Remembering an Unforgettable Sri Lanka Visit

EDITOR’S NOTE: I visited Sri Lanka as my very first of 10 countries during a 6 month world tour in 2012.

It was an amazing experience that I will never forget. In light of the horrible attacks on Sri Lanka today, I want to remind the world what a great place with great people this is, despite the senseless violence you hear about. Tragically, one of the bomb blasts targeted a hotel many friends and I stayed in and thoroughly enjoyed in Colombo, the Cinnamon Grand. We can hope the cowards who perpetrated this horror will be brought to justice soon.


I would like to dedicate this blog entry to my pal Krishna and his new bride Neesha, to the extent that one can dedicate a blog entry to anyone.  The fabulous wedding hosted by the couple and their families in Colombo was four days of joyous celebration for a big group of us college buddies and spouses from abroad, and this mini-reunion was the first bookend of my 2012 tour.  For more than 10 years I had vowed to make it to Colombo to witness Krish getting betrothed whenever it might happen.  As floor mates, roommates, or housemates, through four years in college we were never very far apart- generally with him barely talking, and me talking too much (shocking).  I wouldn’t have missed this important moment. 

I touched down in the capital city of Colombo (more big town than small city) on January 25th and was pleasantly surprised to find many differences from the urban India I know.  The contrast in temperature was overwhelming- in New York there was heavy snow on the ground as the plane took off from JFK, and Colombo was sunny and low 90’s- a body-shocking 60 degree swing.  I was expecting to find a mini-India vibe with similar landscapes, food, and culture but in fact Sri Lanka is unlike anywhere else in South Asia.  The people are thoroughly laid-back in the classic island sense, which is good when it comes to relaxing near the beach, but not so good if you are trying to get through immigration at the international airport and the requisite duty officer is sleeping at his desk (true story).  Along the road from the airport to the city visitors can observe large Buddha statues, colorful Jesus statues, and Hindu shrines all intermingled in the suburban centers- which were an excellent sign of religious and ethnic tolerance.  After two decades of brutal civil war only just ended in recent memory between the Tamil Tiger separatists and the Singhalese-majority government, after blood-curdling atrocities committed by both sides over many years, I was glad to see numerous outward signs of harmony in Colombo, Kandy (the country’s second city), and some of the rural areas that I visited.

There is much positive to say about the Ceylonese folks.  Commerce seems to be moving along, tourism is growing rapidly now that it’s safer to travel the small country’s various parts, plenty of new infrastructure construction is underway, and on a related note foreign powers such as China and Malaysia appear to be investing heavily here.  Global NGOs have substantial operations performing good work.  I was surprised at how clean and organized Colombo was, how nobody was urinating on the streets, how white foreigners weren’t being ogled by everyone as they would be in India.  Well-maintained gardens and roads spread through the town.  I did not see much of the Sri Lankan beaches but my understanding is that they are comparable in quality to other Asian destinations with the benefit of lower cost for holidays.

To follow the larger theme we’re finding throughout Asia, Sri Lanka is clearly going someplace, forging ahead for the better especially in urban centers, where a thriving middle class is apparent and people are starting to enjoy a higher standard of living, as evidenced by shopping malls, theaters, electronic equipment stores, and fast-food restaurants being frequented by a burgeoning demographic profile.  Whether this lifestyle and modernity in general will seep into the heartlands and lift up the rural poor is still an open question, like it is for India, China, and others.  I am not so sure and the local elites I spoke with were not definitive, either.  The next question is whether Western culture and the local culture can coexist harmoniously- a dilemma for all of Asia.

In Colombo, Team Georgetown stayed at a nice resort called the Cinnamon Grand.  While we took advantage of the standard amenities- gym, spa, pool, tennis courts, shopping center, and poolside bar- for me the hotel’s food was most memorable.  On the first day I reached the hotel very early in the morning, well before sunrise, and was on my own for a while.  When the elaborate breakfast buffet opened up at Taprobane, the in-house Sri Lankan restaurant, I was floored.  Here was the bright sun rising over the resort’s shiny goldfish-laden lagoon.  What commenced next was a non-stop tour of food consumption featuring both Western and Eastern breakfast treats: an omelet made to order with extra chilies, string hoppers, hoppers, three different kinds of spicy and delicious sambals, sambar, and chicken curry.  A wide selection of breads, pastries, and fruit were sampled along with a cup or two of very tasty coffee.  The meal was awesome in every respect except one: I was quite sad to find my belly was filling up and there was no more room to eat more breakfast morsels.  The heart was saying yes, but the stomach was saying no!  There were, however, four more mornings of breakfast buffet to have, these times with company.

But that was nothing.  At a different part of the hotel lies the restaurant Lagoon, where several of us agreed we had found that most precious of edible treasures, literally the best seafood I’ve ever eaten anywhere.  I can happily say this without an ounce of exaggeration.  Customers come by, pick the specific fish, prawns, lobster, squid, or crab they want to eat from the front counter, all incredibly fresh or still alive, and then pick the type of preparation and sauce they prefer.  The chefs prepare each item to order right then behind the dining area.  Recommendations are given on request, and after sampling 7 or 8 different dishes over two different evenings, every single one divinely fresh, delicate and perfectly seasoned, several of us came to the consensus about what a highlight this place was.  Beer and lobster thermidor, dude!

