In Sri Lanka, I went barefoot: in the temples, in the monasteries, at the heritage sites, on the beach, in homes, and even in restaurants where it is customary to leave one’s shoes outside the door before entering.
Having heard stories from a friend of how all her senses were enlivened and how spirituality encompasses daily life in Sri Lanka, I was allured with aspirations of reaching spiritual enlightenment, or maybe just bask in some positive energy. On previous spiritual journeys, including trekking in in Bhutan, walking on shamans’ paths in Peru, and strolling around Walden Pond in Thoreau’s footsteps, I returned home positively changed. My friend lived three years in a monastery in Sri Lanka creating a community art project, she depicted visions of women wearing jewel-colored saris and warm breezes wafting a fragrant mix of exotic flowers, incense, and spices—I was eager for an immersive experience.
An island nation located thirty miles southeast of the Indian peninsula, I had been told that Sri Lanka is India’s beautiful little sister where everything is dialed down at least ten decibels: less crowdedness, less poverty, less pollution, less noise, and even less spice in the food. What I discovered was a place rich with kindness where I was continually greeted with waving hands and generous smiles and friendly shouts of “Bye!” which I knew was meant as “Hi!”
Spices are bountiful in Sri Lanka. Dahl, made with lentils, coconut milk, chili, and any or all of the local spices (curry leaves, cardamom pods, cloves, ginger, turmeric, fenugreek seeds, mustard seeds, and possibly cinnamon)—is a staple food served at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and often with an accompanying curry dish or two. At breakfast, dahl is served with hoppers, a national crepe-like wrap that is made from fermented rice and coconut milk—or string hoppers, like a bird’s nest made from rice noodles tangled together. I was told that outside of Colombo finding good restaurants could be difficult, considering most locals do not dine out; therefore, the best options are buffet style and catered to tourists and in hotels. At first, I was enthusiastic to choose samplings of: polo (jackfruit curry), pol sambol (coconut relish), wambatu moju (eggplant/brinjals pickle relish), kola sambol (pennywort salad)—but after eating from buffets for breakfast, lunch, and dinner day after day, my fervor simmered. Even so, what remains indisputably Sri Lankan are the warm-hearted people and the delicious food.
The makings for a feast of egg hoppers
Egg hoppers the delicious local specialty.
My journey began at the Wallawwa a tiny hotel hidden in a dense and jungle-like landscape off the main road between Colombo and Negombo. A centuries-old refurbished colonial home, set in a lush garden with a tranquil pool, offers calm and quiet in contrast to those neighboring cities and a welcome place to recuperate after the long flights from California and before touring Colombo and beyond.
Colombo, on the shores of the Indian Ocean, is growing skyward, with a multitude of cranes crowding the skyline, all funded by a multibillion-dollar investment from China. In five years Colombo will look entirely different, with modern towers of glass and steel built to attract tourists. The Shangri -La is amongst the first new luxury hotel to claim their place along the waterfront, luring tourists who want to dip their toes in the hotel pool and comfortably sightsee from a hired air-conditioned vehicle. Much like Singapore, Hong Kong, Dubai, and Shanghai, the Galle Face will soon be lined with shiny skyscrapers housing international luxury hotel chains with shops selling luxury brands like Chanel and Louis Vuitton and global fashion retailers like Gap and Zara. Amongst this modernization, much of the colonial architecture has been restored, including the historic Old Dutch Hospital, which has been converted into a tourist attraction with trendy eateries and shopping, and the esteemed Galle Face Hotel built in 1864, a landmark steeped in tradition and history.
Outside of Colombo, there are no skyscrapers. Mostly there are cinderblock shops lining the two-lane thoroughfares selling everything from locally made sweets and bottles of sugary sodas, to household appliances and electronics, tires and hubcaps, and apothecaries with Ayurvedic medicines. You will not find the usual stalls selling T-shirts and trinkets. Even though tourism market has been on a rapid incline trajectory since 2010 when there were nearly 500,000 foreign visitors in comparison to 2017 when there were over 2 million tourists, the tattered roadways make traveling around the island bumpy and slow; some of the Chinese investment is allocated to constructing multilane highways from Colombo to Kandy and Galle.
