An Overview of Sri Lanka, Privileged Tourism and Getting in My Own Head

On paper, Sri Lanka was a no brainer for us—our logical next vacation destination. It has a lot of the things we gravitate towards as travelers—we like South/Southeast Asia (admittedly, one of us a bit more than the other). We love the spicy food in this area of the world, with the focus on fresh fish and vegetables. We like learning about a new country’s history, architecture, and culture. Sri Lanka presented us with plenty to see and do, the weather was warm (which always means there’s a good excuse to spend the afternoon by a pool with a cold local beer). And it’s very, very affordable.

Sri Lankan curry
The curry in Sri Lanka was out of this world.

 

Sri Lanka is very much trying to put its recent violent past behind it, but devoting so many resources to fighting a civil war has definitely left the country a bit behind the eight ball as far as development goes. It is very, very poor and people are struggling. They’re relying on tourism to help economically and, from a marketing standpoint at least, it appears to be working.

All during our year of planning, we kept hearing about other people who were going or had just been to Sri Lanka. I don’t know if it was because it was finally on our radar or if it had just reached the popularity tipping point, but all of a sudden, it seemed like Sri Lanka was more sought after than a hot cheerleader at prom (or, a Harvard acceptance letter. Shoutout to ya, Priscilla Samey). Bloomberg added Sri Lanka to its list of 20 places to go in 2017, Huffington Post said it was the one country you should go to in 2017, and even that travel authority Vogue declared it a “destination that stimulates all the senses.”

Sri Lanka sunset
Postcard material, courtesy of Sri Lanka. I took this picture. With a point and shoot camera. No filter.  Sunsets really did look like this.

The Lay of the Land

Sri Lanka is certainly diverse in terms of geography. This former Portuguese/Dutch/British colony—aka Ceylon—has beautiful beaches to the south (packed with foreigners, we noticed). The cooler, hilly mid-part of the country is much cooler and is incredibly lush, green and misty, and packed with tea fields/plantations (full of visiting tourists and smacking of British colonialism still). The northern, historic Golden Triangle area has caves and crumbling temple cities and all the accompanying tourists turning bright pink under the scorching sun.

Polonnaruwa temple
Sweating it out at Polonnaruwa temple

Sri Lanka is also quite the hikers’ paradise and everywhere we went—from the mountaintop cave temples at Sigiriya Rock Fortress and Dambulla to Adam’s Peak and Horton Plains Park near Ella, there were opportunities to slip and slide over some dangerous trails—if you could stand the heat and oppressive humidity (we could not).

Dambulla caves
At least it was cool (if a bit crowded) at the fabulous Dambulla Cave Temple in northern Sri Lanka.

Instead, we drove. Or, more accurately, we rode in the backseat while our driver Tillie ferried us around the country for 10 days. During that time, we saw wild elephants lumbering along the side of the road (there are over 2,000 wild elephants in Sri Lanka). We drank from king coconuts, including one we purchased for 400 rupees from a man on the side of the road with his teeth stained red from chewing betel leaves, mixed with tobacco, and areca nut. We rode a very old train from Nuwara Eliya to Ella. We spent a confusing and sweaty morning wandering around the old Dutch fort town of Galle–confusing because nothing, even churches, appeared to be open that day, and yet we almost got swept up in some sort of parade of some sorts. We talked to giggling school children who wanted to practice their English at the otherwise disappointing Temple of the Tooth Relic in Kandy. And we ate. And ate. And ate.

Temple of the Tooth Relic, Kandy
An offering station at the very crowded and rather underwhelming Temple of the Tooth Relic.

As Vogue noted, Sri Lanka does stimulate all the senses. But the biggest “sense” it stimulated in me was a sense of déjà vu and maybe, even, just the slightest bit of a letdown, which, I know, sounds maybe a bit harsh.

What’s the Problem, Poe?

As we’ve previously encountered in other countries in Southeast Asia (I’m looking at you, Bali. And Thailand), there’s this major confusion over what tourists want, with a heavy reliance on tourist traps, whether it’s “turtle hatcheries” that house a collection of sad, little cement enclosures too small for the turtles living in them, or the “tsunami photo museums” which had neither photos (they were faded color print-outs from the Internet) nor were organized in anything resembling a museum.

