SRI LANKA: A PHOTO ESSAY
I was not worried about my first overseas trip until I arrived. My parents and I flew into Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, in the middle of the night. We were heading straight from the airport to Negombo, where our two-week Intrepid Travel tour would start. I got off the plane feeling tired and dehydrated which only worsened as we walked straight into what felt like a wall of heat. I am not unfamiliar with heat, but coming from freezing Melbourne with no transition period, this heat felt like the hottest I had ever experienced. And it was humid too. I started feeling nauseous and as we got our bags, found our transfer, and waited for our car, the nausea only grew. I was slick with sweat, swaying on my feet, feeling terrible in an unfamiliar place. I desperately hoped this wasn’t going to set the tone for the trip. As we got into our transfer to the hotel I was so incredibly thankful that the car was air conditioned and (I’m almost ashamed to say this) was also happy to hear the driver was listening to Party Rock Anthem on the radio. It’s not that I’m a fan of LMFAO, but the familiarity was reassuring. As we drove through the dark outskirts of Colombo, I looked out the window for other signs of familiarity to ground and reassure me, and I was happy to find that there were quite a few. For one, in Sri Lanka they drive on the same side of the road as we do in Australia, and their road signs were in English as well as Sinhalese and Tamil.
As the coolness of the car began to lull me into a feeling of wellness, we arrived at our hotel and plunged back into the heat. My feeling of nausea and unease returned. Would I survive two weeks here? I’d lived through plenty of hot Australian summers before – why was this making me feel so unwell? Certain that everything would be better in the light of day, I just wanted to go to bed. However, this wasn’t as simple as it seemed. It turned out the hotel where we were meant to be staying didn’t have us on their guest list and we had to spend the night at their sister hotel. So, the receptionist called the driver back, we again loaded up our bags, I again was incredibly grateful for the air-conditioned car, and we drove around the corner to the other hotel. When we finally got to the room, I headed straight to the shower, hoping that if I could wash off the sweat that had quickly accumulated over my dehydrated skin I would be cured. I wasn’t. Lying on my bed, hair wet, my stomach churned as if I was on a boat on a choppy day in Port Phillip Harbour. As soon as Mum and Dad were finished in the bathroom I raced back in and promptly spewed up all the plane food I had eaten on the way over. I returned to bed, forced myself to drink water with a hydrolyte tablet, and went to sleep hoping that the rest of the trip could only get better from there.
And it did, almost immediately. The next morning, after a sleep-in to recover from our flight and a breakfast buffet at the hotel, we went for a wander through the streets of Negombo. We were a couple of blocks back from the beach, so we headed in that general direction passing colourful houses, enticing restaurants, and locals going about their business. We found the original hotel we were meant to stay in and found out they had room for us that night. This hotel was right on the beach with balconies overlooking the ocean and the pool.
After moving our things from one hotel to the next, we headed out in search of lunch and found this lovely little place lushly decorated with plants. And I had my first proper meal in Sri Lanka: crumbed prawns with rice and a papaya juice. I was still feeling a bit under the weather and didn’t feel up to a curry just yet, but things were definitely looking up. That night we met with our Intrepid travel group – our holiday was really starting to begin.
One thing that struck me about Sri Lanka, almost immediately, was the incredible number of stray dogs scattered throughout the cities and across the island. They were everywhere. For someone like me, who really, really loves dogs, this was equally exciting and saddening. Many of the dogs were mangy and sickly, crowding around the shade under trees trying to keep out of the heat of the day. Though many of the dogs were friendly and I couldn’t help patting a few of the less mangy ones, much to my mother’s disapproval, and under her watchful eye I always used hand sanitiser after each doggy encounter. This little guy we saw at the Negombo fish market, where a lot of the dogs were quite healthy-looking as many of the fisherman would feed them scraps from their catch of the day.
Our first stop after leaving Negombo was a coconut plantation where they made rope out of coconut husks. They also collect the sap from coconut flowers by climbing up the coconut trees on a ladder made of old coconut shells. This sap is a drink called toddy which when fermented makes a spirit called arrack that is similar to scotch. It can also be boiled down to make a kind of treacle. No part of the plant is wasted. We tasted the toddy, poured straight from the tree to the collector’s jug to the glass ready for us to drink. It was still warm from the tree or the heat of the day, and tasted like tingly, tangy coconut water. I didn’t mind it. Others in the group disagreed, finding it too sweet, but to me it was quite pleasant. We also sampled the treacle, dipping a finger into a spoonful that was passed around the group. It was very sweet, quite similar to regular treacle, but with an unmistakable coconut accent.
