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Uppaveli Beach

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A gorgeous stretch of beach just a few kilometers north of the city, Uppaveli was our home during the week we spent in Trincomalee. A chain of hotels lines the coast, but we had the beach almost entirely to ourselves. After trips to action-packed cities like Kandy and Jaffna, a little sun, sand and solitude was exactly what we needed.

Dream Vacation

We stayed in the Aqua Inns, which has just recently come under the management of Fernando and Jo. They were still in the process of sprucing the place up, but our room was comfortable, clean and had an incredible view of the ocean (ask for room 115 for the view). The best part of the Aqua Inns is Fernando’s Bar. A stilted beach hut with cozy furniture and a breeze, this was my unofficial office during the week. And it was here that we spent every evening, with a cold beer or arrack.

There’s not much to Uppaveli Beach apart from the warm water, fine sand, and utter natural beauty, but what else do you need? We walked one day towards the north, where a small river empties out into the sea. After crossing the river, we arrived at a small rock outcrop with a beach made of coral and, just past that, a neat Hindu temple. That was a fun twenty-minute hike, and afterwards we felt another beer at the bar was totally justified.

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April 2, 2012 at 8:25 am Comments (8)

Bow to King Coconut

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In every city, town or village of Sri Lanka, and alongside country roads, you’ll find stands hawking golden coconuts. These are thambili, or King Coconuts, and we’ve made it a habit to grab one every day.

CocoNut Girl

The seller takes a machete and starts hacking away at the coconut, until a small opening can be carved from the top. You drink the sweet water found inside, usually with a straw, though I prefer chugging it straight from the shell. It’s delicious, especially on a hot day, and has incredible health properties better than any energy drink.

Jürgen loves researching the health benefits of whatever food he’s consuming, and hasn’t shut up about coconuts for weeks. I’ll ask him (as though I forgot) what the beneficial properties of coconuts are.

[His eyes just lit up! I’ll have to type quick] “It totally re-hydrates you, so it’s good against diarrhea, and has loads of protein and carbohydrates. Supplies tons of energy, good against hangovers, and it has tons of antioxidants! Ummm… Vitamin E! I think that’s it.” Nothing else? “The diarrhea thing is pretty good. Ah, also against aging, and purifying blood. Wait, why are you typing? Is this a quiz?!”

Coconut water really is one of the healthiest things you can drink, and since you can watch the coconut be split open, it’s guaranteed safe and clean — even better than possibly contaminated bottled water. Some are sweeter than others, which I think depends on the age of the coconut, and they’re more refreshing when they’ve been cooled, or resting in the shade. Once you’re done, the seller will usually split the coconut in half, and carve a spoon-shaped piece from the shell which you can use to scrape the sweet, white flesh from the inside.

I look forward to our coconut break every day. Maybe it’s just my mind playing tricks, but I do feel instantly refreshed and energized after chugging one down. In fact, I think I’m going to stop typing and go find a coconut right now.

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March 29, 2012 at 10:43 am Comment (1)

Jaffna Causeway and Chatty Beach

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A string of small islands stretch out to the west of Jaffna, pointing the way to India, mostly connected to the mainland by roads built up out of the shallow water. One day, we rented rickety old bikes and rode out on the causeway which begins near the fort to the first of the islands.

Chatty Beach

The road to Kayts is a lot longer than it first appears, but the scenery is so gorgeous that we didn’t mind too much. Along the way, fishermen worked on their nets in the shallow waters and graceful white storks provided constant company.

Once we arrived at Kayts, we began asking about Chatty Beach. “Oh, not far” the soldiers stationed along the road would say (the islands, like the rest of Jaffna, maintain a heavy military presence). “Just keep straight”. So straight, we went. And went, and went. Eight kilometers later, we finally saw a sign, and soon afterward came upon a beautiful beach facing the south sea. We were the only people around, and had the beach to ourselves. The water, we had to share with an unsettling number of jellyfish.