Vendor in Galle
Vendor in Galle selling cool “joos.” NOT a tourist trap. 

Then there were all the tourist traps we just said, “no” to: wooden mask carvers, the multiple spice farms, the elephant sanctuaries, the moonstone mines, the stilt fishermen—all of which are (generally) staged, and less focused on education/more focused on accepting donations/taking photos in exchange for donations.

This reliance on tourist traps in a depressed economy is completely understandable. It is a very, very poor country. The people are struggling and are trying to find ways to get by—and increasingly, that seems to be relying on tourism. The saddest bit is the clustering and proliferation of one particular type of tourist trap. Instead of one spice farm or turtle hatchery, there would be like, 20 of them, all identical and all lined up right next to each other.

Railroad crossing in Sri Lanka
Tuk tuks at a railroad crossing in Sri Lanka

In the end, it all just comes off as feeling very exploitative – on both sides. I hate saying, “no thank you,” repeatedly. I feel defensive and like I have to keep pushing people away who really need the money and why don’t I just go to the damn moonstone mine and buy some damn moonstones even if I don’t want or need them?

Or, when we do cave in and visit one of these places, I end up feeling like it wasn’t a great experience and like I didn’t really learn anything. I feel self-conscious, looking at these sad, little makeshift tourist traps and expecting more. I feel like I missed the disclaimer that screams “all this place is supposed to do is elicit enough sympathy to make you reach into your pockets and throw some money at your guilt.”

Sri Lanka wedding
A Hindu wedding in Sri Lanka (NOT a tourist display….at least as far as I know).

So that was my struggle with Sri Lanka. And with travel and tourism in general. I know there are countries out there that need it, that are counting on it, and that want us to come and visit and spend our money. So go. Go see places, even if they might make you uncomfortable, even if they might make you sad or confused. Go and see if you can spot a wild elephant, slowly weaving its way in and out of the trees along the side of the road on a cool morning in the middle of Sri Lanka.

Wild elephant in Sri Lanka

 

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Looking for Immortality (but will Settle for a Cold Beer) at the Angkor Temples

It’s the middle of the afternoon, the hateful sun is making my scalp tingle, and I am sweating in places I didn’t even know you could sweat. Seriously, why would my knees need to sweat? What possible cooling mechanism does one need for one’s knees?

The baked lava-like steps of Bakong temple loom in front of me. Oh, my apologies. The temple is composed of sandstone, not lava stone. “Bakong is the first temple mountain of sandstone constructed by rulers of the Khmer empire at Angkor near modern Siem Reap in Cambodia,” says the now damp Wikipedia page I printed out and brought with us.

Bakong temple
Note the numerous stairs.

We’ve been assured by our guide Nak that this particular temple—our seventh or eighth one in the last three days—has some of the best examples of guard lion statues in the area.

Three days ago, that little tip would have filled me with unbridled enthusiasm. I would have been agog: “WHAT? Lions? Made out of stone?? To guard the temple? And these ones right here are the BEST remaining examples? I cannot believe our luck! No, I do not need you to lead the way, Nak. I will find them!”

But today, looking up at these ridiculously narrow steps (how small were the Khmer people’s feet?? I practically have to tippy-toe my way up and down the temple stairs here) to the multitude of terraces that make up the Bakong temple, all I can think is, “Yes, that’s nice, but what are the chances that those guard lions are protecting a nice cold beer that’s been waiting just for me?”

The famous stone lions at Bakong temple
The famous stone lions at Bakong temple.

I was officially templed out.

We saw, like I said, seven or eight temples in the Angkor complex and we really only scratched the surface. There are literally hundreds of major temples spread out over a 154-square mile area, which, at its’ height in the 9th to 15th centuries, had a population of over 1 million citizens.

We were also getting a crash course in Cambodian history, Hindu and Buddhist religions, ancient architectural practices, and a graduate-level dissertation on obscure symbolism. All in 100 degree heat and humidity. It was enough to make anyone’s head swim.