Back during the time of the British colonial era a network of roads were established, a railway system, and tea plantations. Ceylon Tea Trails, opened in 2005, is one of the coveted small luxury hotels that is a byproduct of that era and they are adding new pampered stays around the island and there is an insurgent of other luxury boutique hotel chains, including Aman resorts. In the last ten years tourist hotels with unique kitschy, hodge-podge décor and architectural design were constructed quickly and poorly are both falling apart and under new construction at the same time. Instead of renovating what has cracked and broken, they expand, building new rooms and reception halls adjacent to the ones in need of repair. And for travelers on a limited budget a room can be rented on Airbnb for as low as $26 per night. However you choose to travel there is much to experience, from history, to food, to nature, and an esteemed cultural and spiritual history.
Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, is also known as the “Jewel Island” because of its literal riches. It exports many precious gems, predominately sapphires. Likewise, its tropical weather is conducive to thickly verdant hillsides and cultivated lands growing crops for export: cinnamon, rubber trees, cashews, mangoes, and of course, tea. Many throughout the history of empire have sought these Jewels: today the Chinese burdening the economy with debt and in return making claims to their ports, in the past the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British have all set foot on the island and at one time colonized it, leaving an imprint of architecture, art, customs, and language.
On this island that is 432 kilometers in length and 224 kilometers in width there are eight UNESCO World Heritage sites. Going barefoot brought me in touch with the land, and I chose to cycle from site to site, allowing me to be closer to the sounds and smells along the way. I peddled my way down pot-holed, narrow, two-lane streets and along partially paved village roads past people walking and cycling, dodging barking dogs snapping at my wheels and lorries zipping around tight corners, and zig-zagging enormous water monitors sauntering across roadways.
I swerved out of the way of the many buses and tuk-tuks carrying people to school, work, or temple. These three-wheeled Asian scooters are the main mode of transportation. Everywhere throughout Sri Lanka, the rattle and tukkathukkatukkathukka of their tiny motors can be heard as they zip around, even on footpaths, taking people up and down the hilly countryside. They zoom alongside and are overtaken by the many buses in Sri Lanka. There are red government buses and privately-owned buses, which like the independently owned tuk-tuks are uniquely and elaborately decorated expressing the personality of their owners.
I cycled along the coast, through rice paddies and along rivers lined with teak trees, through rubber and cinnamon plantations, and on and off the back roads making many stops. I stopped to watch a skinny man, known as a toddy tapper, shimmy up a coconut palm and carrying down unopened flowers from the palm fronds above. These are used to make coconut Arrack, the local fermented and distilled alcoholic beverage. I passed many make-shift stalls selling the catch-of-the-day: mackerel, swordfish, tuna, snapper, shark, sardines. I stopped to visit with schoolchildren walking home from school who invited me to come by their home for a snack of Thala Guli, sweets handmade from coconut and sesame seeds. When I peeked inside a couple houses, I saw intricately carved wood beams and doorframes, and beautiful detailed fabrics for curtains and bed covers, and the typical red painted concrete floors, cool under my feet. Yet, from the outside, each cement block home was indistinguishable from another.
I pedaled by the Mahaweli river (the longest in Sri Lanka) runs alongside Kandy and the Royal Botanical Gardens—named as such because these lands belonged to a lineage of Sri Lankan kings since the 1300s, before the British claimed the territory in the 1800s. The gardens are famed for an orchid collection, and there are numerous trees that are native to Sri Lanka, as well as spice, herbal, and medicinal—themed gardens. Today, it provides a tranquil respite from bustling Kandy and the crowds of tourists at the “Temple of the Tooth.”
At sunset, I wandered down to the temple along with tens of thousands of other tourists and spiritual seekers, all crowding shoulder-to-shoulder to get a glimpse of the golden room that houses the famed Buddha’s tooth. I gave up and went to visit the less crowded room that holds the replica, maybe this is why I left not quite feeling the emanating aura of Buddha.
Continuing along my heritage cultural (and spiritual) cycling route I came to Drambulla, where the famous “Cave Temple” is carved into the side of a rocky mountain. Visiting this site, I experienced a resounding feeling of a time when monks lived in isolation and spiritual seekers would make pilgrimages to gain their wisdom and healing influence. The most important of these caves housed a larger than life stone carved reclining Buddha, and the surrounding walls are covered in drawings and paintings that date back to the first century BCE. The adjacent caves’ ornate paintings and statues were restored in the early nineteenth century to replicate those that time has chipped, faded, and deteriorated. Layers in the paint reveal imprints of history from centuries ago when explorers discovered and restored these paintings to illuminate the life of spiritual seekers millennium ago.
