SRI LANKA March 13 – April 2, 2013.
From Delhi, I flew via Chennai to Colombo. Within 20 minutes of landing, I had my luggage, Sri Lanka visa ($35 payable by credit card), gone through immigration, visited an ATM for some Sri Lankan rupees (125 to the US$), and replaced by SIM card for free with a $4 recharge which will probably last me for my entire stay. Colombo has little to offer, is 35kms south, and a taxi costs $30, so I went to Negombo (pop 121,000), a west coast city only 10kms from the airport. Primarily a beach town, I stayed the night in oppressive heat, and found a great computer place to get wifi and some programs added to my new computer, all for $5. The three hour, 115km bus ride to Kandy traversed an impossibly green landscape of rice paddies, palm trees and banana plantations. Initially on the flat coastal plain, the road then climbed up into hills. I sat next to a woman, a retired school teacher, who was a Tamil married to a Sinhalese. We chatted for an hour or so, 59 minutes more than I had talked to any non western woman in the last 6 months in Nepal or India. Originally from Jaffna in the north, she had not been there for the entire duration of the 26 year long civil war. Few Sri Lankans want to return to that terrible time.
Sri Lanka is a welcome change from India. There is no garbage and it seems incredibly clean. No cows. Very few horns blaring. No unfinished projects (nothing in India seems complete with holes and piles of dirt and nobody working on them). The bus was new with comfortable, non-reclining seats and outside storage for my pack. It initially seemed that most everyone spoke passable English, but in the countryside, English ability is minimal. People don’t stare and nobody wants to shake your hand, be your friend, or take pictures with you. Nobody walks on the road as the sidewalks actually function as they should. There are even guardrails in the busy parts of towns separating the sidewalks from the road and real crosswalks that the drivers respect. It feels like a breath of fresh air. But there are still a lot of people and the rickshaw drivers are even more difficult to bargain with. It is appreciably more expensive than India, especially the hotels which are at least double the price. Food is about the same and the buses may even be cheaper.
Kandy (pop 112,000, elev. 500m) served as the capital of the last Sinhalese kingdom, which fell to the British in 1815 after defying the Portuguese and Dutch for two centuries. It took the British another 16 tough years to build a road linking Kandy to Colombo. Surrounded by forested hills, it is a city that looks good even when it is raining, which it seems to do a lot. At 115km from Colombo and an altitude of 500m, it offers a cooler and more relaxed ciimate. Dominating the town is Kandy Lake, which was created in 1807 by the last ruler of the kingdom. A leisurely stroll around the lake can consume a few hours, but the careening traffic on the south side can be noisy. Every morning, at about 5:30, a murder of crows start to congregate from all over Kandy on the electrical wires and the balconies of the nextdoor closed hotel. By 5:45, there are hundreds of crows making an incredible racket and waking everyone up in all the surrounding guest houses. Apparently, about 10 years ago, an Australian traveler who stayed for a month, fed the crows a lot of rice everyday. The crows amazingly continue to come despite the fact that nobody has fed them for a decade. In the evening the trees at one end of the lake are full of the same huge number of noisy crows. Twice a day, an incredible stink and smoke starts to emanate from the small kitchen next to my room. Out walks the owner with a small brazier with burning wood to offer puja to the gods. Whoever says Buddhism is more a philosophy than a religion has not been to Sri Lanka. It functions just like Hinduism with daily puja involving fire and incense, prostation, and the offering of votive flowers and fruit. These are sold outside every Buddhist temple, laid at the feet of the Buddha, and then thrown out in huge garbage containers. I would think that giving the money to the temple for upkeep would be a much better use of the money.
Just north of the lake is the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic which houses Sri Lanka’s most sacred Buddhist relic – a tooth of the Buddha. It was snatched from the flames of the Buddha’s funeral pyre in 483 BC and smuggled in the hair of a princess to Sri Lanka in the 4th century AD and ended up in Kandy in 1283. Stolen by the Indian army, retrieved by the Ceylonese, stolen and burnt by the Portuguese (turned out to be a fake tooth), it finally returned to Kandy and the Temple was finished in 1782. Sri Lankan Buddhists believe they must make one pilgrimage here in a lifetime to improve ones karma and the temple is a busy place. However, one does not actually see the tooth. It’s kept in a gold casket shaped like a dagoba (stupa), which contains a series of six dagoba caskets of diminishing size. The stupa casket is viewed from a doorway 3m away and the queue is kept moving so one only gets a few second glimpse inside the shrine room. Behind the main shrine sits a large hall with dozens of sitting Buddhas and a series of pictures depicting the life of the tooth. Above this is a museum with gifts to the temple and behind this whole complex is the World Buddhism Museum showing Buddhism around the world.
