Sri Lanka

The gorgeous tea fields of Newara Eliya

Sri Lanka just keeps getting better. After three days in Kandy we went a little south, up into the highlands. Oddly, the trip from Colombo to Kandy was two-and-a-half hours by train or four hours by car; we traveled by train. This time from the route from Kandy to Newara Eliya was two-and-a-half hours by car or four hours by train. We went by car. Which meant we got to stop at a huge waterfalls. Our driver suggested we stop and I was certainly ready to get out of the car, though he didn’t tell us that it was maybe a 20-minute walk up … and up and up and up. Worth it, but it was definitely a hike.

It was a long climb but a pretty great waterfall as we drove south to Newara Eliya. That’s a tiny Jim down in the pink shirt at the bottom of the picture; Mark was up above taking it.

Then it was on to Nuwara Eliya in the heart of Sri Lanka’s tea industry. Built by the British in the 19th century as their respite from Sri Lanka’s heat to this day the region is known as “Little England,” though I thought that was perhaps a little overstated. But at 6,100 feet above sea level the climate is temperate, the hills are beautiful, the tea is ubiquitous, and the gardens are lush. This was a good stop.

We stayed measurably further out of town than is normal for us, and that could have been a problem as we weren’t too keen on the food at our hotel. It was a 15-minute ride in a tuktuk into town which is easy enough if not exactly ideal (we prefer to be able to walk to meals). What made it work – and work really well – is that the walk into town was fabulous. Every day around mid-morning we’d take off through a couple little villages and then out through the tea fields before dropping down into town; about an hour and just beautiful.

On our first afternoon I could see this Buddhist temple from our hotel, with a path going further up to the top of the hill. Naturally, I had to climb it. Here you can see the temple down below me and, way in the distance, our hotel from which I’d hiked. This was the first sign I was going to love this place.

Then we’d explore town a bit: Lake Gregory, Victoria Park, just poking around. Lunch at either a Thai or Indian restaurant in the other nice hotel in town, and the long walk back. Mark would walk back to the hotel while I’d break off to climb up to a Buddhist temple where I’d sit in splendid silence and read.

And that was it. Not a lot to do except enjoy the beauty. We kept thinking that we’d take a couple hours to do one of the tea factory tours available but somehow that never got around to happening; instead we spent our time walking on our own through the tea fields.

Every day the workers were out in a different section of the hills picking tea leaves. By hand.

From here we continue south down to the beach. You know you’re doing well when you’re loving an island country and haven’t even gotten to the beach yet.

Here we are in the fields

We never got tired of these pictures of tea fields in the hills

Not exactly easy work

The cash crop is tea but this is apparently a great place for agriculture; the vegetable gardens were amazing.

Workers in the field

And cute kids fascinated by these giant white people walking through their little village

Even the flowers were big and lush and beautiful

The Buddhist temple where I spent a surprising amount of time

More cute kids

We haven’t learned Sinhalese in our time here but I’m pretty sure this is suggesting that smoking isn’t good for your unborn baby…

Cows, too

Picturesque in its own way

One last picture of the tea fields

OK, really, this is the last one

Here we are walking around the lake in central Kandy. That’s the old royal palace, housing the Buddha’s sacred tooth, over Mark’s right shoulder.

From Colombo (sort of but not really the capital) we took a train up to Kandy, the last capital of Sri Lanka in the reign of the kings, i.e., before the British took over. The city is pretty much in the middle of the island, up amongst the hills of the Kandy plateau. Thus it’s a bit cooler up there and very pretty with lush green hills all around.

We rode up on the train, a beautiful ride that took a bit under three hours. Sadly, we were in 2nd Class as the presumably more comfortable 1st Class seats are all sold out long ahead of time. Always. In the world that I used to live in that would be a signal to add more 1st Class cars but apparently that logic doesn’t prevail here. To be fair, though, the 2nd Class car was perfectly pleasant (I still have fears of India in my brain) and at about $4.07 each it was quite the bargain.

Mark at the train station in Colombo, getting ready to board. The ride was beautiful but decidedly bumpy; there was no reading going on.

So far, at least, the glow of Sri Lanka hasn’t worn off. Kandy is centered around a very pretty lake that just begs to be walked around, again and again. The big site to see there is the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, allegedly a tooth of the Buddha’s that was salvaged from his funeral pyre. Housed in the old royal palace, this is supposed to be one of the holiest places for Buddhists. Moreover, the belief grew that whoever had possession of the sacred relic was meant to rule over that land and for many centuries control of the relic has been a big deal. During the recent civil war that Tamil Tigers bombed the palace where it is held on multiple occasions but ultimately the relic was always saved.

It’s probably worth noting that if you Google “Buddha tooth relic” you will discover that there are a number of the Buddha’s teeth still allegedly in existence. Count me a skeptic even if UNESCO has declared it a World Heritage Site.

