Bergie’s Sri Lanka

COLOMBO

Flew into Colombo late at night with Tiger Airways after a stopover in Singapore. Tiger flight was only 3 hours, which is just as well as I think the oxygen had almost ran out for the flight. Got picked up by our hotel and had a 45 minute drive through very quiet streets into the city and our hotel, the Renuka at Kollipitiya. Next morning a delicious breakfast and then straight into tourist mode, heading up in heavy rain on a local bus to the Fort district, the old British heart of Colombo.  Ended up abandoning the bus in heavy traffic near the Fort area and after buying umbrellas popped into the Railway tourist office. Amazingly the guy there was also the owner of the hotel we had booked for Kandy, Linton. So we were able to confirm our acommodation and also arranged a driver for the “Cultural Triangle” with him for a very good price. Also booked our Kandy-Ella train. Ventured back out into the constant rain and looked around the bustling Pettah district, a busy business area with many shops and laneways and deep puddles.

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Found the old Town Hall with its waxwork dummies of the original Council meeting, not that it looked any different to any deadly boring Council meeting in Australia. All the staff there wanted “tea money” so we paid up and then wandered back towards Fort along Main Road. Visited the Grand Oriental Hotel, where my mother had lunch on her way to Australia in 1952. Went upstairs to the dining room for a view into the port, mostly closed off for security (we got a bit sick of heavily armed guys everywhere by the end of the trip). Then looked around the half empty Cargill’s department store, had awful afternoon tea in the Pagoda tea room, made famous by the Duran Duran video, looked at the Clock tower and tastefully renovated Dutch Hospital before getting tuktuk back to hotel for a break. Later in the evening we walked up to catch the sunset at Galle Face Green, but mistimed and the sun was already setting. Tried cutting through to the seaside but this was thwarted by more security as the US, UK and Indian embassies all face the sea along Galle Road. Eventually made it to the Green to catch the last surreal rays of the sun pushing through rain clouds, before finding the Crescat food court for a quick dinner.

Another nice breakfast and then a walk through local streets to the local museum. One guy objected to our route and insisted we go another way (even though it turned out we were on the right path), the first of many odd discussions we had in Sri Lanka questioning our behaviour or decisions. National Museum was very interesting and worth a visit, unlike the bizarre Natural History museum which had us in hysterics the whole time with its archaic and surreal displays. We did learn a lot about pests affecting coconut palms however. From there we walked thrugh pretty Viharamahadevi Park, past the Town Hall to the famous ODEL shopping centre, which is modern and not too expensive but was very busy. Then had ordinary lunch at the Hong Kong chain, Breadtalk bakery with possibly the worst ice coffee in the world. Of course discovered a really good restaurant afterwards around the next corner. Bus back to hotel, but Tara and I just had to get dosas so ended up at the Indo Ceylon cafe for a very chilli enriched version. Arranged a TaTa Nano cab, checked out of the excellent Renuka hotel and then off to Fort station for our train to Anuradhapura. The station is incredible, i don’t think it has been maintained in any way since 1912! Train arrived late, hopped on for our afternoon trip.

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ANURADHAPURA

Enjoyable train trip that went quickly despite running a bit late and absolutely freezing aircon. Watched the DVD of Three Idiots, one of our fave Bollywood movies, and there was some nice scenery before the sunset. Our First Class ticket included a meal which was basically a giant plate of rice with a few blobs of curry. Certainly a better carriage than the observation car. Arrived very late in Anuradhapura to find our hotel hadn’t sent anyone to collect us. After a few confusing phone calls they told us to take a taxi which they paid for, and it was just as well as we’d never have found the place. Our room at the Nadeeja Guest House looked nothing like the website and it was small and very damp but tolerable. Organized brekky for the next morning and booked bicycles. Breakfast next morning was very nice and abundant, which was good for our riding.

Set off on our odd bicycles (my one had the brakes on backwards!) and without helmets, which we’d never do at home, heading over therail line and up a cute back road to the ticket office for the Anuradhapura ruins. Bought our tickets at the museum and then pedalled up a muddy laneway to the first of the many impressive structures here, the Jetavanamaraya Dagoba.

