Solo in Sri Lanka; Kandy to Dambulla

So after just over a week of taking in the cultural sights and ‘must-see’ landscaped treasures of Sri Lanka, paying altogether a hell of a lot more money for absolutely everything than I have been for the past month in India, I have arrived in Arugam Bay (aka probably the hottest and most touristic place I’ve ever been). Even in Uganda, I don’t remember it being this sweltering, although admittedly the lifestyle and everyday activities differed quite a bit, yoga and surfing being the order of the day here coupled with a sickening amount of loved up couples and families intent on spending every moment browsing for elephant pants and drinking cocktails on the beach. Not a bad life, in fairness. But far more expensive than what I’ve become accustomed to.

After a night at First Hostel in Negombo, I travelled East to Kandy in the hopes of witnessing the infamous Esala Perahera festival – a yearly occurrence which as a happy accident fell during my stay in Sri Lanka this year. I was excited, to say the least, with the promise of a traditional Buddhist elephantine ceremonial festival, the kind with lights and music and costumes the likes of which I’ve only ever seen on tv (and let’s face it, Instagram too)!

I won’t go into it too much, but suffice it to say that as a spectacle the Perahera amazes and does what you’d hope it to after crowds beginning to gather along the streets from 2 in the afternoon to wait hours in their spot until sunset. It’s fascinating and mesmerizing to watch the never-ending troupes of dancers, drummers and fire acrobats proceed up the street interspersed with extravangently dressed and decorated elephants. The feet of these elephants are chained so tightly they can only take tiny steps of about one foot a time, while their eyes somehow see out through slits in heavy, embroidered material draped over them from trunk to toe and making them resemble giant blundering tea cosies. Very beautiful giant blundering tea cosies. But let’s not forget that these are extremely intelligent, graceful, and powerful animals. Moreso than humans, when in their natural habitat.

How would you feel being forced to wear a tea cosy draped with Christmas lights and made walk up and down streets to be photographed night after night??
This, combined with the inherent whipping of the ground which signalled the beginning of the procession and more than likely served as a means of terrifying the elephants into complying, was distressing to witness and I instantly disconnected from the whole experience, festival atmosphere dwindling as each depressed and gloomy looking elephant blindly lumbered past. As I said, the spectacle of the parade was great, and the lights and costumes enough to warrant the fame and draw of the Perahera. I just couldn’t see past the chains.

From Kandy I took a public bus to Dambulla for only 100 Sri Lankan Rupees (less than a euro) which was fine considering the trip was only 3 hours long and I actually managed to get a seat. The journey back was a different story. More on that later.
Robert’s Inn in Dambulla proved a welcoming and entertaining guesthouse stay, with tours and excursions to the surrounding area available at the mere mention of a temple (Robert is very enthusiastic), and a very hospitable family in general. The town of Dambulla itself is fairly downbeat and local, but there are hundreds of tiny guesthouses and homestays tucked away down dust roads such as the one I stayed, nearly all of which offer independent guided tours and jeep excursions to the things to see in the area, which are all quite spread out and make jeep and tuk-tuk rides an unfortunate necessity. They’re not all that bad though, and considering I saw some wild elephants and climbed a pretty cool rock I wasn’t altogether bothered to have to fork out some extra rupees on transport.

This brings me on to my next point – Sigiriya Rock. Don’t do it. Several travellers I met in India had warned me about it and the expenses of Sri Lankan tourist attractions as a whole, but like anything else, the full extent and expense of the place was lost on me until I had spent a few days here and experienced it for myself. Sigiriya Rock is one of the most recognised attractions in Sri Lanka, and is part of the ‘cultural triangle’, of which I only completed one acute angle, as expenses convinced me otherwise. Because of this (as is the case with a lot of India) the entrance fees and add-on taxes for foreign guests have become extortionate in recent years. In order to dodge this in Dambulla, myself and some friendly Slovenians opted to climb Pidurangala Rock – directly opposite Sigiriya and substantially less swamped with slow-paced tourists with deep pockets and thoroughly unsuitable footwear.
This thirty-minute climb – steep steps for the first ten, and thereafter a curious toddler’s dream on hands and knees up through rocks and crevices in an unclear direction,is ultimately completely worth the uncertainty as soon as the peak is reached, the rocks disperse, and all of a sudden you can see across the plains to Sigiriya Rock and beyond to the ends of the earth (or so it seems). I couldn’t help but be awestruck. Smugness materialized then as my eyes adjusted and I spotted clearly the winding line of tourists meandering the way to the summit of the overcrowded sister rock to the one I’d just conquered. The handful of likeminded climbers who had also chosen Pidurangala took turns holding each others cameras and attempting to capture the beauty and isolating freedom of the place – which proved difficult!
The descent was much quicker, and we were back down on the dust track road by 11am.