Inside the temple, where the holy, magnificent, sacred tooth supposedly rests

Mostly, then, this was just a wonderfully calm, gentle stop. Between walks around the lake and some nice hiking up in the 250-acre Royal Forest Park Udawattakele above the old royal palace a very pleasant place indeed. Food, sadly, isn’t Kandy’s strong suit but we did discover a Chinese restaurant run by a British/Chinese couple that had good food, good drinks, good prices, and a great view over the lake. Of course it was packed every night and we’d have to wait for sometimes a fair bit for a table to open. In the world where I used to live that would be a signal that someone should open something similar but alas, as with train seats, those market signals don’t seem to work so well here. As long as there’s one good restaurant, though, we’re good.

From here we’re off to the true highlands up in Ceylon tea land.

Hiking up in the Udawattakele Royal Reserve – quiet, clean, calm, and lovely

Ducks crossing Lake Kandy

A monk walking around Lake Kandy

Even the lizards like Lake Kandy. We were surprised by how big these little buggers are, but likely pretty harmless – they come up on land to rest in the sun after gorging themselves on whatever they eat in the lake.

Speaking of monks, I love the way this little monk’s red robe stands out in the sea of white

One more picture of Lake Kandy

And finally, what blog post would be complete without a shot of Mark’s feet enjoying our hotel pool?

One highlight of Colombo for us was our cute hotel, Residences by Ugo, and this pool. The quiet and serenity after five weeks in India were charming.

I didn’t really know what to expect on arrival in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, but whatever I thought was wrong. First, it’s not the capital after all. While Colombo is Sri Lanka’s commercial capital and largest city – and is often referred to as the capital – technically the capital is Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte. Kotte, as it is commonly called, is a near-in suburb of Colombo and very much a part of Colombo’s urban area but technically a separate city that is itself the nation’s capital. (To give a sense of this confusion, Wikipedia describes Kotte as “… the official capital of Sri Lanka, a satellite city and within the urban area of Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo.” Confusing indeed.)

Second and more important, to the extent I thought I knew something, I was expecting kind of a mini-India. Sri Lanka is, after all, just this little island dangling off the southern tip of India; it must be pretty similar, right? Probably a lot like India but with a big disadvantage in that Sri Lanka has only recently emerged from an ugly civil war. From 1983 to 2009 the Tamil minority battled for rights and then independence from the Sinhalese majority. Ultimately they lost but I was still expecting basically an India without the advantage of relative peace.

Galle Face Green is the area long the coast where Colombos (Colombans?) gather in the cool evening to stroll. As far as beaches go it’s not much but still pleasant.

Wow, was I wrong about all that. Yes, the people look and dress similarly, but we were blown away by the cultural differences. None of the dirt and chaos of India. Streets are clean. Animals are controlled. Traffic is … regular. No more horn honking than you’d find in Boston. Parks. Grocery stores. Restaurants. It was as though we’d traveled a thousand miles from India.

Why the difference? Importantly, Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country while India is primarily Hindu. (Estimates are that about 70 percent of Sri Lankans are Buddhist, 13 percent Hindu, and 10 percent Moslem.) And because the cow is sacred in India they roam everywhere and leave cow shit everywhere. Mark & I both guessed – maybe simplistically, but maybe not – that in India, once you’ve accepted cow shit everywhere it just doesn’t make sense to be all that concerned about keeping everything else clean and neat. In Sri Lanka, no cows wandering, no cow shit, and things are clean and neat. Maybe it’s more complicated than that, but I just can’t overstate the difference walking around. Like night and day.

A great banyan tree in Viharamahadevi Park, where the National Museum is located. The park was clean and calm, lush even, something simply unimaginable in India.

Except for just the knock-you-over-the-head change after five weeks in India, there’s not a lot to actually see or do in Colombo. It’s on the coast but what little they have that passes for “beach” is pretty limited. There are no great cathedrals or temples that you have to see, and the national museum that I spent some time in was … OK. We did stop during one long walk around town in a café for tea, something you just have to do in what was once Ceylon, but that was about it for excitement.

That said, we loved it. Maybe if we hadn’t just come from India and wasn’t anticipating a war-ravaged environment I wouldn’t have been so impressed. But it just had this great Southeast Asia feel to it that is enchanting. Now we’re eager to go inland and see more of this strange, unknown country.

We weren’t sure just what this statue was supposed to signify but we liked it

Oh, one more thing. About that name, Sri Lanka. When I was growing up, of course, this was Ceylon. What’s the connection between the names? To the natives, the island was always Lanka. (Moslem traders called it Serendib, “Island of Jewels” and the root of our word serendipity.) When the Portuguese came they called it Sinhala-dvipa (Island of the Sinhalese) which somehow morphed into Ceilão. The Dutch came next and called it Ceylan and then the British changed that to Ceylon. Finally in 1972 the now-independent government changed the name back to Lanka, adding Sri, a title of respect, to the name. Mystery solved.

We found a great French café just minutes from our hotel. Couldn’t wait to try the steak tartare. Except it really wasn’t very good, probably the most boring I’ve ever had. Fortunately right near by was a place called Monsoon, a pan-Asian restaurant with great food.

Touring the National Museum was worth an hour or two of one’s time. If I understood right, these are late-19th century copies of rock murals dating from the 5th century BC.

Colombo is on the coast so I went in search of someplace to sit on the beach and read, hoping I’d find something nicer than Galle Face. After a long walk this was as close as I got…