Going back in time – Galle

From Tissa, I headed to Galle, a historic city on Sri Lanka’s southern coast. It was founded by the Portuguese in 1505, when one of their fleets was blown off course and took shelter in the harbour there. The Portuguese built a small fort but were soon replaced by the Dutch who rebuilt the fort in the 17th century; it still stands today.  Galle was Sri Lanka’s main seaport and trading centre for 200 years, before losing its crown to Colombo in the 19th century. Today, it is Sri Lanka’s second largest city with a population of 133,000 and sprawls out over a few kilometres in all directions from the original fort.

As we reached the centre of town, I saw a small booth with anti-government slogans. During three weeks of travelling, it was the very first sign I had seen of the protests that had toppled the previous president, had made headlines in the western press and scared many tourists away from Sri Lanka.

The only sign of anti-government protests I saw in three weeks’ travelling

At the central railway station, the road turned off to the sea through gates of the old Portuguese fort, and we reached a peninsula surrounding by defensive ramparts. It felt like going back in time by a few centuries – low rise buildings, narrow lanes and little traffic. Many of the houses were originals from the Dutch period, or were the homes of the Muslim spice traders that also settled in Galle.

My hotel was in a typical old building, with a veranda facing the street, and a large shady interior with a courtyard. The owner had upgraded my room (as had usually happened in Sri Lanka) to a large suite on the upper floor. 

My hotel owner had a collection of puppets

After settling in, I set off to explore the town.  The fort area was a typical popular traveller destination, with many small shops, bars, tea rooms and restaurants – but very few visitors.

The closest thing Galle has to a main road

Several tuk-tuk drivers proposed their services to me with what seemed like a hint of desperation in their voices; a third year with few tourists has hit many people very hard here. Away from the larger lanes there were even smaller, quieter residential side streets where people lived and went about their daily business.

Quiet side street

These quieter areas were a popular place for couples to have wedding photos taken.

A handsome couple having their wedding photos taken

After enjoying the centre of the fort area, I made the classic circuit of the fort’s ramparts, which is popular not only with tourists but also locals, especially courting couples. There were fine views of the fortifications, Galle lighthouse and the sea.

Around the ramparts…the lighthouse
More rampart photos

There were also many green spaces, which were invariably occupied by people playing cricket – the national sport and passion. Finally, I reached the Dutch church, dating from 1752.

The Dutch church

There are no spectacular sights in Galle that would make anyone’s “bucket list”, but its mix of interesting old buildings and relaxed feel makes for a very nice destination to spend a couple of days. It is a place to sit back and enjoy life, whether that means drinking spiced tea, shopping, or snacking in one of the many restaurants – which is exactly what I did on my first day.

Preparing spiced tea
Shopping for masks….
…and spices
Some of Galle’s excellent seafood

I stayed two nights, and on the second day made the short trip to Unawatuna beach. Sri Lanka has countless beaches like this dotted around its coasts, some deserted like my earlier destination of Nilaveli, some a bit more developed like this one. Behind the beach itself, but well hidden from it, was a street packed with tourist hotels, restaurants and spas offering massages.

Unawatuna beach

I returned to Galle in the mid-afternoon to avoid spend the hottest part of the day in my air conditioned bedroom, before heading out again in the evening for another stroll and dinner – this time in a restaurant called “Indian Hut”.  The meal was excellent – Indian rather than Sri Lankan cuisine for a change – and a nice way to spend my penultimate night in Sri Lanka.   

My stay in Galle felt like the end of my holiday even though I had one more night to spend in Colombo. Many travellers skip Sri Lanka’s capital city but I wanted to stay somewhere closer to the airport to be on time for my morning flight back to Europe. To be honest, Colombo did not make a great impression on me but perhaps you need to give it more than the half day that I had available.  In contrast I found the rest of Sri Lanka to be a wonderful travel destination, easier to travel around and safer than many other places in Asia (or Europe for that matter). My final post in this series will be a summary of my thoughts about the trip.

Bundala, the National Park at the End of the World

Today I had booked another safari – but this time leaving in the afternoon. Two very early starts in the last few days were as much as I could take, no matter how many animals I might miss. My destination was Bundala National Park, which is also very near Tissa, but which receives a fraction of the visitors that crowded Yala does.

I spent the morning relaxing by the pool and admiring the lake, where a man was fishing, and some women were washing clothes. They seemed unconcerned by the sight of small crocodile sunning itself on a nearby rock – I would have been worried that it might have larger and hungrier parents.

View from my hotel over the lake

My safari jeep arrived, and we set off at two o’clock. Unlike the modern road to Yala, the road to Bundala was in poor repair. I sensed that very few people went this way. The park entrance also looked uncared for and dilapidated.  A few dogs came up to inspect us, but there were no humans around to ask us to pay the entrance fee, and my guide had to open the gates himself.  We were clearly the only visitors.

