So that was country 93. I liked Sri Lanka a lot and found the people to be exceptionally friendly and warm. The travel there and back wasn't the easiest however. Firstly arriving in a new country at midnight isn't ideal. Then yesterday I found out that the bus to the airport stops running "sometime before 7pm" and my flight was due to leave at 1am. So having run out of money, checked out of the hotel and dripping with sweat in the intense heat, I took an early bus to the air-conditioned airport. I managed to change my clothes for dry ones in the toilet there and then settled down to kill 8 hours with a book, a last bottle of water and my MP3 player. After the 3 hour flight to Bangkok (no chance to sleep with a much-needed meal to eat) I had another 5 hour wait there for the remaining flight to China. So when I finally got home, I'd been without sleep for 36 hours and was barely thinking straight. I'm hoping to catch up on my Zzzzzs tonight.
I’m probably in Colombo a day longer than I need (or want) to be. It’s such a big city that to get anywhere means a crowded bus, super-slow train or exhausting walk (with persistent cries of "Taxi?" from every passing tuk-tuk). Still, I need to do a little shopping, and there are a variety of religious buildings to view – Muslim mosques, Hindu Devi temples [see photo], Buddhist shrines and Christian churches dating back to the British occupation of the island. I had a nice meal at a restaurant famous for being used in Duran Duran’s "Hungry like the wolf" video and later, having had my fill of cheap and cheerful curries, I took the chance to blow my budget on a tasty Pizza Hut meal.
I was all set to splash out on a comfy air-conditioned bus to Colombo today but, as I arrived at the bus station a cheap and battered local bus to Colombo was just leaving and the temptation to get going without a wait was too great. So, stuck on the back seat of the bouncy bus for four hours, I finally made it to Sri Lanka’s capital city. The first couple of hotels I tried were full, so I used the money I’d saved on today’s travel to go a little bit upmarket and get an air-conditioned room at a small hotel. Not a bad idea either as it’s so much hotter and more humid here. Thank goodness for the odd cooling sea breeze blowing off the Indian Ocean, just 100m from my hotel.
Sigiriya Palace is a day trip from Dambulla and a fascinating site. On arrival, I was somewhat take aback by the ticket price ($25) which is not only the amount of my daily budget on this trip for everything – hotel, food, tickets, travel, etc, but also, I think, more than I’ve paid for any tourist site, anywhere in the world. After that little shock though, the day itself was great fun and fascinating. The Palace is built on a steep hill which rises out of the surrounding plains like some sort of Sri Lankan "Ayers Rock". You approach it through what used to be water gardens, temple buildings carved from huge boulders and small caves. These are all ruins now, but it’s easy enough to imagine what it was once like. Then up a series of steps, viewing ancient, but extremely well-preserved, frescoes on the way. The halfway point is at the bottom of the photo. Climbing these next steps involves passing to half a dozen large hornet nests [middle left black dots in photo]. As I arrived, other tourists were rushing into a heavily netted shed, as there were rumours that the hornets were about to swarm. I waited a few minutes, but really quite fancied climbing the steps by myself, so set off before the cowering crowds re-emerged! Arriving unstung at the top of the rock I explored the remains of an enormous palace (or possibly temple – no one is quite sure) and enjoyed the great views. It was very windy but a nice way to cool off after the hot and tiring ascent. Then it was time to face the hornets again…!
Dam bull, ah!
A few hours bus ride north from Kandy lies Dambulla. It’s main claim to fame is the Royal Rock Temple – five caves in the hillside overlooking the town which house various Buddhist statues. Worryingly the entrance at the bottom of the hill is dominated by a huge and very tacky "golden" (plastic?) Buddha statue, sitting atop an ugly, modern museum (containing little of an interest) paid for by donations from Japanese businessmen with, presumably, nothing better to spend their money on. I feared the worst, but after making my way up the hill this afternoon I was very impressed by the ancient caves, a couple of which are very big indeed, and subtley lit to make the statues look very lifelike.
