By Hans Roovers
A long-cherished wish is fulfilled. For the first time, together with four friends, I am travelling outside the Western world. At three o’clock in the morning, the modern Sri Lankan Airlines Airbus lands at Sri Lanka’s only international airport in Colombo. It’s the beginning of February, in the Netherlands it’s freezing, but already on the plane stairs the sweat breaks out on all sides. It’s hot, but it’s mostly the high humidity that falls around me like a blanket.
An hour later, we board a two-year-old 9-person Nissan bus outside the airport building, with Neville behind the wheel, who will be touring the island for three weeks. Traffic seems like a mess. Despite the early hours, the road from the airport to Colombo is crowded. The road should be shared with pedestrians (some with elephants), cyclists, handcrugs, tuctucs (three-wheeled moped taxis), trucks, buses and passenger cars. Everyone catches up with everyone, using light signals and of course the horn. Twice we come across a “roadblock”. Stop, engine off, indoor lights on. Soldiers with machine guns and in combat suits look inside, while our driver has his papers checked. Just before 6:00 a.m., we get into bed at the luxury hotel in Colombo. Three more weeks…?
As so often, after a day everything looks different. The heat gets used to quickly, the speed differences make overtaking inevitable and all those signals are only meant to warn others. The roadblocks are intended to increase everyone’s security in a country where a minority (the Tamil Tigers) are fighting for self-government.
Sri Lanka gained independence on 4 February 1948. Afterwards, English was replaced as an official language by Sinhala (the language of the Sinhalese), which of course encountered objections among the Tamil people, which in turn meant that Tamil also became an official language. For practical reasons, English has since returned to the ‘higher level’, while only 10% of the population speaks English. Under various governments, the country has alternated between socialist races, or embraces capitalism. From 1983 onwards, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have been fighting for their own territory for the Tamil people in northern Sri Lanka. The conflict has already killed 68,000 Sri Lankans. In 2002, the two sides – the government and the Tamil Tigers – signed a peace agreement. Despite the peace process, the relationship between the two sides remains shaky and uncertain.
In 2001, everything seemed to go wrong in Sri Lanka. Rain didn’t come, in the southeast the harvests failed causing a famine, reservoirs became empty, so electricity was not always supplied. Scheduled elections were postponed several times, The Tamil Tigers carried out an attack on the national airport, destroying half the air fleet. To make matters worse, Western governments issued negative travel advice. But partly because of Norway’s efforts, the tide was turned. Since the beginning of 2002, a truce is respected, the peace seems to have ‘broken out’. Many weapons have been handed in, hundreds of thousands of mines have already been cleared. Roads to and from the North have been opened up and bus connections have been reopened. Furthermore, it rained exuberantly, there is no more famine and the rationing of electricity has steadily been reduced.
But then disaster struck: on 26 December 2004, several Indian Ocean countries, including Sri Lanka, were hit by a tsunami due to a very heavy sea quake. In Sri Lanka alone, more than 38,000 people were killed by this sea quake. The tsunami destroyed two-thirds of the coastline and more than a million Srilankans were displaced. In total, more than 290,000 people have died, the majority of them in Indonesia. Countries such as India and Thailand have also been hit hard. Especially in Thailand many tourists died.
From a tourist point of view, Thailand, the Maldives and Sri Lanka were especially affected. Tourism was the engine for economic growth here, but the tsunami caused the number of tourists to fall by 40% in the first quarter after the disaster. Of course, it is mainly the local entrepreneurs who have been hit hardest. The luxury chain hotels are owned by foreign investors, who can rebuild the facilities in no time. The local owners of restaurants and guesthouses are less fortunate: they are not insured and have no money to rebuild their business. It is precisely these entrepreneurs who contribute to the growth of the local economy, much more than the large hotel chains, whose money often flows to Western countries. Therefore, the aid should be directed at these local entrepreneurs.