Typical Bundala scenery

Bundala is a wetland park formed out of many lakes lying just in from the coast, and a sign at the entrance announced that was ranked 287th in UNESCO’s list of wetland areas deserving protection. I had never heard of this list, and thought it was maybe better not to publicise appearing in 287th place. The first animals I saw were water buffalo. Unlike Yala, where multiple jeeps would descend on a solitary leopard, here the buffalo queued up to check out the unusual sight of a visitor.

In this park the animals queued to watch tourists

Bundala is most famous for its birdlife and sure enough there were birds everywhere – large groups of peacocks, brightly coloured kingfishers, bee-eaters, egrets, herons, and eagles hunting for fish.  There were also some species I had never seen before, like the purple swamp hen and the spoonbill. They all seemed more nervous of our jeep than the birds in Yala, and the peacocks would run away from us at great speed.

The purple swamp hen
Test – spot the eagle

Bundala’s other speciality was crocodiles. I saw so many that after a while, I only paid attention to the very biggest ones. The reptiles often lay on the road directly in front of us and would only get out of the way when they were sure we were heading in their direction. Then they would scramble into the water and disappear, leaving only a train of bubbles.

Camouflaged Crocodiles – how many can you see?
Too big to bother to hide

Although I made fewer sightings of larger mammals at Bundala than I had at Yala, the experience of driving around a deserted nature reserve was much more rewarding.

Giant lizard on a termite nest

The sense of being all alone increased when we reached a cliff overlooking the sea. Large waves rolled in and broke over the boulders below me. Ahead of me, the sea stretched to the horizon – looking south, the next land would be Antarctica, thousands of miles away. It felt like the end of the world – and in some ways, it was.

The end of the Indian sub-continent

The afternoon was drawing on, and as the sun approached the horizon its light reflected off the myriad of small lakes that make up the park. A strong breeze from the sea kept me pleasantly cool. The park was quiet, except for the murmur of our jeep’s engine and the rustle of leaves in the wind.  

More typical Bundala scenery

I was rather sorry when the park gates appeared in front of us again, meaning the safari was over. This time, a park ranger was on duty. My guide gestured to ask whether we should sign our vehicle in and out again, but the ranger silently replied with a shake of the head to say that could go without any formalities. Words seemed unnecessary. I said a fond goodbye to Bundala, one of Sri Lanka’s least visited, but in my view best, national parks.

Leopards and Dancers

This morning I duly struggled to get up at 4.30am to leave at five for my safari in Yala national park. Yala is famous as being the best place to see wild leopards in Sri Lanka, and so is the most visited park on the island.  Sure enough, my safari jeep and its specialist guide/driver were waiting for me at the hotel entrance, as was my packed breakfast. The early start ensured we were the second vehicle in the queue to enter when the park opened at six, which was also when the sun rose.

My driver went along well-established trails of red soil that led through the jungle.  As it became light, I could admire the scenery, with its mix of red (the soil) green (the jungle), brown (large rocks on the horizon) and blue (lakes) colours.  

Yala scenery

The guide said that sightings of leopards, elephants and bears were rare, but that there would be lots of other animals and birds to see. Sure enough, we saw bee-eaters (small brightly coloured birds), eagles, deer, crocodiles, and a jackal. Sadly, my mobile phone camera proved woefully inadequate for taking pictures needing a zoom, so most of my photos are not worthy of my blog.

After an hour, my guide got excited. The guides keep in touch with each other by phone, and one of them had spotted a leopard.  We rushed around the park to be the second jeep to arrive on the scene, and sure enough, lazing in the sun on a distant rock, was a leopard.  The view was partly hidden by trees, so it took me a while to spot it, with my guide’s help. I just had time to take a (rather poor and fuzzy picture) when more jeeps arrived.

Leopard?

The peace of the scene was shattered as vehicles jostled for position and tourists squeeled with excitement. One newly arrived jeep pulled up just in front us, blocking my view. The vehicles all kept their engines running, and soon the air filled with the stench of diesel fumes.

LEOPARD!!!!!! LEOPARD!!!! LEOPARD!!!!

Somewhat disappointed by the “circus” of a leopard sighting, I asked my driver to move on – which proved difficult, since he had been blocked in by the other jeeps.  We finally got free and continued our exploration of the park alone, which I found much more enjoyable.  We saw lots more smaller animals and birds – my favourite was a mongoose and her baby, who came up close to investigate us.

Mother mongoose checks us out

Our driver was heading to the park exit, when he got another message on his phone, turned his jeep around and rushed to a spot where elephants had been heard.  When we arrived there were a couple of other vehicles watching a small group of the animals through thick jungle. We waited, and our patience was rewarded when they broke cover and crossed the road.

