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Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka : Colombo

Train journey to Colombo

semi-overcast 30 °C

An early departure (0720 train was 15 minutes late) and the Observation Car had seen a lot of wear and tear compared to the nicely upholstered 'Up Train' but there is ample leg room and I had a window seat. The seat next to me used as luggage storage by the couple behind (they had at ticket for the seat). Remind me not to travel on weekend trains while here .. this is family day and there were at least a dozen children in addition to the 40 adults in the carriage. Inevitable that at any given time one or more of these brats would be crying or attention seeking but there was one little 6 or 7 year old who shouted by the top of his lungs for at least 5 hours. I would have throttled him given half a chance. The pattern here is similar to that I have seen in Thailand .. poor people have lots of kids and keep them under control ; the middle class have just one or two and indulge them mercilessly.

I enjoyed the scenery even though I had just been through here a few days before ; in the first hour we passed through tunnels (there are 46 on the entire route) .. in which you left sunshine and came out of the tunnel into cloud and mist.

I arrive at Fort Station at 4pm,. collected the bag I'd left in storage there and made my way to the Galle Face Hotel.


This is a great old (1864) hotel with excellent style. My Deluxe Room turned out to be a large suite with sitting room, huge bedroom, walk-in dressing room and large toilet and bath. It has 12 foot ceilings and was at least three times the size of my former flat in Jenner House. The reason it was cheaper than next price level up was that I was on the corner next to road and had only a partial sea view, but for £37.50 a night (with huge breakfast buffet) this was steal.

Showered and ready to kill a few beers when I learned that this was a Poya (Full Moon) day and no alcohol was being served (not even in your room). This put me in a bad mood but a 2 hour walk soon exhausted me enough to get over it. Galle Road is a real non-even I am beginning to think that Colombo is really not much of a city and the big attraction would be staying in this hotel.


Hotel car (500 Rupees) to National Museum. I was not expecting much but this is really a great collection and in particular the labels and explanations are top class. .. must have been done by a native English speaker.

I found many explanations for things I had seen either here in Sri Lanka or in other Asian countries. (1) early Buddhists did not worship Buddha images .. their Dagobas (temples) had either Buddha footprints, an empty throne or a Bodhi Tree .. images came later with influences from India. (This may account for the fact that in general, Buddhist temples here do not have the clutter that is so common to temples in Thailand and Laos.

(2) Irrigation .. the early kings were keen on control and management of water resources, but it is Parakramabaha The Great (1153 – 1186) who is credited with this comment

'Let not a drop of water enter the sea without being used by man.'

He created the series of tanks which were later connected to form the huge reservoir at Polonnaruwa .. and had a 54 mile long canal built to feed the tanks. The tank in Polonnaruwa was built by Parakramabaha ; in 1938 the British repaired the bund and mechanised the sluice outlets.


Highlights of National Museum


Buddha figure at the entrance (large rather rough stone .. 10 or 12 feet high) - is really striking. It has an air of alert calm or awareness with calm .. It is 3rd to 5th Cent AD.

Things I learned from my visit to the National Museum:

(1) Lingam. This phallus type pole is associated with the Hindu god Siva. A lingam pole is set in a base with a square peg .. there are many examples in Cambodia where the base remains and the lingam has been destroyed or stolen,. I did not know that the base (called a Yoni) has either a trough and lip or concealed outlet so that the oil which is poured over the lignum can be collected and recycled.

(2) There is a system for sculptors making a Buddha image .. Navatala or Uttama Dasatala. The measurement between hairline and foot must be the same as from base to shoulder and from knee to knee, etc. That symmetry may be one explanation for why these images are so pleasing to the eye (pleasing to me that is)..

(3) Evolution of Sinhalese alphabet. I mentioned that the letters on an inscription at Mihintale looked a bit like Greek and the display in the museum confirmed that I was not all that far off. A table showed the evolution of letters from pre Christian era to the present alphabet. L becomes a curly backwards C, etc.

(4) Water filter. They devised a system for putting water in a sandstone vessel which was porous enough for the water to pass through it (7.5 litres in 24 hours) and provide purified water.

(5) Model of a Bisokotuwa. One of the high technical features of Sri Lankan water engineering is called the Bisokotuwa - there is a working model in the museum - . It is a combined cistern/sluice which allows large amounts of water to be drawn out of the reservoir without disturbing the bund. It is then released into channels for use of the people and for irrigation. It was thought to have been invented in the 4th Cent BC but certainly there is evidence that it was perfected by the 1st Cent AD … far in advance of any other known irrigation knowledge in the world at that time.

Sunday night

Dinner at German Restaurant across the street .. too much noise at hotel from wedding parties. I had Sri Lankan food .. king prawns in a hot sauce, tasty.

Monday 26 November

Breakfast buffet here is really good and the sea view simply adds that something special. Spent a long time on the computer bringing the journal up to date (I think). Organised my car to the airport for 11 pm .. 2400 Rs (12 Pounds) which seems reasonable for a posh car late in the evening.

Walked to Barefoot .. a shop with native fabrics and goodies that would have sent me on a buying spree in the old days. I didn't find anything I could live without and decided books were too heavy to lug .. so spent no money there.

Around noon I reached my goal : The Gallery .. Geoffrey Bawa's former office (his architectural practice). Surprisingly modest with clay tile roofs in a long narrow site. But as you proceed it becomes more interesting ; skillful use of ponds and plants increase the sense of space. The cafe was simply far too piss elegant for my taste, so I gave it a miss.

Luckily, the Cricket Club Cafe is just across the street and this was much more relaxed. Cricket memorabilia and a TV (luckily no sound) .. seems to be quite a complex and nice outdoor space would have suited me but there was a baby! Anyway, indoors was nice and lunch was a beer and excellent Thai chicken salad.

Back to the Galle Face for another beer and a nap .. then packing. Decided against dinner .. I had a huge breakfast and big enough lunch .. plus beer .. so I had more beer and cashews. Left the hotel at 11pm for my trip to airport ; the city was all closed up.