That evening, a cultural event was held with drumming, dancing and acrobatics, with all participants in vibrant traditional costumes. The highlight was a group of guys firewalking across hot coals and eating fire. The Peradeniya Botanic Gardens were once reserved for royalty, but now the 60 hectare gardens are open to the public and a favorite of young courting couples. Bounded on 3 sides by a river, the beautifully manicured gardens contain huge trees, avenues of royal palms, cabbage, and coconut palms, an orchid garden, groves of bamboo, rubber trees, nice flower beds, a lake, and a memorial garden with trees planted by many heads of state including Queen Elizabeth and Czar Nicholas. I stepped on a square grate over a drain, the corner of the grate collapsed, I fell into the drain, and the opposing corner of the grate impaled me in the upper left abdomen! I sustained a nasty bruise and superficial laceration which hurt like hell. A few young Sri Lankan men who had witnessed the event started laughing, which I thought was kind of weird. The gardens staff were very apologetic, offered to replace my torn shirt and refunded my $10 entrance fee. The Ceylon Tea Museum houses old processing equipment from the 1880’s, explanations of the process, and memorials to James Taylor and Thomas Lipton, the founders of the Sri Lankan tea industry. It is housed in a vintage 1925 tea factory. The 4 story building looks drab from the outside with its grey metal cladding but the inside is gorgeous old wood with hundreds of windows wrapping around the entire building. There are many other attractions in town including several Buddhist temples, cemeteries, monasteries and an old growth forest sanctuary, none of which I went to.
The Knuckles Range, just east of Kandy, is named as the peaks look like a closed fist. It is home to pockets of rare montane forest with pigmy cloud forest on the tops. The highest is 1863m and all the summits are green to the top. They are a protected area and permits must be obtained from the forestry department. One is told that guides are essential but in fact, the one trail to the top of one of the peaks is excellent, and once the beginning is found, is easily followed all the way. The owner of the guest house I was in runs Sri Lanka Trekking and I went with a guide for $75. We took a tuk tuk 2 1/2 hours each way, climbed to the top through initially a tea plantation and then prime growth forest for panoramic views from the top. The heat and humidity were oppressive and I only got about 10 leeches. It is amazing how they burrow through your socks to get to your ankles and then how much they bleed. The mist rolled in at 2 obscuring all views and it rained for the fourth day in row on the way down. The Lonely Planet states that guides are compulsory but I find the price a little steep so will give a detailed account of the trip for those brave enough to give it a go guideless.
The access town is Rangala, a tiny place in the middle of a gigantic tea plantation. There are a few good restaurants here to have breakfast. There are public buses from Kandy (ask around for the bus station) and go the day before but I am unsure if there is accomodation in town. A better way might be to hire a motorcycle and get to the trailhead that way on the morning of the trip. Ask for directions to the Rangala International Buddhist Centre, a few kms above Rangala on initially a narrow paved road and then about a km of rough broken pavement. Park here and take the upper old road that has a sign to the Assistant Superintendents Bungalow. Walk for about 20 minutes (you will pass a PERU? in white rock stones beside the road) until a small tea workers town appears below and you are next to a group of large black boulders in the middle of the plantation. Leave the road here and pick your way up on workers paths heading for the top of the plantation. With any luck you will run into the excellent trail that goes all the way to the summit. You may be able to ask the tea workers directions but they likely only speak Tamil. It is 8kms each way, about 3 hours up and 2 1/2 down, with an initial climb, a fairly flat section and then a steep climb at the end.
After 4 nights in Kandy, I took a bus south to Hatton, and then 2 more buses to Dalhousie, the access town for Adam’s Peak (elev. 2247m), a lofty peak that has been a focus for pilgrimage for over a 1000 years. It is named after the place where Adam first set foot on earth after being cast out of heaven or Sri Pada (Sacred Footprint, left by Buddha as he headed towards paradise). In the pilgrimage season from December to May, the 7km of cement stairs to the top are illuminated at night. Most start the 2-3 hour walk around 3AM up the 5200 steps in order to reach the top before sunrise. You pass a World Peace Pagoda near the beginning and a whole series of refreshment stands open throughout the night all the way up. Surprisingly, there was a stream of pilgrims coming down as I went up and at the top, it was packed with pilgrims and tourists. There is a temple at the top with a giant foot as the idol. Unfortunately there was also an over powering fecal odor around the shrine. Sunrise was great with no clouds on the horizon and the mountain made a perfect shadow onto the misty clouds down towards the coast. Going down, it was amazing to see all the old women, who first of all had made it there, but were now laboriously descending one step at a time using the hand railing to lower their ponderous bodies down. It must have taken them all day.
After coming down, I had a quick nap, drank my 3rd pot of tea since coming to Dalhousie, and caught 2 buses east via Hatton to Nuwara Eliya (pop 26,000, elev. 1889m). The road was being totally reconstructed on the steep hillsides, entailing building cement retaining walls on both upper and lower sides. Nuwara Eliya was developed in 1829 as the favored cool climate escape for the hard working and hard drinking English and Scot pioneers of Ceylon’s tea industry. As elsewhere in Hill Country, most of the laborers were brought by the British from southern India and are known as Plantation Tamils, distinct from the other Tamils in Sri Lanka. They have stayed out of the ethnic strife endemic to Jaffna and the north. Cool weather vegetables grow well and it is still known as the tea capital of Sri Lanka. Rainy and misty from November to February, the town is crowded with domestic holiday makers during the April spring release and the weather was sunny and warm on March 20th when I was there. Some of the tourist attractions in the area (none of which sounded very interesting to me) are a town park, Pedro Tea Estate (only operates at night), a lake, a gardens, and a Hindu temple.
