Hey adventurers! I hope everyone had a fantastic July. Mine was certainly eventful- here’s what I got up to this month.
Where in the world am I? I just landed back in the USA at the end of July after nearly four months in India and Sri Lanka. I am currently gorging myself on all the American fast food I’ve missed (I love you, Steak N Shake) and gearing up for two months of road tripping around the country.
Items checked off the bucket list this month: #542- explore ancient temples in Sri Lanka. This was a three month project! Check out some of the amazing temples I’ve been exploring:
#365- Deep fried hot dogs at Rutt’s Hut in Clifton, New Jersey
Highlight of the month: Climbing the ancient rock monastery of Sigiriya! I was really nervous about this, guys. I’m not in the best shape and my health has been kind of sketchy on this trip as you know. But I made it to the top! And not without considerable effort. Apart from the sheer physical exhaustion, I was also contending with potential swarms of wasps and huge wind gusts that could easily blow a person (or at least their camera) off the rock. At one point I was down on my hands and knees crawling up some steps because the wind was blowing so hard I couldn’t stand up. But the important thing is, I made it! Even if coming down did take twice as long because my knees were absolute Jell-O.
Did you accomplish something awesome in July? Comment below and let me know so I can celebrate with you!
Lowlight of the month: Getting stuck with the absolute worst driver on the planet while moving from Kandy to Habarana, Sri Lanka. Proof that, even when you do your research and use a reputable tour company, you can still be stuck with a complete nincompoop. Read all about it here.
Best meal: Pan fried dumplings at Momo’s by Ruvi in Colombo. These things were amazing. If you’ve never had a momo, you should go get some immediately. Actually just get on a plane and come to Sri Lanka because I have to assume these are the best on the planet.
Sri Lankan road construction crews have no problem whatsoever using a jackhammer at 3 a.m. Never travel without earplugs.
The train is never on time. Like, ever.
Jaffna, Sri Lanka is home to some of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen…and they’re rapidly crumbling into ruin. Can someone please do something about this?
Arrack (the local coconut flower liquor) and ginger beer is amazing.
Sri Lankan desserts are so sweet they’ll make your teeth hurt. Proceed with caution.
There are spas in Europe where you soak in a tub full of beer. This right here is why Europe is always going to lead the rest of the world into the future.
There’s a donut shop in Los Angeles selling donuts filled with ice cream. Maybe Europe has a little competition.
Upgrading to Emirates business class is worth every penny.
The sprayer hose next to all of the toilets here makes for a handy weapon if you encounter a large insect while getting into the shower. Welcome to the tropics.
What I read:
A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman- this book tore my heart out, flattened it, folded it into an origami swan, and then set it on fire. But it also made me laugh, hard. I only read it because someone recommended it to me, and I’m so glad they did. Put this one way, way at the top of your reading list.
I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai- yes, I’m way behind in reading this book, but I’m so glad I finally did. I love to surround myself with positive people and inspirational stories (because who needs more negative crap, seriously?) and this book gave me wings.
What’s next? I’m spending the month of August driving the entire length of I-80 from New York City to San Francisco, and seeing lots of cool stuff along the way. Including a giant butter cow at the Iowa State Fair. Tune in next month to find out if I was able to get close enough to lick it.
Posts on My Adventure Bucket may contain affiliate links. Using these links costs you nothing but helps support the upkeep of this site and my daily cheeseburger habit.
I don’t think anyone comes to Sri Lanka without a stop in Kandy, and for good reason. This busy hill country town is known as the country’s cultural capital, and has plenty to keep you occupied for several days- longer if you make it your base for exploring the area. And explore it you should; the hill country was one of my absolute favorite parts of my 3 months here in the Pearl of the Indian Ocean.
If you don’t think Sri Lanka is the vacation destination for you because you’re not a fan of beaches and tropical climates, this is why you should come. Misty mountains, cool air, fantastic hiking, and Buddhist history like you’ve never seen anywhere else.
Here are some of my Kandy highlights:
The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic
You can’t skip this; this temple is the main reason people visit Kandy. It’s also one of the most beautiful Buddhist temples I’ve ever visited, and that’s saying rather a lot. The holiest site in Sri Lankan Buddhism, this temple houses a tooth reportedly taken from the Buddha’s funeral pyre. It’s kind of the Sri Lankan Buddhist Mecca; everyone is supposed to make at least one pilgrimage here in their lifetime. It’s so revered, you even see rowdy groups of teenage boys stopping on the sidewalk across the street to bow in prayer before walking on. Worshipers inside are frequently overcome with emotion, so if you’re visiting as a tourist, please be respectful and unobtrusive. As with all temples, you’ll have to cover up- no exposed knees or shoulders.
One of the most popular attractions on the temple grounds is Rajah the Tusker, a moldering old taxidermy elephant with crumbling ears. This small building is always packed with loud children and selfie-stick-wielding tourists, inexplicably needing a photo of themselves with the remains of this poor creature behind a wall of smudged glass. Suffice to say I think you can skip this spectacle.
Other tips for visiting:
Wear slip-on shoes as you’ll have to leave them at the shoe minder’s counter next to where you pay the admission fee. There’s no charge for leaving your shoes, but they’ll ask for a tip when you pick them up.
