Feeling Colonial in Old Ceylon

Armed with woefully little knowledge of Sri Lanka, we landed in Colombo early Thursday morning and got right to the task of figuring out what makes the country tick. We imagined it would be kind of like India – in many ways, it is – but we noticed a few key differences.

The main one, which I’m a little ashamed at never having realized, is that Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country. There is, of course, a large Tamil (Hindu) minority, as well as a fair number of Muslims and a smattering of Christians – but Buddhist-Hindu showdowns were a regular occurrence for several decades until the war finally ended only a few years ago. As is to be expected, most people are pretty relaxed and groovy about it all and the violence was mainly carried out by a very few crazies.

Speaking of crazy, only the truly insane would visit a new country for only a few days. We are well aware that our sometimes blitzkrieg-like travelling style doesn’t “do justice” to our chosen destinations in the way many people feel is necessary. Of course, it would be great to spend a few months in each spot, but given the reality of limited time and funds, we’d rather drop in and check out the architecture, the food, and the way people live and work in a place than not go at all. This was certainly accomplished during our whirlwind sojourn in Sri Lanka.

It made sense logistically to spend a night in Colombo, the capital – but we agreed it wasn’t our favourite destination on this trip. The city is sprawling and congested, and we weren’t feeling a great deal of love from the locals we encountered at first (although things improved as the day went on). On top of that, Colombo is a rather expensive city by regional standards. It was no pic-nic finding accommodations – after an hour in a sweaty internet café, we managed to come up with one spot that remotely fit our criteria in terms of location, price, and less than apalling reviews online. Despite a touch of fatigue from travelling all night, we checked in and set out on a pedestrian exploratory mission.

We started out at Colombo Harbour, which sounds like a delightful place for a stroll but is actually a heavily-militarized zone on account of a Tamil-perpetrated terrorist attack there a few years ago. In fact, lots of Colombo and Kandy is protected by fresh-faced teenagers in combat boots and fatigues standing guard at every corner – it was fun seeing how many of them would break into a goofy grin if you made a funny face at them.

Beer o’clock was observed on the lovely fourth-storey verandah of the Grand Oriental Hotel, which has surely seen grander days but manages to retain a certain British-era charm. We sat on boulders on the beach surveying the Indian Ocean and watching overcrowded trains pass, and we had a snack at a restaurant staffed by the most confused waiter in the entire universe. In the evening, we went in search of that Sri Lankan delicacy known as kotthu – pieces of roti vigorously and methodically chopped up with vegetables and meat. Each maker of kotthu seems to have his own distinct chopping rhythm.

Surveying Colombo Harbour from a safe distance - the fourth-storey verandah of the Grand Oriental Hotel

The gentleman with the tie took it upon himself to see to it that our food court experience in Colombo was a positive one.

A steaming pile of kotthu

There are dozens of reportedly stunning places to visit outside Colombo, but we had time to choose only one. We decided to go to Kandy, a bustling inland city and the gateway to the rolling tea plantations of hill country.  This turned out to be a stellar choice!

We’ve been quite frugal in terms of transportation throughout this trip. We opted to splurge on the train from Colombo to Kandy, though, and take the first-class “tourist’ compartment with plush seats, uniformed attendants, catering, wifi, sealed windows, and zero Sri Lankan people. However, the train we’re on now (back to Colombo) has no such compartment, and it’s far more enjoyable. The large windows are wide open, allowing for fresh air and unencumbered views of the peaks, valleys, villages, and forests; smiling vendors hop on at each station loudly offering various snacks before hopping off at the next stop; a singing lady just made her way through the aisles; and the guy next to us is eating rice with his hand out of a banana leaf packet he just bought from one of the aforementioned vendors. There’s never a dull moment when speeding through Sri Lankan countryside on a train. At every station, a few stragglers race to  hop on board as the train is chugging away. Every time we go through a tunnel, the kids make eerie howling noises to hear the echo. And best of all – we just passed a trio of young dudes splashing around in a swimming hole – one of them stopped splashing long enough to solemnly raise his middle finger at the train. Too awesome.

Our train at Kandy Station

Waiting

Kandy is a cool city. While the rest of Ceylon, as it was then known, was under the control of the Portuguese or Dutch, Kandy kept the Europeans at bay until finally falling to the persistent British in 1815. Nationalism is fierce here, with a Sri Lankan flag proudly flown in front of many homes and businesses and everyone we chatted with asking hopefully, “Sri Lanka good country?”. We found a really cute guest house up in the hills – the windows opened onto thick vegetation, cheery birdcalls, and delicious fresh air – however, we were reminded to close them when we left so as to avoid visits from simian marauders.

The main attraction in Kandy is the Temple of the Tooth Relic, purported earthly home of an incisor belonging to the Buddha himself (it’s unclear how or why he was relieved of his tooth). Although pilgrims and foreign visitors flock to Kandy just to visit this UNESCO-protected site, we never even went inside. Consider our reasoning:

  • The “foreigner” entrance fee of $10 seemed to border on extortionate, by regional standards
  • We’ve already seen, like, a LOT of temples
  • You have to take off your shoes, of course – but it was raining and the ground looked really gross
  • We heard from other tourists that it just wasn’t that awesome

We still had to cross the temple grounds to get to a spot we did actually want to visit – the National Museum. But when we arrived at the gate, the guard took one look at our attire and directed us to a stall where we were outfitted with sarongs before being allowed past. Riccardo’s sarong looked particularly fetching on him.