Practice shows otherwise. To make way for large-scale tourist developments, local communities are forced to move to the interior. There is clearly a conflict going on between the affected locals and the government and the business community, who see tourism as a priority, not the needs of the local population. A lot of money is being pumped into tourism, while thousands of people still don’t have a new home. Nor should they rebuild their homes on the coast, as the “coastal buffer zone” is reserved for tourism and not for the local population.
Thailand rebuilt the tourist facilities at a record pace, but the tourists stayed away. That meant a huge problem for the population of Phuket, of which 80% depends on tourism.
Sri Lanka also suffered from declining visitor numbers just after the tsunami, but six months later there are even more tourists coming to the island than the year before. The Sri Lanka Tourist Board launched the “Bounce Back Sri Lanka” promotional campaign in early 2005, inviting more than 350 representatives from the tourism industry and the press to visit Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government gave tourism priority in the reconstruction of the country. Farmers and fishermen rebelled against this, as it meant that they had to move away from the coastal region in favour of tourism. This is completely contrary to the principles of sustainable tourism, where tourism is not at the expense of the local population, but rather there is consultation.
Due to the necessary reconstruction after the tsunami, there are plenty of opportunities to develop tourism in a sustainable way, with respect for nature and the environment and the involvement of the local population. They are given a second chance to build up tourism, where nature is not harmed and the local population earns money from tourism, in order to make a living. They have been assisted by international aid organisations, such as USAID and SNV.
Mix of cultures
There are large cultural differences in Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese make up the majority of the population. Veddahs is to be looked for emphatically, but that is not advisable. They lead an isolated life of fishing and hunting. They say they don’t interfere with money. However, the government has come to the point that they do take money from tourists, which has reigned over a debate with the aim of making these people pay taxes; something they have been exempt from until now. This is another good example that tourism does have a major impact on the way of life of the local population.
The Moors are Muslims, mainly traders, of Arab origin. They make up about 8% of the population and speak Sinhala or Tamil and usually English. Of the Tamils, who make up about 15% of the population, the vast majority live in the inaccessible north. They are almost all Hindu. Eight percent of the population calls themselves Christian (including the burghers, descendants of the Europeans, who make up about 1% of the population). Three-quarters of the population is Sinmentalees and they are mainly Buddhists.
Virtually all Christian holidays are celebrated, such as Easter and Christmas. In addition, there are three Muslim holidays, three Hindu and every full moon is Poya-day, on which virtually all shops are closed and the use of alcohol is taboo. On the other hand, our weekly calendar doesn’t say much and Sunday is a regular working day for most people.
Tourism in Sri Lanka is mainly present in the south and west of the island. Due to the civil war that took place in the north and east of the island, this area remains difficult for tourists to pass through. The conflict between the government and the Tamil Tigers seems infinite, making it difficult for the north and east of the country to pass and to be unsafe. Don’t be put off by this: The south and west of the island has plenty to offer for a beautiful holiday full of nature and culture.
Sun, sea and beaches make Sri Lanka an ideal place for a beach holiday. Many tourists book a package holiday to Sri Lanka and stay in one of the many all-inclusive resorts on the coast. But for those who want to look further, there are plenty of opportunities to go out and explore the island.
The compactness of the island, together with the relatively good infrastructure, lends itself ideally for excursions of one or more days. The old capitals as well as the national parks are well worth it, although it must be said that the chance to see large wildlife is small compared to destinations in Africa. Apart from elephants, there are countless birds, reptiles and monkeys in Sri Lanka, although there are certainly predators. There are those who claim that there are still tigers in the wild.
If you want to see more of Sri Lanka, book a tour, with a group or individually. This tour can be booked from the Netherlands, but of course also on site. Often everything is included: the flight, transport with driver, luxury accommodations, meals and excursions. Such tours, however, leave very limited room for your own interpretation, and one gets to know a country created by the tourism industry. The tourists only come into contact with the locals by, for example, a performance of a dance group in the hotel: really getting to know the population is not there.