The entry fee for foreigners is 1500 rupees ($10 USD). Do try to have exact change as they’re loathe to break 5000 rupee notes and may tell you that they can’t give you all of your change back. Don’t fall for this; someone is just trying to get a 500 rupee tip.
Never pose with a Buddha statue for a photo or selfie. This is basically the most offensive thing you could possibly do.
Go as early as you can. The place is overrun with schoolkids by midday.
World Buddhist Museum
This was my favorite museum in all of Sri Lanka, and it’s conveniently located on the same property as the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. They charge 500 rupees ($3.25 USD) for foreigners, which is a steal. The museum walks you through the spread of Buddhism throughout the world, and it’s fascinating to see how the story of the Buddha is interpreted country by country. I had a great time reminiscing over some of the other famous Buddhist sites I’ve visited, like Shwedagon Paya in Burma and Borobudur in Indonesia. The lighting and signage in this museum is good…by Sri Lankan standards. It’s not the Smithsonian, but nothing here is. I was really bummed that you can’t take photos inside, because there are some really lovely exhibits. There’s a small gift shop to the left of the staircase down which you exit.
Kandy Garrison Cemetery
When you’re done with the World Buddhist Museum, exit left and head up the little hill past the National Museum (toward the public restrooms, incidentally, if you need to stop.) There are signs at the bottom of the hill pointing the way to the cemetery. Once you get to the top of the hill behind the public facilities you might think you’re actually on someone’s driveway, but keep going. There will be a small maintenance shed on the left and then you’ll round the corner to the cemetery. It’s small, and many of the inscriptions are worn, but it’s a really neat piece of Kandy history. The young caretaker is an absolute fountain of knowledge; he knows every name, inscription, and cause of death by heart. Let him tell you all about the extremely large man who died of sunstroke while running from an elephant or the baby who died of a snakebite despite the best efforts of the village medicine man.
St. Paul’s Church
This red brick church dates to the 1840s and is currently undergoing renovations, but is well worth poking around for a few minutes. There are some neat funerary markers for deceased parishioners lining the walls and a gorgeous stained glass window behind the altar. Watch for frolicking monkeys outside.
Royal Botanic Gardens
This 147 acre park on the outskirts of Kandy is a really great place to escape the noise and pollution of the city for a few hours. There’s a gorgeous orchid house and some really nice walking trails through the wooded areas. If you’re a botany nerd, welcome to paradise. There are more than 4000 plant species here, and they’ve done a really nice job with signage.
Other tips for visiting:
Go on a weekday! 2.2 million people visit the gardens annually and every single one of them showed up on the same Saturday morning I visited. Weekdays are much quieter.
Look up! Thousands of huge flying foxes roost in the trees and fly around during the day. If you take the path to the right of Royal Palm Avenue you’ll most likely have it to yourself to appreciate these beauties. (And, if you’re me, imagine that you’re in Jurassic Park and they’re actually huge screeching pterodactyls. Don’t judge.)
I partnered with this gorgeous hilltop hotel for a review, and absolutely loved it. My only minor quibble was the somewhat unreliable Wi-Fi, but the views and the amazing chicken curry more than made up for my inability to upload all of my photos. Wi-Fi was a bit of an issue throughout the hill country for me, so plan your Internet needs accordingly. If you just want to check email and Facebook a few times a day you’ll be fine, but business travelers might have difficulties.
Far and away the best mode of transportation anywhere in the hill country is the train. These creaky, lumbering old locomotives trundle through some of the most beautiful scenery on the island, and nothing beats leaning out the open doors for a blast of cool mountain air in your face. And train travel in Sri Lanka is CHEAP. Check the timetables here and try to coordinate your schedule for a ride in one of the first class observation cars. It won’t cost more than $8 US even for the longest, all-day journeys. There are tour companies who will reserve your tickets for you (for two to three times the going rate) but as I traveled in the off season I never bothered. Turning up at the station an hour before the train was scheduled to depart was always plenty of time to get a first class ticket. Pack some snacks or wait for a man with a big plastic tub of fresh samosas to make his way through the train.
So there you have it! Some of my favorite parts of my visit to Kandy. Have you been? Drop me a note in the comments and let me know if I missed any of your favorites.
I’m on my way from Kandy to Habarana, sad to be leaving the cool elevation of Sri Lanka’s Hill Country, but excited to visit the ancient cities on my journey north to the rarely-visited Jaffna and the northern islands. I’ve booked a private driver for the day, as there’s no easy train between the two cities and I want to stop at the famous Dambulla Cave Temples on the way. I’m expecting an easy and relaxing day in a nice, air conditioned car, punctuated with a great visit to some marvelous caves filled with gorgeous old Buddha statues.
But you, dear reader, know that what I expect and what actually happens are rarely the same thing.
The Dambulla caves were just as spectacular as I had imagined, but I had the misfortune to be stuck with the worst driver I’ve ever had on any trip anywhere in the world. And I once had a Burmese driver pick up a pregnant woman and wedge her up against me, where she promptly started to go into labor. So when I say this guy was the worst, you know he really put some effort into it.
Not many things will get me out of bed at 5:30 in the morning, but 2000 year old cave temples on top of a mountain are one of them. I’ve arranged my driver through Blue Haven Tours, a company listed in my Lonely Planet and vouched for by the manager of my hotel. Nuwan arrives at 7:00 a.m. on the dot, and we set off for Dambulla in his mildly battered black Suzuki Celario.