After the coconut plantation we went to Wilpattu National Park where we went on a safari drive and saw heaps of spotted deer, peacocks and a couple of crocodiles (at a far – and safe – distance), but my favourite were these little monkeys. At about the halfway point of our safari we stopped at a rest area to stretch our legs and there were all these monkeys hanging around the water cooler (pun intended). They were so oblivious to our presence, running around, jumping through the trees, wrestling with one another and drinking from a leak in the tank. It was so joyous to watch.
One of my favourite days (at one of the places I still struggle to pronounce) was our day at Anuradhapura. Anuradhapura is an ancient city filled with sacred sites and ruins which we explored on bikes. The white structure pictured is a stupa, one of the few in Anuradhapura that is still active. It is a solid brick structure around 340m in diameter and dates back to the first century BC. It was truly awe-inspiring. Though some members of the tour were more impressed by the ruined stupas and the more obviously ancient structures, I think it is even more impressive that this stupa is just as old and has simply been maintained, cared for and used for so many years. The stupas of Anuradhapura (and the many sacred sites of Sri Lanka in general) have had a rough time with the country’s colonial history. When the Portuguese first colonised the island in the 1500s they attacked and damaged many of the Buddhist and Hindu temples (the two main religions of Sri Lanka). However, when the Dutch took over they helped the locals rebuild many of their sacred structures. Likewise, the British fostered, rather than suppressed, the local culture and respected their beliefs.
This is a sacred well at the active stupa in Anuradhapura. Being a body of water, it is one of the five crucial things needed at a Buddhist temple. The other necessary elements are the stupa, living quarters for monks, a Bodhi tree grown from a sapling of the Bodhi tree in India under which Buddha was enlightened, and an image house – a room filled with beautifully extravagant murals and statues, often telling a story about the site of the stupa or the history of the city it was built in.
Our lunch on our day cycling round Anuradhapura was a picnic-style assortment of rice and curry – potato curry, beetroot curry, jackfruit curry, rice, papadums and coconut sambol, which I was too scared to try as it was meant to be really spicy. Everything I did try was delicious. We ate on the grass in the shade by the Elephant Pool. It was a lovely break in our day of riding, and a great chance to get to know our tour group a bit better, sitting around sharing a meal.
Towards the end of our first week in Sri Lanka we spent two nights in Jaffna at the northern point of the island. The north of Sri Lanka has only recently allowed tourists to visit as it was significantly impacted by and involved in the Sri Lankan Civil War (1983-2009). The war was fought between the Sri Lankan military and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (or the Tamil Tigers), who wanted to create an independent Tamil state. The north of the island has a high Tamil population and close access to Southern India (only 25kms between the tip of Sri Lanka and Southern India), which provided the Tamil Tigers with support. These are the ruins of a historic church at the Jaffna Fort, which was bombed during the war. The fort, like Sri Lanka, has a rich, tumultuous history. Built originally by the Portuguese in 1618 during their occupation of the island, it was then taken over and expanded by the Dutch in 1658. In 1795 it was taken over by the British during their colonial period and remained in their control until 1948 when Sri Lanka became an independent country. It is quite sad to see these ruins of a church which survived three different colonial periods, saw a country be passed from one European power to another finally gain its independence only to be ruined in modern-day warfare.
Many of the bricks at the Jaffna Fort were made from coral, showcasing a cross section of air pockets and swirls and patterns from the once living organisms. It was sad, in a way, to see coral, which is so important to our ecosystem, embedded dead in a wall. However, if the coral was harvested after it had already died, if water levels had changed and left it for dead in the open air, this can be seen as giving the coral new life which has lasted far longer than it would have under the ocean.
This fort has been standing for around 500 years, much longer than white settlement in Australia, and it is humbling and awe inspiring to think of all the feet that have walked along its ramparts, the stories of the people who built it all those years ago and all the wars fought around it. Not only does Jaffna Fort hold reminders of Sri Lanka’s medieval past but also its recent past; bullet holes from the Sri Lankan Civil War can be seen scattered among the crumbling bricks and ridges of coral.
My first experience seeing an elephant in the wild was a bittersweet one. During our second week of the tour we were driving through the countryside when – ‘Elephant!’ someone called out from the back of the bus. The driver slowed down and pulled over to the side of the road. Across the bitumen, standing slightly out from the shade of the jungle was an elephant, quite small, leafing through a pile of rubbish with its trunk, a black plastic bag on its back. I was awestruck and heartbroken at the same time.
During my two weeks in Sri Lanka I saw so much pollution and plastic it really drove home how important it is that we reduce our use of one-use plastics. Of course, I was already trying to play my part, using a reusable drink bottle, taking my keep cup to cafes for takeaway coffee, saying no to straws, etc. But in Australia it can sometimes be hard to visualise why we are doing so, as there are bins on nearly every street corner, hiding our waste.