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From there we did a circuit that encompassed the splendid Abhayagiri complex, with its stupa and famous moonstone. Added a bit of adventure having to cross a flooded river on the way, the locals making the most of this for bathing time. Approaching the much older Lanakarama temple Merrill decided to launch herself off her bike before she’d actually stopped moving, causing a few grazes and a muddy shirt. Thankfully our unofficial student guide Sampath was on hand with some local first aid remedies. Continued on to the Thuparama and the impressive white Ruwanwelisaya dagoba, and then went on foot to the Bo tree temple (Sri Maha Bodi) which was peaceful and a wonderful experience to see possibly the most famous tree in the world.

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Rode back into town and walked our bikes through the busy but dull main street, and had a very poor and overpriced dinner at the Casserole restaurant. Back to our hotel to recover from a fascinating day at the UNESCO heritage site of Anuradhapura.

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Next morning we caught a tuktuk to the bus station to get a bus to Mihintale, the place where Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka. There was a market happening opposite the bus station which turned out to be quite picturesque and fun, with lots of colourful fruits and vegetables on display that we never saw on menus. Caught our bus out to Mihintale and being lazy and sore from riding yesterday, hopped into a tuktuk to take us to the top of the hill. Mihintale was peaceful and had amazing views, though the buildings weren’t that spectacular other than the Ambasthala Dagoba. It was certainly as nice place to chill out, looking out across the plains of Anuradhapura below, and watching the birds, butterflies and monkeys surrounding us, as well as a very agitated grizzled giant squirrel. Walked back down the stairs which weren’t that daunting after all to look at the ancient hospital ruins, then caught a bus back. had dinner at the bakery under Casserole, where we had an assortment of reasonable veggie dishes that had probably been sitting out all day. Good little supermarket there however.

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Next morning we were up early to wait for our driver to take us to Polonnaruwa but he didn’t show up. Eventually got a call through to Linton’s offsider and found our car was finally on the way. Headed off in our slightly worse for wear Toyota with a rather nervous driver, but understandably seeing the poor guy had to go to court the next day due to police harrassment. In fact all along the roads of Sri Lanka were pairs of police pulling over people just because they didn’t like the look of the driver. Once or twice they went to pull over ours but stopped when they saw white faces. The road passed through a national park and we were lucky to see a wild elephant crossing the road, and were waved down by a man to show us a massive water monitor that he was feeding (he of course wanted money for it afterwards) that looked more like a komodo dragon.

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POLONNARUWA AND SIGIRIYA

Reached Polonnaruwa and started our explorations at the old palace. Everything was lovely and green there but the roads were atrocious- perhaps they could spend some of the $US25 entry fees on them. Walked through to the Sacred Quadrangle via a small Shiva temple that had some resident snakes that were so thin they could move in and out of cracks in the stonework. The quadrangle was fascinating, with some fine buddhas, columns and moonstones, and some interesting architecture.

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Then looked at other significant buildings including the tall Lankatilaka and the Vatudage Stupa, before moving on to the famous carvings. These are in an unusual streaky rock and are all very impressive despite the ugly shelter built over them. Best is the feminine looking buddha in a very unusual pose. after an ice cream and dealing with the world’s grumpiest beggar it was off to Sigiriya.

Stayed overnight at the Sigiriya Cottages, had no idea where it was as it was dark when we arrived. Had a very nice dinner there (discovered next morning it was a very pricy one too) and our cottage was excellent. Lovely peaceful setting with lots of birds and monkeys about and something running across our roof during the night. Breakfast was also nice with delicious bread. Set off early to climb Sigiriya.

