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Sri Lanka

Galling End to My Sri Lankan Journey

Bout of Sun Poisoning Clouds Finale in Galle

sunny 85 °F

Walled city of Galle, Sri Lanka

I have been to Southeast Asia many times, but this was my first foray into what I would term “South Asia.” I don't use sunscreen as a rule on non-beach trips, and it was here that I would pay for that policy. By the end of the safari in Yala, My right arm and knee were fairly reddened by the sun. For some reason, my side of the jeep always seemed to be in the sunlight. Think of the tan you get on a long car trip with one arm hanging out the window, and multiply it with the tropical sun. Still, I awoke the morning after the safari feeling none the worse. I'd arranged a taxi with two sightseeing stops on the way to my final destination in Sri Lanka, the walled, colonial town of

Sri Lanka's tallest sitting Buddha -- 7 stories tall!

The first stop I'd arranged was at an interesting Buddhist temple. Wewurukannala Vihara has the largest seated Buddha statue in Sri Lanka, along with a very interesting building attached to the back that allows you to climb to the top. The view from half a football field high of the surrounding countryside and the temple complex below is nice. However, it is the journey to the top that makes this temple particularly interesting. Spelled out for visitors in cartoon-like paintings with captions on the walls is a theological crime and punishment law book. The top image may show a man telling a lie in life, and the bottom image his tongue burning in Hell. Hundreds of these images are colorfully painted on the walls, along with scenes from Buddha’s life. As if the scenes of sinners being mutilated isn't enough, there are life-sized statues depicting unfortunates being impaled or similarly punished. Next door, there is a less grim temple with statues of Buddha and other of the religion’s deities. I have to confess that I was unaware of the “sinner’s Hell” aspect of Buddhism prior to my visit. I'll have to do some reading up to see how it fits into the whole theology of reincarnation and “life is suffering” belief.

Paintings depicting a sin and the resulting punishment on the interior of the temple

A short stop at the coastal town of Mirissa was next. Since my visit to Sri Lanka coincided with the monsoon hitting the southern coast, I decided not to do a beach idyll during my stay. Yet the south coast’s beaches are one of the island’s highlights to many people. So, I wanted to stop off and see what one of their beach magnets looked like. It was very appealing looking. The smooth sand, swaying palms, and beachside cafes made me wish I had squeezed in a day in Mirissa instead of a short stop. In hindsight, that would have been a poor choice, considering what would happen later that night.

The lovely beach of Mirissa

In mid-afternoon, my taxi finally pulled into Galle. I have come to the conclusion that Sri Lankan drivers don't (or can't) read maps. I had not searched for a phone number for the hotel because its location is unmistakable. There is no way anyone who can read a map couldn't find it, perched at the tip of the old town, overlooking the sea. The driver stared at it blankly and insisted I find a number so he could be talked in. Luckily, my guidebook had Rampart View Guest House’s number, so he could be navigated there verbally. The location was indeed magnificent. I am sitting here looking out at the walls as I type this now, watching the ocean waves swell and crash. A steady parade of holiday makers, Sri Lankan and foreign, parade 20 meters away from me, making a circuit of the town’s walls.

Strolling the walls and watching the sea are two favorite activities in Galle

Walking the walls is the number one thing to do in Galle. It is what I set out to do immediately upon unpacking as it was a gorgeous, sunny day. After a march in the sun for about an hour or so, I was thirsty. I stopped in to a breezy restaurant called The Taproom for a Lion Lager - Sri Lanka's number one beer. Just as I was about to finish it, the afternoon monsoon arrived. Those seated outdoors poured into the restaurant as the rain came down hard. I was forced to have another lager, and consider a third before it finally let up. The clouds were still threatening, so I hurried back to my hotel. Galle’s old town is small and easily walkable, so I was safe from further downpours.

Galle's iconic lighthouse

All day long, I had been feeling a sore throat coming on. Now, a headache chimed in. Once I sat down in the restaurant for dinner, nausea made it a trio of maladies. I ate only two bites of my sandwich. I was feeling very ill as I slowly made my way back. As I lay in bed, I began to shiver. Swallowing even water was painful. I took a couple pain relievers that I always carry with me on my travels, but that seemed to do little to help. At one point in the night, I got up and Googled Dengue Fever and Malaria, to see what their symptoms were. I had decided against shots for either because everything I'd read said the risk was extremely low for tourists staying in hotels. There had been no vomiting, and no intense pain behind the eyes, so that seemed to rule out both. When I got up in the morning, I looked up Sun Poisoning. Hmm, all the symptoms fit except for the rash (which appeared later that afternoon). The cool shower I took seemed to help. I had a bit of an appetite at breakfast. I decided to venture out for sightseeing and see how that worked.

Tiled rooftops of the Old City as seen from the walls

I completed my circuit of the walls, taking my pictures of the colonial fortifications. The gunpowder era walls were stone-faced with earth interiors, sloped to deflect cannon balls. They had the small, Portuguese-style sentry posts on the walls’s vantage points. The walls went right up to the sea, and every angle had a great view of the rolling, blue-green waves and white spray as it crashed against rocks. After a few hours of walking, my symptoms returned again and the rash appeared on my exposed hands. I have never gotten sick like this on a trip, and it definitely put a damper on the end of my two week’s here.

