By Hien Hjortlund
What do you expect from a country that has gone through a 30 years of bloody civil war? When we first met and started dating, Preben would show me the photo album of the first foreign country he visited. He was there as a young university intern working at Ceylon Leather Products Company app. 30 years ago – a leather factory – and stayed at the house of the high ranking CEO of several SOEs, Prof. Lakshman R. Watawala – Past President of the Sri Lanka Chartered Accounting Institute, President of CMA Sri Lanka and Board Member of several public companies that trade at the Colombo Stock exchange.
He would also point to this or that photo and sadly say the person in the photo was assassinated or he was shot while campaigning and the list goes on. For the last 20 years every time my husband mentioned Sri Lanka and said he wished one day he could take the family to see it, I would always try to push the issue off. I have seen enough of misery and poverty in my own country, why should I go that far to see more? And then in the middle of our ski holiday in the white wilderness of Norway last Christmas, we talked about the following Christmas and how we should be somewhere warm and different. Sri Lanka was such a good idea that everyone immediately agreed.
Finally in Sri Lanka!
And here we come, December 2013! Colombo – the capital city of Sri Lanka. It is my habit to judge a strange country the minute I step off the plane and walk to the airport, see the security folks and the road leading to the city. The four-lane high way stretch of 45-minute drive is such a nice surprise with speed and traffic signs just like somewhere in Europe. No motorbikes on the highway – what a relief!
The airport is nothing special but not something you have to complain about. But it is the people who put me at ease. Not only do the officers look good in their well-fit uniform, but they are so friendly. They always address you as ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’ with a warm smile. Later on, I witness its vast hospitality at work in various circumstances and people I met, talked or just passing by in the car.
Sri Lanka has it all
We stayed at the Galle Face which was built since 1864. It is an established grand hotel so rich in tradition of those colonial days by British. There is even an antique car displayed at the back of the hotel to be said as the first car of Prince Phillip – husband of Queen Elizabeth II. The hotel is perched on the Indian sea with the garden looking over the sea. Having afternoon tea at the garden while enjoying the spectacular sunsets is such a sweet romantic thing for me.
During our 10 day trip, we would switch four different hotels and experience four different kinds of landscape and also its varied climate. Sri Lanka has it all. The country is blessed by Mother Nature with so much favour. They have sea, mountains, rivers, lakes, waterfalls, tea plantations, safaris. It helps also as they don’t have too many natural disasters.
The country is so green. A lot of landscape and urban planning was laid out since British days. But what amazes me is how they are so well maintained. A walk into the Botanical Garden near Kandy city is such an overwhelming experience. The fact that there are no tea vendors or shops popping up anywhere selling anything like we often see in every corner in Vietnam helps maintain the cleanness of the huge garden.
I watched many groups of local adults and children having lunch picnics on the meadow, under the shade of big trees. I didn’t see any trash or litter after they left. Everybody eats their picnic lunch quietly, not disturbing other guests. The entrance ticket is not cheap (at US$ 10 per person) but there is always a queue at the ticket boxes. I don’t remember enjoying such a walk in a long time. Growing up near a big botanical garden in Hanoi, it was as a matter of fact a playground in my childhood, but today I can hardly see it as a botanical garden any longer.
Use of English
I have to admit that our trip was so much smoother and so enjoyable also thanks to our excellent driver cum guide. He was so adorable and professional that we never considered him a paid driver but as a friend. His sense of humour did not do any harm either. We would have lunches or a drink or two with him whenever he could. My curiosity is always satisfied with his explanation in excellent English.
Almost everywhere we go we can easily communicate with people in English. The country has three official languages: Sinhala, Tamil and English. You will see it in all official signs or announced in all three languages by the stewardess in their national airline carrier SriLankan Airways. But English is probably the language to bring the divided nation together. English is taught as one of its official language since Grade 1.
What Sri Lanka inherits from the British system must be their education. The country is proud to be very strong in providing professional accountants and auditors of international standards. You can see that education is strongly emphasised in this nation. It is worth to note that all schools are free of fees from elementary to university.
