Adventures in Sri Lanka – Part 4 – Kandy to Polonnaruwa

I woke up on that final day in Kandy, not because of the gentle guitar music of my phone’s alarm, but because of a profoundly disturbing wrenching in my stomach. Here I was on day four of my Sri Lankan adventure and, somehow, I had managed to get an upset stomach. After twenty minutes in the bathroom wondering whether last night’s admittedly delicious biryani had in fact been worth it, I ventured down to the kitchen, first to have some tea. That stayed down ok, so I made some dry toast, which didn’t stay down ok at all. So today was too be a non-eating day then. Four hours on a public bus meant that trips to the bathroom were a total impossibility. I took an Immodium pill and a quick shower and crossed my fingers. I jumped into a tuk tuk and enjoyed one last look at the lake, as we tore around the bends to the Goods Shed bus station. This was to be my first Sri Lankan bus ride and, having seen them drive, I’ll admit that I was more than a little apprehensive.

Sign writing, even in this tourist centre of Kandy was limited and, mainly, in Sinhala, so I decided to walk up the first bus I could find and ask him where the bus for Polonnaruwa was. He told me I needed to go to Habarana and change, and gave me the number of the bus and the general area in which I’d find it. He didn’t even ask me for money. Perhaps, stomach problems aside, the day was going to work out well. I found my bus and dropped my rucksack in the large luggage holding rack, next to the driver and then dashed to the most disgusting public toilet I had ever encountered before the long ride. I came back, took my seat, paid the conductor a very reasonable 170 rupees for the 3 hour journey to Habarana and, armed with only a bottle of water and a book, we set off.

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As with the trip to the botanical gardens the day before, I was really struck by the urban sprawl of Kandy. I’d say it was more than an hour before we were beyond the suburbs and out on the open road, slicing through the mountains of the hill country in a north-easterly direction. The really disappointing thing was the level of rubbish. One thing that I really can’t overstate about travelling in Sri Lankan cities, in particular, is the level of rubbish. Every river and stream, every patch of grass or copse, is absolutely full to bursting with plastic bags, cans, bottles, clothes and more. The acrid smell hangs in the air above every waterway and in and around the city, naturally, it’s worse than anywhere else. Who is to blame for this is open to debate. Of course, people should be more careful with their rubbish disposal but, as someone who didn’t want to add to this problem, even in city centres of metropolises like Kandy, I often found myself walking around for upwards of two hours with rubbish in my hand or my pocket before finding a bin to put it in. There is certainly a lot of blame to be left at the door of the government.

After that hour had passed though, we were out on to the main road towards Dambulla, somewhere I’d have liked to have stopped, given more time on this trip. The scenery at the roadside is stunning and I barely switched off my camera for the majority of the three hours. Aside from the roaring 8 litre diesel engine of my bus and the beeping of the horn as we passed other traffic, the hill country surroundings were beautifully quiet, the views spectacular. I was bitterly disappointed as we tore past the golden Buddha in Dambulla, that I was unable to get a decent shot with my camera. We stopped just after the midpoint of the journey at a place for buying refreshments. I took the opportunity to wash my face of the sweat and exhaust fumes that had been blasting me through the open window decided to risk something to eat, as my stomach was positively growling. As we left, I scoffed my tea banis and, mercifully, my stomach had no bad reaction. The Immodium had done the trick, it seemed! Another hour on the road and we rolled up in Habarana.

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At Habarana, I left the bus and had to wait all of about three minutes before the connecting bus to Polonnaruwa showed up. While I had boarded the bus from Kandy at the starts point and had thus got a comfy window seat, near the front, this time I was boarding a bus from Mannar, with 75% of its journey complete. I had no choice but to stand. The fact that I, as well as five or six other people, were standing did not change the driving methods of the driver at all. I quickly realised that the best place for my camera and my water bottle was on top of the narrow luggage rack along the top of the cabin and that my best chance of not falling out of the open door, just a metre away, was to hold on with both hands, and perhaps pray to the Hindu pantheon, classily lit with the equivalent of Christmas lights in the panel above the driver’s head.

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Evidently, my prayers were answered and just one hour of holding on for dear life later, I clambered off of the bus, feeling awake and invigorated by the ride. Possibly also with a couple more grey hairs. Clambering down from the bus with my rucksack, I was immediately approached by a local fellow. He thrust a card under my nose and asked if I had accommodation for the night. I didn’t. But I had a guidebook with a lot of recommendations I was planning to follow up before I decided on anything. The guy said all the right things, a good price, breakfast included, double rooms, he would drive me to the guest house in his tuk tuk, arrange bike rental for the temple the following day and, crucially, that if I wasn’t happy, he’d drive me back to the bus stop to find another place. My instincts were acutely bombarding me with warnings, but I decided to go and take a look. I was totally winging this leg of my trip, anyway!