Seems my timing was very good .. the major “incident” while I was there was the Government killing (by bombing) the Number 2 in the Tamil Tigers. Just after I left, the Tamil Tigers responded with a suicide bomber in central Colombo (1 killed) and a bomb at a suburban shopping centre in which 19 were killed and 40 injured (as of 28 November).

Hired cars. It is not just the cost of the car and driver that gets to me. I realised that when you are alone, the driver feels the need to talk. Chris, the German agreed with me on this point ; he had a driver for his whole fortnight in the country. If there were more than one passenger it might be easier. But the big thing is that you are separated from the locals. A big part of the pleasure in the train journey was observing fellow passengers (even the wretched children). There was one sweet looking little car in as train going the opposite direction from us ; I would have traded the ones in my carriage for her.


Practical details

Grand Oriental Hotel

Hotel Suisse, Kandy

Tissawewa Resthouse, Anuradhapura

Polonnaruwa Rest House

Kandalama Hotel

Bandarawela Hotel

Galle Face Hotel, Colombo

Sit up and beg bicycles

Ficus Religiosa (Bodhi Tree)

Posted by MarshallC 12:18 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (0)

Sri Lanka : The Hill Country

A train journey to Bandarawela

sunny 30 °C

Next leg: car to Kandy to catch a train to Colombo. That could proven an adventure as they are not able to book the train ticket from here. I was ready to leave the Kandalama .. which is very nice but a bit too isolated ; it was beginning to feel like Detention in Luxury, but detention. When I went to check the Internet after breakfast I saw my driver friend Lucky (who took me from Kandy to Anuradhapura). We tried to work out a deal so he could take me to Kandy instead of the hotel appointed driver (the hotel could still pocket a fee) but they were not having any. The young driver who took me was a nice careful driver and the car was posh and cool, so it worked out.

Things went pear shaped when I got to Kandy.. no 1st or 2nd class tickets to Colombo ; they had been sold out for a week, this being a Sunday. Luckily, a driver on hand agree to take me for 6,000 Rupees (they driver from the hotel wanted 12,000 in addition to the money I'd already paid). This local driver, Shanta, proved to be a slight nut case. Driving was good, but he prattled on at length about religion and became a bit of a bore. Turns out he thought we were going to a hotel near the airport and he did not know where the Grand Oriental in central Colombo was ... but we finally got there.

The word Security takes on new meaning in central Colombo ; lots of streets totally closed off, frequent police and army check points. Grand Oriental is OK .. rooms small but clean and quiet. Sure it is quiet, you can't drive past this place and when I went out for a stroll at 6pm the streets were dead ..Los Angeles syndrome? The Harbour Room overlooks the harbour alright, but this is not Dubrovnik or even Dover ... container ships and cargo vessels.

The history of the hotel is interesting ; it was built in 1837 as a barracks for officers under reign of King William IV, so it is one of the oldest buildings in central Colombo.

Cheap and cheerful Sri Lanka dinner and an early evening .. I was exhausted since the driving here is hectic and nerve wracking. Really beginning to get to me, the difficulty of travel in this country. A good breakfast got me off to a good start so even the harbour looked a bit more interesting today. Big signs all around the restaurant .. no photography. They are really security conscious here.

Real hassle to walk around this area because of road blocks but I got to the Railway Station and managed to get tickets to Bandarawela. This was a relief because I was getting so tired of this $60 to $80 a trip for a hired car. If I could not go by train I was just going to cancel the trip and stay here in Colombo until my flight back to England. Train reservations are recorded in longhand in large ledgers (no computers here), but at 580 Rupees each way First Class (that is £2.55 or $5.25 ) it was worth any hassle of finding out how and where to get a ticket. I walked out to the Galle Face Hotel for lunch.. very posh indeed and promenade leading to hotel (right along Indian Ocean) is great for walking.

Mad old Victorian department stores --- Millers and Cargills just along from the hotel and also a Government Handicraft Shop, so I added a little bit to the local economy. The Grand Oriental was OK, but the security hassle around there is tiresome (although it may be necessary Note; subsequent events proved it is necessary and perhaps inadequate) One time I was within 100 yards of the hotel but the police would not allow me to walk across an empty street (blocked to traffic) so I had to retrace my steps and walk an additional 3 blocks (crossing the major road twice). Not amused.

Today’s newspaper reports that a major national park in the southeast of the country (Yala National Park) was closed following Tamil Tigers attacks. First they killed 6 government troops when they overran a military camp and stole weapons. They then killed several local farm workers. This area was frequented by tourists because of wildlife, so this is not good news for the tourist industry.

Tuesday 29 November
0930 train ( a decent hour). There was no help forthcoming from railway staff and my self appointed 'helper' was not satisfied with 100 Rupees and started in the story of his sick mother, etc. etc. I gave him 200 Rupees. I now know the system - located the departure board within the station which gives Platform destination information in English as well as Sinhalese.

Rail journey to Bandarawela is 192 kms (119 miles) and the train goes from sea level to a Summit peak of 6226 feet near Pattippok. Bandarawela is 1230 Metres (4036 feet). Because of the gradient, the sinuous route up and through the mountains and the poor state of the track and equipment, the journey takes 8 hours, but the scenery is beautiful and I had a comfortable seat with good view. Weird though, because the Observation Car is at the rear of train and seats point backward .. so you see what you might have photographed if you were looking the other way and had adequate notice. Lots of mountains (distinctive profiles of Bible Rock and Adam's Peak in the distance) as the train moved through rice paddies, then jungle, next tea plantations and finally cloud forest as we got near Bandarawela

The whole Hill country area proved to be more dramatic and beautiful than I expected. Tea is grown in at least three settings .. traditional terraces with highly uniform rows which look like a maze from a distance as they wrap around hills ; some lower level beds cut into chevron shapes and finally, random plants interspersed with trees. In addition to irrigation channels there are small streams coming down from the mountains, often over smooth rock with small waterfalls - this is a striking place.

