Sunday, November 6, 2016

Sri Lanka - Part 2

This is part two of our trip to Sri Lanka. For part one, go here.

We stayed in Kandy only one night so the next day, it was up somewhat early to continue our journey towards the south of Sri Lanka where we'd do a safari and go to some beaches. Our goal for the day was to end up in the small town of Nuwara Eliya where we'd catch a train the day after. On the way, we had some stops planned including a couple of hours at the Royal Botanical Gardens.

I really love plants and flowers and, while living in San Diego, I grew a lot including many different orchids. Between the local San Diego Botanic Gardens and frequent visits to Hawaii, I got to see a huge variety of plants. So it's fairly unusual for me to come across a plant that's so unique that I've never seen anything like it. The so-called Cannonball tree is something completely new for me. The effect of the irregularly placed balls reminded me of if a giant toddler had decorated a dead Christmas tree.

The 'cannonballs' were about six or eight inches across and the tree's flowers, which I've pasted in to corner of the photo above, were especially lovely. The park had a ton of other things to see including a nice orchid building. But, probably the biggest surprise (other than cannonballs) were the thousands of large bats hanging out in the tops of the trees. Crazy!

After the gardens, we continued our drive up, up, and up into the Sri Lankan central hill country (mountain country?) stopping on the way to check out million-dollar views and  the occasional waterfall:

At one of our stops I thought Diana was going to buy another King coconut but, no, she spied a guy selling corn on the cob. Like rain in London or fog in San Francisco, there's one thing you can always count on and that's Diana's love of corn on the cob! (Think I'm kidding? Here she is around the world eating it in Germany, in Colombia, in Switzerland, in Amsterdam, and even in Mexico.)

By the way, you can't see it in these photos but this particular waterfall was silly with monkeys. They're everywhere and they aren't afraid of people. Anyway, so while Diana was checking out local delicacies, Mr. Schmidt climbed over to one of the falls where, next thing we knew, he was hanging out with some locals who gave him a shot from a bottle they were sharing. I was very impressed by Mr. Schmidt's ability to integrate!

Our last destination for the day before arriving into Nuwara Eliya was to visit a tea plantation and factory, which was something I was really looking forward to. But, not too far from our destination, we noticed a bunch of trees had been sliced. Not understanding what was going on, our driver stopped and let us out so that we could get closer. Turns out that this is what natural rubber harvesting looks like. Long, angled, successive strips are taken from the bark and a half coconut full of almost-butter-colored liquid was at the bottom of the newest slice.

It was during this stop that we began to notice the temperature change from when we started the day. Between the fog and the altitude, it was easily ten to 15 degrees (F) cooler but, not really loving the heat and humidity, it was a nice break for me!

We arrived at what ended up being almost the top of the mountain at the Mackwoods Tea Plantation and Factory. Every direction you looked, the hills were filled with tea plants and, in this case, a small stream ran through the valley. Much like where coffee grows, I could very easily see myself living in a place like this. Perfect temperature and views, what's not to enjoy!

Mackwoods' has a working tea-processing and packing factory of their own. We took a tour where they walked us through some of the production areas and also explained how tea is grown, processed, and packed. As always, I love me a factory tour! Here's another tea factory I visited when I was in Colorado a few years ago. Oh, and now I know the difference between Orange Pekoe and Broken Orange Pekoe...

After our tour, we ordered a pot of tea and some cakes at Mackwoods' combo tasting room and cafe. And then we ordered another pot, it was that good. If you go to Sri Lanka one day, I highly, highly recommend visiting a tea plantation and, if it appeals to you, the factory tour.

We spent the next night in Nuwara Eliya, which is a small town partly in the clouds where the locals wear parkas and ski caps. My guess is that it was in the high 50s when we arrived in the late afternoon so it was definitely a bit chilly.

It was here that we had one of the two most-local food experiences of the whole trip. We followed our driver to a place he was going to eat and ordered what he was having. The waiter brought over smallish metal pails (sort of a small bucket) filled with stewed-style meats and vegetables. With no cutlery in sight, we did as the locals do and dug in with our fingers using small pieces of flatbread and just kinda' scooped it up. The locals laughed at us and we laughed at ourselves. It was a great and memorable experience.

