Between conducting research, attending events, and teaching an online class, my schedule in Sri Lanka has been pretty packed. But I knew that if I wanted to see the country and not just the inside of coffee shops in Colombo I would have to get out and leave my laptop behind. Given that my time here was drawing to a close, I decided to embark on a trip around what is commonly referred to as Sri Lanka's cultural triangle, an interior portion of the country with great historical significance, ancient ruins of political and religious import, and quintessentially Sri Lankan excursions. The plan I hatched would take me in clockwise fashion from Colombo to Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa to Sigiriya and Dambulla to Kandy to Ella and back to Colombo.
The first leg of my journey ran from Colombo to Anuradhapura by train (450 Rs for 2nd-class reserved). I arrived in the late afternoon and traveled by tuk tuk to Hotel White House. The next morning I ventured by trishaw to the Sacred City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and former capital of Ceylon featuring numerous Buddhist monasteries and royal palaces. As I was exploring on the Sunday following the Esala Full Moon Poya Day, the atmosphere was particularly festive, with Sri Lankans dressed in white descending upon the religious sites and small vendors seizing upon the commercial opportunities presented by the large crowds. Tickets for foreigners cost a whopping 3850 Rs (roughly $25 USD). The ruins were quite scattered across a large area, so I would recommend renting a bicycle (600 Rs) in order to cover the extensive grounds.
Later that day I set out for Polonnaruwa via the bus from Anuradhapura to Kaduruwela (160 Rs). As soon as I had arrived at my next accommodations, Thisal Guest House, I was asked by the manager if I wanted to join the party already geared up in the jeep for an afternoon elephant safari at Kaudulla National Park (6500 Rs). I'm glad I did. Our group got to see dozens of elephants grazing, walking in herds, and communicating across the marshy scrub lands. Our guide took us to Kaudulla and not the more popular Minneriya National Park because of the rampant elephant abuse that occurs in the latter, where animals are routinely surrounded by vehicles, occasionally causing them to charge at safari-goers out of fear and frustration.
The next day, having learned from my logistical blunder in Anuradhapura, I opted to rent a bicycle (300 Rs) to canvas the many Buddhist and Hindu temples of Sri Lanka's second ancient capital, Polonnaruwa. Again, tickets for foreigners were 3850 Rs. In my opinion, the historical sites here were far better in quality than those I visited in A'pura. The Archaeological Museum, located on the lake side of the road opposite the ruins, offered a comprehensive overview of how religion influenced the architecture of the monuments. Admission was included in the price of the ticket.
The following morning I took a tuk to the bus station, where I hopped aboard a bus headed to Inamaluwa (90 Rs), a city just outside my next destination- Sigiriya. After some convincing I agreed to take a tuk to Hotel Sigiriya, my resting place for the next two days. I awoke the next day at 6am in order to beat the crowd that had come to ascend the famous Lion Rock, an ancient rock fortress notable for its palatial ruins and magnificent views from the top of the formation. The price of a ticket for entry to this cultural site was a stunning 4620 Rs (about $30 USD) for foreigners. I began the climb at 7:30am and reached the top just before 8am. It was more arduous than I was expecting, even at that time of day, but the views made it all worth while. For those planning on making the trek to the top of Lion Rock, start out as early as possible and bring plenty of water.
After walking back to the hotel and resting for a bit, I arranged for a tuk driver to pick me up and bring me to nearby Dambulla to explore the Rock Temple, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. After paying the admission price of 1500 Rs and storing my shoes at a small depository (25 Rs for the service), I entered the series of conjoined sanctuaries carved into the side of a large sloping hill. The temples were remarkable for the sheer quantity and size of religious statues, of which there are over 150. This temple-cave complex is unlike anything else in Sri Lanka, so it's a must-see for anyone who has already visited other Buddhist sites throughout the country.
The next stage of my journey involved an early morning tuk ride to the bus station in Dambulla, where I caught bus 45 to Kandy (100 Rs), the last of the great Sinhalese kingdoms and a UNESCO World Heritage City. Shortly upon checking into Hotel Suisse, a colonial-style property with a history dating back to the 17th century, I embarked to Helga's Folly, the most eclectic, artsy hotel-restaurant-gallery this side of the Indian Ocean. There I had lunch with Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Sri Lanka Robert Hilton, several Sri Lankan and U.S. Fulbright alum, and Embassy staff. We talked about our experiences in Sri Lanka, the various illnesses we've contracted, and, of course, politics. If you happen to make it to Helga's Folly, come for the food, but stay for the schizophrenic interior.
