Thursday, February 27, 2014

Leech Zone, No Stopping!

Greetings All,
From Kandy we headed north to the Knuckles Range now part of a conservation area.  It had been dry prior to our arrival but the night before it rained.  Asanga our guide warned us the rain may have brought out leeches.  I hate leeches!  They crawl into your boots and inject an anesthetic before they bite so you don't know they're there.  They then inject an anticoagulant so that once bitten you continue to bleed for hours.  I wasn't too excited about the day's hike and sprayed my boots and socks with DEET to ward off the blood-sucking creatures.  After one last leech check we headed out.

Checking for Leeches

Most of the high mountain tops were obscured by clouds but we did get good views of the terraced rice paddies in the lower valleys.

Knuckles Mountain Range

At one point Asanga announces " We are entering a leech zone (a phrase I coined), do not stop.  If you stop to remove one leech, 3-4 more will attack you!".  I hightailed it through the leech zone and made it back to the village where our van was waiting.  When we arrived at camp we removed our boots and socks to assess the damage.  Marc had 5 bites on his ankle and one on his wrist (yes, they do climb up on your trek poles).

Marc Displays his Leech Bites

Stewart won the competition with 38 leech bites!  I tentatively removed my boots and socks.  Yippee, no bites!  Saturating my boots and socks with DEET worked.

The next morning we woke to clear skies and beautiful views of the Knuckles so named by the British as they resemble a clenched fist.

Knuckles Mountain Range

Everyone now sprayed their boots with DEET before our next hike.  Not long after heading out we encountered a troop of Purple-faced Leaf Monkeys in the treetops.  Endemic to Sri Lanka, these Old World Monkeys are wary of humans and it was difficult to get a good photo.  Marc managed to photograph a mother and baby when they paused in an opening in the forest canopy.

Purple-faced Leaf Monkeys

We also spotted Grizzled Giant Squirrels feeding in the canopy.  They appeared darker than their lowland cousins seen in Yala National Park.

Grizzed Giant Squirrel

We hiked down to the river which we crossed on a cement bridge and passed some village homes. The people living here are subsistence farmers growing rice, cardamon and other crops.  We stopped at a waterfall for lunch before returning to camp.  When we removed our boots and socks, we found no leech bites.  The others in our group sustained only a few bites.  DEET really works.

I'm sure some of you are wondering what does a leech look like and how big are they?  Asanga was brave enough to pick one up and hold it for me to photograph. 

Blood Sucking Creature

We left the Knuckles Range and drove to the village of Maskeliya at the base of Adam's Peak, our next hiking objective.  On the way we encountered more and more vans and buses along the narrow winding road.  At one point there was a standoff between us and a big red bus.  
Bus Standoff
The red bus won and we had to reverse to let it pass. "Where are all these people going", I asked Asanga. "To climb Adam's Peak" he replied.  I knew that the peak is held sacred by 4 religions and that many pilgrims make the climb but I wasn't prepared for this. From our hotel room we could see a mass of buses in the parking lot below.  
Bus Parking lot in Maskeliya
Asanga informed us that we would start our hike at 12:30 AM in order to beat the rush to the top for sunrise.  As we headed out we could see the trail and the temple on the top illuminated by lights.

Trail to the Summit of Adam's Peak

The route is lined by vendors selling everything from stuffed animals, silk flowers and food.

Vendor Stalls along the trail to Adam's Peak
We entered through a gate and continued up a series of steps.

Gate Leading to Adam's Peak

So far we managed to keep ahead of the crowd or so we thought.  As we climbed higher, we encountered more and more people.  Everyone was making the pilgrimage, old men and women, mothers and fathers carrying babies or leading toddlers by the hand, teenagers and of course us tourists.  About 300 vertical feet from the summit, we hit a wall of people.  It stretched as far as we could see into the darkness.

