UNESCO Heritage Site #88: Sinharaja Rainforest

From Galle, we took a bus to Mirissa, where through the kind and accommodating hotel owner, we were able to rent a scooter (without all the fuss associated with the International driving license, which seemed like a bureaucratic nightmare to get). While the detail-oriented travel researcher in me loves working with the constraints of timetables of buses and trains, I have come to appreciate the freedom of movement and the concomitant freedom of choice independent of any schedules as the ultimate privilege of a budget traveller.

In the morning we set off for Sinharaja Rainforest Reserve on our way-too-fancy-to-be-rented yellow scooter. Google Maps promised us a 2-hour journey, but considering that the road twisted and turned through the hill country, we knew it would be at least 3 hours for us. Having finally arrived at the village closest to the park, we were immediately accosted by several guides who wanted to drive us on their own rickshaws to the park entrance. We refused and persevered on our little scooter over puddles, potholes and jagged rocks which constituted the last few kilometres before the park. One of the guides followed us closely on his rickshaw and his persistence won us over. After a bit of haggling, we agreed on a 4-hour hike through the reserve. As we set out on our mini-hike down a path, which was used by the locals on their scooters, our guide asked us to tuck in our pants into our socks, while covering our ankles in salt. Reason? Protection against leeches. At the time, I wasn’t really concerned with the little suckers, but little did I know that in just a few days they would come back to bite me (literally). 

As we walked along the path, our guide stolidly pointed out snakes, lianas, lizards and insects, none of which we would have noticed by ourselves. We were impressed with the ease at which the guide was able to find hidden creatures all around us. Finally, we got to the waterfall, and our guide proudly pointed out that it was “foreigners-only”. This was a bitter sweet experience for us, as on the one hand it was quite amazing to enjoy the relative peace and quiet of this natural setting, while on the other, it was simply too strange to be the benefitting recipients of the experience barred for locals. The waterfall created a strong radial current, and it was a challenge to swim against the current trying to reach the waterfall – you ended up treading water without moving.

After splashing around for a bit, we were ready to carry on, while our guide was ready to take us back to the parking lot. We insisted that we wanted to see more of the rainforest, because we paid for more time, and the guide conceded by taking us up a much less-travelled trail. He was noticeably less confident in his spotting, and it felt like he was simply biding time before taking us back to the parking lot. It all started to make sense – the reason why the guide was so well-versed on the main trail was because on the daily basis, he routinely shuttled tourists between the parking lot and the “foreigners-only” waterfall. While I was greatly appreciative to see untouched rainforest around me, it was incredibly sad to see excessive tourism reduce a national park to a single well-trodden route between a parking lot and an arbitrarily exclusive waterfall.

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