Today is my last day in Kandy – a lovely town. I visited the Temple of the Sacred Tooth which apparently boasts one of Buddha’s molars. The purpose of the Perahera Festival, which finished yesterday, is actually to parade the tooth around town (not that you actually get a chance to see it on the parade or in the temple). The temple therefore turned out to be a bit of a disappointment, as half of it was closed to visitors because everything was being tidied and packed away for another year. Even the elephants were getting a good clean [see photo] and some extra vegetation to munch on. Tomorrow I head on to Dambulla
Pathing the time
I usually do my travelling with a Lonely Planet guidebook in hand and Sri Lanka is no exception. One of the things they do extremely well is to highlight possible walking routes away from the mainstream tourist attractions. So today I caught a local bus and headed off into the countryside to track down three temples and walk the 10km of pathways between them. I do enjoy days like this – clean air, little cost, friendly people to bump into (though crucially no other foreigners!) and an element of challenge as I endeavour to find the temples without getting too lost or sunburnt! One of the motifs I spotted in all the temples was this "7 animals in one" monster [see photo] which apparently boasts the tail of a peacock, the body of a fish, the mouth of a crocodile, the nose of an elephant, the legs of a lion, the eyes of an eagle and the ears of a monkey! It’s not often a 500 year old piece of art makes me chuckle!
Super Perahera here
The Perahera is one of Asia’s largest and most famous festivals. It has been performed every years literally for centuries and tonight I decided to go see it for myself. I seriously underestimated the crowds it attracts, however. I was told the parade started at 8.30pm, so I headed into town about 4pm to get some food and find a place to watch it. However, the streets were already jam-packed with people, some of whom had been sitting in their spot since before 9am this morning! I eventually resigned myself to "buying" a seat (£10) near the parade route and sitting in it for what turned out to be 4 hours (parade started filing past) plus 3 hours (parade finally finished!). It was worth well the waiting though with 1000s of dancers, musicians, acrobats, stilt walkers, fire-eaters, etc and over 50 elephants decorated and lit up with fairy lights. Quite a spectacle!
I managed to get a taxi and a hotel in Negombo town after my late arrival in Sri Lanka. But this morning, the hotel and the town looked hot, dirty and dusty, so I decided to find a bus to Kandy, a famous hill town in the centre of Sri Lanka. It is thankfully a lot cooler here, with much more to see and do including, and this has turned out to be quite a lucky break for me, the last few nights of the 10-day Perahera festival which culminates in a massive parade – one of the largest in Asia! The lake in the centre of Kandy looks great and gives a nice breeze to the town. At first it looks empty, but on further investigation I’ve found fish, monkeys, various wading birds, pelicans and a couple of huge monitor lizards [see photo]. My hotel is up a steep hill from the centre which has great views over the town and, in the evening, catches the sounds of the drumming and singing from the Perahera festival.
Ups and downs
I'm on my way to Sri Lanka - country 93 on this year's push to reach the 100! I'm sending this entry from Bangkok's airport where I change planes. and it's so nice to work with an unblocked internet connection!
The trip so far has already been full of ups and downs. I got to Kunming airport in plenty of time but found enormous queues for check-in. I I joined the one which looked shorted, but was still in it 2½ hours later. Frustratingly, another of the teachers at my school casually strode in and stood behind me just as I reached the front of my queue. "No seats left" said the check-in lady. My heart sank. "Ok if we upgrade you both?". My heart leaped! So William and I shared first class seats and food on the 2 hour flight here. Will's heading to the UK and we also met (economy class!) Ross at the airport, another of our foreign teachers, who is heading to Australia. I don't think our three destinations could be more far apart! Anyhow, a 5 hour wait here and then a 3-hour flight, arriving in Sri Lanka at a frustrating midnight, local time.
Paul Hider lives and works in Kunming (SW China) and regularly updates this blog about his life there.
Past blog entries