After the hike of Adam’s Peak, we took the train to Ella. It was one of the most beautiful train rides of my life — close to three hours through nothing but tea plantations. During the trip, I decided to read the Lonely Planet sections about tea and found an interesting box about Sir Thomas Lipton known for Lipton tea. I had always assumed Lipton’s was an American brand of tea I could buy for a few bucks if I was in a drug store like Rite Aid or CVS. Well turns out, Sir Lipton purchased tea plantations in Sri Lanka because he wanted to bypass wholesalers. He grew his family chain of grocery stores to over 300 in the UK making sure he had a market to sell his tea to and we all know how much the Brits love their cuppa. So that Lipton’s you may be sipping is from a land far, far away.
Chloe and I arrived in Ella in the evening and were looking forward to a few days of rest in the tea country and to taking some nice hikes in the area. But this never happened because when we woke up the next morning, we were both so incredibly sore from hiking Adam’s Peak that going up and down stairs became an excruciating task that must have amused anyone who saw us hobbling around like old, old ladies. So since hiking was out of the question, we decided to treat ourselves to an Ayurvedic spa treatment. Lonely Planet said, “Don’t miss the incessant bliss of shiro dhara (hot-oil head massage). You’ll soon be ready to hit the road once again.” It sounded perfect. Exactly what we both needed to recover. Except it turned out to be one of the worst decisions I ever made…
One of the first things I do when visiting a new country is go to the market and check out the fruit. Sri Lanka was no different and it was on the first day of our trip that I spotted a green, round fellow with an incredibly hard outer shell. Meet, wood apple, also known as elephant apple, monkey fruit or curd apple. The story of the wood apple and I is one full of hope, then despair, and then hope again, followed by a final sweet conclusion.
I decided I should just buy one right off the bat during my first day in Sri Lanka.
The one I bought was gray-ish and I asked the vendor if it was a good one. He said, “yes,” so I thought I was good to go. Later in the day we returned to our guest house and I ask the live-in maid to help me with the fruit (because I had no clue how to eat it, or which parts you could eat). All of a sudden she pulled out a machete (because who doesn’t have one in their kitchen?) and gave the hard outer shell a few good whacks. The shell cracked revealing the inside of the fruit. It was brown and then the girl started waving her hand at me and moving her head back and forth. She wasn’t smiling. All of a sudden I understood. It was not a good apple. It was, in fact, a bad apple. I thanked her and retreated sullenly. Chloe reassured me we’d find another, but, I was a bit downtrodden and wondering if this fruit that required a machete was worth it? The wood apple would haunt me for the next 8 days of our vacation.
“I pay homage to the sacred mountain Samantakuta which resembles the crest of Lanka and where the Lord Buddha having gone from Kelani through the air put his footprint adorned with the noble mark of the wheel.” – plaque at the top of the mountain
So there we were in the gorgeous Hill and Tea Country of Sri Lanka. We’d come to climb Adam’s Peak, also known as Sri Pada, a sacred place of pilgrimage. It seems to be sacred for most religions: Adam first stepped here when being cast out of heaven and Buddha left his footprint here as he went to paradise. I wasn’t very enthusiastic about the 2 a.m. start time, climbing in the dark or the drizzling rain. But that’s where traveling with a friend comes in handy — they hold you to your promises (and take lovely photos of you sitting in tea fields, thanks Chloe).
Our three-hour hike in the dark, up uneven stairs, was challenging. But what made the hike worth it, was the trip down when the sun was out and the mist lifted. We realized we were surrounded by tea plantations and the women pickers were about to start their arduous day:
Everyone told us, and for days after, that we’d come during the off-season. Thousands of people make the pilgrimage in December, January and February. During those months, the way is lit and crowded. Now, all the tea houses along the way were shuttered. The pilgrims watch magnificent sunrises, instead of the fog and mist we encountered:
It was freezing at the peak. So the handful of groups of Europeans and Canadians and us, took a few photos, felt sorry for this doggie, and then started back down.
If you think my trip to Sri Lanka was exceptionally well-planned, let me tell you the truth. During the planning process Chloe and I emailed quite a few guesthouses and heard back from only a handful (read: one). So, we decided we would land in Colombo, buy a SIM card and then head for Kandy to the one guesthouse that responded. Then we would pray that the phone numbers listed in the Lonely Planet would work. For someone who likes to be organized, this was a bit worrying. But, to my great surprise, the phone numbers all worked! So from Kandy we decided we would head to the ancient cities and then we would go to climb Adam’s Peak. From Kandy, a driver took us to visit the ancient cities of Dambulla and Sigiriya. Dambulla is famous for the royal rock (cave) temples filled with Buddhas and exquisite murals.
At the base of the area is a large new golden Buddha. Then the hike up begins. The views over the surrounding areas were incredible, but I felt a bit winded hiking up to the caves and I began to worry whether our planned hike, beginning at 2 a.m., of Adam’s Peak was a good idea.
After cautiously walking around many temple monekys, we entered the first of five caves. This cave featured a reclining Buddha:
The second cave, temple of the great kings, was large and impressive. I was really fascinated by the murals in all of the caves, particularly scenes of nature and animals:
Sri Lanka. The teardrop shaped country off of India had never really been on my radar until another PiA fellow went and posted photos. It looked lovely and a quick Google search showed $160 round-trip tickets from Kuala Lumpur to Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. I didn’t know much about Sri Lanka except that it was a former British colony named Ceylon, there had been a long-running civil war that had only ended a few years ago, and that singer M.I.A. had roots there. And so, Chloe and I decided on a whim that we should go and see it all for ourselves. This was my first trip to South Asia and I don’t think I could have asked for a better introduction. We arrived early in the morning and immediately took a cab to the train station. Our first destination: the city of Kandy, located in the Hill Country.
We sat in the second-class train car for four hours. Vendors walked up and down the aisles touting fried snacks and fruits as we passed through a lush green landscape. We arrived in Kandy on a Sunday and grabbed a bajaj. By 6 p.m. the city was eerily quiet. The next morning when we walked into town, the hustle and bustle was in full swing. We watched men chatting in traditional sarongs in front of Kandy Lake — a natural point of orientation for the city. The lake was constructed in 1807 by the last king of Kandy. Lonely Planet notes that people who objected to working on the project, “were ruthlessly put to death on stakes in the lake bed.” Gulp.
The British colonial legacy is still apparent throughout the parts of Sri Lanka we traveled in. The Queen’s Hotel sits opposite of Kandy Lake:
Kandy is the capital of Sinhalese culture and people from all over Sri Lanka come here to visit the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. One of Buddah’s teeth is housed in this temple. The tooth has many tales and legends associated with it. The British respected this temple and knew that people saw it as an important symbol, some even believing whoever had control over the tooth had the right to rule Sri Lanka.
People were praying and leaving beautiful flower offerings throughout the temple.