I arrived in Sri Lanka without a specific plan. Time and weather seemed to dictate that the Hill Country area would make the most sense for me to visit. Thursday I set off by train for Kandy, the capital of the Hill Country region. Reaching Kandy proved slightly problematic. The train stopped a few hours into the trip and then stayed stopped for about two hours. I was never exactly able to find out what happened, but I think it had something to do with rocks in the tracks. As dusk approached the mosquito situation went from bad to out of control, and I started to worry that I was going to once again show up in an unfamiliar city after dark. The train did start to move again, but it turned out that even though I had been sold a ticket to Kandy the train wouldn’t be going all the way to Kandy. Eventually I was able to figure out how to get from where the train stopped to Kandy via a series of buses. The next morning I set off to explore Kandy.
According to some guide books Kandy is often considered to be the only “real” city besides Colombo and is home to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth (Sri Dalada Maligawa). The temple is home to one of the Buddha’s teeth (believed to be the only surviving tooth of the Buddha). Possession of the tooth, which was first brought to Sri Lanka during the fourth century, is believed to instill the right to control Sri Lanka. After being initially brought to Sri Lanka the tooth has been seized several times throughout history, and is now considered to be a symbol of Sri Lankan independence. Security to get into the temple is very high; I assumed it was because it’s an important landmark, but apparently it’s also because the temple was bombed in 1998.
The other main attraction in Kandy is Kandy Lake (the Temple of the Sacred Tooth is situated along the lake). The lake is an artificial lake that was constructed by Sri Wickrama Rajasinha in 1807.
I know I mentioned it before, but it became even more apparent just how few foreign tourists there are in Sri Lanka. I didn’t expect Sri Lanka to be teeming with tourists, but I had assumed that it would be relatively easy to meet up with other backpackers and go trekking. Instead I am finding that even in restaurants recommended by popular guidebooks I am often the only foreigner, and I have yet to see another foreigner on a train or bus here. It seems like for the most part tourists in Sri Lanka are still sticking to hiring cars and guides and going from site to site that way. For many backpackers this isn’t a feasible way to travel, and personally I feel a lot less safe alone in a car with a driver than on crowded public transportation.
I am excited that I was able to go to Sri Lanka, but I am starting to think this is one place that I would have been better off not traveling to alone. It should be noted that I headed off to Sri Lanka without a guide book. This quickly proved to be poor idea and I purchased the new Lonely Planet guide to Sri Lanka yesterday. I think I still would have come to Sri Lanka even if I had read the guide book first, but reading the guide book definitely gave me some safety perspective that I had been lacking.
One of the main activities in the Hill Country is trekking; and the area is home to some very famous treks. Trekking on your own is rarely advisable, but I assumed that some of the trails would be popular enough that I could do so in relative safely. Not so says the guide book. It suggests that you always trek in pairs here, and has extra warnings for women traveling alone. In fact that guide book has lots of warnings for women traveling alone in Sri Lanka. They don’t advise against doing it (and so far nothing it my experience here would make me advise against doing it either), but they do say that you will be hassled a lot, should be really careful about walking around after dark, and be cautious about buses and not ride trains (so how am I supposed to get around?). Of course I had already ridden trains and walked around after dark by the time I read that, and even after reading the guide book those two things still fall under acceptable risk for me. However when it comes to trekking alone I think common sense has to win out and I can’t justify it as an acceptable risk.
Personally I haven’t felt physically threatened at any point in Sri Lanka, but the relentless stares and comments serve as a constant reminder that there are elements here that are determined to make sure that women don’t feel safe walking around alone.
Given all this the question facing me was how to spend the remainder of my time in Sri Lanka. I ended up deciding to take a bus to the hill station Nuwara Eliya where I can see if there are any group tours to trekking areas.