Apr/May 2004 Travel

The Spices in Sri Lanka

by Joanna and Mike Spice

Map of Sri Lanka

A couple of days after the end of our first semester at Fujairah Women's College, we headed for Sri Lanka. Although we had originally planned to book a package tour, we ended up simply buying plane tickets and organizing our tour around the island once we got there. Now, from hindsight, perhaps it wasn't the best decision after all, because it cost us a little more and we couldn't avoid certain logistical problems, but we probably got to see more than we would have on a package tour.

Since our plane left Dubai in the middle of the night, we arrived in Sri Lanka early in the morning, really tired. We went straight to our little and not-so-nice hotel on the beach in Negombo (north of Colombo, close to the airport) and slept for a few hours before exploring the area a bit and trying to figure out a way to hire a driver with a car for the next ten days. Mike did not drive in Sri Lanka, even though he had driven just fine in the crazy traffic in Mexico—a ten-minute taxi ride from the airport made us realize that what people had told us about driving in Sri Lanka was absolutely true: the roads were narrow and in varying states of disrepair, and the largest vehicle was always given the right of way, no matter what the signs said! Many a time did we see a bus or van overtake a three-wheel mini-taxi (called a tuk-tuk) with traffic coming from the opposite direction and some people riding bikes along the side as well... What was actually quite amazing was that despite all that vehicular insanity we did not see a single accident.

In the evening after a nice relaxing dinner at a beach restaurant, we talked to Madura, the man who became our driver. We agreed on the price per day in order to avoid the hassle of paying per kilometer and paying for gas, but the guy got a sweet deal with us anyway. The thing was that we wanted to leave Negombo the next morning, and we didn't really know how to find anyone else who could offer us a competitive price. Oh well.

So in the morning Madura arrived in his seven-seat van, and we drove along the narrow, congested roads to the ancient city of Anuradhapura. The city was the capital of the Sinhalese kingdom between the second century BC and 11th century AD and was filled with palaces and monasteries on the banks of big water reservoirs. The predominant structures of Anuradhapura today are the huge dagobas or domed buildings which apparently hold Buddhist relics. They aren't really buildings as there is no space inside them, so much as they are huge ornate stuccoed brick structures that function as huge Buddhist reliquaries. One of the most important shrines, however, is the site of the Sacred Bo Tree (Sri Maha Bodhi), which was supposedly planted from a sapling of the tree in India under which Buddha reached his enlightenment. The tree is the oldest historically documented tree in the world, as it has been guarded for over 20 centuries.

We toured the archaeological museum, then most of the dagobas and palaces, walking barefoot on the hot stones surrounding the shrines. The shrines had amazing friezes of elephants, lions and dragons, intricately carved moonstones (semicircular doorsteps), and—of course—multiple statues of Buddha before which people lay lotus and garland flowers. The trees around them teamed with monkeys (langurs and macaqs) completely nonplussed by the people visiting the sights. The town also had some Hindu temples, which stood out because of their colorfully painted roof sculptures. Sri Lanka is a very interesting country culturally. While predominantly Buddhist (80%), it's also home to Hindus, Christians and Muslims, all living next to each other and being able to tolerate their different religious beliefs.)

The next day we got in the van and drove across marshes and rice fields to another ancient city called Polonnaruwa. Before we reached the town, heavy dark rain clouds rolled in and then poured lots of huge raindrops—what a sight for us after living in the desert for five months!

Polonnaruwa was the second, medieval capital, first settled by the South-Indian Chola kings, and then taken over by the Sinhalese who turned it into a splendid city packed with extensive palace structures, temples and ponds. After a visit to a very interesting museum by the enormous reservoir, we walked around now roofless royal palaces and then the magnificent Quadrangle which houses a set of Buddhist temples and shrines, most of which were still quite well-preserved. North of the Quadrangle, beyond the city's medieval walls, we found more domed dagobas, a massive temple Lankatilaka with a huge standing Buddha, and then Gal Vihara—a complex of four colossal Buddhas sculptured out of a granite wall. Unfortunately there was an aluminum roof above two of the largest statues and another one was covered completely due to some restoration work... Finally, we stopped by a lotus pond and an image house (temple, really) with some beautiful frescoes.

We stayed overnight at a very nice resort near Dambulla, where we also got ourselves ayurvedic massages. The next morning we were ready to go to the nearby rock fortress of Sigiriya and get a bit of a break from the Buddhist temples and statues...

Sigiriya turned out to be a definite highlight for us. The story goes that in the 5th century an illegitimate son of a king killed his father and, afraid of the revenge by the rightful heir to the throne, built his fortress atop a huge 200- meter rock in Sigiriya where he hid for some sixteen years. (The ironic part is that in the end, when he proudly came down to face the royal prince, he took a wrong turn and ended up drowning in a swamp deserted by his soldiers...) The palace complex doesn't only sit on top of the rock though—there are immaculate gardens within the stone ramparts protecting the city.

The climb up the rock was quite steep. First we looked into the cave in the side of the rock that was decorated with colorful frescoes of beautiful women (“5th century pin-ups" as the Lonely Planet guide describes them.) We then continued our climb up the narrow stairways clinging right to the sheer rock walls (scary!!), stopping at the enormous lion's paws guarding the stairway about halfway through. The summit, where the palace once stood, shows only its extensive foundations (and some stairs and ponds) today, but the views are spectacular: mountains and lakes surround the jungle valley.

