For such a small Island, Sri Lanka certainly overachieves when it comes to opportunities for exploration. The country’s diminutive footprint on a world map (430km from North to South) belies a wealth of historical, geographical, and biological wonders that are the legacy of over 3000 years of documented history. We spent two weeks touring the country and were amazed and the variety that Sri Lanka offers. One day we were following pilgrim trails through the mountains (Sri Padi, or Adam’s Peak was an amazing – and achievable climb), the next we were surfing in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean (Arugam Bay), and the next we were wandering through thousand years old ruins of royal cities. One particularly enjoyable leg of our tour took us through the central plains of the country and through the relics of Sinhalese royalty that stretches back to around 540 BCE, including Sigiriya (A short lived fortress capital on the top of a large rock), Anuradhapura (another Sinhalese capital, and still a major centre), and Polonnaruwa (also an ancient capital).
We set out from Kandy, driving down the mountain and across the plains for an hour or two until we reached Matale for a quick wander through the vibrant Sri Muthumariamman Temple. A walk through this Hindu temple is a great idea for a few reasons. Firstly the trip from Kandy may only be 31 km, but the roads and traffic combine to make it over an hour’s journey down the mountains and through a number of small and bustling villages. The other main reason that Matale’s temple is worth a look is the vibrant colour and architecture that sets Sri Muthumariamman apart from the Buddhist sites in the region. The contrast here is relevant in the two main religious (and cultural) groups in the country, the largely Buddhist Sinhalese, and the predominantly Hindu Tamil.
After the refreshing walk through the temple, we travelled north towards Dambulla and the well-known cave temple therein. For this leg of our journey, we elected to employ a private driver so we had the flexibility to explore, and so we could try to make better ground than we would by clinging to dear life in the back of a public bus (only some of which live up to their ominous reputation). Our driver charged us $50 US per day for his services which, while valuable in terms of knowledge, also came with the familiar inclusion of premeditated stops at a few tourist traps and a little bit of jiggery-pokery in terms of clarity when it came to payment. $150 US for the three days was a little above the going rate during the low season, but as we were only two days into the trip, we weren’t quite keyed in to the going rates.
Dambulla is known for a large (and increasingly touristy Buddha museum), and for the atmospheric cave temples that lie a short walk up the rocks behind the facility. A number of rooms are hewn from the hillside and packed with images of The Buddha. The flourish of the walkways around the caves and the courtyard outside makes for a relaxing stop and a couple of nice photos (although remember that posing for photos with your back to an image of Buddha is a serious cultural faux par and can get you ejected and in some cases arrested). We arrived at the cave temples at around 2pm and spent only an hour or so in Dambulla. This was enough considering the speed at which we travel and the fact the low season meant there were few other visitors. The highlight of this stop was actually our first view of Sigiriya Fortress in the distance. We moved on rapidly as we were eager to reach the short-lived Sinhalese fortress city before the day grew too late.
Sigiriya (27/10/2015) was one of the main attractions that drew me to the idea of a Sri Lankan odyssey, and our afternoon visit certainly did not disappoint. Despite a torrential downpour as we arrived and the incredibly steep entrance fee of over $60 US, this spot remains one of the clear highlights of our whole trip. The cost left a bad taste in our mouths (since the locals pay significantly less – although it does raise questions about how best to manage the damage that tourism can cause), but the weather certainly did not rain on our parade. Late September in Sri Lanka is the short period between the country’s two separate monsoons (possible only because of the way the mountains separate the landmass), so on the central plains and southern lowlands it was hot and humid. As a result, the torrential downpour (which was not uncommon at this time of year) was both refreshing and exciting. The rain drove the crowds of tourists to the caves around the city ruins at the base of the monolith where we sought shelter for a short while until we remembered that rain would probably not mean our end.
Read part 2 of this story here!
Leaving some tourists behind and leading the more adventurous into the flow of the river that cascaded down from higher ground, we began our trek up to the palace ruins on top of the rock. Before long the rain ceased and the clouds parted so by the time we reached the final stairs up a sheer rock face to the summit, there was a clear view for miles in all directions. This lasted just long enough for us to explore the plateau before the clouds rolled back in and engulfed us as we made our way back down to our waiting driver. When we had dried off and made ourselves comfortable for the next leg of the journey, we realized that we would not make it much further on day one, so we resolved to find shelter near Polonnaruwa, so we could make an early start exploring the ruins on the next morning.
As we drove, we debated the merits of taking a safari the next day at nearby Minneriya National Park. I was eager to spot some leopards, particularly as these big cats are the apex predators of Sri Lanka and therefore grow larger and more abundantly than populations elsewhere. Minneriya is also known as an excellent spot to see up to 200 elephants gather during the dry season. We had almost decided to take the safari when, as we passed the park, we spotted a herd of elephants grazing right next to the road. We pulled over for a few shots and decided that the experience more than covered any need to pay to see more animals.
We arrived at Polonnaruwa about an hour after dark, and our driver selected a guest house for us (we were too tired to protest and did not fancy driving around to find the places we had researched – particularly when the usual protocol is that the driver’s food and lodging are paid by the passenger if they are not covered by the guest house). After a substantial and satisfying curry, we turned in to build up the energy for our second day in Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle.