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Sri Lanka Tour, February 2011

With "Arctracer" securely moored in the harbor at Galle, we took a 12-day tour of Sri Lanka. We started by taking the train from Galle to Anuradhapura, the country's first capital. This part of the country was experiencing severe flooding, but we enjoyed seeing the ancient ruins anyhow. We were unable to go to Wilpattu National Park or to Polonnaruwa, the second capital, because of flooding. The rains eased after a few days so we went to Sigiriya to see marvelous old frescoes, Dambulla to visit old Buddhist cave-temples and then to Kandy, the last capital before the British took control. The train ride through the Hill Country to Ella was spectacular, and we enjoyed seeing tea factories and plantations. Buses carried us down through Ella Gap to see the ancient sculptures at Buduruwagalla, then on to Tissamaharama where we did safaris into Yala National Park and finally back to Galle. It was a very informative and relatively inexpensive tour which we really enjoyed. Here are more details:

Anuradhapura

The train from Galle to Anuradhapura was an antique but we settled into reasonably comfortable second-class seats and went clattering and jostling north for nearly nine hours. We arrived after dark and set out towards a cluster of guesthouses shown on the map in our Lonely Planet guidebook. It had been raining for a month and the streets were in bad shape. In fact, the rains had been the worst for many years and street navigation was genuinely hazardous. Potholes filled with water were everywhere. There were almost no streetlights. We staggered along in the darkness trying to avoid deep puddles. Traffic consisted mainly of tuk-tuks (small three-wheelers) with an occasional crowded old bus.

We were approached by tuk-tuk drivers who wanted to take us to a guesthouse. These drivers are usually connected with guesthouses which give them a commission for bringing customers, and we knew they would be reluctant to take us to the inexpensive guesthouse we had selected. After a half-hour walk we gave in and got into a tuk-tuk. The driver did not speak much English but an English-speaking bystander gave him the name of the guesthouse we wanted. We were not too surprised to arrive at a different place which charged $100 per night. We refused to get out, and eventually other English-speakers gave new directions to the driver and we were taken where we wanted to go.

The first guesthouse was full, but there were others nearby. We looked for the Grand but it did not have a lighted sign so we didn't notice it at all. Next door was another reasonably priced place so we guesssed that the Grand had changed its name. The room was musty but good enough and we slept well enough, if somewhat chilled, under the mosquito net. It rained on and off all night.

We ate a typical Sri Lankan breakfast of rice and curry in the guesthouse dining room. There was a dahl curry and a potato curry and curried TVP, plus papaya, bananas, and coffee. Then we hired a tuk-tuk to take us to the old city, the remnants of Sri Lanka's first capital. The driver had to turn around once when the road in front was flooded, and we moved slowly in several places where water was moving across the road. We passed the police headquarters where water was several feet above floor level. The driver was unable to take us to the ticket office because the approach road was flooded.

The tuk-tuk left us near Sri Maha Bodhi, the sacred tree. This tree grew from a cutting of the Bodhi tree under which Buddha attained enlightenment. It was planted here in the third century BC and has been carefully tended for more than 2300 years. Here a guide attached himself to us and started leading us through the ruins and temples of this ancient city. He spoke pretty good English and knew the sites well, so we put up with him. Usually we find our own way, and sometimes we found him irritating, but overall it was an okay experience.

Rain sprinkled us several times as we walked through the ruins but we kept going. Some large dagobas (stupas or temples) remain, including probably the world's oldest still standing, the Thuparama Dagoba, built in the third century BC and said to contain a collarbone of the Buddha. Several other large old dagobas still exist, despite several successful invasions by Indian armies and relocation of the capital to Polonnaruwa more than 1000 years ago. Most of the buildings were wooden, so only their stone and brick foundations remain. There are some lovely old carved "guardstones" and "moonstones" at entrances; amazing troughs which were filled with rice and curry to feed thousands of monks; reservoirs; bathing pools; and beautifully carved squat toilets.

The whole area was overgrown by jungle for centuries. It has the feel of a wonderful park with huge trees and waterways attracting all sorts of birds and other wildlife. Egrets were very numerous. There were two sizes of electric-blue Kingfishers, Storks, Plovers, and many other birds. We saw squirrels and a mongoose too. Water Buffalo wandered everywhere, rounded up only in the evening to be milked.