Another view of the fortifications

After another cool shower, more pain relievers, and rest, I was refortified to head out again. I seemed to have about a 3 hour span before the symptoms crashed down upon me in full force. It had to be sun poisoning. The more I went out, the more the rash spread on my hands. Even the hotel owner looked at my hands at breakfast the next morning and said it happens to tourists who are not as used to the sun. So, there it ended…on a definite down note. Well, all except for the train ride to Colombo, taxi to the airport, and looong flights home. I would continue to pay for my presumptuousness in not using sun screen over the course of that journey. The only bright side is hopefully the symptoms will be all gone by the time I land, back home in America.

The sun sets on my travels in Sri Lanka
Watching the sunset is another popular activity in Galle, Sri Lanka

Posted by world_wide_mike 04:36 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (0)

Close Encounters of the Pachyderm Kind

On Safari in Yala National Park

sunny 89 °F

Up close with one of Yala National Park's male elephants

NEW! Watch these youtube videos from safari in Yala NP

Approach of a male elephant

Nothing beats finding the right tree to sractch that itch!

Sri Lanka is one of the best places in the world to see leopards in the wild. And the best spot here is Yala National Park. I booked a full-day safari through my hotel, trusting them to know a good operator. The way it works here is you show up at the park with your vehicle or tour, and a park ranger hops in and accompanies you. Between the driver and ranger, they pick your route on the numerous, rutted dirt roads through the park. It is up to them — and you — to spot the animals. Some criticize Yala because it does not limit the vehicles per day, which they say could lead to crowds of vehicles around the animals.

Jeeps lined up first thing in the morning, ready to get a jump on a day's safari

This occurred only once during my safari, and it was near the entrance when a leopard was spotted. It was on the main route in, so a backup occurred. Our vehicle ended up perhaps 10th in line, and by the time we got into position to take a photo, the leopard had walked away. I did glimpse his silhouette through the bushes, though, regal and much larger than I imagined, sunning himself on a rock. After that, our vehicle managed to get lost in the wide open spaces of the park. We saw other vehicles, but wouldn't hit another backup until we were on our way out around eight hours later.

Water buffalos enjoying a cool, green watering hole

Along the way, we spotted a wide array of animals. The most abundant were probably water buffalo. We'd come upon groups of them wading in watering holes, sometimes with just their heads and huge, curving horns sticking out of the water. We also saw lots of varieties of deer (favorite prey of the leopards). Unlike most animals in Yala, they were usually shy and would bolt off into the brush if we came too close. Even the bucks, with their large antlers, would eventually scurry off. We also lots of wild boar, wallowing in the mud of the watering holes.

Happy as pigs in...well, you know!

Our ranger pointed out the bewildering variety of bird life, too. We saw eagles, storks, brilliant blue kingfishers, herons, and more. It was kind of humorous how he would get excited about species rare in Sri Lanka, but common back home. I think when I didn't take pictures of the “wild ducks” the first couple of times he pointed them out, he got the idea that I wasn't excited by them. My favorite birds that we saw over and over in the park were the peacocks. None of the males spread their feathers wide for us, but you could see the brilliant colors anyway. Listening to their bizarre calls, I realized that it was the animal that was the giant bird in the animated movie Up was based upon.

Mama Elephant keeping a watchful eye on us as Baby dines

By far, the best close encounters with animals in the park were with elephants. The elephants in Yala are apparently habituated to people, though definitely still wild. The first time was when we were in an elevated road overlooking a muddy watering hole. A male elephant was in the mud, happily spraying himself with mud. He was would use his trunk to alternate between taking drinks of water and using it to splatter his backs with galoopfuls of cooling, mud. The driver and ranger knew what would likely happen next, so we stayed put as the elephant slowly approached, climbed on the roadway, and approached within one car-length of us. But he wasn't interested in us. There was a nice big tree which he proceeded to scratch on side of his body against, then slowly, leisurely the other side, too. I kept alternating between photos and videos, enjoying the show, being so close to such a great beast. In the afternoon, we had a similarly up close encounter with a mother elephant and her baby. They also proceeded to slowly stroll past our jeep, feeding as they went. It was a great experience, but I was still holding out hopes of seeing a leopard!

Highland toque monkey, one of the two species I saw in Yala

What else did we see? We saw mongoose several times — including one climbing trees in search of bird eggs. We saw Gray Langur monkeys, as well as the Highland Toque, which I'd been seeing at temples throughout Sri Lanka. We spotted numerous crocodiles — most partially or nearly all submerged in the brown water of the pools. They looked like logs in perfect camouflage. A couple were seen basking in the sun on the water’s edge, one with his jaws wide open. We saw a few jackals, busily trotting about on some errand.

If I was that bird in the midst of those crocodiles, I'd be a bit more nervous than he appears to be!

The last couple hours I kept scanning the branches of the trees in hopes of spotting a leopard dozing the afternoon away on a branch. When my hotel chose a driver, they chose wisely. Towards the end of he safari, he inexplicably stopped. The driver and range spoke together, then said there was a leopard about 100 meters away in the trees. He slowly pointed out the right tree, then worked his way up to the right branch. I did see a lighter patch in the obscuring foliage. And then I saw the leopard’s tail, which had looked like a branch, slowly curl, then unwind. It baffled me that anyone could spot this while driving the curving, bumpy roads. He had proved himself time and again on the safari to have amazing vision for picking out the animals. I honestly think he spotted more than our ranger, who was in his 30th year with the park service and very experienced.