The main attraction of the area is Horton Plain National Park, designated a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2010. Set under the second and third highest mountains in SL, the plains are an undulating plateau over 2000m high covered by wild grasslands and interspersed with patches of thick forest and rocky outcrops. The plateau comes to a sudden end at World’s End, a stunning escarpment that plunges 880m. To see the tea plantation villages in the valley below, large reservoirs in the distance, and an unencumbered view over ranges of hills to the coast, arrive before 10 AM before the mist arrives, especially in the rainy season between April and September. This is the only national park in the country that allows you to walk on your own. I canvassed every foreigner I saw in town to share the $30 jeep cost to get to the park, could find no one, and so went alone. I was picked up at 5AM in an 8 passenger van and drove the 1 1/2 hours to the park entrance. A sambal deer (looks like our elk but a bit smaller) came up to our vehicle, poked his head into the window of the van and mooched for food. A small museum showed a British army officer who had killed 1400 elephants! He was killed when struck by lightening and his grave was struck twice by lightening too, which must have some significance. After paying the $30 entrance fee, I hiked the 4km to World’s End, and then looped back via Baker’s Falls to the entrance. I have never walked on more eroded trails in my life with gullies up to 6 feet deep and trails braided up to five wide in places. The grass is a tufted variety and there are streams, sphagnum marshy areas, epiphytes in the stunted trees, and a small variety of rhododendrum with blood red blossoms (not in bloom now). At the car park, I counted 37 vans and a bus. Virtually every vehicle had no more than 3 people in it. There seems to be no impetus to form groups by the tour companies – I presume to provide more employment for the drivers. After the hike, I was dropped off at a train station close to the park to return to Kandy and continue my trip north of the Hill Country.
After the pleasant, slow motion train ride in a brand new, spiffy, Chinese made train three hours to Kandy, I caught the bus 2 hours north to Dambulla. I bypassed the city of Matale with its monastery built into a rock wall to see the temples in Dambulla (pop 72,000) instead. The Royal Rock Temples are a Unesco World Heritage Site and should not be missed. Carved into the face of a big cliff, the five caves containing about 150 Buddha statues, date from about the first century BC to more modern times. Sitting about 150m above the road up a wide stairway, the caves sit behind a constructed arched walkway. Besides all the carved statues, the entire inside – walls and ceilings, are spectacularly painted with geometric designs and Buddha scenes. The colors are still vivid. The ceilings contour with the natural strata of the rock. Cave 1 has a 15m long reclining Buddha that is beautifully carved. Cave 2 is arguably the most spectacular measuring 52m long by 23m deep with a 7m high ceiling. Besides at least 50 Buddhas (the main one is under an archway decorated with dragons and has the right hand raised in pose conveying protection), there are two statues of the kings who had the cave built. Hindu deities are also represented. A vessel sits under a constant drip from the roof, even during droughts, and the water is used during rituals. Cave 3 too is filled with Buddha statues including a beautiful reclining Buddha. Cave 4’s central Buddha sits under a decorative arch and his hands are in a meditative pose in which the hands are cupped. Cave 5 features a reclining buddha and Hindu gods. Try to come when there are no crowds, especially tour groups, whose constant chatter ruins the peaceful ambiance. The Golden Temple is a modern, kitschy building behind the square at the bottom of the complex completed in 2000 using Japanese donations. On top of the cube shaped building sits a 30m high gold colored Buddha in the wheel turning pose. The Dambulla Museum is 500m south of the above complex and showcases art from prehistoric cave paintings to 18th century frescoes. There are good explanations in English. Dambulla also has a gigantic wholesale market that serves as the distribution center for most of the produce grown in north central Sri Lanka. What you see here will be sold in Colombo the next day.