Amazing.

My temple get-up, consisting of a nondescript brown shawl and white sheet - considerably less stylish than Ric's

You can actually read the British document relieving Kandy of its king and taking over the administration of the region, apparently with entirely altruistic intentions and nothing at all to do with the spice trade.

Kandy is famous for its traditional dance. We joined a slew of fellow travellers for a performance that was certainly contrived but not without its charms.

The first dance is a devotion to the dance teacher

This guy is NOT messin' around

Our favourite spot in Kandy was the Queens Hotel, a beacon of old-world elegance and style. We found ourselves there for lunch (fantastic), drinks by the pool (delightful), and internet-stealing in the lobby (convenient). Ric was befriended by a suave Sri Lankan waiter who relished the chance to show off his fluent Italian.

Poolside at the Queens

The highlight of our time in Kandy was an unexpected one. We took the bus to the village of Embekke, about an hour outside town, site of an important 14th century temple. It was quite a mission figuring out how to get there and then finding our bus in a sea of others. We were dropped off at the side of a sleepy road in the midday sun. The unmistakable aroma of tea hung in the air. As we walked along uncertainly, not seeing any sign of the temple, we were beckoned over by a smiling man working in a wood shop. Our “this guy’s a scammer” radar didn’t immediately go off (as it so often does), and we headed his way. Proudly but with great humility, he offered to show us his wonderful teak, mahogany, and jackwood carvings, some finished and some not.  Our friend seemed totally uninterested in selling us said carvings – instead, he offered us tea and chatted with us about life and love and his extremely fluid religious beliefs. He told us he’s a devout Buddhist but visits the Hindu temple and Catholic church also for good measure. (When I asked, “what about the mosque?”, the response was a nervous laugh and an averted gaze.)

He even gave us a demonstration of how he makes dye for some of his carvings – combining scrapings of pathangi with boiling water to produce a bright pink hue, then adding lime juice to make it Mr. Clean-green, chalk to turn it violently purple, and so on. His wife wordlessly but lovingly assisted him in the demonstration. We made an offer on a carving we loved and it was very gratefully accepted. After the transaction was completed, we stayed and chatted some more – we met his lovely daughter, checked out the furniture he’s working on for his own house, learned about his duties at the temple, and received a touching parting gift: he sawed off a sliver of rare and apparently pricey pathangi wood as a keepsake. He insisted that we come back and stay with his family next time we come to Kandy, and we said we’d come back someday and buy some furniture. It was a serendipitous meeting and a truly lovely experience, and far cooler than the temple we’d been on our way to.

The wood-carver and his wife, sawing off a sliver of pathangi for us

Back in Kandy, over drinks at an upstairs pub overlooking the bustling main drag, we were joined by two slick but amiable young Sri Lankan dudes, and we took the opportunity to quiz them on their opinions of politics, marriage, and a host of other fascinating topics. Sunil’s wife is expecting, so we toasted him – Prasad, at twenty-six, is still unmarried and not terribly concerned about it. They serenaded us with a Tamil love song and they implored us to sing a Western one for them in return. Unable to come up with a better idea on the spot, we regaled them with a rousing chorus of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” which they seemed to enjoy. Prasad sweetly offered to buy the next round (we didn’t let him), and Sunil extended an enthusiastic invitation to join them for dinner at his friend’s house. Alas, we declined, opting to part ways on a high note and savour our last moments in Kandy unaccompanied.

Prasad and Sunil

The train is chugging along, each churn bringing us closer to Colombo and the end of our trip. We’re anxiously anticipating our meeting with Bevan and Eliza in Bangalore tonight – stay tuned for an account of our last days there!

Here are a few parting shots:

Spacing out on the bus from Embekke

Businessman jauntily hops off the bus which has slowed down slightly to accommodate him

Playing it cool

Old-school poster at the Queens Hotel

"Short eats" - delicious fried morsels available on every corner and generally served in a sheet of old arithmetic homework

Sri Lankans are pretty serious about snacking - stalls selling these treats are immensely popular

Coconut and jaggery-based sweets are big too

It's nice being in a place where a group of men innocently reading the Koran in front of the train station doesn't elicit widespread panic

In front of Cargills, a once-great department store in Colombo. Sri Lanka's answer to the Twin Towers are behind us.

Cutting a larger-than-life figure in a Sri Lankan city bus

Senses of humour intact on the bus from the airport into town, after travelling all night.

This is amazing - the two young guys behind me are sporting nylon "tattoo sleeves"

Twisted jackfruit, with our guest house in the background

Kandy's main drag (obviously and brilliantly captured by Riccardo)

Check out the naughty little fellow swiping a grape!

My makeshift temple-friendly garb features my shawl cleverly transformed into a skirt (the curious onlookers are a pretty constant presence)

This gentleman helpfully pointed out every single carving to us: "This one lion!" "This one eagle!" "This one lion head, eagle body!" And so on.

This young punk with baggy pants and a fade saw a chance to make some merit by helping an elderly monk cross the road. He probably figured he was set for the year with that noble deed.

Serious business down at the liquor counter

Taking it all in (and eating a samosa wrapped in old math homework)

Ric's stunning perspective of Kandy Lake, watched over by the gigantic white Buddha on the hill

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