After leaving the Maldives, we spent the next week touring Sri Lanka, a short 1.5 hour flight from the islands and 30 minute time change (wrap your brains around that one). This stop was bit of an after thought, originally intended as a quick layover on the way to Bangkok. Staying here was a great last minute decision. Sri Lanka is small country, about the size of Ireland (but with over 20 million people), off the southern coast of India. We explored a good portion of the island, and we were surprised to see the vastly changing topography as we drove through. This country has beautiful beaches, stunning mountains, and is home to 8 Unesco World Heritage sites. On top of this, the country is teeming with wildlife, has delicious food, welcoming people, and it is relatively safe. Spirituality and religious traditions are very important here, as evidenced by the many intricate temples throughout the country. About 70% of the country is Buddhist, with the remainder being mostly Hindu and Muslim. We felt lucky to come here when we did; the country has so much to offer, but is still a relatively calm tourist destination. It will not be this way for long - tourism is rapidly expanding as they just ended their devastating 30 year civil war in 2009. Since the war ended, the country is rapidly improving infrastructure, building roads, and the economy is starting to boom. Definitely visit here if you get the chance - and soon!
We started our trip in the capital of Colombo, driving up to Habarana, then to Kandy and Nuwara Eliya in the Hill country. Since it was raining and we were coming from the Maldives, we opted to skip the beach towns and go straight in to the heart of the culture. Driving through Sri Lanka was in and of itself is quite the adventure. Between every major city, there is only one route to take, usually a two lane road. This creates an intricate maze of trucks, cars, a million motorbikes, bicycles, dogs, cows, and kids running through the streets. I have only seen similar traffic in India. Our trusty driver Ranjan navigated the streets like a pro. He complained that tourists ruin the roads, because when you try to drive “following the rules”, it just doesn’t work. Drivers here have their own secret set of road rules - silly things like lanes and traffic laws are only guidelines. From what we could figure out, the bigger vehicles have precedence, and there is a hierarchy of power depending on your outfit. Big truck > small truck > car > motorcycle > bicycle > walking. The big guys just drive where they please and expect people to get out of their way. Unless you’re a cow or a dog - all traffic will stop for stray cows and dogs, which are everywhere. Yes, that’s right. There are lots of stray cows. Apparently religious organizations donate money to save cows from slaughterhouses - at which point they are let out to wander free, with a “do not kill” status that everyone must obey, unless they want a lifetime of bad karma. Additionally, some farmers let their cows out for the day to graze, and the cows know to return at dusk, and always do. So, the phrase “until the cows come home” actually means dusk here.
We spent our first night in Colombo - this is not the most exciting city, and it was raining, so we just relaxed. The next morning, it was time to start our adventure, and we headed to Habarana. En route, we stopped at the Dambulla cave temples, a series of 5 caves with hundreds of images and sculptures of the Buddha. The caves are situated on a large hillside, which affords visitors a wonderful view. It was beautiful! We then headed to our hotel in Habarana for the night. This was one of the many, many new constructions that are being built in a hurry across the country. We noticed that architectural standards are not very well monitored - many of our hotels were pretty new, and had some pretty significant oversights, such as leaks, funny floor plans, uneven stairs, and faulty lighting. We spent the following day climbing to the summit of Sigiriya, or the “Fortress in the Sky”, a World Heritage Site from the 5th Century which was once a royal palace, and more recently used as a place of worship for Buddhist monks. It is also known as Lion Rock because of the huge lion that used to stand at the entrance to the Palace on the summit of the 600-foot high rock. On the long walk up, there are many beautiful paintings on the walls, and partially restored parts of the palace. The top of the rock had simply amazing views. After we climbed down from the summit, we visited a local village, where we had lunch with a family. They made roti from scratch along with a delicious and fresh, spicy, coconut sambol. To get to the village, we took a cart pulled by a bull (the first form of transportation in Sri Lanka), then a small wooden boat across a lake. To get back to our car, we took our first tuk tuk ride of the trip. Tuk tuks, also called auto-rickshaws, are a common means of transport all over Asia - essentially three wheeled pieces of sheet metal with motorcycle engines. Intended to hold about 3 people - we have seen entire families of 8 pile in to these things! This was probably our favorite day of the trip.
