Adventures in Sri Lanka – Part 6 – Vavuniya

Leaving Trinco on a bus, and facing the prospect of a five hour or more journey across the island to my next major stop in Mannar was just too much to handle. So, book in hand, I elected to stop at more or less the mid point on the way, Vavuniya. Vavuniya is famous for… well, just about nothing, actually. But the Lonely Planet guide assured me it would be a perfectly interesting place to put myself for a couple days. And so it proved.

Boarding the bus at the beginning was a great move. There were rows of free seats and I found myself a comfy one by a window, not far from the front and managed even to put my smaller rucksack on the almost empty overhead. In no time, we were on the road. We retraced the route I had taken in to Trinco to Habarana at first and then, soon after our path turned a little more northerly and the humidity in the coastal air gave way to a dustier area. It was all very sparse and under populated.

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Pleasingly, the bus never really filled up and I managed the whole trip in relative comfort, without incident and arrived at the stop in Vavuniya by late morning. I descended from the bus and quickly consulted the map to ensure I was headed in the right direction. The right direction was for the Nelly Star hotel. The book described it as a place with a good balance between price and quality. It even boasted a swimming pool which, at 1500 rupees a night, was a bargain. I arrived at reception and asked for a room for two nights, before my onward journey to Mannar. The receptionist looked flustered. He searched this clipboard and that, before finally telling me that I could stay in one room that night and a different one the night after. I was infinitely less flustered at this prospect. I went to my room and grabbed a quick – hot(!) – shower to get all the dust off, from the journey. After that, I decided to take a walk. The Nelly Star is on one of the East-West arterial roads of Vavuniya. It’s a tiny place and there’s not a huge amount to see, but this meant that I was one of… well… one western tourists in the city at this point. I was pleased, as it meant that hassle was less and certainly less pushy. The first thing I had to do was get some lunch. I walked down the main shopping street, past countless trucks making deliveries, an unfortunately named alcohol store, and then a somewhat odd looking Catholic Church, before finally settling in to a café for a portion of the day’s rice and curry set menu.

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“Bubees” – seriously?

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I started tucking in to my food right away, of course, and it was a fair few minutes before I realised that the day’s rice and curry was, in fact vegetarian. I hadn’t thought about it before, but this was the first place I’d been where there was a Hindu majority. Nevertheless, the food was excellent and spicy. I drank the last of my ginger beer and walked across the road to find a baker’s. The place was awash with pleasantly decorated little cakes, the first such things I’d seen since Colombo, and probably the first I’d seen at all in non-tourist-oriented establishments. Feeling my sweet tooth, after the hot lunch, I went inside and ordered a milky tea and an iced slice.

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As I sat to eat my colourful little cake, a young man of about 20 who was doing something with the deliveries came in and sat opposite me. He first asked if he could join me and then where I was from, if I was married before – a new question – was I a Christian. I told him that I was, in fact, an atheist and he looked not so much upset as worried. He asked me if I’d seen the mosque, which I had and then proceeded to tell me that he wished no ill will to me and that, rather, he hoped that I might find the right girl and, if god finds me, that I might find religion. This was a jolly polite approach and one that seemed more concerned about what he felt was best for me, rather than any god smiting anger or revenge, which I hear from religious people of many backgrounds these days. I decided to make the best of this opportunity and ask him for some information about the mosque and whether I could see it. He told me that I could, outside of prayer times and gave me a piece of paper with his phone number, in case I should need anything while in the town. What a nice fellow.

After this, I decided to walk back across town and, with the heat beating down, I thought I might get myself a haircut and a shave. Just ahead, at the end of the road, I spotted ‘The New Barber Saloon’ – with air conditioning, no less. It seemed like a good bet. I took a seat in the waiting area alongside two guys in their late teens while the two barbers worked on their current customers. One of the men waiting started talking to me and told me that they were in fact Norwegians of Sri Lankan descent on their first visit to their ancestral homeland and so we had a good chat while we waited. They also told the barber what I wanted before they left. This resulted in a nice haircut, an extremely close shave and then an ‘exfoliation and massage’ which seemed a lot like a really severe beating to the head, but did leave both my skin and my joints feeling a lot better, so I suppose he must have known what he was doing.

