Sri Lanka embraces its long history as the “pearl of the Indian Ocean”. It has had its share of rulers (Dutch, Portuguese, British), but now celebrated its 69th year of independence on February 4, 2017 (while we were there). Tradition and history lurk around every corner, and since the end of the civil war in 2009, modernization has been on the rise.
During our recent visit we stayed in two tea plantations and hiked among the tea plants. In Dikiya we stayed in a Governor’s Mansion that was visited by Queen Elizabeth in the 50's.
At this beautiful tea plantation, local women pick the fresh tea leaves in a methodical and organized fashion. We learned that each plant can be ready for picking every six days. The ladies work in groups – each picks her own row, selecting the freshest and newest leaves. They pick the bright green leaves on the top of the plant, leaving a spot for new growth to come.
The picking process has been the same for over 100 years. The ladies pick approximately 7 kilos per shift, and carry the bags of leaves on the back of their heads. It is a social endeavor – the ladies talk and laugh together while picking, and they receive frequent breaks for tea-time.
But now there is a modern twist. At the weighing station, the foreman uses a smart phone to scan the picker’s ID Card and register her in his database. Then he weighs her load and enters it on the phone. We don’t know if it’s beamed to the cloud immediately, but somewhere the “payroll department” receives it. The ladies earn $7 – 10 per day, depending on their productivity in picking.
Another of our plantation accommodations was on a hilltop, nestled among 125-year-old tea plants. The road to get there was so old and rutted that it could not accommodate a regular tourist van. Instead, we were shuttled up the 3 km mountain road in a trusty Land Rover. Most locals walked up and down the hill, but those who could afford it used the dependable tuk tuk.
The ladies used the same picking and tea-carrying methodology.
And, this plantation’s modern twist was… an infinity pool!
Colombo – Old and New
The Dutch Hospital in Colombo is considered to be one of the oldest buildings in Colombo. Recorded as early as 1681, it has housed a hospital and a police station. It’s a beautiful building with Dutch-style architecture, and is steeped in history. The 50-cm thick walls keep out the heat and humidity. Old illustrations show patients on mats and mattresses. (It’s doubtful that the food was very good back then …)
Now … it’s been restored and hosts several gourmet restaurants. One of them, The Ministry of Crab, is rated one of the top 50 restaurants in Asia. We enjoyed dinner with our traveling companions, even though the restaurant charges New York prices! Keep Calm and Crab On!
At Colombo’s Independence Day Parade (held on Feb 2, 3, and 4), the traditional falcon-handlers were showing off their prowess in front of the Galle Face Hotel.
Traditional bands and drum cores marched through the streets with a huge show of military pride.
And, with a nod to the modern, the parade also included PT-boats, missiles and drones!
The Galle Face Hotel is the grand-dame of Asian hotels. Built in 1854, it has hosted celebrities from Arthur Conan Doyle to Scarlet Johansson. Now it’s a gracious, elegant respite with lovely restaurants and vistas. A marching brigade plays bagpipes at sundown and marches to lower the Sri Lankan flag. The pool is delightful and the Gin & Tonics are plentiful.
However, we saw that they were dredging the area to the right of the hotel (on the Galle Face Green). A Chinese company is developing an entire marina, complete with Hotel and Casino. Yikes! This is not the type of modernization that we would favor. Hopefully it won’t wreck the peace and tranquility of the lovely hotel.
Due to UNESCO World Heritage status, the ancient 5th Century AD palace of Sigiriya has been maintained by archeologists. Nestled atop a steep rock, there are the foundations of palaces, throne rooms, gardens and swimming pools.
While climbing down the rock, we watched a cobra snake charmer do his “magic”! Nothing modern here.
The ancient city of Polonnaruwa, from 13th Century, once hosted 20,000 residents but has been abandoned for 900 years. Beautiful ruins and statues still grace the area.
Yet, even near this ancient area, we stayed at a modernist, exciting hotel designed by Sri Lankan architect, Geoffrey Bawa. It has only 141 rooms but boasts one of the longest hotel corridors in the world. We almost reached our 10,000 steps on our Fitbits by walking to and from breakfast!
Riding the Rails
One area that has not been modernized is Sri Lanka’s train system. It is still reliable, heavily used, and a bit slow. The passing lanes are still monitored manually by a conductor.
And each station is a period-piece.
But the ride through the tea fields was beautiful and we arrived safely to our destination. Luckily we didn't need the "travelling repair van".
Another Old and New City
On our trip back to the US, we stopped for a 36-hour layover in Singapore. This city-state exemplifies the exquisite combination of old and new. The Raffles Hotel is still a gracious queen of civility nestled among high rises.
And the Singapore Sling, a traditional delicious concoction that originated at this hotel, is served with grace … but once again, at New York prices.
The "Slings" allowed us to conclude our trip with a (albeit pricey) toast to this wonderful adventure!