Throng on their way up Adam's Peak

The summit had reached capacity and now the trail had become backed up with thousands of pilgrims waiting to get to the top.  It had taken us one hour to climb 100 feet so we estimated that it would take us another 3 hours to reach the summit, well after sunrise.  We had no choice but to retreat as it would take hours to climb back down through the throng still on their way up.  We arrived back at our hotel at 6:00 AM.  We had to settle for a view of Adam's Peak at sunrise from our hotel room.

View of Adam's Peak at Sunrise

It was disappointing for us but more so for the locals that were also forced to turn back.  For us climbing Adam's Peak was a novelty but for the locals it is a true pilgrimage.  Buddhists believe that the footprint of Buddha is near the summit while the Hindus believe that it is the footprint of Shiva.  The Christians and Muslims believe that it is the footprint of Adam left when first setting foot on Earth after being cast out of the Garden of Eden, hence the name Adam's Peak.  Asanga estimated over 200,000 people attempted to climb the peak along with us.  

We left Maskeliya and drove to Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka's highest town where we spent the night.  The next morning we did a hike in Horton Plains National Park.  We stopped near the entrance to have our packed breakfasts.  There were a few Sambar stags hanging around waiting for a handout.  I refused to give over my breakfast and one of the stags stuck his tongue out at me.

Sambar Stag

Horton Plains National Park contains a mix of montaine grasslands and cloud forest.  The plateau is at an altitude of 6900 to 7500 feet and contains many species of endemic plants and animals.

Horton Plains National Park

As we entered the forest I could hear rustling in the trees.  A troop of endangered Purple-faced leaf Monkeys were feeding in the tree tops.  This is a different subspecies than the ones we saw in the Knuckles Range.  Here they are Trachypithecus vetulus monticola or Bear Monkey.  They have thicker coats and are missing the white patch on the rump of the lowland species. 

Bear Monkey

Our hike took us to two viewpoints along the edge of the plateau and to Bakers Falls.  As we were leaving the falls, a guide from another group pointed out a rare Rhino-horned lizard (Ceratophora stoddartii).  The males have a strange long, sharp horn composed of a single conical scale on the tip of their snouts.  Their horns are used to establish territory and in courtship.

Rhino-horned Lizard

We'll do a few more hikes in the highlands before heading to the beach for a little rest and relaxation.

We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc

Monday, February 24, 2014

Temple of the Tooth

Greetings All,
We met our next trek group in Colombo on February 17 for a 2-week tour of the cultural and natural highlights of Sri Lanka.  We were joined by 5 folks from the UK and headed north to the town of Sigiriya.  Our first stop was the archeological site of Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka's second capital city after the destruction of Anuradhapura in 993 CE.  Twenty-one kings reigned Sri Lanka from Polonnaruwa over the next 200 years.  The most famous king was Parakramabahu the Great who ruled from 1153-1186 CE.  He created a glorious garden-city with palaces, temples, monasteries, hospitals and dagobas (pagoda or stupa). The massive dagoba Rankoth Vehera is credited to King Nissanka Malla, a son-in-law or nephew of Parakramabahu the Great.

Rankoth Vehera

One of the more remarkable structures is the Vatadage, a circular stone shrine said to have been built by King Parakramabahu to enshrine the tooth relic of the Buddha.  There are four entrances to the second platform.  Stone steps with elaborately carved balustrades and statues lead to a stupa which once housed this most sacred relic.


The most impressive pieces of art from this period are the four gigantic Buddha images in the Gal Vihara.  They were carved right into the face of a large granite rock.  Here are two of the four images.