Tick the box – Elephants

After the elephants, my driver took me back to the hotel, happy that he had delivered the top two attractions – leopard and elephant – and could therefore expect a good tip. It is a shame that the park’s bears are very rarely seen – I would have liked to greet a distant relative.

I spent the hot afternoon catching up on sleep and then lazing by the pool. I texted my regular guide that in the evening I would like to visit  Kataragama, a holy town and pilgrimage site with some temples. My guidebook said at this time of year there should be a major religious festival happening there, and that pilgrims walked the entire length of Sri Lanka to attend. However, it was impossible to find any more details about this on the internet, or the exact dates. My guide texted back with great excitement to say that today there would be a big procession, which only took place once a year, to mark the end of the festival.

We made the short drive to the temple and found that a large but well-organised crowd had gathered along the procession route, and saw the last of the performers entering the temple to take up their places.

The Temple at Kataragama

My guide found me an excellent space, from which even a short little teddy bear had a good view of the route. I sat down like everyone else to enjoy the show; one of the other spectators lent me a plastic sheet to sit on. The procession exceeded all my expectations. It started with a group of men cracking huge whips (sounding like firecrackers or gunshots).

Whip crackers

These were followed by a group of men juggling fire. Fire was a recurring theme, with men bearing flaming lamps walking by the side of the route. There was even someone with a big cylinder of fuel to refuel them as they went.

Playing with fire

After that, wave upon wave of dancers in elaborate costumes filed past to the sound of drums and various wind instruments. Each wave was completely different to the preceding one.

The procession starts….

The guide said the procession was Buddhist, but then changed his mind and said it was Hindu. It seemed to have elements of both – the temple was definitely Hindu, but the performers also often carried Buddhist flags.

These flags might be of the Hindu god Garuda
Buddhist Flags

After each five groups of dancers, there would be a processional elephant covered in brightly coloured cloth.

The first elephant arrives
Another elephant

I lost count how many groups of dancers there were – maybe around thirty, meaning that there must have been around six hundred performers. Not only were their costumes magnificent, and their dancing elegant, but they all seemed to be having a good time and smiled broadly.

The dancers all seemed joyful

The procession closed with a large richly dressed ceremonial elephant carrying a sacred relic (my guide couldn’t explain to me what exactly). The crowd rose to throw flowers over the animal.

The end of the procession – an elephant carrying a sacred relic

I had sat, captivated, for over an hour – this unexpected event had been one of the highlights of my trip. It had been the polar opposite of touristy Yala park – I think I was the only tourist present.

From the Hill Country to the Coastal Plains

Today my destination was Tissamaharama (or “Tissa” for short) in the southeast of Sri Lanka.  This involved retracing my steps across the hill country back to Ella. Regular readers will have noticed that my route has not been very logical over the last few days, travelling the section between Nuwara Eliya and Ella three times, but I won’t bore you with the reasons for this. Just outside of Nuwara Eliya I experienced yet another version of the hunt for fuel – this time a successful refuelling at a bus depot.  This was a much more relaxed experience, without the embarrassment of cutting in front of long queues of people who had been waiting for days.

Relaxed refuelling at a bus depot

We stopped at Ella so that I could get a drink in one of the many cool cafes. Then I asked to make a short detour to visit the famous nine arches bridge, one of Ella’s most famous sights and one which I had missed on my earlier visit. The narrow path was not suitable for our van, so I asked the price from a tuk-tuk for the short 1.5km trip to the bridge. His offer was very high, and he refused to negotiate (more tourists in this part of Sri Lanka!) so I set off on foot instead. I am not sure if I found exactly the right way, because the view of the bridge I saw was different to the one that you see in all the tourist brochures. Still, it was nice to stretch my legs a bit.

An unusual perspective of The Nine Arches Bridge

From Ella, the road led steeply downhill towards the coastal plains. The scenery was pretty, with many waterfalls.

Near the town of Wellawaya I asked the guide to do another detour to see some famous standing buddha statues, carved out of a large rock.  Once again, I had a beautiful site with ancient (1000 years old) monuments all to myself.

1000 year old Buddha carvings

Form Wellawaya the road became flat and straight, and I dozed off until we had arrived at Tissa, where we made another stop to admire the brilliant white, perfectly formed Tissa Dagoba. This was originally built in 200BCE but was in excellent condition, having been completely restored about a hundred years ago.

Tissa Dagoba

The town of Tissa had a beautiful location, sitting on a large artificial lake covered with lilies and lotus flowers. My hotel was a little way outside of the centre, next to a different lake.