I visited Polonnaruwa—an ancient royal city, and Sri Lanka’s capital from 1070 until the twelfth century—and the UNESCO World Heritage site of Sigiriya (“Lion Rock”). This is, perhaps, the most popular tourist destination in Sri Lanka, and my visit affirmed this. Overcrowded tourist destinations are a global issue and restricting access is an ongoing debate. The walk from the ticket booth to ascend to the Lion’s Gate took over an hour in a crammed person-to-person line, and from there, another hour up the narrow path to the ancient city atop the rock mountain. This is why they recommend two to three hours to walk a kilometer! The slow ascent to the ruins allowed amply time to survey the lush, vast blanket of surrounding greenery stretching in every direction. The view enlivened an imaginative picture of how remote and difficult it would have been for courtiers to reach Sigiriya in the eleventh century, and a challenge for enemies to sneak up to the ancient city.
Taking a break from heritage sites I went to an Ayurvedic Spa. Ayurvedic medicinal herbs and minerals infuse the teas and cuisine, like alchemy. Ayurveda, one of the world’s oldest medical system, originated in India over three thousand years ago and is more than medicine to Sri Lankans—it is a way of living. On my barefoot journey, I stayed at an Ayurveda spa perched in the hill country with views of Knuckles Forest Reserve, a natural biosphere and World Heritage site and an important conservation and natural habitat protection site. At Santani, the Ayurveda Spa, one experiences the health enhancing and rejuvenating effects of an Ayurveda lifestyle encompassing yoga, cuisine, and body treatments. After being anointed with oils and soaking in mineral baths and aligning my body into energizing poses and eating customized meals I reached, perhaps not spiritual, yet, vitality enlightenment.
My room at The Santani looking out at Knuckles Mountain Range
Garden Embellishment at The Santani
The Pool at The Santani
A trip to Sri Lanka would not be complete without visiting a tea plantation and tasting the teas. And, an added excursion to a cinnamon plantation where the cinnamon is harvested and cultivated by hand.
Tea leaves plucked from the tea plant.
Tasting a few cups of tea.
Father and son whittling and rolling cinnamon.
After exploring the hill country, I embarked on a train journey (as is recommended on every tourist ‘to do’ list) down to Galle, a seaside city in southwestern Sri Lanka, is a major seaport and claimed significance during the Dutch Colonial period.
Inside the walls of Galle Fort are examples of Dutch Colonial architecture, surprisingly unharmed when the 2004 Tsunami ravaged most of Galle outside the Fort. Today, this part of the city mostly caters to tourism with hotels, boutiques, and restaurants.
Heading south along the coast is Weligama, the international surfing mecca. Like any surfer enclave, there are barefoot, bronzed surfers; I passed by one bare-foot dude cycling while balancing a surfboard under one arm. Along the seaside route were colorful fishing boats and a few stilt fisherman who, today, mostly pose for tourists.
Further down the road is the Yala National Park where there are tented “safari” lodges to watch for leopards, sloths, and elephants. One can hire a boat to view the migrating blue whales. I learned that masses of boats packed with tourists chase down the whales, coming close, too close for my liking, while hunting them down for the best photo opportunity and causing them distress. This dangerous situation demands advocacy and an urging for controls on how many boats may approach the whales, and respectfully keeping their distance. The ever-changing island is managing a balance between tourism, development, and nature.
I didn’t make it to Yala National Park on this trip, and instead visited Minneriya National Park to view elephants roaming in their “natural habitat.” There is a fantasy that elephants roam wild in Sri Lanka. This is only part true. Sometimes elephants roam, as is their instinct, in search of food, not knowing that there are boundaries of electrical wire, alarm bells, and fire torches to keep them out. The majestic beast and beautiful creature is sacred, intelligent, emotional, powerful, and even elegant in its enormity—yet, also considered a nuisance by many. Protectors of the rice fields live in wattle-and-daub houses perched on stilts in the middle of the paddies; their job is to keep out the wild elephant. They say that there is one elephant to every thirty persons in Sri Lanka. At one time, elephants freely roamed this tropical forested island. Today they are forced to stay out and back from the expansion of development and civilization.
These mostly gentle giants are a top tourist attraction and are corralled into sequestered spaces—the national parks—where they are put on display. The national parks restrict entry to hired Jeeps, yet there is no restriction or limit to their number, resulting in traffic jams and more vehicles than elephants. One sad sight along my cycling journey was a rogue elephant foraging in a local garbage dump. Harmonizing the attraction of the elephants while respecting their wild-ness, is an ongoing issue.