After our early dinner, we went shopping! I was keeping my eye out for linen button-down shirts and I wanted to find a nicer sarong to use at our frequent temple stops plus I knew one'd be useful when we got to the beach.

We walked down 'main street' ducking into and out of shops. At one, Diana found the same container of aloe she had bought at the spice garden for maybe 20% of the cost. D'oh! A couple of shops over, I spied this poster for 'lungies', which is what they apparently call sarongs over in India. Score! Based on this poster alone, I knew this was what I was looking for! Maybe even get a six pack while I was at it?

I ended up paying about six dollars for a dark blue, almost-Hawaiian-style sarong. We left the shop, me happy with my purchase, and continued walking around town. About an hour later, I was starting to get cold so I stopped, took the sarong out of the bag, and attempted to wear it so that it might help keep me warm (note, I highly recommend spending time in the hill/mountain area of Sri Lanka but definitely bring a sweat shirt and long pants with you).

I fumbled with the sarong figuring I could wear it like those I had used in Hawaii. During what seemed like hours but was more like three or four minutes of struggle, a local guy who was giggling along with his family stopped to lend me a hand. In about thirty seconds he showed me two different ways to tie it suggesting (in gestures - no English) the best local way. Much like our elephant interaction a couple of days previously, this was one of the best experiences of the trip. How often does a random local take the time and effort to tell a tourist how things are done (without yelling)?

Now, properly dressed, we stopped at a supermarket to buy some groceries and then to a bakery where I saw what looked like different flavors of pound cake in the window. What I saw next was almost...unseeable. The guy attending to the customers was taking orders, pulling cakes out of the display, cutting them to size, and weighing then packing them faster than I've ever seen any human move. It was like he was some sort of friendly Terminator cyborg from the future had chosen bakery work over that of an assassin. In other words, we, as a species, are very lucky. Oh, and the cake was fantabulous!

Our home stay in Nuwara Eliya was in what was basically a "log-cabin" on a local family's property. They lived in a very 'basic' structure, did some simple farming, and we had a flat-screen. It was eye-opening to say the least and why I recommend staying with locals whenever possible.

The next morning we woke fairly early so we could get over to the train station in time to buy tickets. Taking the train between Nuwara Eliya and Ella (or in the reverse direction) is basically one of the top five things to do in Sri Lanka. If you're like us, you show up early and hope to get first or second class tickets, which is impossible being that there are very few and they're probably gone months in advance. We did manage to buy tickets in third class, which I was afraid might be as bad as it sounds but, whatever, I was sure it'd be an adventure either way.

Our train was due to depart about 10 a.m. but, by about 11.30 or so, it hadn't yet arrived. We were getting impatient especially because it was rainy and fairly cool waiting on the platform. We talked with our driver who, uncharacteristically, firmly recommended we wait and take the train. Okay, then.

Finally, just before noon and only 30 minutes or so until the next one was due to depart, the three-car, three-class train lumbered into the station.

The train was so full and had gotten even fuller with folks who were waiting for both the earlier and later trains that we decided to bail on the whole thing. We went back over to our faithful driver who was waiting for us to board the train and asked him to just drive us to the next destination. Again, with an energy I hadn't seen previously, and much like that time my friend told me to go see Ecce Homo (!!!), he said we had to wait and take the train. Seriously, almost like we had no choice. So, we hard-balled it and before long a much bigger and newer train pulled in and we climbed aboard...for what ended up being my favorite part of the entire trip!

Being that third class was particularly full, we ended up only getting in as far as the entry area. On an incredibly positive note, they leave the doors open the whole time and, if you're lucky enough to have super-cool locals who give you their places) you can hang on (or out?) the door enjoying the wind in your hair... the train winds its way along the top of the fog-shrouded mountains filled with tea plantations and amazing views!

The train passes lots of farms and plantations like the one below and through many small towns each with their own stop. We took turns in the doorway during the two-hour-or-so ride. As the train went, it got emptier and emptier to the point where we could sit in the open doorway with our feet hanging out. It was like something from a movie but in real life.

Mr. Schmidt checking out some locals with a local:

The funniest thing happened about 90 minutes into our trip. The train slowed down like it was going to stop in another random town. I laughed as we then slowly passed the first (older/smaller/slower) train we had chosen not to board in Nuwara Eliya earlier that morning!

