Sri Lanka: The Cultural Triangle

It takes a bit to adjust to a new (especially developing) country. For me, it took about a 15-minute drive and my first taste of an egg curry bun. And I was settled. Which is not to say it was all smooth sailing from here, but I was certainly filled with excitement for all this island nation had to offer. Sri Lanka is a beautiful country. It’s lush and green nearly throughout the entire island, but especially so in the hill country. The beaches are tropical and serene, tucked away quietly from the hubbub of the bustling streets, the cities vibrant, and the whole country full of color and happy people (except at the elephant orphanage. There will be no fun had at the elephant orphanage. More on that later).

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We flew into Colombo, arriving very early in the morning, and our driver, Siril, picked us up at the airport, dropping us at our $25 a night hotel in Negombo at about 2am. It was here I realized that Sri Lankan hotels aren’t big on sheets and/or blankets. The first place had nothing but a sheet to cover the mattress and two pillows. There was no A/C, but a strong fan, and I wound up sleeping with a towel and a jacket over me. This was probably the cheapest hotel I’d stayed at yet in my life. I was a little bit unsure what to expect, but it was perfectly reasonable. Sure, the little luxuries you come to expect in fancier hotels are missing (a blanket, shampoo and other toiletries, the occasional wall or curtain separating your shower from your toilet, a television or phone) but it’s really all we need, and we “splurged” at most places for the rooms with private bathrooms. Always a good decision in my opinion.

After waking up on HK time and getting ready for what I thought was 9am, I sadly discovered it was only 7:30am local time. Grumpy and exhausted, we hit the road with Siril. We’d hired Siril to drive us everywhere, as we were staying in 5 hotels our first 5 nights (you read that right… oi, what were we thinking??), and did not want to waste time arranging transportation on our quick jaunt through (what we thought were) the highlights of Sri Lanka. I’ll spoil the surprise for you and let you know that Siril got fired before we made it to hotel number 5, but more on that later too.

For breakfast, we picked up our egg curry buns for about 30 cents a piece, at a bakery called Calton. Shout out to Lauren! Your people are making great, cheap pastries in Sri Lanka! We also quickly stopped at the Negombo fish market, which we loved. While it’s supposedly much more lively in the early hours, there were still plenty of market goers buying from the stalls of fresh and dried fish. We even saw some baby hammerhead sharks on sale. I loved the way they lay the fish out to dry on big straw blankets on the sand.

Then it was onto the long, windy, bumpy road to Pinnawala. Parched from the long drive we stopped for some king coconut on the way. About a quarter each got us a large coconut of delicious water, and afterwards you could scrape out the meat from inside. Yum. Food is plentiful in this country, they grow a wide range of fruits of vegetables, spices and rice. For a relatively poor nation, I suppose this is why not many people are starving, and quite a few are actually pretty heavy.

The drives were longer than we’d anticipated, and after a lot of time in the car, we arrived at Pinnawala elephant orphanage. I had high hopes for this, because hello! Baby elephants! It was a strange experience. We were very confused as to who actually worked there, who you actually needed to pay, and who was trying to sell you (unsanctioned) stuff. We were also pretty surprised that in a country where you can buy breakfast for 30 cents, that entry to this place cost about $20 a person. Anyway, we headed in, and while the elephants were adorable and majestic, there was a sad, stern air about the place. All of the workers seemed angry. People constantly tried to get you to give them your camera so they could take your picture touching the elephants and charge you. This is not to say it stopped me from taking the opportunity to (pay extra to) feed an elephant. I hadn’t expected I’d be such a chicken shit, but when I sat down next to a creature that large, with a big ole basket full of delicious looking fruit and that honker of a tusk started wagging in the air, I got a little nervous. I kinda threw the first banana at him because I was so scared. Please enjoy the picture of me in terror below (reminds me of the photo of me from the one time I went scuba diving, that same fear in my eyes). I did manage to feed him some more fruit in a bit more civilized manner. Then I handed the basket over to Alan and let him finish off the pineapple and other fruits. P.S. elephants must have some serious digestive skills – they ate banana, watermelon, and even pineapple skins.

We also watched the baby elephants being fed from the bottle, which was more sad than cute, as they were chained so tightly and I felt certain that at least one of the elephants was sedated, given the way he rocked back and forth and the milky look in his eyes.

