Another month has come, and I have managed yet another holiday, this time a full week of excitement in Sri Lanka. Unlike my epic India trip this holiday was very rough and ready – think buses, trains and questionable guest houses – which definitely gives you a different view on a place. It was also a whistle stop tour, in less than 9 days we managed to stop off at 5 different places and travel all across the country, from west to east, and back again. I thought I’d had my fair share of death buses in the Philippines and, while the Sri Lankan buses were nowhere near as hair-raising, it’s still pretty terrifying careering around the countryside, and narrowly avoiding various wildlife, on a bus that’s probably from the 1970s. The Sri Lankan’s also love their horns, probably as much as the Indians do, so you can imagine spending four hours bumping along with the awful accompaniment of the constant blaring. After three dodgy long-distance buses you’d think that we’d appreciate a nice relaxing train ride but, alas, relaxing the train was not. At the end of our week we needed to travel from Trincomalee, on the east coast, to Colombo, on the west. Enter a ten hour train that was the single most uncomfortable form of public transport I have ever taken, and that inexplicably stopped for half an hour at every single station we came to. How a train can possibly be that bumpy, and how Sri Lankans can ever get anywhere on time I will never know. The one, and pretty much only good thing about Sri Lankan public transport – people regularly board buses and trains to sell food which is a little ray of light in the midst of the journey from hell. Now, that’s the obligatory public transport rant out of the way we can get on with the parts of the holiday where my feet were actually touching land.
Sri Lanka is a country that it’s impossible to do in a week. We did a small slither of the island and even that was a struggle in the short time we had. Our aim was to do the main sites of the cultural triangle, the ancient heart of the country where power rested and buddhism flourished in the first few centuries BC. You could spend a whole week just doing the ancient cities there are so many of them, so it became pretty obvious pretty quickly that we would never make it around to all of them if we actually also wanted to get some sleep. So there was some mad planning before the trip even started to decide what parts of the country were the most worth visiting, and we finally settled on a whistle-stop tour of the major attractions before collapsing on a beach for a few days to recover.
First up was the ancient city of Kandy, built on the hills around a lake and famous for its Temple of the Tooth, built to house the sacred Buddha tooth. I’m pretty sure that there are way more sacred Buddha teeth floating about than Buddha could’ve possibly had in his mouth but that’s beside the point – they said there was a buddha tooth in the ridiculously large gold box guarded by a hulking great grumpy monk and so I believed them. My minor cynicism aside the temple was impressive, after we had stood our ground against a massive group of borderline aggressive Chinese tourists who just had to get in first, and wandering around seeing the different shrines to Buddha as the sun set was a very peaceful experience. It was odd when, as we were entering the temple, we heard the beginnings of the call to prayer from the mosque on the other side of the lake, but knowing that these different religions can co-exist in harmony was a nice thought. It was odder still when we came across a Hindu shrine in the middle of the temple – that I can’t explain. With the exception of the temple Kandy wasn’t that exciting and so I don’t think any of us were that sad to leave when we headed off the next morning at the crack of dawn. I mean, we were pretty disgruntled that it was the crack of dawn but we were on our way up to Sigiriya, an ancient rock fortress thought to have been the short-lived capital of King Kasyapa in the 7th Century AD, so that kind of made up for it.
I’ve tended to find that cities in many Asian countries are nothing like what we consider cities to be, they’re more like towns, with maybe one high-rise if they’re particularly important, but otherwise solely made up of ramshackle one and two story buildings with the odd piece of colonial architecture thrown in. Sigiriya is not a city. It is also not a town, and you’d have to be pretty creative to even really give it the title of village. More accurately it’s an important archaeological site that has become a tourist destination, surrounded by a couple of dirt roads, a local family or two and a lot of guesthouses. I don’t know how but we managed to visit Sri Lanka just before the tourist season and so, until we got to Trincomalee we were the only people in the guesthouses we booked. This gave it just a touch of the horror movie vibe, and nowhere more so than in Sigiriya where we ended up in the room furthest away from the main house with an infestation of frogs in the toilet. I’m not even exaggerating, at one point we had three in the toilet and one in the sink, and I don’t even want to linger on how many more could’ve been hiding away in that u-bend. It’s very disconcerting trying to do your business when you know there’s a frog down there, I can tell you. Toilet frogs aside Sigiriya was, hands down, one of the highlights of my trip. Not only did we climb the rock (more on that in a bit), Amy and I also went on an elephant safari and managed to see 32 Sri Lankan elephants in the wild. We know it was 32 because at one stage there were so many of them that we just had to start counting. Originally we wanted to visit Minneriya National Park which is hailed as one of the best parks in the country, but were told that all the elephants had moved over to the neighbouring Huluru Eco Park, so we followed the herd. Bumping around Huluru in the back of a jeep made me feel like I was in the opening scenes of Jurassic Park, before all the shit goes down when they’re still enjoying the wonder of wild dinosaurs, and seeing an elephant suddenly appear out of the grass made me feel how I imagine Alan Grant felt when he saw that triceratops. It was amazing to see so many elephants in their natural habitat, and even more amazing to see one of the 5% of tusked male Sri Lankan elephants. There were a fair few other jeeps of tourists around, and any time one spotted an elephant all the others rushed over and crowded around, which was a little sad, but it’s hard to have a go at people for wanting to see these creatures in the wild when I was one of those people too.
Post-elephants and it was time for another early start, this time to climb Sigiriya. We had wanted to do a sunrise climb of the neighbouring Pidurangala Rock, which apparently offers amazing views of the main attraction, but the people at the guest house told us that it would be almost impossible to get a tuk-tuk over there in the dark as people are afraid of the wild elephants that roam around at night, so that idea was fairly quickly abandoned. I weirdly knew a fair bit about Sigiriya before we went, as one of my classes read about it last year, but climbing the rock it seemed to me that the person who had written about it had no idea what they were talking about, so I was pretty much experiencing it for the first time. It’s fairly expensive to get into the site, around $40 USD but the money was so worth it, even if climbing up all those rock and metal steps made me realise that I really am afraid of falling and that I’m definitely not as fit as I like to think. We finally made it up the myriad steps and past the huge group of French tourists who kept asking if I was French and onto the magnificent summit. The climb might have been hard, and windy, but it was so completely worth it, for both Sigiriya itself and the amazing panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. There’s now debate amongst archaeologists as to whether the rock was an ancient capital or if it was in fact a monastery, but whatever it was the man-made tanks, giant stone throne and the ruins of ancient buildings were something else, it’s not hard to imagine how impressive the city would have been, no matter what it was meant for, when you’re wandering through what’s left. And whoever built it, I imagine they’d be surprised by the sheer volume of Chinese tourists taking selfies and taking out unsuspecting strangers with their umbrellas who now visit it.
One final point on Sigiriya, apparently there is some sort of bee problem that the guidebooks seem to completely ignore and if there is an ‘attack of hornets’ (as they so gently put it), you’re not allowed to ascend higher than the giant carved lion’s paws that guard the ancient stairway. As you can imagine, that was comforting.
I seem to have waffled on and on and we’ve not even made it past Wednesday yet, so I’m going to leave it here and you on the edge of your seats for part 2.
Leah Out X