Our driver was right, we had to do the train ride! I must have thanked him a dozen times or more. If you go to Sri Lanka, you absolutely must do it too. I say this on the same order of magnitude that I'd tell you to visit the Sagrada Familia when you're in Barcelona. And, don't pay for first or second class where you'll only be surrounded by folks from Europe and maybe one or two from China and/or Japan. Nope! You need to pony up the $0.80 U.S. (yes, less than a dollar) or whatever it cost for third class and you're going to love it.

Our driver met us in Ella, which is the other end of the train ride. We drove down to Kataragama where, the next morning, we'd be going on, what is another of the Sri Lankan must-dos, a safari at the nearby Yala National Park. Yala is a large reserve on the southeastern corner of the island and is home to elephants, big cats, a ton of birds, and more.

The day we went to the park wasn't the best as it was a national holiday (second of our trip) so it was full of people in jeeps like ours. Even though there are lots of animals to see, parts of the park were closed for the season, which, combined with the full-moon holiday, resulted in way too many people in way too many jeeps to really get to see as much as we would have liked.

But, having said that, it wasn't like we saw nothing. On the contrary! We got to see deer, water buffalo, an elephant or two, alligators, more birds than you can shake a stick at including some cool toucans, and even the briefest glimpse of a leopard. But, the day's best was on our way home when we came across this elephant standing in the middle of the road.

Diana answering that age-old question of why did the elephant cross the road (and, yes, that's a soft-ball-sized watermelon in her hand):

I mentioned how it was the full-moon holiday that day. Turns out that Sri Lanka has a public holiday every full moon and lots of folks take advantage and head to a local temple. Kataragama just happens to have one of the most important temple complexes in Sri Lanka so we headed over to check out the festivities.

The Kataragama complex is unique as several different religious groups worship there including the indigenous Vedda. There was a ton going on and even more than a ton of people. Just getting into the complex was a bit of an adventure as the entrances were so full that we had to literally squeeze through. Once inside we saw a variety of different rituals, none of which I understood, including the one below where people following a group of musicians and members carrying offerings unrolled and and carried fabric up to and around one of the temple structures.

We only got to spend an hour or so at the temple as it was getting late and we had dinner plans. Lena and Toni told us that the Kataragama temple during the day was one of their favorite memories. We had planned to go but our changed plans made it impossible. So, definitely on our next trip.

The four of us took a couple of Tuktuks back to our homestay. Tuktuks are used as taxis and are everywhere in Sri Lanka. The reality, though, is I just wanted to use this cool photo somewhere.

The next morning we left Kataragama for the beach! We stopped off at the Hummanaya blowhole, which is the largest blowhole in all of Sri Lanka. Definitely cool but what I really enjoyed was the place where we parked (someone's side yard), walking through the little town, looking at all the family businesses that had developed to serve the never-ending parade of visitors, standing in line with the locals to buy tickets, and then seeing all of us enjoying the scene together.

By the way, trying to take photos of a blowhole in action is almost as easy as taking photos of pink dolphins in the jungles of Colombia!

When we first decided on Sri Lanka, Diana had only two requirements for the entire trip. She wanted to have some beach time and she wanted to go whale watching. Mr. Schmidt and I ended up (very happily) doing almost all the trip planning but we knew, for sure, that we'd have to spend a day or two in Marissa, which is known as the place for whale watching in all of Sri Lanka. It's a small beach and harbor town almost at the very bottom of the island.

The biggest issue for me is that I just don't like boats. Too many times getting sea sick has put me off them for the rest of my life. But, Diana, who grew up in Bogota, far from the ocean, loves them and forces asks me to go with her almost every time there's a boat ride or tour.

So it was at like o-dark-thirty in the morning, we headed to the harbor and got on the two-level boat with maybe 60 or 70 fish fans. The crew handed out small boxed lunches and bottles of water to everyone but it was way too early for me to even think of eating. Plus, why would I want to fill my stomach before going out to sea?

