The Ancient Cities Dambulla, Sigiriya, and Anuradhapura to Uppuveli to Polonnaruwa to Arugam Bay Sat 4 to Fri 10 September 2010

It was a relief to pull up in Dambulla and yank our motley assortment of bags and the surf board  and climb over the photo copier to freedom it's a bit cramped on these buses!!    We had done our research on where to stay and so we didn't have far to walk with our luggage to the Healey Tourist Inn - a budget choice from the LP -which had gone up a bit but was still only  1,000 LKR or $10 Aus a night for an ok room within the family home. It was intensely hot and we had an hour's lie down before venturing out to see the reason we'd come here - Dambulla's famous Cave Temples.  

 

At the bottom of the hill is the unmissable "Golden Temple"- built only a few years ago by the Japanese it was pretty garish and the bottom statue of a  dragon with its mouth open  really made me think of Luna Park!    In Kandy we had invested in some "Cultural Triangle"tickets which for the flat fee of $50 USD equivalent allow you access to many of the "must see" attractions in SL, but a bit annoyingly this system applies only to  Government operated attractions. As the Cave Temples are privately run a separate system applies and it costs 1200 rp or $12 Aus  per head for entry.   It was a very hot steep climb up a 150 metre rock face with steps cut into it but once we get there we were rewarded by an incredible panoramic view of the surrounding -with one or 2 mobile net towers -which spoilt the vista a bit.

The Cave Temples have been "holy" since the 1st century BC. At this time a King from Anuradhapura hid here whilst under attack. He apparently prayed whilst here that if/when he fought and regained his Kingdom he would build a temple here and this is the result. Further additions and paintings were added by later kings, a process that carried on until some of the recent painting in the 19th century.

 

 

The whole complex consists of 5 interconnected caves containing about 150 Buddha images and a great deal of painting and the whole thing is really impressive.

 

 

The 2ndcave was particularly imposing being enormous - 52 m wide x 23m long  x 7m high and containing multiple Buddha statues and paintings and  2 statues of past Kings.

There was a beautiful lily pond at the top and numerous monkeys scampering around, it was a lovely atmosphere and really worth the steep climb.

 

 That night - or the earlier hours of that morning really - we had a bit of a shock. I was fast asleep and Andrew was awake when he noticed the curtains moving in the breeze. The window was behind our heads and it was broken (the glass) though there was a metal grid over it. Anyway Andrew watched the curtains moving in a half asleep state for 30 minutes or so -until he noticed my bra -which was hooked on the clothes horse as I'd washed it - starting to disappear out of the window!! He shouted and jumped up and the guy there ran. He had had a stick with a hook on the end and was using it to hook things from inside.  Thankfully nothing was lost but it was a bit of a  wakeup call to keep everything well back from the windows even if they have a grid!

 

 

After that we once more took  the bus to our next destination another historical site the caves at Sigiriya.

 

We arranged with the family to leave all our stuff at Dambulla and do a return trip to Sigiriya as we were only passing through quickly to see the caves so we didn't have to lug our stuff backwards and forwards.

 

We got off where the bus driver told us which was quite a walk to the main entrance past the crocodile infested moat! We had planned to avoid the middle of the day for the steep climb up to the caves due to the intense heat but due to all the excitement in the night and the search for the torch that morning we arrived at midday. Thus like mad dogs and Englishmen we climbed the very steep rock slap bang in the midday sun!

 

The huge rock is pretty impressive. Opinion is divided as to whether it was the  military centre and fortress of a 5th century King or whether it is in fact an ancient (BC) Buddhist monastery and centre of learning.  

 

Current opinion seems to go with the latter view -but either way it is an awesome sight. It was a long hot climb in the heat so we took it slowly with plenty of water breaks. You pass first through a garden and some caves at the bottom - one with a much faded painting to foreshadow the ones to follow "up top" - and then you begin the climb.

 

About half way up a spiral stair case leads to a long sheltered gallery in the rock face. This is covered in beautiful pictures of buxom women meant to be either ladies in the King's harem (the king theory) or depictions of the Buddhist goddess Tara -the monastery theory. They were a bit like the rock paintings in Ajanta India we saw last year - though these are all cut off at the waist. The torsos seem to sit on clouds which  goes with the goddess theory.