Gal Vihara

That afternoon we visited Sigiriya's most famous site, Lion Rock.  The story starts with King Dhatusena who had two sons and a beautiful daughter whom he loved very much.  To keep her in the family, he arranged a marriage with his sister's son, his nephew Migara.  One day his daughter came home with a blood-stained skirt.  She wouldn't admit it but the King knew she was being abused by her husband.  In retaliation, he had Migara's mother, his own sister, killed.  To get back at the King, Migara plotted to turn the King's younger son against him.  He convinced the younger son that if he wanted the throne, he'd have to kill his father and exile his older brother to India, both of which he accomplished.  The new King, Kashyapa, wasn't very popular for obvious reasons and needed a very secure place for his palace.  He chose Lion Rock for its strategic location and kicked out the monks who were living there. 

The Imposing Lion Rock

King Kashyapa ruled from this perch for the next 18 years (477- 495 AD).  His reign came to a fitting end when his brother returned from India with a massive army.  Kashyapa's army abandoned him during the battle and he committed suicide by falling on his sword.  Today you can climb stairs to the top of the rock. Along the way are some impressive murals of some very well-endowed ladies.

Mural, Lion Rock

Most have been destroyed or covered with painted floral designs by the monks who found them too distracting.  Near the top is the impressive Lion Gate.  All that remain are the beast's two front paws on either side of the entrance.

Lion Gate

Our last stop in the area was the Dambulla Cave Temple also known as the Golden Temple of Dambulla.  At the entrance a gold Buddha image towered over the temple.

Entrance to Dambulla Cave Temple

We climbed to five caves under a vast overhanging rock in the temple complex.  The first cave, the Cave of the Divine King, dates back to the 1st century.  The cave is dominated by a 14-meter reclining Buddha hewn out of the rock.

Buddha in the Cave of the Divine Kings

In the second and largest cave (which also dates back to the 1st century) are more than 50 Buddha images.  This is the Cave of the Great Kings.

Buddha Images in the Cave of the Great Kings

We left Dambulla and drove 72 km south to the city of Kandy.  In the evening we visited one of the most sacred Buddhist temples in the world, the Temple of the Tooth.  It is here that one of the Lord Buddha's canine teeth is enshrined. 

Monks outside the Temple of the Tooth

Monks conduct rituals three times a day: at dawn, at noon and in the evenings.  We had come to witness the evening ceremony.  It started with the beating of drums and the blowing of a horn.  We gathered around an inner shrine where I thought the ceremony would take place but most of the arriving pilgrims and tourists were headed up a set of stairs.

The Evening Ceremony Begins with the Beating of Drums

It turns out that the relic of the tooth of the Buddha was in a shrine on the upper level.  A long queue had formed to see the golden casket containing the tooth.  The door is opened and closed according to an astrologer.  We bypassed the queue and joined a mass of people trying to photograph the inner sanctum from a distance.  We were able to get a decent photo of the golden casket housing this most sacred relic.  We didn't get to see the actual tooth.  It is displayed to the public once every 5 to 10 years.  It was last shown in 2012 and 8 million devotees from around the world showed up to see it.  Some waited in the queue for weeks for their chance to see the tooth of the Buddha.

Golden casket Containing the Tooth Relic 

I still wanted to get a closer look so we worked our way into the queue and were able to pass briefly by the shrine.  I was caught up in the spiritual fever of being so close to relic that it brought me to tears.  I can't claim to be a Buddhist but the legend surrounding the relic is fascinating and the excitement of the devotees infectious.  When the Lord Buddha died in 543 BC, his body was cremated and four of his teeth removed.  One remained in India for 800 years but was smuggled to Sri Lanka for safe keeping as there were kings in India bent on destroying it.  It was hidden in the hair ornament of a princess and along with her husband they secretly brought it to Sri Lanka disguised as commoners.

What a fantastic start to our visit to Sri Lanka!  All the sites that we have visited are now UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  Tomorrow we head to the mountains for a bit of trekking to explore some of Sri Lanka's natural treasures.

We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc     

Monday, February 17, 2014

Where Have all the Leopards Gone?

Greetings All,
After leaving Myanmar we flew to Colombo, Sri Lanka via Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  We had a few days before meeting up with our next trek group so we visited Yala National Park in southern Sri Lanka.  Yala is Sri Lanka's second largest national park and is said to have the largest leopard density in the world.  We set out to explore the park with our guide, Arran, hoping to find a lot of leopards to photograph.