For lunch Siril took us over to a restaurant on the water, which we feared at first was overly touristy, but we were pleasantly surprised to see that we had a front seat view of the elephants bathing in the river while we ate. (They looked happier here, until one ventured too far and got stick prodded back). We also tried our first of many rice and curry dishes (the Sri Lankan staple). Rather than some rice and some curry, you get a heaping serving of rice, and about 6 other dishes of accompanying sauces, toppings and so on, one of which is the actual curry. One of my favorites was the mango chutney, and I also love the daal. This was our first intro to the surprisingly unspicy nature of the foods here. We’d heard prior that Sri Lanka has the spiciest food in the world, so we’re either totally bad-ass spicy eaters, or it’s not actually that hot. Somewhat interestingly, I’ve been keeping pescatarian while in Sri Lanka. For no particular reason, other than I tend to want to order the veggie or prawn options almost always. It’s so easy to keep vegetarian in this part of the world – so many delicious veggie foods! I swear, by the time we left we’d had every fathomable vegetable or fruit curried (my favorite probably being pineapple, lease being cucumber).

Just before sunset, we made it to Yapahuwa, which was a highlight. We were literally the only people there aside from a handful of monks and a guy collecting entrance fees. The ruins are not terribly impressive, though there is a steep stone staircase with some carvings in it, which takes you to the beginning of a small hike to the top of a hill. Despite being provided no information or having any trail markers (not hard to follow, but confusing as I hadn’t realized we were hiking even), we continued on, and were very pleasantly surprised to share the sunset with a group of monkeys I shall refer to as the bad-toupee monkeys (see pictures below for clarification). On the way out, we also got a quick peek into the cave temple with several hundred-year-old paintings on the walls and ceilings. Not too shabby.

Our second night in Sri Lanka was spent in Anuradhapura. We got another uber-cheap room, which was passable, though we could have done without the rock hard mangoes falling dangerously close around us as we ate dinner at the restaurant. We figured switching tables sounded like a better idea than to risk finding out what Sri Lankan hospitals are like. The dinner was again barely spicy, but the waiter saw me blowing my nose (still sick, wahhh) and asked if it was too spicy for us. They must think us tourists are bona fide pansies. The trend of no blankets continued as we made our may through Sri Lanka, though our last 5 hotels were at least generous in providing a sheet.

In the morning we again grabbed cheap pastries, this time trying sami seemi, which had a nice little heat to it, and an egg rotti, which is basically a crepe with egg very thinly cooked into its folds. Then it was off to begin the famed cultural triangle… Anaradhapura at least was a little womp-womp. The sites were underwhelming at best. This is not to say that if you are terribly interested in history or religion (and Buddhism in particular) that they might be interesting (and definitely more so if you hired a guide I’m sure), but they are not nearly as beautiful or impressive as the ruins you find in Cambodia or India. In addition, they cost a ridiculous sum to get into (think $30 a person in places, in a country where I can get a nice hotel for $25 a night), and you are provided with no information. There are no placards with history, no maps or brochures handed out. In fact, we went to one of the most famous sites – the Sri Bada Bodi tree (I think maybe the oldest tree in the world or something?!), and didn’t even realize what it was until after we’d left!

In light of this experience, we decided to skip Polonnaruwa, another collection of temple ruins and dagobas in the cultural triangle. Instead, we decided to enjoy our splurge (still reasonably priced by American standards) hotel in Sigiriya. Except that I was feeling super sick again and wound up sleeping from 4:30 in the afternoon until the next morning. Womp womp again. That said, we did manage to squeeze in some fresh mango from a roadside stand (delicious, and very different from the mangos we eat in the states), and Alan got in some pool time while I snoozed. We also asked to stop for lunch on the way at a local’s restaurant for rice and curry that’s for real spicy. The curry was still not too spicy, but I did enjoy watching Alan eat with his hands. When in Rome.

The cultural site of Sigiriya at least, piqued our interests more than Anuradhapura. We walked from our hotel over to the temple in the morning, paid the again exorbitant fee, and attacked the little hike to the top of the rock. The views are great, but the highlight for me (as per usual) was the animal life. There were monkeys galore, and puppies. Oh my god, the puppies. I found the scraggliest, crustiest little pup on our walk over, and stopped to pet him and get lots of puppy kisses (crusty pups need love too), saw a whole pack of baby pups near the top of the rock, and another little cluster of adoreableness again at the bottom. I was in heaven. Dogs are everywhere in Sri Lanka, and this brings me immense pleasure. I stop to pet them constantly. We also saw a strange raccoon-like animal being fed by a tourist (shame on them), and some slithery snakes up top. Don’t worry, I protected Alan (when I wasn’t having panic attacks from the heights on those rickety and steep metal staircases – which reminds me! there are guys who try to “help” you up the steep staircase for a tip. I flipped out at one guy with maybe five PLEASE DON’T TOUCH ME’s. Last thing I need is someone touching me when I’m having a fear of heights induced panic on a rusty staircase suspended off the edge of a giant rock).