The best guest house I stayed in Sri Lanka for so many reasons!
The best guest house I stayed in Sri Lanka for so many reasons!

To say this decision was vindicated is like the saying the invention air travel was ‘quite important’. The owner was an absolute hero. Contrary to every other paid accomodation experience I had, before or after, on this trip, he didn’t try to rip me off at any time and was genuinely helpful. Arriving at the guest house, just under a kilometre from the bus pickup, he showed me to my room which was immaculate. It had a ceiling fan and a large standing fan, as well as an adjoining bathroom with – shock horror – hot water. I could have cried. There were just four rooms, all of which had wooden doors one side and glass doors the other, covered by a curtain and with simple patio furniture outside facing on to a huge rice paddy, opposite. My next door neighbours were a Slovenian couple, who had already been there for a night and who were going on a bike ride around the lake, just up the road. The owner offered me the use of a bike for free, should I promise to pay for the rent of the bike for the day, the following day, when I went to the temple. As I was planning to do that anyway, I happily agreed. Before he drove the three of us back to the main road to collect the bikes, he informed me that he was cooking a range of food, with mango curry as the centre piece, including a cooking demonstration, for four hundred rupees per person (about 2.50 euros) and asked if I would be interested. Seeing as the cost of such an experience elsewhere was reasonably priced if under 50 euros, I happily accepted his offer.

Back at the main road, I jumped on a fairly well maintained, if ancient, bicycle and followed my new Slovenian companions round a corner to the left and up a shallow incline to the edge of the lake. I make no exaggeration in saying the lake is huge. Large enough to have pretty strong waves, which some brave or mad locals were rowing through in long, overcrowded canoes, in spite of the signs all around in English, Sinhala and Tamil warning of death if you go into the water. We passed a group of kids and teens swimming in a canal, while the older women of their families washed their clothes in the water. It looked like a lot of fun. We rode around the lake perimeter, stopping at a beach that originally looked to be made of shale, but which was in fact just thousands of empty snail shells. Following this we came to an unguarded section of the ancient temple complex – giving me a taste of what I was to see the next day – the bath houses. These were very ornate and still in remarkably good condition for their age. Finally, we rested by the water’s edge and watched the sunset before returning to the guest house.

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Being this far south, by the time we got back to the guest house, the golden sunlight had almost given way completely to darkness. We retreated to our respective rooms for a quick shower and returned to find the owner waiting to start the cooking. With a huge stick, designed for exactly this purpose, he reached up to the tree hanging over the terrace of the guest house and picked three green, under-ripe mangoes, explaining that they had to be at this stage in their development to cook them. We went to the small kitchen at the end of the hotel, where we were furnished with the familiar, large 600ml bottles of Lion lager and watched as he prepared a mango curry, cooling green beans in a milk sauce – a recipe I’ve been making myself as a curry accompaniment for years! – and a mustard heavy potato curry. He had already prepared rice and dhal. My companions and I were a little bit alarmed at the quantities of salt and sugar going into the dishes. At one stage, we even asked if it was perhaps too much. The owner flatly denied it, of course. The proof of any meal is always in the eating and, too much sugar and salt or not, it was some of the best food I’d eaten on the trip at this stage. Not to mention the kind of huge portion where I could only just finish the lot.

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After we finished stuffing our faces, we briefly chatted about where we live, where we were going next in Sri Lanka and, before long, we were all exhausted and ready for some sleep. The real beauty of the vegetarian menu was that, even though I’d eaten bucket loads of food, I didn’t feel uncomfortable at all and was soon in a deep sleep in my extremely comfortable double(!) bed. We’d agreed to wake up at 8:30 for breakfast and so my alarm was buzzing in my ear at 8:15, after a solid 8 hours of completely uninterrupted sleep. Evidently, the free breakfast was never going to be as good as the dinner which we’d paid 30% on top of our accommodation for, but it was always good to get a free, hot breakfast, especially just before a long day’s cycling around a huge temple complex. Sometimes, it’s great to be wrong. As soon as I opened the wooden door of my room, the smell of spicy coconut hit me and, sitting at the table, I was presented with freshly brewed coffee and asked if I wanted rice or hoppers. In my 5 days in the country so far, I’d yet to experience hoppers, so hoppers it was. Hoppers are bowl shaped rice pancakes. They are somewhat gelatinous in texture, and the idea is that you spoon whatever your filling is into them, roll them and then eat them with your hands. We had more of the previous evenings dhal and minced coconut infused with chilli as our fillings. I tried both fillings alone and finally together, deciding that the combination of the two was the best option. It was about as terrific a breakfast as I’d have in Sri Lanka. Once breakfast was done, I said my goodbyes to my Slovenian neighbours, took a shower and then grabbed my bike.

