Wonders of Sri Lanka

 

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Mihinthale

The treacherous climb to the top of Sigiriya, Lion Rock, is a tourist must.  We had told Nimal, our first-rate Sri Lankan driver and mentor, that we were reasonably fit and up for moderate hiking.  That was before I viewed this massive monolith of stone with steep vertiginous metal staircases attached to its walls: definitely more than moderate. I wanted to wimp out. My courage and determination dissolved.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was hot, very hot. There were no trees to provide shade en route to the top.  It was crowded, a single file of slowly moving bodies inching upwards on those dreadful stairs. This did not look like fun.  Was it worth it?  Could I make it?  After the Chinese disaster (See previous post:  “China II:  The Fall”) I could not risk another crash.

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Nimal

“You can do it,” Nimal assured us.  He arranged a local guide.   I let him carry my camera and water and concentrated carefully on every step. Fortunately a landing with a gallery of remarkable frescoes provided a welcome break en route up.  The reward, stunning vistas atop, was well deserved.  It is generally believed that Sigiriya was a royal citadel during the fifth century, although another theory maintains that it was a monastery and religious site.   Our guide adhered to the citadel theory and told us that King Kassapa had 500 concubines, for whom he built swimming pools with diving boards.

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Superb views atop Sigiriya

There are many more astonishing sights in Sri Lanka, an island nation in the Indian Ocean off the southeast coast of India.  Although not much bigger than Wales, Sri Lanka packs a lot into a small area: glorious beaches, ancient temples, hillside tea plantations, wildlife sanctuaries, rain forested peaks, more challenging climbs.

The country’s 30-year civil war, which ended in 2009, kept visitors away. That has changed dramatically. At Sigiriya, and just about everywhere we went during our two week tour of the country in late February, we encountered lots of tourists.

We visited many other sites, temples and ruins.  The city of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka’s ancient capital, is a complex of archaeological and architectural treasures.  We followed a parade of worshipers walking along a giant piece of orange cloth, 300 meters long according to Nimal.  It symbolizes Buddha’s skin, he told us, and was to be wrapped around Ruvanvelisaya, a magnificent white dagoba or shrine for sacred relics.

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Devotees help carry  the orange cloth which will be wrapped around Ruvanvelisaya (below).

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The climb at Mihinthale, another temple complex, was beyond us:  1,843 granite slab steps with the sun blazing down on them. No shoes allowed –you had to ascend barefoot.  No way.

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Tough feet, as well as stamina, required for this climb.

Polonnaruwa was Sri Lanka’s medieval capital from the 11th to the 13th centuries before it was abandoned to invaders from South India.  We – and many others — toured the area by bike with stops to admire and photograph.  The major attraction is the site with colossal Buddhas carved out of rock.

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Reclining Buddha at Polonnaruwa

At Dambulla Royal Rock Temple, some 150 different Buddhas are enshrined in five  caves.  The Disney-like entrance to the site, with a monstrous Golden Temple and

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Cave Buddhas

mammoth concrete Buddha, seems out of place, but the gentle climb along a wooded path to this hilltop temple complex is easy and pleasant.  Entrance to the caves is controlled with a certain number admitted for each visit. It is well worth the wait to see these remarkable statues in this dimly lit, mystical ambience.

srpart1.nBoth tourists and worshipers flock to Kandy, a lovely hill town whose magnet is the Sacred Tooth Temple where one of Buddha’s teeth is said to be hidden inside a golden shrine or casket which in turn contains six more caskets, much like a Russian box.   We joined a large crowd and patiently waited in line for a night time opening of the heavily guarded room containing the tooth shrine, and our turn to file by the relic casket.   Although there was little to see, the holy ritual and huge temple complex are intriguing.   According to Lonely Planet, Sri Lankan Buddhists believe they must complete at least one pilgrimage to the tooth temple.

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Worshiping at the Sacred Tooth Temple

Nimal De Silva, (ndsilva67@yahoo.com and dsltours.com)  chauffeured us around his country, made hotel arrangements, arranged local guides at many places — and taught us much about this fabulous country.  He is a delight, very patient and accommodating. We were happy with all.

