I stepped lightly down into a makeshift bomb shelter, once hidden in the northern Sri Lankan town of Mullaitivu, where leaders of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) would bunker during government bombing raids.
In early 2009, a nearby battle ended the 26-year Sri Lankan civil war. Government forces declared victory over the LTTE, a militant group spawned out of the country's Tamil minority. My friend and I were visiting an outdoor war memorial, a triumphalist display erected by the majority Sinhalese government to showcase the spoils of war: all manner of munitions, hijacked boats repainted and armored with spare metal parts, one-man "submarines" intended for suicide missions.
Nearby, we circumambulated an Olympic high-dive-style "terrorist" swimming complex allegedly used to train rebels for sea missions. The U.N. says at least 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed in the final few months of the war, mostly by government artillery opened on Tamils the LTTE used as human shields. Both sides have been investigated for war crimes.
I went to Sri Lanka, the teardrop-shaped island off the southeast coast of India, for the curries; the Asian elephants, leopards and sloth bears; the towering palms fringing turmeric-colored Indian Ocean beaches; the fifth-century castle fortress atop a 650-foot rock; and the religious festivals, Buddhist shrines and UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The density and diversity of attractions is remarkable within such a compact space.
But what I got was access and much-needed context from a quintessential "insider/outsider" guide: my traveling companion was my college mate, a South Asian religions scholar who'd spent three of the past 10 years living in Sri Lanka.
He was an academic who'd become fluent in the mannerisms -- waggle your head like a bobblehead doll to indicate agreement -- and machine-gun ratatat of the Sinhala language. He answered my questions about traditional Sri Lankan toilet protocol (use hole, then water bucket with scoop and left hand), provided translations of boatmen mocking seasick Chinese tourists, and negotiated transportation arrangements and tour prices. We visited places and engaged in situations I couldn't have encountered alone.
White faces are not uncommon at Sri Lanka tourist hot spots, but white Westerners fluent in the language are as rare as talking leopards. Small crowds would materialize moments after my friend opened his mouth, with rickshaw drivers and restaurant owners calling over friends and relatives to bear witness and jockey for his business.
You can certainly -- and fairly easily -- navigate Sri Lanka on your own, but without my friend's aid I would have 1) spent more money, 2) stuck to the comfortable tourist spots and, most importantly, 3) remained impossibly ill-informed about the culture, customs and civil war subtext still so important several years later.
My journey began with a hallucinatory 24-hour, three-leg flight from Boston to Colombo, the sprawling, muggy, materially obsessed city that's Sri Lanka's largest. I slept off the jet lag in the Mount Lavinia Hotel, a British colonial governor's mansion turned fading hotel where scenes from "The Bridge on the River Kwai" were filmed. Then we were off for a week traveling by bus (luxury and basic), rented van and tuk-tuk, the colorful three-wheel auto-rickshaws that look almost like mini VW buses. Swarms of tuk-tuks putter through every city and town; they're the cheapest and easiest way to get around when traversing short distances -- but don't forget to haggle.
In Mirissa, a popular southern beach town, we jumped on a whale watching tour for 4,000 rupees each (about $28). The Indian Ocean churn would have been enough to keep the craft grounded in more litigious nations, but we set forth anyway in search of a glimpse of a glistening, striated flash of blue whale back. Pink plastic bags were dispensed immediately. We were in a sudsy washing machine. As we focused intently on the horizon or periodic blow hole surges, a row of Chinese tourists retched over the side. They were promptly fed tunafish sandwiches by our morbid boatmen. They retched again. The boatmen chortled. The takeaway: Don't go whale watching if you're prone to seasickness.
We were picked up at dawn by safari Jeep to visit Sri Lanka's famous Yala National Park, home to Asian elephants, water buffalo, leopards and all manner of bird. A shy leopard appeared only briefly in the distance, but elephants were everywhere. You can arrange the pick-up and tour with your hotel or guesthouse, but be sure to haggle (preferably in Sinhala if you travel with my friend). A fellow safari-goer paid several thousand rupees more for the same experience. Don't forget to ask your hotel to prepare a to-go lunch -- it's a long day on the dusty, sun-scorched trail. Finally, it's unlikely you'll get close to wildlife, so a telephoto lens is essential for those wanting solid pictures.
We had the privilege of experiencing the beginning of the well-known July festival in Kataragama, a town near Yala holy to Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and the indigenous Yedda. The kick-off is a parade featuring dancers, elephants and fire jugglers, with each troop representing some aspect of secular or religious society. Pilgrims camp on the grounds. The culmination of the festival is even better: There's fire-walking and ritual self-mutilation, as Hindu devotees hang themselves from hooks in an effort to ensure wellness and success in business. Without a guide, it would have been nearly impossible to know what I was seeing.
A bus from Dambulla -- home of a cliffside cave monastery now occupied by tourists, dozens of seated Buddhas and spider monkeys -- was driven by a gum-chewing fellow who would pull into the opposite lane on blind jungle S-curves, lay into the horn and play chicken with oncoming traffic, be it truck, bus, bicycle, moped, tractor, tuk-tuk or pedestrian. Sparks flew off our right flank on several close calls. A few mopeds may have spun out to avoid us. He was the first true nihilist either of us had met. If you decide to take the budget buses, know that they'll be cramped, hot and possibly driven by a maniac.
The ancient city of Sigiriya features a clifftop fortress, one of Sri Lanka's iconic images. The climb is long and hot, but kiosks dispensing beverages are plentiful. The ruins of the fifth-century capital are perched 650 feet atop a granite peak, Lion Rock, which dominates the surrounding landscape. You enter through a huge lion's mouth and ascend past a series of ancient galleries of topless women. The ladies were the inspiration for centuries-old "poetry," scrawled on the rock by early tourists.
In Arugum, a lazy east coast beach town popular with surfers, we visited a state liquor store in what we thought was a predominantly Tamil-speaking area. My friend switched languages to get us some arrack, a fermented booze derived from palm flower sap. "This is Sri Lanka, speak [flipping] Sinhala," responded the cashier. "Maybe you should speak Tamil," said a glassy-eyed patron with patchy facial hair. "Shut the [flip] up, you [flipping] bum," said the cashier. It was a potent reminder of the war, juxtaposed against the beachside idyll.
A 30-day tourist visa is required for U.S. citizens to visit Sri Lanka. It's easy to obtain by applying online.
Photography is encouraged almost everywhere, but refrain from taking you-and-Buddha selfies. It's disrespectful to turn your back on the Enlightened One.
Don't put your feet where they shouldn't go; Buddhists deem them ritually impure. Don't even put them up on the back of the driver's seat in a tuk-tuk.
Not everyone has a friend who's also an expert guide. To find your own insider to see you around Sri Lanka, try reaching out on sites such as Tripbod.com or ToursbyLocals.com, reading TripAdvisor reviews and asking friends for recommendations. On location, hotels and guesthouses will always be eager to help. You can also try hanging out in social places in Colombo frequented by expats; my friend suggests the Barefoot Cafe and Qbaa.
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--written by Dan Askin
Editor's Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a subsidiary of TripAdvisor, Inc., which also owns Tripbod.com.