Sigirlya (pop 1,500) is the premier site of the Cultural Triangle. Geologically, Sigirlya is a hardened magma plug of an extinct volcano that long ago eroded away. Peppered with natural cave shelters and rock overhangs and supplemented with numerous hand-hewn additions, the rock and surrounding area was developed during the reign of King Kasapa (477-495 AD) who built a royal palace on the top. The monastery complex was abandoned in the 14th century, and ‘rediscovered’ by the British in 1898. It was declared a World Heritage Site in 1982. After paying the $25 entrance fee (all SL tourist sites are very expensive) visit the world class new museum built by the Japanese. It is an excellent introduction to the site explaining the advanced water management scheme used to supply the summit and surroundings. It espouses the theory that the top was always a Buddhist monastery. A school class of 15 year olds were touring the museum. I did not see one read any of the excellent write ups or hardly glance at the exhibits. My 45 minute visit where I read everything was compressed into a 5 minute walk. This “museum behavior” is routine for the locals visiting museums here and in India. I was surprised by the sheer size of the developed area around the monolith. Surrounded by an inner and outer huge square moats, one first comes to beautiful symmetrical water gardens, bathing pools,and dry season palaces (now just brick foundations). Next are boulder gardens that once formed the foundations of houses, and an impressive audience hall and cistern. The cobra hood cave with a drip ledge once held painted frescoes. Next to the base are terraced gardens. The 370m ascent is on marble stairways and constructed metal boardwalks scaling the sheer cliff. Halfway up is a metal stairway that leads to a sheltered gallery of fresco paintings of buxom, wasp-waisted women. Their unnatural bulbous breasts remind me of those of women who have had augmentation mammoplasties (fake boobs) so popular in the west. The paintings are in remarkable condition with glowing colors as they are protected by a big overhang. The next part of the path clinging to the rock face is protected by a 3m high wall called the Mirror Wall which is coated with a smooth glaze covered with modern and 1000 year old graffiti that praises female beauty (“The ladies who wear golden chains on their breast beckon me” and “A deer eyed young woman of the mountainside arouses anger in my mind. In her hand she has taken a string of pearls and in her looks she has assumed rivalry with us”). The narrow pathway emerges onto a large platform with two enormous lion paws (and once a lion), that frame the stairway. There is a tremendous amount of brick masonry all over the place. The path becomes a metal walkway secured to the cliff face that eventually ends on the 1.6 hectare summit. All that remains today of the palaces or monastery, depending on the theory,. are foundations, a carved platform, and a 27x21m square water tank. There are commanding views down to the excavated gardens to the west and miles of jungle everywhere else. The area around the rock is loaded with wild animals especially elephants and animal safaris are available. In retrospect, I wished that I had stayed in the nice guest house in Dambulla overnight instead of the mediocre one in Sigiriya and simply taken the bus down and back for the 3-4 hours necessary to see the site.
The next morning, I caught the bus back to Dambulla, and then another 2 hour bus north west to Anuradhapura (pop 72,000), another World Heritage Site collection of dagobas, soaring brick towers, ancient pools and crumbling temples. Anuradhapura first became a capital in 380BC but it was not until 247-207BC that it first rose to importance when it became a great and glittering city that was to last for the next 1000 years, despite repeated invasions from India. A great building program was begun in 161-137BC that continued until 109-103AD when 16 tanks and a major canal were constructed. It survived as the capital for another 500 years until it was replaced by Polonnaruwa, again despite repeated invasions from south India made easier by the cleared land and great roads.
The major sites require a $25 fee that must be used on the day of purchase. There is a lot to see and it is recommended that two days are necessary to see the city properly. I arrived by bus in the morning, had lunch, and rented a bicycle to see all the sites not covered in the major site fee and require their own individual ticket. MAHAVIHARA AREA. Sri Maha Bodhi, or the great bodhi tree is central to Anuradhapura in both a spiritual and physical sense. The huge tree was grown from a seedling brought from Bodhgaya in India by the sister of Mahinda who introduced the Buddha’s teaching to Sri Lanka. Surprisingly, the present bodhi tree in Bodhgaya was grown from a cutting of this tree. The sacred bodhi tree is the oldest historically authenticated tree in the world: it has been tended by an uninterrupted succession of guardians for over 2000 years, even during periods of Indian occupation (the oldest trees in the world, however, are the bristlecone pines of the White mountains of eastern California, the oldest of which are documented to be 4,600 years old). There are several bodhi trees here, the oldest and holiest stands on the top platform surrounded by a golden railing. Thousands come to make offerings especially in December and April. A temple stands on the east side and the whole complex is surrounded by an ancient stone wall. The Brazen Palace ruins are close to the Bodhi tree. All that remains of this once huge palace are 1,600, ten foot high, square stone columns of a building thought to be nine stories high and home to 1000 monks. First constructed 2000 years ago, it was rebuilt many times, the last in the 12th century. The columns stand behind a fence. Near is an abandoned monastery with a huge stone trough that could hold enough rice to feed 3000 monks. The Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba, originally built in 140BC, and rebuilt many times, is a huge 55m high, dazzingly white, bulbous shaped stupa. The wall at the base has a frieze of hundreds of large elephants standing shoulder to shoulder. Just north, the Thuparama Dagoba dates from the 3rd century BC, is the oldest in SL and maybe the world. But after a while, all stupas look the same. I find them confusing – the huge structures are solid, have no entrances, and no interiors, and exist only for their exteriors. The rest of the sites visited are away from the Mahavihara area and scattered next to the Tissa Wewa, a large lake. From the 2nd century BC, the Mirisavatiya Dagoba is big and white too. Isurumuniya Vihara, also 2nd century, is a rock temple with a small museum containing a sculpture of the ‘lovers’. Vessagiriya is the remains of a cave monastery complex.