As most Sri Lankan taxi drivers do, Nuwan likes to make small talk, and begins asking me questions. Where am I from, why did I come to Sri Lanka, how long am I staying, etc. I rather wish he wouldn’t, as his glances into the rear view mirror are taking his attention away from the narrow, winding roads out of Kandy. But I’m a captive audience, so I answer as blandly as possible, to keep him from getting more distracted from his driving.
His face breaks into a broad leer in the rear view mirror as he says, “United State! And are you happy with your new president?”
Oh, brother. Here we go.
“No, not especially.” Please watch the road, please watch the road, please watch the road.
There is a brief pause as we round a bend and come bumper-to-bumper with a white Toyota. The road isn’t wide enough for two cars (it’s barely wide enough for one, with a steep drop into a drainage ditch on my side and a tall, unruly hedge on the other). After a brief stare-down, Nuwan puts the Suzuki into reverse and backs up a few feet. The Toyota inches forward. Nuwan refuses to back up further and honks the horn. The Toyota doesn’t have enough room to pass, so he honks back. Men emerge from a nearby building and become impromptu traffic conductors. They’re yelling and motioning for Nuwan to back up a little further, to a point where the road widens enough for the Toyota to pass. He refuses. They shout and gesture some more. Finally the Toyota driver lays on his horn until Nuwan relents and backs up enough for him to pass.
As soon as we’re back on the road, Nuwan starts in again. “You should be very happy with your new president. Everyone in Sri Lanka love him!” (This is categorically false, as he is the only person to express this view during my 3 month trip, but anyway…)
“Well, good for you.” The erratic driving is starting to make me nauseous, and I wish I had skipped breakfast. One day, I will be smart enough to lie and say I’m Canadian.
“He defeat Hillary Clinton, who support terrorists!” The way he’s staring at me in the mirror, eyes bulging, is well past creepy and closing in on psychotic.
“Um, no, I’m pretty sure that’s not accurate.”
“Yes it is!” He’s shouting now, and slaps the steering wheel for emphasis. “She give money to dirty Tamil dogs to bomb our Buddhist temples and kill Sri Lankans!”
Cool, so now he’s a gross bigot on top of being delusional. Only 2.5 hours to go. I’m definitely feeling carsick at this point, and breaking out into that pre-vomit cold sweat that signals impending doom.
“I’m not going to have this discussion with you. I’m paying for a driver, not some rando to yell at me while swerving all over the road.”
I’ve momentarily shocked him into silence. I’ve noticed that Sri Lankan women tend to be fairly meek, and Sri Lankan men aren’t used to being chastised. He stops talking, but continues to stare at me in the rearview mirror. I’m unsettled and nauseous, and almost want to skip the cave temples altogether. I would open my mouth to say so, but I’m afraid I would be sick.
Two uncomfortable hours later, we arrive at Dambulla. Nuwan drops me at the bottom of the steep rock stairway that leads to the caves, and points to a small parking lot nearby, saying he’ll be waiting there for me when I finish. He seems to have calmed down from his earlier rant.
The silver lining of the day: the Dambulla cave temples are absolutely stunning. It takes a bit of effort to reach them, what with maneuvering the slippery steps and dodging the marauding local monkey population, but once you do, the reward is magnificent.
At the top of the first set of steps you’ll visit the ticket window and pay your $10 USD for admission. Make sure you’ve got plenty of water, spare camera batteries, or whatever else you need before you start slogging your way up. You’re not going to want to turn around and do this twice. Also make sure your shoulders and knees are covered, as you’re not getting past the guards without being properly attired.
Even though you’re on top of a mountain, poking around in some caves, they’re still sacred temples, so you’ll have to leave your shoes outside. As you reach the top of the steps you’ll hand your shoes to the shoe minder in the little kiosk (and pay 25 rupees when you pick them up later). A few touts hang around the shoe drop, selling beaded bracelets and carved wooden boxes. They’re not as numerous or as pushy as most other tourist sites in the Cultural Triangle area, however.
As you enter through the wooden archway, a guard will stamp your ticket. FYI, this is where the quiet zone starts; the guards have no problem pouncing on unruly tourists and demanding they follow proper temple etiquette.
It won’t take long to visit all five temples, as most of them are quite small. The first and smallest cave is my favorite; there’s barely enough room for a handful of visitors at once, and the bulk of the chamber is taken up by an enormous reclining Buddha with a captivatingly serene expression.
Large tour buses do visit Dambulla, and the cave temples can get crowded. They all tend to stick together, though, and as the caves are right in a row it’s easy to avoid the groups and move back and forth to enjoy empty or nearly-empty caves most of the time.
As these are still active temples, you’ll see groups of Buddhist monks moving around from cave to cave to pray. They’re accustomed to being surrounded by tourists all day, of course, but I still think it’s nice to give them some space and vacate a temple while they’re using it. Or you could be like some tourists I saw and shove your camera in their faces while they’re kneeling in prayer. (No, don’t do this, those people were horrible. Seriously, who does this?)
When you’re finished, there are two ways to get back down to the bottom. You can go back down the King’s Way steps that you came up (dodging the same monkeys and slippery steps). You can also exit down the other side of the mountain to the Golden Temple (these steps are new, wider, and with nice sturdy hand rails…but the same monkeys, unfortunately.) Personally I wouldn’t bother with the Golden Temple as it’s a new construction, over-the-top gaudy tourist trap.
I make my way carefully back down the way I came up, head across the dusty road to the car park…and find no little black Suzuki. It’s a tiny parking lot, so it only takes me about 30 seconds to determine that Nuwan is most definitely nowhere to be found.
Not panicking, not panicking, not panicking…
I approach the driver of a bright red tuk tuk parked nearby and ask him if there is another parking lot nearby. He immediately looks concerned. “No, madam. This is the only one.”
I explain that my driver dropped me off and was supposed to wait here for me, but he’s not here, so I’m thinking there has to be another car park nearby. He shakes his head vigorously. “The only other car park is by the Golden Temple, but no driver would drop you off here and pick you up there. He would wait here. He must be here.” He looks back over his shoulder as though Nuwan is going to pop out from the bushes.
“He’s definitely not here. How do I get to this other parking lot?”
Red tuk tuk driver points at the road that brought us into the cave temple complex, and I start walking.
This may be an appropriate time to mention that it’s 92 degrees outside, there’s no shade whatsoever, and I’m wearing long sleeves and long pants because I was visiting temples. So this is nice.
It takes 40 minutes to reach the other parking lot. Remember how, earlier, I reminded you to take your water with you when starting your climb? Yeah, that’s because I didn’t. I didn’t want to carry it and I assumed it would be there waiting for me at the bottom when I finished. I should really not assume things, based on my track record, but I’m a slow learner.
By the time I stumble into the second parking lot, I’m a sweaty, sunburned, half-delirious mess. But the car is there! Hallelujah.
My excitement is short-lived, however, because Nuwan is nowhere to be found. This car park is much larger than the first, with a few shady spots for waiting drivers to pass the time. I walk around the perimeter of the lot, hoping to spot him among the groups of men, but he isn’t there. I return to the car and wait, unwilling to let it out of my sight now that I’ve found it again.
More than half an hour passes with no sign of Nuwan. I’m definitely on the verge of sunstroke at this point, so I stop a passing driver on the way to his car and ask if he has possibly seen the driver of this black Suzuki. He says he hasn’t, but he’s a regular at Dambulla and he knows the car. I confirm it belongs to Blue Haven tours, and he kindly offers to call the owner of the company and get him to track down his errant driver.
Five minutes later, Nuwan comes speed walking around the corner. It would appear that the owner was successful. He immediately starts interrogating me, raising his voice loud enough for a few of the waiting drivers to turn and stare. “Why are you here? You aren’t where you’re supposed to be! You should have gone to the Golden Temple!”
I’ve already started to cry; I’m so weak and exhausted from the climb and the walk and the sun and the lack of water that I can’t even answer. He had asked me before we arrived at Dambulla if I was interested in seeing the Golden Temple, and I had declined, saying I was only interested in the Dambulla cave temples. I don’t have the strength to remind him of this as I practically fall into the car and start chugging water. The driver who called the tour company on my behalf approaches Nuwan’s window and starts speaking to him sternly in Sinhala, frequently gesturing to me and then to the sky, presumably referencing the blazing noontime sun. I don’t have to speak their language to know he’s asking where Nuwan has been and why he left his client out here for so long. Nuwan ignores him and backs out of the parking space as the man is still speaking.
He continues his tirade as we exit the parking lot, but all I can do is sit there, shaking, and wipe my tears on my sleeve. He finally stops as he realizes I’m not going to answer him.
It’s another 30 minutes from Dambulla to my hotel in Habarana, which passes in desperately uncomfortable silence. All I can do for the first four hours after I arrive is lie in the dark, air conditioned room and drink water until I stop shaking. The stress of the day has hit me like a truck and I can feel the onset of the fever and joint pain that signal a bad flare up of my fibromyalgia. It’s going to be a long night.
Once I can type again without shaking uncontrollably, I fire up my laptop and send an email to the tour company to express how upset I am at the behavior of their driver. In. Excruciating. Detail.
A few hours later I get their response: “We are sorry this happened! Please try to forget about it and enjoy the rest of your holiday.”
Now, with all that said, I still think you should definitely visit the Dambulla Cave Temples. They are extraordinary, and Dambulla is situated perfectly for visiting the unmissable ancient rock fortress of Sigiriya. Just, um, don’t let Nuwan drive you there, OK?
Dambulla Cave Temples are a UNESCO World Heritage site located on the Kandy – Jaffna Hwy, Dambulla, Sri Lanka. You can read more about them here.
Like this? Before you, go, check out some more posts you might enjoy.
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Happy June, adventurers! OK, I know it’s July 3rd and I’m late again, but I’ve been stuck in some pretty remote places this month. Don’t feel sorry for me; they were all amazing!
Where in the world am I? Two thirds of the way through my great Sri Lankan expedition! This month I’ve visited Galle, Udawalawe, Colombo, Kalpitiya, Kandy, Ella, and Bandarawela.
Items checked off the bucket list this month: #542- explore ancient temples in Sri Lanka. This is a three month project! Check out some of the amazing temples I’ve been exploring:
Highlight of the month: Hanging out with elephants (and elephant babies!) at Udawalawe National Park. I went early (and I do mean EARLY!) in the morning and had the whole place to myself. Not another tourist in sight, and the weather was perfect. June is supposed to be the start of monsoon season in this part of the island, but I had a cool, breezy, sunny day.
Lowlight of the month: Arriving in the secluded paradise of Kalpitiya Peninsula only to be struck down by a random virus as soon as I got to my hotel. Fever, chills, nausea, extreme joint pain; I would have called my travel insurance company for a medical evacuation if I’d had the strength to make the call. Thankfully I made a full recovery without medical intervention, but I later read in the local paper that doctors were perplexed by a mysterious Dengue Fever-like virus exploding in the Kalpitiya peninsula throughout the month of June. Um, yikes?
Best meal: It’s a tie! I really can’t choose between these two:
1. A simple Greek salad and freshly made hummus with grilled flatbread at Chambers inside Galle Fort. I will never, ever go back to eating store-bought hummus again. Chambers, you have ruined me.
2. The spaghetti carbonara at Dolphin Beach Resort in Kalpitiya. I know you’d traditionally think of something seafood-based at a Sri Lankan beach resort, but trust me when I say this was the best pasta I’ve ever had in my life.
I’m going to Australia! I fired up my random bucket list picker and let it choose another adventure, so I’ll be heading to the Land Down Under soon to drive the Great Ocean Road. But first, I’m going home to the US for a two month road trip, and then popping down to Brazil to pick some coffee beans. I hope you’ll be following along on all of my adventures.
Galle is the most magnificent little city in Sri Lanka and I should definitely live here. It’s so darling, the garbage trucks play classical music so you know when to bring out your trash.
You know a man really loves you when he finds a way to have a random cake delivered to you even though he’s 10,000 miles away.
Transportation around the island is always more complicated than the Internet suggests.
Every time I sit down, a stray animal appears. I have embraced this as my spiritual gift.
Sri Lanka’s hill country has the most magnificent climate, and you should definitely visit. While June on the southern coast is miserably hot and sticky, the hills are crisp and cool and perfect.
Getting your roots touched up in a Sri Lankan hair salon is a nerve wracking experience. I almost said “hair raising experience” but even I would have hated me for that.
Kalpitiya is full of chipmunks who will sneak into your cabana and abscond with all of your tea, sugar, and creamer. I choose to believe that they are having little chipmunk tea parties somewhere in the woods.
You can make an outdoor shower out of a sperm whale skull.
Sri Lankan gay rights activists are some of the bravest, kindest, most inspirational people I’ve ever met. June is Pride Month all over the world, but it’s extra special in a country where homosexuality is illegal and people are fighting for their basic human rights.
What I read:
Stephen King’s On Writing for the billionth time
Jon Vrom’s The Front Row Factor. I loved this book about transforming your life into a series of “front row” moments.
Eleventy billion brain-numbing articles on the technical aspects of blogging that would make your eyes glaze over if I even started to list them all.
What’s next? One more month of exploring ancient temples and exotic beaches before I head back to the US for a while. I can’t wait to see my dog after four months apart!
Don’t forget to follow My Adventure Bucket on Facebook if you haven’t already! Have a fantastic July (and for my American readers, please be careful with your fireworks! Happy Independence Day!)
This post may contain affiliate links. These links cost you nothing but help to support the upkeep of the blog, and my room service habit.
This post may contain affiliate links. Using these links costs you nothing but helps to offset the expense of running of this website and my weekly pedicure habit.
The sign outside the second-floor clinic instructs all visitors to remove their shoes before entering, and the staircase landing is littered with sandals. OK, apparently this is a thing. I briefly consider turning around and leaving, but I’m bolstered by the fact that I’m wearing my lucky Harry Potter underwear. Also, I just saw my first two sacred cows, which seems like a good omen. I’m about to have dental work in India, and I’m starting to think this was possibly a Very Bad Idea™.
I feel better as soon as I step inside the clinic. Everything is clean and modern and sterile. I’m handed an iPad on which to check in. The receptionist has perfect hair and looks like he just stepped out of a J.Crew catalog, except he’s also barefoot.
As soon as I finish signing in and taking an extremely unflattering picture of myself with the office tablet, J. Crew leads me up another flight of stairs to the exam room, which is similarly spotless but full of Buddha statues and a small radio blaring Indian pop music.
Dr. Narayan cuts right to the chase, asking me what’s going on. I go into show and tell mode, and he only interrupts to ask a few questions. He can tell right away that I’ve been putting this off for some time, and that there was trauma to the tooth in question. He smirks when I tell him the story of being head-butted in the face by a rambunctious dog while drinking a beer.
“Well,” he says pushing back from his desk, “let’s have a look.” I pad along barefoot behind him into the treatment room. This is probably my last chance to bolt and I’m totally missing it.
The room is as bright and sterile as any Western dentist office, and he uses all the usual tools for the exam, but there is no forgetting where I am. He explains every step of what’s needed in distinctly Indian terms. The root of the tooth is like a sleeping tiger. Bacteria rise up like warriors. Etc. I try to close my eyes during the exam but he gently admonishes me to keep them open. “I know you are scared. Watching what goes on will remove the fear.”
It only takes a few minutes for Dr. Narayan to decide I need a root canal and we should begin immediately. OK, hold up, I only psyched myself up for an exam. I was not prepared for this at all. “You’re already here,” he says, reading my mind again. “Best just to get it over with.” He’s right, of course, but I must not look entirely convinced. “I promise it won’t hurt a bit, and you won’t even need any anesthesia.” It’s not polite to call your doctor a big fat liar, so I tell him to go ahead.
As it turns out, he wasn’t a big fat liar at all. I would hereby like to insist that every dentist I’ve ever seen to go to India and take a few lessons from this guy. Especially Dr. Kmon, who was a really big jerk to me when I was six.
Fifteen minutes later, having experienced zero pain whatsoever, I was on my way. Who would have guessed that one Indian doctor could cure a decades old fear of the dentist’s chair?
I ended up going back for three additional visits for a follow-up, a temporary crown, and a permanent crown. My entire cost for four office visits, a root canal, and a porcelain crown was $230. I did a little bit of cost comparison with US averages, and it appears that a root canal on a front tooth can cost in the neighborhood of $900. If you need a crown, expect that to be over $1000. You might have insurance that minimizes your out of pocket cost, but if not, that’s a huge expense. I suddenly understand why so many of my American friends have chosen to have their dental work done overseas. For the cost of one root canal and crown in the US, you can fly to the dental tourism spot of your choice, stay in a nice hotel for a couple of weeks, enjoy a lovely vacation, and get some top quality dental work done while you’re there.
Worried about getting dental work overseas? I was, too (especially the whole barefoot thing, but I got over it) but I did a ton of research and got personal recommendations from other travelers, and I couldn’t be happier with the experience. The dentist I chose came highly recommended with over 18 years of experience and training in both India, Europe, and North America, and has trained dentists all over the world. I hope I don’t get too much hate mail from American dentists, but I wouldn’t hesitate to do it all over again and now I completely understand why so many people have chosen to travel for their medical and dental procedures instead of paying outrageous prices at home.
Have you ever traveled for a medical or dental procedure? Tell me about your experiences in the comments!
“What does Burma have to give the United States? We can give you the opportunity to engage with people who are ready and willing to change a society.” – Aung San Suu Kyi
Many of the people who stumble on this blog may never have thought about traveling to Burma, or even know exactly where it is without glancing at a map of Asia. That’s OK, it’s a big world. Here’s a gallery of some of my favorite Burma photos that just might make you want to visit.
Beautiful, isn’t it? But don’t say I didn’t warn you- if you visit, you’ll fall in love.
Sometimes I feel guilty about writing the negative aspects of my posts. Even though honesty demands that the negative be included along with the positive, I tend to feel like an ugly, entitled American when another country doesn’t live up to my expectations. To help combat that feeling, here is a list of 24 things I absolutely loved about Burma.
The people are so nice, and genuinely try to be helpful to lost foreigners.
Tiny monks everywhere.
Gorgeous temples everywhere.
The food is pretty good.
I felt completely safe nearly everywhere as a solo female traveler. Being a Buddhist country, there is very little crime, especially against tourists.
Many people have learned a little bit of English, either in school or free classes taught in the monasteries, and are very eager to try out what they know. Especially cute are the shy little kids who will run up to you and yell, “Hello-goodbye!” before running back to their parents.
Women and children wearing thick yellow thanaka paste on their faces as sunscreen.
People here have a charming affinity for western cartoon characters. Even grown men will travel with a Mickey Mouse or Snoopy duffel bag.
The hot air balloon ride in Bagan. Pure magic.
Children are remarkably well behaved here.
The Islamic community in Mandalay. My hotel was right next to a large mosque and I loved to sit in the window and list to their calls to worship.
Chapatis and Nepali food in Mandalay.
Horse carts in Bagan.
Going barefoot in all the Buddhist temples and monasteries. Somehow the act of removing your shoes makes the experience so much more reverent.
My first day in Yangon, a toothless old woman approached me on the street and handed me a beautiful white flower. Thinking she was selling them, I shook my head ‘no’ but she pressed it into my hands anyway and said, “Gift!”
The way people worship their Buddhas, lovingly covering them with gold and flowers, washing them and making offerings of rice and incense. Misdirection of time and resources that it might be, I think almost all forms of worship are beautiful to witness.
Little nat (earth spirit) shrines hidden in tress and other surprising places.
Even though so many people here are going hungry or lacking basic necessities, there is virtually no theft. I watched a homeless man sitting on the dirty street pick up money and go chasing after the German tourist who had dropped it.
The pervasive smell of jasmine.
Making a wish at Shwedagon Paya in the ‘wish fulfilling place’.
Nylon Ice Cream Bar, Mandalay.
The beautiful, if chilly, boat ride across Inle Lake.
The smell of incense.
People who speak some English eagerly try to communicate with foreigners. Those who don’t just smile and laugh a lot.
Next on the itinerary is a trip to 2000 year old golden temple Sule Paya, said to contain one of the hairs of the Buddha. My driver parks in a lot about a block away and tells me to “just cross street!” Easier said than done- this is the busiest intersection in Yangon and crossing the street looks about as easy as running with the bulls. I duck into the road behind a group of nuns and hope people will at least swerve to avoid them.
At 9:00 a.m. it’s already boiling hot and the marble pavilion burns the soles of my bare feet. I’ve made my customary counter-clockwise loop around the jumble of golden Buddhas, neon lights, and praying, chanting Buddhists and am about to leave when a shriveled old monk calls out to me from a tiny alcove. “Hello! Where do you come from?”