Despite our big breakfast we got hungry about noon. Our guide said he would take us to a good place for rotis (flat bread often filled with vegetables and meat.) We walked and walked, getting hungrier, and at last arrived at a little stand selling bad white bread. We declined this but did buy water, and now our guide said we would go to a friend's house for lunch. We finally got there and ate rice, curried dahl, fried eggs and pieces of Bonito. This took quite a while, but we were content to rest. The family which fed us was very friendly, but we paid them as if it was a restaurant.

Because of the rains there were almost no tourists in this World Heritage Site and most vendors had closed their stalls. The few remaining open saw us as their best hope of the day and tried to interest us in molded ceramics and other souvenirs but we were firm in refusing all but one postcard seller. This should be their busy time of year and we felt sorry for them.

We finished walking at about 5:00 and took a tuk-tuk back towards our guesthouse. On the way we took one road which had been closed for 26 years during the civil war and reopened just today, perhaps to provide an alternative to flooded roads. We saw locals out taking photos of flooded areas, finding it hard to comprehend the amount of water covering this fairly flat land.

We stopped at a supermarket and bakery to get supper, and then at a liquor store for a bottle of Sri Lanka's national drink, arrack, distilled from the sap of coconut palms. There we met Ashok and his friend Sam, owner of a guesthouse near ours, and they invited us to come over for a drink. We accepted, and had a lovely evening with them and their family, friends and guests. The guesthouse owners were accommodating some of their friends whose house is flooded. We didn't head back to our room until nearly midnight. We were very surprised to find the gate to our guesthouse padlocked and all the lights off. With the help of a man who introduced himself as a postman, we climbed the wall and got to our bed very tired.

We slept late the next morning, then checked out and moved down the street to "Nadeeja," Sam's guesthouse, where we spent a relaxing day and were treated almost as part of the family. Sheila fixed string hoppers (thin rice noodles) served with dahl curry, coconut sambal (grated coconut with chilis, onion, and garlic), papayas and bananas. The rain fell quite heavily at times. We strolled back out to the bakery for a cheap evening meal, but spent most of our time in our room, reading and writing.

We had tentatively planned to take a bus to Polonnaruwa the next day but the sound of heavy rain outside our window didn't encourage us to rise early. After breakfast we learned that Ashok tried to take some people there but turned back after 68 kilometers because the road was flooded. He said that yesterday they could push buses through the flooded areas, but today the water was too deep. Ashok invited us to his house for a drink that evening, and then we had dinner at the Nadeeja Guesthouse where we were staying. We arranged to have Ashok pick us up at 8:00 the next morning and take us first to Sigiriya and then to Dambulla. Perhaps we should have known better than to trust a hard-drinking Muslim. He had not arrived by 8:30 so we asked Sam, the guesthouse owner, to call a tuk-tuk to take us to the bus station. Sam called his drinking buddy, Ashok, who said he had already put gas in the van and would arrive in 5 minutes. About 30 minutes later we finally got in his van. We stopped for gas (!) and then were on our way. The roads had a little water over them in a few places but the drive was generally not a problem. Ashok stopped once at a touristy restaurant and suggested we have coffee. We used the toilets and then searched until we found our driver eating breakfast out back at a cheap restaurant. We eventually arrived at Sigiriya.

(view photos of Anuradhapura)

Sigiriya

Sigiriya is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a dramatic rock formation, the magma plug of an eroded volcano which leaps vertically up 200 meters (600 feet). It was used as a hermitage by monks in the 3rd century BC and it was an important monastery by the 10th century AD but abandoned after the 14th century until rediscovered in 1898 by a British archaeologist. There are ancient landscaped gardens, waterworks and a moat with crocodiles around the bottom. A popular myth holds that King Kassapa lived on the impregnable top in the 5th century after overthrowing and murdering his father, and that the famous frescoes of buxom women halfway up the rock represent ladies of his court. Arthur C. Clarke, a science-fiction writer who made his home in Sri Lanka for many years, used this romantic king myth in "The Fountains of Paradise." Another theory is that these frescoes represent apsaras, celestial nymphs. Modern theory suggests they represent aspects of Tara Devi, the consort of Avalokitesvara, an important figure in Tantric Buddhism. No one knows when they were painted but 22 remain in remarkably good condition. Above the frescoes there was apparently a gigantic sculpture of a lion with the stairway going through its mouth but only the paws remain. The stairways were a challenge for Jerry because he is afraid of heights but he did get to the top and back down without much difficulty.

