2017 - Sri Lanka Road Trip - Sigiriya

26 February 2017    Kandy to Sigiriya, Sri Lanka
We were at the bus station just before 09:00 and within one minute a ticket tout had persuaded us onto a small air-conditioned bus heading for Dambulla.  It was only 200 Rupees (£1) each and was reasonably comfortable although again, they don’t half pack ‘em in.

Dambulla Cave Temple

They dropped us off at the Golden Buddha temple and within seconds, we had a helpful tuk-tuk driver showing us a small shop where we could leave our big rucksacks – no price was agreed, just a “small donation” when we pick them up.  It was quite a walk up the steps and then down the other side to the ticket office where we had to fork out 1500 Rupees (£7.50) each.  From the ticket office, we trudged up the stone steps to the Danbulla Cave Temple .

I liked this series of five caves, which are jam packed with Buddha statues and wall paintings:

Dambulla Cave Temple is the largest and best-preserved cave temple complex in Sri Lanka - there are more than 80 documented caves in the surrounding area.  The major attractions are spread over five caves, which contain a total of 153 Buddha statues, three statues of Sri Lankan kings and four statues of Hindu gods and goddesses - including Vishnu and the Ganesha. The murals cover an area of 2,100 square metres.  Depictions on the walls of the caves include the temptation by the demon Mara, and Buddha's first sermon.

There are always Macaque Monkeys at temples and this was no exception.  They were on all the paths, begging for food - they look so desperate and endearing that it's hard not to feed them.  I'm always amused by their antics.  There are litter bins around the temple, which have lids, but these are obviously not Monkey Proof .  We also watched one monkey systematically test each of the windows on a tourist coach - goodness knows what chaos it would have caused if it had forced its way in. 

We walked down to the huge Golden Buddha , skipped the museum, which was an extra payment and carried on down to the road.  Our earlier friendly tuk-tuk driver was waiting and pounced on us.  After a little friendly negotiation, starting at his 1,500 Rupees, we agree 1,200 Rupees (£6) for the 15 kilometres ride to Sigiriya.  I donated 100 rupees to the lady in the shop who had looked after our luggage and we headed off.  Our first stop was to pick up the driver’s daughter, who we dropped off at her private tuition class before carrying on to Sigiriya.  Private tuition?  Perhaps I should haggle harder with these poor tuk-tuk drivers…

Despite the slight detour, we arrived at the Sigiriya Paradise Inn at 13:30.  It’s a very nice place (although the sign outside says “Paradies Inn”, which if you change one “a” to an “o” makes it a mockery of an inn).  Having arrived early, we were able to book a Safari at the nearby Kaudulla National Park in the afternoon.

Wild Indian Elephants

Our rugged looking safari jeep arrived at two o’clock and we sat in one of the four comfy seats in the back, while the driver drove at breakneck speeds along the narrow lanes for 50 minutes. At the park entrance, the driver bought the entry tickets, removed the overhead rain-proof cover and we were able to stand up between the roll bars.

We saw two herds of Indian Elephants - one herd containing over 40 elephants with some cute little babies.  Unfortunately, the number of safari jeeps exceeded the number of elephants, but it was great to see elephants in the wild.  

There were some water buffalo, but not much else apart from some lovely birds, so occupied myself taking photographs of them.  I must admit to a penchant for knowing the names of birds and have a leaning towards becoming an ornithologist.  I took nice photos of a White-bellied Sea Eagle on its nest, a Blue-tailed Bee Eater and a Painted Stork.

Glenys is now worried that I’m going to buy a camouflaged jacket covered in pockets and start dreaming about long telephoto lenses.

The trip cost £65 for the two of us, which was expensive, but we had an enjoyable 5 hours. Back at the Guest house, they prepared dinner for us - rice noodles with vegetables and a chicken curry – very nice because we asked for it to be spicy. 

27 February 2017    Sigiriya, Sri Lanka
The alarm went off at 06:15 and after a short delay waiting for our packed breakfast, we walked to the entrance for Lion Rock, which took about fifteen minutes along a dusty road.  We arrived there at 07:05, just after it opened, then marched through the outer gardens, past the scores of tourists already there, heading directly for the steps ascending the huge rock.  