My blurry, cellphone camera pic of a leopard in Yala NP

Was that to be the closest I got to seeing a leopard? The coyly curving tail and the earlier, briefly glimpsed silhouette? Well, remember that first (and only, to this point) traffic backup, when we were too far in the rear to get a clear view of the leopard. As we approached that spot, w saw another, smaller logjam of perhaps six vehicles? Could it be? Yes! Two leopard basking themselves in the late afternoon sun. Our ranger pointed them out, then hopped out to direct traffic. It wasn't long before I had a great vantage point. Unfortunately, with no telephoto lens on my phone camera, my pictures suffered at Yala. It had done a great job throughout Sri Lanka, but here it's limitations were apparent. I'll remember that next time I take a safari — wherever that may be. Bring a telephoto lens if you want good shots of animals…especially leopards!

In the about 90 degree heat, the water buffaloes have the right idea!

Posted by world_wide_mike 08:45 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (0)

A Spot of Tea Country

Transitting through gorgeous highlands

sunny 72 °F

Sri Lanka's highland "tea country"

NEW! Watch this video clip I shot out the window of the train ride

Beautiful "tea country" in Sri Lanka

The next two days were at least partially “in transit” days. I was finally able to score train tickets on Sri Lanka’s most scenic passage, from Kandy to Ella. It was a 7-hour haul, but most of it was through the mountainous “tea country.” Here is where most of the island’s tea plantations are located. The curving rows of tea plants crowned the slopes, making the landscape look settled and neat, despite the large stretches of forest. The air was cool and fresh blowing in through the windows of my second class reserved car. The view was gorgeous, and most passengers’ eyes were glued to the large windows.

The scenic Kandy to Ella train ride is a beautiful, 7-hour journey

The car emptied out after about an hour or so, and you could stretch out and relax, and enjoy the ride. More than half of the passengers appeared to be Europeans, with most of those British. It was clear everyone was enjoying the ride, despite the side to side jerking of the train, this is definitely not one of those ultra smooth bullet trains, but more of an old school “clickety-clack” choo-choo, its whistle shrieking its warning to those ahead at the road crossings.

Sri Lanka's highlands is where most of its tea plantations and production is located

It was nearly 6 pm when I arrived at Ella. A tuk-tuk whisked me from the train station up and up on twisting roads to my hotel, appropriately named Ella Gap Panorama. The gap being the cleft in the mountain range where the one Road Town is located. This hotel was a slight step down from my previous ones, so far. No AC, and a bathroom that had a waft of sewage odor. I was here for only one night, and the stunning view from my balcony certainly made up for any shortcomings.

More amazing mountain scenery

I had been a good boy on this trip, eating local dishes most of the time. The specialty seems to be rice and curry. However, when they say curry they should pluralize it. Each plateful had of rice comes with 4-5 dishes of various curries — meat, vegetable, grain-based ones…you name it. My favorite so far was Dhal, a mustard colored vegetable curry that I first enjoyed at my hotel in Sigiriya. Anyway, I was curried out, and my guidebook raved a out a local place’s pizza. So, I indulged myself with pizza and beer. Afterwards, I explored the strip a bit, then took a tuk-tuk back to my hilltop perch for an early evening.

The view from my hotel balcony in Ella, Sri Lanka

The next morning, I'd hired a tuk-tuk (same driver) to take me to my next stop, along with a couple sightseeing breaks along the way. Thinking it'd be chilly on the mountain roads, I'd way overdressed in jeans and a cotton t-shirt. It took us only about an hour to descend into the plains south of tea country, and that is with a stop off at a waterfall and a couple scenic overlooks. Once in the plains, the heat rose quickly. The open air tuk-tuk was breezy, though, and plenty comfortable.

Gorgeous waterfalls in the mountainous scenery

My main sight of the day would be the seven standing Buddhas of Bunduruvegala. These are carved out of a 50-foot tall cliff face, and are more than a thousand years old. The tallest one in the center is about 20 meters tall, and still holds traces of paint from centuries ago. The grain of the rock compliments the carvings, which are done in a bas-relief, projecting out about a foot from the natural rock face. To reach them, we bounced along a narrow road that was alternately paved then dirt for about 10 minutes. It was clear my driver had never been here, despite the fact they are only an hour away from Ella. The guidebook went on to say few tourists come here, but I can't imagine why. It was an amazing relic of the medieval world, set in a peaceful forest tableau. One group of Sri Lankan college students were here with their professor, and two Aussies, but other than that, it was deserted.

The 1,000 year old carved Buddhas of Bunduruvegala

Another couple of hours in the tuk-tuk and I finally arrived at my next home for two days: Korovagada Lodge in Tissaharama. I was here for tomorrow's safari in Yala National Park, in the hopes of spotting leopards from among its resident population. I whiled away the rest of the afternoon relaxing at the lodge’s pool, enjoying its rustic (yet air conditioned) amenities. Those who know me may be surprised by such a relaxed schedule. Remember, though, it was a transit day, right?

The Buddhas are carved out of the rock face

Posted by world_wide_mike 10:47 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (1)

Full Pallet of History in Polonnaruwa

Medieval fortress capital full of interesting ruins

sunny 86 °F

Temples, palaces, and more abound at the medieval capital citadel of Polonnaruwa

On my last day of sightseeing in the Cultural Triangle, I had a choice between two major sights: Anuradhapura or Polonnaruwa. I ended up choosing Polonnaruwa, a medieval capital of Sri Lanka during the 1000s-1200s A.D. Ruins of palaces and temples are scattered across several miles. My guidebook claimed it was the highlight of the Cultural Triangle. It would have to be pretty amazing to beat Sigiriya Rock, by my thinking.

