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September 05, 2017, Sri Lanka

Island of enlightenment

Ming E Wong rediscovers her sense of gratitude for small things in Sri Lanka

Ming E Wong

MY HUSBAND and I had just arrived in Sri Lanka when he received some troubling news, spoiling his mood and threatening to mar our holiday.

Our driver Nandasena, a practising Buddhist like most of his countrymen, stepped in with some sagely advice.

He said: “Much of life is about suffering and enduring. And we will endure.

“Look at me; I lost my sister and niece in a bomb explosion. They were innocent — just standing at a bus stop. But I get up every morning at six and I meditate.

“All things shall pass.” 

Indeed, after a 26-year civil war involving the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam — peace was declared in 2009 — Sri Lanka seems remarkably recovered.

While scars and tensions remain, its tourism industry is booming. There is a new airport, the highways are in good condition and stylish hotels are opening all over the country.

Climb to serenity

We had come to Sigiriya, which — together with Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka’s ancient capital, and Pollonnaruwa — forms what is called the Cultural Triangle.

Anuradhapura, a Unesco World Heritage site, has many ancient monuments from the Sinhala civilisation, including elegant white stupas.

As for Pollonnaruwa, it has grand ruins of ancient temples, palaces, monasteries, reservoirs and gardens — a testament to the great building abilities of past kingdoms.

The heart of Sigiriya is the Lion’s Rock, a giant rock looming 200m over the plains. An enigmatic King Kasyapa built his fortress there, with elaborate defensive structures, palaces and gardens at the summit. It later housed a Buddhist monastery.

Climbing up the stone steps to Lion’s Rock is strenuous. Up there, the views — including some of the oldest landscaped water gardens in the world — were awesome.

Tired and sweaty from his climb, my husband was suitably impressed to come upon a visiting monk meditating serenely in a corner. At these sights, numerous locals come dressed in white as a sign of respect for these places of worship.

We were camera-toting tourists among pilgrims bearing flowers and offerings.

Of peace and gratitude

On our way to the hill resort of Kandy, we stopped by at Dambulla and saw its famous cave temple, with intriguing frescoes and statues relating to Buddha and his life.

By the end of the trip, we felt like we had seen a thousand Buddha statues, including those on the side of roads, in the middle of a tea plantation or paddy field, and in several Buddhist processions.

The combination of cultural diversity, physical beauty and culinary excellence eventually lifted our blues. After all, we were travelling from ancient ruins to cool highlands lush with tea plantations.

Along the way, we also saw elephant herds in national parks and wild buffaloes grazing on mountain grassland near Nuwara Eliya.

Our last stop was a small villa on a clean, sandy beach near Galle. Here too, we were reminded of human perseverance — Sri Lanka had lost over 30,000 people during the tsunami of 2004.

There were still signs of damage but, by and large, life went on. During our trip, we were greeted by common sights of fishermen perched on stilts in the sea, fishing boats sailing out, and local boys playing cricket on the beach in the evening.

In Sri Lanka, I rediscovered my gratitude for small things, and for life itself. Every day is a new day and, indeed, all things shall pass.

GUIDELINES

We flew from Singapore to Colombo on Singapore Airlines.

Rail and bus networks exist, but most tourists either rent a car or hire a local driver-cum-guide (www.srilankaguidedtour.com).

- Be prepared to walk barefoot or in socks inside temples as shoes and hats are not allowed.

- Take a train, reminiscent of colonial times, from Nanu Oya to Ella. It travels mostly on a ridge around paddy fields and tea plantations. If you crave a snack for your ride, look for a vendor selling hot and sweet chai and peanuts laced with chilli powder. 

- In Galle, visit the well-preserved 17th-century Galle Fort. There are many heritage hotels, including the expensive but exquisite Amangalla Hotel within the fort. The Old Dutch Hospital complex is full of restaurants and pubs, and the old town has some of the prettiest and most stylish shopping in the country.

Indulge in Ayurveda treatments available in many spas. Stay at yoga retreats such as Nigayama House (www.niyagamahouse.com) near Galle, which is near forest scrub and tea plantations.

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