The ride from the guest house to the temple involved quite a lot more time on the main road, after picking up one’s ticket near the lake I’d visited the evening before. Riding down the margins of a single lane road while huge, diesel fume spitting buses and trucks roar past you and each other for even a kilometre is quite a daunting experience, I can tell you. Even though the sand made it tough going, I decided it was best t be well into what narrow hard shoulder there was. Curving around a right hand bend, I waited patiently to turn across the traffic and into the entrance of the temple complex. The first thing you come to is a shrine, where pilgrims still make offerings today. Indeed, this is the case through much of the temple.

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From the first shrine, I leapt back on my bike and rode perhaps another 500 metres before finding a much more large scale set of sites. Here, there was a large offering temple, still signposted by the Buddhist authorities as a sacred place and, again, still very much a centre for offerings. Next to this was a chamber which once housed the ancient kings of the site and a large circular structure with highly detailed, beautiful elephant carvings at all entrances, along with beautiful Buddha statues throughout. Making the whole experience even more entertaining was the huge family of monkeys invading the site and generally causing a commotion. There was also a group of Sri Lankan architecture students who were studying the historic architecture of the nation here.

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After clearing this little section and reading countless plaques, well translated into English, about the site, I realised two things. Firstly, that I’d been here for 45 minutes and seen perhaps only 10-15% of the site so far. It really was a huge place. The second thing was that I really needed to get something to drink, as my water bottle, which I’d brought with me from the village, was running out fast. Fortunately for me, between every major group of remains here in Polonnaruwa, there is a small encampment of resourceful food and drink sellers, as you’d expect. So I stopped at the next one, parked up my bike and went and sat in the shade, where I polished off a king coconut to rehydrate and grabbed another water bottle to take on the next stage of the journey. It was quite a stage. I cycled for about ten minutes, before coming to a turn off to the right, that most people seemed to cycle right past on their way to the next big site. The result of that was that I had a small offering temple, with a small, stupa style domed roof to myself. I can’t say I was disappointed. Less than half a kilometre from the main track, the blanket of trees between this and the rest of the tourists meant that it was absolutely silent. Around the back, there were also more offerings. It was a really beautiful shrine.

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This small hole in the gate, so you could view the offerings, had a lovely effect.

I jumped back on my bike and rode back up the shallow incline to, probably the most impressive area of the temple complex. Next was the area with the towering stupas. Nothing could really have prepared me for this. As you ride down the slope into the area where the stupas are found,to your left there is a grassy area filled with the foundation level remains of the cells in which the Buddhist monks of the site would have slept. They are small and numerous and it’s very interesting to walk around and see just how little they were concerned for their own comfort. After wandering here, you reach the bottom of the hill and then next 40 minutes or so is just one stupa after another, of a scale you can’t really appreciate until you stand next to it. Pilgrims abound, circumambulating in a clockwise direction and stopping off in the many shrines to lay flowers, or to pour and light oil in one of the many offering lamps here. The final stupa you come to is an enormous whitewashed one, which is so eyecatching against the bright blue Sri Lankan sky. It’s hard to imagine that these structures have been here for 900 years and more.

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After the stupas, there’s just one more, very interesting double wall, behind all along which, on both sides, there are beautiful carvings. It’s very ornate and very well preserved.

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Despite looking seriously crappy, this bike served me pretty well all day long.
Despite looking seriously crappy, this bike served me pretty well all day long.

For the final stage of the temple site, I rode along the pink bricked road, around to the left until I came to a path beside a lake and here, I saw a trail of people snaking off into a green pasture. I followed and, having had my last portion of ticket checked and ripped by a tourist police woman, I saw the reclining Buddha appearing in front of me. Once again, countless offerings of flowers and burning oil had been made. It’s a very impressive sight and, despite my gripless shoes, I climbed up on to nearby rocks to get a good shot.

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From here, I made the bicycle trip back, perhaps a kilometre and a half along the main road to my guest house. I paid my host an unfeasibly small amount of money, when I considered the standard of the accommodation, the food, and the help he had given me along the way. As if to make the point even more clearly, he dropped me off at the bus stop in his tuk tuk and helped me load my luggage on to the bus as it arrived. From here, it was back to Habarana and then another change to take myself off to Trincomalee and a bit of beach time. Polonnaruwa, though, would live long in the memory.