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With my beard and hair trimmed and the temperature now sitting around 42⁰C, enough was enough and I decided to go for a beer. Except that Vavuniya isn’t a tourist town. So you can only buy beer in the supermarket, or the shady-looking Bubees, seen above. So I decided to head to Cargill’s. It was here that I realised that beer is really quite the taboo thing in Sri Lanka. Speaking to some locals over the remaining weeks of my trip, it seems that this is because of a perceived problem with alcoholism in the country. Anyway, the process for buying alcohol from the supermarket is that you pay for your regular goods at the normal till, before going to a very small window and ordering your alcohol, while a security guard stands near you, giving you looks of shame. I was buying one beer, so I didn’t really feel any shame, but the bloke still tried his best. It was all terribly strange. Most importantly, I found the shelter of my room and got my beer. This time Lion stout, a really nice dark lager, but beware – it’s 8.1% by volume! Very strong stuff!

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In what seemed like no time, the sun had set and I had the glamorous task of handwashing some underwear and socks to occupy my evening.

Waking up the next day, I found my washing all but dry in the early morning heat, which was already pushing the mercury up to the heights of 38 degrees at 8:15 am. All apart from the t-shirt that had blown off the balcony and was now lost on the wall of a half collapsed building across the street. A three euro Primark t-shirt was not going to reduce me to tears though, and neither was it going to lead me to climb a barbed wire fence into a collapsed house to retrieve it. I walked downstairs to enquire about breakfast. The receptionist was waiting for me. First, he told me that breakfast was not included, though I’d been told the day before that it would be. Then he told me that I would not need to change rooms today, but in fact to move to their other hotel, which was of the same standard and was on the parallel street. I was a bit disappointed, but I went upstairs to pack my things, regardless. When I came back down, the porter was waiting for me and he told me he would show me to the new hotel, but that he didn’t have time to walk. So, rather, I would have to pay for us to take a tuk tuk. When we arrived at the hotel, it was the same price, but the standard was much lower. There was a hole in my wall to the corridor, my door didn’t lock, and the water was cold. I protested, but there were no other rooms available and more or less no other hotels in Vavuniya. I would strongly recommend against staying here for anyone that visits. There was no breakfast here either, so I decided to go to the café next door to the new hovel hotel.

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With the Sri Lankan equivalent of two paninis (stuffed with vegetable curry, obviously) in my belly, I was feeling a lot more optimistic about the day, which was to start at the mosque. With its blue poster paint walls and minarets and its onion-shaped golden domes, it’s a beautiful sight, that you notice the moment you turn into the street.

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I decided to see if I could get inside to have a look around. I went to the door and asked some men who were just putting their shoes back on after praying. They called a young boy of about 12, as he spoke English quite well and he offered to show me around. He showed me all the chambers and translated some of the inscriptions into English for me, even introducing me to some pilgrims who were visiting from another city and showing me the kitchen where food was prepared for people, to be eaten after midday prayers. I was offered some food, which I declined and, when I tried to give the boy a small tip for showing me around, he refused, telling me it was an honour to show an outsider their temple. I was pretty surprised. Now it was on to the most famous Hindu temple in the city.

To reach the Hindu temple, you have to walk down the side of the railway tracks. When I arrived at the track, there was a stray cow wandering about. It had big enough horns that I wanted to keep my distance from it. Finally, I reached the tracks, checked there was no train approaching and dashed across.

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Inside the temple, no photos were allowed, but there was a group of women singing a Hindu hymn, and I circumambulated (in the right direction!)  looking at the many shrines of the different gods worshipped in this temple and the offerings left by worshippers. Leaving the temple, I took the longer road back into town, which took me past a different Hindu temple, which I hadn’t been aware of, with an incredible thatched structure. A puja was taking place at the time and, though I couldn’t take photos, the priests welcomed me inside to witness the ceremony.

