I’m preparing to leave the lovely country of Sri Lanka after three weeks spent here. Located off the coast of India, with a population of some 21 million, the country is a tourist’s delight. Since the signing of the peace treaty with the terrorist Tamil Tigers two years ago, the country is now focused on developing its infrastructure, which is badly in need of repair (after driving its roads, my back is howling). Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, means “Pearl of the Indian Ocean” and, believe me, it lives up to its name.
Here, then, are some of my favorite and not so favorite aspects of Sri Lanka for those of you fortunate enough to consider coming here.
The People. You will absolutely never find friendlier people anywhere you travel on this planet. As a primarily Buddhist nation, when you greet a person, hands together, you will receive a warm smile. Service in restaurants is fabulous. For photographers, the country is ideal, as nearly everyone agrees to have their photo taken.
Food. Sri Lanka offers a widely diverse menu. I would definitely recommend taking advantage of local foods, such as curries with various rices, all grown in-country. Since many Buddhists are primarily vegetarians, there is an abundance of fresh, colorful, delicious veggies.
Photo Opps. Sri Lanka has got to be one of the most photogenic countries on earth, no exaggeration. First, the geography varies from lush mountains in the north to dry desert-like conditions in the south. Second, it has some of the most photographable architecture in the way of its temples and shrines. Third, its wildlife is exceptional, from monkeys to leopards and elephants. Fourth, its people are beautiful, both in looks and spirit, and nearly always willing to allow you to take their picture.
The Geography. In a day’s drive you can go from lush, tropical highlands where Sri Lanka’s finest tea plantations are located, to the forest and flat scrub brush country of Yala National Park. Bring a wide and medium length lens with you (a zoom works fine) and use a polarizer.
The Culture. As a Buddhist nation the people have a very patient, gentle attitude toward life. They help each other out. They share their meals with homeless dogs. They support beggars. They go out of their way to cater to guests and are very humbled and contrite when they get it wrong. I celebrated the Buddhist New Year in the private home of a family and was made to feel like a welcomed friend.
The Tea. I am an ardent tea drinker, having given up coffee more than 10 years ago. I love the subtle differences between teas. Sri Lanka makes some of the best teas in the world. I had the joy of visiting a tea plantation, as well as a tea factory. (“The coffee is terrible!” was the most common refrain at breakfasts). The tea growing region is just so gorgeous and you are guaranteed to see women picking every day, as Sri Lanka’s climate is ideal for growing the plants.
The Animals. Sri Lanka is a gold mine for animal lovers and photographers. There are several national parks that are home to Sri Lanka’s 6,000 elephants. Yala National Park is considered one of the top leopard environments on Earth. Bring a telephoto lens with you and a sturdy tripod or beanbag.
Massages. How can you resist a one-hour full body massage for $20-25 USD? Every hotel has Ayurvedic masseuses who will work their magic on those sore muscles.
Learning. Sri Lankans are open and willing to share their knowledge and traditions. In fact, they welcome questions, although you may need an interpreter with you (English is now mandatory in schools). The learning extends to the Buddhist and Hindu temples, where people worship openly and where even the monks are eager to answer whatever questions you might have. The history of the nation and its unique architecture offers many learning opportunities. I love the cultural differences that define our behaviors. For one thing, Sri Lankans shake their heads from side to side, rather than up and down, when they mean “okay,” something that takes getting used to. Instead of shaking hands, they hold their hands together and bow slightly in greeting.
The Attitude. Perhaps most important is what we can take away form a visit to Sri Lanka. I like to think that it has taught me the value of peaceful co-existence. Buddhists are live-and-let-live kind of folks and that is contagious after a few weeks spent here, especially after leaving America last month in the midst of election season divisiveness, acrimony and polarization. Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians seem to live together peacefully, even to the point of celebrating each others’ holidays.
… and some things I don’t like so much
Sanitation. First, many Sri Lankans eat with their hands, using their thumb and two fingers to create a ball of rice and curry, for example. You may not see this in hotel restaurants, but in the privacy of their homes (even well-heeled homes) and in local eateries, the traditional continues. I love cultural traditions like these and this would not be so bad if everyone washed before eating, but sadly that is not the case. And most Sri Lankan men, I noted, do not wash after using public restrooms, perhaps because there is often no soap or paper towels and the cloth towels you see hanging in restrooms look like they’e been used by auto mechanics for the past two months. The moral of the story is to carry wipes and hand cleanser with you everywhere.
Environment. Sri Lanka is a drop-dead gorgeous country, but it would be a lot more inviting to western tourists if the nascent environmental awareness movement caught hold. Litter is everywhere and there are few organized cleanups. In the south coastal region, hit hard by the 2004 tsunami, that is most noticeable in beaches that are littered with trash.
Driving. Scary. You find yourself gripping your seat belt and praying that when the crash occurs, it won’t be too painful. See my previous post on this topic.
Changes Are Coming. With their war against terrorism behind them, Sri Lanka is ripe for development. Hotels along the beach and near parks are going up. Asian investors are salivating over Sri Lanka’s potential. My fear is that much of the culture, pace and lifestyle will change. My hope is that the Buddhist ethic will survive to create a tourist haven that dares to be different.