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Sojourn in Sri Lanka

When I wrote last I was shivering in the UK, shortly to fly to Sri Lanka; the Serendib as it was known to Muslim traders of old. We’re now halfway through our time here, and currently in Kandy. I've been a bit slack on the photo front, and am unlikely to get much uploaded until Chris goes home and I return to India, visa permitting, but I thought I'd send an update on the last two weeks all the same.

Amazingly Chris and I did both make it to Sri Lanka, and met as arranged by the baggage reclaim conveyor belts. Unfortunately Chris left a small bag containing his phone and sunglasses at Doha, and was also unable to draw money out of Sri Lankan ATMs as he hadn't notified his bank he was going abroad. I was still impressed that he'd managed to get himself here, so considered it to be an overall success.

We'd pre-booked the first three nights in Negombo online, treating ourselves to a $50-a-night hotel with a pool. We'd planned to leave our bags in reception and hang around until the 1pm check-in time, but when the taxi dropped us off at four in the morning and the night porter showed us to our room, we didn't complain. Once we got inside though it was a different matter. Whilst by no means the worst room either of us have stayed in, the place was a tad grotty and certainly didn't live up to its $50 price tag. Later that morning, after we'd had a few hours sleep and a bite to eat, we checked out some alternative venues. We walked up and down the main drag in Negombo, comparing prices and standards of various hotels until we found somewhere much better value. This venture set the tone for our stay in Negombo - that evening we walked up and down comparing the prices of coffee, and the following day we again traipsed up and down the road looking for a USB modem for my computer. I think we spent more time walking along the main road in Negombo than the beach!

And talking of the beach, it wasn't much to write home about . . . but I will anyway. Theoretically it was fine - a long sweeping stretch of coarse, golden sand; the warm sea lapping against the shore. Unfortunately large patches of sand were stained black with oil, and an inordinate amount of rubbish bobbed amongst the waves, and eventually landed on the beach. My theory is that this has a lot to do with the proximity of India to the western side of the island. We snuck into a large resort with a lovely big pool though, so got to do some relaxing whilst recovering from our tiring journeys.

Our other activities in Negombo included adopting a stray waif of a kitten, who lived under some bushes, buying milk and tinned fish from a store to feed her. We also encountered Julian the Lobster Man one morning, as we wandered into Negombo town. He said he was the chef at the hotel and was going to the market to buy some supplies. He promised to cook us wonderful meals that evening, and asked if we liked lobster. Being a vegetarian, my answer was no, but Chris expressed an interest, so Julian concentrated his efforts towards him. Once we arrived in town, having given Chris a deliciously detailed description of how his lobster would be served, Julian asked for Rs1600 upfront (almost a tenner) to buy said lobster. When we declined to hand over the lobster money, he asked instead if he could have some cash for a beer - err, no, I think not. Strangely, we never saw Julian again. . . .

Our next destination was Anuradhapura, one of Sri Lanka's ancient capitals. It is the site of a number of ruins, and as the Lonely Planet had mentioned it in the same sentence as Ankor Wat (Cambodia's crowning glory) I was very keen to go. We had planned to get the train there, but in the end we were persuaded to get an AC taxi. Whilst it was undoubtedly more comfortable than public transport would have been, we both agreed that the journey was somewhat dull, and vowed to travel by bus or train in future. We got dropped at the Milano Tourist Rest, a pretty place where the staff were super friendly, without being over the top. After settling in to our room we wandered along to nearby Nuwara Wewa for a spot of birdwatching. Many places in Sri Lanka have wewas, AKA tanks - these are basically reservoirs, some of which date bank centuries. We saw grey and purple heron, Asiatic open-bills and a variety of egrets, amongst other things. The hotel was a little out of the main town, so we ate at the hotel restaurant, to the sound of music which ranged from happy hardcore to the entire Greatest Hits album of Boney M - which was quite entertaining on the first night . . . less so by the third.

We'd arranged a vehicle to see the sites, so were ferried around and dropped off at various places. I have been rather spoilt in the past, having visited cultural delights including Ankor Wat, Bagan in Myanmar, Sukkothai in Thailand, Mayan ruins in Mexico and Guatemala and numerous archaeological wonders in the Middle East, so for me Anuradhapura’s offerings were rather disappointing. The Sacred Bodhi Tree was particularly unimpressive. It's the oldest authenticated tree in the world, and was grown from a cutting taken from the original tree that Shakyamani Buddha meditated under in Bodhgaya, northern India. If I remember correctly, the tree currently in Bodhgaya was in turn grown from a cutting from this Sri Lankan tree. I've visited Bodhgaya, and found it to be a moving place, with a distinctly spiritual feel to it. Wandering around the complex there was probably one of the most peaceful experiences I had in chaotic India - but that special something was lacking here.