The sight I enjoyed the most was the tulip tree in the midst of tea plants .. this is the African tree which grows to great heights here. Its hot orange red flowers stand out against the dark green tea plants ; hard to photograph from moving train.

After Haputale, the train leaves the tea area and goes up a mountain ridge to the cloud forest before dropping down into the valley at Bandarawela.

Bandarawela Hotel is a real throw back to colonial times. It was founded in 1893 as a club for plantation owners. In 1938 there was a refurbishment and extension of the place to its present size of 32 rooms. It is essentially this 1938 look and feel that you see today. Beds are steel framed (adjustable like a hospital bed) ; lighting and baths all old style. Everything gleams .. a buffer is used on the lino floors so the whole place shines. Perhaps the best feature is that the service is efficient but relaxed .. this is not a cloying atmosphere .. it's almost as if they do not know that it is 2007 out there somewhere.

The Bandarawela Hotel is owned by Miller & Co, the same company with the huge (now in a sorry state) department store in Colombo, just along from the Grand Oriental Hotel. It had a European Only policy until Sri Lankan independence in 1948. While I was there the clientele seemed to be 50/50 Sri Lankans / foreigners.

I loved the food ; the set menu (960 Rupees £4.25 or $8.70) was Western food but their chef is excellent and the 4 course meal was in sensible portions and Australian Shiraz reasonable at 1900 Rupees a bottle (£8.40 or $17.20).

I like the fact that the hotel is secluded with a nice garden and restricted views of surrounding hills. but you are not stranded. The hotel is up a short hill from the main street of the town. In fact, the Post Office and small supermarket are right at the entrance road to the hotel.

I walked around town and was surprised to find it is all business serving the local farmer plantation community. No souvenir shops, no travel agents (that I could see) no touts (hurrah!). The Internet shop was in the tiny corner of a barber shop ; cramped but connection good enough.

From the hotel's book

' Bandarawela's streets are not thronged with tourists, either domestic or foreign. It is an unhurried, unpretentious place ; an upcoutry town that exists to supply the needs of plantation worker, farmers and the hard working inhabitants. It cares not a fig for tourists and no touts pester visitors as they do in Nurwara Ella.'

I had plans to travel about but this is such a relaxing place that I decided to do just one excursion .. Hakgala Botanic Gardens, 27 kms away. Car and driver 3500 Rupees ( £16 Pounds). Weather good when we set out ; driver Nistanti was careful but English poor and he would not just shut up and drive. Hardly any straight road for 27 kms as we passed through vegetable growing country (leeks, potatoes and strawberries all figure large in the local economy). The field patterns are far more erratic than in the tea plantations and this gives the hills a patchwork look which is pleasant. The small towns had no tourist facilities ; there was the occasional isolated guest house or sign for Rooms. This is not particularly a tourist zone.

The Hakgala Botanic Gardens are built on the lower slope of a mountain dominated by a huge rock. They were established in 1861 to cultivate Cinchona, the tree from which the anti malarial drug quinine is derived.

The rock rises 1500 feet above the gardens and I was disappointed that there was a fence along the top side of the park which prevents you from getting up the mountain for good views of either the rock or surrounding hills. The lower portion of the gardens is a the traditional affair with flower beds, rock garden a 'Japanese Garden’ (don't get me started!!). The real delight of the place is in following the trails which weave their way up the hillside through magnificent trees. in a landscape strewn with lichen covered huge boulders. It really feels like a natural forest through which paths have been cut, but that illusion ends when you get to the top fence and see the dense jungle on the other side which is the true state of affairs.


This is what I would consider a cloud forest .. clouds hover around the peaks above and occasionally drop down bringing mist and moisture. There as actually rain for a short period but I was lucky .. 5 minutes out of a 2 hour visit was good going.

Back to the hotel for lunch by 2pm. Clearly my taking this journey was considered an extravagance by the hotel staff and all enquired with great interest about my journey. Most people staying here have their own guide and or driver and stay just one night, so having a guest stay 4 nights and use the hotel car was a bit unusual.

This trip made me realise that this is a dangerous country as far as driving and made me have second thoughts about organising trips with drivers I meet on the street (such as Vicky .. the Polonnauruwa to Kandalama driver). You pay more when using a hotel car but in the event of breakdown or mishap, at least you have some type of recourse. Oh dear, I think I am really getting cautious in my old age.

If the Tamil Tigers do not get you, the mosquitoes will. I read in today's newspaper that Anuradhapura had an outbreak of Dengue Fever. Must admit that I fear this more than malaria That may not be medically sound, but I met a Swiss doctor in Costa Rica who got Dengue Fever from a beach near the jungle in Manual Antonio and the symptoms and resulting debilitation sounded dreadful You have severe joint pain and become delirious (although telling if I am delirious might not be an easy task).

On reflection, I was probably in equal danger from mosquitoes when in Chicago during their West Nile Fever outbreak in 2006 .. odd how being in the Third World heightens my sense of anxiety.

[West Nile Fever in Chicago (Cook County) ; 215 cases and 10 deaths.]


Holiday reading was Allan Gurganus’s Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All and George Eliot's Middlemarch. The former is an astonishing first novel .. sort of Gone with the Wind as told by a hillbilly ;.the latter is certainly a novel that stands up to re-reading - significant ideas about human nature and society which are elegantly expressed.

Friday Thanksgiving Day plus 1
In the hotel bar I met Chris, a 30s something German now living in Switzerland, on his first trip to Asia ; we then ate dinner together. He is an IT wizard (made some serious money during dot.com era and now operates a small business while he travels with a laptop. He is an old hand at travel in Central America and Mexico and confirmed that Guatemala is now a dangerous place for travel .. the drug scene there means that they will rob or kidnap quite ordinary tourists in hopes of a few hundred dollars.