 

The paintings were all done using natural colours and were really exquisite - it's amazing how long they've lasted. Interestingly now that time has worn away the paint you can see some small mistakes - a hand in the wrong place - which the artist painted over and which are now revealed. As well as Sri Lankan some of the ladies have Indian and African features which is an indication of trading and interaction between these countries. Very impressive.  Just outside this was the shiny so called mirror wall -with graffiti some of it over 1,000 years old,  about the scared paintings. Interestingly  much of the later graffiti - between the 6th -14th centuries has been studied to aid scholars in looking at how the Sinhala language developed! Makes you look at modern day wall scrawling in a different way!

 

On we climbed - the wind blew very hard here which cooled us down nicely but also made you want to cling onto the handrail pretty hard! Sigiriya actually means Lion Rock and we saw why when we reached the next platform. You climb on up through 2 enormous lion paws. Once you climbed on up to the top through a huge brick lion exiting through his mouth, but this lion has long since gone and now you have to clamber up a rock face. The lion apparently symbolized the power and might of Buddha.

 

Finally we reached the windswept top of the rock- what a view! The top is a huge area - of 1.6 hectares. It has a large water tank cut out and the ruins of many unidentifiable buildings. Contemporary wisdom reckons it was a place of residence not a fortress and a fairly simple one at that having only rudimentary bathroom facilities - again lending weight to the monastery rather than the palace theory. Having struggled up there in the heat with the aid of the modern staircases and handrails (in the old days there'd just have been rough shallow rock  hewn steps up the sheer cliff face) it was hard to imagine them getting the building material up there. Very impressive and definitely worth the trip.

 

So, back on the bus to Dambulla -more of a centre of bus routes- we picked up our stuff and boarded the bus to Anuradhapura - this was a short trip only -about an hour. This was just as well as I have to say I think it was the most crowded bus I've ever been on. We were a bit encumbered with 4 (smallish) bags and the surfboard and when the bus pulled up with people already hanging out the doors I thought there was no way we'd get on. Still  the bus boy was determined and  just sort of shoved us on and zoomed off at 100 miles per hour with us clinging on frantically. It really was ridiculous and a few times I went flying tripping over the bags at my feet and wrenching my shoulder - it's hard to imagine but there's so much baggage and people and no storage room for any of it. Shame it was just too hard to  get the camera out and get a picture of the chaos but we were much relieved to arrive in one piece and count that we still had everything we'd boarded the bus with after it zoomed off!

 

We went back to the good old LP and went straight by tuk tuk to the Lake View Tourist Guest House. This was a comfortable spot in a green shady quiet area which was really relaxing. It was a bit pricier than we are used to $12.50 Aus - as the cheapest rooms were all taken but it was very comfortable.

 

Anuradhapura was once the capital of SL. Initially dating from over 300 years BC it really reached prominence during the reign of Tissa the first Buddhist King. Thus the various items of archeological importance - temples, hospitals, stupas  - are all predominantly Buddhist.

 

As you only get a day to look around all this on the Cultural Ticket (and we had no more time anyway) we decided to organize a guide to take us around the areas of importance. Ruwan had been recommended to us by the owner of the guest house we stayed in in Dambulla and so we rang him and he and his friend and neighbour the tuk tuk driver turned up at 9 am next morning to start our tour.

 

As an aside we had been surprised considering that the war has just ended to find little evidence of tension between the Sinhalese and Tamil peoples. Ruwan was interesting in that his parents were one of each -his father Tamil his mother Sinhalese - he was more Sinhalese culturally but the driver (sorry name forgotten!) who as I said was his neighbour and best friend was Tamil. We did later meet people who'd picked up on some inter -racial tension (a Tamil guy who reacted angrily when asked to translate a Sinhalese word- "I don't know that language -I hate those people" -) but thankfully this seems a very minority view and most people we met seemed to get on fine- living happily side by side - and worshipping the same mixture of gods though often in a different order of priority!   There seems to be an excellent chance that the peace will last, we certainly hope so.

