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Saturday August 24, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Saturday August 24, 2013 MYT 8:54:01 AM
by n. rama lohan
The Lion Rock of Sigiriya. – Photo from Jetwing Travels
Sri Lanka is opening its arms wide, inviting the world into its universe of mysticism and sheer natural beauty.
VIEWING the Lion Rock of Sigiriya, a UNESCO heritage site that’s long had ancient astronaut theorists debating its extra-terrestrial origins, it was strange to think that the monolith’s introduction to the world’s popular culture came by way of British pop band Duran Duran’s Save A Prayer music video. But the mysticism surrounding the ancient rock was simply one of the innumerable charms of a country that’s steeped in conservation and preservation awareness. In Malaysia these concepts still seem a long way off for us.
As the Malaysia Airlines aircraft ferrying this writer and a group of travel agents – in the airline’s trademark comfy and cushy business class, no less – cut across the Indian Ocean and encroached the land mass of Sri Lanka, the nation’s agriculture was the first thing on display. At a few thousand feet high, a million green flowers greeted the eyes, but as the plane came closer to touching down, it became obvious that those gorgeous petals were the foliage of coconut trees, of which the country must have a few billion, you’d have to think.
Once we were greeted by Sri Lanka counterparts Jetwing Travels at the Bandaranaike Airport, it was clear we were going to be in good hands. Our guide, Lucky, was just a salt-of-the-earth guy with Zen-like calmness, Yoda-type wisdom and Buddhist-inspired compassion for his surroundings.
On our way to the Cinnamon Lodge, our first taste of the finest in Sri Lankan hospitality, Negombo became our first port of call. It’s the fourth largest city in Sri Lanka, after Colombo, Kandy and Jaffna, and is sustained by its fishing industry, of which we were privy to – traditional fishing methods and open fish markets.
Leaving bright and early the next morning, it took a lengthy drive – cutting centrally into Sri Lanka from the west coast – to get to Dambulla, where the renowned Golden Temple resides. Built into a rock shooting up 160m from the ground, the Buddhist temple houses at least 80 caves, many of which feature the life of Lord Buddha, told via staggering paintings on the walls and ceilings and statues of him in his various poses.
The temple’s first century BC origin is jaw-dropping. To think that people have been coming here that long, like the day of our visit, to seek enlightenment, would blow anyone’s mind away.
And like any other tourist destination in the world, street peddlers are ever-present. Some of their wares were genuinely interesting. As a former numismatist, I couldn’t resist picking up a collection of current and vintage Sri Lankan coins.
The route to Anuradhapura, the country’s 5th century capital, is not to be missed for nature-lovers: ant-hills occupied by cobras and wild peacocks are common sights. And in the dark of the night, our driver had to be alert to avoid ramming a wild elephant crossing the road.
Kandy introduced us to one of the nation’s leading cash cows – the gem industry. Staring at a collection of cut and polished cornflower-blue sapphires was quite an experience, but seeing how traditional mining techniques were employed to minimise environmental damage was even more pleasing.
We also got to take in a traditional Kandyan cultural show of dances (everything from a mask dance to a cobra dance) and stunts (spinning multiple hand drums on sticks and walking on hot coals).
Acquiring special privilege, the tooth relic (Buddha’s actual tooth, which was taken from the ambers of his cremation) at Sri Dalada Maligawa became a viewing opportunity, though we only got to see the gold casket housing it. Only the wealthy – who fund a day’s activities at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic – get to see it more frequently than the commoner, who must abide by a five-year cycle.
Of course, no trip to Sri Lanka would be complete without a sip of the local brew, of which the broken orange pekoe (BOP) tea is king. And there’s a plethora of flavours to choose from, too. Fancy some mango tea?
Right before reaching Matale’s The Island spice grove, Lucky instructed the driver to stop just after a bridge crossing a river in Mawanella. And that’s when we saw them – hundreds of flying foxes hanging on trees growing on mini islands on the river. These mammals are mammoth in size, compared to their immediate relative, the bat. You can picture the Batman logo when one of these full-grown creatures takes to the air, its black wings clear in the midday sun.
The Island is a fantastic study in botany. It boasts a multitude of spices and herbs with all kinds of curative powers. Other than the regular turmeric, sandal wood, pepper and what-not, the resident botanist pointed out an inconspicuous plant and asked us if we knew what it was. His hint that it was used for illicit drug manufacture and that a famous former sportsman was associated with it was enough to suggest cocaine and Diego Maradona in one breath.
Everyone seemed game to visit the elephant orphanage in Pinnawala, though it wasn’t on the itinerary. The peak of the action at this sanctuary is watching the elephants herded to a nearby river and back, for a dip and a wash. We hurried to beat the afternoon deadline, but were only in time to see these giants of the land troop back to the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage.