You approach this amazing temple/fort/city through the remnants of a garden with interesting hydraulic systems, and some even more fascinating rock formations and caves. The climb isn’t too hard, its more the awkward stairs that make it difficult. You eventually reach a level accessed by a spiral staircase that contains the famous topless “damsels” paintings, the ancient equivalent of Playboy. Once you’ve calmed down you then follow the terrace to the base of the climb to the top, entered through giant lion’s claws sculptures. At this point Merrill opted out, understandably as the stairs were narrow, hanging off the side of the rock face and buffeted by a gale force wind that blew off several peoples’ hats. I continued on by looking down at my shoes the whole way, and Tara later drummed up the courage to join me at the top. There isn’t a lot to see architecturally, just some walls, terraces and tanks, but excellent views in all directions, especially to the south towards Kandy. Headed back down which was scarier than going up, and then we worked our way down along a much less steep path (which would have made it easier going up too) and met up with our driver. From there we drove into Dambulla and had a nice lunch of short eats at the Bentota Bakehouse, which also served the best curry and rice meal but sadly we didn’t have time.  Then went to the Dambulla caves which again required climbing more stairs, but well worth the effort for every cave was full of unusual sculptures and vivid paintings. After viewing all the caves we headed off to Kandy, and up the winding roads to our hotel, the Blue Haven. Nice new room with great views. Had a very ordinary and expensive dinner but couldn’t be bothered going into town, and probably would never have found our way back.

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KANDY

Next morning had a stingy breakfast then got a lift with a staff member to get our phone card organized. Went to the Dialog office and got a SIM with amazingly cheap rates for a whole 500 rupees ($4.20) which lasted us the rest of the trip. The staff there were fantastic and Telstra and Optus could learn a thing or two about customer service from them! We then had a look at the lake before heading to the bus station to catch a bus to Peradeniya Botanic Gardens. Although slightly expensive to enter, it is well worth visiting the gardens, in fact they are probably the nicest botanical gardens I have ever been to. The range of interesting and unusual plants, combined with beautiful layouts and planning, and the history of the place make it one of the highlights of a Sri Lanka visit.

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We spent almost 4 hours here and never got bored. We saw the amazing Talipot palms, the world’s biggest, an assortment of reptiles, beautiful flowers and spent ages in one section looking at all the trees planted by world leaders and other celebrities. Eventually caught a bus back after a failed attempt to find another Bentota bakery (well we found it but not the same chain), and had dinner at a fiery South Indian vegetarian restaurant, Balaji’s on Colombo Street, where the owner assured Merrill and Tara that it wasn’t spicy, but turned out to be the hottest meal of the trip!

Next day started at the famous temple of the tooth, Sri Dalada Malagawa. This is one of the most unusual Buddhist temples we’ve been to, with its almost Chinese style wooden buildings and lack of Buddha statues. Went upstairs to the shrine where the tooth’s casket is kept, and waited for a while with a group of Indian Rotarians for the ceremony to begin.  When the doors to the casket were open, various groups got to go in, until it was our turn to quickly file past for a look. They kept the door open for a while which gave us the chance to try and take photos while being nudged and squashed by others doing the same, but worthwhile to see the amazing gold casket. Then wandered through other parts of the complex, including the interesting downstairs temple with its odd paintings, a hall full of buddha statues from around the world and an interesting museum. Outside the main building was a temple devoted to Raja the temple elephant, who stands stuffed but still impressive, and outside the complex is a walled area containing an assortment of Hindu and Buddhist temples and a great Bo tree.

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Back into town for a disappointing and small curry and rice at the White house restaurant and then some nice cakes including the local speciality wattalapan which we ate by the lake. Then walked down to the busy market area around the bus stand, where there is a row of stall selling all sorts of stuff including a nice soy ice cream stall. Finished up at the markets where we bought some ayurvedic stuff and a few souvenirs and watched about three million crows roost for the night in a scene reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Birds. Back to the main street where we had a delicious Indian dinner at the Devon restaurant with its lovely friendly staff (and freezing A/C!). Caught a tuktuk back, which then ran out of petrol so the driver got us another one to our hotel.

ELLA

Up early to catch our train to Ella. Arrived at the deserted Kandy station, where we caught the connecting train to Peradeniya, and not long after boarded the train to Ella. Had the carriage to ourselves for most of the way and enjoyed the scenery, even spotting the typical tea harvesting scene. At Nanu Oya we were joined by several tour groups and lost our extra seats to a funny Welsh couple who got very excited about every vegetable patch we passed (yes, including leeks!). Saw some nice waterfalls and lots of impressive scenery. Ella itself was very small and probably not worth a stop, but it did have some good views and very good restaurants. Stayed at the very cute but overpriced (as usual) Sun Top Inn, run by a nice family and had a really good hot shower and tasty breakfast. Wandered down the main street and had a beer in the pretty garden of the Grand Ella hotel, which has good views of the gap, and that’s about all there is in Ella. Had an excellent dinner at the Dream cafe then hung out in our room, watching birds from our balcony and the cows grazing on the cricket ground.