On day 2, I rented a bike again ($2), and with a fellow from South Dakota, planned a big day to see the rest of Anuradhapura included in the $25 fee. You will be bombarded by tuk tuk and taxi drivers to escort you around to all these sites for 2,000 rupees. You are paying them to wait for you at each site and this could be done for much less simply by getting a new driver at each site after you have seen it. It might then only cost you 500 rupees for 4 different drivers. They are unwilling to deal on the 2,000 figure. JETAVANARAMA AREA. The Jetavanarama Dagoba was built in the 3rd century, and once stood over 100m high (then the 3rd highest monument in the world, the first two being the Egyptian Pyramids), but today is about 70m. It is covered in dark brown bricks – it has been calculated that there were enough bricks in the dagoba to make a 3m-high wall stretching from London to Edinburgh. Behind the dagoba is a monastery that housed 3,000 monks. One building has door jambs over 8m high still standing. At one time, massive doors opened to reveal a large Buddha image. On the other side of the road is a 42mx34m stone wall enclosure built to imitate a log wall. The building is long gone. The museum associated with this site, has a carved urinal and beautiful jewelery, carvings and pottery. ABHAYAGIRI MONASTERY AREA. This is spread out over a huge area of forest with scattered ruins everywhere. The 75m tall Abhayagiri Dagoba was created in the 1st and 2nd centuries BC and was the centerpiece of a huge monastery for 5000 monks. Chinese traveler Faxian visited in 412AD. It too is all brick and has some interesting bas-reliefs. A ruined 9th century school for monks has the finest carved Moonstone in SL. A moonstone is a semicircular carved rock on the ground at the entrance to a building. It was decorated with carved lions, elephants, horses, and geese. The fine steps feature plump little figures. Ratnaprasada has the finest guardstones in Anuradhapura featuring a cobra being swallowed by a dragon. The Samadhi Buddha is a 4th century seated statue in seated pose and regarded as one of the finest Buddha statues in SL. Kuttam Pokuna or the twin ponds are two swimming pool like bathing tanks. Water entered though the mouth of a mythical multispecies beast, was filtered and drained through both tanks. There is a nice five-headed cobra carving. A snake charmer had a python, pit viper and a defanged cobra that swayed to his flute. Abhayagiri Museum has a collection of toilets and urinals, jewelry, and religious sculpture. CITADEL AREA. This newer area has few remains of a Royal Palace plus an enormous trough that was filled with rice for the monks and temple that was the first Temple of the Tooth that originally came to Sri Lanka in 313AD. MUSEUM QUARTER. The Archaeological Museum was closed for renovation. The highlight is apparently intricately carved urinals and toilets. The Folk Museum is a dusty little place.
Up early, I caught the 7AM bus to go 3 hours east to Polonnaruwa (pop 110,000), an Ancient Cities must see. After the Indian Chola dynasty conquered Anuradhapura in the late 10th century, they moved the capital here as it was more defensible and had fewer mosquitos. It was reconquered by the Sinhalese in 1070 and the new king kept his capital here. From 1153-86, it reached its zenith when the king erected huge buildings, parks and a huge 25 sq km tank. The next king almost bankrupted the country trying to keep up. In the early 13th century, the kingdom started to decline and the city was abandoned, and the seat of power was moved to the west coast. It was added to the World Heritage list in 1982.
A day is required to see the ruins. I arrived at 10, checked into my hotel, rented a bike and ate, then began a hot, humid day to see my last ruins. They are divided into 5 groups. The Archaeological Museum is excellent, but I arrived at the same time as 300 pilgrims in the process of walking from Colombo to the north of the island. In this heat and humidity, they looked beat and very sweaty. We all make choices and this is one I wouldn’t make – my judgmental negative reaction said “get a life”. I could understand the many monks in the group but wondered about the westerners as they trooped in single file through the museum, too tired to really look at anything. Several of them were bagged out on the floor. The ruins are spread out along a very long road, spaced in a big forest. Most people were traveling in air conditioned cars or buses and there were a few like me on bikes. ROYAL PALACE GROUP. The Royal Palace was big, 31x13m and was thought to be 7 stories high with the top 4 stories of wood. Now a few of the brick and rubble walls remain with little detail. The outside of the Audience Hall had a frieze of elephants, each in a different position. Two monitor lizards were fighting in the nearby mud hole. QUADRANGLE GROUP. A Circular Relic House had an 18m diameter terrace with a central dagoba and 4 entrances flanked by fine guardstones and the best moonstones in the whole site. The Thuparama Gediga is a hollow Buddhist temple with an intact roof. The Gal Pota is a 9×1.5m, 66cm thick hunk of rock weighing 25 tons with an inscription extolling the virtues of the king, that was dragged 100km to this site. The Hatadage is tooth relic chamber. The Satmahal Prasads consists of 7 decreasing stories shaped like a small pyramid. There are several other small buildings. NORTHERN GROUP. I was thankful for the bike as things get really spread at this end of the road. One passes a few Hindu temples all with Shiva linga. Rankot Vihara is 54m high dagoba, the largest in Polonnaruwa and the 4th largest on the island. Like most other dagobas, it is an earth filled dome covered by a brick mantle. The Buddha Seema Prasada is the monastery abbot’s convocation hall. The Lankathilaka has 17m high walls with a collapsed roof and a huge standing headless Buddha. The Kiri Vihara is a medium sized dagoba that when the overgrown jungle was cleared away after 700 years of neglect, the original lime plaster was in perfect condition, and it is the best preserved dagoba in the entire site. I definitely saved the best for last, as the Gal Vihara is a group of beautiful Buddha statues that mark the high point of Sinhalese rock carving. There are four statues all cut from the same piece of cream colored granite with dark grey streaking. All are in perfect condition. The standing Buddha is 7m tall, has unusually crossed arms and a sorrowful facial expression. The 14m long reclining Buddha has a subtle depression in the pillow under his head and a wonderful wheel symbol on the pillow end. The other two statues are seated Buddhas. One is surrounded by a background of carved temples and an arch. These are the highlight of Polonnaruwa. There are two other small groups of buildings I did not bother with.
