What to visit when you’re in Sri Lanka? Definitely Sigiriya. This was the answer to that questions no matter who we asked. And finally, we were there. Isolated from locals, paying a horrendous entry fee climbing artificial stairs on an otherwise natural sight. And this was not the only experience of that kind.
Traveling to Asia has always the idea of a cheap or let’s say affordable holiday for us Europeans. Have you ever been to Sri Lanka? Maybe you have changed your mind.
Sigiriya – The Lion Rock
An experience that every Sri Lanka visitor just has to make is the climb up to the top of Sigiriya. If you google it, you easily find out that locals call it the eighth wonder of the world. In ancient times it was a palace as well as a fortress and royal home of king Kasyapa. He built his home for himself and his several wives – which can be seen by a number of separated bedrooms that can still be identified among today’s ruins. However, the rock plateau was also decorated with frescoes of his wives – they show dancing and celebrating nude females. There was also a large mirror wall, which today is just a stone wall – you have to kick-start your imagination to see the mirror wall there. Apart from this, the rock is just a rock with a lot of stairs made by men to enable us tourists to climb it. The main entrance was once a huge lion made of stone. Today, you can only see its feet marking another round of steps towards the top.
Even though it was wonderful climbing the rock with all it has to offer, we were still disappointed on how tourists were handled. The ticket booth was located far away from another ticket booth reserved for locals. Tourists pay 30 US Dollars to climb the rock – locals pay around 50 cents. Of course, I respect the price difference of locals and tourists, especially in a country like Sri Lanka, where the wages are much, much lower than ours. But still – the thought of a rip-off accompanied us all the way up to the top. Locals even have different routes up the hill … this left a couple of questions open for us.
Temple of Tooth
An even extremer version of this experience was our visit to the Temple of Tooth. In this temple, a tooth of Buddha is believed to be kept in a very elaborate box, that’s in another box, which is in another box and so on. The temple itself is beautiful – there is no other word for it. The white walls you can see from the outside are breathtaking, and the inside is even more beautiful. However, we were again shoved to a ticket booth only for foreign visitors. We had to pay a fee to a person who is looking after our shoes, as of course you cannot enter a temple with shoes. We were offered flowers to sacrifice, but our guide pushed us forward, shouting instructions to us, almost like a drill sergeant. One look to the side was punished by the separation of the group and of the guide and you had to search for him amongst hundreds of people.
We were “lucky”, as we arrived at the right time and on the right day. Only at certain points of time, the shrine is opened and the box keeping the box of the box of the box with the tooth is revealed to the praying Buddhists. This definitely explains the masses of people. We were pushed and pulled through the crowds, not allowed to buy any flowers to give as a sacrifice, we were hushed and led forward. No photos please. Our guide shouted at us “Push” and “Come on” and “Faster”, but I was not willing to do this. Around us, there were people praying, Buddhists holding up their folded hands, some of them with tears down their cheeks. How could I – as a tourist – be so bold to push away people praying to something they consider to be holy? Who am I to run through a crowd giving thanks to their God and to push them away? What kind of person would use elbows and knees just to get a glimpse of something that is holy to the locals, who are otherwise separated from visitors in every possible way?
I was close to tears. The way locals were treated by tourists and – even worse – their local guides was horrifying. No respect, just greedy touristy eyes. I just wanted to leave. As beautiful as this temple undoubtedly is, and as sacred the shrine with the tooth of Buddha is to the locals, as sad is the memory of my visit there. It is just linked with capitalistic and greedy people, disrespecting beliefs and heritage. Oh, and the guide wanted us to tip him, as he was so competent on guiding us through the masses … go and see the temple when the shrine is not opened. You most likely won’t have these masses of people to cope with or pushy guides looking for some extra money. You wouldn’t see a lot anyway …
Buying local products at a market in Asia has always been a great experience for me. However, taking a closer look at the mementoes for sale in Sri Lanka you can see stickers saying “Made in Taiwan” and “Made in China” on them. Cheap souvenirs you might think now … not. The prices are just like European souvenirs or clothes. I know, this might sound like a typical capitalistic European point of view for you … but if you have been to other Asian countries, where local products are sold and you can have fun with the market guys bargaining and exchanging jokes and stories, you will be disappointed in Sri Lanka. Normally, it makes a lot of fun bargaining on an Asian market. It’s been different for me in Sri Lanka. If you don’t want to pay European prices, you can leave. You won’t get a smile or a funny story. You might even be shouted at.
Unfortunately, we have experienced a number of stories like this in Sri Lanka. On the other hand, we met lovely people, local guides that are not only looking for western money. We have seen true beauty in the temples and landscapes off the beaten tracks and will definitely remember our trip there well. With a tiny footnote. Which will always be there a like a little shadow – separation from locals, high prices and disrespect for the country’s heritage. I hope this will change some day.