Among the more interesting things I did in Colombo away from the wedding was to shadow my friend who works at an American money management firm as he went to a series of meetings with local company CEOs and CFOs for the better part of a day.  At each meeting all of the classic problems with doing business in South Asian countries became painfully apparent: high levels of political meddling in industry by certain individuals, opacity, and the strange propensity for companies to conglomerate into half a dozen unrelated industries under one corporate umbrella.  For example, a beverage bottling business might also invest in real estate, telecommunications, and agriculture. The executives were very nice, but also exceedingly casual; none of the meetings started on time, and the staff at the securities firm that set up the meetings often had no idea which room we were supposed to go in, resulting in unexpectedly long tours of buildings.  While the war is over, tourism booms and the economic outlook is looking up, without naming names I would suspect that overall corporate management will need to reach for higher standards before they can expect to become world-beaters. 

The wedding ceremonies were lively, colorful, loud, and plenty of fun and in that they are similar to weddings in India.  The main wedding event was on Saturday during the day at a large Hindu temple in Colombo.  Other receptions and parties, all with grand meals served, took place on Thursday, Friday, and Sunday to make it a solid four day affair. 

The day I reached, unable to fall sleep due to jet lag, I jumped right into things.  As I arrived on Wednesday, I got the chance to spend some quality time at Krishna’s family home during the day, and it was a bustling hive of activity.  Workers, maids, delivery people, and numerous relatives were busily moving in and out of the house.  I watched Krish make at least 20 phone calls to go over logistics for events and guests traveling from around the world.  It was quite hectic, but this surreal tableau was all part of the experience for me, as I was still trying to get over the fact I had been trudging in dirty snow just the day before. 

Day one ended with an organized dance practice as I was inserted into a performance by Krishna’s school friends and cousins representing the boys’ side in a friendly competition at the cocktail party scheduled the next day.  Representing your side in song and dance is taken seriously in Hindu weddings, so I was putting my all into it, while offering the group some comic relief during practice as well.  And of course, we got rave reviews.

The next four days were a blur of activity- wedding functions, meeting up with old friends, making new ones, eating lots of food, and exploring different corners of Colombo.  Fancy lunches, high tea, doubles tennis, swimming, and conversations about careers, relationships, and parenthood abounded.  The final event was the Sunday night reception, which featured literally the best bharatanatyam performance I’ve ever seen, with India’s leading mother and daughter dancing duo uniquely fused with local Sri Lankan musicians holding a lively drum beat.  With a former President and an ex-Prime Minister of Sri Lanka along with a smattering of High Commissioners in attendance, Sri Lankan Special Forces (see left) were standing guard at the Hilton to prevent an international incident.

After Colombo, the newlyweds and a few others of us joined up at Nuwara Eliya, the world-famous tea estates at the top of some steep hills and about an intensely curvy and climbing 6 hour drive from the capital.  The altitude brought some very welcome cool weather and mist.  We stayed at a beautiful hill resort called the Heritance Tea Factory, which was in fact a tea processing facility operated by the British for many decades of colonial rule.  Almost all of the original architecture and machinery were kept intact in this fascinating building, and if you closed your eyes for a minute it felt like being transported back to the 1800’s during the height of the British Raj. 

The tea estates make up just about the entire local economy of the region, with hundreds of workers plying the trade of growing, picking, and processing fine teas for the rest of the world to wake up to.  The views of the surrounding hills, lakes, and water bodies are downright breathtaking.  Thousands of rows of tea plants and other green vegetation at various heights stretch as far as the eye can see, dotted with women in colorful saris working the land.  On the first morning at the estate, a couple of us went on a brisk guided trek through the estates and forestry.  We visited a local village to see how the locals lived, while learning about the many species of birds, trees and plants that call this place home. 

During the trek I also participated in an engaging political discussion with an elderly British gentleman, a fellow traveler who had traversed the length and breadth of America for work over many years.  He has observed town after town in the heartland fall into decay from an outsider’s point of view, and we lamented the current state of affairs in Western civilization.  From the heights of the Nuwara Eliya tea estates, we both thoroughly denounced the Tea Party, which brought home that educated people around the world were monitoring the phenomenon with great concern just as many Americans are.  He had several memorable quotes: “After World War II during reconstruction: that was your country’s best time, I think,” he said earnestly, which made me rather proud to be American.  And at the end, “Isn’t it nice how two people of different ages and from different places can share the same ideas?”  Agreed.

On the way back to Colombo, from where I’d fly to Thailand, we stopped for several hours in Kandy, the second city with a sweet name, and at one point the capital of kingdoms of yore.  Kandy is famous for the most important Buddha temple in Sri Lanka, and allegedly the home of Buddha’s very tooth.  Inside the temple is an illustrated account of how that tooth came to be there- and the great hardships taken on by Buddhist devotees to move the tooth from place to place facing massive obstacles.  This temple housed the finest collection of buddha statues and artwork I have ever seen- including gold, marble, precious gems and stones, ceramics, and other materials.  Kandy was worth visiting just for this, and it was a good halt in the road trip for lunch as well.

There is much else to do in Sri Lanka, but I only had a week.  I’ve heard about the amazing beaches, the ruins of ancient civilizations up north, museums, and other trappings of the British Raj that I missed on this trip.  One thing is for certain: I will be back.  For now I’m satisfied with having come away with the best bharatanatyam performance and best seafood meal of my life within a week.

Mahanth S. Joishy is Editor of usindiamonitor

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