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Published: January 14th 2018
Sultry... Spiritual... Spicy...
Is there any other way to describe Sri Lanka?
Yes, yes there is... Shangri La!
....Perhaps James Hilton was just too drunk to properly pronounce Sri Lanka
As usual, I startle awake in a strange bed. After being in transit for over 37 hours it takes me a minute or two to get my bearings. Right. I'm in Negombo. Yay! I've finally made it to Sri Lanka.
This country has been on my radar for like, ever
, and although I’ve landed in the wee hours of the morning during a torrential monsoon, I emerge midday, greeted by the intense glare of an equatorial sun. A nice stroll on the beach outside my budget hotel should shake off this jet lag
, I deduct.
But much to my dismay, the golden sand is a thick layer of trash and sewage. I gingerly make my way along the shoreline until a flock of sarong salesmen force me to retreat. Okay then.
Plan B, which consists of a rupee quest, and a little walkabout this quaint town full of canals, before I tuk-tuk over to meet my tour group for dinner. Gah
Bonnet the Elephant
Stands her ground in Kaudulla park
just say tour group?
I know, I know. I've moaned about organized tours before. But I will admit it. At age 49, I have become a lazy traveler.
Back in my glory days, I got off on just winging it and dropping down into a country with nothing more than a backpack and a tattered map.
And then when the internet turned me into a pseudo travel agent, I’d fret over every sordid detail of my perfectly planned itinerary only to have it all go tits up, because well, travel happens
At this point in my life, handing over the controls to someone else makes for a stress-free adventure, and I need that. I glance nervously about the table of strangers I’m about to discover Sri Lanka with.
It is an interesting mix of six.
There is a retiree Canadian I will refer to as “the Canuck.”
A know-it-all financier from the UK I'll call “Peppermint Patty.”
"The Rookie” is a millennial policeman, just fresh off the Australian academy.
A retired Australian foreign affairs officer I will lovingly dub “Captain Sarcastic.”
And lastly, a Portuguoose, who oozes that charming Portuguese
Save a Prayer at the top
Breathtaking Sigiriya and I ouldn't figure out why I felt like I knew this place, turns out it was in an old 80's Duran Duran video
unemployed artist vibe.
We get to know each other over fresh seafood and shots of the local liquor called Arrack, while sipping comically from these gargantuan bottles of Lion lager. Our tour leader is a jovial man named Asanga, whom I later learn, absolutely adores his job and his country, and is apparently some kind of Sri Lankan mafia Don
with all his connections.
The following day, our belongings are piled high into a private van and we drive up the coast before veering inland to Anuradhapura. Only a few stops of interest along the way. First, a coconut tree farm to watch the high wire antics of the workers as they retrieve the juice of the coconut flower to make Arrack with. Then to a Hindu temple that has brightly painted statues of every single god they have.
330 million I believe. And No, I didn’t count them
. Lastly, snacks and a bottle shop.
We cheer as we arrive at the hotel because the afternoon is sticky hot, and there is a pool. Need I say more?
After a quick dip, we visit the historical site of Mihintale, the birthplace of
Flowers rained down on us as we visited 1st century Stupas in Anuradhapura
Buddhism in Sri Lanka. There are crumbly stupas dating back to the 10th
century, the gigantic white stupa you can apparently see from 72 miles away....according to Asanga, as well as an equally impressive Buddha statue.
Pilgrims come from all over the world to scamper up this suicidal rock face to a tiny observation platform, and we too join them to take in a beautiful sunset over the vast countryside.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see this random monkey making a beeline towards us.
I only have time to warn the Canuck to hang onto her camera before the monkey whizzes past us and jumps on top of the Rookie. Everyone on the platform starts screaming hysterically and trying to get off. In the meantime, the monkey wrestles the Rookie's rut sack away and unzips a side pocket, making off with a big bag of M&M’s.
After all the hoopla, Asanga gives us all that stern fatherly look of disappointment. We’d been warned by him a dozen times not to carry any food to these sites.
Like a true Aussie, the Rookie has turned our peaceful outing into a chaotic comedy skit.
Served up on a lotus leaf the nuclear food of Sri Lanka was tasty
That night we go out to sample the street food of Anuradhapura.