 

Anuradhapura was pretty interesting and we were glad we'd got a guide as it was a big spread out site and it would have been a job to work out what was what on your own. First stop was the Sri Maha Bodhi or sacred Bodhi tree the central point of the site and the most important and holy to most pilgrims.

 

We felt we were joining the dots of the history we'd learnt in Indian when we visited the scene of Buddha's enlightenment in Bodhgaya in Bihar. This was the cutting from the tree under which Buddha was enlightened which was smuggled out of India to SL by the Emperor Ashoka's children who also spread Buddhism there. It is allegedly the world's first transplanted tree and still going strong though now it is propped up all around with metal sticks. It is considered very auspicious to collect a leaf  from the sacred tree- as the policemen in our picture had just managed -and sometimes people hang around for hours waiting for one to drop. As ever the shrine was surrounded by beautiful flowers given as offerings. It is obviously a very special place to many people.

 

We saw the ruins of various palaces and temples - standouts include the white dagoba or stupa Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba a massive structure dating from 140 BC, after various invasions (from India) it now stands at 55 metres much less than the original and is set in an attractive park.

 

We also took in Thuparama Dagoba reputedly the oldest dagoda in the world. Dating from the 3rd century BC it is an imposing structure said to contain the right collar bone of Buddha. In addition we saw the largest dagoda Abhayagiri Dagoda an immense structure which stood 75 metres at its peak. There is a huge unesco backed project to restore this underway and when we visited there were teams of students as well as teams of locals working there. They were taking a well earned lunch break (in the intense heat) when we visited.

 

Which is what we did next. I've only really given a brief  overview of what we saw - but interesting stuff. Lunch was fantastic -Ruwan surprised us by taking us to his home. He lives with his wife and 2 lovely little girls in a large shady house in a fairly rural area with tropical fruit trees and spices in the garden all very idyllic. Also incredibly idyllic was the fantastic lunch his wife cooked for us. It was a typical Sri Lankan meal comprising of  rice and a variety of mainly vegetarian spicy curries. Ruwan grated fresh coconut from his garden as an accompaniment and believe me the whole thing was incredibly tasty.

 

After this fortified (but starting to feel a bit sleepy due to our full stomachs in the heat!) we set off for the later part of the tour to the small village of Mihintale 13km or so on from Anuradhapura.

 

Mihintale is a site of many more ruins and is particularly of significance as it is the setting in the 2nd century BC for the first conversion to Buddhism (of King Tissa by Prince Mahinda, Asoka's son) and so the place where Buddhism began in SL and the setting for the oldest Buddhist temple on the island.  You're supposed to climb a steep set of stone stairs to this point but (due to the heat etc) we cheated and cut in a back way!

 

Nearby was  an ancient hospital run by the monks as was everything in these parts.  It looked pretty well organized and it was interesting that they had a person - shaped bath for Ayurveda hot oil baths - similar to what they still do today in this medicine.

 

Further up the stairs was the monastery dining area  with an implement for grinding the wheat and a long trough in which the locals provided food for the monks. There were also 2 quite famous inscribed stone slabs - setting out various matters of local interest- and defining the duties of both the monks and their many servants.

 

Near here is the Sinha Pokuna -a small pool for the monks' bathing. There is a magnificent looking lion carving - the idea was that  you place a hand on each of his paws which positions you directly under the shower jet!

 

 We then walked up a steep road lined on each side with beautiful frangipani trees -this leads to the spot where the meeting between Tissa and Mihinda took place and SL's oldest temple which stands here at the spot where Mahinda stood.There was a great view back to Anuradhapura.

We then climbed  up Aradhana Gala or Meditation Rock -a steep climb  to a windswept point with amazing views. I was very glad for the railing all the way -it was a bit scary in parts particularly when the wind got up. As we arrived at the top we were followed by a huge party of young monks also on a pilgrimage which added to the atmosphere. At the end of our tour we went to a beautiful lily covered bathing area also said to be a sacred spot. Really there's a lot more this whole area than we could take in in one day - but we felt Ruwan helped give us a good  overall flavour and we'd recommend his services. He can be contacted on 01713264431.

