I always assumed that Sri Lanka was like an extra Indian state, an island country with its own charm but one that would ultimately be reminiscent of the country I now live in.
How naïve I was.
Daniel’s parents are here visiting, and for many months now we had planned to go away for a week to Sri Lanka and Kerala. I planned the Kerala portion and they planned Sri Lanka – so I really had no idea what to expect.
Sri Lanka was such a surprise to me – it’s a country that has spent so many years at war and yet from the moment you land it looks so peaceful and tropical that you couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to upset that balance. And it is so unlike India in so many ways – the language, the Buddhist people, and (I hate the say it) the cleanliness that pervades. It reminded me more of South-East Asia than its most immediate neighbor.
But the best part was that even in a few short days you can see an incredible array of varying cultures and sights and history. Sri Lanka is one of the more multi-dimensional places you can imagine.
This was certainly true even on our first day. We spent the morning at Polonnaruwa – an 11th century Buddhist capital that now lies in well-preserved ruins – and the afternoon spotting elephants at a national park. To go from roaming a lost city to riding in a jeep through the jungle was a whirlwind juxtaposition. Luckily, we had success in our elephant adventures- about an hour into the journey, we came across a whole troop of elephants standing at a watering hole. It’s amazing to watch these huge animals as they roamed free and enjoyed their afternoon as much as we did.
The next day we ‘conquered’ one of the true highlights of Sri Lanka – Sigiriya. Sigiriya is a rock that formed as the molten core of a volcano. The volcano has eroded but the core remained, and a civilization flourished in the fifth century. It’s an imposing sight – a huge rock with a plateau top – and it’s hard to imagine how anyone was able to scale it so many years ago.
But for this era, we were up to the challenge. You can walk into the fortified area that once was a royal garden and then you climb your way up and up until you reach the top. It’s a combination of original stairs and newly imposed spiral staircases – all frightening but all with an incredible view. Halfway up you can see frescoes that have remained in tact for at least 1,000 years. When we reached the top I think we were all exhausted, but it was victorious. Looking out, we could see across Sri Lanka and no amount of aches could take away from the moment.
There is just so much diverse history to take in when you’re visiting Sri Lanka – in Damublla we spent time in the Rock Cave Temples, a series of caves that have dozens of Buddha statues carved starting in the 3rd century BC, and then in the 18th century every inch, from the walls to the ceilings, were painted so that no matter where you look you see a Buddha. In Kandy we went to the home of Buddha’s ‘Tooth Relic,’ where Buddhists come to pray at the resting place of one of Buddha’s teeth (though it’s hidden away view).
I loved getting immersed in the history – but the real highlight (among highlights!) was when we switched gears, climbed altitudes and indulged my love of tea.
I think its safe to say that I am an avid tea drinker. I can’t remember a day in which I didn’t consume and enjoy at least one cup. So I was quite excited to go to the tea plantations in the world’s second-largest tea-producing country. I just didn’t realize how beautiful the view would be alongside my cup of tea.
As we drove around the winding roads up into the hill country of Sri Lanka I was reminded of the phrase many use when describing Kerala: “Gods country.” It seemed apt for Sri Lanka as well. Up and up we went and with each turn we saw a better view – short tea plants covering the entire sides of mountains that led down into valleys and up into the sky. We got up so high eventually that we were in the clouds – if a cloud was passing through we could barely see more than a few feet in front of us.
Of course, we had to stop at one of the plantations so I could understand how they took the lush green leaves and somehow turned them into the loose tea I am so familiar with. It’s amazing- tea pickers (mostly woeful underpaid Tamils) go through the fields each day plucking the top leaves from each branch of the tea bush. They are dried, rolled and then fermented. The tips of the leaves are made into a special tea, called ‘silver tips,’ and the size of the remaining leaves determines the lightness or strength of the ‘regular’ tea. It was thrilling for me to see my favorite beverage created from start to finish. It was even more thrilling to sit outside with a cup of the finished tea and a chocolate cake while looking out onto the mountains continuing to grow more and more tea leaves. It was certainly a moment of perfection for me.
Less thrilling for me was Daniel’s suggestion that we wake up at 4:30am the next day in order to go hiking. I am not a hiker – I am a person who describes perfection as sitting, drinking tea, eating cake and looking out at a nice view. But I wanted to be a sport and go along with the plan – so I hiked.
There was, admittedly, a good reason for the early rise- Daniel wanted to hike to a point known as ‘World’s End’ in Horton Plains national park. It gets its name from its stunning view and 800 meter drop. But starting at about 9am the clouds come in and the view is obscured. So in order to drive to the park and then get to World’s End in time, we needed a brutal start-time.
So we woke up and went on the way – my outfit consisted of skinny jeans (the only long pants I’d brought) and three sweaters to try and keep out the early morning cold. I looked ridiculous and I felt like a hiker fraud – on the rough and wet terrain I stumbled and bumbled my way up the mountain.
But we got to World’s End just in time – as I stood panting and completely winded I started to understand the place’s dramatic name. Huge mountains led down to lakes and waterfalls and a valley. And just as quickly as we had arrived, so did the clouds- it was incredible, they came up from below the mountain, like a rising force and soon the entire view was completely obscured. It would have been breathtaking if I had any breath left.
It was a lot to take in in five days – a lot of history, a lot of culture and a lot of changing altitudes. But Sri Lanka is a place one should go if you want to find yourself marveling at the world. It’s incredible to me that cave sculptures and structures and frescos have survived for hundreds and even thousands of years here. It’s jaw-dropping to see an animal whose weight is in tonnage sauntering around and kicking up grass right in front of you. And it’s hard to tear your eyes away from stunning views, whether from the top of a molten core, out the window of a car on a winding road or on the vista of a conquered mountain.
But hopefully Kerala can give us a run for our money.