There are plenty of other animals and birds in the park to enjoy.   Yala harbors 44 species of mammals and 215 species of birds including 6 endemics.  One of the first birds we encountered was this Malabar Pied Hornbill.

Malabar Pied Hornbill

We rudely interrupted two land monitor lizards in the process of mating.  They reared up on their hind legs and embraced lovingly or so I thought.

Land Monitor Lizards

There was a lot of hissing going on and when the male started getting rough, the female had enough and made a hasty retreat.  Yala is also home to herds of wild water buffalo.  Around the periphery of the park most of the water buffalo contain genes from domestic stock.

Wild Water Buffalo

The Little Green Bee-eaters were especially prolific.  They flitted back and forth across the road alighting on branches nearby which made for a great photo.

Little Green Bee-eater

There are four species of deer in the park.  By far the most common are the Spotted Deer.  This handsome buck posed nicely for us.

Male Spotted Deer

There are more than 90 species of waterfowl that inhabit Yala's wetlands.  We observed Cattle, Little, Intermediate and Great Egrets, Red and Yellow-wattled Lapwings, Gray heron, Black-headed Ibis, Indian Pond Heron, White-breasted Water Hen, Lesser Whistling ducks and this beautiful Painted Stork.

Painted Stork

The Asian Elephant herds of Yala number from 300 to 350 individuals.  Most of the males are tuskless owing to the British shooting out all the large males with tusks in colonial times.  We did spot Nalaka, one of the few males with tusks.

Nalaka, male Elephant w/Tusks

The breeding herds containing the females with calves were more difficult to spot.  They tended to stay hidden in the jungle.  One small herd of about 7 individuals came out of hiding for a mud bath.  The adults sprayed muddy water on their back to cool down.  A tiny calf tried to emulate mom without much success.  He had not yet mastered the numerous muscles in his tiny trunk.  When the herd left the waterhole we got a good photo.

Asian Elephants

Almost everywhere you look in Yala you see Peafowl.  One Peacock was doing his best to impress a Peahen.  His tail feathers were extended in a brilliantly colored fan which he shakes violently to attract her attention.  At first she seemed interested but soon turned away and strolled off.

Peacock Displaying

There are two species of monkey in Yala.  The Toque Macaque is endemic to Sri Lanka.  They hang around the rest stops looking for an opportunity to steal food.  We managed to hang onto our breakfasts.

Toque Macque

Not wanting to miss anything we spent two full days in the park.  It gets really hot around noon and the animals tend to be less active.  Most people take a break around midday and return to their lodgings to rest.  We found that you can still spot animals when they come to one of the park's many waterholes to drink.

Spotted Deer Drinking at a Waterhole

One of my favorite smaller animals was the Grizzled Giant Squirrel.  They are found only in Sri Lanka and India.  They are near-threatened due to hunting and habitat loss.

Grizzled Giant Squirrel

Another small mammal spotted at dawn and dusk is the common Black-naped Hare.

Black-naped Hare

We were nearing the end of our second full day in the park and had yet to see a leopard.  We were getting desperate.  Others staying at our camp were getting good sightings but we always seemed to arrive minutes too late.  We decided to bend the rules and stay in the park past sunset in the hopes of getting a sighting of one of the cats that had been eluding us the past couple of days.  One of the top guys in the wildlife department, Chandre, was with us so weren't too concerned about staying late.  He wanted to see a leopard as badly as we did.  Finally, success!  A beautiful female leopard slinked out of the jungle to get a drink at a nearly waterhole.  Despite being some distance away and the growing darkness Marc was able to get a descent shot.

Female Asian Leopard

Time to head out of the park before it got much darker!  Thank you Arran, Chandre and our driver Koshala for being so patient and willing to remain in the park for 13 hours two days in a row for us to get good sightings and photos of Yala's elusive inhabitants.