He was an odd person .. scruffy looking hippy type but with an uptight attitude. He seemed to worry about everything .. cleanliness (though you would never suspect it by looking at his clothes) ; pollution of sea - hence not eating fish or prawns - but our conversation was good and we shared a lot of our mutual doubts about America's role in the current world.


Posted by MarshallC 12:15 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (0)

Sri Lanka : Negombo and Kandy

sunny 30 °C


Sri Lanka is an island in the Indian Ocean, just off the southeast tip of India; is about the size of Ireland (or West Virginia if that is a better reference). My sources in the CIA tell me:

“The Sinhalese arrived in Sri Lanka late in the 6th century B.C. probably from northern India. Buddhism was introduced beginning in about the mid-third century B.C., and a great civilization developed at the cities of Anuradhapura (kingdom from circa 200 B.C. to circa A.D. 1000) and Polonnaruwa (from about 1070 to 1200). In the 14th century, a south Indian dynasty seized power in the north and established a Tamil kingdom. Occupied by the Portuguese in the 16th century and by the Dutch in the 17th century, the island was ceded to the British in 1796, became a crown colony in 1802, and was united under British rule by 1815. As Ceylon, it became independent in 1948; its name was changed to Sri Lanka in 1972. Tensions between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil separatists erupted into war in 1983. Tens of thousands have died in the ethnic conflict that continues to fester. After two decades of fighting, the government and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) formalized a cease-fire in February 2002 with Norway brokering peace negotiations. Violence between the LTTE and government forces intensified in 2006, but neither side has formally withdrawn from the cease-fire.”


Long check queue at Heathrow and Sri Lankan air staff said flight was full so I was expecting the worst. It was very full so I was very lucky to get two seats (one window/one aisle) to myself and could relax a bit on the 10 hour flight to the Maldives. (chain of islands an hour’s flight from Sri Lanka) Weird looking place .. flat featureless islands in amazing coral sea. Sea loves lovely but not a tree in sight. Glad I am not getting off there!

Wednesday 31 October
I walked a long way into town and’ fell in with' a young man who showed me around the market .. including his sister's spice stall. (with hindsight, they were not related at all) They were grinding spices in industrial quantities but also selling small amounts. Fresh cardaman irresistible .. 50 pence for 100 grams .. should last an age. We went to his house for coffee .. then it turns out he drives a tuk tuk and wants to take me to the fish market, etc. Unusually for me, I just gave in and we toured around for an hour before he dropped me back near the guest house (I never say exactly where I am staying so this characters won't hover around the place). It was interesting .. this is a huge centre for fishing .

Walked in the direction away from town and met a fisherman who did prawn fishing in a catamaran .. it looks small and fragile and appears very dangerous in such rough water. He said he was the last in the line .. his brother had given it up and his children were in school and did not want to fish for a living. he and his family live right at the beach and their house was hit with 5 feet of water during the tsunami but no one in Negombo killed. He took me to his house, met his sister who was grinding fresh mustard ; the stone and pestle she was using looked like something out of a Mayan painting. We had tea and chatted...nice friendly people and I felt a bit bad about being so suspicious.

En route to Kandy
It is a little over 100 kms (70 miles) from Negombo to Kandy. I hired a car to take me since going into Colombo to catch a train seemed like too much hassle (I have more luggage than normal because it might be cold in Kandy and will certainly be cold in the Hill country south of Colombo). Rather wild ride .. dodging bicycles, 3 wheelers, buses and competing with other taxis for space. The driving was hectic but not really dangerous. We stopped at an old tea factory which had been converted to a café. I loved the names , Thirst Aid Station, (tea and soft drinks only .. didn't quench my thirst).

When the driver said 'Spice Garden" I thought of a garden would make a nice break and was interested. There was a small garden but mostly this is a con .. they are selling herbal remedies of their Ayurveda Medicine and massage business. The guide had the bearing of a military man and after about 20 minutes of him giving me orders to pay attention and an unwanted head massage by a young Sri Lankan guy, I said Enough. I went quickly through the shop (thinking I would buy something just as a souvenir) but when he said a bottle of sandalwood was over $50 I called a halt to proceedings. Amasing that other people were buying things like they were going out of style.
Medicine Man meets Cynic .. Cynic wins.

Kandy’s Hotel Suisse a very grand old place with large public areas, a swimming pool and some nice gardens. It was Lord Mountbatten’s headquarters during World War II. Dinner very boring .. no Sri Lankan food .. strictly European and rather .. well, Swiss. I did enjoy it when a large Sri Lankan group stayed there because local food was featured in the buffet. Normally I would have gone out to find a restaurant but the monsoon rains which started around 4pm went on for hours and I was trapped.

Touts are a real problem here. A 10 minute walk from the hotel into the city centre meant fending off at least 10 people trying to sell something (or beg or hustle) ; the problem is that they approach you in a friendly manner enquiring where you are from, and try to engage in conversation to soften you up for the pitch. 10 of such approaches can take up an hour and become tedious. By the end of the holiday I simply told them NO at first approach. I hope I did not offend a Sri Lankan who was genuinely trying to be friendly. When I did meet locals who were genuine, there was usually a situation or event which sparked the conversation (on the train, for example), so I hope I got it right.

One tout sidled up and said he was a cook in my hotel, wanted to practise his English .. he was going to the market to buy spices for tomorrow's meal .. did I want to come along. By this time I was getting tired of him and suspicious .. so the following conversation

me: Which hotel do you work in?
he: Your hotel.
me: But I was in two hotels today .. which one do you work in?

At that point he vanished. I'd caught him out. It really is wearing but I have a new response. I put my fingers to my ears like the Hear No Evil monkey and that seems to work.

Peradeniya Botanical Gardens are about 6 miles outside Kandy. A large site (60 hectares / 47 acres) built in loop of a large river, the gardens were designed by the British on a site which was once a royal palace and garden.


