Why Not Sri Lanka

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Had it not been for the prospect of climbing Adam’s Peak, I would have easily looked past and beyond Sri Lanka in search of other more familiar and exotic vacation spots. I have heard very little about the country, and when it did make it on the world news headlines not too long ago, they were all bad news. To be caught in a cross-fire in a civil war zone or be dragged into the middle of the ocean by a tsunami isn’t exactly my idea of a good time, if you know what I mean. And so it was with much trepidation that I venture into the heart of this tiny island-nation, expecting nothing, daring only to hope that I will not make it into the casualty list of a natural or man-made disaster.

Eight days seven nights later, I left the Pearl of the Indian Ocean, humbled by the beauty of its land and the hospitality of the Sri Lanka folks.

Sri Lanka is a land of remarkable diversity. Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Muslims live peacefully side by side. Religious differences are apparent on the streets. Tamil women with their golden jewellery and colourful saris walk alongside veiled Muslim women and orange-clad monks. Houses of worship stand tall and grand across the streets from one and the other. The muadzin’s call for prayers can be heard above the sermon of a Buddhist priest in a nearby temple. Colourful tuk-tuks (a three-wheeler motorised van) weave urgently on narrow paved roads between busses and trucks painted with elaborate designs and motifs, constantly blaring their horns noisily as if to announce their presence at every curb and corner.

The vibrant Sri Lanka street-life blends almost magically with its colourful landscape. Hazy-blue mountain ranges dominate the skyline in the central region casting dramatic shadows over the luscious-green tea plantations that cover practically every contour of the hills. Warm sandy beaches hug its tear-drop coastal lines as far as the eyes could see. The mighty Indian Ocean surrounding the island is an attraction in its own right. Its high waves crash endlessly on the shoreline, spraying mist into the salty air. Traditional wooden catamaran dot the horizon, its flapped-out sails catching the early morning breeze, as local fishermen set out to reap the sea’s bounty. On fields along the beaches, everywhere, young Sri Lankan boys are playing a game of cricket.

Despite the chaos and relative poverty, Sri Lanka is beautiful, clean and safe. The people are friendly and aren’t shy to greet you with a simple hello and a warm smile as they pass you by on the streets. Many speak English, and are genuinely helpful, with the predictable exception of ultra-touristy places such as the beach areas and present-day Colombo where tuk-tuk drivers offer “best price” to the unsuspecting foreign visitor.

Adam’s Peak
I begin my journey, with my travel partner, Yong, at the foothills of Adam’s Peak situated about 30km from Hatton. Known locally as Sri Pada, the mountain is a pilgrimage site for the four main religions – Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity – the focal point being a sacred footprint atop its peak. The Buddhists believe it is the footprint of the Buddha; in the Hindu tradition, of Lord Shiva, and for the Muslims and Christians, it is that of Adam. The mountain stands at 2, 243m (7, 359 ft) a.s.l. Its peak is accessible via various route, the most popular is from Hatton. No climbing skills are needed, only a strong pair of legs and knees to walk up thousands of steps on the 5km route. Buddhist and Hindu pilgrims believe that the longer the route taken, the more the heavenly reward to be gained.

A steady shower and strong cold winds accompany our ascend in the wee hours of the morning. The dark and unlit paths makes it even more unsavoury. The peak is shrouded with thick mist, diminishing all hopes of seeing the sunrise. The steps become narrower and steeper as we get nearer to the top, making it feel as though you are walking up a staircase in the clouds. A 2-storey pagoda-like structure at the top provide little protection to the wet and cold climbers. Needless to say, September isn’t the best time to climb. According to the guide, the ideal climbing weather starts in December to May during the pilgrimage season, when the weather is cool and sunny, and the paths will be lit up by lamp posts and lights from the make-shift tea shops set up along the way.

Alas, I didn’t get to see the sacred footprint as it is closed for viewing during non-peak season. But as if to make up for the dark and weary spell of its ascend, Adam’s Peak reveals its true beauty at first light. On the way down, I come across 5 waterfalls lined up side by side, each at least ten-storey high, rush and roar down the gray mountain walls providing a spectacular backdrop against the vast green tea-plantations in the valley below. I wondered then if Adam might have mistaken Sri Lanka for the Garden of Eden. I wouldn’t blame Him if he had.