Later after resting back at the hotel I secured a tuk and followed the contour of Kandy Lake to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic (known in Sinhala as Sri Dalada Maligawa). Fortunately, I arrived about 30 minutes before one of the three daily services was scheduled to take place (5:30am, 9:30am, and 6:30pm). I passed effortlessly through security, left my shoes with the depository (30 Rs upon pickup), and purchased a ticket to the temple and the adjacent World Buddhist Museum (1500 Rs). The interior of the temple featured a grand display of spectacularly ornate ancient architecture and golden decorations, religious iconography, and historical information. According to Sri Lankan lore, after the Buddha was cremated a lone tooth of his was saved. The tooth was brought from India to Sri Lanka, where it now resides. Once a year the tooth is paraded in its casket around the city during the festival of Esala Perahera, which occurs in July/August.
On my second day in Kandy as a tourist I ordered a tuk using PickMe (Sri Lanka's version of Uber or Lyft) and made my way to the Royal Botanic Gardens in Peradeniya. I bought a ticket at the front entrance (1500 Rs) and proceeded to traverse the grounds, which span 147 acres. My favorite attractions were the Orchid House, palm avenues, and Great Lawn, home to a massive Java Fig Tree. I spent about 1.5 hours at the gardens, a total that includes time devoted to helping Sri Lankan students on a field trip practice their English language skills. Following this floral jaunt I took the bus (17 Rs) to the Central Market, where I surveyed the fruits and fish of local merchants on the ground floor of the building and purchased wooden and cloth souvenirs from vendors on the second floor. Everything from spices to leather goods to batiks to carved elephant figurines can be found here at reasonable prices.
Early the next morning I grabbed breakfast at the hotel, settled my bill, and arranged a PickMe tuk for transport to the Kandy Railway Station. For this portion of my trip, the journey was the attraction. The train ride between Kandy and Ella is considered one of the most beautiful in the world. The ride normally takes about 7 hours, but due to some railroad maintenance we had to alight at Hatton, take a bus to Kotagala, and continue on a different train to our final destination. Despite the detour, the train ride was every bit as scenic and majestic as I had imagined. Cool air whipped in our faces as we sped through lush tea plantations, miles of symmetrically grown manicured rows delineating the rolling landscape. Photographs and videos were shot. Breath was taken.
I arrived in Ella after dark. This was not ideal, as my phone was dying and I didn't know exactly where my hotel was located. Nevertheless, my stroll down Wellawaya-Ella-Kumbalwela Highway was illuminating in its own right. Ella is a unique place. It feels like a Bohemian jungle ski bum town with gregarious restaurant hosts, tattoo parlors, tea shops, and outdoor adventure companies. It's tidier than Kathmandu, Nepal but rougher around the edges than Queenstown, New Zealand. The town exudes a funky spirit unlike any place else I have encountered in Sri Lanka. Luckily I obtained the assistance of an employee at a nearby hotel who called Leisure Dream Inn, where I was staying for the night, and arranged for the hotel manager to meet me on the highway. Once I walked up the hidden hill to the hotel, I dropped my things off and got a tuk into town, where I ate a high brow take on fish and chips at the woodsy and raucous Cafe Chill.
The last morning of my trip around the cultural triangle began with fresh coffee and a glorious sunrise emerging from behind Little Adam's Peak. The hotel manager also packed me a take-away breakfast consisting of rolled up yellow pancakes and scrambled egg sandwiches made by his mother. One free hotel-provided tuk ride later, I was back at Ella Railway Station in advance of my 6:49am train back to Colombo. The railroad issue still unresolved, I had to get off at Kotagala, take a tuk to Hatton, and board another train to continue on my way. However, the 12-hour return trip was supremely enjoyable, as I got to retrace my path from the previous day, at an earlier time. Eventually I got off when our train arrived at the Maradana station (the one right before Colombo Fort), and used PickMe to catch a tuk back to my Airbnb in Colombo 5. Thus concluded my 9-day whirlwind tour of Sri Lanka's cultural triangle.