“The United States,” I answer, somewhat hesitantly.
“Ah!” He throws his hands up with obvious glee. “Barack Obama!” He motions me closer and I notice he has more ear hair than anyone I’ve ever seen. He scoots into the shade and offers me a seat. He holds up a small transistor radio in a pink plastic bag. “I love Americans. An American gave me this radio.”
My new friend immediately wants to know anything I can tell him about the outside world, American politics, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, JFK, and, oddly, whether Pirates of the Caribbean was based on a true story. Within minutes I realize that this elderly monk from a third world country knows as much about American political history as anyone I know. I ask him where he learned so much and he points to his radio. It’s contraband, and there are no real radio stations in Burma anyway, but he says sometimes at night he can pick up BBC broadcasts out of Singapore. He also talks to every white tourist he sees and asks them for their old newspapers and magazines. The conversation turns to why I have come to Myanmar. “Are you a journalist?” he asks hopefully. He seems disappointed when I say no.
He tells me that many people come to Sule Paya to worship because it contains a hair of the Buddha, but the hair is sealed up inside the golden zedi. “Botataung is better. You can see the Buddha’s hair.” I nod. Maybe I will go there later, I tell him. He stands up and motions for me to follow him back out into the heat. A woman is chanting as she pours small cups of water over the head of a Buddha with a tiger in front of him. I ask my new friend what she’s doing and he tells me she was probably born on Monday. “People born on Monday are ruled by the moon and the spirit of the tiger.” I tell him I was also born on a Monday, and he says I must always pray at the Monday area when I am at a temple. The woman finishes, and he motions for me to approach the statue. A small girl with a bucket darts in front of us and the monk explains, “Many people in the city have no running water, so they send their children here to take some, for drinking and bathing.” The tiny girl finishes filling her bucket, flashes us a big smile, and ambles off with her water.
The monk tells me, “You take the cup, fill with water, and pour over the Buddha’s head once for every year of your life, to acknowledge all of the blessings you have received, plus one more time for a long life. While you do this, you pray silently for peace and prosperity.” As I pour my 30 cups over tiger-Buddha’s head, the monk chants quietly beside me. Peace and prosperity sound great, but I think the cold water splashing down on my feet is the best part. When I finish, the monk nods his approval and says, “I would have guessed you were born on Monday. You look like a tiger!”
He starts out of the Paya onto the sidewalk where little girls are selling caged sparrows and he motions over his shoulder for me to follow him. I do, and it never occurs to me to ask him where we’re going. He immediately turns down an alley filled with huge piles of garbage and that open-sewer smell I’ve come to associate with Yangon. I see motion behind one of the trash piles and realize people live here. As my eyes adjust to the semi-darkness, I realize a lot of people live here. A man with vacant eyes rubs the legs of his sick, moaning child as she lies on a towel in the street. Nearby a dirty, naked baby picks up bits of trash from the gutter and puts them in his mouth.
I look at the monk and he says, “Every alley in Yangon you will see this same thing. Many of these people were forced into slavery by our government, and when they became injured from building roads and such, they were sent back here to starve, unable to work.”
We leave the alley and continue to walk as he tells me his thoughts on Barack Obama (“I liked him very much at first, now I still like him but I’m not sure about Joe Biden.”) and the United Nations (not doing enough for the people of Myanmar) to NASA (“Very impressive that they can send things into space like that. It hardly seems possible that one nation can be so advanced when others cannot even feed their children.”) He is very vocal about the way the Burmese government abuses and mistreats the people, and, like July, asks me if I am aware of The Lady and her struggle for democracy. I tell him I am, and he says many of his friends and brothers were among the 4000 monks slaughtered in the streets in 1988 during a peaceful protest. He only survived by covering himself with the bodies of his dead brethren and lying motionless for hours until it was safe to flee. Thousands more were arrested and taken to Insein Prison, but have never been seen or heard from again. “This is why we need the United States and United Nations to speak for us. We speak for ourselves and we are killed.”
I ask why he is so comfortable speaking about these matters in the street with so many people around, and he shrugs. “Let them arrest me or kill me. At least I won’t die sitting around like a sheep, as so many of these people who have no hope left. I am a very old man and will die one day soon anyway.”
I finally think to ask where we are walking, and he says, “Botataung Paya. So you can see the Buddha hair.” And then we arrive at the small temple, surrounded by the usual throng of vendors and taxi drivers and small kids hoping for candy to materialize from foreign pockets.
Inside the star-shaped pagoda is a maze of mirrors with the faithful hunched down and praying in corners, chanting and counting their mala beads. The monk, whose name I never learned, points me toward an excited mob of people gathered around a tiny window. “Buddha hair. Go look. I’ll wait.” It takes me ten minutes to work my way to the front of the crowd, and when I finally stand on tiptoes to peer into the window, all I see are dusty flowers, gold and ivory carvings. It’s so hot I’m getting dizzy, and someone is grinding their elbow into my ribs. I’m happy to take their word that there’s a sacred hair in there somewhere if it means getting out of this mob.
My self appointed tour guide then leads the way into the mirrored maze and finds a cool place for us to sit. I tell him my driver is still waiting back at Sule Paya, and he asks why we walked if I had a driver.