(view photos of Sigiriya)

Dambulla

When Ashok dropped us in Dambulla he asked for twice as much money as our agreed price, saying he had quoted the price for each person. While we could afford the increase, it did not endear him to us and we will definitely warn others about his practices. We took a room in a guesthouse near the famous Royal Rock Temples which are inside caves, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. We walked into town to mail a few cards and then walked up to the caves. King Valagamba was driven out of Anuradhapura in the 1st century BC and took refuge here. When he regained his throne he had the caves carved into magnificent temples. These were extended over the centuries and the interiors were gilded and painted with frescoes. Five separate caves now contain about 150 Buddha images. The caves were dark and it was difficult to see some of the images, especially the 15 meter (45 feet) long reclining Buddha in the first cave. It rained while we were inside.

Walking back to our guesthouse we stopped for supper at a small restaurant catering to locals. Here we tried hoppers, a Sri Lankan specialty, for the first time. These are a kind of bread made by pouring batter into a pan with rounded sides and tilting the pan as the bread cooks so the result is a pan-shaped thin pancake. Pieces of hoppers are dipped into curry and coconut sambal and eaten usually with fingers. A variation which we also tried here was to drop an egg into the hopper while it is cooking to make an "egg hopper." We really liked these and tried them a few other times during our tour.

The next morning we caught a bus to Kandy. The bus was crowded so Jerry had to stand for half of the two and one-half hour ride. It was essential to hold on because the bus made very frequent swerves, accelerations and stops on a road with many potholes and curves. We found the driver's style nerve-racking since he relied heavily on his horn and bus size to make all smaller vehicles give way. However, this is apparently normal for Sri Lankan buses and the other passengers were relaxed. Then we remembered that Buddhists believe in reincarnation, so....

(view photos of Dambulla)

Kandy

Kandy became the third Sri Lankan capital city when Polonnarura became too difficult to defend in the 13th century. Kandy held out against the Portuguese and the Dutch but was finally taken by the British in 1815. It is the second largest city in the country after Colombo, today's capital. It is 500 meters (1500 feet) above sea level and has a more pleasant climate than the hot and dusty larger city. The city surrounds a small lake with commerce concentrated in a jumble of old and new buildings to the northeast and housing stretching up the steep hillsides all around. We found a quiet guesthouse room, then strolled around the lake and through a maze of alleys bustling with small shops and hoards of shoppers. We got lost, so saw more of the town than planned, but it was interesting.

The most important building in Kandy is the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic which houses Sri Lanka's most important Buddhist relic - a tooth of the Buddha. The tooth is said to have been snatched from the flames of the Buddha's funeral pyre in 543 BC and smuggled into Sri Lanka during the 4th century AD, hidden in the hair of a princess. At first it was kept in Anuradhapura then moved from place to place during the centuries until ending up in Kandy. In 1283 it was carried back to India by an invading army but was soon brought back again. Gradually, the tooth came to assume more and more importance as a symbol of sovereignty. It was believed that whoever had custody of the tooth had the right to rule the island. In the 16th century the Portuguese (Catholics) apparently took it away and burned it. The Sinhalese claim the Portuguese were fooled with a replica tooth and the real one remained safe. Even today there are rumors that the real tooth is hidden somewhere secure, and that the tooth kept here is a replica. The temple entrance was damaged by a Tamil Tiger bomb in 1998 during the civil war. The damage has been repaired and security is heavy. This temple was constructed in the 18th century as part of the Kandyan royal palace. Japanese donors paid for the gilded roof. Sri Lankan Buddhists believe they must complete at least one pilgrimage to the temple to improve their karma. Nobody is allowed to see the tooth, but when the heavily guarded room housing the tooth is open then people can look through the doorway to see a gold casket shaped like a dagoba (stupa) which contains a series of six dagoba caskets of diminishing size with the innermost presumably containing the tooth. There is a hefty fee for foreign visitors and we were not too interested in seeing the temple so we did not go inside.