 That afternoon our host also took us out (for a fee, of course) to Minneriya National Park, a great place to spot elephants in their natural habitat, no chains or silly costumes or lights attached and a terrain that reminded me of Jurassic Park from the get-go. We were lucky to catch huge groups of them grazing peacefully and cutting across the dust paths ahead of our open-topped jeep, in search of more grass and pretty much doing whatever the hell they liked. In the wild!

We also saw herds of wild buffalo, deer, and hundreds of different species of colourful birds and dragonflies, which flitted through the open sides and top of the jeep as we trailed home through the dust. It was pretty magical!
After a night spent fulfilling necessary maintanence work like washing my clothes and budgeting for the unexpected new expenses I’d encountered, I mentally prepared myself for the inevitable day of uncomfortable cross-country travel that lay ahead….

 

A Monk, a Ginger, and a Picturesque Palace

A young Buddhist monk clad in orange robes and flimsy, thin sandals holds up a smartphone. I quickly stow mine away. Who knows where he’s had it hidden, those robes look fairly impractical when it comes to storage and safe keeping of things.
All of a sudden the tables have turned, and now I am the subject of interest; the main attraction; the pale, ginger alien from afar. For some reason all I can think of is how violently those orange robes would clash with my hair if I ever had to wear them.
I glance around the vast grounds of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, uncomfortably in search of the tour group I’d wandered away from. The young monks, (the eldest can’t be older than about 13) have started giggling amongst themselves now, as my anxiety spikes higher and I grow visibly flustered. Or maybe it’s just the heat?
They clearly don’t know how to put the camera switch on silent mode either, I grumble internally, as I hear the phone make the ‘click’ and ‘click’ and ‘click’ noises of this impromptu photo shoot.
Surely this is against some religious code or regulations, surely they’re not allowed to do things like this? What happened to empathy, understanding, treating fellow humans with respect and privacy??
As my frustration builds I realise that I’ve been guilty of all those things I just listed as being ‘out-of-bounds’ for the monks. Me and the thousands of other tourists who pass through their home everyday and gawp in awe at their clothes, their houses and schools – their entire world. It hardly seems fair that they should have to put up with it, but then again, Cambodia has many aspects to it that Westerners would consider unjust. The Khmer people just accept things as they are.
The grandeur of the Palace in Phnom Penh is testament to that, as I consider the riches and perfectly preened gardens and hedgerows in comparison to the wildness, the go-karting, free-wheeling adventures of the city streets beyond. Somehow everything in here seems calmer, as if the Playstation game has been put on pause and everything moves in slow motion until you’re ready to go again.
I eventually spot the gaggle of excited Chinese tourists who were part of my group by the submarine-pipe heads of their selfie-sticks bobbing above the crowds. Glancing behind me, I notice that the monks have fallen back, now sullen in their observation of the mass of tourists and my re-assimilation into it after a brief escapade into their camera-range.
How odd it must feel to be a stationary figure in the middle of such a steady, ferocious stream of people passing through. The orange robes to us are just about as fascinating as orange hair is to them, yet their desire to express their interest and marvel at things unaccustomed to them is met with questioning, staring, and judgement. My own reaction to their interest shamed me.
As I reach the outer gates of the palace, I lighten up at what’s just occurred, and manage to laugh off the irony of it. I steady myself to prepare for the tuk-tuk games to begin again, reflecting softly that Phnom Penh and Cambodia as a whole is truly a beautiful, chaotic celebration of the old world and the new coming together in a frenzied rush of confusion, odd smells, and exhaust-pipe dust.

