Two weeks in Sri Lanka was just not enough. We weren’t ready to leave the tranquil beaches, the leafy landscape or the friendly people. We left reluctantly already talking about possibly going back to enjoy the things we still wanted to do (or to take up surfing as an alternative to teaching).
It all started with an overnight flight the day school let out that deposited us at the airport (a awkward 40 kms north of the capital) at 5:30 in the morning. Fortunately, our guest house (the Sri Lankan term for a B and B – that offered anything from only the bed to complete room and board) let us check in early and we slept that morning and got out into Colombo for the afternoon. Russ met us and took us around. Wouldn’t you know it. We landed on a poya day (the Buddhist full moon holiday) and there was no alcohol to be had anywhere. Colombo was nothing special. Your average developing country big city: dirty, busy, polluted, but still the center of the country’s business and people.
After a couple days we were ready to hit the road. We followed the guide book to a little hole-in-the-wall travel agent, who walked us to see some friends who were still in the business of cars and drivers. We got ourselves set up with Ari and his white van for 8 days.
We left the capital to find that crowed, narrow, winding roads were the rule all through the country. Thank goodness the country is so small. If you can average 40 km/h you are making great progress. We spent the next three days touring the ancient cities and temples north of Kandy.
Dambulla rock caves, hidden high hill, behind the world’s largest (and possibly gaudiest) gold sitting Buddha, were frescoed top to bottom and filled with statues, many of which were part of the mountain just not chipped away when the caves were enlarged.
Sigiriya was the highlight of the trip. The history goes that the bastard son of the king killed his father and drove the legitimate son into India. He got nervous and spent the next 30 years building an unassailable castle/palace on top an enormous rock.
A metal pathway has been bolted into the side of the mountain to get up to the enormous lion statue who's mouth once served as the starting point for the final sheer ascent.
Only the foundations of the palace are left.
It is beyond my imagination to envision what a splendid and remarkable place it must have been. The legitimate son did come back. The bastard and his army took a wrong turn and got stuck in a swamp. The army deserted its leader, who killed himself. Also partway up there is the only example of secular ancient art in Sri Lanka. Several women's portraits served as a kind of ancient Playboy for the ruler.
Eventually the palace was forgotten and just rediscovered in the last century.
Later that day we headed out a road (it barley qualified!) that Ari told us had been too dangerous to use in years past because of the separatist movement. An hour got us 20 kms through rice fields and small villages to Medirigiriya.
It was practically abandoned and the guards were having a little swim in the lake when we got there. Words don’t do it justice. The rock of the columns and statues shone like it was encrusted with raw diamonds.
The next day we set out on clunky Chinese bicycles for a tour of the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, the 13th century capital of Sri Lanka.
The city is on the shore of a large lake that is, to a great degree, man-made. It was carved out from the rock by a series of kings (all trying to outdo each other) whose philosophy was that “not a drop of rain shall flow to the ocean until it has been used by man.” A great museum helped to recreate some of the ruins.
We almost got rained on and practiced riding bikes with umbrellas. By partway through the bike tour we were feeling ruin-apathy, the affect of too many ruin visits.
One more stop to see a temple that had been moved due to a hydro project pushed us over the edge and we were happy to get to Kandy where we would spend Christmas. Christmas eve, we visited the Elephant orphanage where they take care of young and injured elephants and train them to be working animals. The keepers have them very well trained (with big metal spears – but I guess you need to show them who’s boss). We were face to face with about 60 of the big guys as they rounded them up to take them down to the river for their bath. We also took a long walk around the botanical gardens – which should rightfully be called the “bat”-tanical gardens due to the huge bats filling the trees and the skies above.
Christmas day was quiet. It is a holiday in Sri Lanka, so most of the shops were closed. We roamed around a bit, made a couple of phone calls home and then spent the rest of the day eating and drinking. The Kandy dancers did some fine footwork and then walked on hot coals at the end of the show to cool off.