Sigiriya (also known as Lion Rock) is an ancient fortress located on a massive column of rock nearly 200 metres high. According to the ancient Sri Lankan records, this site was selected by King Kasyapa in 480 AD for his new capital.  He built his palace on the top of this rock and decorated its sides with colourful frescoes.  Beneath the rock, he constructed elaborate gardens with ponds and fountains and halfway up on a small plateau, he built a gateway in the form of an enormous lion - the name of the place is derived from this structure. 

Lion Rock, Sigiriya

The area around Sigiriya has been inhabited since prehistoric times. There is clear evidence that the many rock shelters and caves in the vicinity were occupied by Buddhist monks from as early as the 3rd century BC. The earliest evidence of human habitation at Sigiriya is the Aligala rock shelter to the east of Sigiriya rock, indicating that the area was occupied nearly five thousand years ago.

The whole face of the hill appears to have been a gigantic picture gallery (mostly of bare-breasted ladies).  The plastered wall would have covered most of the western face of the rock, an area 140 metres long and 40 metres high. There are references to 500 ladies in these paintings. However, most have been lost forever. The true identity of the ladies in these paintings is unknown, but some believe that they are the wives and concubines of King Kasyapa while others think that they are women taking part in religious ceremonies. 

After the king’s death, Sigiriya was used as a Buddhist monastery until the 14th century, when it was abandoned.

We beat most of the other tourists to the long flight of steep stone steps and had a clear passage – it would be a nightmare to be stuck behind a coachload of “Saga” tourists.  The steep stone steps gave way to a steel spiral staircase, which took us to a platform where we looked at the remaining 18 paintings.  They are very intricate and in surprisingly good condition considering that they are 1,500 years old.  It is forbidden to take photographs of the paintings, presumably because of the possible damage by flash photography.

The crowds starting to build

We descended a second spiral staircase and walked along a suspended walkway to the Lion's Gate , where we climbed steep steps to the top of Lion Rock.  The whole of the hill top (150m * 75m) is covered by the foundations of the palace, which must have been an incredible sight. There are numerous water containment ponds still filled with rain water.  There were only a dozen or so people wandering about, so we found a place to sit and eat our breakfast, enjoying the peace and quiet and staring across the surrounding jungle.

After looking about the ruins for 20 minutes, we headed down, shuffling past hundreds of tourists now slowly grinding their way up the steps. We spend a pleasant hour wandering around the landscaped gardens, poking our noses into caves that were once occupied by Buddhist monks and looking at the geometric layout of the formal water gardens. 

We left at 09:30 by which time the place was very crowded and coach loads of tourists were still arriving.  The entrance fee of $30US per person is outrageously high, but Sigiriya is a unique place to visit.

With Lion Rock ticked off the list, we walked around the outer moat and along a dirt road for one kilometre to Pidurangala Rock.  After paying the entrance fee of 500 rupees (£2.50) each, we walked up stone steps to the Pidurangala Cave Temple, which has a Reclining Budhha; a Meditating Buddha; and some Wall Paintings that are very similar to the ones on Lion Rock.  This place was a Buddhist monastery built by King Kasyapa when he kicked the monks off Lion Rock.

We continued up the trail, which was sometimes a rocky mountain path and sometimes stone steps.  Near the top, we came across the remains of some small dwellings, built under overhanging rock - presumably for monks.  Next to the dwellings was a large Reclining Buddha constructed of clay bricks, which was very striking.  Rounding the corner of the hill, we had a short 50 metre scramble through a boulder passage and up to the top of Pidurangala Rock, which has an impressive view across to Lion Rock.  It was little bit more effort than Lion Rock, but very enjoyable. 

After strolling back down, we walked back along the road towards Lion Rock, but turned left at the moat.  We followed the road for a ½ kilometre and then turned right on a footpath which skirts around the Lion Rock complex.  It was very overgrown in places, but passable, although we did check ourselves for leeches at the other end.  

Sri Lankan Transport - Tuk-tuk and Elephant

Turning right, we walked along road and came across an elephant carrying two tourists. I’m still not sure what I think of this exploitation of elephants.  Nobody moans about horses being exploited having to carry a single person, so why shouldn’t an elephant, which is four times the size of a horse, carry 4 people?