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Gaudy entrance to Dambulla complex

More on Sri Lanka in coming posts:  flora and fauna;  food, markets and produce, beaches and hilltop retreats.  Don’t miss it.  If not already a Tales and Travel follower, sign up (upper right). Your address is kept private and never shared. 

Please feel free to comment – just scroll down, below following photos,  click, scroll down again and add your thoughts.  

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Ruins at Polonnaruwa
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Cave Buddha at Dambulla
The concrete Buddha surveys the landscape
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Polonnaruwa

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Off to Myanmar

We took off our shoes at least 565 times.  We climbed 6,899 steps.  We admired 22,576 Buddhas.

I made up the numbers, but they may not be far off.  A trip to Myanmar, a fascinating land in the throes of long overdue changes, is much about about temples (you cannot enter wearing shoes), all adorned with countless statues of Buddha.    And, many of those temples are accessed only by long climbs up steep steps.blog.lede

“This is Burma.  It is quite unlike any place you know about,” wrote poet and novelist Rudyard Kipling after a visit to the county more than a century ago. Today the country is known as Myanmar, but his words still echo true.blog.3

During our travels we were overwhelmed with mind boggling sights: a cave with 8,700 Buddha statues, a giant golden rock miraculously clinging to the edge of a chasm . . .

blog.2. . . parades of monks draped in burgundy colored robes lined up to receive food offerings, women whose faces appeared to be smeared with mud….  We visited big, chaotic cities (Yangon and Mandalay).Women smear their faces with a paste made from logs.  It acts as a sun block and moisturizer.

Women smear their faces with a paste made from logs. It acts as a sun block and moisturizer.

During drives through the countryside we witnessed the simple, primitive way of life of farmers, and often suffered bouncing over rutted roads.   We chilled out at a perfect beach resort, not yet spoiled by hordes of tourists.  I loved the colorful markets, the tasty food, and learning about the people and their staunch devotion to Buddha.  More about all will follow in several blogs.

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First, a word about the shaky start of this incredible voyage.  Facebook Friends have seen posts on what follows, but many Tales and Travel readers are not on FB.

Crisis Number One: Before landing in Frankfurt where we boarded the plane for the long flight to Singapore, I asked BB (husband Bicycle Bob and long suffering travel companion) if he had the credit card.  We had agreed that only one of us needed to take a card.  “No, you have it,” he said. “No, you are supposed to have it,” I answered.  Major misunderstanding. Bottom line:  No credit card and not an auspicious beginning to a five-week long trip.  Panic.  Stress.  Anger. We only had a brief layover in Frankfurt, but we had plenty of time between planes in Singapore before flying on to Yangon.  We made numerous calls back to our friends and house sitters, Dee and Allan, in France.  They researched methods of getting a credit card to us.  French Chronopost came to the rescue.  Other services, such as DHL, would not deliver to Myanmar.   That was on Friday.  Monday afternoon in Yangon we had the card. A miracle!  Cost for this amazing service, just 58 euros.blog.7

We were fine at the onset of the trip without the card.  Cash, new US dollars (issued after 2006) and not folded, is currently the recommended currency for travelers in Myanmar.  Some places do take credit cards, but charge a hefty fee.  We had an ample supply of dollars ordered from our bank, so even without the plastic, we could enjoy meals without washing dishes.  But, we would need the card before the end of the trip. We were saved by Dee and Allan and Chronopost.

Crisis Number Two:  My tooth.  The day the credit card arrived, I woke up with a toothache.  Surely it will go away, I thought.  No such luck. It only got worse, and worse, and my cheek began to look as if I had a tennis ball in my mouth.  Our guide took me to a dentist recommended by our first rate tour blog.5company, Asian Trails.   He spoke some English, and his office appeared clean.  He wore gloves, a mask, and had many pretty and very young assistants. He said it was a wisdom tooth, gave me pain pills and antibiotics, and cautioned me to avoid the “odors of hot oils” ??  If it did not get better, I could come back and he would extract the tooth.