Right after the food distribution, another crew member walked around and offered sea-sickness pills to those who wanted them. Hello red flag! Not only were they passing them out, the crew were TAKING the pills. WTF? When was the last time you saw a crew member take a sea-sickness pill? It'd be like being on a plane just about to take off and you spy a crew member extra-tightening their seat belt with one hand and blessing themselves with the other. 'Oh crap!' is all I could think as the boat got underway.

My instincts were right as, just as we rounded the point that protects the harbor, the white caps started to throw the boat like a cork pushed into a wine bottle when you don't have an opener (and when that cool shoe trick doesn't work - and in German for the Schmidts). Yep, for the next almost three hours we bounced around as I focused on the horizon while the crew looked for whale breath.

As luck would have it, it only took about an hour from the time we left the harbor until we spotted the first whale of maybe seven, which apparently is a very good day. I spent the next 60 minutes trying to simultaneously watch for whales, take photos, and not revisit last night's excellent dinner. Of the maybe four or five not-horrible photos, the one below is the least bad.

Fortunately for me, the tour guarantees seeing a whale and we saw one almost immediately, which means that the crew (only) spent maybe 30 minutes more seeking Moby Dick before they "had" to turn the boat around "before the weather got bad". Oh, darn!

On the way in, someone spotted two sea turtles caught in a fishing net. They were still alive but I imagine for not much longer as they were swimming in opposite directions trying to get untangled much like when you watch folks in a marriage that should have never happened.

The crew circled the boat until they were finally able to pull the turtles on board. Cheers went out as they pushed the recently-divorced couple to enjoy their newfound freedom. After the divorce, the boat ride seemed to end fairly quickly. Yeah!

The rest of the day was spent napping, wandering around town, and eating dinner on the beach (literally on the beach - the tables were just above the wet sand). Mr. Schmidt had read about a rain-forest tour that sounded interesting so the next morning we got in the van for the almost four-hour drive to what seemed like the middle of nowhere. The Sinharaja rain forest is a fairly small bio reserve that was spared from the logging trade because of its difficult-to-get-to setting, which makes it now a nice place for a nature walk. Watch out for those leeches, though!

We spent a little less than three hours walking into and back out with a guide. He pointed out some plants, monkeys, fish, and even chameleons as we went.

We enjoyed the setting but it ended up being too much driving for such a short walk. I think it'd be better, if you wanted to do this, to stay at least one night nearby rather than spend six hours round trip in the car.

From the rain forest, we drove back out to the coast and stopped briefly in the walled, colonial town of Galle. The city walls, architecture, and setting reminded me of Cartagena and St. Augustine.

Our last two nights were in our driver's hometown of Hikkaduwa. It's another small beach town that has the feel of Baja California or even Hawaii. Actually, it's got the feel of pretty much every surf town I've ever been to, which, is to say, definitely a nice place.

Growing up in Philadelphia, we had a few different mobile businesses that'd go by our house. I was too late for the milkman era but we had 'hucksters' who'd sell fruit and vegetables from the back of their trucks. There were, and still are, ice cream trucks that roam the streets playing their tell-tale music. In Sri Lanka, it's Tuktuk mini-bakeries! They all seemed to be painted red and they all definitely played music.

Buying some morning glory at Hikkaduwa beach:

Normally, when we travel, we like to use airbnb so we can stay with and among locals. In Sri Lanka, we found that airbnb wasn't the best choice because the places listed were way more expensive than what we found on other sites (like where you could specify homestays. In Sri Lanka, you can find plenty of very nice places with air conditioning and really good breakfast for under $25 U.S. a night total for two. Airbnb was always two to three times more expensive and didn't seem to offer any benefit.

We were super lucky to stay at some amazing places during the trip including a couple of cool homestays but the last place ended up being one of our favorites and, coincidentally, our only airbnb. It was a fairly simple 'building' with two bedrooms, two outdoor (and amazing) bathrooms, and an open-air but covered living room that looked out over a very large garden, pool, and lake beyond. It came with a live-in caretaker who not only made us feel incredibly at home but also prepared shockingly good breakfasts all for relatively little money. Oh, and they had a boat you could row around the lake!