This is one of the best gardens I have seen .. the layout is superb ; open spaces are interspersed with dense gardens such as the Fern Garden .. a few plant houses including an orchid house, bamboo groves .. much to see and enjoy. The highlight has to be the Java Fig Tree in the Great Lawn. It is a huge spreading tree (2500 square feet) which is over 100 years old and seems to be in excellent health. Up close, the leaves are small .. much like the ficus we have as a house plant .. but the scale and beauty of this tree is astounding.

It is good to see so many flowers and flowering trees which we normally have in a hothouse, growing in natural conditions. And of course with at least 2 hours of rain per day and temperatures of 86 degrees, this is a hothouse climate.

I have to have my rant :

• The Water Garden .. covered in a old fashioned steel cage which you often saw in old style zoos .. pathetic.

• The Japanese Garden.. the directors of this botanical garden should be sued for using the name. This is a mess and doesn't even hold its own as a garden, let alone this moniker.

Kandy’s main attraction is the Temple of the Tooth. It houses a Buddha relic which ended up here after being in several temples in the country. This is a large complex right in the city centre ; security is tight and there are lots of devotees in the temple and its associated grounds. I ignored several guides near the ticket booth and security point but the one near the actual entrance to the temple had a badge and appeared official. Just as well that I linked up with him ; this is a large complex and he took me to areas that I might not have noticed on my own (in some cases it was not obvious that they were open to the public). The monks in the place seem to be bored by the whole thing .. the devotees seem genuine enough but I didn't think the place had much of a holy vibe to it.


Posted by MarshallC 12:12 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (0)

Sri Lanka : The Cultural Triangle

The ancient cities : Anuradhapura, Pollonaurwa and the religious sites - Matale, Mihintale,Sigiriya, Dambulla

semi-overcast 30 °C

Thursday 8 November

Anuradhapura is a long way from anywhere! The Tissewewa Resthouse is a delightful old colonial pile with large verandahs, ceiling fans ... and mosquitoes .. by the hundred. The landscaped grounds are huge and has groups of two types of monkeys. Rain seems to come regularly as clockwork (as it did in Kandy ..) late afternoon and early evening. There was one really spectacular downpour with thunder for over an hour here. This hotel is far more unspoilt than I expected .. the pictures on the Website make it seem a bit upmarket. Real lack of customers.. apparently the recent attacks have resulted in many cancellations and tour guides are giving the area a miss..

I decided on the spur of the moment to rent a bicycle instead of using a driver and am really glad that I did (once I got my cycle skills back .. they say you never forget how to ride a bicycle but it took 20 minutes or so to get comfortable). Anuradhapura is a big site and there is almost no traffic in these parts, so cycling felt safe, This was an old style sit up and beg bicycle (see below under Practical Details if you don’t know this phrase) .. with no gears but it went quite fast enough for me, thank you very much.

The Archaeology Museum had many interesting objects in a rather decaying building much in need of a clean and brush up. The 'keepers' lounged around gossiping .. must be a cushy job. In one area which was being refurbished (major construction works) the exhibits seemed to be dumped in a pile .. (no other word for it). I suspect security is non-existent here. The grounds were very well maintained and the best objects there were the sanitary goods .. urinals, bidets from, monasteries. This country had advanced drainage, sanitation and irrigation from as early as 1 Cent BC. I was also impressed at the clay roofing tiles from 5th Cent BC which were nailed to a wooden frame in the same way as our modern ones.


One interesting aspect of the temples in Anuradhapura is that many are in active use and therefore it is not purely a tourist scene. In fact, I learned that this is a major city for religion at 4:30 am when the drums started and chanting came from the nearby monastery of over 100 monks. At first it was disturbing but by the end of third night I found it relaxing and it set me off to sleep again (not their intention, I am sure). I visited Ruvanvelisays Dagoba; Thuparama Dagoba and the Abhayagiri Museum ) donated by the Chinese Government in 1997 - who would have thought the Chinese would support religion? - to commemorate Chinese + Sri Lanka ties and to celebrate the visit in 524 AD of the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Fa Hein who reported about life in Sri Lanka at that time.

Abhayagiri Monastery was a very important place. Its active period was 1st Century to 1100 Cent AD. At its peak (probably 8th Century) over 5000 monks were here. The Dagoba itself has eroded over the years and was covered in scaffolding and is undergoing restoration ; what I found far more interesting was the adjacent archaeological site (of no interest to visiting Sri Lankans : I was they only person there, two days running). Not much left in the way of buildings. but the UNESCO Fund has landscaped the whole place and rebuilt the walls to a few feet so you can see the outline of buildings. The tanks were built in stone and therefore survived and one (the Elephant Tank) is huge and impressive. The important thing is that these tanks were all part of the bigger irrigation system which linked reservoirs to tanks, rice fields and ponds. This is a lovely peaceful setting with birds, butterflies and monkeys.

A special feature in the Refectory was a huge (19 metres / 62 feet long ) stone container resembling a canoe which held rice (and a smaller 4 metre one nearby which held curry). This is where the monks came for their twice a day meals (last meal at noon). Subsequently a guide told me that the stone canoes held hot water in them and above that was a copper lining where the food was placed (makes sense).


Lots of monkeys around and unlike my experiences in Thailand (where they can be aggressive) they seemed to go for peaceful co-existence.. I suspect that the free handouts in Thailand made the monkeys both dependent and bold. there are three types of monkeys in Sri Lanka : Common macaque, purple faced langur and the common langur. I preferred the latter .. rather shy and extremely acrobatic.

Big night at the Resthouse ... just as I am finishing dinner 8 men arrive .. turned out to be two VIPS, two drivers and 4 bodyguards. Somehow this does not fill me with delight. I had to ward off images of Tamil Tiger attack on the place.. luckily they were downstairs in the posh rooms so unless some one dropped a bomb on the whole Resthouse, I might be overlooked in any affray. The bodyguards were certainly nervous when I came into breakfast the next morning. I was glad to see the last of them .. they travelled in two 4 Wheel drives with blacked out windows.

