Before I get into the second half of the week I want to take a moment, or five, to talk about food. I like talking about food so this could take a while, be warned! Now, every time I visit a new country I set myself a little challenge: to find and eat the local brand of crisps. In The Philippines it was some weird cheesy flattened Skips that were actually amazing, and in India I managed to find masala flavoured Lay’s, and the wonderful (but sadly defunct at home) tomato flavoured ones. So, obviously, Sri Lanka was the next port of call for my crisp tour of the world. But it is with a heavy heart that I have to reveal that crisps just don’t seem to be that much of a thing in Sri Lanka. Maybe I was naive in thinking that crisps are a constant, like rain when you want to spend the day outdoors, or aggressive birds within 10 feet of the sea, but I just could not find them in Sri Lanka, and that made me very sad. They had roughly five thousand types of instant noodle and a lot of weird cracker like snacks but they definitely do not count. The one food that they had in abundance, however, was rice and curry. Now, I love a good curry – I mean, I’m English, it’s basically blasphemy if you don’t, but even a curryphile like myself has a limit. Sri Lanka hit my limit, and then some. I’m not sure a day went by when I didn’t eat rice and curry, or some curry related snack (normally consisting of a samosa or some stuffed roti bread) – rice and curry for breakfast, rice and curry for lunch, rice and curry for dinner… so much rice and curry! Don’t get me wrong, most of it was very good rice and curry, but, my god, eating the same thing day in, day out for over a week is tiring. Like a digestive-based groundhog day. And it’s safe to say that it took me a good week after getting home to even be able to look at either rice or curry again. This can be problematic when you live in a country that basically serves rice with everything!
Now that I’ve got that off my chest time to get on with the important business of recounting my exploits. Post-Sigiriya and, without even the time to shower off the rock dust we hot-footed it onto the bus to Anuradhapura (a name it’s impossible to pronounce correctly). This was our most complicated journey simply because we had to take two buses, and somehow managed to end up on the most uncomfortably cramped minibus ever. Apparently it was supposed to be an upgrade from the normal bus, but I practically had a local woman sat on my lap and they charged us an extra ticket for our bags so I very much beg to differ on that one. If I had had weeks to travel around and my own driver I would have definitely done the entire cultural triangle, but as we were limited on time and by the fact that we had to rely on local transport we decided to only visit Anuradhapura, one of the ancient capitals of Sri Lanka that was once the site of a holy city built by Buddhist monks from the 4th century BC. The ruins of Anuradhapura cover an area a good few kilometres so, unless you want to hire a car, it’s recommended that you rent bikes and spend a day or two cycling around the ancient dagobas and monastic ruins. Now, hiring bikes seemed like a good idea beforehand and it was a great way to see the sights, but what we had not factored in was the fact that, in order to get from our guesthouse to the sacred city, we would have to cycle through the middle of the new city. As anyone who knows me will know, I am not an enthusiastic cyclist, particularly when it comes to cars, roads and other people. So you can imagine what I was like when confronted with 3km of main road between me and my destination, complete with more roundabouts than is appropriate for one stretch of road to possess. I’m serious, I’m pretty sure we crossed over 6 roundabouts before we finally made it, and I spent every single one convinced that I was living through the last moments of my life. As if that wasn’t bad enough we had to endure exactly the same hell on the way back, except this time we ended up on a different route and lost during rush-hour. The only saving grace of the return journey was the hilarity of a monkey throwing an avocado at Amy.
In between our journeys from hell we had the whole day to enjoy the ruins of Anuradhapura. The site consists of a number of ancient dagobas, built by the buddhist monks who once occupied the city. The largest of which, Jetavanaramaya, is thought to have once been 120m tall (sometime in the centuries since its building it has lost its top 50m) – in t’s day the third largest man-made structure in the world after the Great Pyramids in Giza, and almost matched by the massive Abhayagiri Dagoba built almost 2 centuries earlier, in the 1st century BC. It’s truly amazing that these structures have lasted so long – through the crumbling of the empire ruled from Anuradhapura, invasions from all corners of the world, natural disasters and the recent Sri Lankan civil war, and are still standing in much the same condition they would have been all those centuries ago.