So, thirteen kilometers to reach a lovely, secluded beach. Not bad; nothing to complain about… But on the ride back, we had to push against an unbelievable headwind. Suddenly, the rickety charm of our bikes wasn’t so charming at all. By the time we finally made it back to Jaffna, we were exhausted, sunburned and dehydrated, and any sort of relaxation we’d stored up at the beach was long gone.

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March 28, 2012 at 8:02 am Comment (1)

The Damsels of Sigiriya

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Sri Lanka’s most iconic paintings are the Sigiriya Damsels, found halfway up the Lion Rock. When they were originally painted in the 5th century, around 500 naked ladies adorned the wall in a massive mural which spanned 450 feet in length and 130 in height. Only twenty-one damsels have survived into the modern day, though the passage of over 1500 years makes the survival of anything a minor miracle.

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It’s funny to think about tourism in ancient days, but Sigiriya Rock has been a big draw for travelers since at least the 8th century. Although we couldn’t make anything out, the Mirror Wall is apparently full of timeworn poems lauding the damsels’ beauty, etched into the stone by early admirers. Others would visit, though, with less noble intentions. Conservative monks outraged by the nudity removed everything they could reach, and vandals destroyed a big section of the mural in 1967.

That these maidens might inspire poems to their beauty comes as no surprise. With lithe bodies, warm, smiling faces and large, supple breasts, the damsels represent idealized versions of a variety of ethnicities. The guy working was more than happy to point out “China Lady”, “Africa Lady” and “Sri Lanka Lady”. And one of the nymphs should be well-known to anyone who’s visited Sri Lanka, whether or not they’ve toured Sigiriya. She appears on the country’s 2000 rupee banknote.

The damsels were initially thought to depict King Kassapa’s consorts, there to accompany him during the long ascent to his castle. However, historians now agree that they are more likely celestial nymphs. The women are only painted from the waist up, torsos emerging god-like from clouds. Some of them sport three arms or three breasts (though, these might have simply been mistakes during the painting).

Goddesses, consorts, or whatever the women in the paintings are meant to represent, they’re among the most amazing works of ancient art we’ve seen, and almost by themselves worth the trip to Sigiriya.

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March 22, 2012 at 8:20 am Comment (1)

The Tanks of Anuradhapura

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Without the presence of its three artificial lakes near the city center, Anuradhapura would never have flourished. Tissa Wewa, Nuwara Wewa and Basawakkulama ensured that the people would always have rice and fresh water, even during the long months between monsoons. At the time of their construction, over two millennia ago, they were among the world’s greatest feats of engineering, and continue to amaze today.

Bathing-Anuradhapura

The Kingdom of Anuradhapura was one of the most technologically advanced civilizations of its day, and the creation of three enormous tanks was a singular accomplishment. The reservoirs were designed to capture the rains of the monsoon and then slowly distribute the water among the kingdom’s farms, using a complicated and highly advanced irrigation system.

Today, the city draws its water from larger tanks further afield. But the three city lakes remain an integral part of Anuradhapura’s landscape. Locals swim here and wash their clothes. They provide a perfect place for amorous couples to take evening strolls and smooch under trees. When we were walking along the Tissa Wewa, Sri Lankan kids prodded us to swim with them. Along the raised banks of Nuwara Wewa, we had an incredible view of the city’s stupas, sticking out above the forest. At Basawakkulama, we walked out west, where the lake slowly turns into rice fields, and watched the city change color with the sunset.

Other tanks, smaller and larger, are found throughout the lowlands of Sri Lanka. They’re some of the oldest existing examples of man’s ability to mold the earth to suit his needs.

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March 15, 2012 at 1:25 pm Comment (1)

The New Town and Weekend Market of Anuradhapura

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It can’t match the Sacred City for ancient splendor, and by itself wouldn’t warrant a visit on even the most comprehensive itinerary, but the New Town of Anuradhapura is unavoidable on any visit to the city. We spent a lot of time here, shopping, drinking and eating, and visiting the wonderful weekend market.

Sunday Market Anuradhapura

Like the Sacred City, the New Town is long and narrow. Between the train station down and bus stand, roughly three kilometers, Main Street is packed with shops, restaurants, traffic and commotion. It’s all rather ugly — every block looks the same, and if there’s a reason to eat at this grimy restaurant as opposed to that one, or the sixteen exactly identical ones down the street, I couldn’t see it.