I elected to not go north of the Ancient Cities area, the center of Tamil culture at Jaffna at the north end of the country. Arrid and hot, the main tourist interests are some towering, rainbow Hindu temples reminiscent of the ones in Trichy, India, and the battle scarred center of Jaffna. Some areas are still mined, the remnants of the civil war.
After 13 days in Sri Lanka, I am very impressed with the country. In contrast to India, it seems very organized and much more affluent. There is no garbage, slums, beggars, and little of the meaningless interactions with people wanting to know all about you and take your picture. They often ask which country you are from and don’t seem to understand why you would want to travel alone. The people seem genuinely nice, have a ready smile, wave, and are keen to help you in any way. Herds of cows surrounded by cattle egrets graze in fields eating real grass instead of garbage. Nice looking chickens peck around houses. The same small shops line every street and there are even grocery stores, smaller, but exactly like ours. Everyone seem to have gainful employment and there are no crowds of men sitting around not working. The women do not pierce their noses, have toe rings, nor wear scads of gaudy bangles. They still wear saris but in a slightly different style than India with only one end draped over a shoulder. There is hardly any of the obesity seen in India. People live in real houses, from small to large and ostentatious. The schools are nice and children actually sit at desks, not on the floor. All school uniforms are white with monogrammed ties being the only differentiating feature between schools. Traffic moves like ours and vehicles yield the right of way. Horns are used minimally and no vehicles have “Horn Please” emblazoned across the back. The roads are great and all are marked with lines and have narrow shoulders. There are no potholes and no speed bumps so traffic moves in a much more even flow. There are no unfinished projects and any work that needs to be done is happening in an orderly way. Road construction seems to be a major priority. Many small gangs of men are spread out along the road projects building drainage and retaining walls. There are actually backhoes, front end loaders and real dump trucks doing the grunt work. I believe the completeness of all the infrastructure indicates that there is little corruption. The food is much less complicated with less variety. Rice and curry is the mainstay and is very similar to the thalis of India or the dahl bhat of Nepal. Amazingly, they eat rice and curry for breakfast, lunch and supper, occasionally substituting “spring hoppers” (rice noodles) for rice but only at lunch. Lassis, my favorite drink in India, are rare. I have never seen a chai stall and street food vendors are much less common. Takeout food is served in paper envelopes made from children’s school notebooks stapled together. The plates are wrapped in a plastic bag to save clean-up time? Often tea and food are served on very nice china which is nice. Phone cards and calls are unbelievably cheap here, as in India. On my $4 top up, I made two long 15 minute calls to Canada to deal with credit card problems and wiring money, and made many phone calls to book hotel rooms and tours. These usual short call cost about 4 cents on average. It demonstrates how incredibly expensive our phone services in Canada are – they must be making unbelievable profits. However touts selling post cards, carvings and necklaces are just as common as in India and the auto rickshaws drivers just as aggressive. They could use a lot more garbage bins. Surprisingly, English ability outside of tourist areas is just as bad as in India, maybe worse. Like India, I never see people reading, which is in real contrast to foreign travelers who seem to always have their nose in a book. The matrimonial ads in the newspapers are just as interesting as in India. Everybody is pretty and handsome, educated, have good parents. The oddest thing is that most ask for horoscopes which are big here – what hogwash to have something that has absolutely no validity to play a role in finding your life mate. The dogs here aren’t faring too well. Like every third world country, there are lots of stray dogs. Our guide at Sinharaja Forest Reserve, Pali, thinks the dogs are reincarnated, corrupt government officials. They are a mangy lot, many bald and scratching from chronic mange. And many are impossibly thin.