We hope all is well back home,
Peggy and Marc     

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Electric Buddhas

Greetings All,
We saved the best for last, the majestic Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon.  We arrived in the late afternoon and entered via the east gate.  We climbed steps past shops selling trinkets for tourists and offerings for the Buddhist pilgrims.  It's difficult to capture the grandeur of the Pagoda.  It rises 326 feet into the sky and is covered with dazzling gold plates and gold leaf.

Shwedagn Pagoda

The original temple is believed to be more than 2600 years old making it the oldest Buddhist temple in the world!  Legend has it that two merchants met the Lord Buddha after he had gained enlightenment and offered him food and alms.  In return Lord Buddha gave them 8 of his hairs as a blessing.  When the merchants returned home they gave the hairs to the king who built the Shwedagon Pagoda to enshrine the strands.

We walked about the stupa then sat for an hour and a half to wait for the sunset.  Groups of tourists, pilgrims, monks and nuns strolled around the middle terrace stopping to recite prayers, make an offering or to take a photo.

Pilgrims Praying

Volunteers swept the floor then rolled out a red carpet.  "For whom?" we wondered.

Volunteers Sweeping the Floor

Just after sunset a large group surrounded by police linking arms to prevent people from approaching too closely made their way around the pagoda.  It turned out to be the President of Germany.  Can you pick him out in the crowd?

Germany's President Visits Shwedagon

The upper tower of the pagoda glinted with the last rays of sunshine.   At the very top is the diamond orb containing 4351 diamonds including a 76 carat apex diamond!  Below the diamond orb is the pennant-shaped vane and the umbrella.  The umbrella alone is 43 feet high and is adorned with close to 84,000 gems including 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies!  From this distance it's difficult to get a feel for the size and grandeur of the umbrella.  It weighs a staggering 5 tons including half a ton of gold!     

Upper tower of Shwedagon

A few monks ascended the lower terraces to collect gold leaf that had blown off from the walls.  Only monks and men for that matter are allowed on the terraces.

Monks Collecting Gold Leaf

After dark the pagoda comes alive with throngs of Buddhist devotees.  They stop at their planetary post to pray for prosperity, a good husband or to have a son.  They light candles, pour water over the Buddha image or make offerings of flowers, incense, or money.

Devotees Worshipping at Sunday (my) Corner

Myanmar Buddhism is unique in that it incorporates an astrological aspect of Hinduism.  Myanmar Buddhists not only believe that karma (the doing of good or bad deeds) affects their fate but also believe that it is also determined by the day of the week you were born.  There are eight planetary posts or "corners" around the Pagoda representing the eight days of the week (Wednesday is split into two posts, an a.m. and a p.m.).  Each Planetary Corner has a Buddha image and an animal representation underneath:  garuda (large mythical bird)  for Sunday, tiger for Monday, lion for Tuesday, tusked elephant for Wednesday morning, tuskless elephant for Wednesday evening, mouse for Thursday, guinea pig for Friday and naga (mythical dragon/serpent) for Saturday.  Do you know the day of the week you were born and what your animal sign is?   

Devotees Worshipping at Tuesday Corner

Around the main stupa are many tiny shrines with "electric Buddhas" lit up with halos of colored lights.  The pilgrims and monks alike prayed to the Buddha Images.

Buddhist Pilgrims Praying inside a Shrine

Monks Praying inside a Shrine

After 3 and a half hours of trying to absorb the majesty and spiritual intensity of Shwedagon Pagoda, it was time to leave.  It was a fitting end to our visit to Myanmar with it's rich historical, cultural and religious history.  We wish the people of Myanmar prosperity and peace on their way to developing the world's next democracy.  We hope they can maintain their unique traditions in a world that is becoming more homogenous by the day.

We hope all is well back home,
Peggy and Marc