 

After all this culture we were feeling a bit burnt out (or templed out!) so we decided to postpone Polonnaruwa the next stop on the cultural highlights tour and head for the coast. Back on the bumpy bus for some "exciting" driving. We were lucky to have company on this stretch of the journey as on the bus we met Patrick Marie and Adrian from Belgium France & France who were heading the same way.

 

As I think I mentioned before one thing we do miss out on in our usual travels is meeting up with other travellers -we're not really on the guest house circuit - so it was really nice to meet up with these guys  and share "travellers' tales."   After a few hours we arrived in Trincomalee aka Trinco. This ancient city was off limits till a short while  ago as it is right in the thick of the war zone. Now thankfully all that is over but there was still a heavy army presence and funny  sort of vibe about the place. We tried to get on the bus to our destination that night -Uppuveli a beach just 4km down the road - but (first time of a few) due to the surf board and/or the luggage they wouldn't take us. So we got a tuk tuk for 250 rupees. We tried to bargain down but were told this was a fixed fare but later found out Marie Patrick and Adrian had got them down to 100 rp! Adrian is French but has a mother of African descent - he looks somewhat Sri Lankan and was commonly assumed to be so- making it easier to get a good deal. That's our excuse anyway!

 

We arrived at the French Garden Pragash guest house $10 Aus a night for  a very basic little room  -with a truly amazing location right on the beach.   Ahhh….the beach …for the first time in ages - somewhat self consciously I got the chicken -white flesh back into  the bikini and went and basked. It was  lovely -crystal clear sea and clean white sand -just perfect. This is what we came for!!

 

Nearby they ran diving and snorkelling trips. We thought about going for a dive but partly on financial grounds and partly as the visibility isn't that great at this time of year we settled for going for a boat trip to nearby Pigeon Island a coral island with great snorkelling. We had also met up with David and Ben two fellow Aussies so the next morning the 7 of us got in the back of a truck to take us to nearby Nilaveli Beach from where we caught the boat to Pigeon Island. Just a short while ago this place was a full on war zone and there was a ban on swimming snorkeling etc- now it is a big day trip place for foreigners and locals.

 

There was still an army presence a couple of soldiers standing around gawking at the foreign girl in bikinis mainly! I was initially a bit disappointed as there were so many people but they came and went in droves and once you were out in the coral it was easy to get away from it all. Great snorkeling -lovely fish and even quite a few reef sharks.   We even saw a turtle very briefly. It was really lovely to be back in the water again.

 

 Feeling a bit too sun kissed that afternoon we headed by bus into Trinco. It was an interesting little town we headed past some (very smelly) fish stores and then were amazed to see a herd of deer just hanging around!   They seem to live all around the fort area and are a protected species thankfully. The fort -  Fort Frederick - based right above  the huge natural harbour -was a pretty imposing structure.

 

Initially built by the Portuguese in the 17th century it was later rebuilt by the Dutch, and later still taken over by the British though it is still known as the Dutch Fort. It is now totally occupied by the army, but aside from the odd check point you can move around pretty freely.

 

 

 We walked up to the huge Buddha statue staring out over the harbor and then to the Gokana Temple. Set on a huge rock known as Lovers' Leap the cave below the cliffs of this temple houses a special sacred lingam or Hindu phallic symbol making it a very spiritually important centre for Hindus. In the important Hindu epic the Ramayana the evil demon (the very same one who kidnapped Sita and took her to the cave at Ella) stole the lingam from Tibet. Seeing it was an object of veneration the Portuguese (being so intolerant of anything non -catholic ) destroyed the cliff top temple in the 17th century and the whole thing -including the lingam- fell into the sea, only being rescued by a diving team in the 1960s.

 

We went up to the rock face to see the sunset and noticed many fishing boats gathering. They were queuing to go and pray before the sacred lingam to ensure their safe return from their night's fishing.

 

We got talking to one of the holy men at the temple which was interesting.  He was angry that the Sinhalese plan to destroy the lingam and put a Buddha there- surely this can't be right… we never heard this again - but even so it hinted at some ill feeling still existing between the Tamils and the Sinhalese despite the new peace.  As we walked back to catch the bus we witnessed an amazing sunset.