Instead of going north, I took the bus one hour west to Habarena, and changed buses to go two hours northeast to Trincomalee (“Trinco”, pop 60,000), on the east coast of Sri Lanka. Trinco had it rough during the war, but is now thriving again. It’s economic trump card is a superb deep water port, one of the world’s finest natural harbors, and the main reason why it changed hands in colonial times on seven occasions. There is a Portuguese and Dutch built fort, Fort Frederick, that is presently occupied by the military. The end of the small peninsula is a 130m high cliff called Swami Rock. The real draw of the area is Pigeon Island National Park, one km offshore the small beach town of Nilaveli, a few kms north of Trinco. It has a shallow reef with great snorkeling and diving to see corals, reef fish and turtles. I contacted the two local diving schools but neither had others interested, and I did not want to pay $110 for a three hour snorkel. So I simply jumped on the bus to head south along the east coast. It is a labyrinth of inlets and mangroves with fishermen on shore hauling in big nets like a tug of war. Fish drying on large burlap cloths line the side of the road. The road winds it’s way through fields, rice paddies, forests of palms and deciduous trees, and seashore. The bus was finished for the night at 7 when we arrived at the dusty town of Kalmuni (government buses never travel at night), and I got a room at a scruffy hotel for $8. Mosquitos have been bad everywhere but sleep was fine as every hotel room has had a mosquito net. This one didn’t and I barely slept. Tropical mosquitos are small and fly fast in quick little circles and are hard to kill. I dragged myself up at 6 to move on. A common destination from here is Arugam Bay, 71kms south. It is situated on a moon-shaped crescent of sand and is the best surf spot in Sri Lanka. Out of season now, the town grinds to a halt and I decided instead to head inland to see some of the national parks on the south end of Hill Country.
The road moved through flat rice paddies and fields to the town of Ampara where I jumped on another bus with almost no wait. It luckily turned out that the final destination after 9 hours was Matara (pop 70,000), near the very southern tip of Sri Lanka on the Indian Ocean. These buses are not express, but are constantly picking up and dropping off people. Always full, at times passengers were packed in like sardines with standing room only. It is good to get on at the beginning of the ride as one then has a seat. I have been the only westerner for two days – I wonder why I am the only one doing this? Maybe they are going other places, duh. Matara is only 160km from Colombo but Sri Lanka is a small place and distances are not great. In 16 hours I have gone from the north central part of the island, around most of the east coast to the southern tip. In fact there is no road on the SE corner and the road cuts across just hitting the corner of Hill Country. And that is on buses that don’t go fast and have lots of stops. Matara is a commercial town with few sites and they are all in a compact area near the bus stand. I splurged and got a very spiffy room with air conditioning (my first) for $14. It also had a mosquito net. Despite feeling very knackered, I had my first meal of the day (rice and curry), and walked around. Star Fort, built by the Dutch in 1765, is tiny, and has the VOC insignia (stands for Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie or Dutch East India Company) and coat of arms of the governor of the day. The Dutch Rampart is next to the ocean. Parey Dewa (Rock in the Water), on a small island, is home to a tiny Buddhist Temple with a very fancy bridge (the previous one was destroyed in the tsunami) connecting it the beach. The long crescent beach was thronged with locals dipping their feet in the surf.
Matara turned out to be a great stop as it has a 4:30AM bus north to Deniyaya, the gateway town to Sinharaja Forest Reserve, the last major undisturbed area of rainforest in Sri Lanka. The road climbed up a steep, windy road to 360m elevation. The reserve occupies a broad ridge at the heart of the island’s wet zone. On most days it is shouded in copious rainclouds. Recognising the importance to the islands ecosystem, it was designated a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1989. Comprising only 189 sq km, it measures 21km east to west and 3.7km north to south. The area around was logged until 1977. Surrounded by 22 villages, the locals are permitted to enter the area to tap palms (to make jaggery, a hard, brown sweet, and treacle) and collect dead wood and medicinal plants. Some poaching occurs along with illegal gem mining. It receives 3.5 to 5m of rain per year, has an average temperature of 24 degrees with little seasonal variation, and humidity of 87%. Now, from January to April, are the drier months and the best time to visit. After a 2 1/2 hour bus ride, I arrived at 7AM and caught a tuk tuk to Sinharaja Rest, a hotel that offers a guided trip. After breakfast, I headed out with a family of 3 Germans, a Dutch PhD student, and our excellent guide, Pali, who owns the guest house. After a tuk tuk ride we started to walk. Pali pointed out something new every 10m. Domesticated fruit trees like papaya, mango, wood apple, breadfruit, and of course banana were common along the road. The park has a wild proliferation of flora with canopy trees up to 45m high and a subcanopy of 30m. More than 65% of the 217 types of trees endemic to Sri Lanka are found here. We saw all the wild varieties of spices , several snakes including the venomous green pit viper, lizards, 3 kinds of monkeys (one, the purple faced langurs), 2 giant squirrels (1m long, half a big bushy tail), many spiders, a giant carpenter bee with irridescent wings, many birds, and butterflies. One of the highlights, at our lunch break on the banks of a river, we all dangled our feet in the water while small fish ate the dead skin off our feet, a real fish spa. It was an odd, tickling feeling with 15 or so fish working on each foot. On our way back, we had a great swim in a pool under a large waterfall. At the end we walked through a tea plantation and stopped at a house to have palm sugar mixed with spices, rice and coconut. Pali believes that his business has suffered since the end of the war. The war had little impact on the SE of the country where he lives and he was busy with tourists. Now with the north and east free of conflict, more tourists are going there and visiting his area less. The majority of tourists in Sri Lanka are Europeans, mainly Germans and French with a smattering of the rest of the western world. I elected to not visit the nearby Uda Walawe National Park, known for its 500 wild elephants, water buffalo, deer, sloth bear, wild boar, birds, crocodiles, and rarely seen leopards, and supposedly comparable to the East Africa wild animal parks.
