Today…was going to be a long one! My host had a whole day planned out for me based on what I told him I wanted to see and do, and the first thing on that list was the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. The driver met me at the house at about 7am for the hour-long drive to the orphanage. I was a bit concerned after reading a few reviews the night before about the treatment of the elephants, and this was something I had to see for myself. As we entered the grounds, the first thing on the schedule was to accompany them during a feeding. This took place in a large open field that was part of the expansive forested grounds. For about an hour, we were able to view the elephants and, if we wanted, to take pictures with them. Something felt way too amusement park-ish for me about the whole charade, as handlers would aggressively reign you in to take a picture, after which they’d ask for a ‘donation,’ so I refrained from the novelties, electing to stand back a bit and just observe what was happening.
For the most part, it all seemed ok, until I started walking around the grounds on my own. That’s when I noticed an elephant that was chained up behind some trees, hidden from obvious view, and it was extremely apparent the elephant was distraught. I didn’t know what to make of it, and asked one of the english-speaking guides, and they explained to me that that was a particularly unruly elephant that was kept away from the rest of the pack because of aggressive behavior. While the explanation certainly made sense, seeing as how I’m no elephant expert, it was still disturbing to see this and to this day, I’m still at odds of what to make of it.
After the feeding, they marched the elephants down to the river for their daily washing. Here, the difference in the elephants demeanor was quite obvious. They were happy. They frolicked and wandered and danced and posed while they bathed themselves and each other in the warm tropical waters of the Maha Oya river. No kidding, if you looked closely enough, them buggers were smiling! It was a gorgeous and majestic site to behold and be a part of. This went on for close to 90 minutes. I had time to take some pictures, grab lunch on the terrace overlooking the river, and then take some more pictures before they marched them back to the orphanage grounds, which marked the end of our visit. Here's a few moments from this elephant experience:
On the drive back through the mountains to Kandy, the driver was pointing out various spice gardens, and asked if I’d like to visit one. I was certain he had some sort of arrangements with some of these establishments, but honestly, I didn’t care - yes, I was here, and I wanted to see a spice garden. So he pulled off into the Saffron Spice & Herbal Garden just outside the elephant orphanage in Kegalle, and it was well worth it. The guide spent a solid hour walking me through the grounds, showing me various spices and herbs they were organically growing, from cardamom to cinnamon to aloe, cocoa, and ginger, as well as the various tonics and lotions made from these very spices. I got a sandlewood lotion face and head massage, and then a solid 15 minute back and neck massage in an outdoor gazebo before drowsily making my way back out to my waiting driver.
One of the things that was on the way back to town were 3 temples that were apparently a must see. Each of them was built from a different material and each of these mixed Hindu/Buddhist ‘devales’ was built in honor of a different god whose job it was to protect the city. First on the list was stone temple of Gadaradeniya Viharaya, then the brick temple, Lankatilake Viharaya, and finally, the temple of wood the Embekka Devale. There was no denying the historical significance of these structures. Once you hopped around to sufficiently allow your bare feet to acclimate to the hot concrete of the grounds (you’re required to remove your shoes), once you stepped into each temple, you can’t help but notice the details that remained after almost 700 years of weather and war and general wear and tear. The wood carvings - the stone sculptures - it was mind-boggling. And it was hard not to feel the calming effect of being in the presence of revered deities that have been worshipped on these grounds for centuries - a mood that was completely ruined by the one one extremely off-putting aspect of these Devale visits - the constant hounding for ‘donations.’
Every step of the way, from the moment you walked in to the moment you left, you were trailed by a different ‘tour guide’ or ‘temple keeper’ or whatever title they decided to throw on the un-assuming tourist at the time. It was truly a shame because the more it happened, the more irritating it became, and the less I wanted to visit the next temple. It proved to be an extreme detriment to actually enjoying and fully absorbing the weight and significance of these beautiful structures. I understand that this is an impoverished nation, and people need to make a buck, and as a tourist, I have no problem with it, but the irony of this particular situation was, if I wasn’t hounded, and there was a simple box at the front, I would have voluntarily left more than I actually ended up giving these self appointed ‘guides.’
Anyhow, not to be deterred, I was determined to hit up one more landmark that was on my list before we began to lose sun on my final day in Kandy, and, well, my final full day in Sri Lanka, as I was scheduled to be on a plane the following night to begin my journey back home. So I had the driver take me to the Bahiravokanda Vihara, a towering 85 foot concrete Buddha statue that stands on a hill over the city, offering one of the best vantage points to take in the landscape and topography of Kandy. After watching monks run up and down the stairs entering and leaving the temple at the base of the statue, I made my way up the stairs alongside the statue that lead you to the shoulder of Buddha, from where you have an unbelievable panoramic view of the city. This is where I spent the final waning moments of the day. I was completely alone…watching…breathing…seeing…reflecting…just me and Buddha and the vibes of Kandy, “The Cultural Center of Sri Lanka.”
Just as the sun was setting a couple of girls visiting from Germany made their way to the shoulder. After trading stories of how we ended up on the top of a Buddha in the midst of the Sri Lankan highlands together, we quietly watched the sun set behind the hills as the lights around the city began to twinkle. It was perfect.
Once the show was over, we walked back down the stairs together and decided to accompany each other to the Muslim Hotel for a highly anticipated kottu dinner, a version of Sri Lankan street vendor food. The rhythmic beat of the blades on the iron skillets, chopping up the noodles and the chicken and the beef and the vegetables across the town center are impossible to ignore, and according to just about everyone we asked, the Muslim hotel had some of the city’s best. And they were right. We indulged in various shared dishes and drinks, while we laughed and joked both at and with each other. I couldn’t have asked for a better last Sri Lankan supper.
This was the point where we had to bid farewell to each other. They had to get back to their group and I had to get back to the apartment to get my stuff together to begin the journey back home to Los Angeles, California the following morning.
Below is a gallery of images from this fine day, from beginning to end. Click on any of the images and it'll pull up a lightbox slideshow.
Be sure to check back in a few days for the conclusion and final throughts of this life-altering trip. If you’ve missed the first parts and would like to start from the beginning on this multi-faceted Sri Lankan adventure, click here for 3 Weeks In Sri Lanka – Part 1 : The Most Meaningful Work I’ve Ever Done.
All images and videos for this series of blog posts were shot with a Samsung NX1.
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