As he continues to talk politics, I ask him if I can take his picture. This attracts the attention of two young monks who immediately charge over and ask my name. I tell them, and they want to know where I am from. One walks away immediately, but the other stares at me suspiciously before stepping away and continuing to watch us out of the corner of his eye.
The old monk leans over and says quietly, “Don’t tell them anything else. Those are not monks.” He gets up and motions for me to follow him outside, where he continues, “Did you notice how forcefully they spoke, and with such loud voices in a temple? Also that they did not greet me even though I am their elder? Because they are not monks, but spies for the government.” I look at him in surprise and he laughs. “Oh yes, they are in every temple and tea shop. Who would watch what they say around a monk? But they are watching and listening all the time.”
At this point I am more than ready to go back to my driver before the pseudomonks come chasing after us with one of the armed soldiers who stand on every corner. I tell the monk that it will be faster if we take a taxi back to Sule, and that I will pay for it. “No, no,” he protests. “This is far too expensive. It will cost a thousand kyat!” (Approximately one US dollar.) I tell him that is OK, but he persists. “The bus will only cost 100 kyat!” Again I tell him that I can pay the 1000 kyat and he marvels at my apparent wealth. “And I can ride with you? I have never been in a taxi before.” I marvel right back at him. I assure him that he can come along for the ride and ask him if he will get us a taxi from the row of cars and drivers waiting in front of us.
I watch, puzzled, as he moves from taxi to taxi, speaking in rapid Burmese to the drivers, who simply look away and shake their heads ‘no’.
“Don’t try to negotiate with them- I’ll pay the 1000 kyat!” I call.
He shakes his head. “You don’t understand. No one will take a monk and a western woman together in the same car.”
Just as I am about to apologize for leaving him behind and getting my own cab, a man runs up and says he’s found a driver to take us. He turns to the monk and tells him in Burmese that there will be an additional 500 kyat fee for the unseemliness of the situation. I’m already in the back seat before my monk can protest.
On the way back to Sule Paya, I ask why monks were the ones who protested against the military rulers, rather than ordinary citizens. The old man smiles. “Many people just think of us as scholars, and very religious, but they forget. When I was a young man, we were trained as warriors.”
Not being keen on trying to navigate my way around Yangon on my own, I had arranged in advance to have a driver pick me up at my hotel and ferry me around to the places I most wanted to see. This turned out to be a fantastic idea, because Burmese traffic is absolutely terrifying. Our first stop is Chauktatgyi Paya, home of one of the largest reclining Buddhas in the country. Leaving my sandals (and driver) in the car, I enter a building that is little more than a metal roofed shack over the enormous golden statue. This is not a tourist destination, so all of the signs are in Burmese and all heads turn to stare at me when I enter. (Soon I will get used to this.) Hundreds of Burmese are kneeling on mats in front of the Buddha, and when a bell chimes 8:00, they all begin to bow and chant in unison.
“Hello!” comes a cheerful voice from my left. “Hello, you speak English?” This is July, a young Burmese former monk, looking very western in Levi jeans and a shaggy haircut. Anxious to practice his English, July spends a lot of time at the Paya and other religious sites, looking for the rare American visitor to interact with. He tells me he was a monk in the monastery behind Chauktatgyi for seven years, but left because he wanted to be part of the modern world, dress in western clothes, and, maybe, one day visit the United States. He knows all about California, Brooklyn, and Miami, and is very impressed that I live in Florida, near Mickey Mouse.
When he left the monastery, July could not find a job (there aren’t many jobs to be had) or afford to live on his own. Returning to his parents was out of the question- they were so ashamed of his having left the monastic life that they would not allow him to return home. I asked him how old he had been when he joined the monastery. “Fourteen,” he tells me. I am shocked that his parents sent their fourteen year old son off to live with strangers and wouldn’t take him back when he wanted to come home, and tell him so. He shrugs, clearly unbothered. “I knew they would probably not take me back, but I had to try. It is such an honor for a family to have a son become a monk, I shamed them by leaving. But I had to try to be myself.”
July had returned to the monastery and asked if he might continue to live there until he could find a way to support himself. The monks agreed, but said he must keep to their schedule: rise at 4:00 a.m., pray for one hour, eat at 5:00, no food after 12:00 noon, in bed at sunset. He had been keeping to this arrangement for two years. He takes me on an impromptu tour of the monastic complex behind the paya. There are many different monasteries jumbled together- the different races of Burmese people all have their own buildings within the complex and they do not mix. He shows me two monasteries that sit empty. “The monks who lived here were part of the group who supported The Lady.” (Aung San Suu Kyi, democratically elected political leader who had been under house arrest for 20 years.)
“200 of them disappeared and now their monastery is closed.” He asks me if I know about The Lady, and I tell him yes- I have read her books and am familiar with Burma’s political upheaval. He is happy that I refer to the country as Burma, not Myanmar, and that I am better informed than most English-speaking tourists he has met. July tells me that apart from practicing his English, he also likes to talk to American tourists to spread the word about what is happening in his country. “I wish more Americans would come here. You are the only people who can help us. We cannot help ourselves.” This is a theme I will encounter throughout my trip.
Back inside the Paya, a line has formed of women and girls passing buckets of water from a well. These are dumped on the floor in front of the giant Buddha and more women push the water around the dirty floor with long-handled mops. July says they do this all day, every day, as a way to obtain merit for their next life.