Best books about a country

While it’s almost impossible to travel anywhere now and perhaps for the near future, we can still travel through books. With that in mind, here are several great books I’ve read that take you through a journey through time and across the length and breadth of specific countries. I especially enjoy country books because you get to know a lot about a country and its many places and attributes. Most of these books focus on travel, but they also feature history, politics, cultural commentary and personal and family narratives, which provides a richer and more in-depth account of countries and places. If you have any suggestions yourself, let me know.

Elephant Complex– John Gimlette
One of the most somber travel books I’ve ever read, Elephant Complex is a fascinating book about the South Asian country of Sri Lanka. Despite its small size, Sri Lanka is a land of complex history, identities, and conflicts. The country boasts some of the finest historical monuments, wildlife, and mountain scenery that you’ll ever see in a country of its size, but it is its human history that stands out. While going through the different parts of the country, Gimlette unpacks its colonial history (Portuguese, Dutch and British), its civil war and ethnic tensions between its majority Sinhalese and Tamils, and how this co-exists uneasily alongside the country’s tourist-friendly image (I visited it myself in 2016).

Swiss Watching– Diccon Bewes
While strictly not a travelogue, Swiss Watching explores the alpine country of Switzerland and reveals its personality and quirks. I’d always thought Switzerland was boring given that it’s famous mainly for watches, chocolate and political neutrality, but there is much more to it. From grassroots democracy to a complex mix of identities (four official languages, strong local pride and local rivalries), Swiss Watching shines a spotlight on this supposedly boring nation. Bewes is an English transplant to Switzerland so he presents the view of a longtime resident, not a visitor.

Indonesia Etc– Elisabeth Pisani
Indonesia must be one of the world’s most unique countries, being an archipelago made up of several giant islands and thousands of smaller ones. Across this reside over 250 million people of different ethnicities, languages and faiths (though Islam is by far the most prevalent) that are held together by 20th century ideals crafted after Indonesia’s independence. Pisani travels the length and breadth of Indonesia, also foregoing the big cities, while examining issues like corruption, feudalism, and political history. She also looks at Islamic extremism, which has only gotten more noticeable in recent years (the book came out in 2014). Indonesia Etc is a great mix of travel and history and commentary, though at the end, Indonesia will still likely a mystery to most readers.

Formosa Moon– Joshua Samuel Brown, Stephanie Huffman
Taiwan is the island country I’m proud to call my home in Asia (and where my mother is from). But I haven’t traveled to that many places in Taiwan so reading Formosa Moon was a fantastic way of finding out about a lot of the country. The book’s premise was that Brown, a longtime Taiwan expat, wanted to show off Taiwan for Huffman, his romantic partner, so she could understand what she was getting into before moving to Taiwan (the two, both Americans, met in the US). They travel around Taiwan, visit all the touristy and some not-so-touristy ones, such as historical cities, an arts village, Taroko gorge, a mountain kibbutz, and an aboriginal settlement. It’s a really fun and touching account of the authors’ relationship with each other and Brown’s with Taiwan.

Looking for Transwonderland– Noo Saro-wiwa
Nigeria is not exactly a top travel destination but it sure is a complex, bewildering country. In Saro-wiwa’s case, she visits her birth country not just for travel but to reconcile with it after the state executed her father, activist Ken Saro-wiwa, in 1995. As such, it’s a little different from the usual good humor and adventure you find in some travel books, with Saro-wiwa not holding back on her views especially regarding major problems. Saro-wiwa travels to the different regions of Nigeria, including the southern oil-rich delta, where her family is from; the Muslim north, and several states. One of the most fascinating is when she visits a mountaintop village that retains a primitive “stone age” lifestyle but is free from modern problems. She also goes into Nigeria’s history, politics and ethnic issues, which is a huge cause of tension. The book will leave a lot of readers wanting more.

Engel’s England– Matthew Engels
Another book that is not exactly a travelogue, Engel’s England does actually cover the entirety of England, specifically 39 counties and London. Engels is a born and bred Englishman, so he brings the perspective of a local getting to grips with his own country. In this sense, there are some peculiar things that non-English people like myself might not really understand such as local (by this, I mean very local as in village or county) customs and festivals. Engels truly does cover off the beaten track, mostly foregoing major cities in favor of the surrounding countryside villages and small towns, which gives the book a lot of character.

Elephant Complex- book review

Sri Lanka is a fascinating little gem of a country blessed with a seemingly perfect combination of ancient and colonial historical sites, diverse culture, wildlife, beautiful mountain scenery, and beaches. But the country also has its demons, having endured a savage 30-year civil war that ended in a mass massacre in 2011. John Gimlette traveled extensively around Sri Lanka but his book Elephant Complex – Travels in Sri Lanka is more than just a travelogue. Going beyond surface superficialities in understanding this charming and troubling small country, it’s part history, part investigative reporting, and part sociology report.

