Simply put, the week in Sri Lanka was pure bliss. Honestly I didn’t quite know what to expect from this trip. I was just a happy trooper glad to be on a much needed vacation. Beyond that, I hadn’t given it too much thought. A vacation is a vacation I thought. But I hadn’t imagined it to be this good. I browsed the net and read up a bit before I left, I dint want to be completely lost. But really, seeing pictures on the net is one thing, and experiencing it is quite another.
There were two things that struck me when we arrived at Colombo. One that Sri Lanka is green. When you come from Bombay and you see tall, healthy trees in place of concrete matchbox like homes, it really hits you. And it pleases you to no end. I am sure even Sanjay Gandhi National Park is not this green!! Though I wouldn’t really know since I haven’t ever visited it. Two, everyone wears skirts. When I say everyone, I obviously mean the women. But the sheer percentage of those wearing skirts is very large. It’s not like they don’t wear saris but it looks like the skirt is the most preferred dress. And with reason. It a hot and humid country like SL, it makes good sense to wear comfortable, airy cotton skirts.
We visited 4 cities during the trip- Colombo, Katargama, Nuwara Eliya and Kandy. Colombo was more of a stopover. We stayed barely half a day before we headed off to Katargama by road. So our exploring Colombo was restricted to finding good restaurants to eat and some shopping here and there. We went to Katargama by car and en route stopped at Galle Fort. A beautiful large fort that hides within it what seems like a whole city! I found this pretty church made sometime in the 1700s by the Portuguese. The still hold service at the church every Sunday, which I thought was wonderful. But they also had lots of graves of people inside the church , which I thought was a little spooky. Cemeteries are often in the vicinity of the church but I haven’t ever seen a church that has graves inside it. I was marvelling at the architecture and its near flawless preservation till the time that the care taker brought my attention to the slabs underfoot, all bearing names of people who were laid to rest there. It was a quick wrap up after that, all the beauty of the structure quickly forgotten. There was a museum a few feet away from the church that I was keen on visiting but couldn’t cause it had shut for lunch. A chance discovery while driving through Galle Fort was Barefoot and an antique shop. Barefoot has some lovely articles, books, souvenirs. I liked practically all I saw but wasn’t willing to part with money yet. The shop seemed high priced and at the beginning of the trip I was holding on to my money real tight. Who know what interesting things I might find on the way. Things that I would like to possess. So a lot of oooh-ing and aaah-ing happened at Barefoot but not a single item was purchased. The antique shop that we stumbled upon lead to ooh-ing and aah-ing of a different kind. Look ma! They have porcelain cups and saucers! And wall clocks! And daggers!!! How cool! My dad was as unimpressed as he always is with history. Technology is his thing, so old dusty vases and daggers just don’t do it for him. But he showed utmost patience while we looked through each article on each rack. I think it goes without saying, I bought absolutely nothing at the shop. I did however tell the proprietor I liked his collection even when I couldn’t afford it and with his permission clicked a few pictures to file away in my world travel history records.
The second stop on the way to Katargama was at Hikkuduwa. We hired a boat with a very lean, muscular looking boatman(if the man has a motor boat is he still called a boatman?even when he doesn’t row?) a loaf of complimentary bread and our cameras. The boatman’s limited English and our completely absent Singhalese made communication very difficult. The boat had a glass window at the bottom through which you could look down at the sea. After leading us well into the sea, he pointing at the glass saying “see!see!” When we tumbled over each other to find the exact target that he was pointing out to us, he would say ” All coral. Dead coral” Thank you very much, I dint come all the way into the choppy ocean in this rickety boat to see dead coral. We couldn’t find too many thriving coral reefs. I wanted to spot vibrant, healthy ones, the kind that they keep showing on Discovery. Dint find any of those. Even the ones the boatman said were alive dint have resplendent colours, but we did find some pretty fish! Or maybe the fish smelt the bread and swarmed around the boat eyeing a piece or two. The shimmering fish met Discovery standards. I am not complaining about the lack of coral reefs, I am quite happy with the fish, I am but wondering if we killed them due to environmental pollution or something.
