I was tempted to shush them. Yes, it probably wouldn’t be a kind, or culturally appropriate move. Yes, they had small children, and God knows I’m fully aware of the challenge that goes into corralling an under-10 team that talks, points, and yells their way down a path. But, did the family fully understand the danger inherent in this moment? Did they understand that their actions could have consequences for those around them – for all of us? Had they not seen the sign?
The first sign, at the entrance, perhaps was a bit overwhelming, its myriad of images providing both confusing and potentially conflicting instruction to the casual tourist. The children probably pointed and cooed at the pictures of the monkey, elephant, and crocodile, to which their parents responded something like, “there probably won’t be any elephants or crocodiles up here, honey. Stop pretending to use your arms as crocodile jaws and chew on your sister. Let’s go, please.” Or perhaps the family, being the diligent or cautious type, spent a few minutes trying to decipher messages important enough to warrant significant board space at a Unesco heritage site. Clearly, they would have concluded, you were not to walk on or touch monuments, goosestep while playing loud music, feed bananas to the monkeys, or show people your palm. And while it is permissible to throw out your trash or fall down the stairs at Sigiriya, it seems that it is also a good place to play with handcuffs, or perhaps carry some with you, just in case.
No, sir, I did not feed the monkey my banana. He jumped onto my backpack and tried to steal my lunch. My cat-like reflexes, quick thinking, and easily accessible handcuffs allowed me to secure the mischievous monkey to the frangipani tree without stepping on any monuments or drawing unnecessary attention to my predicament with loud music or palm-showing. As you can see, I fully engaged with and abided by the policies of the site as posted at the entrance.
Ignorant of or confused by the park’s rules, the family of four proceeded into Sigiriya and headed up the first of many sets of stairs they would climb that day.
And there are a lot of stairs needed to climb Sigiriya. This massive rock outcropping that rises to more than six hundred meters in central Sri Lanka was the fifth century capital and fortress of King Kasayapa, who buried alive his father and forced his brother, the rightful heir to the throne, to flee to India. Fearing retribution, Kasayapa spent nearly two decades building his fortifications, painting nude images of women in caves, and sitting on his stone throne atop Sigiriya before he throwing himself on his sword in 495 after his army abandoned him.
The huge rock that is Sigiriya also provides excellent refuge for giant honey bees. The kind of bees that build nests the size of small vehicles and that can attack so quickly and indiscriminately that the potential for death attack warrants its own signs, warnings, and safety installations.
It’s not that they haven’t tried to get rid of the hives on Sigiriya. The government has tried removing them, spraying them with chemicals, and even performing the shanthi karma, a local exorcism ritual, all to no effect. These are some really tough bees.
And aggressive ones. They can become particularly agitated, I learned, by the sun reflecting off of white shirts or pants (side note: where was the sign for that??? I smell opportunity here: put up a small, boutique clothing store just past the entrance ticket booth. I would make a large sign: “Giant Stinging Bees May Be Agitated and Swarm If You Wear White Clothing,” and when approached by anxious white-clad tourists, I would reassure them that it’s not too late, and encourage them to peruse my overpriced Made-in-Sri Lanka mountain clothing selection. Free alert whistle with every purchase.) As is clearly marked, the bees also can swarm as a result of the noise of people talking and clamoring up the steel stairs the run to the top of Sigiriya. Silence is encouraged. Most people who die or get injured by bee swarms on Sigiriya panic and fall off the edge of something (and maybe the whole mountain).
Take, for example, what happened last July. Tourists were minding their own business, trying to capture a great shot from near the top of Sigiriya, when, wait, who’s the guy in white linen trousers goose-stepping and talking to his wife through a megaphone? The bees attacked, chaos ensued, and people got really badly hurt. Some were stung over their entire bodies, others were hurt as they fell fleeing the bees. Ultimately, forty people were hospitalized. It was the third bee attack that week! Read more gruesome details here. Some Sri Lankans believe that the bees are the reincarnated 5th Century soldiers of Kasayapa, doing their part to protect the mountain from tourists. After a particularly nasty wasp attack in 2004, Sri Lanka’s newspaper responded with “Let us hope that Kasyapa’s guardians… continue to perform their royal assignment and puncture the bums in minis and hot pants that come in their thousands to disturb them.” Well, that’s unfortunate, especially for those who chose to wear white hot pants to climb Sigiriya.
So, there we were, a few steps behind the chatting family who was cheerfully making their way up the staircase. Should I shush them? Tap them on the shoulder and pretend to sting them with my one finger while frantically pointing to the “Wasp Attack” sign with the other? No, rather, I’d have to do what so many tourists before me had done: hope that in the in event of an attack by 20,000 giant bees, I would be one of the first to the hideout shelter. There was only one shelter, and it was large enough for only a handful of tourists. So, as the swarm descended on the crowd, some of us (I use “us” assuming I would be one of the lucky ones) would watch the chaos unfold from inside the relative safety of a steel cage. Whew, that was a close one.
But the grace of Kasayapa must have smiled on us that day, as Jess and I climbed and descended Sigiriya without incident or attack. On the way out, having enjoyed a bee-attack-free afternoon climb of Sigiriya, we stopped by the ticket office. “What happens if bees attack,” I asked the man behind the counter. “Do I get a refund of my ticket?”
The man looked up at me. He didn’t say anything, just shook his head, and pointed to a sign that read: In event of bee attack, no tickets will be refunded.
Like everything else on Sigiriya, the signs were clear. There were bees, lots of them, they may attack, and if they do, you won’t get your money back. It’s all part of the experience. And please don’t feed bananas to the monkeys. Thank you.