Throughout my travels in Sri Lanka, I leaned heavily on the Lonely Planet Travel Guide. You can buy your copy, here:

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Adventures in Sri Lanka – Part 2 – Kandy Day 1

It was 10:00 and with a sweet bread roll, called a tea banis in a bag and all of my other bags, I was standing on the platform at Colombo Fort station, waiting for my train to pull in and then to lead me up in to the hill country to Kandy, the former capital and still the religious capital of the buddhist contingent of Sri Lanka. I bumped into a couple of Australian girls who asked me where I was from, where I was going and how I had found Colombo. They were also kind enough to grab a photo of me before I set off.

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Within a matter of seconds of this photo being taken, a station manager came striding down the platform, telling us we should move to where our train was now waiting. We half jogged, in spite of all our belongings and I lost the Aussie girls in the crowd but, all importantly found my carriage and my seat. The train looked like it had been built in the 1990s – a huge leap ahead of what I had anticipated would be the norm on Sri Lankan trains. It had electric doors and, in my first class carriage, even air conditioning! I had paid for the first class ticket the previous day, simply so that I would have huge panoramic windows, as I’d been advised that this route was quite spectacular. The alarm for the doors beeped and it was time for me to find out. We chugged first through the suburbs of Colombo, of which there are many and the views were really quite unspectacular but, once we had started to ascend into the mountains, I was suddenly bombarded with visions of lush plains dotted with palm trees, mountains shrouded in forest canopies, and all this broken up with terracotta painted rural stations, with huge, full flowerbeds. I really started to feel I had got my value for money.

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After these stunning views and the interruption of a fair few tunnels carved almost two centuries ago through the mountains, we pulled in to Kandy’s train station and I collected my things to disembark. The station itself is a quiet, tranquil place and stepping outside in to the cacophonous chaos of the main road up to the city’s Goods Shed bus station is something of an assault on the senses. Hundreds of buses fly here and there in front of your face, mixed in with the usual floods of tuk tuks and the occasional ordinary car, while people stand on corners, peddling lottery tickets and fruit and passers by and tourists try to beat a safe path through it all. You definitely know you have arrived in Kandy. After soaking it all up for a moment, I managed to find a reasonably priced tuk tuk to zip me around the lake – the centrepiece of the city – to my hostel.

The Kandy City Hostel is located at the south east corner of Kandy’s lake on Ampitya road. It’s a really great place to stay and meet people. Beds are comfortable and clean, and showers are solar powered and so there is hot water – not something that is particularly common in budget accommodation in Sri Lanka! There’s also a really good breakfast of eggs, fruit, toast and jam, tea and coffee, etc. The lady that runs it is very friendly and knowledgeable and her housekeeper, Anthony, is one of the nicest people you can meet. He constantly tries to help you, be that by advising you on must sees in the area, or calling his friends with tuk tuks to make sure you get the best price for travelling around the city. There’s also a chocolate Labrador there, who is absolutely gorgeous. At this moment though, I simply ditched my stuff and went out to explore the city. First things first though – a man needs his lunch! Walking down the winding road to the lake, I saw what looked like the perfect place – a miniscule curry shack, very much not geared up for tourists. It was getting on bit – something like 2pm, so I wondered if they had any rice and curry left. Sure enough, they did, so I ordered one and the obligatory ginger beer. The price came in at a whopping 210 rupees – around 1.30 Euros. This was what I got for my money:

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This was a huge pile of rice, some kind of salad at the bottom left, which I never identified on this trip, but is delicious and surprisingly hot, delicious dhal with lemongrass, mustard seed infused potato curry, seeni onion sambal and a singular piece of fish curry crowning the whole thing. It was terrific and genuinely fiery. I ate the lot (without cutlery, this resulted in me having seriously messy hands!) and drained my ginger beer, before thanking the smiling proprieter and heading out to explore.

Stepping down from the bustling road to the lakeside in Kandy is a genuinely transformative experience. In a matter of moments, the roar of the traffic and the smoke from those dirty diesel bus engines is left behind and you find yourself wrapped up in the tranquility of the still water.