Being a pilgrimage for Hindu and Buddhists alike, Katargama was a very peaceful place. Its a small town and mainly offers the famous Murugan Swami temple along with a few monasteries. We visited the temple at aarti time and we quite baffled by the aarti procedure being followed there. It was very hot that day so I was running low on patience and the aarti was going on and on. That too with the curtains drawn! I was a bit annoyed. I am used to seeing an idol when I walk into a temple and if I find the curtains drawn I expect them to be opened at the time of aarti. That’s how it works, at least in India. So it just feels odd to pray looking at a curtain painted with the picture of the god. Locals tried to explain to us that in this particular temple you aren’t allowed to see the idol. It always remains veiled. Woookay, if that’s how we do it here, then that’s how it will be done! So for the first time in my life I tried praying looking at the picture of Lord Murugan painted on a curtain while my mind kept wondered trying to imagine what the idol looked like. But I must say this, the lack of a visible idol dint take away from the tranquillity of the temple. We also visited one of the large monasteries adjacent to the temple. I loved the smell of incense that enveloped the monastery and the idols of Buddha that were placed around the periphery of the main dome of the monastery. For those not too keen on temple hopping while at Katargama, there is the Yala Natural Park that promises exotic birds, deer and leopards. Early birds that my parents are we opted for a 5 am safari instead of the 5 pm one. The hour that it took to get to the park in an open jeep was spent partly dozing and partly in awe of the beautiful, constantly changing landscape surrounding me.
The birds were truly exotic- multi hued, chirpy and active inthe early morning hours. We spotted a few Jungle Fowl. Its the national bird of SL and is nothing like the fowl we see here. It has an elaborate plumage an attractive red in colour. We encountered shy deer, lazy crocodiles, birds of all shapes and sizes, kinda ugly looking wild boars and elephants families. The leopards aren’t exactly morning people so we dint find even one of them but we met their tribesmen, the jackals. Not too bad for a safari I think. We took a breakfast break right at the seashore that touches one part of the Park. This was the section of the national park that was badly hit during the tsunami. The authorities have installed a stone slab in memory of those people who lost their lives to nature’s fury. The jeep driver informed us with a big smile “Indian doctor coming tsunami time. Helping Sri Lanka. Very good.” It felt nice to hear that. A cordial relation with neighbours is always a good thing.
The next town on the map was Nuwara Eliya. And what a town it was! What Nainital is to us, Nuwarea Eliya is to SL. It’s a popular hill station that is visited by natives and foreigners alike. Its known for its tea plantations. I have never seen so much tea in my life! Imagine finding hills covered in tea shrubs everywhere you see, with the odd woman here and there hand picking tea leaves. Tea doesn’t have any particular smell when it is grown but it does paint the entire landscape a breathtakingly pretty green. The women working in the tea plantations are more than willing to stop working for a few seconds and pose for the camera with their bags of freshly plucked tea hanging over their backs. I guess they are used to tourists and their touristy demands J As evening descended upon us we began giving investing in woollens a serious thought. There was a nip in the air. Ok, more than a nip in the air and our cotton clothes weren’t offering much protection. When we had arrived at the hotel in the afternoon, we were told we could use the heater in the room. I laughed to myself. Who needs a heater? The weather is just perfect. It not cold, its pleasant. By 7 pm the heater was running and it was doing no good. It was more of a show piece I think kept to add value to the decor of the room. They dint want to leave the fireplace (all colonial hotels in Nuwara Eliya had fire places)empty so they stuck a heater that had the shape of a stack of wood longs in. Its a different matter that a heater with works on like 20 W doesn’t radiate much heat. We longed for the shawls dumped along with odonils in the bed boxes at home that never see the light of the day. After much discussion we chose to brave the cold, layered up in additional t-shirts and chunnis wrapped around us. No, we dint do that because we wanted to test our will power against the onslaught of nature, but mainly because we knew we had no place to store any more woollens at home. The following morning we crossed the lake at the centre of the town. It was like a typical picnic spot -hoards of school children (wearing sweaters, please note), families on boat rides, mother running after toddler with the fathers clicked pictures. None of us was keen on a boat ride, so we gave that lake and its allure a skip and went to what is believed to be Ashok Vatika, the place where Ravan had kept Sita after abducting her. Some Indians have contributed to make a small temple there. There aren’t many people who stop by at this particular place so there is no noise, no chaos, just one pujari, two-three visitors and a fresh water stream gurgling in the background. The caretaker asked us if we were from India and then himself came forward and told us we could take pictures. Not a general practice at the temple, but for Indians he was volunteering to bend the rules a little. We said our prayers and then headed to Kandy. On the way, we stopped at a tea factory that was set up by the British in 1800s where we purchased a few kilos of tea to distribute the entire khandan and got a conduced tour to tea processing at the factory. I picked up a few souvenirs from the tea factory- tiny ceramic tea pots and a few mugs.