Back at the guest house, we chilled out for afternoon.  Milton, the owner, came over and I went for a quick stroll with him to his paddy fields at the end of his garden.  There are lots of birds flying about and Milton is very knowledgeable about them. He identified a Brown-headed Barbet and a White-breasted Kingfisher .

He pointed out a rough Wooden Tree House  in the middle of the paddy fields, which are used by night watchmen, who keep a look out for elephants coming into the rice fields - they chase them away with firecrackers.

In evening, we stepped out for dinner. Glenys had her eye on the Pradeep restaurant, but when we arrived they said that they had cold beer, but they didn’t have license, so they would serve it in a teapot!  The place looked very scruffy, so we walked out and found another place across the road that served beer in real glasses and played good music.

After a couple of beers, we went back to Pradeep restaurant, which looked much better in the dark where we had a fabulous rice and curry.  This is the de-rigour meal for Sri Lanka and consists of rice with a number of small curry dishes.  We had a chicken curry, with five other vegetable curries.  It was really tasty and inexpensive at 400 rupees (£2).  Of course, we had a Teapot of Beer , which was served with two tiny teacups, but tasted fine.  

A Temple in Polonnaruwa

28 February 2017    Sigiriya, Sri Lanka
Milton took us to the ancient city of Polonnaruwa in his tuk-tuk.  It’s about an hour’s drive from Sigiriya, but he made it interesting by stopping off in a couple of places on the way and giving us a running commentary as we went along.  At the entrance to the site, we had to pay 3,500 rupees (£17) each.  These Sri Lankans certainly know how to extract money from tourists.  A bit of background:

Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka’s splendid medieval capital was established in the 11th Century, A.D.  It replaced Anuradhapura, which was plundered by invading armies from South India.

The city reached a dazzling, but brief zenith in the 12th century and though ravaged by invasion in the centuries that followed, much evidence remains of the old grandeur and glory. The ruins of the ancient city stand on the east shore of a large artificial lake, built by King Parakramabahu I (1153-86), whose reign was Polonnaruwa‘s golden age. 

Polonnaruwa was originally enclosed by three concentric walls and filled with parks and gardens. At the heart of the city lies the royal palace complex, while immediately to the north are the city’s most important cluster of religious buildings, the so-called Quadrangle, containing the finest group of remains in the city – and, indeed, Sri Lanka.  Polonnaruwa’s largest monuments are found in the northern part of the city, comprising the buildings of the Menik Vihara, Rankot Vihara, Alahana Pirivena and Jetavana monasteries, including the famous Buddha statues of the Gal Vihara and the soaring Lankatilaka shrine.

Milton dropped us off at various sites which are quite spread out and would be difficult to see without a tuk-tuk driver (hiring a bicycle is another option).  We were hoping that for his fee of 6,500 rupees (£32), he would be acting as a tour guide as well as a driver, but alas not, so we had to fend for ourselves, trying to figure out what it all meant.

Serene Reclining Buddha

There were a lot of ruins – basically the foundations of buildings.  There’s a central palace complex which has various buildings, but we found it mostly uninteresting.  Outside the palace walls there are two large stupas, but the most interesting temple was a small Hindu Temple called Shiva Devale, which inside has a stone-carved lingam or phallus - a symbol of the Hindu God Shiva. The temple was built in the 10th century and  is still used for worship - the tiny forecourt was packed with a dozen people making offerings when we visited.

Sri Lanka owns one of Buddha’s teeth (a Tooth Relic), which for many centuries has been a symbol of kingship – if you control the Tooth Relic then you are King.  The relic is now in a temple in Kandy, but there are three Tooth Relic Temples in Polonnaruwa built by each of the three kings that reigned there.  

The highlight of the visit for us was the Gal Viharaya, which is a temple with three huge Buddhas carved out of a solid granite cliff – one sitting, one standing and one Reclining Buddha.  The Standing Buddha is 7 metres tall.   The workmanship for the carving is superb and the facial expressions of the Buddhas are the most serene that I’ve seen.

On the way back to Sigiriya, Milton stopped at a restaurant for lunch.  Glenys had told him earlier that we wanted to have lunch in a small local place, so we were surprised to find that we’d been taken to a large buffet restaurant, which was packed with tourists.  

