Sri Lanka is often referred to as the ‘Tear drop of India’ due to its location off the southern coast of the subcontinent. But it is not a mini version of its big sister India, it is not even similar. It is fascinating and beautiful in its own way. And despite all the tears shed during its 30-year civil war and the massive tsunami in 2004, the country is well set on its recovery path. It is actually winning a new battle – to bring tourists back en masse.
Lonely Planet describes Sri Lanka as the place where ‘life is leisurely and time moves slowly and deliberately’. Chefs take an hour to prepare your lunch. Cars take 4 hours to cover 100km distance. The sky takes days to dry out all its tears. And when being asked what to do in rainy weather, hotel receptionists simply smile and tell you to stay and wait for 2 weeks for the sun to shine again, just as if you have all the free time in the world. But the slow pace of life also gives tourists a great opportunity to slow down, to observe, to listen, and to feel the island nation’s charm. Daily life in Sri Lanka is still pretty much centered on villages except in a few big cities like Colombo or Kandy. Driving around Sri Lanka is like taking a tour of its local specialties, with each village proudly displaying their traditional crafts and products along the road – corn, king coconut, batik, spices, cane furniture, gems, etc. Its cashew-nut girls (we nicknamed them ‘Điêu Thuyền Điều) in their sari and sexy petticoat can certainly rival Taiwan’s renowned betel beauties (Tây Thi Trầu Cau). And the sight of young guys selling wild flower bouquets along mountain roads was a pleasant surprise on a rainy day.
We had the unfortunate luck of visiting Sri Lanka when the retreating monsoon brought havoc to the country. It was supposed to be the dry season in the Southern and Western regions of the country, but for days on end, we had heavy rains, gusting winds, and landslides. Managing one site per day was considered a huge effort and a glorious victory for all of us. Upon our return, I learnt that severe weather during those 10 days had claimed the lives of more than 30 people, destroyed thousands of houses, and displaced ~10% of the population. I could not help but feel grateful to Tissan, our driver, for maneuvering through endless twisting and turning roads in the Hill Country and bringing us safely back to Colombo (even though at the time, the old man drove us nuts with his over-cautious driving and non-stop complaints – ‘the climate is so bad’, ‘it’s so dangerous, you know’, ‘we cannot go this road’, ‘why do you want to go back to the Hill Country?’, etc.). May Buddha bless him for eternity!
Our short trip as tourists travelling around in a rented car with a private chauffeur and staying in comfortable hotels with amazing views sometimes made me feel like we were in a different world that runs parallel to Sri Lankans’ daily life. The only space bridge that connected us to the thick of everyday life is through the local people we met at hotels and on the road. Sri Lankans are the true embodiment of Buddhism’s practice and teachings – humble, warm-hearted, patient, understanding, and welcoming. Their stories give us a snapshot of Sri Lanka’s past and present, and offer a glimpse of its future.
From mid 16th century to early 20th century, the country was partially or fully under the control of European powers – first the Portuguese, followed by the Dutch and the British. Their colonial influence is still quite evident today. The Portuguese brought Christianity, which remains popular in many coastal communities. The Dutch brought with them the legal system that is still in use today. But it was the British that left the strongest influence in Sri Lanka, from the popular use of English, left-hand driving, elite private schools and high quality universities, democratic political and judiciary system, crickets, tea plantations and ‘plantation Tamils’, railroads and British architecture of train stations, botanical garden, to a true ‘little England’ in the middle of the Hill Country called Nuwara Eliya.
