Showing posts with label sri_lanka. Show all posts
Showing posts with label sri_lanka. Show all posts

Friday, March 22, 2013

Sri Lanka: Kandy-land Adventure


I apologize for not posting for two weeks - I took on a crazypants teaching schedule, trying to save money before I make a change in August, and haven't had much time for blogging. I also worked my way through The Forty Days of Musa Dagh after reading a few other things on my list (Hiking Through History and The Oracle of Stamboul), and that took up a lot of my time.

What's more, I've been thinking more seriously of making jewelry to actually sell - although I haven't started yet, just planning what to make and what I'll need - if I decide to do it at all - is taking up time.

And sadly, blogging fell by the wayside.


I believe this is my last batch of Sri Lanka photos (I have to check and see if the Galle photos ever made it up, and later on I'll throw up a few Colombo shots), and I don't have too much to say beyond basic travelogue stuff. But I should note a few things about similarities between Sri Lanka and Taiwan.

I mean, there are the obvious things, like how they're both islands off a major landmass that is also one country, and both independent (although Taiwan is only de facto, Sri Lanka is de jure). They both have monkeys. They are both often overlooked in favor of their larger and more powerful neighbors.


But there's more.

Both have an ethnic minority of another race that has influence over the culture (Tamils in Sri Lanka, aborigines and Hakka here - some will argue that Hakka is not an ethnic minority. OK, you could say that, but they are a cultural and linguistic one).

They both are relatively small players in the world economy (Sri Lanka moreso than Taiwan) next to a major player, but both have higher per capita GDP statistics than their "big, rich" neighbor. Both are more prosperous when you consider individual standard of living than their neighbor. Both are easier to deal with as destinations than traveling in their neighbor (I love India, but Sri Lanka was an easier place to visit).


They both have some unfortunate politics worth discussing. I was not pleased that the LTTE lost the civil war - I was rooting for them to at least win concessions, autonomy or some sort of enforced legislation of equal treatment and opportunity. This is in part because I lived in Tamil Nadu in India and so have something of a connection to Tamil culture although I am not Tamil myself, and in part because they fought back against true discrimination. They didn't deserve to lose, and they're not doing much better now than they were when the war began.

And of course, Taiwan has to deal with all that China bullshit.


They both have monkeys!

But seriously, they both have cultural traditions that involve tiny shrines everywhere. Along the road in Sri Lanka, much like in Taiwan (but not China, in my observation), there are small Buddhist shrines (and a few Hindu ones too), that you can stop and pray at, or are there just to keep farms, fields or property safe and in god's grace. In Taiwan, of course, you'll see Earth God (土地公) shrines everywhere, and a few others (Matsu is popular) scattered around, too.


Their cultures are both too often considered the same or "close enough" to their larger, more well-known neighbors.


They are both influenced strongly not only by their Big Strong Neighbor, but also by other nearby islands - as is the case with island nations in proximity to other ones. Taiwan is deeply influenced by Japan by both proximity, cultural affinity (including post-WWII when Taiwan was one of the only - the only? - Asian nation to not despise or resent Japan) and colonization. Sri Lanka has flavors of Indonesia in its art, traditions, architecture and cooking - you see woodcarving that's more reminiscent of Bali, "tiki" style thatch roofs more commonly seen in Sumatra and Java, food that reminds me of Padang cuisine almost as much as it does Indian curry, greater use of coconut and an affinity for "sambol", which is basically spicy Indonesian sambal with coconut.

Even their art has lines - look at the legs of the carved dancer below - that remind me of Indonesian Hindu/Buddhist art more than Indian.

Some of their dances seem more Indonesian than Indian, but I am hardly an expert in Sri Lankan dance tradition.


Anyway, these photos were taken in Kandy, Sri Lanka's cultural capital (think of it as the Tainan of Sri Lanka, Galle as the Lugang of Sri Lanka, the southern beaches as the Kending of Sri Lanka, Ella/Nuwara Eliya as the Alishan of Sri Lanka...they could all almost be sister cities/sister destinations).


The afternoon we arrived, after a nauseating bus trip, we waited out a rainstorm (common in Kandy in the afternoon) and headed to the Temple of the Tooth (above), where it's said that they keep a tooth of the Buddha. I'm not sure if it's real - it's been absconded with, taken to India and brought back enough times that it could well be a fake - but the temple is lovely.


We went to a fun, but basic, tea museum the next day, taking a rickshaw up the mountain and walking down to enjoy the weather and scenery. And we saw this:



...and passed a Durga shrine. Durga, the embodiment of feminine creative energy and the Optimus Prime/Power Rangers Giant Robot of Hindu gods, carries weapons in her 18 arms and rides a tiger or lion. She killed the demon Mahisha when no other god could. Of course she is my favorite.



Jaya jaya hai, Mahishasura Mardhini!

We hired a rickshaw to take us to the three most well-known temples outside of Kandy (not a lot of public transit), which were all enjoyable, if firmly on the tourist circuit:












...and we saw a super touristy dance show, which was fun, but not as authentic as, say, a Taiwanese temple parade (I'd love to see such dances in an authentic setting, but all the cameras going off kind of ruined it. I'm not against taking photos - I take them, too - but it was downright rude, how people would stand in the audience or hold their cameras up high so those behind them not only couldn't see, but also could watch you take your terrible photos...because most tourists aren't good photographers).




Here's one of the shrines I mentioned:


And the beach we started out from, at Negombo (it was a less stressful option than staying in Colombo). Seems quiet - actually, it was stuffed with tourists.


Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Monkey at the End of the World


Philosopher Monkey Likes To Philosophize

All photos below - not in order - were taken either on the train between Kandy and Ella, in Ella itself, or on our hike a few hours away from Ella at World's End and Horton Plains National Park. The monkey above is enjoying the view at World's End.

I"m kind of going backwards in my chronicle of our Sri Lanka vacation, but that's just how the desire to write struck.

We left Kandy by train - the Kandy-Ella train being extremely popular among foreigners for its scenic backdrop, and being a nicer train than most in Sri Lanka (we saw some other trains in various stations), most likely because it is so heavily used by foreign tourists. And the views are stunning:









But the train is also the beginning of Foreign Tourist Saturation (which I realize I'm a part of, I don't deny my own culpability). The train has a few locals on it, but the vast majority of passengers are foreigners transiting from Kandy to Ella on this famous rail route. They take so many pictures - as I did - that they're practically taking pictures of each other:


Ella town...well, let's just say I could take or leave the place. I really enjoyed our stay in the mountains but not because of the town. That said, I chose it specifically because if the weather was bad, a tourist-filled mountain town would probably provide other diversions, even if those diversions were drinking tea and souvenir shopping. And the weather was often pretty bad - it rained for a portion of every single day, so it wasn't entirely a poor decision. However:


Go ahead and enlarge that menu and enjoy the "Spagatti Bololesis" and "Frid Rice", and reflect upon a restaurant named, ostensible, for a director of weird and violent movies, printed in a Haunted House font, on a tiki hit painted reggae colors.

We did not try the "Spagatti Bololesis", and I found the local food in Ella - we didn't go all the way to Sri Lanka to eat pasta - to be...meh. There were no good views from the town itself, the weather was crap, and the stores and restaurants were weak-tea backpacker joints. I was not terribly impressed. It reminded me yet again of a reason to love Taiwan (let's say this one is #30):

Not too many tourists. It's getting to be a problem, and to some extent I do wish the rest of the world would cultivate a better appreciation for the charms of Taiwan - its night markets, its seafood, it's stinky tofu, its mountains, its coastline. It feels like the last undiscovered gem in Asia. On the other hand, I wouldn't want Taiwan to be dotted with little Ellas, or little Mirissas (that wouldn't happen: Taiwan doesn't have the beaches. I was not impressed with the beaches at Kending, and that's among the best Taiwan has. You have to go to Penghu to even come close to what's on offer in Sri Lanka, Indonesia or the Philippines).


I wouldn't want the festivals - both temple fairs and aboriginal festivals - to become performances for tourists. I like 'em authentic. I don't mind battling a crowd of local would-be photographers but I would mind battling an even larger crowd of people with no emotional investment in the performance itself. I can accept Old Streets and towns like Lugang cashing in on their heritage by appealing to domestic tourists and the occasional Japanese who wander through, because they are popular with locals. I wouldn't want them to become backpacker hovels where every other old shophouse sells banana pancakes, and the stinky tofu, oyster omelets and brown sugar cake aren't as good because the proprietors figure that foreigners don't know any better.

I like that there is no Khao San Road in Taipei. I want it to stay that way. I like that mountain towns in Taiwan, such as Lishan (my favorite), aren't overrun with tourists and what infrastructure you find there is for locals.

The two things that made Ella wonderful were our hotel, and our hike in Horton Plains National Park. The hotel was outside of town, about a kilometer along what is basically a hiking trail, and built so that most of it was a sheltered outdoor cafe setup with stunning views through Ella Gap:




We'd go out, do some hiking or walking, get stuck in the rain, and come back cold and muddy. Then we'd change into comfortable, dry clothing and sit in the cafe area - the rooms open directly onto it so it's like an extension of one's room - to drink tea and eat coconut sambal sandwiches. It was truly a gem. I could have spent a couple of days just relaxing there and not going out.

We then hired a car and driver to take us to Horton Plains. Hiring a car with driver is not difficult in Sri Lanka, and not terribly expensive. It'll cost slightly less than chartering a taxi in Taiwan (something I've done when I've wanted to visit areas without good public transportation, but as usual was not willing to drive. I do not drive and will not drive in urban Taiwan, which is one reason why I live in Taipei. You might get me behind the wheel in the countryside, though). We shared the car hire with a German couple to cut costs, and they were very pleasant hiking companions.


The trail is at about 2300 meters above sea level - not so high that you'll get sick, but high enough that hiking uphill causes you to become slightly more winded than you might normally feel. Only slightly, though. The land is classic moorland - chilly, foggy, scrubby grassland reminiscent of northern England and parts of Scotland.


It's a circular trail that's approximately 9 kilometers in total, maybe ten. You walk four or five to World's End, where the moorlands just...stop. They go from being rolling plains of grass to being a steep cliff quite literally immediately, with no warning that the landscape is about to change.


The view is stunning if it's not foggy - as you can see, we got something of a view, but we didn't get the full deal. So...instead, enjoy the cute monkey. The "Philosopher Monkey" at the top of the post is also looking out over the cliff, called "World's End", to give you a better idea of the view.

On a clear day you can see straight to the coast. We weren't so lucky.

We were so cold, so wet (it rained pretty hard on our hike back), so muddy and so achy when we got back that I changed into soft, warm pajamas immediately and refused to make the trek into town. We spent the rest of the day in the cafe area of our hotel drinking tea and resting our tired muscles.

Ella had a few other good things, too: a few hikes and walks to temples and scenic spots:


And a couple of good photo opportunities:


I don't regret going, not for a minute.