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From this corner of the lake, there was a path stretching up on to one of the hills above the city. I decided this would be a good chance to find a better vantage point. The path led steeply away from the lakeside and very quickly there was a hush, and the only sound was the wind in the tree branches all around – and the occasional tuk tuk whining its way up the hill past me. Reaching the top, I decided to stop off at a restaurant for a cold drink. With this view:

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With my  ginger beer – yes another one – finished, it was time to walk back down to the lakeside and see more of the city. On my way down though, I was stopped in my tracks by a gang of furry mischief makers. A whole family of monkeys were crossing the path, some carrying babies. I stopped to take a couple of snaps, but then quickly darted out of their way, not really wanting to give them the impression I was confronting them.I was later to see the same family of monkeys robbing the fruit traders in the market, which is a hilarious sight!

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Back at lake level, I continued around the perimeter, exchanging occasional conversation with locals who were out for a walk, or just reading at the lakeside. Eventually, I came to the red cross hall, where I was accosted about a Kandyan dancing show. I was in two minds about this. The guidebook had told me that these shows are very much tourist traps and prices are quite steep, but at the same time that this may indeed be the only way in which the dances, from all over the island, and carrying with them centuries of tradition, might be preserved in the long term. I decided to buy a ticket to return the following day. After the red cross hall, you come to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic – a temple which is supposed to contain an original tooth of the buddha himself and, as such, a highly revered place. I was about to walk in and have a tour, when I was stopped by someone who told me to come back a little later, as, for the same price, I could go in to watch the evening “puja” offering ceremony. It seemed like good advice, so I kept on walking and noted the time.

On my way, I spied the iconic roundabout with the British colonial clocktower at the corner and my first sight of a Hindu temple in the country, with its highly detailed gate and the red and white candy cane colour scheme which would become such a mainstay of my time in the north of the country.

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With time ticking by, it was time to retrace my steps to the temple of the tooth. Arriving at the gate, I saw a man with a huge rooster sitting on the bench next to him. To this day, I have no idea what that was about. I paid my entrance fee and began to walk in to the gardens of the temple. the first monumental column outside the temple details the case of a Buddhist saint who was put to death at age nine and who didn’t even scream as she was struck with the sword, in order to show to her brother how to accept this awful fate with honour. A sad reminder of the violence that people have done, wrongly, in the name of their faith(s).

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I went to the internal gatehouse, showed my ticket and handed over my shoes at the “foreign shoes” counter. After that I was led inside by temple ushers. At first, you are bombarded by the sound of the drums, played by the ceremonial drumming monks, as they begin the puja. The atmosphere is extremely intense, with incense burning throughout the temple, and the noise of the drums echoing through the temple, the only light from hundreds of candles. After a few moments of watching the drummers, temple ushers motioned for me to join a queue on the stairs to go and witness the offering of flowers at a great long temple and then to have a brief look inside the chamber where the tooth relic is kept. Upstairs, the atmosphere was even more electric, with people chanting, placing flowers, oil and other things on to the offering table and everyone patiently waiting to have a look inside at the relic. This, sadly, is where the process became a bit disappointing. People in immaculate white clothing kept being ushered in before the patiently queuing people – a seeming express lane to view the relic. After this happened for the fifth time, I asked a Sri Lankan pilgrim next to me what was happening and why we had been waiting for so long without moving. He explained that wealthy Sri Lankan people were allowed to be fast tracked in to see the relic, rather than having to queue with the little people. The irony was not lost on me, of this happening in a temple to a religion which so specifically chastises the cults of wealth and possessions. So, while the temple was indeed beautiful and the ceremony, for the majority, a deeply, palpably spiritual experience, this information really did leave me with a bad taste in my mouth.

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Fortunately, my guide book had given me an excellent idea to remove that bad taste, and that was to try out the Kandyan Muslim Hotel. To say this place looks a bit crappy is a huge understatement. But the food here – and particularly the kottu – is exceptional. This was the first time I’d been here, and indeed the first time I’d ordered kottu, so while I knew what it was, I wasn’t really sure how it would actually work. Kottu is pieces of chopped roti bread, fried on a hot plate with whatever filling you ask for and a variety of fresh vegetables and spices. I asked for the beef and cheese and it was a great choice. Steaming chunks of spiced beef, with melted cheese oozing all over the place, amongst spring onions, chillis and other vegetables. On the side, I had a cup of milky tea. It was excellent, cheap and largely made me forget the odd set up in the temple. With the clock ticking towards 10 I returned to the hostel, where I bumped in to some other guests: Tom, an Australian on his big Asian trip and Grace, a British Sri Lankan girl exploring the country of her father. They were great people and some that I’d spend considerable time with over the coming days. But for now, it was time for bed.

Throughout my travels in Sri Lanka, I leaned heavily on the Lonely Planet Travel Guide. You can get yours, here:

SriLanka