The last few days have been kind of a whirlwind tour of the “cultural triangle” in Sri Lanka. At this point, having seen many of the highlights of ancient ruins in Sri Lanka, we are both officially “templed out.”
We started out two days ago with a day trip from Kandy to see Sigiriya rock fortress and the Dambulla cave temple. Sigiriya is about 3 hours north of Kandy, and we got there before 10 am to try and avoid the really punishing heat of the early afternoon. Sigiriya involves about an hour hike up a decent sized little mountain. The story of the place is that a prince murdered his father and took over this mountain castle. You can imagine how insane the place must have been in its prime, with a giant swimming pool and sprawling palace buildings with views in all directions. Well, the son that took over the place apparently wasn’t very smart…. His brother was none too pleased with him killing their father and when he brought an army to fight his brother, instead of defending the mountain fortress, he went down to the valley to fight his brother and was killed. I could see how people fought over the place. As long as you had somebody bringing food and supplies up to you at the top, it would be a pretty relaxing retreat. The highlight of Sigiriya is probably the cave paintings on the way up, although the views were pretty amazing as well.
Dambulla caves was our next stop… another hike up a mountain, this time for some caves that had tons of Buddha statues and reliefs. The place was worth the stop, but was definitely not as impressive as Sigiriya in terms of sightseeing.
We’ve been eating plenty of Sri Lankan food, meal after meal (not that we have much choice). When we have an opportunity to grab something a little different, we’ve taken it. So, after Dambulla, we had our driver stop at a KFC that we saw signs for. The signs started directing you to it several kilometers ahead of time. To be clear, Sri Lanka is not a place where western fast food chains have settled in. We haven’t seen a McDonalds or Subway anywhere, or really any chains except a Pizza Hut, and now, a KFC. The KFC was clearly a fine dining establishment. It’s still fast food. However, with a meal costing what you’d expect fast food to cost in the west, which in Sri Lanka is equivalent to 3-4 days salary for many, eating at a KFC might be a bit of a status symbol. When we came in, the cashiers perked up and they had this attitude like “It’s GO time! This is what we’ve trained for!” We got a box of spicy fried chicken and a chicken biryani with a side of onion sambol (like a Sri Lankan salsa, for the biryani). We got a meal for the driver as well, and the cashier made a big show of throwing a pack of French fries in the trash in front of us and yelling out “fresh fries, double up,” or something like that. I’ve never gotten fast food service like that in the U.S. They even wrapped up your drinks all fancy so you can carry them. (Drink: “Virgin mojito” which is Sprite with mint and lime, freaking delicious!)
We stayed over in Anuradhapura at a small family-owned guesthouse called Villu Villa. This one was as advertised, and very nice. A family built a large house on their property that they basically run like a full service hotel. A/C, nice Internet, good meals, a private comfortable room, a reasonably priced tuktuk driver, and we’re good to go. And this place costs about the same as the mosquito den in Kandy that we made a prison break from!
So, today we toured the much older ruins in Anuradhapura. This tour included many, what seemed like too many, stops to see gigantic Buddhist stupas (those huge bell-shaped structures). What’s in there? Who the heck knows. Everything. Nothing. A tooth fragment. I guess you can sit outside chanting and meditating upon such things. For us though, after seeing what seemed like a dozen, we cried uncle and called it a day. Just to be clear though, they were pretty awesome stupas, and I’d recommend the place to anyone.
Now, tonight we’re gonna settle down to a home cooked meal of curry and rice and tomorrow we’re back on a train to Colombo. We managed to get 2nd class tickets for the 5 hour train ride, so it should be reasonably comfortable. After that it’s only one more night in Sri Lanka, so our time here is coming to a close. It’s been a very fun and interesting time. The movement from one region to another has really presented some remarkable contrasts in scenery. The capital Colombo is a bustling city with stark gaps in income and quality of life, spanning from luxury glass and steel high rise condominiums to small wood and scrap shacks without electricity or running water. The highlands of Nanu Oya and Nuwara Eliya presented vast expanses of lush green tea plantations, waterfalls, erosion in the moutainsides exposing cracks of the ubiquitous Sri Lankan red clay soil. Kandy is a busy and largely impoverished city, flanked by numerous historic sites, in a jungle climate famous for growing spices. Moving north to Anuradhapura, it has been much more rural, with flat rice fields, and a population that (by appearances) seems to lean more Hindu than Buddhist (or Muslim, as in parts of Kandy). Even though these places are within hours driving distances of each other, they almost feel like they could be different countries. However, there have been a couple things we’ve taken notice of that have been consistent no matter where we’ve been in Sri Lanka, one of them cute, and one of them just a little creepy.
Ok, so, there are a lot of dogs in Sri Lanka. They are everywhere. Packs of them. They were rustling in the tea bushes in the Sri Lankan highlands. They’ve been trotting along the roadside on every drive we’ve taken here. Heck, they sleep on the roads. There were dogs barking at the monkeys on top of Sigiriya rock, and I have no idea how they got up there. Seriously, they have a lot of wild dogs. Our driver mentioned that it is against the law to euthanize them, and people (in general) do seem to take care to avoid harming them. What we found remarkable was the good condition of many of the dogs. I mean, these are wild dogs, they’re not family pets, so I wouldn’t expect fat dogs with shiny coats. Compared to some other places we’ve been where you frequently see emaciated, dead and dying dogs (I’m looking at you, Puerto Rico!!!), the Sri Lankan dogs are in pretty good shape. Another thing we found remarkable, and probably the main thing we kept commenting on, was how they all look exactly the same. The overwhelming majority of them are brown, and we decided that since there didn’t appear to be any breed variation of Sri Lankan dogs, they can only be distinguished by shades of brown. So, in usage, one might comment on the shiny coat of that “brown dog #12” or how clean that (lighter shade) “brown dog #8” looked. What struck me in their homogeneity is that we might be looking at dogs that look just exactly like the dogs looked here thousands of years ago.
Lando Calrissian’s cheerful little brother
“Who is that guy with the mustache on all the billboards?”
“He’s the president.”
Discussions about this guy mentioned that he’s been president for ten years, which was the prior term limit. He went ahead and changed that law to allow the Sri Lankan people to benefit from his leadership and benevolence a little longer. Casual conversation has referred to him as “Hitler,” but then again Americans are pretty fond of calling every president they don’t like Hitler, so I’ll take that with a grain of salt. The billboards at every corner though, with the same smiling face, as though he has a hand in every bit of progress in every community…. It reminds me just a little of North Korea. Considering that Sri Lanka just emerged from a civil war though, and that we’re currently in a town that was unreachable by train just a few years ago… maybe we’ll stick to just asking questions about the history of a couple thousand years ago rather than asking about the shops selling camo fatigues and paramilitary stuff and Che Guevara iconography finding it’s way onto vehicles and buildings much more commonly up here. If you can’t avoid religion and politics altogether, you can at least make an effort to dance around it delicately.
I’ll try to toss another Sri Lanka post up before we fly out to the Maldives. Thanks for all the feedback from everyone!