On weekends, the New Town hosts an incredible market, just south of the New Bus Stand. This was one of the first things we discovered during our time in the city, and we spent a long time walking up and down the aisles, checking out the food, and having tortured mime-conversations with the market sellers, all of whom wanted to sell us strange zucchinis, or have their picture taken.

While the New Town isn’t the most memorable place we’ve been in Sri Lanka, it offers an interesting peek into the day-to-day life of the country.

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March 13, 2012 at 1:52 pm Comments (3)

The Stupas of Anuradhapura

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Found at temples, on hills, in caves, or just along the side of the road, the dome-shaped structures called stupas are one of the hallmarks of Sri Lankan Buddhism. They range in size from modest to monumental, and pop up all over the island, but nowhere are they more impressive than in the sacred city of Anuradhapura.

Stupas

Since our arrival in Sri Lanka, stupas (or dagobas as they’re also known) have confused us. The simple, round domes aren’t particularly lovely, and you can’t even go inside them. Most of the stupas we’ve seen are smallish, painted white and occasionally decorated with orange ribbons. Nice enough, but they seem kind of pointless. “What do you do, stupa?” I be round! “What may I do with you?” You may look!

But they’re ubiquitous and play a big part in the island’s religious life. Stupas are built as reliquaries to hold sacred objects, in commemoration of historic events, or just because a ruler decided to buff his Buddhist credentials a bit. During the centuries that Anuradhapura was the capital of Sri Lanka, the country was at its political zenith, and the world’s most important center of Buddhism. A dizzying number of stupas were constructed, reflecting the kingdom’s power.

Thuparama

Constructed by King Tissa in the 3rd century BC, Thuparama was the first stupa built in Sri Lanka, shortly after the arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. The monument might be moderately sized, but is believed to hold the right collarbone of the Buddha. Surrounding the stupa are the ruined pillars of a vatadage: a circular fence used to protect small stupas, unique to Sri Lankan architecture.

Stupa Pool

A hundred meters down a monkey-infested, ruin-strewn path is the Ruwanwelisaya Stupa, or the “Great Stupa”. Built sometime around 150 BC by King Dutugemunu, who had freed Anuradhapura from Tamil rule, this stupa is of a tremendous size and still actively in use. Hundreds of elephants are carved into the stone fence which surrounds it.

Glowing Budda

Further south into the Sacred City, we found the Mirisaveti Stupa, also built by King Dutugemunu. According to legend, the king wished to bathe in a nearby lake, and threw his spear into the ground. When he returned, he could not remove the spear, try as he might. Clearly: miracle. So he left the spear in the ground, and had this stupa built on top of it.

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Stupa’d out? Just one more. The Jetavanaramaya Stupa is one of the most impressive ancient constructions we’ve ever seen. When it was built in the 2nd century AD, it was one of the tallest structures in the world, surpassed only by Egypt’s pyramids. Today, it’s still the world’s largest brick-made building. The ancient red dome measures 400 feet in height, and 576 feet across.

I’m still not sure that stupas are my favorite style of building, but I’m starting to warm up to them. There’s something appealing in their simplicity, and the sheer size and age of Anuradhapura’s ancient stupas leaves one breathless.

Locations on our map: Thuparama | Ruwanwelisaya | Mirisaveti | Jetavanaramaya
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March 12, 2012 at 3:17 pm Comments (2)

Horton Plains and World’s End

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Twenty miles south of Nuwara Elyia is the Horton Plains National Park, which is most well-known for its amazing viewpoint called World’s End. The relatively cool temperatures of the park, steady precipitation, high altitude, and the convergence of three rivers create a rare and fragile ecosystem in which a unique biosystem flourishes. Some of the birds found in Horton Plains are only found here.

