I don’t know much about Sri Lanka and it’s never been on my list of places to go. Nina was talking about checking it out and doing a workaway for a few weeks before going home. When I discovered I wasn’t going back to Thailand after my trip to Malaysia, I decided to join her. Instead of workaway, we’re traveling all over the country for the full 30 days allowed by the tourist visa. We made a rough itinerary of things and places we want to see, but no firm plans. We have plenty of time to take our time. If we like a place we’ll stay for an extra day or 2. If we want to spend the whole day lounging, we can do that too, and see the sights the next day. Slow travel. The only slight hiccup: I’m not sure I like Sri Lankan food enough for 30 days.
A small-ish island below the southern tip of India, Sri Lankan history, culture, and food is understandably heavily influenced by its neighbor to the north. Sri Lanka gained independence from the British in 1948, and it was called Ceylon until 1972. The two largest ethnic groups are the Sinhalese and Tamils, with two official languages of the same names. The majority of the roughly 20 million people here are Buddhist or Hindu.
Sri Lanka is 9 1/2 hours ahead of New York. What’s with the half? Time zones are confusing and seemingly arbitrary. For example, the whole of Malaysia is in the same time zone. Have you seen a map? Malaysia is fairly spread out. And peninsular Malaysia, which shares a land border with Thailand, is an hour ahead of Thailand. That makes no sense. Apparently the Malaysian government wanted the whole country to be the same. China does the same thing; the whole country follows one time zone.
Colombo, the capital, has the only international airport. Other than that, there doesn’t seem to be much to do or see. Since the country is fairly small and getting around isn’t too difficult, Colombo is a great starting point because you can get pretty much anywhere from there.
First stop Kandy and a traditional dance performance. The dances centered around drummers and a flute. Everyone’s outfits were brightly colored and each dance had a meaning and told a story. From Kandy, we headed for ancient Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka has 8 UNESCO World Heritage sites. First we went to Sigiriya, home to ancient ruins on a mountain top. Sigiriya rock, standing at 200 meters (660 feet) is often referred to as Lion Rock. Sigiriya was home to the palace of King Kasyapa from 477 – 495 BC. Even ancient kings agreed with me: always climb to the top. It’s always worth it, despite the big signs telling you to be quiet because of the giant wasps nests. When we finally reached the top it was so, so, so windy that I thought I might get blown off the mountain.
Dambulla is home to a Buddhist temple built into a series of caves. The best part were the intricately painted ceilings.
The son of the guesthouse owner drove us everywhere in his tuk tuk. We wanted to walk to dinner the first night in Sigiriya, but as we started to walk out of the guesthouse, the woman who runs it started following us. When we told her we were walking to dinner, she shook her head and motioned for us to come back to the guesthouse. Were we not allowed to leave? But we needed food. Her son offered to drive us but we didn’t want to make extra work for him and didn’t mind walking. No, she said, it’s dangerous to walk especially at night. Why? There are wild elephants that sometimes cross the road, especially during dry season, to get water. A few months ago apparently a Ukrainian tourist was killed. Ok, we’re happy to take the tuk tuk. We never did see any wild elephants.
The bus to Anuradhapura was…interesting. We got on the bus and there were no seats available. When there are no seats left on a bus you apparently do not need to wait for the next one. We stood. I had a good spot and had a seat to lean on and a rail to hold onto. The driver seemed to be sticking to his lane; all good. That was until we stopped and 4 more people got on the bus. We were 7 people standing in a space reasonably meant for 4. I was practically sitting in someone’s lap at every turn. Luckily not everyone was going all the way to Anuradhapura, and the bus eventually emptied enough so we got seats.
Anuradhapura was the capital of ancient Sri Lanka (Ceylon) from roughly the 4th century BC to the 11th century AD. The city was established when a cutting of the sacred Bodhi tree that Buddha sat under when he reached enlightenment was brought to the area and replanted. The tree is known as the Sri Maha Bodhi. A temple was built around it and it is an important pilgrimage site. The tree is said to be the oldest historically authenticated tree in the world. Large metal poles hold up the branches and it has supposedly been tended to by generations of guardians for more than 2,000 years. We visited another tree which is supposedly also 2,000 years old. Parts of it looked like branches had grown so long that they touched the ground and put down roots. In other places it looked like other trees were planted and were growing so that their branches could support the older tree. We also visited the oldest stupa in Sri Lanka and what our guide says is the biggest stupa in the world. The internet says it’s one of the tallest structures of the ancient world, I think after the pyramids in Egypt.
Mihintale is where Buddhism began in Sri Lanka. Once again we climbed to the top. These stairs weren’t quite as, shall we say, well defined as the ones in the climb up Sigiriya rock. People have been visiting this site, climbing up these slightly precarious rocks for thousands of years.
There’s one major problem with always climbing to the top: eventually you have to climb back down. Sometimes your knees and calves are mad at you the next day, and sometimes down is scarier than up. Sometimes you have to accept that you’re fairly uncoordinated and not very graceful, and go down in your hurt.
Now we’re in Trincomalee waiting for the storms to die down in the rest of the country. More on that soon. Bad internet is making uploading photos difficult, so a photo post will be along soon too.