Tuk-tuks and Train
Traveling in Sri Lanka is easy. A variety of mode of transportation to choose from and the roads are paved, although one may be put off by the relatively long travel time to get from one place to another since there isn’t any highway or expressway to get on to. The roads leading up to the hill country are especially narrow and bumpy, and so it takes a very patient and skilfull driver to negotiate the sharp bends while keeping a constant lookout for oncoming busses and trucks hurtling down the winding road.

I must detract and note this down: road-users of Sri Lanka are some of the most patient and tolerant bunch I have ever encountered. I was constantly in awe at how they’re able to ‘sort’ themselves out of a traffic jam or crawl. Drivers, young and old, seem so cool and unruffled, without any of that ‘I’m-Going-To-Stab-You-In-The-Heart’ stare Malaysian drivers (yours truly included) sometimes give to the driver in the next car who’s thinking of cutting queue. Drivers sensibly use car horns (and they honk a LOT) before overtaking as a means of saying “excuse me, I want to pass” and the vehicle in front graciously slowed down to give way. As a matter of fact, I did not once hear any of my car or tuk-tuk or van drivers grumble, curse or spit – ever! Even pedestrians walking on or crossing the road seem happy going where they want to go with confidence that they won’t be run over. Yet another amazing discovery I made during the numerous road journey up and down the country is that there wasn’t a single road traffic accident! There is a lesson to be learned here, people. Think about it.

Train travel never fail to fascinate me, so that’s why I make it a point to include a train ride at least once in my itinerary; especially more so after seeing pictures of rail adventures in India and Sri Lanka where passengers scramble for seats and ride on train rooftops. Well, I didn’t see any of the rooftop scene, but scramble we did when we took the train out of Hatton to Nuwara Eliya. The local train was already crowded by the time we boarded, so we ended up perching precariously on the cold steel floor by the doorways between the rail cars throughout the 2-hour ride! But for RM1.40 (LKR62) on 2nd class carriage, who can complain?! Throughout the journey we were treated with a picturesque landscape of neatly-clipped tea estates flanking both sides of the track, with tea-pickers expertly plucking fresh twigs for their baskets. From a distance, they look like herds of mountain goats grazing slowly on the slopes in the setting sun.

Nuwara Eliya
The town sits at 1, 980 meters (6, 496 ft) a.s.l. under the shadow of the Knuckles Mountain Range. This is where the first of the many hill stations were built by the English tea planters. A walk around the town centre reveals traces of the Englishmen ‘footsteps’. In fact, just about anything and everything ‘English’ can be found here – from the classic Victorian-style structures to an 18-hole golf course, and from botanical gardens down to a race-horse course. And then there is the tea, tea and more tea! The one thing that’s missing is perhaps the jam and scones. But I figure the Sri Lankans must have insisted on keeping it ‘local’ by having spicy Vadey instead with their afternoon tea.

You may have guessed by now that Nuwara Eliya is the capital of the tea industry in Sri Lanka. The finest tea in the world, Ceylon Tea, is cultivated and processed here. Expectedly, you can see acres upon acres of tea estates in the outskirts of the town. A visit to a tea factory is absolutely mandatory. Locals buy loose tea leaves or tea dusts by the pounds. In fact there is so much tea around that I find myself hooked on it after only two days in the hill country. There must be something in the air or the water that makes the beverage so irresistable. Or is it all in the tea leaves?

Sigiriya Rock Fortress
In the middle of a tropical rain forest, visible from far and wide on the top of a massive rock, lies perhaps Sri Lanka’s greatest treasure: SIGIRIYA, a glorious citadel built in the 5th century AD. The fortress was used by Prince Kassapa as a hide-out from his revenge-seeking half brother, Prince Mogellana, whom the younger prince had overthrown and driven out in exile to India. Kassapa, in order to gain the throne, had earlier captured their father, the king, and then had him entombed alive. Mogellana later returned home, but before he could have the pleasure of capturing his little brother, Kassapa killed himself with a dagger.