 

 

We really could have lingered here a bit longer but we had to keep moving. Andrew was keen to get at least a week's surfing in and our month in SL was going quickly. So -back on the bus this time to Polonnaruwa an ancient city. We were pretty tired on arrival as it was an early start to get the bus. Thus we were pleased when we arrived to be met by the very high energy Mr. Bandula a tuk tuk driver who also co-runs the Manel Guest House - he sort of took over and we ended up arranging to stay there. It was a bit pricey for us  - $19 Aus including breakfast - but the room was a cut above what we're used to. Maybe for this reason we had a short nap on arrival but  crashed out too much sleeping until 3pm making it a bit of a rush to see the sites of Polonnaruwa!

 

Before this  though we went to see a local wood carving factory -very much of interest to Andrew. The factory makes a point of training and employing disabled and elderly people and produces all sorts of local crafts wood carving, some amazing furniture masks etc   They gave us an interesting demonstration as to how the colours for the murals at Sigiriya had been made using natural dyes made from different woods and lime and chalk. The place was really "tourist central" with numerous (mainly European) tourists being shepherded around by guides doing the hard sell!   We bought a few things and I've never seen such a lineup of credit card machines! Some nice things - if we'd been a bit more cashed up we'd have liked one of the tables - mind you we haven't a house to put it in so it seems a bit surplus to requirements at the moment!

 

We hired bicycles to have a look around the ruins but like I said we maybe left it a little too late though this mercifully meant we avoided cycling in the heat. After a quick look around the Museum (very good) we ran into Mr. RD Gunawardhana and decided to have him as our guide. A long term (retired) employee of the archeology department this was a good move as he was a real font of knowledge.

 

Polonnaruwa was a major city and trading centre over 800 years ago.  Now all that remains are a fairly spread out range of various ruins mainly palaces and temples which Mr. G did his best to whizz us around in timely style! It was a great flat venue for biking which was fun.

 

Highlights include the Audience hall -where meetings took place - with fine lions and a frieze of impressive elephants all of which are in different positions. There was also an imposing old palace and numerous temples - including one which once housed Kandy's tooth relic. There was a hospital very similar to the one we'd seen previously in Anuradhapura, and interestingly various medical instruments once used there were displayed in the Museum -apparently a lot of them similar to  the modern equivalent.

 

Most impressive though were the large Buddha statues. The Gal Vihara was our favourite. Once part of a monastery these 4 separate images are amazingly all cut from a single huge slab of granite.

 

Very impressive. By the end of our tour we'd run out of daylight. As our bikes had no lights we had a bit of a scary ride back along the road dodging on -coming trucks and potholes so we cut out the end of the tour!   We felt we'd got our money's worth though and would recommend Mr. G as a guide -contact him on 071 2678017.

 

We had a lovely  surprise that evening as Marie our French friend had turned up at our guest house so we had dinner with her. SL is a bit like this -everyone does the same "circuit" so you keep bumping into familiar faces which is nice.

 

Next morning Mr. Bandula took us quickly to the Southern group of temples to see one statue we'd missed at the rushed end of our tour.  This impressive 4 metre high statue is either of Agastya -a scholar in which case he's holding a book -or King Parakramabahu I -in which case he's holding the yoke of Kingship.   

 

We then went on to the tram-bus. At last (for Andrew) we were heading back to the coast to Arugam Bay -a very good surf spot.

 

 

We had been planning to go by bus but thought we might go part of the way by train as it is easier with the surf board - but on Mr. Bandula's advice we managed to combine  both,  catching an amazing tram-like bus on train rails all the way to the Southern coast town of Batticaloa.

 

This great invention -apparently made in India -  was great fun and we really enjoyed it, far more comfortable than the bus. Mr. Bandula was a great help and overall Mr. Fixit -he organizes tours of the area including wildlife safaris - and whilst a bit overpowering he gets it all done for you!   Give him a call on 0778020405.

 

 

So, after leaving the tram-bus we got on a boring ordinary bus and by mid afternoon of Friday 10th September we finally arrived at  Andrew's dream destination - the  surfing Mecca of Arugam Bay.