The brick husk of King Parakramahubu's once 7-story palace

The best way to see the ruins is to hire either a tuk-tuk or a taxi for the day, so your driver can drop you off and pick you up at each of the major groupings of buildings. Since the price difference was less than $10, and it was 1-2 hours away, I picked the air conditioned car. My driver, Johann (yeah, I know…odd for a Sri Lankan to have such a German name!), turned out to be the exception when it comes to taxi drivers. He was relaxed, did not accelerate and brake continuously, and instead gave a smooth, comfortable drive.

Border freizes -- especially of lions and dancing dwarves -- are popular on the exteriors of buildings in Polonnaruwa

The ticket counter is attached to Polonnaruwa’s museum, so a visit begins with a tour of ing.its collection of statues and artifacts unearthed at the site. Some of the statues —particularly the Hindu ones — were very nice. Like most Sri Lankan museums, though, no pictures allowed! There are labels in English, Sinhalese, and Tamil, but more information is in Sinhalese. It was a bright, sunny day, but I've learned how easily that can change in Sri Lanka. So, I was eager to get outside and exploring.

The circular Vatadage is the highlight of the Quadrangle group of buildings

My first stop was at a group of buildings called the Royal Palace Group. Much of the brick ramparts survive, as this was the central citadel of the kingdom. King Parakramabuhu’s palace building itself had a brick framed, but much of it was wood. You can see the charred bricks from when it was burnt down in the huge rectangular husk that still stands. The building was seven stories tall, supposedly, but the ruins that remain are perhaps half that height. Next door is the Royal Council Chambers — an elevated platform lined with columns. The walls are lined with horizontal rows of lions, elephants, and dwarves. The dancing, leering dwarves seemed to be a common architectural frieze on the outside of Polonnaruwa’s buildings. The Royal Baths —still filled with water, round out this group. Despite there being a decent amount of visitors at the site, it seemed I had many of the buildings almost to myself. One group that was present, though, were the souvenir vendors. I honestly can't tell how many time I was offered that same stupid wooden elephant with wooden baby inside. Too many times, that's for sure!

Semi-circular moonstones were at the entrance to many of the buildings in Polonnaruwa

The next group was the impressive Quadrangle. The centerpiece is a round building on an elevated platform, with Buddhas facing off in all four directions. The carvings were exquisite, though, with elaborate semi-circular “moonstones” at the entrance to each set of stairs, guarded by deities, lions, and other animals. This was the first of about umpteen million times I would have to take off my shoes to enter. One Buddhist mantra is that “life is suffering” — which I adequately experienced today walking on sharp rocks barefoot, over and over. There were a number of amazing buildings in this group. Some struck me as almost Khmer (think Angkor Wat) in architecture. Soaring, tall, with triangular peaks to their roofs. Some were decorated with Hindu symbols. I saw a number of dancing Shivas and a few apsaras as well. Sri Lanka has always been a battleground of sorts between the two religions — including the Tamil Tiger insurgency/terror threat (depending on your point of view) which ended less than a decade ago. Before coming here, I'd read an excellent, balanced account of Tamil Tiger “troubles,” and it was eye-opening. The dangers of politicians who seek to gain power by stirring fear along racial or religious lines struck home to me. I hope our flirtation with populist, America-first mentality doesn't go as far as it did here, where many are still suffering the effects of a tyranny of the majority.

Similarities in architecture between other Hindu/Buddhist temples, such as Angkor Wat, abound

After a quick stop at a Hindu temple, the Shiva Devale, it was off to the fourth largest brick dagoba in the country, the Rankot Vihara. A dagoba is a squat, half-globe of solid brick. Usually, there are tiny niche buildings attached with Buddhist images inside. Rankot Vihara was massive, standing 50 meters tall and a long way around, filled with sharp pebbles that whispered the Buddha’s mantra to me over and over. I saw bigger monkeys than I'd been seeing — Colobus ones? I will have to Google monkeys of Sri Lanka and see what types I actually saw. It actually made me glad to have other tourists nearby as I rounded the backside of the dagoba. A gang of these big suckers could probably do some damage!

Rankot Vihara is the fourth largest brick dagoba in the country

The next grouping was a widely-scattered collection that featured a colossal standing Buddha. It began with Kiri Vihara, another, slightly smaller dagoba painted blindingly white. The guidebooks talk about how when it was discovered during excavations the white plaster exterior was intact. This led a couple tourists I overheard to suppose that present modern white paint WAS that thousand year old plaster. I stifled any chuckles, wondering if they would notice the paint spattering on the ground near it. Next was Lankatilaka, an incredibly elaborately decorated temple housing a headless, standing Buddha. It was at least 20 feet tall, and dominated the narrow interior of the temple. The outside carvings were in great shape, and you could see animals, dancers, dwarves - you name it! Very impressive! I hobbled around this collection of ruins for awhile as the late afternoon heat rose.