We had Christmas dinner at a fancy hotel. A children’s choir came in and sang some carols for us and we got a visit from Santa Claus himself. He came danced along to the carols ringing his single sleigh bell. He wore one of those grotesque rubber old-man Santa masks and his white gloves were latex (we discovered when he shook our hands on his tour of the room).
Boxing day we set out on Sri Lanka’s narrow twisty roads again, headed into the high country. On our way, we passed two men painted a fresh line down he road that gently weaved from side to side. One man guided the other as he held a small can of paint and a paint brush and painted the lines one by one. Ari, told us the line was going to be the new middle of the road when they got around to widening it. We arrived at our small guest house around lunch. We spent the afternoon roaming around the small town getting ready for our big climb to the top of Adam’s peak the next morning. We settled into bed early.
The next morning we got up at 2:30 to be on the peak for sunrise. After a quick cup of tea, banana and handful of cookies, we began the ascent. The path began as a road, lined by stalls selling refreshments as it climbed out of the town. As we walked, stairs began to interrupt the path that was still as wide as a dirt road. As we climbed the path stairs became more and more regular. The last hour of the three hour climb was one winding but continual flight of stairs up to an immense concrete temple perched on the top. The temple houses a footprint that is a pilgrimage site for Christians, Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus. During the peak pilgrimage season, there can be 20 000 people climbing the mountain at one time.
We were five out of about 300 that were at the top for the beautiful cloud-obscured sunrise. We could see green mountain tops poking through the low blue clouds as the light intensified.
Finally the sun broke out above the clouds on the horizon and rose up to cast a shadow the the mountain across the western half of the island.
After a hour and a half on the top, we began the long downhill walk.
That day we traveled to Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka’s most English city. We stayed in a questionable guest house, that definitely had a very different idea about what constituted hot water than we did. We were just down the street from a little hotel where we would have stayed had they had space for us. We took over their bar for dinner while they tried to temp us with their karaoke system. After a few minutes of a BeeGees concert, we talked them into a putting on a few episodes of Mr. Bean. Again we were early to bed.
The next morning came at 5 am. We set out for World’s End.
We got to the park just after sunrise and were lucky enough to make it to the cliff to see the 700m drop (No, mom, we didn’t get to close to the edge) before the mists rolled in. We even saw a few deer munching some dewy grass. No leopards though.
Our last official inland stop was an old tea plantation set up by the Thomas Lipton. We toured the factory from where they pay the pickers a couple dollars for the 15kgs of tea they collected while walking up and down the steep hills where it grows to the sorting area where they collect all the good tea to send overseas and save all the second rate tea to sell in Sri Lanka.
Then we hurried down to the coast, making our last inland stop to receive a speeding ticket (78 in a 60km/h zone – fine $4C). We arrived in Tangalle where we spent a couple days relaxing on the beach. Near our simple little cabana was a secluded little beach where we spent a couple days body surfing and generally enjoying how unlike Kuwait our surroundings were.
December 30th, we headed off to Unawatuna, a more popular beach town. Our hotel reservation turned out to be in a dive, but after a little searching we found a beautiful hotel just out of town looking down the coast. The beach was sheltered by a coral reef, which proved some interesting snorkeling and the beach was lined with restaurants with comfy beach chairs set up to attract customers. We were attracted.
New Year’s we had dinner on the beach. After dinner we walked along the wide bay past the picnics and tens of restaurants all serving celebratory meals. We returned to our restaurant for a little news year’s boogie. At midnight everyone stood out on the beach as all the bay reflected the fireworks that filled the air all along the beach. Out at sea, fireworks flashed above the glowing lights of the ships at sea.
The next day we headed back to Colombo for the next day’s flight home. Even though New Year’s Day isn’t a holiday, all the places we wanted to go in Colombo just happened to be closed. I did buy some alcohol and get it all repackaged and disguised in my bag.