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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Fingernails, Luwak and Temples: My Impressions of Bali’s Tourism Industry

Do not stare at the man’s nails. Do not stare at the man’s nails. Do not stare at the man’s nails, I told myself silently over and over again.

“I notice you have a scar on your head. Me, too,” I share, not at all silently.

Yeah, much, much better, Poe.

We are in a small air conditioned van bumping along a congested road near Kuta in Bali. Scooters loaded with people and goods zip around us. A young girl rides right alongside of us with her motorcycle helmet perched perilously on the back of her head, a collection of small offering baskets in a container attached to the front of her scooter.

Our driver today, who the St. Regis arranged for us, is a devout Hindu, which is apparent by his bindi on his forehead and the offering on the dashboard of the van. His religious leanings, do not, however, explain his long fingernails on his left hand. That is apparently just for style.

Balinese dashboard offering
NOT Mr. Nails, but an example of a dashboard offering (Photo: GreenerBali.com)

Mr. Nails is our second driver in Bali. We have not had the best luck with being tourists in Bali.

Our first driver was a last minute sub – the original guy we’d been emailing with had to cancel for a family ritual of some sort (the Balinese are way into rituals, I learned from a book by Australian author Cameron Forbes called “Under the Volcano.” There are a total of 13 ceremonies concerned with life from conception until, but not including, death, which is a whole other big, amazing cremation ceremony altogether.)

In any case, we had a backup. And Mr. Backup had a very clear agenda on what we were going to see that day.

I suggested a couple of temples that were near our hotel. He suggested we drive over 45 minutes to catch the barong dance performance at a local dance school. The dance was….nice, I suppose. A bit long and confusing. The production values were low. Some of the dancers appeared quite bored, as did many of the members of the completely tourist-filled audience. All of the drivers who had dragged us here hung out by their mini-vans in the mini-van clogged parking lot, smoking clove cigarettes, and waiting for us tourists to get our culture on.

Balinese barung dance
This was right at the start of the dance, and that guy on the left is already over it.

I asked our driver if we could get babi guling – roasted pig – but was told that the place our driver “likes” was out of the way and not possible. Meanwhile, we passed about 50 roadside places advertising their babi guling. My travel buddy XFE leaned over and whispered that our driver must have a special babi guling guy that he gets a kickback from, and we weren’t in that guy’s neighborhood. Instead, we had lunch at a horrible touristy restaurant overlooking Gunung Batur volcano.

Our driver asked us if we liked coffee. When I said yes, he insisted we visit another tourist trap selling $5 cups of kopi luwak – a coffee made from coffee berries that have been ingested and passed, so to speak, by Asian civet-type animals. Knowing some of the PETA complaints against the practice, I tried to defer, but our driver was insistent. I took the path of least resistance and drank the damned coffee. It tasted just like every other coffee I have ever had. Nothing special at all.

luwak and rice terraces
The luwak was meh, but the views of the rice terraces were pretty amazing.

And now our second driver – the guy with the long nails — was finally taking us to one of the temples we had asked to visit on our first excursion. But not without trying to get us to stop and visit some of the many local woodcarvers and silversmiths he could get us access to.

Here is my problem with Southeast Asia, in general: everyone appears to be on the make. There is a huge emphasis on showing you only what they want you to see, and a concerted effort to take you to total tourist traps and getting you to buy stuff.

Balinese still life.
Carved Balinese bench, stumbled upon all by ourselves. Notice lack of price tag.

Look, I get it. Tourism is the major industry in lots of Southeast Asia, and certainly Bali. And I really, really loved Bali — the deliciously spicy food; the sweet, kind people; the amazing scents of frangipani wafting in the air. But if you are the tourist in Bali, or Bangkok even, you end up just feeling like a mark. Or, an ATM. And, in my case at least, it totally puts me off from buying anything at all. The harder someone presses me to buy something, the more resistant I become. And that’s saying a lot for someone who considers shopping a sport.

We did end up buying a couple of souvenirs, including a $15 kite we bought on the beach one morning. We also bought a lovely copper lined, wooden bowl for our living room. But it was at a small, unassuming shop that we stumbled upon on our own in Seminyak, with a sales person who was practically invisible during our visit.

I don’t remember if she had long nails on her left hand, but I do know that she didn’t try to upsell us.

sarongs drying in Bali
My favorite moment, un-orchestrated by any mini-van drivers: colorful sarongs drying on a clothesline.