Sri Lanka is 9,000 miles and a 12.5 hour time change from California. It’s essentially half a world away and so different that it may as well have two moons. Somehow, everyone here seems to know that California is the “best city” in the United States and that Arnold Schwarzenegger was our governor, even though our restrictive visa laws virtually guarantee that almost no Sri Lankans have ever had the chance to visit where I came from. My lack of knowledge about this country before arriving was somewhat embarrassing.
[link to full FB photo album]
I’m not sure what compelled me to visit. Part of it was the fact that my dad had lived “in Ceylon” circa 50 years ago at the Galle Face Hotel in Colombo when he was a child. It’s where he developed a love for swimming and took surf lifeguard training. Part of it was the compassionate family email my uncle George wrote about the country following the tragic 2004 tsunami. Part of it was Air Asia’s cheap fare and relatively new route between Kuala Lumpur and Colombo. The thing that finally struck the resonant chord and pushed me over the Indian Ocean was learning a little more about Theravada Buddhism after my recent visit to Myanmar. This is the branch of the religion that came down most directly from the Sanskrit language and the Pali text from India down into countries which now include: Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand – all places I’ve visited for the first time in the last four months. While I’m not imminently considering a personal Buddhist awakening or a stint with the Hari Krishna (as my uncle Willy did, temporarily disappearing on his world travels years ago) I do find that the Buddhist countries have a certain beauty about them, which includes the temples, stupas, monks, joss sticks, and people who are generally very warm, welcoming, and happy to have you visit. It was fortuitous then that my visit happened to coincide with the Esala Perahera, the country’s biggest annual religious festival celebrating the Buddha tooth relic.
The ancient cities of Sri Lanka – Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya, and Dambulla – may not be as visually spectacular as Bagan in Myanmar or Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom in Cambodia, nonetheless as far as historical significance goes, they hold their own. In combination they are more than enough to spark the fancy of any casual tomb raider or Indiana Jones. Take for example, the fact that Anuradhapura dates back to the 4th century BC while Angkor Wat wasn’t built until the 12th century AD. Anuradhapura also has the oldest continually cared for tree in the world, which is 2000 years old and was grown from a sapling taken directly from the Bodhi tree in India under which Siddhartha Gautama achieved enlightenment and became the Buddha. The ancient rock fortress at Sigiriya is one of the most impressive sights I’ve ever seen, combining awesome natural, historical, and spiritual significance in a way that very few other sights in the world do (maybe Petra in Jordan does but I’ve still never been). Dambulla and Sigiriya have some of the finest ancient cave paintings anywhere.
And it’s not just about the history. Sri Lanka has gorgeous hillside tea plantations, marvelous train ride views, inspiring national parks, a million elephants, incredibly tasty food, and in the crashed out/chilled out surf haven of Arugam Bay one of the best and most consistent waves in Asia.
I’ll let my photo album speak the rest, but if you dream about colorful islands half a world away with the history and beaches to justify the jet lag, it’s time for you to put this little island nation that packs a big punch on your travel wish list.
Next up on the ancient Buddhist world tour: Borobudur, Indonesia – but not until after meeting friends in Hong Kong and beaching it up in Bali.