Waiting in vain for a sunset

After I checked in, I sat by the lake for a while hoping to see the sunset, but yet again, the sun dipped behind clouds just before setting – I have yet to see a sunset in Sri Lanka. I had an early dinner, admiring the view of brightly-lit Tissa Dagoba in the distance across the lake.  I went to bed very early – the next day I had booked a safari to the famous Yala National Park, and had to leave at 5am.

Wet, Wet, Wet

Today I had booked a tour to the Horton Plains, a national park located on a high plateau, where there is a famous view called World’s End – a sheer cliff, with all of western Sri Lanka stretching away into the distance.  My guide advised leaving very early, since the view is usually covered with mist from the mid-morning.

The weather forecast for the day was bad, but suggested it might not rain early in the morning. When we left at half past five there was only a light drizzle, which soon stopped. At around six, it got light, and I could watch the passing tea plantations and small villages. At half past six we reached the park, and I started my walk. The landscape and plants at this relatively high altitude were completely different to anything I had seen before in Sri Lanka – or anywhere else for that matter.

Landscapes in the Horton Plains

The path first arrived at “Little World’s End” – a smaller cliff, also with a view. I was relieved that it was still not raining and that despite the clouds the famous view was partially visible.

“Little World’s End”
Another helpful Sri Lankan warning sign – the end of the world is nigh!

I hurried on, but after a few more minutes the inevitable happened – it started to rain heavily. I pulled on a waterproof top, but had to accept my legs and paws getting soaking wet. The path turned into a small stream.

Path or stream?

Arriving at World’s End, all there was to see was a big bank of thick cloud.

The name feels appropriate…

I carried on along the path, and the rain continued to fall steadily. Although it was unpleasant to have wet fur all down my legs, after a while I got used to it. The rain was even pleasantly cool, and the scenery was interesting.

The land is green for a good reason!

The next highlight of the walk was Baker’s Falls, a powerful waterfall swollen by the recent rains.

Baker’s Falls

After the falls, the path became easier and less like a small river. There were more lonely, windswept landscapes to admire until suddenly I was back at the park entrance.

Another lonely landscape in the rain

Back at the van, I changed my trousers and took off my soaking shoes. The one-hour trip back felt very long – I hadn’t had enough sleep, my fur was still wet, and the windows of the van steamed up to obscure any interesting views.  I reached the Hill Club at around noon, with a sense of relief. It was now raining heavily, so I went straight to bed for a well-needed nap.  I awoke an hour later to the find water streaming down from the ceiling of my room – the strong winds must have damaged the roof, creating a big leak.  I changed rooms and set out about hanging up my wet things in the hope that they might dry.

There was nothing to do but simply enjoy the old colonial Hill Club. I wandered around, taking more photos…….

Hunting trophies at the club. No bears happily, but even so Trouspinet does not approve!

……and then treated myself to high tea, a wonderful club tradition where you stuff yourself with cakes, savoury snacks and tea in the mid-afternoon.

The solution to a rainy afternoon – High Tea!

After such a huge tea, I sat and wrote my blog in the reading room. In the early evening I tried a game of snooker in one of the club’s two billiard rooms – although the table was so big it was hard work for a small teddy bear.

I dined late and chose Indian Ocean Kingfish, which was a bit like tuna in texture and taste, washed down with a bottle of wine (my first wine since I had arrived in Sri Lanka). It had been a difficult day, but sometimes the life of a traveller is like that. The walk had been very interesting, if wet, and the comforts of the Hill Club more than made up for spending half the day with wet fur.

The Tea Train and the Well-Travelled Trousers

Today, I took the train from Ella back to Nuwara Eliya – a route renowned as one of the most scenic in the world. The train arrived on time – something not guaranteed in Sri Lanka – and I got on to find my reserved seat in second class (someone had told me that second class was better than the air conditioned first class, since you could open the windows). Usually, the reserved seats sell out long in advance to tourists, but with Sri Lanka’s current problems my compartment wasn’t even full.

The train arrives
Reserved Second Class

My guide also got on, but his ticket was for unreserved second class, meaning that he had no guarantee of a seat.  I could see through the rear door of my compartment that this was a completely different travel experience. I hoped he had got a place in the melee of people boarding at Ella. Our driver headed off in the van to be able to meet us at the other end of our trip.

Unreserved Second Class

We set off in bright sunshine, and the views lived up to my expectations. In the area around Ella, the scenery was wild and mountainous.

Scenery near Ella

It was very pleasant leaning out of my window and either watching the scenery go by or observing the frenetic activity at each station as passengers with unreserved tickets fought to get on the train first in the rush for a possible free seat. The train doors are left open for the whole trip, and more adventurous passengers held on to the hand rails and leaned out of the open door for an even better view.

Enjoying the view

As the train progressed, the mountains and forest gave way to nice orderly rows of tea plants and rolling, green hills. It also started to get cloudy – it seems that we had already received our ration of precious blue sky for the day.