One of the most interesting things about Sri Lanka is its mix of peoples and its different colonialism periods. There is the majority Sinhalese, the main minority Tamils, as well as a slightly smaller minority known as Muslims. In addition, there are Burghers, who are mixed race descendants of the early Europeans colonialists, and even the “Hill Tamils”, related to the main Tamils but hailing from India. There are indigenous Veddas too, who sadly number just a few thousand amid the country’s population of over 20 million. However, this racial mix is anything but harmonious. The country’s 30-year-old civil war saw Tamils rise up against the Sinhalese-dominated state (international news viewers may have heard of the Tamil Tigers, one of the world’s most fearsome rebel groups in their prime).

Gimlette visits all of these people, in the capital Colombo, the cultural heartland Kandy, the Hill Country, the south and east coasts, and even the wild Wanni. And he also goes to the Tamil north, centered on the city of Jaffna. The book gets very heavy at times, when even the author doesn’t know what to make of things. Sri Lanka is a complex country and the locals clearly haven’t recovered or come to grips with the serious trauma of their recent past.

Going past the 20th century, there are the violent conquests by first, the Dutch, and then the British. It wasn’t easy for the Europeans and the mountainous central kingdom of Kandy held out until the early 19th century, before betrayal by disgruntled subjects led to the fall of Kandy. Going back even further to over a thousand years ago, early Sri Lanka kingdoms built the great ancient cities of Polonnaruwa and Anuradhaphura.

The chapters on the Tamil north see Gimlette visit sites of the Tamil Tigers’ last stand, when they and hundreds of thousands of civilians were “herded” onto an increasingly shrinking area and bombed to bits. The Tigers were no angels themselves, forcibly recruiting children as soldiers in a desperate means of their replenishing their depleted forces. The Tigers also used the civilians as shields, threatening to shoot anybody who fled.

Elephant Complex is one of the most captivating and moving books about a country I’ve ever read.

Sri Lanka travel- visiting the hill town of Nuwara Eliya

Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
The mountainous interior of Sri Lanka, Hill Country, is full of mountains, picturesque towns, and hillside plantations where the country’s famous tea is grown. Among the largest towns in the Hill Country is Nuwara Eliya, considered the centre of the country’s tea industry. As a former British colonial hill station, Nuwara Eliya was a favorite holiday retreat for British officials, hence its wooden bungalows, a charming post office, and a horse-racing track that is still used today.

The town is a good base for visiting tea plantations and waterfalls in the nearby hills, as well as Horton Plains National Park (several hours away by car), where you can visit World’s End, a cliff edge with a massive drop of 4,000 feet. Nuwara Eliya itself features Single Tree Hill, and a small lake, as well as Pidurutalagala, the country’s tallest mountain.
Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

Hiking up Single Tree Hill, so called for a lone tree at the top (not actually true), provides great views of the town as well as the tea plantations on its slopes. It’s a relatively easy hike because most of it is along a small road which is not too steep. At the top, you can either go back down the way you came or clamber down not-so-clearly-marked trails through residential neighborhoods. Watch out you don’t accidentally trespass onto a tea plantation as I did!

To actually visit a large tea plantation, just go outside Nuwara Eliya to Pedro’s tea factory (3.5 km away). You can get a guided tour of the factory to see how they sort and process the tea, and then walk around the tea plantation outside the factory. Very conveniently, just opposite the road from Pedro’s is a trail that leads to Lover’s Leap waterfall, a 30m-high waterfall on a cliff. I took a tuktuk from town to Pedro’s, then after completing the hike, I took a local bus back to Nuwara Eliya.

How to get to Nuwara Eliya: Take a train to Nanu Oya station, then a tuktuk into town. If you want to be fancy, hire a local car and driver to take you from cities like Kandy or Colombo.
Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
View from Single Hill Tree
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Sri Lanka travel- Colombo photo roundup

Colombo, Sri Lanka
Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, is a very interesting city with a number of fascinating and picturesque sites, ranging from a beachfront park to elegant colonial-era buildings to temples and mosque, to a small city lake. Walking around parts of the city such as Fort district, with its colonial architecture, and Pettah, with its candy-coloured mosque, Hindu temples, gold shops, and market, were very nice experiences.

Colombo is worth a visit, and is rather safe and orderly. It might be a little noisy, a little rundown in a few parts, and hustlers will approach you from time to time, but in general, it is a good city to explore. As a followup to my previous post about exploring Colombo, this is a photo roundup of the city.

