Venturing into Sri Lanka – Part 1

Technically, I have been living in Asia since I moved to Kuwait nearly two years ago but it never felt like the Asia I have always had in mind, maybe because it’s part of the Middle East! When I think of that continent, I picture coconut trees, tropical fruits, the ocean, islands, forests, and temples. So anything else is not considered Asia in my dictionary!! I know this defies all geographical concepts but this is how it is with me and that big chunk of a continent.

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A tuk tuk and a vispa, very popular means of transport in Sri Lanka

The semester break (another overdue post!) was at the doors and of course, I had to spend it somewhere. So instead of flying to Europe as I usually did, I decided to cross over to “Asia”. This time, I was looking for a country directly connected to Kuwait and honestly, that didn’t leave me with much options to choose from. And I ended up having my mind set on that island south of India, the island that goes by the name of Sri Lanka. With direct flights from where I’m and an easily obtained online visa, that was the perfect combo at the time.

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The Golden Temple – Dambulla

That was my first time to journey to that side of the continent, an entirely new territory for me. I was kind of clueless and at the same time quite reluctant to venture solo especially that Sri Lanka (unfortunately) has a reputation of being a little unfriendly to female solo travelers. And while my decision was still up in the air, a friend from work asked to join and I said hop on, let’s get this trip up and running.

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Outside the Cave Temple – Dambulla

I have been a solitary traveler for a while now so when Sara went on board, I honestly was both excited and concerned. I was thrilled to be sharing the trip with someone else but myself, somebody who will relate to all the inside jokes for instance and oh boy, those were abundant. Honeymoon 😀 At the same time, I was a little anxious because it has been a while since I traveled with company. I was always the force behind all my decisions and I really couldn’t have pulled that attitude off on that trip having someone else’s preferences to consider. I wasn’t sure how I would deal with that but the trip had to be jointly planned.

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The view around the Cave Temple – Dambulla

It was a little hectic sometimes trying to meet up to get the trip planned accommodating everything we both wanted but eventually that went by perfectly well and we ended up having a blast. We faced a little hiccup though when we discovered a week or so before traveling that I won’t be allowed in inside any Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka because of my headscarf. As according to the Sri Lankan Buddhist customs, you need to uncover your head and be barefoot when entering a temple. And since I’m a veiled Muslim, I will be denied entrance and that discovery puzzled us! Our visit to Kandy where the major site in town is the temple of the Sacred Tooth will be inconvenient to only me!

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Yes, that’s correct. Elephant dung is recycled to make paper 😀

I thought we could split up for a day or two but Sara was ok with the idea of skipping Kandy altogether and so we did. The plan got shuffled, Kandy was skipped, and instead of spending our first night in Colombo, we went straight ahead to Dambulla passing by the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage on the way.

We had quite a smooth start flying from Kuwait and all. For that day, we arranged for an airport pick up with our accommodation in Dambulla. So we landed, got stamped, claimed our luggage, then took off from the airport and went on our way to the orphanage.

(TIP: applying for an online visa can save you some waiting time queuing to pay for a visa before heading to the passport control officer and it’s cheaper. My friend paid double the amount I paid on the online visa!)

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Look at this cutie ❤ – Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage

Though it was still early morning, we were welcomed by the heat and humidity once we stepped outside the airport. But the car’s AC and scenery along the road helped fade all those sticky feelings away. There were coconut trees and greenery everywhere. The sides of the road were crammed with humble one story houses and small shops. The roads were chaotic and bogging and to most people, I would imagine, the adjustment to such a notion can be difficult. But coming from Egypt where we have similar characteristics in some areas of the country, that scene wasn’t new to my eye. And in my humble opinion, that disarray is simply one part of the whole experience. There is a certain level of beauty in all that clutter and only an unwonted eye can see amid the rubble to unveil what’s hidden underneath. One has to just look more closely I guess!