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Further down the road, past the mosque again, I came to the lake on which the city was built. It had a pleasingly small amount of rubbish and pollution, by Sri Lankan standards.

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It was getting on for time to eat, and I’d been strongly recommended to go past the lake, near to the church and to try the Royal Garden restaurant. So I thought I’d give it a go. The restaurant is made up of a banqueting hall which is extremely lavish and is used for weddings or, as on the evening when I was there, a university or school occasion of some kind. The area I was looking for was behind the hall, in an open garden area, and had the appearance of an upmarket fast food restaurant. I looked at the menu and thought I would try one of the vegetarian dishes, and in the end I plumped for “devilled paneer”. The food took a while to arrive, so I befriended a cat (naturally) in the meantime. When it arrived though, it was one probably the best meals I’d eaten on my trip to date.

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With dinner done with (washed down with Elephant ginger beer, of course), it was time for bed before the next leg of the journey the next morning, on to Mannar, the sandy peninsula of the north west.

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

SriLanka

Adventures in Sri Lanka – Part 3 – Kandy Part 2

One of the best feelings in the world is waking up in a warm place, with a cool breeze, and just a hint of the morning sun kissing your face. So it was, in my corner bed in the Kandy City Hostel, with the fan above me keeping me cool. I peered through the veil of my mosquito net to see that my room mates were already awake and tapping away on their phones. It was time for breakfast. My suggestion was greeted with universal agreement and we headed off downstairs in our pyjamas to eat. Breakfast here was a more than substantial mix of boiled eggs, toast with a variety of jam and/or chocolate spread, fresh pineapples and bananas from the garden and tea or coffee. The coffee was pretty suspect looking, so I stuck to the tea. We sat around, eating, drinking and chatting about what today would bring. As luck would have it, Tom, my Australian room mate, was also keen to go to the botanical gardens, which was my plan. We were also both curious about the tea museum which the Lonely Planet guide had (unreliably, it would turn out – more on that later!) informed us, was very close by.

So, after a shower and dressing, we asked Anthony, the excellent housekeeper of the hostel, to get us a tuktuk to the botanical gardens with one of his friends, to ensure we got a reasonable price. Within 10 minutes, we were hurtling through the long, sprawling suburbs of Kandy, towards the main road to the south west. Some 30 minutes passed, we paid the man a very reasonable 600 rupees and went to find the entrance to the botanical gardens. We were charged a somewhat steep tourist price of 1100 rupees. The ticket seller handed us each a ticket and a colour brochure with information about the species in the garden and a map to the main attractions. The first of these that we found, though, was not on the map. About 300 metres into the garden along the winding path to the left, was a simple line of evergreen trees. But, in their competition for the sun, they had begun to grow in completely crazy, zig zag patterns. It made for a really dramatic sight.

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Just beyond these remarkably competitive trees, there was an attraction that WAS in the guide. A huge, sprawling fig tree. Supposedly one of the biggest in the region. Maybe the world. On the map it looked like a great monster. In reality, it looked less monstrous and, actually, decidedly uninteresting. It was a big tree, don’t get me wrong. But it was not the breath taking goliath we had been anticipating.

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After looking at the fig tree for a few moments and stopping for a quick drink break at a café, we decided to press on deeper in to the park. At the other side of the huge expanse of grass where the fig tree is located, there is a path fringed with huge, towering trees. Moving closer, we noticed the trees were heavy with huge, black, shadowy birds. Every branch holding 20, 30 or more. One took off and, as it swooped across the horizon, I said to Tom:

“Look at the wings of that bird. They’re just like a bat’s!”

After a short pause, and listening to the cacophonous screeching, I piped up again:

“Oh. They’re bats.”

Not my brightest moment in life. But sure enough, there were perhaps 10,000 of these huge fruit bats, hanging in the trees and taking turns to swoop from one side of the horizon to the other, creating a huge din. It was quite amazing to watch.