We did go to the Kandyan Cultural Center for its daily performance of drumming, dancing, fire-eating and fire-walking. This show (mainly for tourists) includes the national dances whose costumes and forms were refined under Kandy's kings. Male dancers wear elaborate necklaces, armbands and ankle bangles of silver and ivory and perform energetic twirls and back flips. Female dancers also perform to the music of drums, tambourines, flutes and singers. Two performers played flaming torches on their bodies and mouths and then walked across a bed of hot coals. It was an interesting spectacle.

The next day we had breakfast at a downtown restaurant much fancier than our usual holes-in-the-walls, but serving pretty much the same food. Then we took a bus (12 cents each for the half-hour ride) to the Perideniya Botanic Gardens. Before the British arrived these were the Royal Pleasure Gardens but now they are the largest Botanical Garden in the country. The main attraction for us was a group of Double Coconuts (Coco de Mer). These palms are endemic to the Seychelles, which we will not visit because of the Somali pirates. The seeds of these trees are the heaviest of any plant, somewhat like ordinary coconuts but formed into V-shaped double nuts which can weigh as much as 50 pounds and require five years to mature. We also saw a Giant Javan Fig Tree which sprawled over 1600 square meters (about half a football field), a fine collection of orchids, and many other trees and plants of all sorts. We rode another bus back to Kandy where we bought a baguette, cheese and arrack to have in our room.

(view photos of Kandy)

Train to Ella

We woke at 6:30 the next morning and took a prearranged tuk-tuk to the Perideniya Junction train station. The driver tried to charge us more than we had agreed, which seemed to be standard practice for most tuk-tuk and van drivers, but we were already giving him more than the standard fee so refused to give any extra. We tried to book tickets here the day before but were told first-class tickets were sold out and second-class could not be purchased in advance. Now we bought second-class tickets ($2.30 each for the seven-hour ride) and ate local snack food (a muffin, a cookie, 4 small dhal burgers, two veggie burgers, a banana, 2 vegetable samosas and lots of coffee) for breakfast while waiting for the train. When the train from Colombo arrived we were only able to find seats in a third-class car, but those were fine. All the seats in the one first-class car faced the wrong way so we were glad we had not gotten those tickets. The train waited 30 minutes until the connecting train from Kandy arrived with additional passengers who had considerable difficulty finding seats. Vendors cruised up and down the train aisles most of the way to Ella, and Jerry liked their locally-made fruit yogurt (way too sweet for Nina so she only had one small taste) and their Wattalappam, a cardamom-coconut custard.

The train ride from Perideniya to Ella passes through what Sri Lankans call "the hill country." Kandy is 500 meters above sea level. Halfway to Ella, the old British hill station Nuwara Eliya is at 1889 meters with the country's tallest mountain nearby rising to 2524 meters (8200 feet.) We passed through Pattipola, at over 6000 feet the highest station on the line, and finally disembarked at Ella still 1041 meters above our usual elevation. We went through about 30 tunnels and in some places there were dramatic drop-offs on both sides of the track. Building this railway was a remarkable feat of the British. We thoroughly enjoyed the spectacular scenery despite the crowded old train.

The hill country is Sri Lanka's tea-growing area and many of the hillsides are covered by terraces of tea bushes. This small country is third in tea production (after India and Kenya) and the world's foremost exporter of tea. The hill country plantations initially grew coffee but those trees were wiped out by disease in the 19th century and tea was the emergency substitute crop. Tea bushes would grow to 30 feet if they were not constantly pruned to keep them only 3 feet tall so the new leaves on top can be picked. The pickers are all Tamil women whose ancestors were brought from southern India by the British because the Sinhalese did not want the tea plantation jobs (at least not for the wages offered by the British.)

(view photos of the tea country)

Ella

We walked from Ella's train station to Lizzie's Villa Guest House. Lizzie is a charming lady who has operated her guest house for 34 years. Her quiet place is in a beautiful garden up a dirt track from the small town. We enjoyed seeing her flowers and our first Giant Sri Lankan Squirrel. They are losing their habitat, but Lizzie's property is quite large and she says there are 6 living there at the moment. We ate Lizzie's brown rice, curried green beans, curried pumpkin, dahl curry, coconut sambal and tea the first night. Nina ordered Ginger Tea, hoping for no caffeine, but it was black tea with a small piece of ginger added so she saved it for morning. Our breakfast was string hoppers with dahl curry, coconut sambal, fruit and coffee. Although it was all good we considered it overpriced since almost identical food can be obtained in small local restaurants for about half the price. In fact, the breakfast food was delivered from the village. Meals at all guesthouses had the same price problem but most tourists seem content to pay higher prices for the convenience.