Admiring the standing Buddha at Lankatilaka

On the other side of the parking lot where my driver waited was a collection of four statues of the Buddha carved out of a single piece of granite. Each was in a different pose, including a massive reclining Buddha. This is an active place of worship, and they checked your tickets here, despite my opinions that it pales in impressiveness to other parts of Polonnaruwa. The attendants were aggressive at keeping the troop of monkeys besieging the site a bay.

intricate wall carvings at Polonnaruwa

A short drive led to the final temple of the day, the Tivanka Image House. Like Lankatilaka, this one housed a colossal Buddha statue. It also sported elaborately carved walls, and was a fitting grand finale to Polonnaruwa. Was the historical sight better than Sigiriya? Well, there was certainly way more to see. The temples, statues, and historic buildings are in much better shape than Sigiriya, where they are mostly foundations. I think history buffs will really enjoy Polonnaruwa, but Sigiriya’s geological wow factor will have broader appeal.

After a day at Polonnaruwa, I felt like one of these dancing dwarves...ha, ha!

Posted by world_wide_mike 18:27 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (0)

Climbing Sigiriya Rock

Exploring Sri Lanka's Machu Picchu

sunny 86 °F

I am enjoying the wonderful view from Sigiriya Rock's summit

In my mind, today's exploration of Sigiriya Rock was to be the highlight of the trip. The combination fortress and palace is built on a massive rock rising two football fields above the landscape below. It is the Machu Picchu of Sri Lanka — dramatic, historic, and sure to incite superlatives among those who climb it.

Approaching Sigiriya Rock, after passing the Outer Moat

Unlike its Peruvian counterpart, there is no bus option. All visitors climb more than 5,000 stairs to reach the lofty hideaway constructed by King Kasyapa In 485 A.D. Because of the heat, it is recommended that you begin your ascent early, by 10:30 am at the very latest (preferably at 7 am when it opens). However, I have found that when someplace advertises a starting time like that, it is often better to show up slightly later and miss that initial rush. That, and the fact my hotel’s breakfast started at 7 am, meant I showed up around 7:45. Fortified by a massive meal (including strawberry pancakes!), I was ready for the ascent. My hotel was only a 20 minute walk from the ticket booth, most of it along the outer moat which guarded the lower fortifications.

King Kasyapa's Water Gardens

I waved off several prospective guides along the way. Another thing I've found is that a number of guides are interested in “turning as many tricks” as they can. They will rush you through your visit in the hopes of getting another (and another, and another?) client. Me, I like to take my time when visiting an ancient site like this. In fact, the less chatter from others I have to listen to the more I can immerse myself in a place. I brought along two guidebooks, and found that when combined with the good signage, I really didn't need a guide. I heard other guides talking to tourists and they were saying the things I'd read in my research.

Inner walls to the fortifications and temples

Many tourists walk straight down the main pathway and begin their ascent immediately. Instead, I ranged to the left and right of the path, exploring the water gardens, pools, monastic caves, and temples. During the time of King Kasyapa, I am sure the running water and bathing facilities wowed visitors to the court. As I slowly ascended, I passed through the unusual boulder gardens. The king took the massive gneiss rock outcroppings and turned them into an aesthetic addition to the approach to his court.

the Lion Staircase, about halfway up the summit - with obligatory tourist getting their photo taken in front of it

After zig-zagging my way through the ruins, I eventually came to the beginning of the climb. By no means did I have Sigiriya to myself, but the crowds were thin, at best. I sped up from time to time to outpace particularly annoying visitors — such as the Sri Lankan couple with the whiney youth who went so slow his dad eventually picked him up and carried him. I remembered to keep looking back and checking out the view as we ascended. Of particular concern were the signs advising silence to avoid an attack of wasps or bumblebees. The staff who were talking in normal tones convinced me it wasn't a real threat I should be concerned about — at least today. The monkeys who I'd read perched themselves along the stairs to shake down visitors for sweets never showed either.

Looking down from the dizzying heights at the Lion Staircase

The first stop on the climb was the walled gallery known as the Sigiriya Frescoes. During Kasyapa’s time, the rock face was painted with more than 500 soft-core porn pictures of celestial nymphs known as apsaras. Only 21 of these topless, well-endowed paintings survive today. Oh, and sorry male readers of this blog: a strict no photo policy was enforced by eagle-eyed attendants. Proving the king’s court had contacts worldwide, one aspara is obviously African in origin. Even one of Captain Kirk’s green skinned beauties showed up…make of that what you will! I have to hand it to the Sri Lanka on this site — separate ascending and descending staircases made traffic flow smoothly.

Looking out over the wonderful view as you climb

The next stop on the ascent is the Lion terrace. Although all that remains of the colossal carved, stone lion that guarded the staircase are its two front paws, their size gives a good idea of how impressive it must have been. The national symbol of Sri Lanka is the lion, so ancient visitors would ascend the stair to the king’s palace literally by entering the mouth of the lion. No doubt there are psychological things at play that the clever Kasyapa fully intended. My visit had gone smoothly so far, so the slight backup of everyone wanting a selfie on the stairs or next to the paws was only a minor annoyance. Yeah, I got someone to take my pic in front of it, too. I don't know if I am succumbing to the pressures of social media or what, but I never used to take pics of myself much on my travels. What went from one obligatory “I’ve been there” pic to several, I don't know the reason. I'll blame it on my mom…I am sure she enjoys seeing them, and I am just humoring her….right?