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Strolling on from here, we passed a wedding, with a truly stunning bride, dressed in an ornate red dress and then came to, botanically speaking, the most interesting thing in the garden. It was a collection of trees which were all part of one organism, with roots growing from various parts of a single trunk. The whole thing was very low to the ground and people were sitting on it, all around. From here, the path curled right to the river, where a flimsy, but quite fun, suspension bridge lurched out over the fast flowing water. The view along it one of trees as far as you could see. A welcome change from the extremely built up surroundings of Kandy itself.

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Back on the path back down the other side of the park, through the palmyra walk and so on, we walked past: first, a group of monkeys, playing. Next we saw huge cows, relaxing in the pasture and then a variety of wild dogs. Finally a host of couples, snatching a moment for a date in a shaded part of the park, away from the supposedly ever watchful eyes of parents, and so on.

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Finally, we went into the orchid house, where they had a quite impressive display of different types of orchids. Finally, we filed out of the garden and went to negotiate a price for a tuktuk to the tea museum. We went to the first guy and he quoted us 1000 rupees each way. We explained that it was nearby and that we had only paid 600 to get there, all the way from Kandy. After asking a second driver for a price, we realised something was up. Were we just being ripped off? They kept saying we had to go in to Kandy, then back out to the museum. But our book told us different. Finally, running out of options and totally lacking understanding of the situation, we resorted to Google maps. And there we saw it. The museum was the other side of the city, in a completely different location to that suggested by the book. Lonely Planet had let us down. With the huge increase in price, coupled with the cost of entering the museum and then getting back to Kandy, we decided to give the tea museum a miss and head back to the city.

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Arriving in the north part of the city, we were pretty starving, so as we walked past, I led Tom back to the Kandyan Muslim hotel, where he had the kottu and I tried something called beef Kabul. This is a roti bread, filled with stir fried spicy meat and vegetables. It is then toasted and covered in cheese, before finally being fried. If it sounds like a heart attack on a plate, it’s because it is. It is, however, delicious.

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With lunch dealt with and Tom heading off to see a man about some elephants, I decided to go for a walk around the large, open-air fruit and vegetable market. Halfway there, I walked past the fire station, where someone started calling out to me. A fireman beckoned me in and proceeded to show me all of the machines and engines, before finally trying to sell me a t-shirt from the fire station’s uniform cupboard, after his boss had gone home. It was a really nice design and I was tempted, but I realised that the replacement would likely come from tax payers’ money, so I thought better of it. After this I took a trip to the fruit market, which had a lovely courtyard in the middle, before sitting down in a café for something sweet – namely another soursop juice and a sweet ball, the name of which I don’t recall. Whatever it was called, it was delicious.

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With my sweet tooth sated, it was almost time for the Kandyan dancing show, so I made my way around the lake, to the Red Cross Centre. As I arrived, there were already a lot of people there, so I made my way to my reserved seat in the third row and waited for the show to begin. As I mentioned in my previous post, this is undoubtedly a show for tourists. But, as the man who presents the show points out, this show, in fact, preserves a number of dances which would otherwise have disappeared altogether from Sri Lankan culture. The shows inc=volved quite acrobatic dances of various kinds, with extremely elaborate costumes, and props involving spinning plates, weapons, masks and were all accompanied by live music. Afterwards, there was a fire show where men first showed their immunity to its power by rubbing burning objects on their skin and ultimately in their mouths.As a finale, the men also walked on burning hot coals. We in the audience were invited to gather round and, throughout the fire performance, you could feel the heat of the flames and the coals very intensely. It was all quite impressive.

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After this I went and met up with my hostel mates at a bar overlooking the lake for a few beers and to watch a bit of the ashes cricket. Pleasingly, in my Australian company, it was the first test in Cardiff and England were really taking the game to Australia, so I wasn’t open to too much abuse. After a pit stop for a biryani in the Garden Café – a really excellent biryani, at that – it was back to the bar for a few more beers, a good deal of chat with a whole bunch of travellers from far and wide and then bed, before leaving Kandy in the morning.

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

SriLanka