Nevertheless, learning did occur and there were definitely some standouts who managed to stick in our soggy brains:

Bantreay Srei's pink sandstone.
Bantreay Srei’s pink sandstone.
  • Bantreay Srei: I think this was probably our favorite one. It was the farthest away from the main temples (about 20 miles), which means it tends to be a bit less crowded. We went fairly early in the morning, when the sun made the rose-pink sandstone carvings even more beautiful. The temple was originally dedicated to Shiva (the destroyer or transformer) and the name of the temple means “Citadel of the Women,” so not surprisingly, it’s got a lot of beautiful apsara (nymphs). And the bas relief carvings on all the pediments and doorways were amazingly well preserved.
Ta Prohm tree
You might recognize this famous celebrity tree. Also, I am LOVING that woman’s talons to the right in this picture. They are just everything and are perfect for this setting.
  • Ta Prohm – This was the first temple we went to and its claim to fame is that it was used as the movie set of Tomb Raider. There are lots of people posing for pictures with the twisted spung tree that sits over the ruins. The whole spung tree thing is pretty crazy. You see them growing up out of the temples, basically consuming them. It’s very easy to imagine the jungle eventually just taking Ta Prohm back. Most of the temples are under UNESCO protection and there are international efforts underway to restore or preserve them, but the groups decided to leave Ta Prohm as is so that people could get an idea of that interrelation between the temple and the jungle.
Buddhists as tourists at Bayon.
Hey guys, meet your spiritual leader, Buddha (at Bayon).
  • Bayon — The Bayon temple features a sea of over 200 massive stone faces looking in all direction. You see these smiling faces a lot through Angkor, and their believed to be a combination of Buddha and the King Jayavarman VII. It’s a favorite among the tourist crews, who swarm like little ants all over the three levels. It’s really is beautiful and ornate, even the crumbling bits look ornamental and intentional.
Angkor Wat at sunrise.
Angkor Wat at sunrise.
  • Angkor Wat – The big Kahuna. The granddaddy of them all. So iconic, it’s the symbol on the country’s flag (the only country to have a building on their flag, by the way).  The best time to see it is at sunrise, and our morning spent sitting on the edge of the reservoir surrounding it, waiting for the big, red-orange sun to show up is one of my fondest memories of the whole trip. Everyone’s just sitting there patiently, chatting in hushed tones while the tuk tuks putter past in the background and the frogs do their ribbetting frog thing. Once inside, there are bas-reliefs all along the walls on the first level. They depict Hindu stories including the mythical “Churning of the Ocean of Milk,” a super awesome name for a badass legend where Hindu deities stir vast oceans in order to extract the nectar of immortal life. AND to churn the ocean they used the Serpent King, Vasuki. I mean, how fantastic is that?? “Heya, Vasuki, what did you do this weekend?” “Oh, I had some of the guys over for tapas. After I ran out of Rioja, we went out and churned an ocean to get some Amrita nectar as a replacement. You know, as you do. So anyway. Crazy night.”
Churning away at immortality in Angkor Wat.
Churning away at immortality in Angkor Wat.

The temples at Angkor are amazing and wondrous. A once in a lifetime experience. And I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to see them. I’m especially indebted to our guide, Nak, who helped arrange the temple-hopping schedule so that we avoided most of the crowds. And there were plenty of crowds. It was not at all uncommon for us to be exiting a temple right as a convoy of tour buses was pulling up and offloading hoards of (mostly Asian) tourists (there are approximately 2 million visitors annually).

This was during a quiet time of day.
This was during a quiet (hottest) time of day when most folks go back to their hotel for a nap before heading out again for another round of temple hopping in the late afternoon/early evening.

Here’s a great story on the somewhat negative impact of the massive interest in the temples, including the problem of aggressive vendors and rude tourists.

So, for those who wonder, yes, three days of Angkor temples is sufficient.

We came back to our “favorite temple in Siem Reap” (Nak’s joke) the Le Meridien Angkor each afternoon tired and sweaty, our brains fried by the sun and the unbelievable amounts of information that we’d probably never have reason to call upon again (Was that last temple dedicated to Shiva, Brahma, Vishnu or Naga?).  But we were also stocked with a slew of new memories and shared experiences, tons of pictures and definitely ready for a nice cold beer by the pool.

Poe's nose at Bayon
Rubbing noses with the local Buddha faces at Bayon. #nofilter #nomakeup #sweatglow

Three Temples We Saw in Bali (And One That Got Away)

Borrowed sarong

Bali is called the Land of A Thousand Temples. No, really, it is. I didn’t just make that up. The folks over at The Culture Trip even suggest that the number is really closer to 5,000. This guy says 20,000. Who knows? But in any case, that’s pretty crazy for a tiny island of only 2,232 square miles.