Foundations of King Kasyapa's palace atop Sigiriya Rock

A final, steep metal stairway led to the summit and the rock’s plateau like surface. I felt happy that, at 54, I wasn't huffing and puffing too badly when I reached the top. The sweating was also held down by the gusting winds which had been cooling me off. They rose to a roar on the exposed face of the rock, whipping well into the 30 mph range, I imagine. It was once I was at the top that the Machu Picchu parallel first struck me. Looking all around as the gorgeous 360 view, I could help but be reminded of my hiking the Inca Trail a decade or so ago. The foundations of the buildings here were mostly brick unlike stone in Peru, but the sloped surface of the summit reminded me of it intensely.

The Royal Baths atop the Rock

I did a slow circuit of the fortifications and palace, most of which is simply brick foundations. Therefore pools, though, as well as audience chambers and other recognizable ruins. Most visitors couldn't take their eye off the view, though. We had a perfectly sunny day for the ascent, but once atop, I saw some darker clouds rolling in. Sure enough, about a half hour later, drops of rain could be felt. However, the wind drove the clouds away as quickly as it brought them, and no elevated drenching occurred. After exploring nearly every foot of the top, it was time to head down. The crowds were still relatively light, and I hit no backups on my way down.

The "Machu Picchu" of Sri Lanka

After a refreshing, cold Fanta at the cafeteria, I soldiered my weary bones towards the Sigiriya museum. The first level is underwhelming, consisting of photographs of Sigiriya Rock since excavation and restoration began. The short video taught nothing new, but it was offered in English, Sinahala, and Tamil. The next level up had more archeological displays and talked about the early inhabitants of the area, as well as monastic occupation of the area, my favorite part was the film with the CGI reconstruction of what Sigiriya would have looked like in Kayapa’s days. There were some good statues, but disappointingly, this was a “no photographs” museum. It became all the more frustrating in the gallery where the had recreated a rock face and repainted the Frescoes of the apsaras. So. really? No pictures of the modern repaintings either? Sometimes, I think museums get in the rut of saying "No!" and lose sight of common sense. Yes, protect objects from wear and colored ones from flash photography. But allow it where the object can't possibly be damaged by people taking pictures. Please.

King Kasyapa's throne

Nevertheless, it had been an amazing day. I often get nervous before I visit what I think will be the highlight of a trip. Will the weather ruin it, I wonder? Will it disappoint? Today, in Sigiriya, there was no downside. I left the site, walking along the moat, feeling physically drained but spiritually refreshed. The Sri Lankan tourism ads like to tout Sigiriya as the “8th Wonder of the Worlds.” I am not sure that title is appropriate, but it certainly is a wonderfully uplifting place to visit.

Posted by world_wide_mike 05:45 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (0)

Dream-like Caves in Dambulla

Despite other's attempts, the day is not ruined

rain 81 °F

The Hindu temple in Matale, Sri Lanka, and its towering gopura

NEW! Watch this video and its panorama of the interior of one of the caves

The day started off on a sour note, but ended well. As I checked out of my hotel, they appeared to have no record of my prepaying for my room. I usually book my rooms on hotels.com, and pay for them in advance. I showed them my confirmation email, but he wanted to confirm they had been paid by the booking agency first. I ended up cooling my heels for an hour while he dialed his booking service, Expedia, and all the other hoops his hotel goes through to get paid. Several times I told him it was entirely between him and his agent — that I had paid and should be out of the equation. As it was, it ended up that I was right, and I simply lost an hour of my day.

Interior of Sri Muthumariamman temple

I had hired a driver yesterday - a friend of the tuk-tuk driver, to take me from Kandy to my hotel in Sigiriya with three sightseeing stops along the way. I'm beginning to feel that this is the way to go in Sri Lanka. Everything I have read about buses seems shaky (no room for luggage, nonexistent legroom, unpublished schedules). Trains are always booked, except for the third class which has people standing or hanging out doors because there is no limit on the number of seats they sell. It is more expensive to hire a taxi, to be sure. However, if you combine them with sightseeing stops you are essentially getting your own private tour at a bargain rate.

The Dambulla Caves, carved into the rock of the hillside over centuries

The rain came down and drizzled off and on for the first two hours of the way north. It was raining at the first stop — a Hindu temple in Matale. Sri Muthumariamman has one of those towering gopuras, or conical towers bedecked in statues of gods and creatures from Hindu mythology. It was so tall, and the surrounding buildings on the main road crowded close enough that it was difficult to get a good photograph of it. The rain didn't help,of course. Inside the temple itself, there were many Hindus leaving offerings and praying to the god Mariamman. I alway enjoy visiting Hindu temples for their riot of color. The brightly painted carvings and status make for interesting pictures.

Softly-lit statues of the Buddha in the Dambulla Caves

My driver inexplicably skipped the second scheduled stop I'd arranged the day before with his friend. Note to self: always review prices and stops before starting out! The driver looked like an adult version of one of my more ornery students, so I guess I wasn't surprised when “Yash” skipped Aluvihare, but also ignored my request to stop somewhere for a soft drink. Yash also set out to prove himself the most aggressive of Sri Lankan drivers, giving his tuk-tuk driving friend a run for his money. The steady diet of annoying pop music he played made me wonder if he was somehow channeling my former student.

Frescoes line the walls behind the statues

Yash also proved he didn't know the area well, parking at the wrong place for the highlight of the day, the Dambulla Caves. This amazing UNESCO World Heritage sight is a series of caves carved out of a granite hillside overlooking the countryside. Begun in the 1st century BC, the caves have been used as monasteries by Buddhist monks for centuries. Over the years they have added a bewildering variety of statues, and even more impressively, covered every every inch of the wall and ceiling with frescoes. I was reminded of Greek Orthodox monasteries I'd visited in Cyprus a few years back. It was stunning to see the detail and decoration bedecking the walls and ceilings.