The latter is in any case an enterprise by a language barrier. Unexpectedly few people speak English, and Sinhala is not just taught. The language is a mixture of English, Portuguese, Dutch and Indian, but the writing is just as beautiful as it is difficult: 46 characters for as many sounds plus add-ons to change those sounds.
On the way from one destination to another, workshops and the like are regularly stopped, where tours are given and where, of course, the possibility is offered to purchase the production. It’s all cheap, an extra suitcase for the souvenirs is not an unnecessary luxury. Two euros for a visit to a zoo is very cheap for us, but the locals pay much less: a few cents. This mechanism of price discrimination occurs in many destinations. It is good that this mechanism exists, given that the local population earns so much less than we earn in the west. And so nature reserves and cultural-historical heritage remain accessible to the inhabitants of the area. In the zoo, the amount we pay more largely benefits the animals.
Besides the beach lovers, there is also a lot to do for the true adventurer in Sri Lanka. If you want to experience the real Sri Lanka, book a one-night hotel flight. Although you won’t always be where you wanted to go in the morning, you’ve guaranteed to experience the day of your life every time.
Public transport is not a problem at all. Where the train is available, it is definitely recommended. The prices are really low. The tracks may not be as tight as we are used to in Europe, but they are sufficiently safe and the Russian equipment is quite comfortable. No wonder you don’t have to throw waste out of the train: all the more so that houses are often right next to the track and the laundry has to dry somewhere. Even cheaper are the buses. There are state-owned scheduled services alongside the slightly more comfortable vans of private companies, but for both: full means driving, and then as quick as possible. Tuctucs are always available for shorter distances. There can be up to three adults in it, but then there is no room for luggage. As with the taxis, it is wise to arrange a price for the ride in advance: otherwise they will ask way more in the end.
If you prefer a little more security, rent a car with a driver. It is as expensive as driving yourself and so in all cases you have someone who knows the road, knows the customs, gives advice in many cases and if necessary translates. Also very important is that the driver can often tell a lot about the country, the population and the excursions to visit. So you have a guide and driver in one. A car with a driver can be rented for several days. Of course you are responsible for his meals and shelter. Sometimes this is already included in the price.
Life expectancy in Sri Lanka is relatively high, child mortality relatively low. Unlike in the Western world, the family size in Sri Lanka remains high, with the result that the population is growing strongly. If the Sri Lankans had not had a strong bond with elephants, there probably would not have been an elephant living in the wild on the island at this time. But fortunately the relationship with the elephants is very strong and the Sri Lankans are committed to protecting their habitat. It is true that their habitat is strongly threatened by the advancing urbanisation. Some areas are reserved as a national park in which all wildlife is protected, but wild elephants can be found almost anywhere on the island, of course with the exception of the cities. In the dark they feast on the trees just along the roads.
An elephant handler (a mahout) with his elephant on the road is not a rare sight in Sri Lanka: they are on their way to a job on land or in a forest. Elephants love water: a mahout that is scrubbing its elephant with half a coconut in a river or canal is not really remarkable to see after a few days. The same elephants are used for tourist tours of the jungle.
In Pinawela, elephants are taken care of that have been injured or orphaned by an accident. These elephants can never go back to the wild, economically speaking they should be slaughtered. However, a visit to Pinawela is not comparable to visiting elephants in a zoo in Europe. This is really a shelter for elephants where tourism takes care of the income. It is very special to see the elephants enjoying their daily bath in the river.
It is tempting to think that in a country where elephants and humans live so close together, elephants will be used to humans. However, in conflict situations, elephants have so far mostly mined and they are not likely to forget. Therefore, never approach an elephant, only at the invitation of his companion. If there is no companion, it is in all likelihood a wild elephant and it is wise to slowly but surely go away.
Do’s and dont’s
Facilities for elderly are virtually non-existent in Sri Lanka. Elderly and disabled people live with their family and if there is a need to improve the financial situation, there is little choice for these people. Begging is not really seen that much in Sri Lanka. The locals give these people a few coins from time to time. On the other hand, giving money to children arouses disapproval – and rightly so. A child who begs a hundred rupees in a few hours may have earned more than his father, with all the negative consequences that entails. School is then easily exchanged for a life on the street. A child posing for a photo or doing another small service should be rewarded with something useful for school.