The next day we left Habarana and drove to Kandy. Kandy was the former capital, which finally fell to the British in 1815, the last part of the country to be overtaken after holding their own from the British and Portuguese for 3 centuries - this is a huge source of pride for the people here. Kandy was for a long time very remote and hard to get to - I’d believe it driving through the windy roads here. It took the British 16 years to build a road connecting Colombo to Kandy. The city is beautiful, with lots of steep, green hills situated around a lake in the center of the city. The hills are speckled with very brightly colored houses, temples, and hotels. We only had one night here, but we made great use of it. We went to a cultural show, and saw some demonstrations of local dancing of the surrounding villages. We then went to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, which houses the most important Buddhist relic in Sri Lanka. Believed to be the tooth of the Buddha himself, most Sri Lankan Buddhists will make a pilgrimage to this temple at least once in their lives, as they believe this will greatly improve their karmic value.
The next day, we continued our very windy journey to Nuwara Eliya in the heart of hill country. En route, we stopped at a spice garden and a tea plantation. The drive was breathtaking, with steep green hills and waterfalls on all sides. The hills are covered in tea plants, which makes everything green and lovely. It’s somewhat sad when you realize how much of the indigenous jungle was destroyed to make way for the vast tea plantations, but the effect is still stunning, and tea has been a huge source of export, income, and pride for Sri Lankans. The tour of the tea plantation was very interesting, and a highlight of our day. We finally started to buy things as souvenirs and gifts, as the price is right and we have less time to have to carry things around. We bought some delicious curry powders at the spice markets, and lots of tea at the tea plantation. We spent two nights in Nuwara Eliya, often called “Little England”, which makes total sense. The weather is very similar - very grey and rainy, and the British influence and architecture is all over this city. The city was just uninhabited forest before the British colonized the area, so it is fully a British creation. The city becomes a party town in summer, with lots of horse and car racing, and the most liquor we have seen in all of Sri Lanka, though the women do not drink here. We were a bit disappointed, as we were supposed to go see the Knuckles mountain range from here, but it was way too far of a drive to make it worth it. So, we spent our day here visiting a Hindu Temple, walking around the lake, and walking up through the farm lands to get a bit of exercise. We were starting to get a bit stir crazy at this point, as it poured rain through most of Sri Lanka and we spent a lot of time at night in our hotel, as it was not very easy to get around in the rain.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the food, the glorious FOOD here! Some of our best meals cost about $1.50 on the side of the road. Meals are cheap, hearty, spicy, and delicious. Lots of curries, daal, vegetables, roti, rice, etc. YUM.
The next day, we had probably the crappiest travel day of our trip. We drove from Nuwara Eliya to Colombo, which took about 5 hours through lots of construction on VERY windy roads, then were taken on a tour of the Colombo. Traffic was awful, so we pretty much ended up sitting in the car for another couple of hours. Our flight was not until 1:40am the next morning, but we got dropped at the airport around 6pm. Colombo is not a very fun airport to be stuck at for 8 hours. We found one cafeteria, and that’s pretty much all there was until we got through security. This was the first day we got pretty home sick. It was Thanksgiving, and we were just sitting in cars and airports, missing home. The employees were decorating Christmas trees in the airport, and there were so many family members saying goodbye to their kids. This one particular family was just so sweet - the entire extended family was at the airport seeing off a young family member. They were all crying and waving goodbye to him while he was in the security line for about 20 minutes. His full grown 40 something year old brother, mother, and grandparents just had tears streaming down their faces, and his nephews kept running in to the line to give him kisses goodbye. It really choked me up! We finally boarded our plane at about 1am for our overnight flight to Bangkok (only 3.5 hours). There, we had a layover, and landed in Chiang Mai around 11:30am. It was a long 24 hours and we got virtually no sleep, but we were really excited to start the SEA part of the trip!
Dambulla Cave Temples/Misc:
Sigiriya and Habarana area: