Published: March 7th 2010March 7th 2010
For more of my photos, or to buy my book, please visit www.nickkembel.com
The importance of the role of the mystical isle of Lanka in the Buddhist world cannot be under emphasized. Buddhism arrived here some 2200 years ago, and later when the religion died out in India, it survived intact for centuries in Sri Lanka before being carried on to Thailand and South East Asia, where it still exists in it’s original form to this day. This most ancient form of Buddhism is referred to as ‘Theravada’, the ‘teachings of the elders’ or the ‘ancient teachings’, and is demarcated by the classic beggar monks in their bright orange robes, enormous pagodas (referred to in Sri Lanka as Dagobas) housing relics of the Buddha’s body, and an emphasis on the individual and solitary pursuit for liberation from cyclical existence.
This makes Sri Lanka an incredibly curious place to visit. The hills at the center of the tropical island are dotted with ancient remains of Buddhist kingdoms, which are still frequented en masse by the island’s large Buddhist population. The incredible village of Anuradhapura is the island’s grand showpiece, with hundreds of ancient dagobas soaring into the sky, the
most important being the Sri Maha Bodhi, housing the oldest historically authenticated tree in the world, which was grown from a cutting taken from the Bodhi tree in India under which the Buddha attained enlightenment.
As I complete the temple circuit, I compete for space to observe among thousands and thousands of local devotees. I note a definite South East Asian vibe in the atmosphere, combined with a visual and environmental feel more akin to India. There is something uniquely Sri Lankan about it too, a more relaxed, casual, heartwarmingly friendly touch. People are more western in their attire, the food is distinctly equatorial and tropical in its ingredients, and smiles and friendly conversations are a constant. There is little to no hassle.
Directly in front of my hotel is a 2300-year-old enormous water tank, and throughout the day busloads of local tourists stop off to bathe in the ancient waters. They strip down to thin sarongs unselfconsciously, then wash themselves and play in the murky waters. I choose to ignore the potential host of bacteria and parasites in the water and joined in the mass public bath. It is Christmas Day.
At Kandy, a medium sized
town in the central highlands, stands the most important temple in the nation, which houses the sacred tooth relic of the Buddha. Security is tight following a terrorist bombing in 1998. Tensions between the government favored Buddhist population of the south and the Hindu Tamil population of the north have dominated headlines from Sri Lanka for decades.
At Sigiriya I summit the island’s most famous monument, an enormous rock in the middle of the jungle that houses a 2300 year old Buddhist monastery at it’s peak, as well as preserved frescoes of topless ancient Lankan beauties and a grand entrance through the mouth of a monumental lion.
From there I venture into the central tea estates, which produced some of the finest leaves in the world, known internationally as Ceylon Tea. My arrival by train into the region comes with an expected surprise. I note a powerful sense of being ‘at home’ (my current ‘home’ being the tropical island of Taiwan, which also grows superior quality teas). The landscape dominated by terraced fields, tropical yet chilly climate, smiles on people’s faces, and even the toy-like appearance of the train all take me right to the central highlights of
Taiwan, which I adore. A large extended family befriends me for the tail end of the journey. They sing songs merrily, share rice snacks steamed in banana leaves with me, and the kids shriek every time we pass through a tunnel. Their positive energy is contagious.
I arrive to Ella, a tiny little village at the heart of the tea estates. I retire in a local guesthouse famous for its 16 course traditional Sri Lankan vegetarian meals using entirely homegrown ingredients. I even learn some of their secrets in a complimentary cooking course. I pass the following days wandering into the local tea estates, bathing in waterfalls, and dining like a Lankan king. I tour a local tea factory to witness the process first hand.
Before I leave I was to photograph the women picking tea in the fields. I do a hike to a small peak overlooking a valley of tea fields. I buy bracelets from a random little old man in the fields who uses seeds and other natural products collected from the earth to make them. I finish my hike but don’t meet any of the women as I’d hoped. I run into the man
again, and he directs me to a different path to return to the town. It seems less efficient but I try it anyways. I round a corner and a large group of women are descending from the terraces to take afternoon tea break from picking. I am greeted with heartwarming smiles and curiosity. In the future when I enjoy my cup of tea, I will always remember the worn faces of those women, and the backbreaking labor without which the world would not have it’s most consumed beverage.
Moving on, and I must note one exceptional characteristic of travel in Sri Lanka, which are some of the most crowded buses and other forms of public transportation on earth. The only place I have ever been that rivals it is Burma. Hundreds of human beings cram on to every single local bus plying the mountainous highways. Space is so restricted that people even stand in the space allotted for the legs of the people lucky enough to get chairs. As a traveler you must also carry your luggage on board, and within minutes you typically lose eye contact with your gear as you are crammed deeper and deeper into the
core of the bus. At that point you simply place some faith in the decency of common people in that they will not take advantage of the opportunity to pickpocket your bags. A three-hour ride in Sri Lanka is less comfortable than a typical eight-hour journey in even poorer nations.
Compared to India and South East Asia, there isn’t much of a budget travelers scene in Sri Lanka. I meet mostly couples, but the few solo travelers that I meet are exceptional individuals. Prices are also a little higher than other countries in the region.
My final stop in the country is the string of beaches on the southwest coast of the island, immediately south of Colombo, the capital city. The purpose of my visit is to check out the turtle sanctuaries and hatcheries established to preserve the lifestyle and habitat of this most elegant and wise of sea creatures. I slip into beach mode almost instantly, sleeping beachfront in a small Sri-Lankan/German couple’s guesthouse. I dine with the elderly couple, enjoy drinks on the virtually deserted stretch of palm tree lined beach, and flag down local buses on the coastal highway to visit the miniature turtle sanctuaries
where you can hold newborn turtles in the palm of your hand.
It is on this coast where the bulk of the damage in the Boxing Day tsunami took place in Sri Lanka. I hear a local story where thousands of people fled to a train on higher ground following the first wave. When the second, bigger wave hit, carrying all the trees and wreckage from the first, it wreaked the bulk of the destruction, and carried the entire train car out to see, never to be found again.
The couple who run my hotel tell me that if I go down and wander the beach in the middle of the night, if I am very lucky, I might glimpse a giant mother turtle coming to shore to lay eggs. I venture out in the dark after midnight and as soon as I reach the shore, I nearly stumble onto an enormous mother just finishing laying her eggs directly in front of my hotel room, of all the places she could have chosen down the entire length of the sprawling beach.
My presence alarms her and she turns and pulls herself stride by stride back to the
safety of the seawaters. I sit down in the sand and say thanks for what the world has chosen to let me see. For more of my photos, or to buy my book, please visit www.nickkembel.com
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