Rolling hills covered with tea plantations
The clouds arrive

The train arrived at Nanu Oya, a small town close to the popular tourist destination of Nuwara Eliya.  On arrival, I got a big surprise when my guide informed me that my parcel had arrived. Initially I was puzzled, but then I remembered that I had left some trousers in the hotel at Polonnaruwa. I’d asked the hotel to send them to Kandy, but they had arrived after we had left and I assumed I would never see them again. It turned out that my guide had been in touch with the Kandy hotel to get them redirected here and that they had arrived in the morning. My guide took me to the station master’s office – a wonderful old-fashioned office room – to meet the station manager and collect my well-travelled trousers.

The station master….and my vagabond trousers!

Sure enough, our driver was also there to meet us at the station, and we drove to my lodgings for the night – the Hill Club.

The Hill Club

This wonderful institution is a relic of British Colonial rule, when British men (not women) could join a private club in the hills to get away from the heat of the coast. The club has now been enthusiastically embraced by a new generation of Sri Lankan club members, who have kept most of the old traditions, which include a jacket and tie dress code after 6pm, providing hotel water bottles for the beds, and a daily ceremony raising and saluting the Sri Lankan flag whilst listening to the national anthem.  One less good tradition – a side door for lady guests, who were not allowed to use the main door – had thankfully been scrapped.

The club is popular with its members at weekends but rents out spare rooms to travellers when it is less busy. I arrived on a Sunday and it turned out that I was the only guest. I had the whole of the huge building to myself, including the comfortable reading room……..

The reading room

……bar, two snooker rooms and dining room……..

The dining room

There was even a gym. The manager looked surprised when I said that I wanted to use it and I soon found out why. It had a musty smell, like it had not been used in a long time, and after a few km on the treadmill I was soaking in sweat from the near 100% humidity.  I decided that visiting the bar and ordering a cocktail was a much better idea, and I enjoyed drinking it siting by an open fire in the club’s dining room.

Better than the gym!

I then had a hearty western-style dinner of fish and chips (the menu had many traditional British offerings as well as Sri Lankan food) before retiring for the night and the company of my hot water bottle in my bed.

Ella and the Phony Farmer

Today I headed off to the “Hill Country” – the mountains that cover the centre of Sri Lanka. The road wound steadily upwards, and after a few kilometres I saw the first of Sri Lanka’s famous tea plantations. It was a very scenic route, with distant mountains looking over rows and rows of bright green tea plants, and lots of waterfalls.

Tea plantations and mountains on the road from Kandy

Of course I stopped at one of the plantations to learn how tea is made and the differences between white, black and green tea……and to try some of the finished product for myself.

Trying the local products

The road led on to Nuwara Eliya, nicknamed “Little England” because of its old colonial buildings. It was a popular destination for the colonial British to escape the heat of the coast. Since I was going to return here to stay for a couple of nights I only stopped to take a couple of photos.

Could be England….

We continued to my final destination, the small town of Ella. Driving on the narrow windy roads, with the local buses, motorcycles and animals was slow, and I got a little bored. We stopped for fuel at a town near Ella. This stop proved more difficult than the earlier ones, and the police gave our guide a long interrogation before asking us to park our van and wait. The guide sent the driver off to get a document that had been requested in order to get some diesel and explained to me that the police here were particularly careful. Nearby Ella was a rare town with a lot of foreign tourists, and local drivers had been paying backpackers to sit in their car so that they could claim they were a tourist vehicle. This had made other local people understandably angry.  We waited ten minutes before we were allowed to drive up to the pump to get our ration of 20 litres.

The fuel shortages seemed to be more acute in this town

The driver, the guide and I were all glad when we finally reached Ella in the early evening. I had booked a guest house which was on a hill a little outside the town, and which was supposed to have an amazing view over the mountains. However, the afternoon had seen thick clouds return and for the moment nothing was visible.  At least it hadn’t rained.

When I woke up the next morning, the clouds had mostly gone, and I enjoyed one of the best ever views I have had from a hotel room.

The best ever view from a hotel room?

I had breakfast and set off on a short walk up to Ella Rock,  which promised an even better view of the surrounding area. The guest house owner gave me very detailed instructions, which included sending me twenty photos of the route on WhatsApp.  Finally he advised me to refuse the services of guides loitering on the route, but that if I got lost I could ask local farmers and they would point me in the right direction.

The path followed a railway line. At times, I had to walk on the track itself and was a little worried that a train would arrive suddenly. But I had no other choice, and anyway lots of local people seemed to be walking on the line quite happily.  When a train did arrive, I could see why walking on the track wasn’t dangerous – it could be heard from a long way off, went very slowly, and sounded a warning horn at all bends.  