Probably the most important advice that any of the staff at the US-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission gave our group of Fulbrighters during the pre-departure orientation in Washington, D.C. was "be flexible." It may sound obvious, but it applies to many aspects of conducting research abroad. In this post, I'll address two areas where adopting a flexible approach proved useful- the aim of the research project and the site where the researcher is stationed. By being flexible, I was able to change my project from one that was going to be difficult to one that was actually possible, and I relocated from Kandy, where I had an affiliation with the University of Peradeniya, to Colombo, where the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) is located.
The nature of my research project completely changed before I had even left D.C. My initial idea was to study public participation in the environmental impact assessment (EIA) process by analyzing 3 case studies involving major development projects. N.C. Weerakkody had already written a terrific overview of public participation in EIAs in Sri Lanka, but I intended to do an updated and more fine-grained analysis.
To expand my network and seek the advice of experts in preparation for my project, I arranged meetings with people working for organizations that dealt with Sri Lanka- Bower Group Asia (BGA), National Democratic Institute (NDI), and World Resources Institute (WRI). During the course of those meetings, the general consensus emerged that I would not be in Sri Lanka long enough to gain the trust of villagers affected by large development projects and interview them with the expectation of getting honest and thorough responses. The term of my Fulbright contract was 3.5 months. I would need to be there longer in order to complete my intended project. Thankfully, the creative folks at NDI came up with a slightly different, but achievable endeavor- to assess whether the quality of an EIA varies depending on who funds a given project. Just like that, I altered my plan from case studies and interviews to archival research and quantitative analysis.
With my new project in mind, I planned on being based in Kandy, which was close to the University of Peradeniya. The previous head of the Geography Department, Prof. P. Wickramagamage, had big plans for me- teach 2 undergraduate courses and provide guest lectures in a couple seminars. However, between the time that I had applied for the Fulbright in 2015 and my eventual arrival in 2017, the Department changed hands to Prof. M.A.S. Jayakumara, who was key in writing a letter on my behalf to officials at CEA so that I could make use of their library, but who also didn't have the same kind of teaching commitments in mind (which wasn't necessarily a bad thing since I decided to teach an online course while abroad).
After spending 2 weeks in Kandy, I decided to travel to Colombo for a week so I could try and obtain the EIA reports I needed at CEA, which is located in the Battaramulla area. In only a few days time I realized that this was the place I needed to be. Colombo had the CEA, numerous think tanks, and educational institutions like the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies, Centre for Environmental Justice, Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies, and University of Colombo. So, after returning to Kandy I decided I would permanently change venues to Colombo, where I will continue to reside until the end of my Fulbright grant in mid-August. Right now I live in an Airbnb in the neighborhood of Ethul Kotte, directly east of Colombo, in my sixth different residence since I arrived in Sri Lanka on May 3rd.
In both of these instances, the capacity for flexibility paid major dividends. I am now pursuing a project along with a Sri Lankan scholar, Dr. Herath Vidyaratne, that I am confident about, and I am based in an area that has numerous opportunities for research, intellectual stimulation, and, importantly, diverse food options. When conducting research abroad, it is crucial to realize that your plans may change for reasons outside your control and you should be prepared for such eventualities. Staying flexible is a way to still get your research done while not winding up jaded or disappointed that your best scholarly intentions did not materialize into the outcomes you had hoped for.
The above Facebook post, written as a reflection upon a recent experience involving my negotiating the price for a service, drew both approbation and admonishment from my friends. Given the controversial nature of the discussion, I felt it was worthy of further explication. My point here is to elucidate the context under which this exchange occurred and describe how foreigners can respectfully navigate monetary transactions in the developing world, especially Sri Lanka.
This is Salon Sriyani. It's located just south of where I am staying this month, along a busy commercial stretch called Kotte Road in the Ethul Kotte neighborhood. Last week on a lark I came to this establishment for a haircut. It was around 7pm. There was one barber working on the only client in the place. The interior, as seen in the photo above, is spare, with concrete floors and plastic chairs. This is a local mom-and-pop hair salon. I waited a few minutes for the barber to finish his current job, and then it was my turn in the seat. The barber gave great attention to cutting my hair, confirmed with me the kind of clipper attachment I wanted used on the back of my head, and asked whether I wanted my beard trimmed as well (I hadn't shaved in months). After sculpting the edges of my hairline with a fresh razor blade (though unaccompanied by the use of hot shaving lather or any other lubricant), the barber finished his work and it came time to pay. I asked him how much I owed him. Without hesitation, he replied 150 Rs (roughly $1 USD). I did not argue. I told him I would be back and I did return, several days later.
