Story and photos by FOO YEE PING
If Sri Lanka was an Instagram posting, then its caption would be #throwback 1970s.
“It’s like using a 1970s filter,” said a colleague who has been there and loves the place. He told me, prior to my visit, to look out for the architecture of Geoffrey Bawa, buildings that blend with the environment.
From the sandy beaches of Negombo to Dambulla town and onwards to Kandy and Colombo – covering a distance of about 400km – Sri Lanka presents a picture of a bustling place that has lost none of its old-world charm.
Its streets are overrun by three-wheelers (think tuk-tuk). But mind you, they use the fare meter, with a starting rate of 50 rupees (RM1.40). Apparently, about 5% of Sri Lankan households are dependent on operating three-wheelers as a source of income.
Buses without air-conditioning, which reminded me of my days growing up in Ipoh in the 1970s, are also everywhere on the mostly two-lane streets of Sri Lanka.
“This road is constantly under repair. By the time it is finished, it will be a world heritage site,” tourism trainer Nuwan Sithara said jokingly to my group of 25, mostly travel agents and journalists.
We were then on the way to Dambulla, a town which never sleeps. It is a vegetable centre where all the greens are brought here and distributed elsewhere.
The Unesco World Heritage Site in Sri Lanka is the Temple of the Tooth Relic, a renowned pilgrimage site which is the sacred home to a tooth of the Buddha. The relic is available for public viewing only once in five years in an elaborate ceremony.
Visitors to the temple must be dressed decently – no exposed shoulders or legs. However, the head must not be covered. And shoes must be removed.
One French woman from my group draped a shawl around her but her back was still bare. The guard did not allow her in until she was adequately covered. Photography is allowed but no posing with the statues.
There is a sad chapter in the history of the temple in 1998 when the Tamil Tigers set off a bomb at its entrance. Eight people were killed. Parts of the temple and its paintings were destroyed, too.
The temple is located in Senkadagala Siriwardhana Maha Nuwara; that’s Kandy, by the way.
“The British (who ruled Sri Lanka between 1815 and 1948) could not pronounce it,” said Nuwan. “Even we call it Kandy because it sounds sweet,” he quipped.
Spiritual tours are getting popular in predominantly Buddhist Sri Lanka. Besides the temple, there is the Bodhi tree in Anuradhapura which is about 150km from Kandy. The tree is a “descendant” of the one which Gautama Buddha sat under and attained enlightenment.
Our group did not visit the tree but Nuwan told us that a team of botanists take great care of it; they submit reports regularly to the government about its condition.
The icon of Sri Lanka is arguably Sigiriya which Sri Lankans proudly call the Eighth Wonder of the World. A king in the olden days built a palace on a rock, complete with sensual frescoes, some of which still exist. Its main entrance was built in the mould of a huge lion, whose feet are still there for all to see. Sigiriya comes from the word Sihagri, meaning the Lion Rock (see top image).
Located near Dambulla, it takes almost two hours to climb up and down the rock. Unfortunately, my creaky knees put paid any wish to get a view from the top, as some steps leading to the peak are quite steep. This ancient city of Sigiriya is also on Unesco’s world heritage list. “The frescoes of Sigiriya inaugurated a pictorial style which endured over many centuries,” says the Unesco website.
Back to basics
My group was taken to visit a rural village. To get there, we took a jeep, hiked a little and then rode on a bullock cart. I felt sorry for the oxen for the load they had to bear. It reminded me of a Chinese saying about the burden and toil of the cow and the horse.
When we arrived, the villagers served us the water of fresh coconuts, opened in front of us.
The people are always friendly and welcoming. That’s the beauty of the Sri Lankans.
Take, for example, the two elderly women who beat a drum to greet guests who had arrived at Amaya Lake, in Dambulla.
They beckoned to me, inviting me to try out the drum which was made of goat skin. There was a small fire beneath the drum, which was meant to “heat” up the drum to keep the head tight.
There are a number of things which fascinated me about Sri Lanka. One hotel offered palm-reading. I was curious and wanted to find out more about it but the staff told me that the fortune-teller was only available on weekends.
Fortune should favour you, though, if you choose to spend some time amidst nature. Take a 40-minute jeep ride on a dirt road for a safari experience at the Minneriya National Park, known for its wild elephants. We were rewarded with sightings of at least a dozen of the beasts at the park, which is about 100km from Kandy.
Sri Lanka is serious about tea.
“It has the best tea in the world,” said Ella Menikova, a Russian from St Petersburg who has made Sri Lanka home for the past decade. “But don’t go for the tea bags,” she advised. In any case, most of the tea sold is not the three-in-one type.
We visited the Giragama tea factory in Kandy where the workers handpick the leaves, selecting only young, tender ones. The leaves are then dried, a process which takes about 18 to 20 hours. Every six hours, the leaves are turned by hand.
They served us tea at the visitors’ centre. We were taught the correct way to enjoy the drink – take a bite of palm sugar and then sip the tea.
Besides tea, the island’s other gem is its sapphires, which form 85% of its gem exports. Last year, Sri Lanka exported 330,000 carats of blue sapphires. According to a legend, King Solomon gifted Queen Sheba with gemstones from Sri Lanka.
We visited a gem centre in Kandy and saw how the jewellers turn the precious stones into pieces of art.
As for architectural beauty, we visited Heritance Kandalama, built by Sri Lanka’s top architect Bawa (1919-2003), in Dambulla. It is billed as “a hotel that doesn’t sit on the landscape but is part of it”. In 2001, he received a special chairman’s award of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture.
Bawa’s website describes him as “one of the most important and influential Asian architects of the 20th century”.
Even Hollywood is fascinated. There’s a nature documentary film narrated by Tina Fey, titled Monkey Kingdom, about a group of monkeys living in the ancient ruins of Polonnaruwa. The 1957 Oscar-winning movie, The Bridge On The River Kwai, was mostly shot on the island, as was an Indiana Jones movie.
The movies will live on. It’s apt, then, that Sri Lankans greet people with ayubowan, which means “wishing you a long life”.
With its warmth and natural beauty, you can’t help but say, “Ayubowan, Sri Lanka!”