For this trip I decided to use my post-Covid freedom to go somewhere a bit more exotic than my previous few trips, and a bit further from my home in the UK. Somewhere where the temperatures are more predictable and where I can learn some lessons about energy rationing (might be useful in the winter back home in London…). Despite the advice of friends and family urging me to cancel, I went to SRI LANKA. As you already know, Sri Lanka is an island south of India, and which is been beset by economic problems and social unrest. Its biggest problem is a shortage of foreign exchange to import essential things like fuel and medicine. But on checking the internet and travel blogs carefully, it seemed that tourist travel is still very possible, and that the rare tourists are welcomed warmly.
I flew to Colombo, arriving in the early morning, spent a morning in a hotel near the airport to recover before beginning my trip in earnest. After much thought and some advice from local people I knew, I opted to hire a car with driver to get around rather than rely on public buses and trains (working, but very crowded I was told). My driver arrived as promised and we set off to Anuradhapura, an ancient capital about four hours from the airport. The route was pretty but unremarkable, except for the long queues of cars waiting outside petrol stations. Supposedly tourist vehicles have priority for fuel. My driver tried to get some in a couple of places along the way but was unsuccessful. Fortunately, he easily had enough to make it to my destination, where he dropped me and disappeared. We are supposed to meet again in two days’ time. I hope he will be there with a full tank; it might be my paranoia, but I thought I detected signs of worry on his face when he was being rejected for fuel.
My first lodging was a guest house called “Heaven upon Rice Fields”. I had a nice dinner of the local classic dish – curry rice – before getting a very early night. I woke up early as planned next morning to a view of the sun rising over the paddy fields under my balcony, with a couple of wild peacocks strutting through the rice plants.
After a breakfast I headed off to explore the many ancient ruins of the city by bicycle. Anuradaphura was the first important capital of Sri Lanka, and the home of its first Buddhist kings. Traffic on the roads was light – I suppose many vehicles were sitting in queues for petrol.
First stop was the Jetavanarama Dagoba (a dome shaped shrine containing relics), a massive construction daring from the 3rd century CE. It was originally about 120m high (the very top part has fallen off) and when built, would have been the third tallest building in the world (after two of the Giza Pyramids). The dagoba stand amidst the ruins of a huge religious complex that would have housed 3000 monks but whose remains now host peacocks, chipmunks and lots of monkeys. At my first shrine, I was introduced to a routine that I would repeat several more times in the day – to visit any holy site in Sri Lanka, you have to take off your shoes and hat. In the early morning, walking barepaw was quite pleasant, but by the end of the day, walking over the hot exposed stones of the shrines became an endurance test that only the toughest bears could pass. I made a mental note to bring some socks with me tomorrow.
Next, I headed to Ruwanwelisaya Dagoba, a short bike ride away. This was originally built even earlier, in 140BCE, but was repaired and enhanced many times over the coming century. It remains an active centre of worship, with many pilgrims coming to offer flowers or food to images of Buddha. I took this selfie………..
…..before I saw this sign………
I wasn’t sure whether the rule about not turning your back to the temple applied to bears, but I thought it best not to wait to find out, so I hurried on to Thuparama, possibly the oldest dagoba in the world. It was originally built in the third century BC but was restored (or as Srilankans complain, crudely modified) by the British in 1862.
My final destination was the dagoba of Abharayagiri, the centre of a huge monastery in the first century BCE. Around the dagoba, the ruins of the buildings that held the monks sprawl over a huge area and it was fun to explore them – almost entirely on my own.
The rides between these different ancient ruins went along small lanes weaving between paddy fields and past small houses. There were also many lakes, some natural and some constructed by long -dead emperors to water their gardens. Water lilies and lotus flowers grew in profusions, and kingfishers, herons, egrets and ibises hunted small fish.
In the early morning it was very pleasant exploring the ruins, but as midday approached, the sun began to beat down. I stopped for a refreshing drink of coconut water at one of the few roadside shops – I was surprised by how few places there were to get anything to eat and drink, and by the absence of souvenir shops. I was less surprised by the absence of tourists – the most foreign tourists I ever saw at one place was six, and quite often I had these wonderful sites all to myself (plus any local visitors and pilgrims). As I rode around, people at the roadside – or even people in cars and trucks overtaking – would call out a greeting and ask me where I was from. The few tourists that make it to Sri Lanka are very welcome and travelling bears are even more of a curiosity.
I returned to the hotel at around 15.30, very hot and tired but also very happy with my day’s bicycle exploration. After enjoying my room’s air con for an hour, I set off again in a tuk-tuk this time to a place called Mihintale. This is a sacred spot, where in the third century BCE Sri Lanka’s king was converted to Buddhism by a prince sent by the great Indian emperor Asoka. The place where this is supposed to have happened is located on top of a steep mountain, accessible by a steep climb. In the afternoon heat my little legs were feeling more and more tired. Halfway up there was a ticket office to pay the obligatory entrance fee. Near the office was yet another example of exotic srilankan wildlife – the giant squirrel – which from a teddy bear’s perspective is frighteningly large.
I hurried up to the top and saw that I had yet more climbing to do. The main ancient temple was on a little plateau, whilst on different pinnacles surrounding it there are yet another dagoba (a modern one), a large statue of Buddha, and a viewpoint with telescope.
Being a diligent blogger/travelling bear I climbed up to each of the different viewpoints, my fur soaked in sweat and my naked paws burning on the hot rocks. I finally reached the large modern dagoba, and enjoyed the view and -finally – a cool evening breeze.
I hoped to see the sunset……but the sun dipped behind thickening clouds on the horizon. I returned to my transport and got home just before the heavy tropical rain started, to find my hotel suffering from one of Sri Lanka’s frequent power cuts. My hotel owner explained that although he had a back up generator, he had not petrol to put in it, and that the outage would last an hour and a half. I started my dinner by candlelight before the power came back on, exactly at the time predicted by my host.
My first impressions of Sri Lanka were very positive, and talking to the rare tourists I met today, it seems to be not too difficult to get around. Maybe it is not such a big problem if my driver doesn’t show up.