Walking along – and on – the railway line

My WhatsApp photos told me to leave the railway and head along a path through fields. I stopped again to check the way, and immediately a small wiry man, who I thought might have been following me for a while, offered to show me the way. I hesitated, and he said “I no guide, I farmer”. I should have said no, but instead I followed him up the path. Rather than just tell me the way, he insisted on accompanying me.  The route he took suddenly became flat and I scratched my head – the guest house owner’s directions described a continuous steep slope.  Seeing me stop, the “farmer” said “I know way” and when I continued to look doubtful, “I not guide, I farmer”. He produced an identity card very similar to the one I had seen my guide use to obtain petrol. Under his photo, it said “FARMER”. Hmmm. In English, with no Sinhalese. I smelt a rat and told the “farmer” I would find my own way. With remarkable speed, he straightened his back and held out his arm flat with his palm upturned – the position of someone expecting to receive money.  I gave him a 500 rupee (1.5$) note to get rid of him and ignoring his protestations (“Not enough! One more! Rude bear!”) continued along the path he had been following. Sure enough, it led to a dead end, and I had to retrace my steps to find an alternative way up.  I reached the top, where I found the true path with a steady stream of (mostly Sri Lankan) visitors going up or down – my “farmer” had taken me on a detour, presumably to make his services harder to reject.

At the top, there were a couple of drinks stalls (someone had the energy to carry drinks all the way up) and a spectacular view, enhanced by wisps of cloud that occasionally blew in from the lower down in the valley. It was well worth my slightly extended walk.

Worth the walk – the view from Ella Rock

I felt the weather changing, so I headed back.  Just as I got to the guest house, yet another storm broke and I sat watching torrential rain for the rest of the afternoon. When it finally stopped, I grabbed a tuk-tuk to head into the small town of Ella. It was a pleasant and lively place, similar to many other popular traveller destinations I had visited in the past. Its one main road was flanked by a series of guest houses, bars, restaurants and spas. I offered myself a massage before having dinner and a beer in the appropriately named Chill bar.

Kandy – the heart of Sri Lanka

Today I transferred to Kandy, Sri Lanka’s geographical, cultural and religious centre. Kandy was the capital of Sri Lanka from 1592 until 1815, when the last Sri Lankan kingdom was finally conquered by the British.

My first stop was the botanical gardens, located a little outside of the centre of town. They are some of the best gardens in Asia and I was pleasantly surprised that for once, it was not raining. The gardeners seemed to like planting impressive long alleys of straight, tall trees……

Magnificent palm trees stand to attention!

….or in some cases, not so straight trees.

…but these pines look like they had too much to drink

Some corners of the gardens had a huge populations of fruit bats. Enterprising garden workers would ask tourists for a few rupees, and would then shake the trees to unleash a crowd of screeching animals.

Just how many bats can roost on one tree?

There was also an area for trees ceremonially planted by world rulers and celebrities visiting Sri Lanka, including many members of the British royal family, Yuri Gagarin and even Crown Prince Nicolay of Russia (who planted a tree a few years before he became the last Russian tsar).

My driver and I then went to my hotel but encountered a big traffic jam. It had an unusual cause – the road had been blocked for a procession of Sri Lankan drummers and three elephants. It was a practice procession for Kandy’s big religious festival called Esala Perahera, which celebrates the sacred Buddha tooth relic which is kept in Kandy.  I knew that I would miss the main festival by a few days, so I jumped out of the car and ran to get some photos.

Preparing for Esala Perahera

My lodging turned out to be a very nice boutique hotel located in the centre.   I had a quick rest before heading out to a performance of Sri Lankan dance. It was rather touristy (unusually, there were more foreigners than Sri Lankans) but still entertaining and included many different forms of dance, following by fire eating and fire walking.

Next I started my visit to Kandy’s main attraction – the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. This shrine houses a tooth said to have been taken from Buddha’s funeral pyre and smuggled to Sri Lanka in 483 BCE. It was located in successive Sri Lankan capitals including Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa – before ending up in Kandy. The tooth was seized by the Portuguese in the 16th century and burnt, only for the Sri Lankans to reveal that the burnt tooth was a replica, and that the real one had been hidden for safe keeping. The complex was built over many years, from 1687 to 1782, and also housed the royal place.

Today the temple remains a very active centre of worship, and I made sure to visit at the time of evening Puja (prayers or offering). It was a very atmospheric experience, which lasted an hour and a half. I entered through an ornate doorway and brightly painted corridor, and then I waited with local worshippers and a few other tourist outside a shrine on the ground floor of the complex as drummers welcomed priests who entered and left an inner sanctum. 