After breakfast we took a tuk-tuk ride up and down steep twisting roads for 20 minutes to the Halpewaththa tea factory. Because it was Saturday the factory was not operating so they gave us a tour for half price. We started by tasting several of the factory's products. The differences in tastes were subtle and depended mainly on the sizes of the leaves and the proportion of buds. All tea bushes are of one species so differences in flavor are due to variations in growing conditions and variations in processing. This factory uses leaves from many plantations in the area and makes only black tea. Their 120 employees usually process 30,000 kilograms (33 tons) of leaves per day but because of all the rain they processed only 9,000 the previous day. A picker can collect 20-25 kilograms on a good day but only about half as much in the rainy season. We walked through the factory and saw the long troughs where 80 percent of the water is removed in the initial "withering" and the machines which subsequently break the leaves into pieces, ferment, dry, remove stems, sort by leaf size, sort by color, and separate the buds. The separated products are shipped in bulk to auction houses in Colombo where they are purchased by companies which then blend these products and perhaps add other ingredients to make the whole range of teas available in stores.

Back in Ella we saw rotis being made at a very small restaurant and had some with dahl curry and coconut sambal. Then we bought bottles of water and set out on a pleasant walk up Little Adam's Peak. We followed a road for about a mile, then turned off onto a tea plantation road which dwindled to a track which ascended through tea plantations to a hilltop overlooking Ella Gap. This gap is a dramatic notch in the hills which allows views (and a steep road) 3000 feet down to the plain. On the way back we stopped at a roadside stand for our first tastes of "Buffalo Curd and Honey." The curd is much like yogurt but made from Water Buffalo milk and always eaten fresh, without refrigeration. The "honey" was palm syrup, made by boiling 90 percent of the water from coconut tree sap (toddy) in a process very similar to making maple syrup. That evening we dined again at the small restaurant in town where they cooked egg hoppers and "Kotthu Rottie" (pieces of roti, eggs and vegetables simultaneously fried and chopped all together) for a tasty and filling supper.

We got going early the next morning, picked up coffee and a little breakfast food in town, and caught a bus down through Ella Gap. This was a hair-raising fast ride down a twisting road with long drop offs on every corner for about ten miles until we reached flat rice-growing country. We got off the bus in Wellawaya and hired a tuk-tuk to go see the Buduruwagala Buddhist figures (another UNESCO World Heritage Site). These are bas-relief carvings about a thousand years old on the side of a huge boulder. The central figure is a standing Buddha 15 meters (nearly 50 feet) tall. It was a pleasant setting in a beautiful woodland park and the access road passed flooded areas with many birds. Back in Wellawaya we climbed aboard another bus for the two-hour ride to Tissamaharama which is near Yala National Park. This bus was so full that we had to stand for the entire trip but it only cost 63 cents apiece. The tuk-tuk which took us the next 6 miles to our guesthouse initially asked for $5 but eventually did the job for half that.

(view photos of Ella)

Yala National Park

Traveller's Home is a guesthouse we recommend to anyone interested in visiting Yala National Park. There are a variety of rooms with reasonable rates and they have been in business for many years. The owner/operator Mr. Ebert speaks several languages well (including English and German) and is very good at setting up tours with all-inclusive prices. His wife Kumari is very nice and tends to the kitchen and housekeeping. Their daughter Netmi went to her first day of school during our visit and their son Radulanka is 14. They made us feel almost like part of their family. (Tel: 047 223 7958, travellershome@live.com) We heard that it was good to visit Yala both in the morning and evening so we tried to arrange a tour starting that afternoon and staying overnight in the park. This was not possible so we booked it for the following day. This was an expensive tour, but we splurged for a really interesting Valentine's Day.