At the entrance, a guy tried to show us to a table, but I wanted to know how much it would cost.  He answered 800 Rupees (£4) each – twice what we’d paid for a meal last night.  I said that I was only expecting to pay 200 Rupees for a small lunch and started to walk out.  We then had a discussion which went something like:

(Whispering) “I do you a special deal for 700 Rupees…”
“No, 200 Rupees each – we only want a small meal.” 
(Whispering) “OK, Milton is my good friend – 600 Rupees”
“No, 200 Rupees.  Milton, we want to go somewhere smaller and more local”
(Milton remains stubbornly silent.  Other tourists now looking at the commotion.)
“Just come and sit down”
“No, I want to know how much it’s going to cost.”
“Just come in, you can eat for free”
“No, I want to pay a fair amount – I’ll pay 300 Rupees”
“OK, pay whatever you want, JUST COME IN AND SIT DOWN.”

We sat down and had a tasty rice and curry lunch.  When we were ready to leave, a lady came over and told us to pay 1,600 rupees.  I told her that I’d agreed to pay 600 rupees.  I got up and walked to the gentleman with whom I’d had the discussion, expecting a shouting match.  I gave him 800 Rupees, which was more than we’d agreed (because the meal was good).  He counted it and to my great surprise, gave me back 100 rupees.  I laughed out loud and thanked him, he laughed and gave me a hug – Sri Lankans might try to overcharge tourists, but they treat it as a game. 

Sri Lankan breakfast

It was four o’clock before we arrived back at the Guest House, so Milton earned his £32 for the day.  In the evening, we went out for another rice and curry, this time at a restaurant that actually served beer in a glass.

1 March 2017  Sigiriya to Kandy, Sri Lanka
We had another huge Sri Lankan breakfast consisting of hoppers with omelette, a spicy roll, toast and a banana.  Hoppers are pancakes made with coconut milk & rice flour and cooked in a special pan similar to a small 5” diameter wok, producing a pancake which is shaped like a bowl.  A fried egg, curry or shredded omelette is placed into the bowl and it is then rolled up and eaten with the fingers.

Milton took us in his tuk-tuk to Danbulla to catch a bus.  We were expecting a bus station, but were dropped off at the side of the road.  Local buses came in a steady stream with the conductor rapidly ululating the name of the destination, which was completely unintelligible.  We didn’t really want to spend three hours on a jam-packed bus with no air-conditioning, so we hung on for half an hour waiting for a smaller “express” bus. 

When it finally arrived, we made sure that we were at the front of the queue, which was a good move as they only had room for four people. The journey wasn’t too bad and two hours later, we were back in Kandy. We jumped into a tuk-tuk, who initially agreed 400 Rupees, but when he realised that our destination was a long way out of town, weaseled 500 rupees out of us. (The landlady told us later that we should only have paid 250 rupees – we’re poor negotiators.)

Cooking Lesson

The Kandy Grand Paradise homestay is lovely.  It’s up in the hills about 5 kilometres out of town and is run by a very nice, enthusiastic lady called Shayamala.  The rooms are clean & spacious and the whole building is built on several levels making it very special.

Having had a welcome cup of tea and settled into our room, we decided to walk to the Kandy Tea Museum, which is four kilometres away. It’s a bit difficult to find along the many winding roads, but Google Maps helped and we managed to find the place.  As we were paying the 600 rupee entrance fee, the heavens opened and torrential rain started, hammering off the corrugated steel roof and walls of the old tea factory.

The small entrance fee includes a guided tour, which was fascinating, showing us the tea manufacturing process and all the old machines.  The museum is housed in an old five story Tea Factory which used to be powered by a series of shafts running through the building, onto which were attached belts to drive each piece of machinery.  Initially the shafts were run by water power and later by a simple diesel engine.

The rain had reduced to a light shower by the time we left and we were soon back at the guest house, where Shayamala spent an hour showing Glenys how to cook four traditional Sri Lankan dishes.  Dinner was a feast of Prawn Curry, Sri Lankan Dhal, Beetroot Curry, Brinjal Salad and a couple of other vegetable curries.