Colombo, Sri Lanka
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Sri Lanka travel- Dambulla Buddhist cave and Peradeniya botanical gardens

Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, Sri Lanka
While Kandy by itself is not that remarkable other than its lively cultural shows and the temple of the Buddhist Tooth, there is a lot of fascinating sites outside of the city. This includes the Dambulla Buddhist cave, an elephant sanctuary with dozens of elephants, and Peradeniya Botanical Gardens. Dambulla is about two hours’ drive, the Pinnawala elephant sanctuary is about an hour away, while the botanical gardens is very close, less than 30 minutes by bus.

Dambulla is a collection of several Buddhist caves filled with Buddhist murals and statues that date back to the first century BC. Located inside a series of caves on the top of a small hill, Dambulla is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a good place to visit along with Sigiriya if you’re going by car (check with your hotel for a driver). There are five caves, differing in size, with Buddhist statues, murals and even stupas. The murals are very beautiful, though in general, I found Dambulla underwhelming. At the foot of the hill is a Buddhist temple with a huge golden Buddha statue.

I’m not exactly a big fan of trees and flowers but I was very impressed by Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, so much that I spent almost two hours there strolling around and taking photos. Not only is it huge and feature a diverse collection of over 4,000 trees, plants, an orchid house, a spice garden, and enormous bamboo groves, but it has a colony of large fruit bats sleeping on several trees. As I visited during the day, those guys were all asleep and it was easy to take pictures of them. It was the first time I’ve seen bats sleeping in the outside during the day and it was a fascinating and slightly uncomfortable sight (not a bat fan too).

There is a central “great circle,” lawns, as well as an avenue shaded on both sides by giant palm trees. Among the most fascinating trees to look out are a giant Javan fig tree, which has a sprawling umbrella-like canopy, and Coco de Mers or double coconut palms, which bear coconuts of 10-20 kg that are the world’s heaviest nut or fruit!
The botanical garden was established in 1821 by the British, though Kandy kings had set up gardens on the site in previous centuries.

I had a slightly unpleasant experience as I was showed around the orchid house by an employee, who then asked for a tip at the end. I didn’t give him much but I don’t like it when people do something for you and then demand money, especially for something like a 5 minute tour of the orchid house, which was included in the garden’s entrance fee. A similar experience would later happen to me in Colombo at the natural history museum and I refused to give a tip (still annoyed over the orchid house guy).

I had a surprisingly pleasant experience when I came upon a bunch of local Muslim youths. They ran up to me and started crowding me, but in a friendly manner. These guys couldn’t speak much English and couldn’t tell me where they were (Sri Lanka! was all they could say) or what school or organization they were but we managed to take a few photos.

Colonial-era building in Kandy
Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, Sri Lanka
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Sri Lanka’s ancient hilltop fortress of Sigiriya

Sigiriya, Sri Lanka
One of Sri Lanka’s most distinctive and fascinating landmarks is the ancient fortress of Sigiriya. Located atop a massive 200m-high column of rock that dominates a vast plain, Sigiriya was built between 477-495 CE (AD) by a king as a refuge during a war with rivals for the throne. Eventually the place became a Buddhist monastery before being abandoned in the 13th-14th century.

Once you enter the grounds, you will get a great view of Sigiriya looming ahead of you. At the sides are pleasant landscaped gardens with terraces and fountains. In terms of wildlife, look out for monkeys, monitors and even peacocks roaming around. On one side of the grounds, there is even a large man-made reservoir that is still in use.

Climbing up the rock takes you past beautiful frescoes of some very voluptuous maidens along the walls. Unfortunately, some of the paintings have been smeared, either through vandalism or an attempt at modesty by overzealous guardians. Near the top, you will reach Lion Gate, a stone staircase flanked by huge lion’s paws, which signifies the final route to the actual fortress on top. A quick climb up this staircase brings you to Sigiriya and magnificent views of the surrounding plains.

The fortress exists as ruins, with much of the base structures intact. It was much larger than I expected, and it is easy to understand why the king, Kashyapa, would build a fortress there. Despite building Sigiriya, he met a sad end because after losing a battle to his half-brother and claimant to the throne, he is said to have committed suicide.

Sigiriya isn’t just a cool site to see, as it’s also an example of Sri Lanka’s over 2,000 years of history, impressive even by Asian standards. Sigiriya is over 90 km from Kandy, which is about a 2.5-hour drive. I visited Sigiriya and Dambulla, a Buddhist cave temple with murals that is over 2,000 years old, on a daytrip from Kandy with a driver which my hotel helped me hire.

Sigiriya, Sri Lanka Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

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