Mr. Schmidt and Diana out searching for Sri Lankan C.I.A. agents while Mrs. Schmidt and I lazily drank coffee safely back on shore:

Diana about to drive away in the available-for-use Tuktuk:

One of the final things we did on the island was also one of the most emotional. Remember the day-after-Christmas tsunami caused by the 2004 Japanese earthquake that wiped out Bada Aceh, Indonesia, among other places? Well, that same tsunami killed almost 35,000 people in Sri Lanka including in and around Hikkaduwa. One local woman's set up a museum across the street from the beach where her home was before the tsunami.

It's a simple museum that packs a big punch. Inside, she has photos, videos, and memorabilia, including part of the tent she lived in while the town rebuilt. Some of the exhibits are kinda' raw and hard to look at but, between the items in the museum and her personal-story telling, I learned a lot.

They're building an official museum not too far away, which I'm sure will be good too, but, if you're ever in the area, do yourself a favor and stop by and see this woman.

What can I say? This was an amazing trip on so many levels. It's an amazing country with some pretty amazing people. Two amazing thumbs up for sure.

Thanks to the Schmidts for helping to make the trip a lot of fun and memorable. And an even bigger thanks to our driver for being patient with our indecisiveness and last-minutiveness. We had a great time! Oh, and thanks again for making us take the train!

Parting shot at Hikkaduwa beach, Sri Lanka:

By the way, if you're thinking of going to Sri Lanka, we highly recommend our driver. He's a great guy, very patient, speaks good English, and, most importantly, is a very safe and relaxed driver. Send me an email and I'll put you in touch.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Sri Lanka - Save A Prayer Tour

Diana and I do most of our travel 'alone'. Exceptions are times like when we traveled with her parents to the Colombian coffee area, to Cartagena, and to Rome. It's not that we avoid traveling with others, it's just never really come up. But, starting last year, we got to talking with Diana's cousin and her cousin's husband who live in Frankfurt about the four of us going somewhere together. During what seemed like forever, we went back and forth with a bunch of ideas never being able to decide.

One of the early ideas was a recommendation from our friends Lena and Toni from Sweden. While they were living in the U.A.E., they had gone and said we should go. Between discussions of going to Hawaii, Mexico, Cuba, Iran, Iceland, South Africa, and even the north of Spain (yes, we really went crazy and, I know, 'first-world problem'), we kept ending up with Sri Lanka. Finally, while on Skype one night and just weeks before our planned departure date, we pulled the trigger and booked tickets to Sri Lanka!

We would all arrive into the airport and spend one night at a beach-front hotel in nearby Negombo before setting off on an adventure to visit about half the country over the following week and a half.

Fish drying on a Negombo, Sri Lanka, beach:

And a Bollywood-style movie being shot right around sunset (the star is wearing white pants):

When Diana and I travel, we usually try to squeeze every second out of the trip. We can often be found returning home only hours before we're due somewhere. Because we were going with the Schmidts (as I'll be referring to them because of privacy wishes), this trip would be different as we'd be traveling and experiencing everything at group speed. But, the reality was that booking a "free" day at the beginning of the trip to recover from the 17 hours of flying and nearly 24 hours of traveling (more about that in a later story) ended up being an excellent idea. Being able to nap and lounge around our incredible hotel and its incredible setting was quite, well, incredible.

Sunset view from our hotel's pool. Oh, and see that 'bird' flying above the palm trees? It's actually one of probably hundreds of (giant) fruit bats that were flying around. Although they looked like something right out of Jurassic Park, they were super cool (and hard to photograph).

Like I mentioned, our plan was to explore a little less than half the country. Lena and Toni told us that getting around might be a bit slow using public transport and that they didn't recommend driving ourselves. They did recommend we hire a driver they used who they said was super nice and did a good job for them. Well, bright and early the next morning, our driver showed up and we started our adventure.

Stopping for what seems like Sri Lanka's national fruit, King coconut, on the side of the road:

From Negombo, we drove about five hours to the town of Sigiriya, which is almost in the center of the country. We would spend a couple of nights and, while there, visit Lion Rock. Being that we arrived around mid-afternoon, we decided to take a (what turned out to be ridiculously expensive) 'village tour'. It starts with a mile-or-two ride via ox cart:

The cart takes you to the edge of a lotus-filled lake where you get into a small rowboat. The guide rows the boat around the lake, which is beautiful for its setting, the massive amounts of lotus plants and flowers, and the view of the nearby Lion Rock. The final stop on the tour, which is also by far the highlight, is at a house where a local woman taught us how to make several traditional foods from scratch using traditional methods.