We soon realised too that we'd made a mistake arranging transport around the ruins; we should instead have hired bicycles. I think a certain lethargy overcomes you when you're sitting relatively comfortably in between stops, sapping your enthusiasm to explore. The following day we visited nearby Mihintale, catching a local bus there and back and walking up several hundred steps to the hilltop where a number of Buddhist monuments are situated. The major sites in Sri Lanka aren't cheap to visit; either $25 for a day ticket, or $50 for a Round Ticket, which covers a number of cultural centres. We'd opted for the latter, and had a number of other places lined up to visit, but first it was time for a trip to the beach - yes, I know we'd just left one, but as an Island nation Sri Lanka has a lot of beaches, and it would be rude not to check them out.

The beach we were heading for was Uppaveli, just north of Trincomalee. It took around three hours to cover the 100km distance by local bus, in a journey that wasn't too uncomfortable. Until recently this area was a war zone, but since the conflict ended in May 2009 the region is safe to visit, and an up-and-coming tourist destination. The downside of this, from our selfish point of view, was that accommodation prices had risen steeply, but we found a basic room almost on the beach for Rs2,200. The beach was superb - soft white sand with hardly a soul on it. The sea was a little rough, with roaring waves crashing on the shore, but it is rainy season on that side of the island, so that was to be expected. Apparently from March to October the water is very calm. The day after we arrived the sun came out, treating us to some lovely beach weather, which was lucky.

Slightly burnt and nicely relaxed, we got the train inland to Polonnarwura, another old capital of Sri Lanka. On our arrival at the station we were accosted by Mr Bandula, who co-owns Manel Guesthouse, even meriting a mention in the Lonely Planet. Mr Bandula likes to organise, and before we new what was happening we had booked into his guesthouse, and were in a jeep on our way to Kaudulla National Park. We'd intended visiting the park, which forms an elephant corridor with Minneriya National Park. At the right time of year, up to 240 elephants can be seen here. The journey took around an hour in total, half on a tarmaced road, the other half on a bumpy unsealed road. At the entrance we picked up our tracker and headed into the park. As we emerged from the scrub and into the open grassland, we could see a large group of elephants in the distance. We drove to where eight or so other jeeps were parked, and watched the family of around forty elephants as they drank on the other side of a small river. It was a wonderful experience, and we were close enough to hear the sound of the grass being ripped from the ground by the massive mammals.

The family group contained mostly females and calves. Each bull elephant has a little harem of eight or so females, whom he visits every two months or so for a bit of romance, checking to see if any of the girls are up for it. Once impregnated the female gestates for 22 months, and it is then four years before she is ready to become pregnant again. The bull that this family belonged to was visiting at the time, and getting rather flirty with one of the females. As they entwined trunks, our tracker explained to us that you can tell male from female by the curve of their backs, the male being rounder, the female more boxy. The difference was quite subtle, and we found it much easier to spot the difference by looking at the rather large thing dangling between the bull’s legs. Because we had set off late - plus due to the day being overcast - the light wasn't great, but just before it went down the sun peeked out from beneath the clouds, giving us great light and a hint of a rainbow just behind the elephants - a real treat. On our way out of the park we added painted stork and spoonbills to our list of waders spotted in Sri Lanka, and also saw a couple of night jars who landed in front of the jeep, taking advantage of the warmth of the road.

The following day Mr Bandula first took us to a woodwork factory where they produce some lovely pieces and, more interesting to me, create natural colour. The man showing us around took a section of a particular type of wood, rubbed a file against it to produce some sawdust, which he tipped into a glass of warm water. The water turned a pretty pink, and then he squeezed a lemon into the pink liquid, changing the colour to a surprisingly bright yellow. Finally he added white chalk, and the water miraculously turned a dark red. By adding other ingredients in the correct order a wide range of vibrant colours are created. The chemical reactions really impressed me . . . although not enough to buy anything. Mr Bandula then took us back to the guesthouse to pick up our pushbikes, giving us directions to the ruins and telling us which ones we should visit first.

It was most peaceful cycling around the shady site, and the ruins here were more exciting than those at Anuradhapura. We saw some monkeys around the site; both langur and smaller macaques. For some strange reason, the monkeys in Sri Lanka have very odd hair dos. The langurs have pointy cone heads - which I've never seen on this species before - and the smaller ones look like they're wearing toupees. It's most bizarre. We also saw a snake more than five foot long by one of the ruins, along with a number of monitor lizards, mongeese and palm squirrels. All in all a jolly good day out, and we got back to the guesthouse five minutes before the rain started to pour, which was a bonus.

Chris was feeling a little poorly the next day, so I mopped up the remaining few ruins while he had a rest. We'd decided to do another safari that afternoon, as we'd seen so many elephants on the first. Also at this time of year, Kaudalla is the only National Park "in season" in Sri Lanka. We set off at one thirty, hoping for heaps of elephants and better light to photograph them by, and we weren't disappointed. We drove past the place we'd seen the large group on the previous visit, and found a different family grazing on the grass near the forest. There were around fifty in total, mostly mothers and adolescents, but also two older males that were having a bit of a scuffle, wrestling with their trunks. A short distance away three males stood companionably together munching on the grass. We got within twelve feet or so of the majestic creatures. It was a magical experience, and one of the best wildlife encounters I've had.