It soon becomes noticeable that people in Sri Lanka speak to each other in a very soft tone. Whoever raises his voice loses his face. Therefore, anyone who calls someone to account in a harsh tone does not have to count on being right. It is better, where appropriate, to ask the person with whom one has a difference of opinion.
At the pool at the hotel or at the (private) beach you can dress as scarcely as you like, but nude or topless sunbathing is not allowed. On the street, correct clothing is appreciated. In Buddhist temples, bare legs and upper arms, as well as shoes and headgear, are forbidden.
In Sri Lanka people are regularly seen doing laundry in open water. Because water pipes are rare, many people also wash themselves in the rivers. Although one remains almost entirely dressed, this is an intimate affair. That’s why everyone goes underwater when you pass. Try not to look and make sure not to take pictures.
Sri Lanka as a destination
For a lazy beach holiday, Sri Lanka can be an ideal destination and because of its foreign currency this tourism is even welcomed by the government. In and at the tourist hotels there is some entertainment in the evening, but otherwise the evening and nightlife in Sri Lanka is not a big deal. Only in Colombo are some casinos.
Sri Lankans generally like Europeans. They are comfortable with our openness. However, they are well aware that our wallet is a lot thicker than theirs. Some common sense protects you from disappointments, although you will pay most bills in the company of locals.
Those who leave the tourist hotel are quickly addressed by someone who offers themselves as a guide, sometimes even claiming to belong to the hotel. Such a guide will guide you from shop to shop and he expects not only a tip from you, but also the commission of the shopkeepers, who for that reason are also not happy with this system. Don’t go into it. At most, an exception can be made for older women who invite you to visit their children’s shops. Unlike a guide, such a ‘mother’ usually does not go inside. If you have any doubts, you can simply check with the retailer.
Along the street, but also in shops, prices are rarely fixed unless clearly announced. So the intention is to negotiate the price. Nice side effect: it is often a reason for a conversation. Not wanting to negotiate can even be seen as derogatory.
Guides can be found almost everywhere many tourists come, for example at the beginning of hiking trails. Those who are not served by them, kindly but resolutely reject them. If a few times “no” does not produce the desired result, try it with “èpa” (Sinhala for: I do not want). Remember, moving the head back and forth is a confirmation.
Accommodation is in Sri Lanka in all types. There are luxury hotels and bungalow complexes that exude the atmosphere of colonial times, but there are also more contemporary occasions. Domestically, the choice is more limited and that means planning well or settling for what is on offer. The word “hotel” on a sign usually means nothing more than that something can be eaten in the area in question. Sri Lanka is not alone in this: in many other Asian countries, as well as in Africa, the word “hotel” is used to denote an eatery.
Sri Lankan cuisine is referred to as a delicious cuisine with lots of peppers. Meat curry, fish curry, chicken curry: for those who like spicy food, Sri Lanka is a paradise.
The country is shaped like a jewel, and it is – especially for those who take the time to look inland. Nature, ancient culture and beautiful vistas under a warm sun. Even the sky seems to want to work on the most beautiful contrasts. In the distance, above the sea, sometimes menacing black clouds hang, with the occasional flash of lightning. In the evening, those clouds also take possession of the island and ensure that everything is fresh and green again the next morning.
Sri Lanka is not a rich country by our standards, but anyone who looks further sees that it is a very rich country: rich in colour, in green and culture. Anyone who has heard the singing of children on a train, or the music from a bus in a traffic jam, who knows that these people live a relatively pleasant life.
It is to be hoped that the current peace will be permanent. Then in the future you will have to visit the entire island again. But more importantly, there will be no more casualties on both sides and the country can limit its spending on defence. The economy is not standing still in Sri Lanka, but until recently only population growth could barely be kept up.