Welcome to my new location for Fabulous Journeys! It’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve posted a travel story, so I thought I best write something as my first post for the new home of my Fabulous Journeys blog! For those of you who have followed my original Fabulous Journeys blog (http://kelvin.uwcblog.com), thank you for your support and comments, and I hope you will continue to follow on this new address.
Inspiration Behind This Post
On the plane from the Gold Coast today, I caught a glimpse at one of the papers, and it had an article about a bomb that blew off at a Muslim celebration in Sri Lanka. The picture was bone-chilling, as it was taken just as the bomb blew off, and you see the explosion seconds after getting triggered, just starting to come out behind a group of guys on a procession. I could just imagine that those people would be either seriously injured or dead by now. Then, I recalled that I saw this same terrifying photo of the bomb blowing off on the social bookmarking site DIGG last night.
This inspired me to write a post about the war-torn island in the Indian Ocean. It is not the best source of inspiration, but I love to help the people of Sri Lanka. I had the privilege of visiting Sri Lanka in the late 90s to early 2000s through my work as an IT Consultant for a government-owned bank. Along the way, I have met a few local friends in Sri Lanka and heard their stories about this civil war and the division in their country. I have seen what horrors this civil war between the Tamil Tiger rebels and the Sinhalese-dominated government has caused, and how much this has affected the everyday Sri Lankans. This war has been waging since the 1980s, and yet, the world has stopped paying attention to this and put this to an end. Nearly as much lives have been lost in this war as those in the Middle East, yet people have forgotten to help this beautiful nation to live in peace and harmony. My hope is that this will raise awareness to people around the world and something will be done to end this war.
How I Ended Up Visiting Sri Lanka
Let me share my story of how I perceived Sri Lanka to be at the start, but please read on, as this post is meant to introduce you to the wonderful island of serendipity. Years ago, I started out my career working for a multinational IT Consulting firm back in the Philippines where we were servicing the Asia-Pacific region. One of their clients happen to be a government-owned bank in Sri Lanka, and this happens to be the very first assignment I had for my very first job. I was fresh out of university, and wasn’t so exposed to the rest of the world. I didn’t know what to expect from a country like Sri Lanka.
I’ve heard stories from my other colleagues who have been there, and all they can tell me was that a civil war is being fought, and a few of our colleagues experienced first hand a bomb attack by the Tamil Tigers, which they were extremely lucky to have survived! They survived a bomb attack from the Central Bank building which was the neighbouring building of the hotel. The explosion was so great that it shattered all the glass windows of the hotel and our client’s building. Luckily for my colleagues, they were in their rooms that time, and they had the drapes closed. The drapes saved them from the sharp shreds of glass which could have caused injuries or worse, stab them to death!
This naturally frightened me, having just finished university and starting out my career. I thought to myself, I didn’t want to die this soon, and I really don’t know if my life is worth the risk of building a career in IT with this firm! Anyway, I eventually mustered the guts and took on the trip as an adventure.
My First Impressions
I landed in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, in the evening and I can still remember the airport. There were so many military personnel around, and before we were allowed to exit the building, our bags had to be re-xrayed even if it has already been xrayed at Customs. They had lots of sniffer dogs looking for traces of explosives. Along the way to the hotel, we passed by 3 military checkpoints with guards carrying big machine guns on sandbag barracks. It really looked like a scene from those Vietnam war movies! It was so surreal, and what we noticed was, if a car was full of dark-skinned Sri Lankans which may look like Tamils, they were all asked to step out of the car and the car was heavily inspected by the military! Since I look too foreign for them, they didn’t bother checking our car out thoroughly apart from the boot.
The next day, it was my first day to the client site. I was accompanied by my colleagues who have been to the client before. On our way to the office, I had to go through a military checkpoint. The road in front of the client’s office has been blocked off by a military checkpoint for fears that the bank will become the next target of the rebels. When we got to the client’s office, I was frisked by the guards and my bags were inspected for any suspicious items. I then went to the floor where our team was supposed to be based, I was shocked by what I saw. The building looked like it has just been bombed yesterday! The ceiling was not fixed, and the lighting fixtures and wires were dangling from the ceiling! It didn’t give me a good impression at all.