This place is certainly remote .. very convenient for the ruins, but as they are on sacred ground, no alcohol served .. no bar .. and no nearby shops. I cycle into town to find an Internet connection .. and that is really an equally underwhelming place. Went to four places that had signs for the Internet, only to be told in each place that they had No Connection. Finally a local guy who saw me walking up and down (I'd parked the bicycle on the edge of town .. too daunting a task to deal with heavy traffic).. asked what I wanted. He took me to a place that had said no 20 minutes before .. and I got a connection. Few people here speak English (so many people in hotels speak it that it is easy to assume everyone does) .. perhaps they just couldn't be bothered. They certainly do not seem to be a particularly commercial or resourceful people (like the Thais or Cambodians, for example).

Cycled back by a different route to miss heavy traffic and two nasty dogs (the only ones I encountered). Isurumuniya Dagoba is part of a large complex dating to 3rd Cent BC. It has three unusual sculptures (unusual because they are not religious), so perhaps the site even predates the arrival of Buddhism in 2nd Cent BC. The
Lovers .. thought to be a king and his lower caste girlfriend (2) elephants carved into the rock of the tank at this site and (3) a warrior and the head of his horse .. quite a striking sculpture carved into the rock above the tank. There is a small archaeological museum (housing The Lovers). Stairs go to the top of a rock overlooking the surrounding area .. these stairs lead under a huge rock that seems very close to falling .. quite stomach churning when I really stopped and looked at it. Local people have placed twigs on one side of it to measure any movement (primitive seismic detectors). This is another place that is exhausting because you have to leave shoes and hat at the entrance ; walk barefoot across hot stone with the sun beating down.

After lunch one of the nice ladies working at the Resthouse showed me through her back garden to a short cut that went to a park which was once the Royal Pleasure Gardens. This is just behind the bund of the reservoir and there are tanks and irrigation channels fed by the lake. It has mature trees, two charming small tanks ; it was built by the 6th Cent AD royal family. the tanks are built below large rocks which provide a great backdrop and which may have had pavilions on them in ancient times. On the short walk back many people were bathing in the channel which flows out of the lake. three young boys insisted on having their picture taken .. then wanted 50 Rupees each for the privilege ; they picked the wrong Old Grouch. Seeing this garden is another benefit of staying at the Resthouse .. I doubt that I would have found it otherwise (it is marked on the map but there is no sign from the main road).

The gardens are below the bund of the gigantic Tissawewa reservoir which is fed by Jaya Ganga canal. Built in the 5th Cent AD, this work of ancient Sri Lankan is considered as engineering wonder in irrigation. This stream is 54 miles long and constructed to supply water from Kalawewa to Tissawewa in Anuradhapura. Even Nowadays irrigation engineers wonder how the engineers of that era could manage to keep the slope of first 17 miles (27 km) so precise - at 6cm per 1.6km ( 2.5 inches per
1 mile).


On my last day in Anuradhapura I cycled to see the Sacred Tree, There was a bonus on the walk towards the site there is an ancient (77 - 89 BC) Dagoba Dakkhin Dagoba. the top is gone but the outline is beautiful and a herd of goats roaming well up the side of it added a special touch.

Security is tight at the Sacred Tree .. one general police check and then two intensive bag and body searches before you enter the grounds. This tree is over 2200 years old (oldest historical tree in the world says the guidebook). It is from a cutting of the Bodhi Tree in India under which Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment around 400 BC. This is a highly sacred site for Buddhists and during full moon festivals in June over 1 million people visit it ; there were no other tourists in sight when I visited. I was expecting some gnarled old fragment of a tree (something like the 1000 year old olive tree in Palma) but this is a huge vigorous tree, an extremely healthy specimen. It sits up on a platform and is surrounded by golden railings ; there are several other trees nearby said to be off shoots of this original one. Photographs are not allowed while on the platform, so I didn't get a very good photo but I will certainly remember it .. the leaves shimmer in the sun and for a tree lover like me, this was quite an experience. The botanical name is Ficus Religiosa.

Next stop was the Jetavana Museum where I had a bit of a hassle over my ticket. I thought the round ticket ($40 to visit several sites) was valid at all sites for 13 days but in reality it is only valid one day at each site .. they wanted me to pay another $20 for the day. I objected and won and will write to the Cultural Fund who administer these sites .. $20 a day seems excessive when you have already paid $40. it would seem to encourage the whole scene of people batting around in mini-vans spending 10 minutes at each site and also work against the interests of the local hotels. The most interesting thing in the museum (for me) were the large (nearly 3 feet in diameter and 2 foot high) backed clay rings used to line wells back in the 3rd Cent BC.

Jetavara Dagoba was built in the 3rd Cent BC and the only taller structures at the time were the Pyramids of Egypt. The top has eroded but the main structure is intact and impressive. There was a monastery for 3000 monks .. and one tank is in excellent condition.

My next stop (making good on some things I missed on Day 1) were the Twin Ponds at Abhayagiri .. brackish water but beautiful stone linings to tanks which were carved out of stone and therefore said to be very cool. An elaborate system of inlets and beds filtered the water before it entered the tank and was said to be pure enough to drink. Final stop in this complex was the Moonstone ; said to one of the finest in Sri Lanka , symbolising Heaven and Earth,. etc. These stones are half moon shapes placed at the bottom of a set of stairs and said to bring good luck when you step on them. (By the way, because of their texture, they also act as doormats)

I got back to the Resthouse just before a torrential downpour with lightning but by that time I was suffering from Dagoba Fatigue so it was nice to prop my feet up and watch the rain (no beer alas, as no alcohol served in this sacred area).

When will I learn that Coca Cola is a stimulant (caffeine is the problem). I had a Coke with the last of my coconut rum (Arrack) and had a restless night. I must have slept but it did not seem like it. Maybe there was something in the air because the monks overslept as well and did not start their chanting until nearly 5am (usually you could set your watch .. 04:30 precisely). Possibly to make up for being late they turned up the volume .. really loud!