The entrance to the temple
Drummers await priests at the first shrine on the ground floor

Then I queued to visit the tooth relic itself on the second floor.  Worshippers filed past a small window, through which can be seen the silver caskets in which the tooth is housed (seven caskets of decreasing size, sitting inside each other like a Russian doll). They then retire behind a long table where they place offering of flowers.

A glimpse of the silver casket housing the sacred tooth (not easy to photo!)

After placing my offering, I strolled around the rest of the complex, including parts of the former royal palace. The night air was filled with the sound of services being started in the neighbouring temples, of which there are many. The air was pleasantly cool, with a smell of incense and flowers.

The temple complex seen from the outside, after my visit

I continued my stroll back to my hotel and bought some take away vegetable dosas (an Indian dish a bit like a crepe) to eat on my balcony overlooking the city. It had been a very nice day, and in the hotel I enjoyed regaining some of my basic creature comforts – electricity, internet and hot water. Even better, it had not rained today!

The “Bear” Necessities of Life

Today I set off to explore one of Sri Lanka’s most famous highlights – Sigiriya rock, a set of ruins built on and around a striking volcanic rock that towers above the surrounding plains. There is some debate as to whether the site used to be a monastery or a palace, with most historians opting for the latter. In this version, Sigiriya rock was the impregnable palace of King Kasyapa, and was built in around 480 CE.  The site was occupied until the 14th century , then abandoned and only rediscovered in 1898.

Sigiriya Rock

Many people climb the rock to see the sunrise, but I didn’t want to get up at 5am. After the previous days rain and clouds, I doubted that I would see the sun. Instead, I took it easy, had my breakfast at 8, and only reached Sigiriya rock at 9. I paid the entry fee for foreign visitors of $30 – extremely high by Sri Lankan standards – and walked through some pretty gardens with lily ponds to reach the base of the rock. On the way there I saw a big monitor lizard and a hornbill (a type of bird).

A lily pond at the entrance to Sigiriya Rock

The metal steps leading up to the top of the rock have been improved and climbing up is no longer the terrifying experience it was a few years ago. I was soon at a platform half-way up where a huge pair of sculpted lion paws emerge from the rock, flanking the passage leading further up.

The path up, through giant lion’s paws

Some people think that there was originally a huge lion head sculpted into the rock, covering the entire face of the cliff. This must have been a magnificent sight, but it has long since collapsed, leaving sheer cliffs that are the home for an unusual travel hazard….

Unusual travel hazards

In 2012, many tourists were stung by angry wasps and ended up in hospital. With my thick fur, I wasn’t so worried, but I still climbed in silence as the signs instructed me.

You can see the wasps’ nests to the left of the cliff

At the top, the palace ruins were exactly that – ruins, with little left standing – but the views of the surrounding countryside were spectacular. 

On top of Sigi Rock – the views are more interesting than the ruins

On the way down I visited a sheltered gallery which has paintings of many half-naked Sri Lankan women – all with improbably large breasts and thin waists. It is not known whether exactly when they were painted or who they represent – possible they were the king’s concubines. They were in an excellent state of preservation, but taking photos was not allowed. 

I completed my descent and found that it was still only 10.30. I was soaked in sweat, not from physical exertion but from the very high humidity after last night’s storm, so I went back to the hotel and had a shower, a change of clothes and short rest. I asked my driver to take me to nearby Dambulla, a site of worship dating back 2000 years, but now most famous for its caves which house over 150 more recent, but still stunning, Buddha images.  On my way I took time to visit an interesting modern temple with a giant golden Buddha.

Then I climbed up to the site of the cave temple. I hired a guide who explained that the first rock paintings dated from the 1st century, and then gave me the dates for each of the most impressive Buddha statues, which ranged from 14th to 18th century. The more recent additions blended in perfectly with the older statues to give a remarkably consistent feeling to each of the five caves.

The exterior of the cave temples
Stunning Buddha images….
…and one king who got in on the act.

The quality of the work was breath-taking – when I first saw this reclining Buddha I thought that his pillow must be made from fabric, but on closer inspection it was expertly-carved stone.

Believe it or not, the Buddha’s pillow is carved stone

The coolness of the caves, near-absence of other visitors and stunning lighting made the caves a memorable experience. I took lots of photos, and then put away my phone to stand still and take in the special atmosphere.

On the way back to Sigiriya, another heavy thunderstorm broke, and I arrived at my hotel in the early afternoon to find that there was yet again no power. I sat reading and writing my blog whilst looking at the relentless rain. After a while I got bored – I needed internet access to publish my text and plan the next steps of my trip, but even when the electricity worked, the guest house rarely had working wifi. I solved my problem by asking my driver to take me to a five-star hotel resort located in a nature reserve in the jungle a bit outside of Sigiriya. The reserve is home to the slender loris, a cute-looking nocturnal monkey with huge, baby-like eyes. The hotel offered a tour to try to spot the shy creatures, but my guidebook said they were only visible when it was dry, so I thought chances of seeing anything were very slim. The persistent rain was getting on my nerves a bit – it was supposed to be dry season in this part of Sri Lanka! Every single day had seen a violent storm break in the mid or late afternoon, and pouring rain all evening after that. It meant that all my sight-seeing had to be crammed into the morning.