A good grade will help you land a better university but it is not the end of the world if you fail as you can enter a less prestigious college though the diplomas are of the equal merit. All uniforms are provided by the Government free of charge. I can see the country obsessed with uniforms. Each school has their own kind of uniform. Lunches at school are subsidised by the Government.
The Peradeniya University next to the Botanical Gardens has impressive sports facilities, such as football and cricket fields, with a vast immaculate grass lawn. There is a very strong academic environment, with separate dorms for male and female students. Students have holidays every three months and they can even protest if they don’t like something. One day we passed a row of students sitting comfortably under a roofed hut with a banner in front. I asked the driver and he said it was a student protest. A very peaceful protest for whatever reason and no Police around to disturb them. After taking a picture of them, I gave them a thumbs-up for encouragement.
In Sri Lanka there are many youth centres where young people can further their study or learn a new thing there while still working. It can be electronic, human management and even landscape designing. The courses are mostly done during the weekend. We visited one of the centres named after a former Minister who was shot dead while campaigning to become President, Lalith Athulathmudali, whom my husband admired so much and with whom he was friends.
Sri Lanka has so much to offer
Now I understand why people kept coming to Sri Lanka even during the war. The country has so much to offer in a very professional way. All the rest stops – whether at a tea plantation, a gem exhibition centre, a carpentry workshop or a spice garden – are arranged in a way that leaves an everlasting experience for the tourists and each trip is always ended at one of its many amazing shops. It is time to open your wallet. But you don’t feel exploited. You are happy to bring home some of the memories, aren’t you?
We come to a Galle Fort which was built by the Dutch and later on fell into the hands of the British. It reminds me a lot of Hoi An in Vietnam. I can see a new invasion of foreigners there as the Government’s policy offers tax free status for those who buy the property and run a business rather than just own it. It is highly recommended to spend a night or two there, preferably at the Old Colonial Hotel which was the former military headquarters of British commanders.
No devastating poverty
Our trip has covered several kilometres through many cities and villages. I can still see the poverty but not devastating poverty like you often see in Vietnam. People here never go to bed hungry. They may live in all kinds of different houses, but the houses in the countryside surprise me most. They are done with taste. Being a person interested in architecture, I can imagine I could easily live in one of those houses. Many two storey houses with gardens are dotted all along the way to Kandy city.
Cinnamon Citadel Hotel is a nice experience with a sprawling view of a long river in the background of the tropical forest. Such a magnificent view! I never get tired of watching it. Have you ever see big huge trees grow in the middle of the lake? What a fascinating scene! Come to The Safari Hotel! Huge lake with huge trees.
But hey something is missing. Where are those ugly big buildings made from the same mould called ‘People’s Committee’ that one can see in every district or commune in Vietnam? Simply, we don’t see it here in Sri Lanka! I once spotted a very modest sign named ‘Municipal Council’ in a low single-storey house. However we see a lot of ‘Irrigation Department’. It says a lot about the priority in the governing of this country.
Sri Lanka is a country of Buddhism. Its philosophy and worship can be seen everywhere and in every aspect of life. I passed a funeral and I saw how peaceful, neat and respectable it was. All the funeral symbols are in white and guests come also in clean white robes.
We also visited the Temple of the Tooth, where everyone has to take off their shoes and hats and women as well as men have to cover upper arms and legs. A security lady will help you to reinforce the law by adjusting women’s scarves in a curtained booth.
Construction is everywhere
The whole time of the trip, Vietnam is always at the back of my mind. I can’t help comparing. The two countries have quite a lot in common. We both has two devastating wars, but how far has Vietnam gone after 38 years of peace while peace was restored in Sri Lanka just four years ago?
Construction is everywhere. Around Galle Face Hotel in Colombo, Shangri-la and Grand Hyatt will be opened in 2015. Galle Face itself is also under complete renovation. Sri Lanka’s GDP today is around US$ 3,500.
Traveling to Sri Lanka can be a bit of problem as there still aren’t many direct flights just yet. We are very grateful for the trip customised by Adisti Travel in Bangkok, especially for the wholehearted involvement by Bent and Stig. So again thank you so much.
(Hanoi, January 2014)