Beautiful colors decorate the walls and statues

There was one large cave and four smaller ones. All had a subtly different atmosphere. A number of worshippers were honoring the statues, but most of the handful of visitors were tourists. I had to chuckle when I saw the French couple get roundly scolded for taking a selfie next to one of the statues. Honestly, I was pleasantly surprised that photography was even allowed — let alone the flash photos I saw some people taking. The only prohibited picture taking was anything considered demeaning to the Buddha. Selfies fell into that category proving that somewhere there is justice in the world.

A small stupa decorates one of the caves

Although there were a number of visitors and only five caves, somehow it did not seem packed with tourists. There were times when I was alone in a cave, or with just one or two others. Perhaps the bulk of the people who climbed to the top of the hill saw just the main cave then returned downhill. I wasn't complaining, and even took a panoramic video when I was by myself in one of the caves.

A reclining Buddha dominates the first of the Dambulla Caves

Returning downhill, I took a number of pictures of the view of the surrounding countryside. Off in the distance, I could see Sigiriya Rock — which I would visit tomorrow. The sun had come out since we arrived at the caves, and it was a fulfilling end to the day’s sightseeing. Even Yash’s struggles finding my hotel (despite my giving him the phone number) didn't dampen my spirits. For an “in transit” day that began poorly, it ended well.

Beautiful scenery and a view for miles from the caves

Posted by world_wide_mike 19:32 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (0)

Of Temples and Towering Trees

Exploring Kandy and the surrounding area

overcast 83 °F

Kandy's Temple of the Tooth is Sri Lanka's holiest place

The number one sight to see in Kandy is the Temple of the Tooth. So, it was first on my list of things to do on my second day of sightseeing in Sri Lanka. I took a tuk-tuk down from my hilltop hotel, stopping off at an ATM for more cash. Overnight, I'd heard rain battering my balcony, and the view had been cloudy when I awoke. As I walked towards Sri Lanka’s holiest sight, blue skies began to peek through the gray clouds. Why is it called the Temple of the Tooth? The Buddhists believe that an inner chamber of the temple houses a tooth from Buddha himself.

Throngs of worshippers jam the Temple of the Tooth daily to lay offerings before Buddha's tooth

Crowds of worshippers jam the sprawling temple, with 90% of them funneling up the steps, through a fresco-decorated passageway, turning left at the Hall of Drummers, who hammer out a celebratory rhythm, and then squeezing toe-to-toe up a staircase. The fervent worshippers mix with uneasy tourists, pushing their way through the line to deposit their offering of lotus flowers in front of the gilded doors leading to the casket containing the tooth. The actual tooth is displayed only at certain times, when the sweaty mob scene is multiplied several times over.

The lower level of the Temple of the Tooth

There are plenty of other rooms to explore after squeezing past the temple’s main sight. There are a couple museums, an open air wooden audience hall, and even a shrine to the elephant who carried the tooth in the religious processions for 50 years before dying of old age. Crowds surged and thinned out during my visit, which ended somewhat maddeningly with a wandering quest for the unmarked exit. I had to work my way back to where I started to pick up my hiking sandals. The entire temple is considered sacred, so I hobbled through it barefoot the whole time.

The towering Cabbage Palm Trees at the Royal Gardens

After a refreshing iced tea in a cafe, I hopped in another tuk-tuk to Kandy’s train station to buy tickets for train rides later in the trip. Maddeningly, the observation car and first class were sold out on the date 5 days away. And the final train ride (the day I leave) they couldn't sell me, they said. I purchased second class tickets for the one and hoped for the best. My tuk-tuk driver had waited for me and presented me with a program for the rest of the day. It sounded good, the price at $12 for a full day was worth it, plus I really hadn't planned for anything else.

If you're carrying a bag of fruit, beware of these guys!

The first stop was a hike through the Royal Botanical Gardens. Most of the trees, flowers, and bushes were well labeled. The grounds were sprawling and attractively laid out. My favorite part were the kingly rows of palm trees - both Palmyra Palms and towering Cabbage Palms. There were monkeys here and there, too. I shouted a warning to Kate when one snatched a bag of fruit from another visitor and darted up a tree. I'd seen monkeys at the temple earlier, and would continue to see them in Sri Lanka. It is definitely a good idea to keep your distance from the viscous little buggers!

Gadaladeniya Temple - my first stop on Three Temples Loop

Next up was the three temple loop, all built during the 1300s. The first was Gadaladeniya — Sri Lanka’s largest granite temple. The caretaker took some time to describe the carvings and frescoes I would see. He is an artist, as well, and has been drawing and sketching the temple’s features for more than a decade. The first building had four small niches that you could duck down to enter, facing a statue of Buddha and gorgeous wall frescoes. The larger building had mythical animals carved along the stairway entrance. Two main pillars supported the entranceway, one carved by a master from India and the other by his Sri Lankan student. It was a quiet complex next to the teeming throngs of the Temple of the Tooth.

The carved entranceway to Gadaladeniya Temple

The next temple, Lankatilaka, was bigger, but undergoing some renovation and reconstruction. It's exterior was painted brightly white, so it looks newer, even though it is more than 700 years old. Inside, a Buddhist monk was holding a class for a group of visiting school kids and their parents. An electric light flickered with an almost strobe light effect, illuminating the leering demons and creatures carved into the walls with an eerie glow. The colors were muted by time, but must have been vibrant when freshly painted. Parts of the temple were closed off due to reconstruction, unfortunately.

