exploring the resplendent island

Imagine an art gallery that is just a large dusty room with randomly mounted, rapidly deteriorating paintings of unidentified people and places by nameless artists. Oh, that would be the national art gallery of Sri Lanka. Sure, the country is still recovering from a decades-long civil war and the legacy of colonial occupation, but maybe they should not be describing this as a national gallery until they are able to put more effort into it. At least the security guard wandered over to point out that some of the paintings were of ancient kings and past presidents.

Nevertheless, we spent several relaxing days in Colombo in a very pleasant Airbnb space, walking or catching wild tuk tuk rides to and from supermarkets, historic sites, and a mixed bag of bars. We especially liked a beer house in the old Dutch Hospital complex, and Cloud Red, a bar high atop a hotel not far from our place. The national museum is well worth visiting with it’s extensive collection and well explained history of the “resplendent island”.

We organized a driver to take us to the interior of Sri Lanka, in order to see some of key historic sites outside Colombo, experience the highlands, go on a safari, and spend some time laying in the sun.

Over the next several days we visited five UNESCO World Heritage Sites including the ancient cave temples at Dambulla, the site of a 5th century mountain-top fortress at Sigiriya, the ruins of the 11th century city of Polonnaruwa, the shrine of the Sacred tooth relic in Kandy, and the 17th century Dutch fortification at Galle. Perhaps the most impressive was Sigiriya, partly because it was, after all, on top of a mountain that we had to climb1202 steps in rock, brick, and cast iron stairs bolted to the side of a cliff face to reach. Picture a narrow metal fire escape attached to the side of a twenty-story building! Because it was abandoned centuries ago, the ruins at the top are just traces of foundations and a brick-lined water reservoir (photo above). Certainly the original occupants were safe up here because they could see anyone approaching to attack, but it would be very vulnerable to a well-planned siege.

We also walked through a tea plantation (they call them tea gardens) and visited a tea factory to see how the leaves are dried, ground, sorted, and packaged for bulk export. Workers pick only the top two or three leaves from each bush, but revisit each plant once a week year-round. After 18 years the plants are pulled up and the patch left for a year before new plants are started. Tea is not native to Sri Lanka, but first grown here by the British on an experimental basis in the early 1800s. Many decades later a modest 23 Kg was prepared for export; before long production had increased so dramatically that Ceylon became synonymous with the best tea on the market. Tea still accounts for 17 percent of annual exports.

We stayed near Yala National Park so that we could do a “Jeep” safari (the trucks are actually Indian-made knockoffs). We knew it wouldn’t be as dramatic a day in the bush as we had experienced several times in Africa, but we did expect to enjoy the day. Unfortunately our driver was very uncommunicative, sitting as he was in a closed cab with us in the open back. We also discovered that the safari drivers who take visitors into Yala are the most undisciplined guides we have ever met. At animal sightings they would cut off and block each other off, drive in reverse, and spend a lot of time yelling at each other. And at the park ranger who was trying to bring order to the trucks gathered along the road near a pair of leopards who eventually had enough of the chaos and wandered deep into the bush. To top it off, our driver didn’t deal well with an uneven and rocky section of the road — something snapped under the rear end, rattling loudly on our way out of the park.

Ah, and our last day in Sri Lanka? Poolside at a resort just outside the old Portuguese / Dutch city of Galle. Perfect!

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