Sri Lankan Sojourns: Tuk-Tuks, Temples and Trains.
Drawn by the warmth and humidity, but also by the lure of Sri Lanka’s culture, food, wild life, natural habitats and friendly locals, it was in Negombo that we first experienced all of these. Not wanting to waste any time after our long haul flight from Tas, we wasted no time in hitting the streets with our trusty Lonely Planet in hand.
It was here that we experienced our first tuk-tuk ride. Having politely ignored all the friendly offers as soon as we left our guesthouse, we succumbed to the gentle persuasion of Mervin when the heat started to get the better of us!All we were really after was a good cup of Ceylon tea and a homemade cake at the Ice Bear Century Cafe, but Mervin, our tuk-tuk driver, had better ideas. These guys are keen! After Mervin had dropped us off at our cafe, and after we had promised we’d go with him on his tour, we realized we’d left our backpack in the tuk-tuk. Figuring that we’d collect it when Mervin picked us up later, we didn’t think any more about it – until Mervin came back with it immediately. Such was the honesty and integrity of everyone that we met in Sri Lanka. Sometimes being hassled to take a tuk-tuk could be a bit annoying……………. but most of the time the gentle persistence ceased with firm but polite refusals.
A round trip of the city followed. Negombo’s rich collection of houses of worship reflect Sri Lanka’s openness to many religious persuasions and we were able to get up close and personal with all types.This small Hindu temple is one of many that dot Sri Lanka, brought to the island by Tamil kings and their followers from India. Despite being able to enter into these exotic looking structures………………we nevertheless felt we were imposing (especially taking photographs!) and never stayed long. Looking rather like an overblown pavlova, the inside of St Mary’s catholic church is testimony to the importance of Catholicism in the region thanks to the Portuguese. Landing in the early 1500s, they ousted the Moors, constructed a fort in Negombo and took over the trade of cinnamon. It was during the Portuguese occupation that the Karawa, or traditional fishing clan of Negombo embraced Catholicism almost without exception. So successfully were they converted that today Negombo is sometimes known as ‘Little Rome’ and nearly two thirds of its population profess a Catholic faith. (Source: Wikipedia). More appealing to our jaded design eyes was the stupa that Mervin took us to see – literally meaning a ‘heap’, a stupa is a semi-hemispherical structure that contain Buddhist relics and used as a place of meditation. This structure’s elegant proportions were attributed, according to Mervin, to the shape of the folded leaf of a nearby bodhi tree (or sacred fig)…………… ………..a nice tourist touch!
We learned to bargain hard and to tip well whilst travelling in Sri Lanka; to always maintain a sense of humour when dealing with persistent touts and to eat with our hands with the locals. Sri Lanka is about the size of Tasmania but with 22 million people as apposed to our 500,000, one doesn’t have to mind being in close contact on occasions. Close encounters of the tightest kind arose when our driver, Jaga took us to visit the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy where we were amidst a crush of devotees. During all our temple visits, we always felt safe (though we did keep a firm grip on our wallets) and were never once physically accosted. Whilst not a temple, the Benedictine monastery that we visited just near Haputhale, also serves as another example of the open religious freedom that seems to openly thrive in Sri Lanka. Adisham monastery is an elegant stone block building with a dusty collection of furniture and books that was once the home of an English tea planter who established the gardens, which is one of the main reasons to visit.
From the train station in Kandy, we booked our first class train seats in an air-conditioned carriage to Nuwara Eliya – a city in the hill country of the Central Province. The continuous stream of Channing Tatum movies did little to distract us from the dramatic vistas that unfolded as we slowly made our way up country accompanied by a cup of tea made with condensed milk. We make our bone shaking way through a landscape of immaculately manicured tea plantations, forests of eucalypts and pine and stunning distant waterfalls. We finally made a weary rendezvous with Jaga four-hours later, and he whisks us away to the colonial comforts of our hotel. After Sri Lanka’s political upheavals and the devastation caused by the 2004 tsunami that claimed 30,000 lives and left a further 1,000,000 without homes, tourism has become an essential lifeline to its full recovery.
We travelled during September just before the monsoon season started and so we enjoyed a temperate climate at very reasonable travel and accommodation rates. The food was delicious and cheap and the cultural experience was fabulous – we’ll definitely be heading back there again one day.