not exactly roughing it since they had bathrooms, showers, and people fussing over us. But we left them the next day for Anuradhapura, the ruins of a religious city that flourished for 1300 years until the 10th century. Today, the site is a vast network of temples, monasteries and stupas that is one of Sri Lanka’s most important pilgrimage places. It reminded me of Bagan in Burma, Machu Piccu in Peru, and Angkor Wat in Cambodia, all magical ancient cities with many religious sites, but each with distinctive architectural styles.
We also climbed another important place of pilgrimage, Sigiriya Rock Fortress, through its carved and painted walls, and past the palace ruins to the temple at the top. But actually, I didn’t get to the temple at the top because, to get there, you must climb about 100 feet on a metal stairway along a sheer cliff and I am still weird about sheer cliffs.
Next we headed south to Dambulla, where we visited a small village that provided hours of entertainment. I didn’t learn the name of the village but it seems some of the residents organized a way to market the village as a tourist attraction, and they did a good job. The experience was artificial in some ways (because, for example, we didn’t need to go anywhere in a boat and we were invited to take photos of people) but the village appeared to have been mostly left alone and its economy is still primarily agricultural.
One of the things I loved about Dambulla was the wholesale produce market, officially called the “Dambulla Dedicated Economic Center.” Lakmal told us the opening of the market several years ago transformed the community by creating a hub to facilitate buying and selling. Truly, every time we passed it on the highway, dozens of trucks and tuk-tuks were overflowing with everything imaginable, either coming in to sell or leaving with a stash. The lighting was amazing for photography and there was plenty of color.
Further south, we stayed two nights in Kandy, the site of the last Sri Lankan kingdom. The city is draped above a beautiful lake and is a UNESCO World Heritage site, partly because of the historic charm left behind by the British. The main attraction, however, was the Temple that houses one of Buddha’s teeth. Two weeks ago, I visited the Buddha tooth relic that is in Singapore, which experts say came from a cow-like animal rather than Buddha and which expertise is reportedly irrelevant to the venerable keepers of the Singapore tooth. Anyway, my visit to the tooth in Singapore involved a quiet and solitary walk through a small room in a temple. Unlike the Singapore temple, Kandy’s temple performs an elaborate ritual three times a day called “Tevava,” celebrating the tooth with food, flowers, music and worship. Every time, three times a day, this ritual plays to a packed audience. In fact, I don’t know how I got photos without throngs of people in them. The hour-long celebration was breath-taking.
These kinds of tours are always packed with fun stuff so next we attended a performance of traditional Sri Lankan dances. Lots of drums and acrobatics and fire!
For our journey the next day to the hill town of Nuwara Eliya, I left the my tour group and the white van because I was pretty sure I would get sick on the mountain roads (a theme that is beginning to define me, I know). It wasn’t a big sacrifice since I had heard about the wonderful train rides through central Sri Lanka. For about a dollar, I got a third-class window seat for the four-hour ride to Nuwara Eliya. The tourists were SRO in first and second class so it was just me and my new Sri Lankan friends. The ride was incredible. Miles and miles of terraced tea plantations, water falls, and jungle. Young men drumming and singing in the space between the cars, and then whooping and yahooing through the tunnels. Food hawkers walked through the cars, each with a special call and special homemade snack foods. I bought some peanuts with roasted greens and chile salt.
Nuwara Eliya is beautiful, full of parks and buildings from the “colonial” period. Bonus points for its cool temperatures! And horses! We are staying at the Grand Hotel, something from another era that serves high tea and sends minders with brooms to follow suspicious-looking people to the first floor bathrooms. Next time, I will tip better.
Today, for the usual reason, I opted out of a hike with my tour group because the trail-head was at the end of a one-lane, scary road with many hairpin turns along sheer cliffs. Instead, I went for a walk through a jungle of invisible but loud howler monkeys and then a couple of rural villages where people grow leeks and carrots and all kinds of herbs.
Throughout this adventure, we have been eating too much! Sri Lankan cuisine includes a lot of curries and fruits, which I love. There are also endless varieties of fried breads and noodles and rice dishes. The only dairy that seems to be part of the country’s traditional diet is buffalo curd, which is like cottage cheese but smashed into a brick. And of course, Sri Lanka is famous for its tea, with flavors that are round and complex. The video shows some of our tour group picking Ceylon tea, hee hee.
What a great tour. Thank you to Lakmal and Sudjip and Kolum and Darsha.
And thanks for making it to the end of this very long post!