We could feel our legs when we got back to the van to head to the cave temples in Dambulla. The 1st century BC Buddhist temples are hidden in 5 caves up on a hill (luckily, nowhere near as high as Sigiriya). The caves contain about 150 Buddha statues in total, some really huge, and the walls and ceilings are covered in frescoes with even more Buddhas (maybe about a thousand were painted on the ceilings). I guess by then we had been a little Buddha'ed-out because, although impressed, we got more excited at the sight of an internet café, where we could check our e-mail for the first time since we left the UAE...

That night we got to Kandy, the country's second largest city, right in the heart of the island. Mike was very unhappy with the hotel our driver chose for us there and we eventually compromised by asking to move us to a quieter room for the night and then moving to a small guesthouse which Mike found high on a nearby hill (the view was really nice from there) for our second night in town. Dealing with accommodation and another outpour of heavy rain prevented us from seeing anything in the evening, but we knew we had at least a day and a half to explore.

Kandy was the last Sinhalese capital and is to this day a center of culture, art, and religion. It is situated in the midst of lush mountains and hills and is a little cooler than the plains we visited earlier. In the middle of the town there is a lake which nicely reflects the royal palace buildings and the most sacred of the Buddhist shrines in Sri Lanka – the Temple of the Tooth (apparently containing the relic of Buddha's tooth). But for us the first place to visit in the morning was the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage outside Kandy.

Due to bad traffic, we missed the morning bottle-feeding of baby elephants, but we got to walk among these large (and some smaller) gentle beasts and even pet some! The elephants were later taken across the road to the river for their daily splash and scrub. We stayed there for over an hour watching them play and soak.

On the way back toward Kandy, we also visited a spice garden where a man showed us all kinds of plants which we use for spices and of course did not omit to say how all of these plants are great cures for anything from diabetes to acne (and flatulence, too!). It was a real tourist trap, so we split without buying anything. Next we spent a few afternoon hours in the Botanical Gardens, having lunch, admiring a humongous Javan fig tree (ficus benjamina) that covers an area of 1600 square meters, and walking under trees laden with literally hundreds (if not thousands) of bats (flying foxes) which fly over the city every night at sunset. Finally we got back to the center of the city to check out the Temple of the Tooth and then attend a performance of Kandyan dances, complete with fire-walking at the end!

The following morning we paid a visit to a batik factory where we purchased some really nice wall hangings for our big white walls in Fujairah, and from there the van climbed up and up the curvy, narrow mountain roads among tea plantations to Nuwara Eliya. We got a bit more educated about tea along the way at one of the factories, of course.

Nuwara Eliya was cool – literally, as it's quite high in the mountains. We stayed at an old colonial hotel called St. Andrew's, in a nice room with a loft. Mike took the opportunity to play a round of golf at the nearby golf course, while I read by the window overlooking the gardens that afternoon. We had to recharge our batteries before our 10-kilometer hike to the end of the world (World's End) the next day.

At sunrise we awoke to the calls from a mosque, truly beautifully sounding and echoing in the mountains around town. Next came a cacophony of chants and drums from a Hindu temple and at 6 a.m. bells at the Catholic church rang. Could this happen anywhere else in the world?

We were driven to the national park on Horton Plains, a peaceful plateau covered with grasses, rhododendrons and smaller trees. World's End is a spot where the plateau comes to an end forming a precipice of 800 meters. It was surreal to look down the extremely deep valley from there. On the way back we also hiked to a beautiful waterfall. We saw some monkeys and big jungle squirrels in the trees too.

Our next destination was Yala West National Park, apparently full of monkeys, birds, crocodiles, herds of buffalo, elephants and even an occasional leopard or two. Our driver arranged a jeep that would take us on the safari to Yala at dawn. The jeep was an ancient, noisy Land Rover stinking of exhaust which we had to breathe in for three or four hours while trying to spot the animals, which – as you can imagine – did not make this part of our trip our favorite. We did see lots of buffalo, colorful birds, peacocks displaying their tails in a mating dance, mongooses, crocodiles by the waterholes and a couple of big male elephants, but ended up with major headaches and nausea from the disgusting fumes, so we can't say it was really worth the money and time after all.

Later that day we got to relax though at the heavenly Dikwella Village Resort. We were right on a beautiful southern beach with swaying palms and warm, warm ocean water. After a nap we enjoyed a very nice dinner buffet and then fell asleep to the sound of the waves. In the morning we went to sunbathe a bit. We read and Mike also rented a boogie board for an hour or so and played in the waves.

We weren't going to leave the coast from then on – the road all the way to Colombo continued right along the beaches. After Dikwella we climbed up to the southernmost lighthouse in Sri Lanka (Dondra Head Lighthouse) and then had lunch in the Portuguese-Dutch town of Galle with an old fort. In the evening we stayed in Induruwa, near the beach resort of Bentota, our last stop before the final day in Colombo.

In Colombo we stayed at the huge Taj Samudra Hotel. Our windows were facing the ocean and the lawn called Galle Face Green, where in the evening people walked and flew kites, and the next morning the local Muslims gathered to pray during the Islamic holiday celebrations of Eid Al Adha. Because it was Sunday before a series of religious and national holidays many stores were closed, but we did find a government-run handicrafts store where we bought some clothes and souvenirs. On our last morning in Sri Lanka Mike watched the Superbowl (while listening to the Muslim chanting on Galle Face Green), then we had our breakfast and went to the airport.

Now, it seems incredible to look at the pictures (there are 5 new photo albums on Webshots) and think we saw what we saw. I know we live in a place that is exotic enough for many, but Sri Lanka seemed even more so. It was a great, unforgettable vacation which I hope made us ready to face the long second semester.


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