We took an afternoon tour of Bundala Wetlands National Park which is famous for birds. Ebert set us up in the back of a Landrover with a driver named Ajeri. When we entered the park we picked up a tracker named Nuwan who was good at spotting and identifying birds and also carried a book about Sri Lankan birds which enabled us to see details about each species. In nearly three hours on this tour we saw Mugger Crocodiles, Grey Langurs, Mongoose, Red-faced Macaques, Spotted Deer and a Rabbit as well as a huge number of different birds. The Black-winged Stilts and Bee-eaters were common but beautiful and several other species were new to us. We saw the Sri Lankan Jungle Bird, a colorful rooster which is Sri Lanka's National Bird. It was a good tour for people interested in birds. Water Buffalo were ubiquitous since they graze in the park and are taken out to be milked daily. We picked up corn on the cob cooked at a small roadside stand, and ate supper at a local restaurant in town.

(view photos of Bundala Wetland and Sri Lankan birds)

In the morning we walked into town for egg hoppers at a small restaurant. Ebert then announced a revised price for our overnight tour because, he said, no other tourists would be going with us in the afternoon. We were not happy about the extra charge but eventually compromised on a price. Ebert gave us buffalo curd and palm honey to eat at lunchtime and Kumari gave us hot cheese and tomato sandwiches plus mangoes from the tree in her yard. We got into the back of their new four-wheel drive machine and we met our excellent driver, sharp-eyed Kalu. It was about a half-hour drive to the entrance of Yala National Park, where Kalu stopped to buy our tickets.

Yala is famous for Leopards. In other places Leopards hunt at night and hide during the day, but here they have no competitors (such as lions and tigers) so they can often be seen during the day. There are only a couple dozen Leopards in Yala's large area and most tourists do not see any. We were very lucky to see three in the afternoon and get pretty good photos of two of them. About 280 vehicles give tours of Yala and the drivers have friends, so soon after a Leopard is seen the mobile phones start ringing and other tourists start speeding to the spot. Amazing traffic jams on the narrow muddy roads are the result, and Park officials have to order drivers to move. We also had good sightings of Elephants, Crocodiles, Sambar Deer, Spotted Deer (Chital Deer) and many birds. Peacocks were so numerous that after a while we completely ignored these spectacular birds. It was a very satisfying afternoon tour.

In the evening we stayed just outside the park in a "treehouse," a sizable bungalow with bathroom high in a tree with extra support columns. On the ground were a cook-house and accommodations for our driver, cook and other staff. We had a relaxing time drinking arrack with the crew and finally starting dinner about 8:30. There was barbecued chicken, pork and lake fish plus rice with about 5 curries. We chatted until 11:00 then went to bed with our alarm clock set so we could start our morning tour on schedule at 5:30. We slept well, and Jerry got up at 5:15 hoping to get tea before we left. Nina decided to rest until we were about to leave, which was a good decision. Nobody else seemed interested in moving early. Tea was finally served after 6:00. The cook gave our breakfast in "take-away" form to our driver and we finally boarded the truck at 6:30.

After our late start, we drove around the edge of the park's elephant fence rather than back to the main entrance. We drove all morning without seeing another tour group and are not sure that we ever entered the park itself. We traveled small dirt roads with thick bush on both sides and saw little wildlife. We passed a few small army posts, probably leftovers from the civil war. We finally stopped for breakfast at the Katagamue Sanctuary. This was a beautiful large open area with a shallow lake. There was an elephant feeding in the distance and many birds. Our breakfast was rotis with dahl curry, coconut sambal, and fruit. Unfortunately, the cook was not nearly as good at cooking rotis as Nina. His heavy rotis were probably the worst we have tried in all our travels and we did not eat many. After a long stay in this lovely place we were driven back to Travelers Home. This morning tour was not very interesting compared to our wonderful afternoon tour on the previous day.

(view photos of Yala National Park)

Return to Galle

At 10:45 we flagged down a bus in front of the guesthouse and bought tickets ($2.13 each) all the way to Galle. Public transportation in Sri Lanka is marvelously inexpensive and most locals travel on the buses. Our driver upheld the tradition of buses ruling the road. He passed every other vehicle regardless of oncoming traffic or blind corners. He used his horn much more frequently than his brakes. Loud music played constantly and lights blinked around the Buddhist pictures above the driver's head. All we could do was hope the driver would have a good day. We were very happy to jump down at the gate to Galle Port and get back aboard "Arctracer" about 2:30, ending our very interesting 12-day tour of Sri Lanka.

(view photos of Sri Lanka)

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