In other countries the waste is less well-hidden: washed up on beaches, floating in ancient cisterns, scattered along the side of the road to be leafed through and eaten by elephants, monkeys and stray dogs. Pictured below is a sacred well, thought for many years to be endless as prior to modern technology and diving equipment, no one could make it through its depths to the bottom. Even this was polluted, plastics and other rubbish floating on top of what is meant to be so sacred and special to the culture and religion of the island.
This is a Buddhist temple near Dambulla which is built into the rock and the surrounding labyrinth of caves. There are five caves filled with Buddhist statues and murals which are open to the public. The rooms are small, hot and stuffy, but beautiful. Dim yellow light illuminates the statues, and echoing voices in multiple languages and feet shuffling along the ground provide a soundtrack to the constant procession of tourists and locals in and out of each of the caves. In total there are 153 Buddhist statues in the temple. In the surrounding caves scattered throughout the area are the living quarters of the resident monks. The temple dates back to the first century BCE.
After visiting the cave temple, we went on another safari, this time through Minneriya National Park, and we finally got to see elephants in the wild. There were so many, travelling together in herds with a few young elephants, seemingly oblivious to the stacks of tourists in jeeps parked nearby watching their every move. It was probably one of my favourite moments from the trip. I took so many photos but after a while I stopped – photos are great, and I’m glad I have the ones I did take, but to just sit and watch the elephants was something that couldn’t be replicated in a photograph. They moved so slowly and gracefully for something so big, the older ones pulling at tufts of grass with their trunks, flicking the feed into their open mouths with ease; the younger ones watching and trying to copy but not always making the shot from trunk to mouth and having grass hit their shoulder or fall to the ground. I could have sat and watched them for hours.
On our tenth day in Sri Lanka we got up super early and left the hotel at 6:30am to drive to Sigiriya, also known as Lion Rock. We ate breakfast on the bus and arrived at Sigiriya at around 7am, just as it was opening. Sigiriya is a rock structure 200m tall that was once home to a palace and small city, which were built into, around and on top of the rock. Now the top of the mountain is covered in ruins from the once-great structure.
Arriving at Sigiriya early allowed us to climb the rock before the sun’s heat got too intense and the crowd got too large. As we climbed, treading up steps hewn from the rock thousands of years before, our tour guide told us the story of Sigiriya. In 447 CE the Sri Lankan throne was seized by the king’s bastard and the rightful heir fled to India. The new king, afraid of retaliation, moved the capital city from Anuradhapura to Sigiriya, where he reinforced the palace, making it and its surrounding grounds and city a safe fortress. Many of the remaining structures date from this era though there are signs of humans inhabiting the area from as long ago as the third century BCE.
It was hard work climbing, the steps were steep, the sun only getting hotter the longer the morning wore on, and the wind picking up to be so wild at times that I was scared to let go of the rail. Most of the climb was on stone steps until we reached Lions Paw (pictured). In the heyday of the citadel of Sigiriya there was a whole lion’s face carved into the rock and visitors would enter through its open mouth. Now all that remains are the two front paws. Here there was quite a large plateau with seats for resting, and monkeys and stray dogs roaming around looking for tidbits of food from tourists. The remaining climb was up steep, slick metal stairs embedded into the rock. The combination of the crowd, the wind, the height and the steepness made the climb quite nerve racking, but it was worth it once we reached the top. All that was left of the fortress were a few low walls and an empty cistern, but the view was amazing: green stretched as far as the eye could see, interspersed by the mountains toward Kandy and a giant Buddha statue or two breaking up the view.
The last night of our tour was spent in Colombo, back where we started. It was still hot and muggy (much more than it had been in Kandy, where we’d spent the last couple of days at the foot of the hill country), but I no longer felt ill. Throughout our last day we dawdled through the old Dutch hospital – which now houses a plethora of artisan Fair Trade souvenir shops and restaurants – and evaded the heat in our hotel room, watching movies and preparing for our flight home.
The two weeks I spent in Sri Lanka flew by so fast while simultaneously seeming to exist in a sort of time bubble. Life at home seemed to melt away as my parents and I became immersed in our new routine of travelling around this small island. So quickly did we get used to the early mornings, the jam-packed days, the tour guide, the bus, the bus driver, and the other travellers on the tour. It was an exhausting trip, but one hundred percent well worth it. Sitting at home in Melbourne now, writing this, I don’t remember the grumblings about the hot sticky nights or the early mornings, not in a negative way at least. It was all just part of the experience and I wouldn’t change it one bit.
Beth really loves her dogs.