By contrast, there was certainly more than one monkey per every thirty persons. Monkeys jumped onto my hotel-room balcony and peered into my windows. It felt like a reversal of humans observing animals in a zoo—in this case, I, in my hotel room, was “caged” and the monkeys roamed freely from balcony to tree to balcony; and, they also ran amok at many of the heritage sites.
At least the same number of large fruit bats swarmed the evening skies at sunset and one needn’t look skyward to appreciate the dynamic avian life of Sri Lanka. Cycling along the streams and tree-lined pathways I was startled by the screaming calls of the peacocks. My mornings were greeted with cooing, cawing, chitting, squawking, screeching, hooing, chirping, and tweeting from the islands multitudinous variety of birds, of which some 230 are native species and another 210 are migratory species attracted to the forested highlands and coastal shores.
Sri Lanka is a country of resilience, tolerance, and acceptance. In recent history the Sri Lankans have survived a natural disaster and a civil war, living amidst decay and reconstruction is evidence to the spirituality that guides their daily life, and a belief in impermanence and renewal—a symbol of their resiliency. It is an island steeped with diverse cultural traditions and religious rituals, many intertwining. Sri Lanka is widely known as a Buddhist nation, with the Sinhalese Buddhist practice of Theravada predominating. Buddhism is more than a religion here, it is a cultural ethos. There is no separation of church and state, and readings of Buddhist texts are taught in schools. The nation has recovered from the violent disputes nearly ten years ago, with lingering whispers of ethnic and separatist interests as the country paves policies to protect all citizens and the natural environment. The locals I encountered were relaxed in their views of religion. And, in actuality, Sri Lanka is a nation of tolerant religious practice with a population of just over 21 million comprising approximately 70 percent Buddhist, and 30 percent a mix of Hindu, Muslim, and Christian. In many communities, there may be a mosque around the corner from a Hindu temple and down the street from a Buddhist monastery. And, being in the country during the Christmas holidays, it was common to see manger scenes, snowmen, and Christmas trees propped in front of Buddhist shrines and next to sitting-Buddha statuettes. In even the smallest of communities, you will find a shrine, temple, stupa, monastery, or all comingling.
Even so, there are strict rules when visiting religious sites; women and men must wear clothing to cover their knees, women must cover their shoulders, no hats can be worn at religious sites, and no photos with your back to a Buddha statue, meaning absolutely no selfies with Buddha statues or religious stupas. Even though they honor and are deep-rooted in their traditions and values, today, for the most part, Sri Lankans are accepting of tourists’ differing ways of dress and customs. Road signs, menus, and even schools offer three languages: English, Tamil, and Sinhala (the native language). It is uncustomary for unmarried single women to be out after sunset without a male escort. Sri Lanka endears and adheres to the traditional value of respecting one’s elders, and it is common for extended family to live within a household. Marriages are often arranged, with parents advertising the availability and assets of their eligible sons in the local newspaper, and unions must be approved by an astrologist to ensure compatibility.
Rich in tradition and festivity, Sri Lankans celebrate holidays, more than any other place in the world! Every month locals celebrate Poya, a national holiday to honor the full moon. Sri Lankans honor Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, and Christian holidays. During my visit I celebrated Christmas, the Western New Year, and the Unduvap full moon Poya, which celebrates the arrival of the Bodhi tree. Legend claims a sprig of the famed tree that Buddha sat under when he found his enlightenment was brought to Sri Lanka from India by Ashoka’s daughter, Sanghamitta, in the third century BCE and it grew into what is renowned as the “tree of enlightenment.” A trip to Sri Lanka would be incomplete without visiting Anuradhapura where this famed Bodhi tree grows. I visited the site at sunset, during the January Poya celebration, amongst many who had made the pilgrimage from villages all around the island to worship. The Bodhi tree and nearby stupa were surrounded by hundreds of thousands of barefoot spiritual seekers wearing white, chanting, singing, sitting, praying, and lighting incense and candles scenting sweet sandalwood fragrance into the air. It was a beautiful and joyous experience. There was a genuine sense of peace and oneness with all of these well-wishers coming together, imparting a beautiful and uplifting positive energy.
“Praise Allah! Jah! The Buddha! Kwan Yi,
Jesus, Mary, and even jealous old Jehovah!
For eyes, hands, of the divine, everywhere.”
At the Corner Store, a poem by Alison Luterman gives voice to my experience of the Sri Lankans—gentle, warm-hearted people who remain calm while navigating the chaotic roadways, that welcome with a smile, and that are curious, accepting, trusting, honest, and giving.
My Bare Feet