Instead of hunting for the loris, I sat by a pretty lake (which apparently was home to wild crocodiles), drank cocktails, posted my blog, and did my planning.

In weather like this you need a good drink

It is nice to try to help poorer guest house owners by staying with them, but when the weather is bad you cannot beat the comfort of a luxury hotel. I also stayed for dinner – the presentation of my curry was lavish, but the content and taste were the same as the cheap place I had visited last night. The price was fifteen times higher though.

After dinner my driver took me back to my modest guest house, to which electricity had still not returned. I undressed and brushed my teeth by the light of my phone, before fumbling around in the dark to plug in my computer and phones – ready for the moment during the night when power might return. Supporting small family businesses is good, but for me the bear necessities of life include electricity and internet.

Elephants Galore!

Today I had another al fresco breakfast and then explored one last set of ruins – the Southern Island Group – that were just next to my hotel.  This group gets very few visitors, and apart from some staff from the Archaeological Society and some cows, I was completely alone.  These ruins are free to visit, and are less well preserved than in the main site, but make up for this with the peaceful lakeside location.  My favourite was the king’s audience chamber, with its throne in the form of a lion.

The King’s Audience Chamber

Now it was time to leave Polonnaruwa to make the short drive to Sigiriya.  On the way we passed some semi-wild giant monitor lizards. An enterprising local feeds them fish and up to twelve giant lizards are attracted out of the jungle to get their free food; he then gets money from passing tourists if they stop to take photos – as I did.

I didn’t want to get too close. About 1 metre long…..excluding the tongue.

In Sigiriya, I had booked a simple guest house, which turned out to be hidden in the jungle. It was the sort of place whose owners have suffered badly during recent years – first Covid, and now the economic and fuel crisis meant that for three years very few tourists have visited Sri Lanka. In the midday sun it was pleasant relaxing outside, and I felt good about supporting a small local business.

In the day, a good place to chill for dogs, humans and teddies…

Soon though I was on my way again. I had booked a safari in nearby Kaudallah national park.  Lots of wild elephants live in the surrounding jungle, but in dry season (which this was supposed to be….although it had rained heavily every day) they are attracted to a large lake as other sources of water dry up – an event known as “the Gathering”.  A jeep came to fetch me with a new guide – a safari specialist.  After the park entrance, we drove for about a kilometre along a track through thick jungle, which eventually opened out onto the lake.  Sure enough, we soon saw a family of elephants……..and five other jeeps. Fortunately for us, the drop in tourist numbers meant that we did not have too much human company and each jeep’s group could enjoy filming elephants more or less undisturbed by the others. I took lots of pictures and videos, especially of this family, which had a cute week-old baby elephant.

A few of the hundreds of photos and videos I took, starring a cute baby elephant.

The herds consist only of females and children; male elephants leave the group and live alone once they reach adolescence.  We enjoyed watching elephants spraying dirt on to their skin, elephants wading into the lake to drink….and this couple doing something strange to the grass with their feet and trunks.

Strange Elephant behaviour

We also saw lots of different types of birds – too hard to photograph with the zoom of my phone camera though.  We continued our drive around the lake, and met up with a much bigger group of around 25 elephants.

A large herd of about 25 elephants….and a darkening sky

As you can see from the photograph, the sky was now getting very dark. Sure enough, heavy tropical rain began to fall and my guide rushed to secure the waterproof flaps on the jeep’s roof and sides.  We drove back in another tropical thunderstorm, and arrived in the early evening to find our hotel bathed in darkness – the electricity had been cut due to the fuel shortages. Most places in Sri Lanka have two power cuts per day, each lasting roughly two hours. There is a web site that can be used to check when the outages should happen, but I did not find it to be very accurate.  Top end hotels have back up generators, and use them, so the power cuts are not problem there. Mid-range hotels like the one I had booked in Nilaveli have generators too but some choose to use them only in the evening, when light is needed; fuel is too expensive to justify using for the afternoon. Cheaper hotels either have no generator or no fuel to run one with. The basic amenities of our simple guesthouse seemed very pleasant during the light of day, with power available to charge our phones and computers. As night fell, sitting in the dark in the jungle listening to the incessant rain was much less appealing.  The hotel owner gave me a lift to a nearby restaurant (with generator) and I spent the rest of the evening there. I took my time over dinner (another curry feast) – there was nothing else to do.

When all else fails…food!

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