The second time I came to Salon Sriyani, it was just after 5pm. The door was open, but the lights were off. As I entered the shop, I noticed the barber, fast asleep in a plank-like position in one of the plastic chairs. I worried about startling him, so I gently lifted one of the plastic chairs and tapped it lightly against the concrete floor. The barber awoke from his slumber. I asked him if he would be willing to trim my beard, which, aside from bestowing upon me a kind of caveman-like appearance, had become unmanageable. He agreed. Just like before he asked what kind of clippers I would like used. We concurred that a number 2 clipper attachment would be suitable for the occasion. Five minutes later, the task was done. I looked less like a vagrant and more like a rugged scholar. Then I asked the barber how much I needed to pay for the service. At this point an old man with wiry gray hair who had been lingering outside appeared in the salon. The barber conversed with the old man briefly in Sinhalese, and then reported the price- 150 Rs.
In that moment, I thought strictly in terms of how much I had paid for a full haircut and how much effort went into my beard trim. Without concerning myself with the exchange rate, I explained to both men how several days before I had paid 150 Rs for a haircut at that very salon. They deliberated again in Sinhalese and settled on 100 Rs. I gladly paid the charge and told the barber that I would definitely be back in the future. I showed the barber that his salon was listed on Swarm, a geo-mapping mobile app used to record the places you visit, and went on my way.
Given the level of criticism generated from my recounting this affair on Facebook, I thought about other experiences I have had in Sri Lanka and asked my Airbnb host, Channa, about what had transpired and whether, from the perspective of a native Sri Lankan, what I had done was improper. To begin, it is not at all uncommon throughout the developing world to have foreigners and locals pay different prices for the exact same goods or services. As a personal example, early on in my trip I went hiking with a friend to Mini World's End near Hunnasgiriya. In order to hike this trail, my friend and I had to purchase tickets at the Knuckles Conservation Centre. Tickets for foreigners are 662 Rs. Tickets for Sri Lankan school children are 5 Rs. I remember paying "foreigner" rates to visit cultural attractions elsewhere in Asia, such as the Swayambhunath Monkey Temple in Kathmandu, Nepal, and the Jing'an Temple in Shanghai. However, this situation was a little different. I was paying a private individual for a service.
I asked Channa what he thought about the issue. My gracious host explained to me how for services in Sri Lanka, there is often a price for locals and a different price for foreigners. These prices should ideally be fixed, so all parties know how much they are expected to pay. When you go to a major grocery store in Sri Lanka, for example, all items have the price clearly marked on the product. Channa remarked that the very fact that there was a discussion about how much I should be charged for the service suggests that the price was not fixed, and the fact that the barber immediately agreed to charge me the slightly lower price of 100 Rs indicates that I was initially given an inflated price.
The point of this post was to give more context to this recent event and offer some cultural insight as well. In a marketplace in which prices are fluid, travelers should be prepared to counter initial price quotes, as they may very well be inflated for foreigners. A larger point is that as an obvious foreigner living in the developing world, you have to become your own advocate. I have personally found myself having to advocate for myself more often out here in Sri Lanka than back home in the US. I have had to challenge doctors' assessments of my medical issues and their proposed treatment plans; I have had to yell from the back of a bus that we were approaching my stop so that I could make my way toward the front of the bus in time to exit at my desired location; and I have had to negotiate fares with trishaw drivers in Kandy who do not have meters and charge foreigners significantly inflated prices. This doesn't mean that the people in Sri Lanka are bad or only looking to swindle hapless Americans. It means you have to be a little more on guard than usual, and know when it is appropriate to negotiate the price of goods and services.
As Rabbi Hillel once asked, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?" Perhaps by asking these questions and contemplating the context surrounding the actions of all parties involved, we can arrive at a greater mutual understanding in places with vastly different cultures and practices.