Diana showing off her mad skillz:

The tour is definitely worth doing but, as we quickly learned, very overpriced. Our group chalked this up to being our first day in town and not knowing that we needed to negotiate (almost) everything down. In other words, learning occurred.

We woke up early the next morning and enjoyed our local-style breakfast at our excellent family-stay accommodation. Almost all of the places we stayed were owned and run by a local family and, for our group, were a great opportunity to get a (very brief) view of local life.

Our driver took us to Lion Rock, which was the first of many palaces, temples, and landmarks we'd see. It's a capital (city) complex dominated by a 660-foot-tall (formerly palace-topped) rock that sticks out of the surrounding area similar to Mavecure.

Prior to coming, we knew we'd get to see some wildlife as we were planning on taking a safari as well as doing some whale watching but, much like in Gibraltar, seeing monkeys in silly quantities like they were pigeons in Barcelona, was still a big surprise.

Prequel to Planet of the Apes in Sigiriya, Sri Lanka:

One of the must-dos in Sri Lanka is climb the 84,000 steps(or so it seemed) to the top of Lion Rock to see the views of the surrounding area. About half-way up, there's a spot where you can check out, up close, some very old cave paintings, which I would have taken photos of if it weren't clearly prohibited by way of several attendants and the maybe 500-or-so signs indicating  that it was prohibited/illegal to do so. Not wanting to "sign the guestbook", which is, legend has it, where rule breakers/photo takers must write and sign a full admission of guilt and apology after deleting their photos, three of us came, saw, admired, and continued on our way with no photos taken and no issues at all.

The next stopping point is almost all the way up. It's a plaza-like area where you can still see part of the old lion entrance marked by the feet, which remain.

The day we went was a national holiday so the place was packed with locals. We saw relatively few tourists compared to the number of locals, which was probably partly to do with the fact that we went during the small window between summer and rainy season.

The view from the top was well worth the climb and the whole palace complex reminded me of Monte Alban in Oaxaca, Mexico (no story link - this was pre-whereisdarrennow).

On our way back down, we briefly stopped in the (lion feet) plaza and watched monkeys systematically sort through the discarded bottles to pull out those with sugary drinks. Silly me fully expected them to open the cap to drink. But they have different plans choosing to instead bite a small hole in the bottom of the bottle and slurp out their prize. The greatest thing was how they could clearly and quickly discern the difference between regular and "diet" labels tossing the latter in favor of the former.

We weren't sure how long we'd be at Sigiriya's Lion Rock so we didn't plan anything else for the day. It turns out that it only took a few hours so we decided to go up to see the UNESCO World Heritage temple complex at Polonnaruwa, which we had considering visiting before coming to Sri Lanka but had ruled it out as too far away to fit into our schedule.

About five minutes after we left the Lion Rock parking lot, our driver stopped the van and pointed to a couple of guys WASHING THEIR ELEPHANT in a stream. It was almost a joke when he asked if he wanted us to stop so we could get out as we were practically jumping out while he was asking.

Mr. Schmidt and I talked about whether we should go into the water. Yes, we seriously spent time standing on the side of the stream deciding if we should get closer to the the Sri Lanka. The girls were already in the water and we weren't far behind.

The two guys were cleaning (or massaging or both) the elephant's skin with pieces of King coconut shells. They were super cool and let us 'pet' the elephant. Did you know that elephants are covered with a small amount of very coarse, maybe one-inch-long hair? It was funny to see how the elephant just laid there, relaxing while getting a massage, all the while using its snout as a snorkel.

In retrospect, one of the two or three coolest moments of the entire trip:

About an hour or so from Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa is a massive complex filled with lots of old temples, palaces, and other structures and is one of Sri Lanka's holiest places.

Because of its size and in order to save time, we used the van to go between the various places. One of the many highlights is the reclining Buddha below. Did you know that it's a sign of disrespect to take a photo with your back to Buddha?

Many of the most famous archaeological sites around the world tend to be constructed of stone. Polonnaruwa and quite a few of the places we visited in Sri Lanka were built with brick, which results in structures that have unique forms but, unfortunately, make them somewhat less durable. They've taken care to restore many sites and have left others, like the one below, (yet) unrestored. Even the giant Buddha statue on the back wall is made from brick and was coated with stucco or other material, which, over time, has come off exposing the bricks.

Okay, so here's a little secret I can share now. Back in the 80s, there was a band named Duran Duran (sorry to the fellow old people reading this) that was quite popular with the alternative music set. One of their videos, Save A Prayer, was shot in 1982 all around Sri Lanka. If you watch it, you'll see Lion Rock, Polonnaruwa, some southern Sri Lankan beach scenes, and even people in rivers with elephants! Yes, so far, we've basically done the 'Duran Duran Save A Prayer' video tour!

Rock on, right?

The next morning we started heading back down south from Sigiriya and our first stop of the day was at the Dambulla Cave Temple. Is this not a very cool photo?

Climbing up the couple hundred steps reminded me of Shikoku's many temples. This one's different because it appears to be built next to this cliff...

...but in reality those buildings serve as entrances to vast spaces carved into the rock. Inside are giant Buddhas and other religious artifacts. The room below is probably 75 feet wide and a few hundred feet long.

If you're claustrophobic you need not apply.

Our next stop of the day was at a herb and spice garden, which sounds kinda' nice, doesn't it? One could imagine seeing all sorts of spices growing in their native setting. Yeah, just like this photo below where the guide demonstrated a natural hair remover on Mr. Schmidt's leg.

The gardens were lovely and 'guides' where also nice. But, think more herbal remedy than chili peppers and curry powder. The hair remover may have been impressive but I probably wouldn't do this one again.

Oh well, our next stop was very cool. It was a Hindu temple and school the likes of which I've never seen before. Exceptionally intricate and colorful:

The crappy thing is that I don't have any decent photos. It was seriously hot and humid so we spent most of our time out of the sun and the photos I did take were mostly washed out.

But, just as we were about to go back to the van, we stuck our heads inside an open-air building to see what it was about. It turns out that it was a grade school we were told for poor and orphan kids. An older woman teacher gave us a tour where she told us about the school, the students, teaching methods, and even showed us some of their writing and projects. It was a great experience that would have only been topped if the students, like that time in Tibet, would have been there.

Much like Chiquinquira is Colombia's religious heart, the city of Kandy is Sri Lanka's. The most famous site to visit is the Sri Dalada Maligawa temple, which is located on the grounds of an old royal palace right near the lake that practically runs through the center of town.

But, before we could go in, we were told that we (Mr. Schmidt and I) would have to either buy or rent sarongs because our shorts were not considered respectable enough. It was no surprise as we've encountered this same type of thing before like when were in the U.A.E. The problem was where to get one quickly.

Well, that didn't turn out to be much of a problem either as right across the street was a guy with a wide selection. The choice was ours, buy for like five dollars or rent for like three. Diana and I picked out one she liked and paid full purchase price while Mr. Schmidt opted to go rental but still scored a more macho print.

We spent about an hour exploring the old palace, which has a variety of worship areas spread throughout the scenic property.

The most important part is the temple itself, which is also known as the Kandy Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. Yes, it's the site where one of Buddha's teeth is kept.

Before going into the temple, we needed to check our shoes much like you'd do a coat check at a theater or dinner. From there, it was into the temple, which is impressive for its beauty as well as for the level of reverence and worship taking place inside. I had only ever seen anything like it when I was in the Jokhang Temple in Tibet.

The photo below is taken just as we entered the very center of the temple. To the left, you can see people waiting in line to get close to the relic and, in the center, the flower offerings of the worshipers.

The story is that, after Buddha died and was cremated, one of his teeth was recovered from the ashes and came to represent the Buddha himself. Moved around over time, its current home is inside the the space just past where these people are praying:

While we were inside the temple, we watched a series of offerings and rituals including a group of drummers playing. Even though it was full of worshipers and had a very solemn setting, I never felt like anyone was looking at me asking what I was doing in 'their' space. It was nice to feel welcome, which, in general, is how I felt during our entire trip. The people of Sri Lanka were warm, welcoming, and always interested in speaking with us. It was refreshing as in some places, tourists aren't always super popular with the locals.

This is part one of our visit. Stay tuned for part two.