ON TO SRI LANKA – THE TEAR DROP OF INDIA
I landed at midday, after a little 3 hour flight. It was an unbelievably quick and cheap trip from Bangkok to Sri Lanka, which was partly the reason for choosing to go to Sri Lanka. The other reasons were that I could get an easy 1 month visa, and the country was supposed to be amazing.
Sri Lanka (older ladies and gents might know this place as Ceylon) is known for friendly people, food, amazing beaches, plentiful wildlife, and cheap prices! Sounds like a backpackers paradise, and it is. The thing I realized though, was that this place was still well off the beaten track for backpackers. In ten years, this place is going to be booming. GO NOW.
Coming from the wide well-worn path of SE Asian countries like Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos, this place was a barely trampled prairie path. Sri Lanka was in civil war from 1983-2009 (mainly in the North and East of the country), so the economies and infrastructure of those parts is coming back. The eastern beaches were supposed to be some of the best because of this. Tourists have only started to travel there within the last few years and are being rewarded.
Anyways, I arrived and for the first time, I was on my own. Maria was still somewhere over the Pacific Ocean flying home, so I had to tie my own shoes. TCB (taking care of business) was in full effect and I changed monies, got a SIM card, avoided the barage of overambitious tour merchants, and split a tuk-tuk with an older Kiwi gent. Sri Lanka is definitely similar to SE Asia, but at this point I kinda realized it had its own thing going on.
In trying to find my guesthouse, I got dropped off at the bus station and I was only a bus-ride away from a bed. Now, if I could just figure out how to use the bus station. I was the only white guy around and people were so friendly that they were coming up to me and asking if they could help. After wrongfully following some of them into their shops (which I thought were going to be ticket booths), they all told me to just get on the bus. So I stood there confused, I needed a ticket first. But no, I didn’t, they get handed out on the bus and it cost about 30 cents for the twenty minute bus ride. After getting dropped off at the wrong stop, asking locals where the place was, and walking for 20 more minutes with my pack, I was finally there! I opened the door of the hostel dorm room to find…. no one. I was the only one staying at this guesthouse for two days. This whole experience would be repeated many times over my month in Sri Lanka.
This was a letdown to say the least; I expected to meet new friends and travelers who had information about where to go and how to attack Sri Lanka. Also at this point, I am really missing my former travel companion. The host family was really nice though and it was more like couchsurfing than a hostel. They cooked for me and let me have my run of the place for two days, which included watching the USA draw with Portugal in the World Cup at 3am in the morning.
My plan of attack was to hit the cultural triangle of Sri Lanka first, then head to the high hill country in the interior, then end at the beaches in the south. So let’s get on to it.
I jumped on the bus back to the main bus station in Negombo (literally, the bus did not stop, I had to hang on), and hopped on another bus to Kandy in the middle of the island. Being the second largest city and cultural center of Sri Lanka, I was looking forward to really experiencing Sri Lanka. I hopped off the bus, ready to take on the country, and trekked about 30 minutes to some guesthouses on one of the hills. On my walk through the bustling little city, I started to notice that there were no other tourists. And yup. In all the guesthouses I looked at, they were desperate for SOMEONE, because there was no one. So I picked one with a great view and great internet and headed out to town.
First stop was food, because I hadn’t eaten yet that day and it was 4pm. Then on to a performance of Kandyan Dance at the Cultural Center. Saw some guys walk on flaming hot coals, so that was neat.
After the show, I cruised around town foolishly looking for other hostels or bars where I could meet some fellow travelers. This turned out to be a waste of time for my first 12 days in Sri Lanka, as I would not meet anyone.
The only other thing worth mentioning about Kandy was the Sri Dalada Maligawa. In case you have no clue what that is, it’s also called the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. And because that doesn’t help at all, it is the most sacred site in Sri Lanka dedicated to an ancient tooth relic that supposedly belonged to Buddha. The temple is a UNESCO World Heritage site and rightfully so because of the cultural significance, whether or not you believe that Buddha’s tooth is really there. They keep the tooth well shielded in a golden stupa (Buddhist dome) behind a golden door in a golden room. They open the door for fifteen minutes once a day, and I was there to push and shove to get my view of the thing. As much as I like mash pits, when I got out I was relieved to not have 10 strangers pushing on me at the same time.