The locals mill about staring at us while the vendors psychotically chop and fry up our orders in front of us. Whatever the rice dish was, it was impossibly hot. I expected Sri Lankan food to be spicy, but Fukushima reactor number five? I can’t cope. About half our group turns bright red as they try to eat it. Peppermint Patty gallantly shows off her tolerance for spicy food. Wah wah No one cares.
I give in and order bland things like egg hoppers and poppadums for filler. Our van driver Tony and his assistant Shanda are finding it all very amusing. So is the crowd that has gathered. The whole ordeal cost less than $2, I step over a few men sleeping on cardboard in doorways to give them my leftovers. They are gratefully accepted.
We spend the following days on bicycles, cycling around Anuradhapura and of course, the sacred city, which was established around a cutting from Buddha’s fig tree, called the ‘tree of enlightenment’, brought here in the 3rd
century BC. The townspeople are super friendly and greet us with waves
Our tour leader was baffled by the Rookie for most of the tour
and huge smiles as we navigate the busy roads. Inside the splendid site, are gigantic stupas, palaces, monasteries and monuments.
I haven’t been on a bicycle for thirty years, so I am the comic relief for today...until Captain Sarcastic forgets about the dress code and is forced to wear a sarong provided by the Canuck. He doesn’t seem to appreciate the zebra-striped print as much as we do.
Asanga arranges for lunch to be delivered to us under the shade of a gigantic tree hanging over an ancient reservoir. It is breezy spot. I’m excited by the pots of curries served up on lotus leaf, and carefully dig in.
Again! Too spicy for me, but the flavor is irresistibly tasty...so I fight the burn by mixing plain rice into each bite and munching on poppadums in between. Glugging down fresh lime soda for relief while my eyes and nose run uncontrollably. About half the group is dying. Peppermint Patty tries to spice shame us, we ignore her. Asanga looks baffled.
Never mind my adoration for Poppadums, I’m loving Sri Lanka! Especially the smell. It’s not just that earthy, wet damp, jungle smell but there is a
High wire act
Why go up and down when you can go across? Retrieving the coconut flower nectar to make Arrack
combination of wild flowers and scorched coconut that periodically catches my nose.
The saturated humidity however, is killing me. Back at the hotel, we gleefully swim in the pool and drink G&Ts into the afternoon as rain plays music upon the ceramic tiles.
I did notice this Swiss girl sitting off by herself, and because I know how it feels to travel solo, I invite her to join us for dinner. She is thrilled. We have a lovely evening discussing world events and travel while the Portuguoose attempts to put the moves on her. I make a new friend, and discover that Mister Rico Suave gots no game.
Oh, and I almost forgot. I’ve taken it upon myself to torment the Rookie after the M&M incident.
I’ve been planting packages of these candies on him when he’s not looking.
When he discovers them, it sends him into an investigative frenzy as he tries to figure out who in our group is doing this. He doesn’t suspect me because I help cross examine his reluctant witnesses.
Resourcefully, I enlist the help of anyone I can, including perfect strangers, to carry out my ploy. Packets of
Stupa at Sunset
Lovely scene before the monkey attack
M&M’s drop out of his pool towel as he dries off. His roommate, the Portugoose, ensures M&Ms are placed strategically under his pillow in his room after we’ve been out all day. He finds them in his rain jacket. His pants (level 10 on the difficulty scale). On his bus seat. He loses his shit with each new discovery.
My tour companions stay solid and no one rats me out.
In the morning, we take the public bus to Polonnaruwa. Captain Sarcastic announces his displeasure with our hotels thus far, as none of them have had English news channels. We tease him, Why leave home if you are just going to watch TV?
Asanga the fixer looks baffled, but takes the complaint seriously and rights it immediately.
Everyone else looks a bit hung this morning, so the combination of a bustling station and being squished into a hot tin can with locals for three hours will be an adventure in misery. I still manage to plant a packet of M&M’s on the Rookie's person for good measure.
The Rookie confides in me that he is now convinced Captain Sarcastic is the culprit, the Rookie says he
Fruit offerings for the Gods
Loved the bright colours of Sri Lanka
observed Captain Sarcastic giving the same candy to children seated ahead of us. I do my best Robert DeNiro head nod of approval. Upon arrival to the destination, we rally our energy and jump onto bicycles again. We are touring the ruins of the ancient city of Polonnaruwa. Midday. It’s Jesus hot.
