SRI LANKA AND THAILAND: CONNECTED BY CULTURE
Ambassador Kshenuka Senewiratne on the bridges built by Buddhism and long bonds between Bangkok and Colombo
In a tenure of just over three years, Her Excellency Kshenuka Senewiratne, ambassador of Sri Lanka to Thailand, has adopted the Kingdom as her second home. Citing similarities in values and attitude of the peoples as well as the cultural affinity inculcated by the Buddhist philosophy as factors fostering strong ties between the two nations, Ambassador Kshenuka in an exclusive interview with Elite+ at the Embassy of Sri Lanka in Bangkok pointed out that the relationship between the two countries began centuries prior to the official diplomatic relations established in 1955.
“It could be said that the relationship between Sri Lanka and Thailand flourished through Buddhism over 800 years ago when Theravadha Buddhism came to Thailand from Sri Lanka and was known as Lankawamsa. From 1505, Sri Lanka went under colonial rule of the Portuguese, followed by the Dutch and then the British. During this period, Buddhism was suppressed, and it was Thailand, through King Borommakot in the Ayutthaya Era, that helped restore higher ordination in then Ceylon by sending a mission of high-ranking monks led by Phra Upali Thera in 1753. It could be said that Buddhism is the golden thread that remains unbroken binding the two countries together.” Like the Buddhist philosophy, it is a timeless friendship that Thailand and Sri Lanka share, she opined.
With Buddhism at the heart of Thailand and Sri Lanka’s robust relations, the ambassador explained that when HM the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej passed away, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena immediately visited at the end of October 2016 to pay his last respects. President Sirisena on that occasion offered to gift a sapling from the sacred Bodhi tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment, in honour of HM the late King and to bestow merit for the successful reign of HM King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
During an official visit in July earlier this year, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha was accorded a rare glimpse of the sacred tooth relic at Sri Dalada Maligawa, or the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy. The highly revered sacred relic is under the care of Siam Nikaya, a Buddhist sect founded by Phra Upali Thera. “It is one of the most famous destinations among Buddhists visiting Sri Lanka,” Ambassador Kshenuka observed. She further explained that normally the tooth relic is protected by a number of casings. However, Prime Minister Chan-o-cha was able to see and pay respects to the main tooth relic, an extremely rare honour.
This high level visit in July was not just about religious pursuits. Following an initiative by Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak two years ago, Thailand and Sri Lanka commenced negotiations for a Free Trade Agreement and concluded a Strategic Economic Partnership. It is estimated for the FTA to be operationalized by 2020, and according to a Thai study the two countries would benefit by up to US$1,500 million in trade value. It is envisaged for an oceanic trade route from the Sri Lanka capital of Colombo and Ranong in Thailand also to be developed to further enhance logistics and trade between the two countries.
According to Ambassador Kshenuka, Sri Lankan exports to Thailand have been valued at $52.6 million, with imports being $520 million last year. The biggest exports from Sri Lanka include gems, meslin flour, electrical devices and tea. Sri Lanka is famous for blue sapphires – one of which adorns the engagement ring of the late Princess Diana and now worn by the Duchess of Cambridge. Cinnamon is a commodity Sri Lanka is looking to promote in Thailand, having observed an increasing demand. Pure authentic cinnamon is indigenous to Sri Lanka and is a pride among world spices. Sri Lanka is the world's largest cinnamon producer and accounts for about 70% of global production. However, cassia, a cinnamon-like spice obtained from the bark of a plant related to cinnamon, is widely traded as it is a relatively cheap substitute for cinnamon.
“Cinnamon, especially good-quality cinnamon, has proven medical properties,” Ambassador Kshenuka explained. In fact, “my morning ritual includes cinnamon powder, honey and lime juice to help cleanse toxins from the body,” and she believes it helps in weight loss.
Another gem from Sri Lanka, the ambassador told us, is Sri Lankan seafood, especially crab. “Sri Lankan crab is among the best in the world. The famous ‘Singapore chilli crab’ preparation that many indulge in, specifies Sri Lankan crab in the recipe, maybe because of the slight sweetness in its flesh which goes well with the chilli sauce. There are suppliers in Thailand that import crab from Sri Lanka which could be bought here in Bangkok. Anyhow, the Ministry of Crab, a globally renowned seafood restaurant brand from Sri Lanka, is scheduled to open a branch in Bangkok in January, and I’m sure it will be a huge hit.”
On the investment side, the most prominent by Thai companies in Sri Lanka has been in the hospitality industry. Knowing full well the country’s natural wonders and tourism potential, Sri Lanka is home to Thai brands like Anantara, Avani, Amari, OZO, Dusit Thani and Centara, thereby offering a string of high-quality hospitality outlets in major tourist destinations in the country. Expansion of Siam Cement Group (SCG) to Sri Lanka came through at the beginning of last year to accommodate the construction and real estate development that are increasing steadily and rapidly after terrorism ended in 2009 in the country.
“Tourism is also Sri Lanka’s big source of income and is an aspect we continue to promote in Thailand. However, while there are nearly 85,000 Sri Lankan visitors travelling to Thailand annually, there are only about 10,000 Thai tourists visiting Sri Lanka,” the ambassador observed. “As a tourism destination, Sri Lanka is a complete package that has everything for everyone, from culture to nature, spirituality, tranquillity and indulgence.”
Perhaps the best known Sri Lankan attractions among Thais are the Buddhist and heritage sites, particularly in Kandy and within the Cultural Triangle. Sri Lanka is home to 16 sacred sites directly associated with the Buddha. Some are millennia-old and of high universal value. Notable UNESCO World Heritage Sites include Sigiriya, renowned as one of the best preserved examples of ancient urban planning. Another is the Golden Temple of Dambulla, the largest and best preserved cave temple complex in Sri Lanka.
While Buddhist visitors can easily fall in love with Sri Lanka given the ample religious sites to marvel, leisure travellers will find Sri Lanka a delightful haven with no shortage of things to do and see. Ambassador Kshenuka referred to Sri Lanka as having the highest density of leopards in the world, while the wild is teeming with elephants, bear and birds, particularly peacocks and eagles that lure nature-lovers to observe bird migrations. Whales and spinner dolphin watching is also popular along the southern and northwestern coasts. Sea, sun and sand can be enjoyed around the island. While the west coast shows the island at its most developed, the unquestionably beautiful east coast delights travellers with unspoiled character and great surfing spots. Those seeking more harmonious and balanced holidays can find Ayurvedic treatments and wellness programmes in various establishments in Sri Lanka
“And then, there’s the hill country,” Ambassador Kshenuka enthused. “It is absolutely scenic and breathtaking, especially with hillsides carpeted with tea plantations. Dilmah, a Sri Lankan tea brand, creates a unique trail at a boutique luxury resort in the tea plantation, where visitors can stay and learn about Ceylon tea. The weather is cooler there, too, so it’s extremely pleasant.
“If you have not been to Sri Lanka, I can only say that you’re missing out! Sri Lanka has everything packed in one country, and one week should give you some feel of what Sri Lanka has to offer. Because Thais and Sri Lankans are very similar, the many commonalities we have will make Thai visitors feel right at home in Sri Lanka. For Thais, a visa is required but it is easily obtained within a few hours of application online. Most importantly, Sri Lanka is only a three-hour plane ride away, with many flight connections from Sri Lankan Airlines and Thai Airways. Air Asia is launching direct flights from Bangkok to Colombo this month with four flights every week. Thai Lion Air will follow suit at the beginning of next year. So the network is there and the prices are attractive. Let’s pack your bag and go to Sri Lanka!”