IT MAY NOT make it to the list of top 10 places to include in your bucket list, but Sri Lanka, which literally means resplendent or blessed island, is definitely worth a visit.
In earlier times, the Muslims of South India called the country serendip, as in “serendipity,” which means finding happiness in unexpected places. And rightly so, as in this country of surprises, we found unexpected bliss.
Sri Lanka is a country for the laid back tourist, the nature and animal lover, the tea drinker, the adventure seeker, the curious historian, and those on a strict budget. For such a small country, it offers a lot more bang for a lot less bucks. Our five-day backpacking journey proved to be a feel-good experience, with many unexpected encounters with the friendly locals, trained animals, and the place itself. Invariably, at the end of our day, we found ourselves smiling at the memory of such rich moments.
The start of our journey, when we hopped on an overloaded bus to Kandy, proved to be prescient. As we had to stand on the bus for three hours, a woman on the front seat offered to carry our backpacks, a big help in such a congested space.
But Third World as the transport might be, the streets of Kandy showed us the fascinating contrast between the grandeur of British architecture in its restaurants and government offices, and the lush mountains in the distance dominated by a huge white statue of a Buddha sitting above its peak. The stark cultural mix is amazing.
More contrast is afoot: At the heart of the city is a tranquil lake that provides one a good glimpse of the famous Temple of the Tooth, so called because this is where the tooth relic of Buddha is believed to be preserved. The white temple stands in sharp contrast to the dark green of the forest in the background, and shelters a vast garden studded with a few stupas, structures that are used for worship and to house the relics and ashes of Buddhist monks. There are countless shrines dedicated to Buddha, each with the requisite bodhi tree, the most important tree in Sri Lanka. The trees provide welcome shade to visiting pilgrims and tourists alike, the warm welcome underscored by the prayer flags of white, yellow and red fluttering from tree branches.
A country known for its elephant conservation programs, Sri Lanka gives one an excellent excuse to visit one such facility. We visited the facility in Kegalle, Pinnawala, just an hour away from Kandy, which has a vast, natural forest and a stream. We headed to the stream where Rani, our 30-year-old female elephant, was waiting for us. The mahout instructed Rani to lie down on the water for her bath, and we cleansed her body using a coconut husk. The elephant then kneeled down and the mahout helped us sit on her back. Suddenly, Rani stood up and thence commenced our moment of fright and excitement. Our ride felt unstable and we quaked with mixed emotions.
We heard the mahout instructing Rani in Sinhalese, and next thing we knew, the elephant was hosing us down with water from her trunk! She did it twice, the second time with more precision and strength. It was a good playful bath.
Still riding on Rani’s capacious back, we toured the forest and met two more tourists having the ride of their lives as well.
But elephants in Sri Lanka apparently give more than just thrilling rides to tourists. Even their dung contributes to the country’s economy, as we found out when we visited the only elephant dung paper factory in South Asia. A sprightly old man greeted us by scooping, without any hesitation, a handful of elephant dung from a pile. Extending his hand to the level of our faces, he gestured for us touch and smell the dried-up dung. It was surprisingly odorless!
In this elephant conservation that houses six elephants, the pachyderms are fed rice paddy straw, cinnamon, coconut leaves or banana bark. Since most kinds of fiber can be converted into paper, elephant dung from digested fiber can be made into paper.
As elephants yield tons of dung in a month, the sustainable business found a way to turn waste into eco-material and a way to earn a living for the locals. The trip to the dung paper factory completely changed our way of seeing dung. Thanks to a meticulous process perfected by the country’s entrepreneurs, we now equate dung in Sri Lanka with books and papier mache products.
Wanting to give ourselves a natural high, we next traveled to Nuwara Eliya, a town situated at a high elevation. The salubrious climate in hill stations provided us respite from the equatorial climate of the rest of Sri Lanka. As our bus reached the station, our attention was drawn to a rosy-pink bricked structure. The quaint- looking post office in 18th century Tudor style building was among the few old buildings in the community that have survived the ravages of time.
