Thursday, April 30, 2009

April 25, 2009 - Dambulla, Sri Lanka

Since commercial stops seemed to be a significant part of the touring around here, we took matters into our own hands and asked to stop at some places that would interest us. We don't buy many souvenirs, but we are always interested in poking around an antique store. When we emerged disgruntled from a shop that was stocked with hundreds of new crafts made to look old - intsa-antiques - Leel asked it we wanted to see really old things. Um, Yes? Sampath pulled up in front of a tiny, run down shop stocked with interesting items from old Buddhist temples and temple ceremonies. This was more interesting, but the prices were a bit steep for us. Still, we enjoyed the stop.

Next on the itinerary was a stop at a spice farm, where plants are grown for use in Ayurvedic medicine. After an informative tour of the garden, we were taken to an open sided room for a product display and a brief scalp and shoulder massage. After the rubdown was over, the herbalist told us that the massage boys didn't receive a salary and that if we wanted to tip them, it would be welcomed. Now, we don't mind paying for massages, but this felt like a bit of bait and switch.

If you walk into an Aveda or Body Shop in the US, the sales staff might offer to give you a quick hand massage as a way to demonstrate their products. Or anytime you stop by a makeup counter at a department store, the saleslady will often ask you to take a seat as she demonstrates a new bronzer or eyeliner. In neither instance would they ask you to pay for it. In the Caribbean, if you take the time to sit through a timeshare sales pitch, you are often rewarded with gift certificates for dinner or a voucher for a one day car rental. Sri Lanka is the first place that we've ever been asked to pay for the privilege of sitting through a sales pitch. It seems like they have things a bit backwards. On our way back to the van we were routed through the showroom. Sten had been interested in the massage oil they used on us, but balked at paying $80 for a bottle of it. The herbalist kept pushing products at us and was clearly upset with us when we only (only!) spent $40. The whole experience left a bad taste in our mouths.

We declined the option of waiting until we reached the hotel to have lunch (having three meals there seemed excessive to us) and opted to stop at a local spot for rice and curry. Under a thatched roof, as flies swarmed around us, we dug into plates of rice accompanied by dahl and spicy curries. We were able to buy some yogurt to have between mouthfuls of spicy curry to quench the fire in our mouths and to coat our stomachs.

After lunch we dropped our bags at the hotel and headed to Sigiriya, a rock fortress built in 473AD to house a king, his queen and 500 concubines. The construction of Sigiriya took 18 years and included an impressive irrigation system that feeds rain water into a series of flowering and water gardens. The palace is long gone, but the rock, the gardens, and the thousands of steps still remain. In the middle of the afternoon heat we climbed 1202 steep steps up to the top of the rock and 1202 steps back down in the company of a local tour guide. We were initially hounded by "helpers," men who wanted to lend me a hand on the slippery, uneven steps, but they just made me feel crowded and eventually I managed to shrug them all off. On the way to the top, we passed a series of 5th century frescos, portraits of the ladies in the king's harem that are in remarkably good condition for their age. The view from the top of the rock, past the extensive gardens and out into the surrounding jungle was certainly worth the climb.



and more steps.

After Sigiriya, we were off to Dambulla. At the top of another 300 steps, we found a Buddhist temple, tucked under a protective overhang of rock. The temple is a series of five caves. Four of the caves are natural, and the frescos and Buddhas inside are painted with natural dyes. The last cave is concrete, and was built recently by the government and painted with garish chemical paints. It is hard for us, with our American reverence for the concept of separation of church and state, to understand a supposedly democratic government building a temple. Tucked into the corner of the oldest cave, is a small Hindu temple. As we were leaving Dambulla at dusk, there was a Tamil family praying before the temple of Vishnu. We could only imagine that their prayers were for the Hindu Tamil refugees in the conflict zone in the northern part of the country.

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