We made the climb up the rock fortress on the 4th day of our journey. We purposely choose to walk from our hotel to the site (about 1.5 km), just to loosen up our still-stiff muscles suffered from the Adam’s Peak hike. The entrance fee to the ancient complex costs USD30 per person, but it was well worth every dime.

The rock rests on a steep mound that rises abruptly from the flat plains surrounding it. It stands approximately 380 meters (1, 246 ft) a.s.l. with sheer drops on all sides. There are steel steps and ladders embedded into the rock walls which made the climb to the top fairly easy. But it is intriguing how the Prince’s builders, craftsmen and slaves were able to hoist themselves up and build the royal citadel back then.

During his reign, Prince Kassapa had transformed Sigiriya into a pleasure palace with a massive swimming pool carved out of solid rock, and palace gardens complete with canals as a source of irrigation. There is even a moat built around the palace ground as protection from invaders. The ruins of the Palace of the Clouds with its magnificent gardens, the Mirrored Wall and fabulous frescoes of dancing beauties are well-preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is a definite must-see for the history and archaelogical buffs.

Negombo
After traversing the highlands in the central region for 5 days, we finally reach the coast. As the rented car we were traveling in inched closer into town, the Indian Ocean comes into sight. There then my mind drifted to the disturbing visual images of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. Although Negombo was miraculously spared, it still hurts to imagine how terribly frightening it must have been for those who had to face the killer monster waves. But life goes on for the resilient Sri Lankans. It would seem they have cast aside their fears and managed to put their shattered lives back together again. Fishermen still go out to sea, and the fish market and jetties are alive with the normal activities. Eight years down the road, people joke about it. Just before the disaster struck, the Government received a message: “Tsunami is coming!!” so they sent someone to the airport with a sign saying “Welcome Mr. Tsunami”.

Negombo beach is bursting with hotels and the air is filled with the smell of foreign dollars. Small shops selling souvenirs, jewelleries, and refreshments lined the inner streets. Strangely enough though, unlike in a typical tourist spot, there is no nightlife here – no clubs, no bars, no fancy eateries. Beach-lovers looking for soft white sand and swaying coconut trees might be disappointed to find Negombo not the idyllic beach paradise one would normally expect. For me, however, the Indian Ocean is what I came here for. As I stand at the water’s edge, listening to the thunderous sound of the waves crashing at my feet as the orange sun slowly sinks into the horizon, I knew I made the right choice.

Colombo
The final leg of my journey is spent in the capital city, shopping for souvenirs at Odel. The tuk-tuk ride from Negombo lasted almost 2 hours, even though the distance is only 38 km. And because we set out from Negombo late in the afternoon, there wasn’t enough time to explore the city. Still, we caught glimpses of the old and new Colombo from the back of our tuk-tuk.

Modern multi-storey condominiums and high-walled bungalows can be seen back-to-back with historical buildings such as the Victoria Memorial Hospital (1903) and the Dewatagaha Mosque (circa 1820). The Mosque stands opposite Odel, the largest shopping chain in SL. Expats, and tourists alike, join the hip and trendy local crowd at the mall’s side-walk cafes, sipping ice-blended coffee and tea.

Odel is like any other shopping malls we are familiar with in KL. It carries high-fashion brands and has many stores in and outside Colombo. Quality Sri Lanka souvenirs can be bought here, but at touristy price. I was a little disappointed though, not to find any locally-made white cotton blouses.

While riding back to our hotel, it struck me at how hard life must be for the people here to earn a living. A majority of its population live a simple life and in all the towns and villages I have come across, the quality of life seems somewhat fragile. Yet, I hardly see beggars or drifters anywhere; and I was especially impressed by the Sri Lankan youths whom many are earning a living as tuk-tuk drivers, tourist guides and roadside vendors, be it by choice or chance. I can only conclude that Sri Lankans are proud people with a stout sense of belief that only through hardwork and commitment can one survive this challenging world.

rrrt -10 Sept 2012