What’s even more amazing is that many of these ancient structures are still in use now, and we were lucky enough to witness a religious ceremony at the imposing Ruwanwelisaya dagoba where scores of worshippers turned up to walk a ribbon around the stupa, accompanied by monks and the imposing beat of drums. It was a really awesome sight and one I’m not going to forget in a hurry. Alongside the dagobas Anuradhapura also boasts the ruins of a number of great monasteries, including the 8th century Ratnaprasada which was once a great, unadorned structure (apparently the monks who built and inhabited it believed that ornamentation was only suitable for toilets) which is nothing now but a few columns and an impressive guardstone at the site where the main entrance would have been.
We had a pretty amazing day exploring the ruins, and a couple of museums housing some of the more fragile artefacts found at the sites (including some ancient depictions of Buddha and his footsteps) and only once strayed off the road and were quickly rounded up by some local police – complete with police issue bicycles – who tried to convey the fact that we weren’t supposed to be heading off into the forest due to some vaguely explained danger (I’m going to say either snakes in trees or wild elephants) and had to stick to the roads, despite the fact that we were actually following a sign post that clearly pointed us into the forest. The final thing we saw in the sacred city, before having to embark on the sequel to the cycling journey from hell, was the Sri Maha Bodhi, the sacred Bodhi tree said to be a cutting of the original Bodhi, under which Buddha found enlightenment, and supposedly the oldest recorded tree in the world. Now, I’m not sure how you can authoritatively state that you know which tree is the oldest in the world, being as there are dense rainforests where I’m pretty sure scientists have yet to analyse the age of every single tree, but the Sri Maha Bodhi is definitely treated like a big deal – completely fenced off from worshippers and with one limb propped up by golden scaffolding it’s nothing if not an impressive sight.
It’s safe to say that, by the time we had made it back from the sacred city we were tired, aching and sweaty (and, for one of us, significantly more covered in avocado than when we left) and I think we were all glad when, early the next morning, we set off on yet another bus to our final destination, the sea-side city of Trincomalee for a few days of R&R on the beach. This was the most uneventful part of the trip, even if it did include the unique sight of cows just chilling on the beach and the daily routine of the local fishermen, and anyone else who happened to be hanging around, hauling in what I can only assume were massive nets holding the day’s catch. There’s not an awful lot to see or do in Trincomalee (and I was more than a little upset to find that only one bar served alcohol – it turned out to be surprisingly difficult to get beer in Sri Lanka, much to my disappointment) but we did manage to finish off our trip with (for three of us) our first ever scuba diving expedition. Christie is an old hat when it comes to diving and disappeared off on an advanced trip, while Martha, Amy and I embarked on our first ever dive. I was pretty terrified beforehand but was surprisingly calm once we got under the water, and thoroughly enjoyed drifting around seeing the corals and the fish. It turns out that scuba diving really is the lazy person’s sport – you literally have to put in no effort beyond breathing (obviously) and kicking your legs every so often. Right up my street! Post diving we went to Pigeon Island National Park for some snorkelling and managed to see some reef sharks – Martha saw so many that she got freaked out and had to retreat to the beach, prompting us to explore a little way into the forest and find the look-out point which had stunning views of the beach and ocean. Quite a lot of the coral on both our diving and snorkelling trips was dead or dying which made me sad and, yet again, angry with the stupid politicians and corporations of the world who are happy to just kill our planet if it means they can get what they want and maintain the status quo. I hate people sometimes.
Fresh off the diving boat, and free from attack by any kind of marine life (pretty rare for me!) it was time for our return journey to Colombo and on, to our respective final destinations (after the horrific ten hour train journey, of course). We had one last evening together in Colombo where we all crammed into a tuk tuk whose driver had no idea where we were actually going, and rather than trying to find out where Police Park Terrace was decided to just take us to the Police Park, drive around it a couple of times and every so often just point at it and say ‘police park’ as if that was a good approach to doing directions. Amazingly we reached my rather swanky hotel and headed out for a posh meal (where I somehow managed to voluntarily eat rice and curry – when there were other things on the menu!), all while avoiding any more clueless tuk tuk drivers.
I’ve managed to tick some destinations off the bucket list this year which I didn’t expect to visit during my time in Asia, but Sri Lanka was another one that, while a whirlwind of dodgy transport and amazing sites, was definitely worth visiting, and is going straight back onto the bucket list so that I can one day see the tea country.
Leah Out X