A UNESCO World Heritage City
The entire city of Anuradhapura, the ancient capital of Sri Lanka, is an archaeological site of palaces, monuments, and monasteries and therefore has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. Some areas have been excavated and preserved while others remain below ground waiting for the next wave of projects to uncover them. From the oldest Bodhi tree to the most sacred stupa, from the Twin Ponds where 6,000 monks were known to have bathed to the masterfully engineered Stone Bridge which allowed access from Anuradhapura to the main ports on the coast, even in monsoon flooding, there is a plethora of sights to be seen.
Sri Lanka has an amazing array of wildlife and natural parks. Monkeys and water monitors openly roam the land but elephants and leopards can be seen in their natural setting by visiting the national parks. I spent the day getting up close and personal with the wildlife and also stopping to experience the culture and people of the community.
The Elephant Gathering
Ayurvedic medicine relies on herbs to naturally cure ailments. I visited a spice garden and learned from Dr. Utpal about how various plants can help you heal both common and more acute issues. I then ventured on to Sigiriya Rock, one of the most amazing rock formations and historic fortresses in Sri Lanka, where I conquered my fear of heights, witnessed the ruins of an ancient palace, and took in the panoramic views from it's summit. As if that wasn't enough excitement, I ended the day with an evening visit to one of the most sacred temples in Sri Lanka, where I was able to reflect on the spirituality of this country amongst an array of statues and cave paintings.
Sri Lanka is one of the few places where you can go from the coast to upcountry tea plantations in a matter of hours. I enjoyed getting out into nature, hiking through tea plantations, and getting the rare opportunity to engage with the workers to learn about their families and living conditions. Staying in an ecolodge, where the luxury tents seemed to meld into their surroundings, was a unique way to experience nature and the beauty and serenity of this area.
Road Trip to Madukele
Next stop on this adventure is the tea plantations in Madulkelle. Another 6 hour drive lay ahead before we reached our next stop, so we broke up the journey with a tour of a tea factory, where I learned about the manufacturing of various types of tea and even got to gather some tea leaves myself. I then a visit to one of the most sacred temples in Sri Lanka, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, where one of Budhha's teeth is preserved. There is an annual procession with a replica of the tooth, which is worshipped as if it were Budhha himself.
Saying Goodbye To Galle
After 2 days in Galle, it was time to say goodbye to my friend and butler Charith and move on to my next adventure. Charith had been instrumental in helping me to understand the Sinhalese culture from a local's perspective. He was with me every step of the way, answering my myriad questions and giving me his perspective. I really enjoyed having an insider's view of the Galle area and learning about the customs and rituals of Buddhism along the way.
On my way to meet my group of travel consultants, I decided to to detour through Bentota, where renowned local architect Geoffrey Bawa had his weekend home, Lunuganga. Set on 15 acres, Lunuganga literally means "salt river" as one channel from the Bentota River flows around 3 sides of the property. This place is a tribute to Bawa's work-it was his "lab" where he created models of the masterpieces that he conjured up. The property has 6 villas spread out throughout the grounds and took 40 years to complete. You can see how Bawa incorporated nature into his designs, bringing the outside in and designing around the various trees on the property. When he died in 2003, the villas were turned into a hotel. The property and gardens are beautiful and really provide an insight into Bawa's style of architecture.
An Opportunity to Give Back
When I began to plan this itinerary in Galle, I wanted to learn as much about the culture as possible. I was thrilled to see an excursion which involved not only temple visits but the ability to go to a local school and bring gifts for the children.
Sri Lanka is a predominantly Buddhist country and there are many temples throughout. This temple is called Nawamuni, "nawa" meaning 9 and "muni" meaning Budhha. It's the temple of 9 Buddhas (actually stupas). Each temple has a story and this one pertains to a wealthy lady who did not have any children. She yearned for kids and visited fortune tellers and astrologers. She was told to seek out a special astrologer who was visiting from India. In doing so, she learned that this was her karma. She had done "bad things" in her past life and her misfortune in this one was a result of those actions. She was told to build as many stupas as possible. A stupa is a mound-like structure that contain sacred relics of Budhha or other saints and is used as place for meditation and worship, The astrologer told her that people would pray at these stupas and she would receive their blessings.
Unfortunately, the lady who built the temple died without having any children, but this temple is a place of worship today, especially for those wanting blessing for their unborn child or for fertility issues. With all the prayers of the people who worship here, it is said that this lady must have many children in her next life.
So Close Yet Worlds Away
Less than an hour flight from Cochin, India lies the island nation of Sri Lanka. Although there are several similarities between the two countries, there are also things that completely differentiate them. The climate and the vegetation here definitely remind me of South India yet there seems to be much more diversity, especially where tourists are concerned. There are quite a few visitors from China as well as a mix of European countries.
It was an early start from Marari in order to catch my 9:45am flight to Colombo. Upon arrival in Colombo airport, I was stunned at how quickly things moved along and especially how efficient the luggage delivery system was-by the time I got to baggage claim, my bags were already heading towards me on the belt. This is a far cry even from home where I've waited more than an hour for domestic luggage at Oakland airport!
Incredible Images From The Canals
One of the highlights of a trip to South India, specifically the state of Kerala, is the famous backwaters. These are a series of canals that empty into Lake Vembanad, the longest lake in India and the largest lake in Kerala, which in turn flows into the Arabian Sea. Often called "the Venice of the East", these canals house incredible fishing villages and rice paddies on their banks. Much like Venice, small boats are used to navigate from point to point on the canals.
Eating at the restaurants here is an interesting experience. In order for the chef to identify each guest's specific diet plan, seating is assigned for all guests by villa. Once you find your table, it's yours for the duration of the stay. Every meal has your menu for that seating so you know what's coming.
I had a rude awakening when I looked at the breakfast meal plan for me on day one-vegetable juice, fresh fruit, steamed veggies, whole grain bread and a local specialty of idlis (steamed rice cakes). Ok. Huge reality check from what I was expecting even though I know Dr. Ajitha has put me on a vegetarian menu, based on the weight loss program I requested. I was envisioning eggs, whole grain toast, some South Indian coffee (so good!). I guess one out of three isn't bad?
Although each meal is four courses and the chef does his best to make the presentation of each course help you forget about the portions, it's still slim pickings! After the first meal, I found myself heading back to my room and rummaging through my bag for the protein snacks I was saving for my Sri Lanka hikes. Yup. Ate the whole bag of soy beans, nuts and raisins. No guilt whatsoever. I gradually started getting used to the portions at each sitting until today (Day 4) when I really could NOT eat steamed veggies for breakfast anymore. I attacked my whole grain bread like I had a vengeance this morning, savoring each bite as if it were my last. I came to the realization today that I'M IN INDIA! Why am I torturing myself by not allowing myself to indulge in all the amazing food that's available here? As much as I want to follow the plan, I think I'm going to give myself these last 2 days in India to really take in all the flavors of the country. Diets be damned!