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The river side of the orphanage

The elephant orphanage didn’t really appeal to me to tell you the truth. Feeding the elephants would have been interesting but unfortunately we missed it by the time we were there. It’s kind of a small property with elephants roaming around in a contained manner. The thing I liked the most during the visit was being able to watch them bathing in the nearby river. A couple of elephants were chained while bathing and I wondered if this is an orphanage, why chain the poor animals? I would suggest skipping the orphanage, unless you really want to touch an elephant, and instead go on a safari where you can actually see wild elephants grazing. Now THAT was much more enjoyable 🙂

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Shower time 😀

Our driver was a really nice guy. We bombarded him with tons of questions about the places we will be going to making sure we got everything right but most importantly, we inquired about the must try local food and he replied back with a list. Such a great help he was. After the orphanage, he drove us to our accommodation in Dambulla which turned out to be an amazing place. It was a family run homestay in a quiet area with a perfect location, the town’s main street and bus station were a short walk away and the famous Cave Temple was roughly 3 km down the road.

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Second thoughts on coconut water!

The host, Daniel, was just amazing. He provided us with some local final touches to our itinerary, helped in arranging a safari trip for the next day, and surprisingly took it upon himself when he knew I was denied entry at the temple earlier that evening. Before Sara and I went to the temple, I had a small talk with him and mentioned what I came to know regarding the issue. He assured me that it’s fine and that I won’t have a problem getting in since Sri Lanka has a Muslim community already. So when I told him later that I wasn’t allowed in, he got so upset and promised to inquire about the incident and even report it to mayor! I heard that and felt like, Uh Oh, did I just start a cultural conflict?! The guy at the entrance to the temple was actually rude and he dismissed me in quite a disgraceful way even when I tried to explain that I meant no disrespect with the veil and it’s only because of my faith that my head is covered. Nonetheless, he wasn’t willing to debate and kept on shooing me off with his hands. That was far from being nice and it left me feeling terrible because for the first time ever, my veil was causing me an issue!! So after such mishap, Daniel’s reaction was overwhelming and comforting.

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Polonnaruwa

We woke up the following day to nice weather after such a rainy evening the previous night. And may I say that that day was the best weather we had during the whole week? Indeed it was THE best weather we had during the whole week! Now January is supposed to be one of the best months to visit Sri Lanka since it’s still the dry season except for a few rainy days and what are a few rainy days? No biggie, right? Well, we were in for a little surprise regarding the weather as we came to know later.

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Inside a Sri Lankan bus 😀

After a hearty breakfast, our host gave us a ride in his tuk tuk to the bus station where we were to take the bus to the ancient city of Polonnaruwa. Our first encounter with public transportation, YAY! Going around Sri Lanka using public transport is really cheap and can save you a lot but you need to be patient and tolerant because it’s quite hectic. For starters, the drivers drive like crazy. I thought microbus drivers in Egypt are crazy but to Sri Lankans, there is a whole new level of it. The roads are narrow and winding especially in the hill country and with their speed and competitiveness to take over one another you would need to have the guts for it. Also, it’s not always guaranteed that you will find a seat in the bus and you might need to stand for a while or maybe till your final destination. One thing is for sure, people won’t stop getting on a bus, or even a train, just because it’s crowded! No sir, they will keep on squeezing in so be ready to get sandwiched.

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The ruins of a Buddhist temple – The archaeological site of Polonnaruwa

Don’t be alarmed by all that daftness as it’s quite an experience. You wouldn’t believe how kind the locals can be, they would offer you help just like that without you even asking for it. On our way back to Dambulla that day, there was that old lady who insisted on offering me her seat and when I politely declined she offered to hold my backpack. She did that without a word of English but with such sincerity that I was so humbled by her kindness. She would leave me standing there for a while then offer me her seat again, and again till she finally went off the bus. In a world where most youngsters won’t even consider offering their seats to elders, that incident left me speechless.

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The only temple I was able to enter because there was no one at the door to send me away!! – The archaeological site of Polonnaruwa

By the time we arrived to our destination, the sun was in full bloom and the weather was just perfect. The bus stop is just a few steps away from the ticket office which acts as the starting point of the archaeological site with a small museum that can be checked before heading to the ancient ruins. The archaeological site of Polonnaruwa is huge and while you can choose to walk or take any kind of a ride, we decided to tour it on bikes and I personally believe that was the best way to do it, we absolutely loved it. Renting a bike for those few hours won’t be a problem, there are plenty of rentals to choose from. We paid 400 rupees each and I had no idea if this was a good deal or not, it’s kind of hard to figure those things out in Sri Lanka considering how cheap the currency is compared to US dollars for instance.