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Days 3 -5 in Cambodia and Why I’m Going to Stop Numbering Them

From Connemara to Cambodia

Days 3 -5 in Cambodia and Why I’m Going to Stop Numbering Them

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The Royal Palace of Cambodia

It’s funny that as soon as I finally have something and somewhere to write about regularly and keep people updated with that I find it difficult to get the right headspace and time to sit and actually write it. I think the main and most important difference is that I’ve been so busy, no longer having the time to spend thinking about travelling and being elsewhere and doing something different, seeing new things – I am now finally living those thoughts and wishes, and no longer stuck in the repetitive cycles and mindset of not being in the moment – because I am all here. I am doing the something different, I am seeing the new things.

I’ve never been so fully engrossed in a place or trip or country as I have been this past week, and it’s only starting to hit me that this is actually my new home until Christmas. As the ‘holiday’ mode wears off and we begin to settle in to our new surroundings, there’s a sense of identity and self-sufficiency that comes along with it unlike any I’ve experienced before.

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Floating lilypads outside the Royal Palace

The confusion over tuk-tuk prices, haggling at the markets, getting lost down unfamiliar streets and tasting all kinds of new and strange foods I swore I’d never even take a whiff of before is all part of the excitement of learning to live a new lifestyle, and accepting and appreciating things as they are in the moment. I’ve come so far out here – travelled over 16 hours, saved up the money and challenged myself so I have time to spend growing accustomed to and experiencing a new way of life, to shake up my own and prove to myself that there are other ways of being, thinking, and living than the stagnancy I had become so accustomed to. Even though it’s different, and I’m enjoying every second, I’m not going to limit myself to it either – we must always keep moving.

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New friends!

There are so many things to experience, so many places, people, and routes to take, that has made me realise that ultimately the only thing keeping my head clouded and in the darkness before was my own negativity and inability to appreciate the light in the world. That’s easy to say as I sit in the shade from a glorious 34 degree ray of sunshine in South East Asia, but I’m talking figuratively here aswell as literally!

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Spotless grounds of the Palace

Our visit to the Genocide Museum of Phnom Penh was eye-opening to say the least, and shed some light on the dreary history of Cambodia which we’d heard about, yet failed to understand in detail before. The rows of cells and torture mechanisms still in existence (some fully furnished) and barbed wire on the outside of the buildings to prevent suicide attempts as the innocent prisoners suffered under the Khmer Rouge really shook me to the core and reminded me that all is never what it seems.

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Block of Prison Cells in The Genocide Museum, many still containing the locks, chains, and torture instruments which bound prisoners

The “Land of Smiles” which we’d been introduced to the country as suddenly seemed all the more powerful as a title, as we considered the hardships the Cambodian people have been through in such a short space of time (it has been a mere 40 years since the prison was in use). To have the resilience and strength as a population and city to recover from such horrors and progress onwards after any growth of the sort being stunted for years is admirable, and even though they seem to struggle still with poverty and wellbeing, the general standard of living around here seems to be simple, yet sustainable.
In the end, isn’t that all we want? To be able to sustain ourselves, in an uncomplicated and easygoing way, without getting too caught up in trivialities and superficial worries that are ultimately damaging to our beings and make things harder on all around us?

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“Never will we forget the crimes committed during the Democratic Kampuchea regime”

The young monks we observed around the Royal Palace of Cambodia and Wat Phnom on our final day as ‘tourists’ before starting teaching placements embodied this peace of mind and simpicity of lifestyle, their brightly coloured orange robes informing the world of their devout nature.

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I found it interesting to discover that there are 3 main reasons a young Buddhist enters the monkhood, the first being an obvious devotion to the religion, and need to shorten the distance between himself an The Buddha in a personal vocation to search for Enlightenment. The second occurs only if a family is too poor to send the son to school, or to afford to keep providing for all children in the family. Any young boys who find themselves at an age suitable to entering the practice are morally required to do so, to lessen the strain upon the family and expand potential for their own futures. The third and probably most surprising reason a monk enters into the practice is as an element of the recovery process from addiction, mostly drug-related in Cambodia, but also involving alcohol and other ‘soul-damaging’ practices within the Buddhist community. While all young monks have the choice to enter into the practice, not all monastic undertakings are definitive, with a ‘temporary’ Bhikku (young monk) merely taking the robe for a few weeks, months or years of his life to dedicate some time to a monastic and detached life.