As I pedal through the beautiful scenery, avoiding monkeys and snapping pictures, I get the feeling I’ve been here before. Asanga, the droning encyclopedia, is behind me and never tires of our endless questions. The ruins are awe-inspiring and a must see. He is thrilled by our curiosity for his country. Why. Do I. Know this place?
The Rookie was too busy circling and interrogating Captain Sarcastic, who seemed somewhat pleased the spotlight of suspicion is now on him. I suddenly realized he purposely
fed those kids M&M’s just to catch the Rookie’s eye. Bravo sir, bravo.
Polonnaruwa was the capital city of the Sri Lankan kingdom from 993 AD to 1250 AD during the reign of a very prosperous king Parakramabahu I, who saw the importance of water conservation and storage and therefore created the massive "Sea of Parakrama," a 2500 hectare water
Original M&M monkey
The monkey that started it all. Sits off on her own to enjoy the bounty of her escapade.
reserve. He was thought to have said, “Let not a drop of water that falls on the good earth flow into the sea without serving man.” Brilliantly, water was utilized and controlled here, and you can see that throughout the ruins.
Later, back at the hotel, I coax a reluctant bellboy to deliver an envelope of M&M’s to the Rookie’s room. The Rookie swears out loud and storms down the stairs to bang on the Canuck’s door demanding that she confess. She is half asleep and bewildered, but denies it. I can hear him stomping back up the stairs to his room, so I go over and we have a little cackle at his expense. I might need to dial this back a bit, or risk bruising his fragile cop ego.
The local bus from Polonnaruwa to Dambulla was a bit more “rustic” and the driver drove it like he stole it, but we survived. I spotted wild Ellies doing their thing near the lake shore and the countryside was jungle and rural villages.
Dambulla will be our jumping off point for several touristy sites. We are staying in a hotel that has only 8 rooms,
Sadly my camera takes a blurry picture of my favourite subject in Sri Lanka
but they are luxurious. I sense Asanga had something to do with this. The enthusiastic manager is keen to see we have a 7 star experience. I swear the staff would have carried me over the mud puddles if I had asked. Despite the frequent power outages, our group play cards and drink Lions while fancy cuisine is prepared by a chef trained in Paris. He’s been instructed to tone down the spice heat for us foreigners.
Peppermint Patty snorts in disgust when she realizes this. Wah wah
. But the rest of us can finally eat Sinhalese food with glee! For dessert we have buffalo curd with treacle in the pitch dark while gigantic beetles bounce off our heads confused.
It’s not that far from the hotel to the Golden temple and the Dambulla caves, so that is first on the sightseeing list.
A kitschy gold monstrosity of a Buddha is at the entrance way, we bypass it and have another quick hike up a hill into the cool dark recesses that hid some of the most beautiful statues and frescoes I have ever seen. A gigantic reclining Buddha sparkles in red with gold. His toes are
One in 330 million
One of the millions of Hindu gods
particularly awesome, but I come away with only half ass blurry pictures thanks to my stupid camera.
Sri Lanka so far has blown me away with its beauty and its history. I’m already planning a return by myself to see more. This tour group has been informative and convenient but we are moving far too fast for my liking. I need to immerse myself in this country!
Asanga casually asks if any of us want to go see some wild elephants. Captain Sarcastic says something under his breath like, I can see the bloody things in a zoo
and retreats to his BBC live. The rest of us are like Hells Ya!
One thing that is becoming fast evident, is all Sinhalese absolutely idolize their elephants. I mean really really
love them. You can see it in their ancient paintings and street carvings right up to an annual elephant festival they have in Kandy each year.
Unfortunately, today’s modern civilization has literally cut off their migration routes, and therefore it’s become a deadly place for elephants.
As we drove towards Kaudulla National park, we came upon a teenage elephant just hit by a lorry, and
So many beautiful statues and frescoes hidden in the carved out caves up in the hills of Dambulla
as he lay dying on the side of the highway under a tent erected by the government to keep the rain off, he labored and took his last breath. Somewhere in the distant jungle, the loud mournful trumpeting of his family makes the scene unbearably worse. His death made the local newspaper the following day. We were all somber and heartbroken as we got back into the jeep. It’s raining hard now and somehow cold, and while bumping along the dirt track all we've seen are peacocks, so Peppermint Patty starts to have a whinge. But....just as we round the next corner comes a dry lake bed, and it reveals a spattering of elephants. Seeing them thriving here was such a relief. The elephants didn’t seem as thrilled to see us.