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Another Buddhist temple –  The archaeological site of Polonnaruwa

The ancient site was stunning and despite the fact that I went through another unpleasant encounter at the entrance of one of the temples on the site, I had such a wonderful morning biking the premises. Cycling from one spot to another marveling at the beauty of the decaying ruins while sun rays beamed from among tree branches felt so peaceful and serene. There is a special kind of splendor in ruins that I always find captivating and the ones in Plonnaruwa didn’t disappoint.

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The remains of another Buddhist temple – The archaeological site of Polonnaruwa

After such a delightful morning and some delicious chop suey vegetables with fried rice for lunch, it was time for my first safari ever! HURRAY! We met with our safari guide, Manjula, and went off to the Minneriya National Park. With an open roof jeep and the afternoon sun beaming in, we were ready to take off on our tour and we had quite a start. The visit to the park starts with a roughly 45 minutes drive through a dirt road lined with trees, some of them were huge tall bamboo trees, and around 20 minutes or so through the drive we found ourselves in a pickle! A fellow jeep was stuck in mud while crossing a tiny waterway to continue on the road and into the park. Unluckily, all the driver’s efforts to get the jeep out were in vain as the machine kept on sinking deeper and deeper into the thick mud. Such a bummer, yeah? Actually, it wasn’t. Well yeah that incident caused the “traffic” to congest but witnessing the collaborative efforts of everyone, including a few tourists, to get that jeep out of the mud was such a nice act.

(TIP: Kaudulla National Park is another option. It’s a little further down the road from Minneriya and slightly more expensive because of that but the price difference is not huge! Minneriya is more popular.)

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Get me out of here! Jungle traffic 😀

It took about half an hour and 6 failed attempts to get it off the mud and clear the road to the line of awaiting jeeps. A short distance afterwards the road cleared up to this vast stretch of land that is the national park and I just went WOW! The winding dirt road finally gave way to that clearing of green and blue. There was that big lake surrounded by all sorts of green with birds flying over and a collection of trees decorating the background, I have never seen anything like that before. Minneriya is famous for wild elephants and as we drove around the lake to see more of the park, we kept an eye out for them.

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Wild elephants – Minneriya National Park

It wasn’t hard to spot them after all since all jeeps would stop and spectate at the parade of wild elephants. It was a much more exciting sight than the orphanage, it felt more natural watching the elephants grazing in their own habitat. Our guide told us he spotted a Sri Lankan leopard before but unfortunately we were not that lucky. But leopards or not, the safari was so enjoyable though it was kind of crowded. We wrapped it up a little before 6 pm which is the closing time of the park, and were greeted goodbye by pink cotton candy sunset skies ❤ And that everybody, was the only sunset I witnessed throughout the whole trip as the weather turned its back on us from that day on 😀

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Wild elephants taking a dip (the only time when the zoom lens would be handy and I don’t bring it!)- Minneriya National Park

One of the greatest benefits of traveling with somebody is never forgetting to eat! I have the habit of getting caught up in the moment while traveling solo skipping the eating segment completely!! Luckily this time, I had Sara to remind me that we needed to put some food into our systems. After the safari, we were in for some rice and curry for dinner and Manjula dropped us off at a place he recommended. He even offered to drive us back to Habarana afterwards so we can pick up the bus back to Dambulla. Manjula, thanks a lot for everything. Back to the rice and curry, it was super delish, we devoured everything, except those spicy dishes though!! The people at the restaurant were so kind, they made sure we didn’t need anything and since we had to decline Manjula’s offer to drive us to town, they insisted on sending someone to wait with us till we take the “right” bus back as it happens that it actually passes by just outside the restaurant. The amount of kindness I received from the locals in the course of one day left me with a profound humbling feeling.

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With our guide Manjula during the safari – Minneriya National Park

Are you doing the cultural triangle? Yeah?  Plonnaruwa is only one part of it, stay tuned for more 😉

 

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