MIRISSA

Caught the bus to Wellawaya the next morning, terrific ride down the gap with fantastic views and past the Ravana waterfall. Spent longer than we should have at Wellawaya bus station trying to get a bus where we didn’t have to stand, so in the meantime had to endure some really annoying locals, which was unusual. Finally gave up and got the next one, and still had to stand for a bit of the 5 hour trip via Hambantota  to Matala. Matala was far more organized so had a quick snack then onto the bus to Mirissa, where we then caught a tuktuk to the Handagedara resort. All up it was about 9 hours of travel, but mostly enjoyable and i never get bored of Sri Lankan bus music!

The resort, or really the b&b was really cute and run by a lovely couple, Sudath and Priyanga in their 100 year old family home. The rooms were spacious and beautifully decorated and the breakfasts were fresh and tasty. Only a few minutes away was beautiful Mirissa Beach where we spent the first full day relaxing and catching the sometimes powerful dumping waves. We found a great spot to set up under some trees and on the main street found a small eats shop to keep us supplied with spicy snacks. It was just heavenly and just what we needed. That evening had a yummy dinner of kottu rotty, noodles and devilled vegetables at the Spicy Restaurant on the main road, a much more down to earth option than the bar restaurant on the beach the night before, and much yummier.

Next day we caught the local bus from the main road to Galle, which only took about 40 minutes via the beach road, so got to see the other beaches and were assured that Mirissa was the right choice. Arrived in Galle at the bus station opposite the famous cricket ground and climbed up for a walk around the fort walls. Lots of interesting town and sea views along the way. About half way round was the mosque that resembles a Portuguese church and the lighthouse and from there we headed up into the old town, which had many cute streets and some not so cute scammers too. Think though its a bit overrated compared to other small fortified towns we’ve been too, most streets weren’t all that attractive. Walked back through to the India Hut restaurant where we had a delicious lunch with some of the yummiest sauces of the trip so far. Then back through the old town to the city gates and into the new town, which wasn’t much so we eluded the tout from Calcutta and hopped on a bus back to the beach!

That night, after a few hours on the beach, our hosts cooked us a traditional home cooked meal,  which was probably the best food on the trip. Priyanga used lots of unusual vegetables, mainly because i complained how the markets are full of an amazing variety of vegetables but you never see them in the restaurants, it was always dal and potato. Our last day was again spent on the beach, which as usual was very peaceful and relaxing.

Next morning we caught a bus to Matara and then walked to the train station, in the hope of getting a sea facing window on the train to Colombo. This worked until Galle, when the train turned around and we ended up going backwards to Colombo facing inland!  From Galle on the train was also packed out with many people having to stand all the way to Colombo, so that at least made it worth getting on the train at Matara.

Arrived at the station and caught a tuktuk to the Taj Samudra hotel, which doesn’t allow tuktuks to enter! The humiliation of not being glamorous tourists continued when we approached reception, who looked at us like we were there to clean the toilets, but soon changed their attitude when we said we had a reservation. We had a fantastic room overlooking Galle Face green and watched the sunset before heading to the Club for cocktails, which were spectacularly generous with the spirits. Feeling very merry we walked down to the Crescat mall food court for dinner, then to the green for abit of fresh air before back to our room.

Our last day began with breakfast in the Club which was nice once we worked out that you had to order everything. Went to get some money, then went to Odel for shopping before we came back and tackled the lunch buffet which was excellent, especially the indian dishes. After lunch it was off to Fort for further shopping, then sadly off to the airport and back to Singapore.

All in all a great trip, with the historical sites being the standout attraction, and the beaches not far behind. As for the food, well, apart from a few meals it was generally boring and bland. You obviously have to get home made food to taste the real Sri Lanka. Transport was great, i really miss buses playing Sinhala pop. And of course it would be better if they addressed their human rights and other inequalities in the near future.

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