Most Bali villages have at least three temples, which you can read about in greater detail here. In addition, you’ll find lots of smaller, private temples, like a family-owned temple. And then there’s the big holy ones, like pura tirta, which are water temples, and pura segara, which are built by the sea to appease sea deities.

Then there are six Supremely Holy Temples on the island, which is just a whole other level of religious contemplation for this supremely non-religious woman. (We did visit one of the SHT’s however, Uluwatu, which I describe further down).

We did not visit 5,000 temples. We didn’t even visit 1,000. We were lucky to cram in three, frankly. So here are the three temples we saw during our visit to Bali (and one that we really, really wanted to see, but didn’t get a chance to go to).

Pura Tirta Empul – Temple of the Holy Water

This was our first temple stop after a bit of a yawn-inducing visit to a dance school. I think this temple was near Ubud, which is sort of east-central of where we were staying (we were in Nusa Dua, down south along the coastline).

We pulled up and our driver informed us that we needed to wear a sarong into the temple. That would require a donation, of course. Also, he would not be accompanying us into the temple. And, he warned us not to pay for a guide. Waste of money, he said. Nor would there be any audio guide, or really, anything.

Suitably armed with a total lack of guidance or knowledge, we walked into the temple and were met with this sign:

Temple signage

That would be the only signage throughout the temple. A sign telling breeding ladies to stay out.

So here’s my best guess at what the heck this temple was. It appeared to be some sort of water temple, with fountains of water that folks could take a dip in. I’m sure jumping around in the shared public pools are supposed to bring good fortune, or health, or love, or maybe just a nice, cold Bitang beer at the end of the day. I have no idea. I did not jump in the pools, but I did get a beer later that day so, yeah Tirta temple!

Taking a bath at a temple.

(Here’s an actual write up of what the temple was)

There were raised wooden platforms that seem like they might be stages or maybe places where ceremonies took place. Or where sleepy swimmers took naps.

There was lots and lots of gorgeous stone carvings of very scary animals. Maybe they were demons, who knows.

Scary Balinese stone carving

We did see a fenced off area where there were people being led through a worship ceremony. We just peeked in and then left them to it.

We were probably at the temple about 30 minutes, just enjoying the peacefulness of the area, but basically ignorant on what we were supposed to be seeing. The self-guided tour ended at a maze of stalls selling all sorts of tourist swag. Which you HAD to walk through to get back to the parking lot. All told, I believe the part-you-with-some-money stall maze was larger than the temple. There were certainly more people willing to explain to you what you were seeing (including penis bottle openers, interestingly).

Pura Gunung Kawi – Valley of the Kings

This was our second temple and wasn’t too far from the first.

Again, we were told to borrow a sarong in exchange for a suggested donation.

In a unique little twist, this temple featured the tourist swag stalls at the beginning of your visit. So you get a Walk of Shopping Shame right at the beginning of your experience.

This temple appeared to be some sort of royal temple overlooking a very pretty and lush river, and surrounded by rice fields. A quick Google search confirms that this temple is known as the Valley of the Kings. And, that it’s not really a temple or a tomb, but just a spot to honor Balinese royalty.

Valley of the Kings water fountain

We walked around and took pictures, enjoying the scenery, and speculating on the scaffolding and other signs of work that were scattered around. No workmen or anything, so I don’t know if it was lunch, or a luwak coffee break, or prayer time or what.

Spooky cave entrance at Valley of the Kings

We also got to experience the Walk of Shopping Shame on our way back up the steep, 200 or so stairs that took us back to the parking lot. (Oh sorry, 320 stairs according to this poor blogger who was recovering from a twisted ankle).

Stairs at the Valley of the Kings
The stairs at Valley of the Kings, including a vendor at the landing. That’s XFE on the right. He doesn’t want to be on the blog, so I covered him with heart doodles. Because I love him. 

Pura Luhur Uluwatu

Disappointed by our first round of temple experiences, we tried again with a different driver. I knew that Pura Luhur Uluwatu was fairly close to our hotel (the St. Regis in Nusa Dua), so we asked to go there. We actually had to pick between Uluwatu and Tanah Lot because apparently they both get very crowded with tourist buses around the same time, so we had to pick just one (since staying away from touristy crowds was very high on our wish lists).

Uluwatu Temple in the morning.

All I really knew about Uluwatu was that it was on an ocean cliff and it had a lot of monkeys.

Monkey gangs at Uluwatu Temple

The same routine repeated itself: driver would not be going in, but he warned us against hiring a guide. Our driver added a new warning, however: no jewelry, no sunglasses, nothing that dangles because the monkeys will rip it off of you and steal it.

IMG_2015

There was an entrance fee, and a donation to borrow a sarong. No shopping stalls though, so Uluwatu for the win!

You could, however, buy fruit to feed the monkeys. To which I say, yeah, no, that’s ok.

There’s another interesting money-making opportunity at work at Uluwatu. If a monkey does snatch your goods, they generally take those items to one of the vendors, who is happy to give your item back to you in return for the purchase of some fruit for the monkey-thief.

Monkey fountain at Uluwatu.

Luckily for us, the monkey gangs were sparse. My super-sexy travel manpanion and personal comedian speculated that the monkey gangs were at their morning meeting, saying things like “OK guys, look: we’ve got a lot of hoop earrings, but we’re low on studs. So today, I want you to focus on getting stud earrings. Also, our sunglass supply is looking a bit thin, so if we could put the young guys on that, I think we can bring our numbers up significantly. And Stan, we’ve had some complaints that you’re getting a bit too grabby with the lady tourists. Keep your paws to yourself, or else I’m putting you on garbage can duty.”

Uluwatu in the early morning.

Uluwatu is very, very beautiful and we were among the few people there early in the morning, so we had the run of the place. The location is breathtaking and there are walkways along the cliffs so you can turn around and get some great pictures of the temple and cliffs.

Uluwatu Temple

And the one that got away.

Pura Tanah Lot

We’d seen pictures of Tanah Lot, which sits on a rock just off shore. Access to the temple is limited to low tide; even so, we were told the temple is barraged by visitors, and surrounded by crowds and vendors.

Here’s a brief description:

The temple’s construction was supposedly inspired by the priest Nirartha in the 15th century; after spending the night on the rock outcrop where the temple now stands, he instructed local fishermen to build a temple on that site. Today, Tanah Lot is regarded as one of Bali’s most important directional temples. A multimillion-dollar restoration effort in the 1990s saved Tanah Lot from falling into the sea.

I wonder if that multi-million dollar restoration includes stalls selling penis bottle openers.

And now, a bad picture of your author in one of her many donation-funded sarongs.

Borrowed sarong
I call this “writer scared of monkey gangs.” 

One Night In Bangkok Probably is Actually Sufficient

Oh Bangkok. I wanted to love you. I adore Thai food. You have such pretty architecture. And, one of my absolute favorite songs of the 1980’s extols your, erm, seedier aspects, shall we say?

A song, which Wikipedia tells me, has been covered by a Norwegian singer, a Swedish pop group, a Swiss DJ and a Danish boy band, so you have the Scandinavian vote on lockdown, so don’t worry about that.

But overall, I liked Bangkok, but did not love it, and while I’d be interested in exploring other parts of Thailand, I would probably skip Bangkok. Here are a few of my reasons:

  • It was hotter than blazes. Like sweating in places you didn’t know had sweat glands hot. Unrelentingly so.
  • It was very, very crowded. There are 12 million people in this densely populated metropolis. Compare that to the 22 million in the entire country of Australia.  And as a result…
  • It’s very, very stinky. Honestly, it gave New Orleans a run for its money. And so many different stenches. Especially along the docks by the river. As this blogger put it so well:

“Eau de Bangkok was a memorable odor. Combining the very worse Asia has to offer, it attacked the senses, an onslaught bloody enough to make a grown man cry, or at least foul enough to make a grown man’s eyes water. There was no escaping the city’s divergent odors; the sweet perfume of plumeria, the heady scent of incense from the thousands of shrines and temples, the reek of the river and canals that form an important part of the city’s transportation system (as well as a major part of its sewer system), the aroma of street side cooking on every block, weird tropical fruit that smelled as if someone had died beneath its skin, and the fragrance typical of a bustling Asian City overflowing with humanity and its offal. The aroma of Bangkok was a physical presence. It lodged in your throat like a pig wallowing in yesterday’s slop.”

  • And the poverty was nothing less than heartbreaking. Whereas we hardly saw any homeless people in Australia, in Bangkok, they were everywhere you looked. It was very humbling.

Mostly Bangkok gave me the same disoriented feeling I’ve experienced in Asian cities before: nothing looks right, even things I recognize seem off-kilter and unfamiliar. I always feel like I stumble through Asian cities in a sleepwalk state. Plus, as tall Americans, you really feel like you stick out and tower above most people, even though there were gobs of other tourists (Bangkok is a very, very inexpensive place, which makes it particularly attractive, I think).

Boat ride in Bangkok
An early morning boat ride down the river.

There’s always this aspect of sensory overload I get in Asian cities, much like what I experience in the bright lights and loud noises of Vegas. In Bangkok, there was just so much to see in such a small, tight space and so many unfamiliar noises all crashing on top of each other. This was particularly true when we were at the night market where there was just a crush of people (including tons of tourists) and stalls all crammed with cheap trinkets and fake designer goods.

We weren’t looking for anything, but if we had been, I don’t know how we ever would have found it.

Wat Po temple, Bangkok
Pretty sure I’m melting in this picture. This was at the Wat Po, which I think was named after thePoeLog.

Even when you escape the street stalls for the sidewalks, you’re assaulted with neon signs trying to lure you into the various bars and loads of people sitting on the sidewalks eating, talking to each other or on the phone, calling out to you, trying to show you a price list.

Added to that is the sense of debauchery I’ve basically coated the whole place with in my mind. I felt like everyone was hustling, or was on the make. In Bangkok, where prostitution is not only legal, but practically a sector of its tourism industry, I eyed every tourist suspiciously, sure that they were up to no good whether it was buying sex or fake Louboutins.

Gold buddhas at Wat Po temple, Bangkok
No fake Loutoutins here, just gold Buddhas here.

When we ducked outof the night market to grab a beer at a beer garden, a European couple sitting next to us were charming one of the Thai waitresses, taking pictures of her in cutesy poses on their camera phone. They didn’t know her, but sure wanted a lot of pictures of her. What in the hell would they want her photo for, I wondered. I couldn’t think of any good reason.

I’m not a puritan or anything. In fact, I came very close to buying several vibrators on chains at the night market  as party favors for Sorta Running Buddy Amy’s bachelorette party this weekend, but I know that Amy’s not into penis se toys, so me, the model of restraint, held back and did not buy those things. So that proves I”m not just not a puritan, but I’m actually quite considerate as well.

No, it’s not a sex-puritan thing. It’s more about the fact that more than anything I hate when people who have power and money take advantage of those who are weak or poor. My sense of justice and fairness runs pretty strong.

Statues in Bangkok
You have to love any place that has pink elephant statues in the median of busy roads.

I was also nervous about safety and scams, which there apparently there are plenty of in Thailand. On the day we went to the Grand Palace, they were closed for the afternoon. There were several “official” looking gentlemen out front directing us to some of the other tourists’ sites and trying to get us to use a tuk tuk. Apparently, these tuk tuks don’t actually take you to other city highlights, but instead take you to a whole bunch of jewelry and tailoring shops.

We did, however, visit a jewelry shop on our own, one that had been recommended by family friends. We spent a very cool and lovely afternoon at Johnny’s Gems, an institution among the diplomat and embassy circles in Bangkok. They even had a picture of Hilary Clinton shopping there, but I have to confess, I did not notice a single picture on the wall. I was too busy looking at the trays of gorgeous jewelry. They were quite accommodating at Johnny’s, even running next door to get you some of the best fried rice you’ve ever tasted.

fried rice at Johny's Gems, Bangkok
A really unflattering picture, but I was more interested in eating my rice than posing for photos.

We also had dinner on top of a skyscraper. The Vertigo restaurant on top of the Banyan Tree hotel was stunning, overlooking the entire city. It was an unforgettable dinner on a beautiful night.

So between the whole eating fried rice in a jewelry store and dinner on top of a skyscraper, I guess I liked Bangkok maybe more than I initially thought. It’s a pretty interesting place for sure.