They hate humans. I can feel it. In Africa, the elephants were indifferent, but these ones are crazed. The driver points out one called Bonnet. She apparently rips the hood off any jeep that gets too close. Then another one named Bullet. He has distinctive holes in his ear that he earned after knocking over an entire village looking for salt. Stump is missing a foot from
Looking for Ellies
Our group stuck in the mud watching the Ellies in the National Park.
a landmine, remnants of the recent Tamil war.
As the rain subsides, the nervous elephants seem to relax and more come out of the dense bush to feed. Our jeep gets stuck. That gives us time to observe closely how they take up swaths of grass with their trunks, dip it in a puddle, and then stuff it into their mouths. Apparently, they eat 150 kilos of plant material per day.
As we make our way across the soggy lake bed, a train of juvenile elephants are all holding each other’s tails forms in front of us. O.M.G. They actually do that!
I try to take a picture but the bumpy track and my fogged up camera lens makes it impossible.
A park ranger pulls up in his jeep to advise there is a huge group of aggressive elephants blocking the exit roadway. It might be hours before they move. This sends Peppermint Patty into a tizzy, it’s her happy hour for christssakes!
Our driver, who Asanga tells us has worked in this park for over 20 years knows each elephant personally, is quietly discussing the situation in Sinhalese before he throws it in gear and drives
Was always keeping a suspicious eye out for the M&M monkey.
off towards this herd.
The head elephant is like, really?
We get within meters of her and an attack feels imminent. Suddenly Asanga and the driver simultaneously open their doors and start flapping them in tandem, yelling their fool heads off while creeping forward. The head elephant is like, What The F?
She starts to trumpet and makes two false charges, stopping only a meter from us before backing up angrily. Her deep rumblings reverberate right through our bodies. Exhilarating!
I don't know whether to shit my pants or snap a photo. The flapping continues furiously while the rest of us yell and bang the sides of the jeep. We literally push our way through a sea of grey, forcing them into the thick bushes on either side of the roadway, and we pass without incident. High from that adrenaline, I almost forget to plant a package of peanut M&M’s in the Rookie’s camera bag. Almost.
He freaks out on all of us within the confines of the jeep. He no longer suspects Captain Sarcastic, but has begun to scrutinize Asanga, who enacts this Oscar-worthy performance of bewilderment. Short of fingerprinting all of us, the Rookie
Mihintale Rock climb
Our pilgrimage up to an observation platform on crazy rock stairs to the M&M incident
is foiled again.
Back to our wonderful hotel, and Asanga enthusiastically briefs us about our next locale. It’s a hilarious exercise because he hands out pie charts, fact pages, and a few of his own drawings - renditions, for us to peruse. He scolds Shanda who is patiently holding up the gigantic map, to lift it higher.
We will be climbing Sigariya, otherwise known as the Lion Rock or Lion’s paw. This site has had several uses over the times including being made into a secure fort for a paranoid King Kasyapa until 495 CE. But even though the lion head and one paw was destroyed, you can picture how grand this place would have been back in the day, and for those that can’t, consult Asanga’s childlike doodle.
It’s a steamy 7 am start as we marvel at the climb before us. It wasn’t difficult, but the series of shaky scaffolding stairs that cling to the rock face loom precariously. Desecrated frescoes of topless goddesses greet us as we go up, someone had tried to paint clothing on them, and then someone tried to erase the clothing. I’m guessing the modesty police did that.
Rock and Roll Hoochy Koo Truck
The lorries were brightly adorned with some amazing artwork
way up is the remaining lion’s paw, and this is also where I encounter many south Asians that want me in their family pictures. I politely stop and pose, a sneaky chance to catch my breath. They are all thrilled I’m from Canada. Apparently, they all have that one relative living in Alberta. Do I know them?
At the very top there are stunning 360 views as far as the eye can see, a water reservoir lake and the flattened ruins of a palatial garden. It’s really something to behold. But I’m like. Wait a minute, I recognize this place.
This very spot was featured in Duran Duran’s video Save a Prayer in the 80’s!! Same with the sacred site back in Polonnaruwa. An ah ha moment for me. Check it out, 2:26.