Nice leave taking .. the Resthouse is a good spot and the staff are nice, but sometimes just a bit too quiet. I don’t feel the need to talk to other people but being the only person in a hotel is slightly un-nerving (why?). Also .. the mosquitoes here are a real problem.

Short drive to Mihintale. This site was not part of my plans but the book on Anuradhapura insisted that it was critical for an understanding of Sri Lankan Buddhism. The story is that Mihin, the son of an Indian king, was in Sri Lanka trying to convert people to Buddhism (from Jainism and Hinduism). By coincidence he met the king on this spot and converted him .. naturally the rest of the people followed the king’s recommendation. This was in 247 BC. Buddhism later died out (or at least died down) in India and Sri Lanka became the de facto centre for Buddhism and the place from which it spread to Thailand and other parts of Asia.


There are caves dating back to 250 BC and inscriptions in Brahmin, Pali and other languages in use before Sinhalese was invented. Some of those early letters look at bit like Greek letters (possibly the Brahmin). Most buildings on this site dates from the 10th Cent AD and there are a couple of ghastly additions from the past 50 years.

The Cobra Pond gets its name because the rock into which it was built hangs over the pond like a cobra hood. This pond fed both the Alms House (there was an large monastic community here in addition to solitary monks meditating in the caves) and a shower for monks .. down the hill from the Cobra Pond. Even today the water is clean and pure ; the pond is fed by springs from the rock and rainwater running down the rock face.

Part of the sculpture here is not religious (the lion that forms the shower (you put your hands on its paws and that centres you for the flow of water), so this was probably an important place before Mihin arrived.

My driver had paired me up with a local guide (I normally resist that sort of thing, but time was of the essence). This man really knew the spot, was low key and informative. Two Western monks (one American) were touring the site using a book and notes but they missed several spots and he was able to help them.

The guide introduced me to the fat cat who is the head of this monastery .. he spoke good English and said they had a temple in Chiswick and mentioned others in Wimbledon and Croydon. Sorry but I cannot help but thinking that for many of these religious types, this is a business. He seemed a classic case ; I wouldn’t trust him for a minute.

Much to my surprise, we got right to the top of the rock at Mihintale .. the site of Mahoney Dagoba which houses Mihin's relics. the building up there are just 'OK' but the view very impressive indeed. The guide pointed out the boundary line between us and the Tamil Tigers in the north ; it had good views of Anuradhapura (7 miles away) and various reservoirs, forests and mountains.

One interesting thing the guide showed me .. there was a Bodhi tree in the centre of the compound and he took a dead leaf from the ground, folded it in half and there is the outline for the Dagoba (or pagoda or stupa ..). I kept the leaf for my Faith Trash collection.

I gave the guide 1000 rupees ($10) and he asked if I had the money in US Dollars. He is the bread winner for his family (parents are farmers ; he is oldest son) He travels to Colombo because he is trying to pass exams in German and French to become an accredited guide (he told me this earlier and was able to speak quite a bit of German). I suspect that Rupees go into the family kitty and he can save the US Dollars for his own use. (I hated to tell him that the outlook for the Dollar was bleak and he shouldn't hold on to it for too long).

The road from Mihintale to Polonnaruwa was rough, very rough. It is being expanded and improved but for long stretches we were on dusty unmade road with construction equipment all around. I fend off the offers to visit spice gardens, furniture factories, batik shops and elephant rides. When we saw some elephants in a stream we stopped and I got out to take pictures .. people appeared from no where and then demanded money for my taking photos. I chose the oldest (and toughest of the lot) gave him 200 Rupees and told him to sort them out.

We stopped at a posh hotel - the Cinnamon Village - in Habarana.. There appears to be nothing in this town and it seems to be a centre for elephant rides. There is a national forest nearby so the signs for safari might be genuine. It is of note because it is on the railway line to Colombo ; otherwise nothing there. An attractive 'troop' of monkeys amused me while the guide was doing some business in the hotel.

We came through Giritale on our way .. sited on a large lake but otherwise not much there. This is the place offered by AsiaRooms and other travel agents under the heading Polonnaruwa. That’s wrong ; it is 10 miles from the archaeological ruins (on bad roads). Am certainly glad I did not stay there.

Polonnaruwa Resthouse (PRH) was in the best possible location. Right on the lake .. the dining room juts out over the lake .. small (only 10 rooms) ; much of their business involves doing lunch buffets for tour groups. The ruins are literally out the front door. The Old Town nearby has a few shops .. a slow Internet connection - no booze shops - and a Post office.. The market was for locals and busy.

The lake (more like an inland sea ; it is 5600 acres was the work of King Parakrambahu the great (1164-1196 AD) ; he great built or restored 165 dams, 3910 canals, 163 major reservoirs and 2376 minor tanks. During his reign of 33 years Lanka became "The granary of the orient" achieving the zenith of development in irrigation and agriculture of the Sinhalese civilization. He restored three great dagobas at Anurdahpura yet reserved his greatest efforts on a building spree on his capital, Polonnaruwa erecting huge buildings, planning beautiful parks. Parakrama Samudraya (Sea of Parakrama) is his crowning achievement.; probably built as a series of tanks unlike the present huge reservoir which was repaired and restored in 1930s by the British. It is fed by a 40 km ( 26 mile) canal.

Warm greeting from the Manager of PRH : I spoke to him from Kandy when booking the place. That was a stroke of good luck .. I was going to find a place on arrival in Polonnaruwa but the bar man at Hotel Suisse told me PRH was part of the Ceylon Hotel Corp group, and was a good place which was well run. (TripAdvisor website gave it bad reviews .. more on that in due course). The rate was $50 a night half board (Breakfast and dinner), air con room was clean and spacious. In fact dinner proved to be an ordinary affair (Western menu) until I twigged and asked for Rice and Curry and got the same food as the staff.. excellent veg curries.