Next was a bus ride north to the ANCIENT city of Anuradhapura (Ah-nur-rahd-ah-poo-rah), founded in the 4th century BC. I found a relatively cheap room where I was once again alone, so the next day I set out on a rented bicycle to explore the huge ancient city.
Jetavanaramaya stupa, the tallest Buddhist stupa in the ancient world. At the time of completion, it was the third tallest structure in the world, behind the Pyramids at Giza. Doesn’t look like much but took 10 minutes to walk around.
Sidenote: This was also the first time I experienced the crazy tourist rates of Sri Lanka. In a lot of countries, for all the major tourist destinations in the country, tourists/foreigners get charged more. Not surprising. But Sri Lanka takes it to the limit. For example, entrance to Sigiriya was 4200 LKR (32 USD) for foreigners and only 200 LKR (1.50 USD) for Sri Lankans. At those prices, an entrance ticket comes close to most backpacker’s daily budget.
This is a sacred place for Sri Lankans, as Anuradhapura is the center of Buddhism in the country. The most sacred site is the bodhi tree that has grown as a cutting of the original bodhi tree that Buddha found enlightenment under. According to Wikipedia, it was planted in 288 BC and is the oldest living human-planted tree in the world with a known planting date.
After riding around for the whole morning, I took a nap and relaxed. Later that day, I went to the grocery market to pick up some juice and then to dinner. I never made it to dinner. Outside the supermarket a man started talking to me, and being used to random people talking/asking for things, I replied with polite nonchalance. But this seemed a bit different, as he invited me to a birthday party for his sister’s 8 year old son.
Sometimes as a traveler it’s very tough to toe the line between safety and adventure. You want to not end up in a shitty situation, but you also want to get outside the box and share experiences with locals. So I went. He picked me up in his friends tuk-tuk from my guesthouse, and even told the owner of my guesthouse what he was doing and where we were going. The four of us (him and his two friends) went to his sister’s house where there was cake. And that’s about all there was. I expected a party full of family, but it was just us, and the 8 year old handed me some cake (just me). I ate the cake while confusedly looking around at no one else eating or talking. Immediately upon finishing, they asked if I liked it. Yes, the cake’s good. That was the party.
Then the guys said let’s go drink, and we took off. I thanked the boy and family for the cake, and next thing I know we are back in the tuk-tuk going to the liquor store and then to his friends guesthouse. What was turning out to be the weirdest night of my trip took another turn once we got to the guesthouse. The man who invited me to the birthday party all of a sudden sat me down in front of his laptop and had me dictate an email in english to his Polish girlfriend in Poland. He started asking me for relationship advice and I tried to help the man smooth out some things with his lady. That took an awful long time, but one of his friends ran and got me some dinner. So the night ended with me eating my kothu roti while Sri Lankan men asked to take shots with me. At the end, I got back to my guesthouse and all I could say in my head was, “That was WEIRD.”
Last stop in the cultural triangle was the crazy rock citadel of Sigiriya. Of all the historical places I saw in Sri Lanka, this one took the cake. The rock has been inhabited since prehistoric times and shoots up 200 meters (660 ft) out of the ground. On the north end there is a plateau that was used as the gate and climbing point. Sigiriya is also called the Lion Rock because the north gateway has two huge lion paws guarding it.
After seeing the truly awesome sites of Anuradhapura and Sigiriya, I had had enough of shitty guesthouses and no other tourists. Over the next two days I hurried back to Kandy and then on further south into the beautiful hill country of Sri Lanka. After a long time in the hot northern plains of the country, I heard that you needed PANTS in Nuwara Eliya, and that was all I needed to hear.