After being in India, it was great to head back to a tropical island - full of plenty of nature to explore and fresh air to breathe in. So on we went to the island of Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon during British colonial times. We flew into Colombo and then spent 3 days in Dambulla, then drove down to Kandy to spend the rest of our time. We visited ancient Buddhist temples, saw wild elephant herds roaming, climbed a hilltop fortress, and took a local train ride up into the highlands and tea plantations.
1. Buddhist holy sites – Dambulla Cave Temples and Kandy Buddha tooth temple
After flying into Colombo, and an overnight in Negombo, we drove about 3 hours inland to the little town of Dambulla. Our Airbnb host there had offered to be our full-time driver, so he was with us with his buddy and his van for the entire trip. Our first stop was the cave temples of Dambulla. These were caves in the side of the mountain first inhabited by Buddhist monks as early as the 3rd century BC. Some of the very first known Buddhist writings were produced here in the Dambulla caves. They were full of Buddha statues, and paintings and carvings, many of which were carved right out of the stone in the cave itself. A few days later in Kandy, our 2nd Buddhist holy site was the temple of the Buddha tooth. Allegedly, one of Buddha's actual teeth was housed here as a holy relic. We went on a Sunday morning, and the temple was full of worshippers, many in line to pass into the holy of holies room where the relic was housed in a pure gold ornamented pyramid. They waited patiently, holding offerings of monk robes and flowers and fruit, while monks below pounded rhythmically on drums with antelope leg bones as drumsticks.
2. Elephant safari and elephant Attack!
While in Dambulla, we hired a jeep and driver for a safari tour in the Kaudulla national park. Megan will take the story from here:
That is me screaming because we were attacked by a full-grown, Mama, Indian, Wild Elephant! Twice!!!!!!!
We were on another Safari, (Oh yeah we told you in our last post that we were on a tiger safari before, don't worry the tiger did not attack us!) and we were in an open jeep, with no glass windows and an open top and it was raining so we were a bit wet but luckily it let up as we entered the Jungle. (but it was a rainforest that was dripping so it didn't help all that much)
So, on to the elephants. We found our first herd in a clearing by the lake and there were a few babies but also this tiny one that we just fawned over, taking pictures of, and just loving it. We had to stay in the jeep cause these were wild elephants with babies. But we got good angles on it and then like 20 other jeeps started showing up so we went to the next spot. This time there were twin elephant tiny babies and they were chasing and playing with each other, and climbing on each other, and following, and trying to trumpet to each other. Sooooooo cuuuuuuuuute. But then, the babies kind of spooked and ran away as the Mama's eyes turned white. The driver realized what was happening so he floored it (but we were in a jeep in the rainforest by a lake after it had just rained so........mud...........) But the Mama elephant ran side by side of us and kept trying to cut us off, the driver was obviously trained well because while the obvious thing would be to stop, he knew not to because then she would get at us from the front with full power and most likely total the vehicle. The Mama Elephant was angry! So since she couldn't get at us from the front, she rammed her 3,000+Kilo bodyweight into the side of our jeep and her butt came through the window-less window area of the jeep and we all had to scramble to the other side! Sooooooooooo Scaryyyyyyyyyyyyyy. We later learned, after reviewing the damage, that she had completely took out a strong, metal bar that separated the two "windows". She had literally ripped it off one side and bent it completely over as far as it would go. No one was hurt :)
We had to keep going cause the herd was practically on the "road" now, so we couldn't go back, but they didn't let any jeeps pass after that. Haha. We didn't even get the video because we had all ducked. But I promise you it is all true. We did get a video of Tyler saying, "Uhhhhh Why is it coming in front if us?"
We were all so scared of Mama animals after that that we asked the driver to go around the tame cows. We knew they were tame cause they had a number scratched onto them. So they were a farmer's cows. But if there were babies near the mamas, we wanted to be far away. But we were kind of traumatized so don't blame us. Then the buffalo were next, and even though they would run away from us, we were scared of the mamas, cause this herd had like 10 babies and only three adults. Weird. I think it was the nursery group cause the rest of the herd was farther up.
Now, the second time we were challenged: We were all so afraid of the elephants this time and this next group had too many babies to count, and they were right on the track, so we made a big arch around them. But when we got back on the trail, the Mama of the tiniest baby came running after us. When she realized she wouldn't catch up, she stopped, raised her trunk, and Trumpeted! She literally Trumpeted at us as we drove off!
3. Sigiriya mountain
Our last day in Dambulla was spent at the Sigiriya mountain. Amongst the green jungles and rolling hills, an enormous sandstone plateau arises forth from land, rising with sheer cliffs 660 feet from ground level. In the 5th century, a Sri Lankan prince established a city and a fortress here after taking the throne, to protect himself from the revenge of his older brother. The revenge was probably justified, seeing the prince had killed his father and usurped the brother as the rightful heir. Surrounding the mountain, there were the remains of an expansive city/estate, with fountains and mirror pools. We ascended narrow and rickety steps and ladders and scaffolding onto the top of the mountain, which afforded a beautiful view of the jungles around. Scaling the mountain helped me understand how difficult it would have been to ascend 1500 years ago, with just carved footholds into the side of the cliffs in some parts, and how secure one would have felt at the top once there. It reminded me of Masada in Jerusalem.
4. Church meetings in Kandy
We attended church meetings in Kandy, one of just three branches of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Sri Lanka. There were about 40 people in the congregation, including a senior missionary couple. We learned that they were the first full-time missionary couple in Kandy in the past 15 years ago. 15 years ago was when all foreign full-time missionaries had been pulled out of Sri Lanka for various immigration reasons. Since then it had been basically impossible for expatriate missionaries to obtain visas. This couple was actually there teaching English classes at the university in the morning, and engaging in leadership support in the afternoon and evening. There were relatively few church materials translated into the local language of Sinhalese. Local Sri Lankans who are called on missions are normally called somewhere in the Philippines for only 6 months to a year, and then they are brought back to Sri Lanka, to continue to preach gospel in Sri Lanka for the rest of their mission. We also learned about how great the challenges were for those Sri Lankans wanting to attend the temple. There is great difficulty for Sri Lankans to obtain tourist visas to Hong Kong or the Philippines. For this reason, they are very excited about the temple being built in Bangalore, India. It is much easier to obtain a visa to visit India. Plus, in India, the temple ceremonies will be offered in Sinhalese, something that isn't available at any other temple. Even on Sundays, the sacrament meeting prayer, while now being prayed in Sinhalese, up until just one month ago was said only English.
5. Train Ride from Kandy to Nurewa Eliya
There are numerous travel blogs that talk about the train trip in Sri Lanka being the most beautiful train trip in the world. There are other blogs which talk about how packed the train is, with mostly foreign visitors and dreadlocked backpackers, clamoring for a chance to see the most beautiful train trip in the world, and making the trip an busy overrated under-delivering experience.
We wanted to try it, to form our own opinion. We boarded the train in Kandy and arranged with our driver to meet us as the Nurewa Eliya stop (about a 4 hour train ride away) so we could drive back (about a 2 ½ drive to return). The train pulled into the station, and even before it stopped, already some people were hopping on the moving car to squeeze themselves into the train compartment to grab a seat by the window. The voyage only cost us about $1.75 each, which was surprising in a country that managed to charge foreign tourists a ticket fee of $25 to see Sigiriya, when the local population only paid about $2.50. The train rocked and shook as it ambled up into the highlands. It was not crowded at all, and it was great to switch off between our window seat and hanging our legs out of the open doorways. The scenery changed from city outskirts to lower hills to tea plantations covering every hillside. In many fields, men and women in colorful shirts and skirts with woven baskets strapped to their backs picked tea leaves and tossed them up over their heads into the gaping mouth of the basket. Hawkers walked the aisles of the train calling out their foods, fruits and chilis and other local delicacies. We loved the ride, and would highly recommend it. What we didn’t enjoy was the 3 hour drive back, which was twisty and fast and stomach-turning through the highland hills. We were all feeling a quite nauseous by the time we finally returned back to the Airbnb for the evening, and, in the end, would have much preferred to take the round trip by train.
Plan? What plan?
Our first Gap Year was a fabulous "2017-2018 School Year" of travel: from the Netherlands to Jordan to Texas to Hawaii to Mexico to Central America to London and back to the Netherlands. Our "2018 Summer Vacation" took us all around Western Europe, back to the USA on a transatlantic cruise, a road trip through New York and into Canada, and ending up in Utah. We have now kicked off the "2018-2019 School year" with a trip to Asia. Follow along with us on our visits to new places, as well as revisiting some of our favorite places from our time living there. It's going to be great!!