A young man came up to me during my sunset beer and started promoting his services as a driver .. he was part of the hotel staff. I was going along with this until he told me to beware of the bad boys in the town who would cheat me. Those were words he should not have spoken but sure enough I enquired and found I could make the next leg of the journey for less than half of his quote. He pestered me several times about it until I gave him a firm NO.

The manager pointed out elephants on the other side of the lake but as it was over a mile away I couldn’t see them (my photo shows some big brown spots so I guess he was right. Sunsets over the lake a treat (and different each evening) but the real highlight was shortly after the sun went down .. hundreds (seemed like thousands but I am certain there were a few hundred) of very large bats flew over the Resthouse en route to .. who knows where? I tried without success to get photos .. they are so fast. At least I know what that dark spot in the sky is.


This really is a humid country, I noticed this morning that the vitamin pills in my pill box had soaked up so much moisture that they crumbled ; I don’t recall that happening in any other SE Asian country.


Wednesday 14 November
Long (long!) walk from PRH through adjacent ruins, across main road to the important ruins which make up the ancient city of Polonnaruwa (8th to 12th Cent AD) ; it became the capital when Anuradhapura was abandoned after several attacks by Indian forces in the 7th Cent. While there are more structures here (or at least big portions of them) it does not have the same impact because it seems more like a tourist destination ; Anuradhapura feels quite unspoilt and because it covers much bigger area, never feels crowded.

Noisy evening at PRH .. when I heard bangs at 10 pm I wondered if there was some 'local difficulty', It turns out the staff were having a party to celebrate (if that is the right word) the leaving do for several long term employees. Ceylon Hotel Corp is apparently buying many of the hotels (currently government owned but CHG managed), moving them into the private sector and 'offering' retirement packages to the older employees (sound familiar?). One man told me he had been there over 25 years and at age 53 his future was uncertain.

The current manager told me that he had only been there 4 months - he is ex military - and his own future not too certain. So I hesitate to recommend this place until the dust settles .. though the location will not change and that is fantastic. It seems that Tripadvisor’s poor reviews of this place date back to the ‘old management’ ; I certainly found the place clean and staff (except for the pushy driver) pleasant and helpful.


I had organised my trip with a local driver, Vicky, and it turns out that he has a driver .. how's that for posh? The three of us set out in a van which has seen better days (but I am still glad I am not using the hotel’s driver who resembled a nightclub bouncer the more that I looked at him ; would hate the idea of spending a half day with that one). We went back on the same rough road that I came into Polonnaruwa on, but were lucky and did not have as many delays. the driver was a very good one and narrowly avoided a collision when some stupid man pulled right into our lane (he was going the wrong direction) in a tuk tuk with 4 small kids in it. We had to brake quickly as there was a bus in the other lane and we had no place to go. We all had a go at the tuk tuk driver who seemed oblivious.


We got to Sigiriya at 9:15 and spent a hour and a half there .. getting up as far as the cave paintings (halfway to the top) I'd seen picture of the steps which go to the top and that journey was right out of the question as far as I was concerned. There are interesting water and rock gardens at the lower level and I enjoyed it in spite of far too many vendors and self appointed guides .. it annoys me that you have to pay good money to get in these places and then cannot have 'quiet enjoyment'.


After Sigiriya they were trying to get to Kandalama without returning to the main road and we got a bit lost (I wasn't worried .. just wondering how well these guys knew this part of the world). People did not seem particularly helpful and in one case, seemed to give us the wrong directions. Anyway, we soon saw Lake Kandalama and Vicky pointed out the hotel on the other side of the lake. It has 150 rooms but was hard to see, it is so covered in vegetation.

This is one very posh hotel and because I was staying three nights, I was upgraded to a Superior Room (or from Superior to Deluxe) .. it certainly was that. Spacious, smart, minimalist This hotel really is great.. Minimalism can work when they get the balance right. The room seems spare but there is always a light where you need one for reading and the fridge and cold beer never that far away.

Small balcony and best of all, a very swish bathroom with (1) full size windows looking out over the forest and lake (2) a whirlpool bath and (3) Peeping Tom monkeys.


Fascinating building designed by the architect Geoffrey Bawa. Opened in 1999 and was refurbished in 2005. It is built along a huge rock face.. at times built into the rock and at other points set back so you get views of the rock as you walk along corridors. The building is concrete frame and very minimalist .. which seems to emphasise the outdoors all the more. This was a great place to relax after all the Dagoba visiting, stair climbing. heat and dusty roads.

There were two large conferences in progress so lunch proved to be a massive buffet .. far too much food for me at lunchtime. Luckily just before I went to the cafe in the evening for something light, room service appeared with a complimentary tray of fruit and biscuits .. just want I needed.

I can get BBC World Service on satellite telly .. Weather: London - 1C and Colombo 32C - that cheers me up. Three nights here and I have not left the grounds (it is isolated and only options are elephant rides, etc. which do not interest me). It is great just to read and relax, swim (there are three swimming pools) eat and drink .. and relax some more.

One lunchtime I saw an object lesson on how and why monkeys get aggressive. (I noted earlier that monkeys here were not as aggressive as those I encountered in Thailand). A young Japanese couple sat at the end of the terrace near the trees and in spite of several requests by the staff, the girl kept feeding monkeys from their table. Soon they were overwhelmed by monkeys and all hell broke loose ; the girl was screaming, the man hitting the monkeys. After the staff sorted things out, the girl laughed - she thought it was so cute. After they left, we had to fend off monkeys for the rest of my lunch.

I have fully 'recovered' and am ready to face the rigours of Colombo. In fact, I was getting into the mood of the hotel so much that I started to wear black and/or beige so as not to offend the neutrality of the colour scheme here. I called it “Blending In” .. I sent an email to my friend Kevin about this and he commented that it is one image he had great difficulty in imagining – not my usual approach to life.

Posted by MarshallC 12:09 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (0)

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