Asanga surprises us again by coordinating Shanda to meet us at the bottom of Sigariya with icy face cloths and watermelon slices, slabs of cheese on cream biscuits, and water. Very appreciated in this stifling heat. This guy thinks of everything
We go out for dinner at a little takeout shop that offers 18 different curries. Locals rush in and out as we
Loved all the carvings at Polonnarawa ancient city
select from clay pots behind a glass partition. I manage to pull the owner aside and with a crude form of charades, get him to put M&M’s on the Rookie’s tray before handing it over. Mr. Owner gives an award-winning performance of not being able to speak English when questioned. The Rookie is furious and turns his suspicions back on a baffled Asanga. This is becoming a sport for me now.
Onward to Kandy, the town itself feels like a Swiss hamlet when you first see it. Lake Kiri Muhuda was built in 1807 by King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe next to the Temple of the Tooth. Asanga turns us loose to explore Kandy on our own.
For me, I gravitate towards the botanical gardens, then take a wander through the hustle and bustle of the downtown, and around the lake, I find some woodworking shops and craft markets, and run into the Canuck, who agrees to sneak into Dominos to share a non-spicy pizza. Our hotel is up in the hills, so tuk-tuks make traversing this hilly city effortless. We round out our day with a tour of a tea plantation, and my quest for a star sapphire
Captain Sarcastic and his sarong
The rules didn’t apply to him apparently
stone. The Canuck and I have been getting on famously and accidentally end up in a wedding, awash amongst a flurry or colourful saris and Sinhalese rap at decibel 100. Oh, and have I told you I've fallen in love with the Sinhalese? They are all so lovely and genuine. Everyone is shyly inquisitive and approaches carefully to test out their English, we get mobbed often as we navigate the narrow streets.
Later, our tour group meet to see the Temple of the Tooth together, which looks pretty good after surviving a Tamil bomb blast not that long ago, in 1998.
It starts to pour rain, not a surprise.
Asanga snaps his fingers and Shanda comes running with umbrellas. This guy
. Honestly, Asanga needs to win tour leader of the year. We quietly squish into the temple with a million other worshipers. Most are praying and coming forth with their flowery offerings. I’m enjoying the ambiance and perusing the displayed items with Captain Sarcastic when there is a sudden mob mentality invoked, after they fling open the doors of the sacred tooth.
Asanga is hysterically shrieking at me and yanking for me to get a closer
Each place we stayed had a lovely pool that was our reprieve from the stifling humidity
look. It was reminiscent of crowd surfing during my punk rock days. I’m not sure why I’m supposed to be this excited, but I am feeding off his genuine glee. Apparently, this doesn’t happen often. Another Asanga miracle
. I snap a photo of something and retreat.
Our last night in Kandy, we went to a popular Indian restaurant where we happily munched on Tandooris and butter chicken when we get overtaken by a 10 year old’s birthday party. We sing Happy Birthday to the little guy who is beaming, as are his ancient grandparents. Pieces of cake are politely distributed to us while Asanga disappears momentarily and he returns with a Tonka truck and presents it to the boy on our behalf. The kid is elated. I want to hug Asanga for this kind gesture. The family adopted us at that point but we exited gracefully when we realized they were gearing up for a long night of Sinhalese karaoke. Peppermint Patty and the Rookie announce they want to do a pub crawl, and the Canuck and I join them.
There are a few expat-type establishments along the main strip and we dash into each one trying to
The Lion's Paw
The remaining carving of the paw was massive and it was easy to visualize what the entire site would have looked like
get out of the monsoon thundering down upon us. We find the Portuguoose schmoozing a young backpacker in one of them. Our last night in Kandy is a good one, socializing with fellow Canadians and Aussies that come out of the woodwork.
In retrospect, I really liked Kooky Kandy.
It has a Zen vibe despite the madhouse. Best of both worlds. And if I should ever win the lottery, I would buy that walled, abandoned prison located right in the center of town and make it into a kitschy B&B. Next time I come here, I hope to witness their apparently spectacular elephant festival. Everything about Sri Lanka has quite literally become my absolute dream locale, to date.
Tomorrow we board a train and settle in for a seven hour journey to Bandarawela. Ayubowan!
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