A few hours away, the Horton Plains National Park adjacent to high mountain ranges, provides access to an authentic wildlife reservation amidst grasslands and cloud forests. Just when hiking through seems an endless, thankless task, the plain comes to a sudden stop at World’s End. The thrilling experience of standing next to a cliff that cuts straight down some 860 meters and which overlooks tea plantations, is truly unforgettable.
After a day of trekking, a cup of tea sounded good. Fortunately, Sri Lanka is also famous for making good tea, so we didn’t miss a chance to taste it at a tea farm near the main road. Farmers were picking leaves when we arrived, a good photo opportunity except they were asking for money in exchange for picture-taking.
The view was amazing and free, however, with the morning sun bathing the farm in dappled light. At the tea factory, the guide toured us and explained the process of tea making, from the planting to the grinding. The tour ended with a complimentary cup of fine tea that we drank in the café whose ambience reminded us of a country home overlooking a farm.
Another must-see is the Unesco World Heritage site built in the 5th Century A.D, the Sigiriya Rock. The entrance to The Rock complex is a long stretch of terracotta-brown dirt road, lined with tall trees.
Entering the walled city circled by a moat, one is entranced by the symmetrical plan of the place. The Rock sits in the middle of the vista and can be reached through a central pathway lined with trees and flanked by man-made water gardens used as a hydraulic system.
On the day we visited The Rock, we joined the long line of tourists inching their way up the steel stairway to reach The Rock’s summit. Mid-way to the top, on the west wall’s rock depression, were frescoes of apsaras or celestial nymphs rendered in radiant colors and drawn in stylized, linear manner.
Further up a base is a massive rock sculpture of a lion, its paws wide apart and its wide-open mouth serving as an entrance. This mouth has a stairwell further up the summit of the Rock, that serves as entry point to the “city palace.” At the summit, we wandered around the gardens and ruins of this former palace. Taking in fresh air 200 meters above a lovely, verdant plain, we felt ourselves relaxing completely, our consciousness wrapped momentarily in the sublime beauty of the landscape.
Suddenly, we found ourselves landing back to earth with a thud—a monkey had quickly and effortlessly swiped our bag of two bananas! Lesson learned: Never leave bananas dangling when passing through monkey territory.
Then it was on to more ruins in Sri Lanka’s second capital city built over 800 years ago: Polonnaruwa. The 20 ruins consisting of temples, stupas, houses, and Buddha statues are all located in a large area called The Quadrangle, where biking seems to be the ideal mode of getting around as a natural forest, a pack of deer, and background music from humming birds and wailing monkeys provided unsurpassed entertainment. The place couldn’t be more charming, what with a turn-of-the-century European train station and the helpful and cheerful locals.
Left untouched to be explored by one’s imagination are the ruined walls and the intricate sculptures of elephants, apsaras and vine patterns. Walking barefoot beside a Buddha with only its feet left and standing in front of a human figure with its head gone, one can only turn to imagination to fill in what once was there.
Going further, one found that structures became more interesting and larger in scale. One temple had an exterior architecture that was surprisingly like that of a cathedral. The stupas, running about 100 meters in diameter, were both intriguing and alienating, as they don’t have visible entrances, just a flat surfaced dome from the ground up with a spire at the top.
The largest image house in Sri Lanka made of red bricks had a decrepit giant Buddha as its centerpiece. Three more colossal Buddhas–one seated, another standing, and yet another sleeping, were sculpted directly from a mountain rock. They were so big that the ankle of the standing Buddha was about our height. This standing Buddha also has its arms uniquely crossed on his chest. When we visited, a gaggle of high school students were praying in front of them.
Our trip in Polonnaruwa ended at the train station where we had booked an overnight trip to Colombo. The station’s office had vintage European equipment that, to our surprise, are still being used. The officer eagerly gave us a quick demo on how things work and we felt like we were in a museum tour.
We felt even more time-warped when we saw our cabin and the fresh sheets and private bathroom, all of which made us feel like rich privileged women from a more genteel past. We thanked the officer for accommodating us and taking care of our baggage. Knowing him was a good way to conclude our trip. He’s never left Polonnaruwa, he said, not even during the war. And he was mighty proud of it.
I guess, given Sri Lanka’s many charms, this local had good reason to stay. •