As heartening as it was to see so many elephants enjoying being elephants, it was heart-wrenching to see a three-legged one, which had lost its limb courtesy of a land mine. We were also told of an elephant which survived being blinded by a poacher’s bullet, but by the time of our trip there, the elephant had died of its injuries. It’s hard to ignore that wherever man has gone, destruction has followed suit.
And again, we were given a lesson in conservation – elephant dung, which is primarily digested coconut tree leaves that’s rich in fibre, is used to make paper.
One of the highlights of this trip, unfortunately, came with a very tragic undertone. Southern capital Galle is situated in the south-western tip of the island and was the nation’s worst hit area during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami which decimated Bandar Acheh in Sumatra.
The most gut-wrenching tale of that apocalyptic day was that of the Queen of the Sea Line, the train that plies the coast, running from Colombo to Galle. At Telwatta, waves charged 200m inland, catching the train laden with nearly 2,000 passengers and thrashed it about like a rag doll before dragging it out to sea. Few survived. The torrent of water, said to have reached 30m in height, was so powerful it ripped the tar off the roads, rails off the tracks and sucked 90 city buses out into the ocean.
The tsunami that hit Sri Lanka was catastrophic in scale, officially killing 50,000, as documented on a memorial along the Galle coastline, but according to Lucky’s information, he estimates it to be around 77,000. And he would know ... he lost his sister and her family there, too.
But God is great. Like how that sole white-washed mosque stood out in that famous image of a flattened Bandar Acheh, houses of worship in Galle survived, too, even a temple that was metres out in the ocean from the beach.
The destruction is still obvious, but so is the reconciliation, and a large statue of Buddha now overlooks the ocean, as if to keep the people from harm’s way. The villages in the area, for obvious reasons now called tsunami villages, are slowly but surely being rebuilt by the government.
Still, Galle has plenty for history buffs to sink their teeth into. Like Malaysia, Sri Lanka went through the same western colonisation – first the Portuguese came, then the Dutch and finally, the British.
So, Dutch presence there is all over the place, from the Dutch garrison that’s been converted into the maritime museum, to the architecture of the buildings.
Wildlife enthusiasts should not pass up the chance to check out the Kosgoda Turtle Hatchery (funded by late Swedish inventor and photographer Victor Hasselblad’s foundation), which is home to five of the world’s eight turtle species: leatherback, green, hawk’s bill, loggerhead and Olive Ridley. A total of 3.8 million turtles have been released back into the wild from the hatchery’s inception in 1978 to 2012. We also got to see an albino turtle, which in the wild, happens in one in every 50,000 turtles conceived.
The nation’s other brew is also largely produced in these coastal regions. Toddy tappers are kings of the coconut trees around here. Each tapper taps 30-40 trees a day before coming down from the ropes that connect the trees. Who needs to go to the circus to watch a tight-rope walker?
Colombo itself is pretty much a modern city but with interesting historical curios. There’s a mix of Dutch and British colonisation stamps all over the place, like the roads being lined by trees, a British endeavour for their horse-cart passengers who melted in the sun. We took in a bit of night life action, too, on our last night in the country and stuck our heads into a live joint that had a resident rock band raising the roof.
Prior to my visit to Sri Lanka, the country – which is divided to 25 districts and nine provinces – always seemed like “the other India”, but in reality, the place is a world unto itself. Its natural beauty is a sight to behold. And the cuisine is exquisite, with coconut and fish being prime ingredients. In the poorest description, it’s a cross between north and south Indian food.
Not every tourist is looking to run to a temperate climate destination, so if equatorial weather is a prerequisite, it’s hard to overlook Sri Lanka for a retreat.
Despite the Third-World impression, the nation’s 98% literacy rate sees to it that the country is extremely clean – we barely saw a rubbish pile anywhere, and mind you, we saw a lot of the country.
The nation’s 70% Buddhist population also bodes well for its conservation and preservation endeavours, and if there’s one thing that unequivocally defines this gorgeous country, it’s this.
Sure, the fighting between the government and the Tamil Tigers up north in Jaffna may have hampered tourism from flourishing, but since the truce of 2009 and the ensuing peace, things are looking positive.
Throw in easy access of routine flights by Malaysian Airlines to Colombo 10 times a week and the supreme hospitality of Jetwing Travel’s chain of hotels, everyone should be clicking their mice and booking holidays to the resplendent island. And if you’re lucky, you might get to experience one of the 12 full-moon public holidays a year the Buddhist nation observes. Now that’s just not something you get anywhere.
This trip was sponsored by Malaysia Airlines.
Tags / Keywords:
Travel, Sri Lanka, Sigiriya, Colombo, tooth relic, Buddha
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