The climb up was scary at times, but not terribly difficult and quite quick. It helped that we were fueled by a most delicious breakfast spread. While not as spicy as I’d anticipated, I am very quickly falling in love with Sri Lankan cuisine. The bananas here are ridiculously amazing. I also enjoy the curry, and especially the coconut sambol that you sprinkle on top (shredded coconut, red pepper and red onion… it has a bit of a kick to it, sweet and spicy). I’m also loving the string hoppers, which are little noodley pancake things that you pour curry or other delicious mystery saucy stuff on top of, and of course more coconut sambol. After Sigiriya we enjoyed the pool and some fantastic fresh papaya, watermelon and pineapple fruit juice.

::view from our hotel::
::view from our hotel::

On our way out of town we checked out a wholesale produce market that had an impressive array of, well, bulk produce. People are so friendly, they want to know where you’re from and practice their English by talking to you. The skeptic in me assumes they’re also interested in tips and/or pickpocketing, but who knows.

Next stop was a spice garden tour where our guide rubbed some ayurvedic cream on my nose and forehead to try and help clear up my cold. When that didn’t help he also gave me a couple syrupy substance and a few herby drinks to try. While it was interesting to hear about the natural treatments, we didn’t buy anything, and my sampling of the treatments did not provide much in the way of relief from this now irritatingly stubborn cold.

::in lieu of awkward photos of me having cream applied to my nose, please look at this other temple::
::in lieu of awkward photos of me having cream applied to my nose, please look at this other temple::

We arrived that afternoon in Kandy with plenty of time to enjoy the main attraction – traditional Kandyan dancing. Only thing is, our driver told us he would pick us up at 6 for the show. Well, the shows started at 5 and we missed them all. So we missed our chance to see the dancing on our one night in Kandy. This was pretty much the last straw for Siril. We’d been questioning our choice with him for a while, given the fact that he never knew where he was going (including one stint where he drove 45 minutes in the wrong direction before asking for directions), fought with a hotel manager because he was offering us tips on what to do in the area (presumably because the spots he recommends will not provide kick-backs to Siril), spoke worse English than most other people we met in the country, and so on. We realize we’re not in a modern city and service will not be perfect, but Siril totally sucked. So, Siril was fired. We ended up paying a bit more for car service as we had to arrange the rest of our drives one at a time (and they were long ones!), but all in all we felt it worth the extra cost and headache.

By the way, every source we found had a different time listed for the start of the dance, and all were wrong, including Lonely Planet. Still getting used to this third world planning ish. Guess it’d make a lot more sense to NOT stay only one night each place (which we hopefully never do again) where you can’t count on reliability.

Dinner at our Kandy hotel was spicier than most. We had some delicious deviled prawns. I still can’t quite figure out what “deviled” means here, but it’s a sauce they cook things with that is similar to sweet and sour sauce. After seeing us handle the spice like champs the waiter brought over something he called “cobra sauce” for us to try. It was spicy, but still not that bad. I maintain that food is spicier in India. The hotel manager and owner and their family here was so nice though. I thought I’d lost my bracelet here, and the owner offered to call my old hotel and ask them to look for it for me. Seeing me coughing, he made me an ayurvedic drink that he promised would make me feel better in the morning. The large mug was filled with what looked pretty much like dirty toilet water. It tasted not much better. I managed to choke down about half of the drink, and I did feel slightly better the next morning. Perhaps had I drank the whole glass I would have been cured.

For our quick morning in Kandy we checked out the local market and wandered around the fish, meat, veggie and fruit stalls. Again, the Sri Lankans were super friendly. They all want their picture taken, to speak English with us. We went next to the Temple of the Tooth. Wow is it crowded. The personal space bubble here is non-existent. Expect lots of uninvited touching. That said, it’s a neat experience to see these locals who push and shove and wait in line for just a few seconds to pray at this sacred site. The grounds are quite large too, and you can walk around and explore this temple, which is far more interesting than much of what we’d seen in Anuradhapura.

Before leaving Kandy we ate a great curry lunch at a restaurant called Devon. My whole meal was a buck! I get irrationally excited when my meals cost a dollar (best meal in Cambodia was $1 beef noodles from a street cart). We then accidentally attended a wedding procession while stopping in another hotel to try to arrange a driver.

::wedding procession::
::wedding procession::

On the road again, we head out to Adam’s Peak with a new driver. The trip picked up from here, as the latter half (hill country and the beach) was definitely the best. I’ll cover that in my next post.

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