Das Ende Der Welt

Clouds and haze are a constant presence at Horton Plains, and the only window of opportunity for a clear view at World’s End is in the early morning. So we climbed into a van leaving Nuwara Eliya at 5:30am. This was our first encounter with Sri Lanka’s national park system, and we were shocked at the fees levied on foreign visitors. Between the transport, the entrance, a “vehicle fee”, a ticket for our driver, taxes, and an undefined “service charge”, our excursion cost around $50 apiece. Perhaps at a later date, we’ll get into the shameless chicanery of Sri Lanka’s tourism efforts, but for now suffice to say that we started our adventure at Horton Plains in sour spirits.

The optimal hour for arriving at Horton Plains is no secret and, upon leaving the van, we found ourselves in an long line of hikers. Luckily, the loop walk through the park is long and we could eventually space ourselves out from others. Besides, the nature is strange and beautiful, and we soon forgot about the human presence. While walking, we saw a jungle fowl, the national bird of Sri Lanka, and herds of sambar deer grazing on the plains — one of these confident, hulking beasts would approach our van window on the way out.

Sri Lanka Deer

Baker’s Falls was the first stop during our three-hour walk around Horton Plains. Fed by the Belihul Oya river, this wide waterfall drops about 20 meters. A bit further up the path, we arrived at the World’s End, one of the most famous sights in all Sri Lanka. The highlands come to an abrupt end here, as though God suddenly ran out of “mountain”. The land plummets straight down for nearly a kilometer, and standing on the cliff looking down on the land below, I felt like I was in an airplane. Amazing.

Small World’s End, another twenty-minutes up the path, might have a smaller vertical drop but boasts the lovelier view (and actually, neither could compare to the view of Mini World’s End at Knuckles).

World's End Sri Lanka

The rest of the track, through cloud forest, was beautiful if unmemorable, and we were done with Horton Plains at around 10am. It’s a big park, and there are other trails to be explored, but that would have required more coordination with our driver (read: “$$”) and we couldn’t justify spending another cent. Overall, it was a cool day trip, but not worth the price. Regardless of how filthy rich you are, I can’t imagine a viewpoint which is worth $50 to peer over.

Location of World’s End on our Map
Spices From Sri Lanka

Here’s one scheme to look out for, which might be specific to Nuwara Eliya. Our van fit six people, and we had found another couple to split the journey with us. We would have saved on transport, and various charges at the park. But, outrageously, our driver demanded twice the amount for four people as for two. Later, a guy would tell us that at his hotel, three separate vans came to pick up three separate groups of two tourists. It’s all a swindle, coordinated to line the pockets of as many locals as possible, and the hotels are in on it too. Unfortunately, there’s very little you can do, except play along or refuse to go.
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March 5, 2012 at 10:55 am Comments (3)

The Stony Temples of Ridi Vihara and Aluvihara

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Because of shoddy roads and slow buses, distances in Sri Lanka can be deceiving. When we looked at the map and saw that Matale was just twelve miles north of Kandy, and Ridigama another eleven miles from there, we thought: easy day trip. We’d probably be back home in time for lunch. Oh, poor fools! Poor, optimistic fools!!

We left Kandy on the 7:20am train and barely made it back home in time for dinner. Almost the whole day was spent on the road, packed into stinking buses and trains full of sweaty human flesh, rumbling along at an agonizing pace through the hilly countryside. At least the drives were scenic, and the temples we got to visit were spectacular.

Jack Fruit Temple

Ridi Vihara or the “Silver Temple” was originally built in the 2nd century BC by the great Lankan King Dutugamunu, whose kingdom was enriched by a vein of silver found here. We reached the gates after a grueling 15-minute hike uphill from Ridigama, and discovered a sprawling temple complex filled with shrines, lookout points and temples. Ridi Vihara is far off the beaten track, hidden among rocky hills and palm tree forests, and the views from atop the temple’s hill are unbelievable.

We spent an hour exploring the temple’s various buildings. The small “Jackfruit Temple”, closest the entrance, was named for the fruit which a traveler shared with a local monk, before discovering the mountain’s silver deposit. Further on is the main cave temple, in which we found a massive resting Buddha, at least nine meters in length, and wall paintings over 2300 years old. Very atmospheric, especially in this remote corner of Sri Lanka virtually unseen by tourists.