500 years of European conquest also gave birth to generations of Sri Lankans with mixed Eurasian ancestry. They are called the Burghers. Once dominating the colonial educational and administrative system, they now have lost their influence and shrunk in size due to emigration. I was lucky to meet one of them in Negombo – a young hotel owner named Nishan Fernando. Having a maths-physics degree, he used to work in investment development for the government, but then quitted and is now running their 30-year old hotel business with his mother. I could see the sadness in his eyes when he talked about how the manufacturing industry in Sri Lanka had been wiped out, and how corrupted the current government was. I could hear the strain in his voice when he mentioned his internal conflict between running his hotel to earn a reasonable income, and doing something else more worthy of his brain power. I also definitely felt the pride he has for his motherland, when he said Sri Lankan engineers constitute the second biggest foreign team in NASA (after India) and his friend was in the team that developed the infrared camera that helped capture Bin Laden. I chatted to Nishan for a short time in the morning before we left for your 10-day trip, but then got an invitation via email to come and have dinner with him and his family upon our return to Colombo. Too bad that I only checked my mailbox when I already came back to Vietnam, but I truly hope that he will get an opportunity to study further as he wishes, and will find a really fulfilling job that is both intellectually challenging and financially rewarding to him.
Nationalist movement in the early 20th century gained independence for Sri Lanka but it then also re-evoked the Tamil-Sinhanlese conflict which led to the longest civil war in Asia and paralyzed the economy for 30 years. During this time, many Sri Lankans travelled offshore to find work, especially in Middle East. The executive chef Ranaka at Joe Harabana’s Village in Sigiriya is typical of many Sri Lankans of his generation. Used to work as a chef in Colombo, then in Dubai and Saudi Arabia, he now settles in Sigiriya. Even though his family is still in Colombo, he does not want to go back to the capital to work under someone else. Here in Sigiriya, he is the king of his kitchen, and he is happy to take a 4-hour bus twice a month to visit his family.
Sri Lankan economy nowadays still relies a lot on remittance from its diaspora community. It’s not unusual for a whole family to migrate overseas. Wasanthi, our lovely host in Kandy and the only working female we met in the service sector outside of Colombo, is running a boutique hotel that was actually the childhood living quarter of her swimming champion nephews and nieces. It is like their mini private museum, full of their metals and trophies from high school, their wedding photos, and their locked furniture. Her sister’s family is now scattered all around the world – her niece teaching swimming in a private school in Australia, her two nephews settling in the UK, her brother in law living in a small village in Sri Lanka while her sister keeps travelling between these 3 places.
In the last few years, peace and economic growth have created a lot of societal shifts in Sri Lanka. Traditional family structure and function are changing rapidly. Most of people working in the hospitality sector that we met, like chef Ranaka, are separated from their family as the price for a better career. Wasanthi does not have any child of her own. She does not want to deal with all the stress of raising kids, and her husband fully supports her. I find that really surprising and inspiring at the same time. In Yala, we met the Senevirathna brothers who run an empire of 4 different businesses in Colombo and Yala, and whose brotherly rivalry is actually sweet and hilarious to watch at the same time. Equally in love with wildlife and night clubs, the elder brother had a shotgun marriage only 1 month after meeting his wife, a rich and powerful lawyer, at a party. He is now divorced and thoroughly enjoying his newly found freedom. His best friend Dulan, a chef and restaurateur, is also divorced despite marrying to a stay-at-home housewife. Meanwhile, the younger brother embraces his bachelorhood, even though he likes the idea of ‘living together without getting married’. Like Nishan, the elder brother also offered to take us to dinner and lunch when we got back to Colombo. At the end, our ridiculously long 6-hour drive from Haputale and a lunchtime flight kept us from seeing him again. But the experience of having three very open-minded guys sharing with us some private tales of their personal life over some Sri Lankan gin under a tree house will probably stay in my memory for a long time.
So there you have it – my kaleidoscopic experience of Sri Lanka through its people. Their hospitality, compassion, kindness and warm smiles are just like Sri Lankan tea – hot, sweet, and fragrant with distinct taste and characters influenced by the terroir the tea is grown in, but always make a perfect cuppa.
Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy
A lot of locals queue up for hours everyday to see the sacred Tooth Relic. But everyone actually has less than 3 seconds to view the golden casket.
Many families bring their babies to the Temple for blessing. Miraculously, none of them cries inside the temple.
It rained dogs and cats the day we visited the Temple.
There are so many elephant tusks in this place
A beautiful door handle
Locals offering oil lamps at the Temple
Buddha statues of different sizes
Locals praying under a Bodhi tree
Daily life in Sri Lanka as viewed from our car’s windscreen