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JAN 1, 2007 -> Sigiriya and diarrhea

A few hours into the flight to Colombo, my stomach imploded. All that week I had been accusing my Singaporean co-workers of “throwing a sicky” – Australian for faking an illness – as one after the other failed to show up for work. Now I knew the truth: the disease was real. Doubled-up in the window seat, I considered the ramifications of arriving in a curry-country with my bowels already bowed.

It was the week before Christmas, so we had fully expected a planeload of tourists eager to do the ‘beach chair rotisserie' on Sri Lanka's famous beaches. But most of the faces were dark: several hundred Sri Lankans returning home, many of them construction workers. With just four million citizens, few of whom could operate a shovel, Singapore is entirely dependent on imported labor. Thais, Malaysians, Indonesians, Bangladeshis, and evidently, Sri Lankans, build the roads, tunnels and buildings that make Singapore's infrastructure the envy of Asia.

Of course, it didn't help Sri Lankan tourism that the Norway-brokered “cease fire” between the government and the Tamil Tigers looked about as binding as the one between Israel and Palestine. Fighting was raging in the north, and a car bomb had recently exploded in Colombo. The Tigers controlled the northern third of the island, and had been fighting for an independent state since Sri Lanka's own independence from Britain. Even the Australian Foreign Office had a warning against travel in Sri Lanka, which pretty much meant that death was guaranteed. But we had booked the vacation six months earlier, and figured that we would be fine as long as we stayed to the south. Would we not visit Russia again because there was fighting in Chechnya? Of course not! We would not visit Russia again because we didn't like it.

I was a bit nervous about Sri Lanka anyway. While I knew that the country had its own, distinct culture, I was afraid that it would be India-on-an-island: a crush of too many people in too little space, exotic, manic, and as stunning as a Tazer. This was our first long vacation since rejoining the working world in April. We both needed some relaxation. Yet even on the plane, I began to sense that things really were different. The passengers were calm and talked quietly amongst themselves. Nobody pressed the call buttons for the stewardesses. Maybe it was the inner peace of Buddhist reflection. Whatever the reason, I liked it.

The evidence of Sri Lanka's uniqueness began to pile up when we landed: an orderly disembarkation, a new airport, dozens of officers at immigration, our bags arriving at the carousel before we did. We shared a taxi to the coast with two Aussie backpackers, Kath and James, who were as surprised as we were at the sedate velocity of our taxi. It is a rare Third World taxi ride where you actually wish the cabbie would go faster. Most cars stayed in their lanes. People stopped at the lights. Bike traffic stayed on the shoulder. OK, it wasn't that organized, but you get the picture.

After a rough night of sprints to the bathroom, I was not looking forward to a day in a car. Our driver, Souri, knocked on our door in the morning and gave us a fresh-baked, homemade chocolate cake. He was scoring points already. We walked down to the beach and watched the triangular-sailed fishing catamarans ply the seas. Their Arab ancestry was obvious. Arab traders had been some of the first visitors to Sri Lanka, and Muslims made up about 10% of the population. As we drove out of Negombo, Souri pointed out the Christian, Buddhist and Muslim areas of town. We drove over a bridge that crossed an algae-clogged canal. During their period of influence, the Dutch had built a series of channels connecting the coastal cities. Amidst the standard goods available at the little kiosks were inflatable Santa Claus dolls and nativity scenes. We hadn't expected to see the Christmas spirit in Sri Lanka, but there it was.

Like many tourists, we had decided that renting a car and driver was the best way to see a lot of Sri Lanka in a short amount of time. Souri, a father of two and ex-producer of television shows for the national broadcaster, was Nori's height, with a head of thick, curly black hair, a soft voice and a mild demeanor.  He was Sinhalese, the name given to the people who had migrated here from India untold centuries ago. As in India, and other ‘Indianised' countries in Southeast Asia, Sinha (or Singh, or Singha) means ‘lion.' The national flag has a fearsome lion holding a sword. As we drove, Souri taught us a few words in Sinhalese. I loved the thought that we were speaking lion.


Sri Lankan lowland scenery was a beautiful mix of Bali and Rio de Janeiro: lush, green rice paddies filled with egrets and other wading birds, thick stands of bamboo and water buffaloes; but with dark, stone mountains that pushed up from the jungle like newly cut teeth. We made a brief visit to an elephant orphanage, arriving just in time to watch them bathing in the river. Just before reaching Sigiriya, we rushed to the top of a mountain to visit the caves at Dambulla, large overhangs absolutely jam-packed with Buddha statues and Buddha paintings, all lit with spooky ground lights. That evening, we discovered a new threat to a good night's sleep: Buddhist chanting.

As Souri explained, Sri Lanka is in the midst of a battle for religious market share:

“Many Muslim people have moved into these Buddhist towns to get away from the fighting in the north. All it takes is a few families. Soon they have a mosque and every day they are doing the call to prayer. They are converting people. So the Buddhist monks have decided to start doing this chanting.”

It started at five or six in the morning and lasted for an hour. In that respect it was much more annoying than the mercifully brief, but five-times-as-frequent Muslim call to prayer. In the morning, I staggered out of our room and discovered that the Buddhist temple was on the hill behind our hotel. I could even see the loudspeaker. I debated sneaking up there and cutting the wire to the loudspeaker, but feared that vandalizing a Buddhist temple would result in extraordinarily bad karma. I had no desire to be a cockroach in the next life. The only good news was that my morning wake-up chant allowed me to catch a couple of male peacocks in full display way up in a tree. I didn't know that peacocks could fly.

The next morning we visited Sigiriya – the Lion's Throat – a red and black volcanic plug that towered above the flat, green countryside, as unexpected and alien as Devil's Tower in the Wyoming plains. Sigiriya was an amazing landform well before the king got the crazy idea to build a fortress atop it. A jumble of gigantic boulders created natural archways at its base. We climbed up steep metal stairs that had been drilled into the rock face. At the top, an even steeper circular staircase brought us to a set of beautiful (though not original) paintings of busty women with improbably narrow waists. We corkscrewed back down and traversed the rock until we arrived at a small plateau. This was Sigiriya's most incredible sight, an enormous pair of lions' paws – each the size of a small car – guarding a stone staircase. It was like something out of Lord of the Rings, or a Sri Lankan sphinx.

“There used to be a complete lion,” Souri said, “but it fell down over time. That is why this is called Sigiriya. The king used to walk up these stairs and into the lion's mouth before climbing to the top.”

The final pitch was the steepest; many people struggled to reach the top. On a clear day the views would have been stupendous, but storm clouds were rolling in, shrouding the peaks of the Knuckles Range to the north. The ruins of the fortress (some say palace) were unremarkable, except when one considered the amount of effort it would have taken to get the stones up there.

The next morning I discovered that someone had a made themselves a Christmas gift of my new tennis shoes. I had left them outside, and someone had stolen them in the night. The hotel managers tried to tell me that they thought dogs probably dragged them away, but I thought that was unlikely since the ‘dogs' took my socks too. Souri uttered what I was thinking: “two-legged dogs.” 

We spent the entire next day visiting the extensive ruins at Polonaruwa: gigantic stupas, monks' cells, temples, and libraries. Though Buddhist (not Hindu) many of the ruins had carvings that were reminiscent of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. By far the most stunning statues were those of the Gal Vihara, three giant Buddhas carved from heavily marbled stone. The artists were so talented that the pillow supporting the Buddha's head looked slightly compressed from his weight.