Words and Photos by Dave Stamboulis
Most of Southeast Asia’s tourist paradises have been trampled underfoot. They may still have some beautiful spots, but several decades of mass tourism have altered the landscape, the attitudes, and most certainly the innocence of places that not so long ago were off the map. And then there is Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka has been in the shadows for a long time. The tiny island, referred to often as “The Teardrop of India,” due to its shape and proximity to the neighboring giant, has suffered for what seems like an eternity. Following colonization by the British, a brief stint of independence decayed into one of Southeast Asia’s longest running conflicts, as the civil war between the Sinhalese and independence seeking Tamils in the island’s north went on for 30 years and killed and displaced millions. Then in 2004, the Boxing Day tsunami destroyed much of the coastline, killed over 40,000, and pushed the island into further upheaval.
But in 2009, a peace accord was signed and the war ended. In 2010, the New York Times voted it as the top destination in the world to visit, and 2011 saw Visit Sri Lanka Year enacted by the government. The tiny island nation had 800,000 visitors in its signature year. Divide that by a calendar year and it comes out to roughly 2,000 tourists per day. Contrast that with Thailand’s 18-19 million arrivals and you can see just how young Sri Lanka’s tourist industry is. For lack of a better word, it is still a land of innocence.
In Mirissa, an up and coming seaside resort recently touted by the Lonely Planet as the best beach in the country, locals come in from the countryside to sell their fruit to tourists. Prices remain more or less at market prices, more or less the same as one would pay in inland towns. Local rice and curry shops sell scrumptious roti and curry meals for about the same prices as one might find in local streets in Colombo. On the beach, a handful of cafes, restaurants, and bars have sprung up. When I asked a vendor how much it would cost to rent a beach umbrella at his café, he looked at me as if I was mad and said, “please, take it, it’s free.” Feeling rather guilty an hour later, I bought lunch from him. A small lane leading to the beach with a handful of guesthouses featured a cooking school that served up some of the most succulent curries I had anywhere in Sri Lanka, all for the budget bending price of $3 for a 5 course meal. In 5 years, I am sure the prices will triple, the number of guesthouses in the lane will go from 5 to 100, and it won’t be much longer after that when the first 5 star resorts start construction. But for now, it is indeed a land of innocence.
Sri Lanka is blessed by an abundance of natural beauty compressed into a tiny area, making it easy to cover much of the country in a short time. While the beaches are the big drawing card, with crescent shaped white sand bays and endless strips of coastal beaches, broken up by small fishing villages with the well photographed stilt fishermen precariously perched on their flimsy wooden posts, the mountainous hill country remains my favorite haunt, blessed with cooler weather, leisurely wandering amongst endless tea plantations, and home to the spiritual pulse of the nation.
Kandy is the heart of the hill country. A small town ringed by hills built around a long lake and draped in perpetual mist. From my perch in Helga’s Folly, an imaginatively designed and wildly kitsch filled hotel that has entertained everyone from Gandhi to Laurence Olivier (not to mention having a song written about it by the Stereophonics), I can see the storks and cormorants flying over Kandy Lake below, and watch throngs of villagers in white making their daily pilgrimage to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, Sri Lanka’s most holy Buddhist site.
The Temple of the Tooth is said to contain a tooth of the Buddha, encased in a jeweled casket inside of a shrine, only brought out once a year during the wild Esala Perahera Festival. The rest of the time, visitors must cross the moat surrounding the 17th Century Temple, and make their way through the beautiful palatial interior, where they stand in long lines to get ten seconds worth of homage paying to the relic, giving offerings of lotus and frangipani bouquets, money, and other gifts of merit. The famed Kandy drummers open and close the daily temple puja offerings by raucous drumming and dancing sessions, and the level of devotion and belief is probably only rivaled in the Buddhist world by Shwedagon Paya in Myanmar.
Heading out into the hills surrounding Kandy, one can ride slow old British steam trains up onto the high plateaus of Sri Lanka. Pilgrims head this way to gain access to Sri Pada, a 2243 meter mountain more commonly known as Adam’s Peak, and the most important place of pilgrimage on the entire island. Adam’s Peak is considered sacred by Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, and Muslims, as the summit of the mountain houses a footprint said to be that of the Buddha, Shiva, or Adam, depending on which faith one asks. Thousands of pilgrims rise at 2am to make the journey up the 5300 steep stone steps to watch the sunrise over all of Sri Lanka and make merit for present and future lives. The pilgrims also provide the Ayurvedic practitioners of Sri Lanka with a healthy living, as the steps take a brutal toll on calves and quadriceps, and masseurs and balm and salve sellers can be found en masse upon descent to the tiny village of Dalhousie at the base of the mountain.
Near Adams Peak are rows of neatly planted tea bushes. The plantations stretch on for miles throughout the hill country, and account for 15% of the GDP, with thousands of Tamil workers hired to assist in picking and production (Sri Lanka is the second largest tea exporting nation in the world, only Kenya exports more). Picturesque little towns dot the lush landscape, where elevation, humidity, and high rainfall combine to create perfect growing conditions.
There are working plantations here were visitors can take tours, and even the boutique hotel market has come, with stylish accommodation available in classic plantation bungalows that have changed little since the times of the British. I spent an afternoon marveling at the scenery, taking in a view of the surrounding plains from the Lipton Seat, a high vantage point so named due to the visits made here by Sir Thomas Lipton, the man responsible for all those yellow label tea bags now commonplace in tea cups around the world.
Sri Lanka actually did not grow tea en masse until the latter part of the 1800’s. The Dutch grew cinnamon when they occupied Ceylon, and then the British planted coffee. But in 1870, a fungus wiped out the coffee crop, and tea was introduced in its stead. The Tamils who work the plantations were originally brought from India due to a lack of Sinhalese willing to do the hard labor. Labeled as “plantation Tamils,” the workers are mostly women, who receive only 100 odd baht per day for their work, which entails picking large quantities of tea leaves on steep terrain. The plantation Tamils have been discriminated against throughout time, with even Sri Lankan Tamils refusing to see them as peers due to the plantation Tamils being from a lower caste. However, since the end of the civil war, conditions have begun to improve for the workers, with better salaries, an upgrade in housing, and opportunities for the workers’ children to go to school.
Walking through a plantation one afternoon, a group of young kids ran up to me, asking if I would take their photos. I asked them why, and one boy responded, “so that we can remember the day a tourist came and took our picture and how happy that made us.” I took a few snaps, wandered off, and thought about the fact that I would also forever remember this day in this sweet and still innocent isle.
Within the country, trains are a leisurely way of getting around and meeting the locals. First class observation cars can be booked for travel through the hill country. Accommodations for all budgets are available. In Kandy, it is worth the splash out for a night or at least a meal at the wildly imaginative Helga’s Folly, where you can take a trip back in time amongst the kitsch and psychedelic décor. New visa laws have gone into effect for Sri Lanka, requiring an advance Electronic Travel Authorization permit, available at http://www.eta.gov.lk/slvisa/.