The medication helped for one day only. However, I had fears of letting this dentist pull my tooth, especially when the guide told me the dentist had told him it would be better to wait and have the tooth extracted when I got back to France as complications could arise.  He obviously did not want the job.  Our return to France  was five weeks down the road.  I could not live with this pain for five weeks.

As mentioned, I had posted our troubles on Facebook.  One friend wrote that the trip was “doomed.”  World travelers Dee and Allan advised not to have a tooth extracted in Myanmar where hygiene and sanitary conditions are dicey.  A young woman I met, a 21-year-old pediatric dental assistant in Connecticut traveling with a group of Jehovah Witnesses for a conference,  said I definitely needed to get rid of the tooth.  It is probably infected, she said, and the infection would only spread… and could even lead to death.  Sacre Bleu!  If a Jehovah Witness advises a medical procedure, you know action is required.

Now what?  Perhaps the trip was doomed. I was a wreck and could not enjoy the sights.   Fortunately in the middle of the night I had a bright idea:  Call the

BB waits in dentist office number 2.  Shoes must come off, but instead they covered his.  Fear of stinky feet?
BB waits in dentist office number 2. Shoes must come off, but instead they covered his. Fear of stinky feet?

American Embassy.  They recommended Dr. Aung Myint who saved the trip, and, who knows,  maybe my life. I was relieved just entering his classy office with certificates from Denmark and  Paris posted on the walls of the waiting room where  copies of Fortune, Newsweek and Reader’s Digest were offered as reading material.  His equipment was  state of the art  –far more up to date than many dentist offices I have seen in southern France.

We had been to our dentist before departing as a security check.  No problems.   Why did this tooth suddenly go bad?  Could be stress, the super dentist replied.  Aha — blame it all on the forgotten credit card.    He pulled the tooth and all was well.  X-ray, tooth extraction and stitches:  $70. We found many more bargains during our travels, but that was the winner.

As mentioned,  food in Myanmar is  good and different.  We had many versions of a delicious avocado salad. See recipe column on right for the versison made at the cooking school we attended while at the beach. 

The Cordon Bleu is was not -- our "cooking school" kitchen.  Don't be put off by appearances. Food was delicious.
The Cordon Bleu it was not — our “cooking school” kitchen.
Don’t be put off by appearances. Food was delicious.

Following,  a photo gallery of Myanmar as a preview of coming blog posts.

Comments are appreciated.  So are new subscribers.  Don’t miss coming Myanmar blogs. Click on Email Subscription, top right or the “Follow” button at the bottom of the screen.

Souvenir sellers on the beach where  mother of pearl items are popular.
Souvenir sellers on the beach where mother of pearl items are popular.
Inle Lake
Inle Lake
Ngapali Beach
Ngapali Beach

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At work in the fields.
At work in the fields.
Poinsettia blooming along the road.
Poinsettia blooming along the road.

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Shoes -- and socks-- must come off before entering temples.
Shoes — and socks– must come off before entering temples.
Buddha statues are often golden.
Buddha statues are often golden.
Sunset on Irrawaddy River.
Sunset on Irrawaddy River.
Nuns, seen here at market knife stand, wear pink.
Nuns, seen here at market knife stand, wear pink.
Temple in Bagan, the Angkor Wat of Myanmar.
Temple in Bagan, the Angkor Wat of Myanmar.
Temple decor
Temple decor
Too many homeless dogs in  Myanmar.  Most all look like this fellow.
Too many homeless dogs in Myanmar. Most all look like this fellow.
Cleaning a train car at Yangon station.
Cleaning the “ordinary class”  train car at Yangon station.
Monks and Buddha.
Monks and Buddha.
Temple workers take a siesta break under the watchful eyes of Buddhas.
Temple workers take a siesta break under the watchful eyes of Buddhas.
Reclining Buddha.  235feet long.
Reclining Buddha. 235 feet long.