The images carved into the temple walls of Lankatilaka

The final temple was known for its elaborately carved wooden pillars along its elevated open air, drumming platform. Figures of animals, mythical beasts, wrestlers, warriors, and floral designs covered each of their four rectangular faces. Upon arriving at the temple, I had breezed right past them, going straight to the small, and less impressive shrine inside the temple. It was only after circling the somewhat ramshackle building, wondering what the big fuss was, that I read a sign which talked about the carvings. Once I noticed them, Embekke Devale proved much more interesting.

The carved wooden pillars of Embekke Devale

By the time the three temple loop was completed, I was a little ways south of Kandy. That meant diving back into the maelstrom of city traffic. If I thought yesterday's taxi driver was aggressive, my tuk-tuk driver had him beat easily. If I had 100 rupees every time he weaved into oncoming traffic to get around a bus or car, I could have paid for the trip! I had forgotten to take a card with the hotel’s phone number, so it was a bit of an adventure navigating my tuk-tuk driver back home. He knew the general area of the road it was on, and eventually I spotted it looming on a hill above us.

Closeup of one of the carved pillars, showing wrestlers

The evening ended with my final night of spectacular hilltop views, for tomorrow I was off to Sigiriya and new adventures!
A graceful walkway lined with plants at the Royal Botanical Gardens

Posted by world_wide_mike 00:28 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (0)

Sri Lankan Journey Begins at an Elephant's Pace

Serendipity in Kandy Hill Country

overcast 83 °F

My new friend in Sri Lanka - as long as I keep feeding him yummy fruits

NEW! Watch these youtube videos of Pennewala Elephant Orphanage

Mud Bath at Pennewala

Playful Tussle in the River

I don't want to think about how long it took to get here. I began travel on a Tuesday morning in Ohio, and here it was Saturday morning in Sri Lanka before I awoke to my first real day of sightseeing. I had planned on taking the train from Negombo, a beach town not far from the airport, to Kandy, in Sri Lanka’s hill country. However, the observation car and all assigned seats for first and second class were completely booked up all day. This seems to be a flaw in Sri Lanka’s supposedly comfortable train system: very difficult to book tickets in advance, and all seats sold out by the time your travel date arrives.

Negombo's canal, built in colonial days, connecting it to the capital, Colombo

Serendipity is a frequent travel acquaintance, though. My hotel arranged a shared taxi with another traveler in a similar situation. The driver was awesome, and was happy to stop whenever I wanted to take pictures, plus suggested more stops. Negombo is a mostly Christian town in a Buddhist majority country. The driver stopped at the town’s main church, where a colorful, Sri Lankan wedding happened to be taking place. As we continued out of town, he suggested we stop at the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage, which proved to be the highlight of the day and a very cool experience.

Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage takes care of a herd of elephants rescued from the wild

This organization rescues elephants orphaned in the wild and raises and cares for them on their property. We pulled up just in time to catch the milk feeding of the baby elephants. They were adorable, as you can imagine. Next, I got a chance to feed an adult elephant (healthy fruit, of course!). The driver was acting as our tour guide, too, and showed us where the bulk of Pinnewala’s herd was taking a mud bath prior to be walked down to the river for their daily bathing and swim. He showed us to the best spot to photograph them crossing the road, and zipped us aside afterwards to a cafe which has an amazing balcony view of the elephants bathing in the river. One older elephant repeatedly sprawled out on his side, floating in the river. Others tussled or played with each other, while still others used their trunks to shower themselves. It was obvious the herd was having a wonderful time. This was doubtless the highlight of their day, as it was mine.

Why did the elephant cross the road? To get to his favorite time of the day - his bath in the local river

Next, we stopped off at a few scenic overlooks and then wound our way into Kandy, the island’s second largest city. Sri Lankan traffic is torturous, and any trip by car or tuk-tuk involves lots of time stalled in traffic as drivers aggressively attempt to slip into the oncoming traffic lane to edge their way past others. Motorbikes are the worst offenders, tuk-tuks (think three wheeled, souped up golf carts with gas engines) second worst, and cars third. I witnessed numerous motorbikes deftly miss being pancaked by oncoming trucks and buses by milliseconds time and again. Sri Lankan's are not big on waiting in line, as I would come to find out. The competitive, speedway traffic is simply a manifestation of this disdain for — as their British former colonial rulers would say — queuing.

It was fun to watch the elephants wallowing in the water, just like humans, enjoying themselves

My hotel is a fairly new one in town and is aptly called The View 360. Most taxi or tuk-tuk drivers don't know where it is, which caused some anxious moments trying to navigate there over the course of my stay. It sits high atop a hill overlooking Kandy with amazing, as advertised, 360 degree views. Looking out on Sri Lankan hill country all around, I could imagine hoe awesome it would be to just sit out on my balcony and take in the view. Or to relax in the infinity pool while enjoying the panorama. There was even a work out room with inspiring views!

The amazing view from the penthouse workout room...which I did not use, ahem!

It had taken awhile to get started, but once here, my vacation in Sri Lanka was off to a great start!

Hill country around Kandy, Sri Lanka

Posted by world_wide_mike 02:45 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (0)

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