Mr Bandula had a friend who owned a guesthouse in our next destination of Sigria, and he insisted we go there, promising us the best view of Sigria Rock, a 300-odd metre high lump of rock which juts out of the surrounding countryside of paddy fields. We caught the bus there, and were met at Sigria Junction by a tuktuk, which transported us to Lakmini Guesthouse. The rooms were basic, but adequate, and the friendly owner eagerly showed us to his pride and joy - a small treehouse with table and chairs which did indeed have a spiffing view of the rock, plus bird-filled trees to entertain us. It did make the guesthouse quite special.

We'd planned to visit the Buddhist caves at nearby Dambulla, and decided to see them that afternoon, saving the steep ascent of the rock until early the following morning. Off we set in the owner's tuktuk, driven by his son. We were surprised on our arrival to find that the Cultural Round Ticket we'd purchased didn't cover the rock caves, as they are one of the cultural highlights on the island, but coughed up the Rs2,400 foreign tourist entry fee, grumbling about the injustice of it all as we climbed up to the caves. The statues of Buddha and painted walls inside the five or so caves were indeed impressive, and something a little different from what I've seen in the past in other countries. It's hard not to get the impression that you're being ripped off by the government in Sri Lanka though, with the steep entry fees on non-Asian tourists (Japanese, Thai and other Asian visitors get discounted rates, so it really is down to the colour of your skin here - something that would be unimaginable in Europe).

We ate that evening with the young German couple who we'd met at Polonnarwura; they'd also been sent to the guesthouse by Mr Bandula (in fact he'd been a little miffed that the four of us didn't all travel together on the same bus), and had been ordered to phone Mr Bandula on arrival, to confirm that they had arrived safely and were pleased with his recommendation. We'd been told to call him too, but hadn't bothered, so he'd phoned his friend in the evening to ensure we had stayed there. The following day began at seven o'clock with a short walk to the base of the rock. On the way we saw a working elephant sitting in the river being washed by his mahoot. The climb wasn't too tedious, beginning with a gentle ascent through a number of formal gardens before we got to steeper stone steps. Around halfway up were some frescos of apsanas, half-naked ladies emerging from clouds. The painted wall was protected by an overhang of rock, and had preserved its colours well. It was nice . . . although not as impressive as the Ajanta Caves in India (I'm just so spoilt!).

Near to the frescos is a wall dating back centuries, with some ancient graffiti scratched into, some of which is translated in the site's museum - it was most poetic, and shows that the standard of graffiti has gone downhill in the intervening years in a big way. The modern equivalent would no doubt be along the lines of "phwoarr, look at the tits on that" rather than the flowery phrasings that past visitors had used to extol the virtues of the figures. Continuing up we reached massive lion's paws, which are all that remain of a huge brick lion. Originally the steps would have led between the paws and up into the mouth of the lion; nowadays a metal staircase is used to reach the top. There are the ruined remains of buildings on the plateau of the rock, although it is unsure what sort of structure used to sit up there, whether the rock was home to a palace, fortress or monastery.

Sri Lanka's second-largest city (well, it's only real city other than Colombo, the capital) of Kandy was our next destination, and we set off the following morning after breakfast. We had to change buses in Dambulla, boarding an overcrowded bus where there was standing room only, and precious little of that. We perched our packs near the front, tying them in place to stop them going flying as the driver hurtled along at dangerous speeds. We stood alongside our bags, holding on tight as we tore around corners, and accelerated to over 100kmph then braked sharply as we came up behind slower vehicles, or someone flagged the bus down from the side of the road. Standing at the front was a two-edged sword: on the one hand I had enough of a view not to feel sick, and a decent breeze; on the other I realised I'd be first through the windscreen should we crash, or if I failed to keep a good grip on the handrail. I soon got into it though, listening to my ipod as I was jerked this way and that by the buses irregular movement, and remained standing even when seats were available; it was fun.

Our main reason for coming to Kandy is for me to visit the Indian Consulate, in the hope that I'll get a visa long enough for my intended stay in India before I return home. I need a little longer than three months, as the visa starts ticking down from the moment it is issued, but the chances are I'll get three months at most, maybe less. Technically I should wait another week to apply . . . but as it takes at least five days to get the visa this would mean a lot of time wasting, and possibly overstaying my Sri Lankan visa. Anyway, that delightful tangle of bureaucracy awaits me tomorrow. Today being Sunday, Chris and I went to visit the Botanical Gardens, which are one of the largest in the world. They were most pleasant . . . aside from the infestation of snogging teenagers. Behind many of the trees lurked young Sri Lankan couples, joined at the lips. A man on a bike with a loud whistle attempted to disperse them, but there were far too many for him to deal with. I've really never seen anything on that scale before, not even in the "permissive" West - it certainly wouldn't happen in India; there'd be a crowd of wanking men surrounding each snogging couple for starters!


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