Aluvihara-Hill-Buddha

On our way back into Matale, we got off the bus a couple miles early to visit Aluvihara. This temple is famous around the Buddhist world as the site where scripture was first put down in writing. Before this monumental task, which was completed in the 1st century BC by a force of 500 monks, Buddhist doctrine had been passed down orally.

We didn’t see any plaques or monuments commemorating this important achievement at Aluvihara, but we did see a lot of gore. Within the cave temples were graphic depictions of Buddhist Hell — it was the first time I’ve seen gruesome violence depicted in a Buddhist temple. Just when I thought I’d finally found a religion which celebrates life and embraces non-violence, here comes an image of some poor sinner being disemboweled by demons. Or being eaten by snakes. Or being bent over, and having a demon shove a hot poker up his butt.

The freakshow continued in another cave, which a malicious little man ushered us into. Here the simple drawings of hellacious torture were supplanted by sculptures. I had just been remarking to Jürgen that, though the paintings were lovely, what I really needed to see was a full-sized model of a man being torn apart at the groin. And, joy! Here it was!

Unless you have private transport, it’s hard to recommend Ridi Vihara and Aluvihara as a single day trip from Kandy — it was a very long journey, and we were exhausted by the time we got back home. But if you find yourself near either spot, both temples are definitely worth a detour.

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March 2, 2012 at 5:36 am Comments (4)

Ayubowan, Sri Lanka!

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Sri Lanka, the pendant-shaped jewel hanging off the earlobe of India, has had a number of names throughout its long history. Under British rule, the island was known as Ceylon. Arabs called it Serendib, the origin of the word serendipity, which hints at its beauty. And for a span of three months, Jürgen and I would be referring to it as “home”.

Colombo

Our flight from New York City left on the evening of January 31st, but we didn’t touch down in Sri Lanka until the morning of February 2nd. The time difference is ten and a half hours, and the distance about 9000 miles. Stinking, half-conscious sweat-zombies, we collapsed into a waiting taxi and embarked on a noisy 90-minute drive from Negombo to Colombo, the island’s capital.

Though it’s only about the size of West Virginia, Sri Lanka is home to over 22 million souls. Sinhalese Buddhists, Hindu Tamils, Christians and Muslims share the land in an unsteady peace: a twenty-six year civil war waged between the Sinhalese-majority government and the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) of the north only ended in May, 2009. The ethnic diversity is reflected in the island’s nature. Flat lowlands surround a mountainous center, and the nation boasts rain forests, pristine beaches, ancient temples and a richly diverse wildlife. A little piece of paradise in the Indian Ocean.

In order to do justice to Sri Lanka, we decided to roam about the island instead of dedicating all 91 days to a specific city. Though we were viciously jet-lagged on arriving, we wasted no time and went out to explore Colombo the very same morning… sleeping could wait; there was a whole new country waiting to be discovered!

Make sure to follow us on Twitter and Facebook, and subscribe to our RSS feed or newsletter. We love hearing from readers, so please get in touch with us via comments, our contact form or email. And if you’re from Sri Lanka, or know the island well, we’re always on the lookout for great tips and advice. Don’t hesitate to write!

Chucky, 2001-2012
French Bulldog

Before arriving, we spent a difficult couple weeks in the USA. We had to say goodbye to our ten-year-old French Bulldog Chucky, who had developed cancer. Our little co-adventurer, Chucky had been around the world with us, from Europe to North and South America. I’m not certain she really “loved” travel like we do… in fact, I’m rather sure she didn’t. But she was a trooper until the end, and we miss her terribly. So it’s up to Sri Lanka to distract us, and get our minds on happier things.

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February 6, 2012 at 5:52 am Comments (19)

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Uppaveli Beach A gorgeous stretch of beach just a few kilometers north of the city, Uppaveli was our home during the week we spent in Trincomalee. A chain of hotels lines the coast, but we had the beach almost entirely to ourselves. After trips to action-packed cities like Kandy and Jaffna, a little sun, sand and solitude was exactly what we needed.
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