The next day, we took 2 buses southwest down to Galle (pop 91,000), the main city on the south coast. Discovered by the Portuguese in 1505, they built a fort which was destroyed by the Dutch in 1640, who then built the present fort and made it the main port for Sri Lanka for the next 200 years, the main stop between Europe and Asia. After Britain took over in 1796, commercial interest moved to Colombo. The 2004 tsunami destroyed much of New Town but the Fort area was left unscathed. Built by the Dutch beginning in 1663, the 36 hectare Fort occupies most of the promontory of the Old Town. It is full of slowly decaying Dutch colonial buildings, churches, boutique shops, cafes, and hotels with a third of the 400 homes owned by foreigners. It is a World Heritage Site and I have now visited all of the 8 sites in Sri Lanka. Very pretty and clean, it is a wonderful place to stay and wonder the brick paved streets. The colonial buildings are magnificent. I have been in the process of withdrawing money to pay for my trip to Bhutan. Having exhausted all funding possibilities, I now withdraw about $500 per day and then go to moneychangers to convert it into the $2,685 I need for the flight and one week there. It is impossible to wire money to a foreign business from my personal or corporate bank account, and the travel company in Bhutan does not accept my Mastercard or use Paypal.
A circuit of the fort walls at dusk takes a couple of hours for great sunset views. There is a huge Main Gate, an Old Gate, 12 big bastions, and a lighthouse. Inside the Fort is a Bell Tower, Dutch Government House, Old Lloyd’s Office, National Maritime Museum (one of the most modern and high tech museums in the country), mediocre National Museum, cluttered Historical Museum, Dutch Reformed Church with gravestones paving the floor (these are one of the highlights of the Fort – large with incised or raised lettering, coats of arms, skulls) and the original organ presently not operational, and the Amangalla, the 1694 Dutch governors house, now a posh hotel. I spent four days here to unwind from by previous hectic 6 months, catch up on this web site, and read. This is a totally different vibe than anywhere else traveled to this winter. Full of tourists, the majority are on 7-21 day vacations from work. All are Europeans with a smattering of Oriental people from China and SE Asia. All are used to spending a lot of money, and dine out in the swanky restaurants. There are few backpackers, and I haven’t met anyone who had traveled in India or Nepal.
Outside of Galle, the South offers huge swathes of beach, turtle laying sites, snorkeling and diving, temples, dagobas, many towns, surfing, fishing, resorts, and one of the best places in the world to see blue whales. Since being “discovered” in 2006, there are now scads of whale watching trips offered. Despite their huge size, the sightings are somewhat underwhelming, as they barely break the surface, don’t breach, jump, or show much tail. I didn’t go on a trip.
I caught the bus 3 hours and 160km north to Colombo (pop 2.4 million), about one third the way up the west coast of Sri Lanka. The entire road seemed to go through a constant community and we occasionally had views of the ocean and waterways. The sprawling city has endured a bad rap for decades, something that one has to tolerate in order to get to all the good stuff in the rest of the country. But new restaurants are opening up, and the colonial Fort area is in the midst of widespread historic restoration. An area for trade as far back as the 5th century, it was frequented by the Arabs, Portuguese, Dutch and then the English and proclaimed the capital in 1815. Breakwaters were built in the 1870s and the wetlands were flooded creating the Fort area. Independence in 1948 was peaceful. Bomb attacks in the civil war caused businesses and institutions to be dispersed over the whole city. It is now experiencing a building boom. Lacking signature sites, its main appeal has been its neighborhoods.
With my flight not leaving till 6 the next morning, I had some time to kill and decided to wander around the Fort area. The grubby large bus stand had no baggage storage so I stopped at the tiny police station and asked if they would look after it. I had a great lunch at a restaurant in the colonial complex of the Old Dutch Hospital which dates back to the early 1600s. Lavishly restored, it now houses shops and cafes. I cruised around in the heat and humidiy without anything too spectacular to see, returned for my pack and caught the shuttle out to the airport at 5:30 to endure 2 hours of traffic jams to go 35kms. The airport was packed and many others had the same idea as me and possibly sleep while waiting for their flights in the middle of the night. I laid out my sleeping bag behind a kiosk and slept for a few hours on the hard floor. Without the crazy bureaucrasy of India, Sri Lankan airports are laid back and easy to navigate. Good bye Sri Lanka.