Kandy has the famous tooth relic shrine of Gautam Buddha and that’s the first thing we saw there after hunting for a hotel. The sheer number of people queued up at the shrine tells you how important it is to the Buddhists. Of all the places we had visited so far, this was probably the most crowded. We had to stand in the line for more than half an hour before we were allowed to go to the main section that housed a tooth of Buddha. I couldn’t see anything though. It was too crowded and the tooth was very well covered in ornate cases. But still, it was a beautiful shrine with carved wooden pillars, painted walls and ceilings. There was a separate hall towards one side of the shrine that had depicted pictorially the history of the shire and how the tooth came from India to Sri Lanka. Fascinating stuff.
Towards the end of the journey while driving back to Colombo airport, we made two stop overs- one at Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage and another at a Government run spice garden. SL has many of these spice garden, some run by the government and others privately owned, where a variety of medicinal plants are cultivated and processed into usable forms of medicine. A young boy studying to be an Ayurvedic doctor was our guide and introduced the plants to us. Some of the plants like pepper, cumin, sandalwood are found in India too but he also introduced us to some indigenous plants, the names of which I have conveniently forgotten!Btw,that below is a picture of a cocoa tree.
The elephants at Pinnawela were cute beyond belief. Well kept and healthy looking, we visited them while they were enjoying their 5 pm meal. We found some really young elephants that were more interested in playing by themselves that eating, some slightly older ones who played or rather wrestled with each other and some older, more mature ones who looked over what was happening around them rather seriously. Elephants have such character .After observing them at close quarters for a while, I was amazed to see how human like they can be in their behaviour. I think, with their eyes they all look so sensible and wise.
That in a nut-shell was the Sri Lanka we visited. Do I think you should go there? YES! I am not being paid by the Tourist Department of SL’s government; I have solid reason to back up my suggestion.
a) SL is near by. It’s as close to Bombay as say Calcutta. Plus you get a visa right at the airport so that makes it really convenient.
b) The people are really nice and I am not just saying that. I found everyone polite, soft spoken and willing to help (with or without the language barrier!).Generally everyone seems to be calm,composed and polite. May be its because they have idols of Buddha all over the city. It must be calming the mind or something.
c) Talking of language, English works just fine most of the times so the inability to speak Singhalese or Tamil doesn’t take away from your trip.
d) The country is quite tourist oriented so its not a problem at all to find a decent hotel, a good restaurant or touristy places and activities.
e) The general maintenance of building whether private or governmental, historical or modern is impressive. We visit the Taj and find it in anything but the best condition but when you see even a small monastery in SL, you find it painted, clean and well kept. I agree that SL is a much smaller country so its probably not as hard to maintain it as India. But its not only about the size of the country, its to do with the attitude of the people. We dint find a single name scratched on the walls, dint find litter on the road and dint find people cutting in the line( except at the tooth relic shrine where two women with small babies cut the line. Considering that their kids almost looked new born and the place was really crowded, I don’t really object)
f) Sri Lankans seem especially nice to Indians. Security is tight at most places but when they see Indians, many times they don’t ask to see the passport. Instead they smile and ask “Where from?” When you say “Bombay”, their smile gets broader and they say “Shah Rukh Khan” or “Sachin Tendulkar”. For all the stern look and combat gear they are as star struck as any one of us.
g) If you like sea food, SL is the place to be. You will find sea food everywhere.
h) The Indian rupee is stronger than the Sri Lankan one. If you are a compulsive shopper, that works to your advantage.
Those are good enough reasons to make a trip, if you ask me. So tell me now, where did you say you were going for your next vacation?