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Young Monks at the Royal Palace

I tried taking a picture of a small group of monks from a distance, and was taken aback as one laughed, raising his own iPhone in response to take a picture of me!

It really just proved in a very peaceful and lighthearted way that our cultures have so much to learn about one another, and that exposing ourselves to them can only lead to a further understanding and acception not only of ourselves, but of the world around us and our space within it.

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Buddha….

The traditional meals of Cambodian Banh Cheo, a sort of flour pancake served filled with broad beans and a peanut sauce, and another containing tofu and stir fried vegetables were interesting to experience, and really added to the shift in our mindsets from being mere backpackers and tourists to working ‘citizens’. It’s strange to think that from today onwards we will be contributing to society and sharing knowledge necessary for our young students to expand their own horizons in the future, and hopefully understand a bit more about Western culture.

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Sideview

While the main tourist attractions served as a great way to further our knowledge of the city we are about to take up a lengthy residence in, there is a certain reassurance in being on the way to a more settled environment and day-to-day structure, even if it will be interspersed with various national holidays and days off! We’re excited for the next stage of the journey and to meet the students and staff of our school.

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Interns on the steps of Wat Phnom!

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Day 1- Phnom Penh – From Connemara to Cambodia

Day 1 – Phnom Penh – Ó Chonamara go Cambodia

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In a far cry from wandering around Templebar in Dublin of a Thursday afternoon, I spent my first few hours alone in Phnom Penh wandering around the temples of Wat Kien Khleang, or Mongkol Serei Kien Khleang Pagoda. Partly visible from the hotel in which I’m staying for the first few nights of my orientation, the ancient temples are situated side by side to modern day constructions and oddly mismatched with the various motorbikes and cars parked around them.

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Situated about a 15-minute drive from the center of the city and overlooking the Mekong River, the compound is just off the road that leads (as I gather) out to the Koh Dach, or Silk Island, another attraction on my list.
The clearing in which the temples can be found was eerily deserted as I approached, and I found myself wondering was I supposed to be there at all, yet some reassurance from a local that it was ok to have a look around was enough to set me at ease.

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 The huge, ornate and elaborate designs are absolutely beautiful to observe, with distant chanting and clattering of local children in the distance providing a peaceful yet dynamic setting for the temples to be in, giving me the sense that they really are at the heart of the culture here.

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These stairways really envoke a sense of power as you approach and enter the buildings, asserting the temples and the Buddhist faith itself as a strong sense of physical and spiritual prowess.

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Some of the temples depict painted murals of the Buddha’s journey, and although many were faded with dust and time it was clear that they are still held in very high regard by the locals as they all sat outside or within the vicinity of the dwellings instead of remaining inside. I didn’t go inside either as I had been advised against entering any place of silence – and the entire perimeter of the place where these temples shine gave me the impression that it’s not a very frequently-visited spot by tourists – I just happen to be staying very close by!

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This is the one of the larger temples in the compound, and was occupied by a scattering of worshippers I only noticed were there after walking around the outside a few times. There were also several monks sitting alone at the tables outside, whom I recognised from their bright orange sarongs. Hopefully I will get to learn more about the monks at some point and see more of their daily lives – a few glimpses of groups of them earlier as I went through town on a tuk tuk had me extremely intrigued.

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I did have to be careful however as some local moto drivers approached me asking (or so I thought) would I like a lift into town. As I gradually understood that he meant for free and to a place with him for drinks I awkwardly laughed at the ‘misunderstanding’ and immediately started making my way back to the hotel, my first solo venture having proven successful enough, yet ultimately slightly unplanned. I was still far too jetlagged and had lost any concept of time after a 16-hour long journey, and I decided that the rest of the city could wait for further exploration at a time when I was more awake and rested.

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