The True Gem of the Indian Ocean
As my stay went on, I began to appreciate the warmth of the Sri Lankans, their peaceful nature (ironically, despite the war), and the beauty of this teardrop-shaped island in the Indian Ocean. On my free days, I started to slowly explore the city of Colombo and the nearby towns and cities. In Colombo, I used to walk along Galle Road, which is the strip of road along the Indian Ocean coast. I used to enjoy watching the boys play cricket on a grassy patch just beside the road. You can watch fabulous sunsets along this strip of road, and it’s perhaps one of the best spots for watching sunset in the world! It is also where you’ll find the Galle Face Hotel, an old 19th century hotel known to be a favourite hangout of Sir Arthur Clarke, a British sci-fi author who has made Sri Lanka his home.
One of the things I learned is that Sri Lanka mines a lot of gemstones. Precious stones like Sapphire, Ruby, Turquoise, Aquamarine, are mostly mined in this island. Great bargains can be found in the various gem shops around Colombo, and one of our project managers became a regular customer to a few of these gem shops/jeweller. My colleagues and I used to get treated like royalty when we go along with that project manager!
Sri Lanka is known around the world for its tea. Sri Lanka used to be called Ceylon, back in the British colonial times, and Ceylon Tea is very well-known worldwide. In Australia, the most common one is the Dilmah Ceylon tea, but in Sri Lanka, there are a lot more varieties and brands of tea to choose from! One specific brand that I really like is the Mlesna Tea. They offer a great range of exquisite tea with various different flavours and varieties, plus the packaging of their tea is also superb! They have a number of Mlesna stores around Colombo and around Sri Lanka, and the ones I used to go to were below the Hilton Hotel and the Crescat Boulevard shopping mall.
While in Sri Lanka, a tour of a tea plantation is one that should be on the must-do list, especially for the avid tea drinkers. There are a number of tea plantations in the highlands of Sri Lanka, but the area with the most concentration is in Nuwara Eliya (pronounced as Nu-wa-rel-ya)region. I visited the Labookelie Tea factory, where a local woman did a tour of the plantation and the factory. She explained to us the different types of tea leaves. At the end of the tour, the group was given some tea to sample.
A trip to the Sri Lankan Highlands
Before I visited Nuwara Eliya, I started the journey with a stop at an elephant orphanage in Pinnewala. I got to see how orphaned elephants are kept and fed and bathed by the river. The baby elephants are fed using a bottle, much like human babies are, and the adult ones are given bananas and leaves to chew. The river bathing part was very interesting because the caretakers take the elephant to the nearby river and individually sends a command to dunk themselves into the water like this photo on the left. Some of the elephants are quite cheeky and playful and could splash the people watching them with some water using its snout.
The next stop was the city of Kandy. It’s the second biggest city in Sri Lanka, and it holds one of the most sacred relics in Buddhist religion, the tooth of Buddha. This is being held in the Temple of the Holy Tooth. The tooth is kept in an enclosed area not open for public viewing, but once a year (usually in August), the locals have a celebration called Esala Perahera, where the monks take out the holy tooth from the concealed location and parade it on the streets for people to see and revere. This is one of the tourist spots of Sri Lanka, and the temple itself is in a gorgeous location beside a lake.
On the way back to Colombo, I spent the day exploring and walking around the Horton Plains National Park. Part of the National Park is this area called World’s End, where there is a 5,000 ft sheer cliff face that makes for a spectacular highland scenery. This national park has a number of walking tracks, and a few magnificent waterfalls to explore and look at. This is very much worth visiting.
Sri Lanka has a couple more national parks, but unfortunately I didn’t have enough time to explore them. I’ll save it for the next visit! There are still other very fascinating religious and historical sites like the Sigiriya Rock fortress and frescoes, the Anuradhapura temple and the city of Polonnaruwa that I would love to visit, but I’m sure I’ll be back to see it.
At the end of the day, Sri Lanka is a beautiful country, rich in history and culture, and of course, natural beauty. Though the war was waging, it wasn’t enough to drive tourists and visitors away, and the fact of the matter is, the civil war has not involved intense fighting in all areas of the country. There are a number of safe regions for tourist to visit, but before you do, check out your government’s travel warning and heed their advice on the situation. For Australians, check out smartraveller.gov.au for more information before visiting or planning a trip.
Til the next Fabulous Journey!