Darts of pleasure in Dambulla


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Asia » Sri Lanka » Central Province » Dambulla
March 15th 2017
Published: May 18th 2017
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HE SAID...
Today we were travelling inland (north-east) from Negombo to Dambulla and Sigiriya.

We left Negombo around 9:30am after an early morning visit to the beach town’s fish markets and lagoon foreshore. We initially travelled north, hugging the western coastline for about an hour until we arrived in the small township of Madampe. We visited a colourful Hindu temple (Murugan Kovil) on the main road, and I was struck by the modern tin-clad structure that protected the statues from the elements. It had the feeling (to me) of a gigantic farm shed, where bales of hay could easily have been stacked from floor to ceiling. The statues themselves were very colourful and impressive, albeit a little too modern and garish. There’s a captivating charm to old stone temples… Unfortunately, this temple hadn’t captured much charm in its pragmatic design.

After wandering the temple’s gargantuan footprint, we clambered back into the minibus and travelled a few hundred metres to a local, home-based coconut industry cooperative. Madampe has a thriving coconut industry, with many coir (coconut fibre) factories spread throughout the region. The town is surrounded by vast coconut plantations, so this critical Sri Lankan commodity is readily available. We carefully made our way around the cooperative’s sheds and outbuildings, marvelling at the old, loud and inherently dangerous machinery being operated by a predominantly female workforce. With the crushing, twisting and drying processes generating significant levels of noise and dust, there were no safety guards installed on the machines and no one was wearing personal protective equipment. Yet despite their working conditions, the women were very friendly and seemed to be genuinely happy.

The cooperative utilised a number of different coconut products, including coir and coconut sap. Rope is manufactured from the coconut fibre, while coconut sap is either fermented into toddy, distilled into arrack or cooked down into treacle. We were given the option of tasting fresh toddy and treacle, and while I wasn’t a fan of the frothy alcoholic toddy, the treacle was amazingly good.

A small house was located amongst the cooperative’s sheds and outbuildings, and this was our lunch venue. We stood shoulder to shoulder in a very hot kitchen and watched our incredibly friendly host prepare a Sri Lankan rice and curry meal with Chilaw prawns and cashews. We sat in our host’s small lounge room and feasted on a coconut-themed lunch of prawn curry (cooked in coconut oil), cashew curry (cooked in fresh coconut milk) and a fresh gotukola sambol (pennywort salad) made with shredded coconut, chilli and lime. The meal was great, but I was disappointed the cashews had been boiled in coconut milk first, because they’d lost their distinctive texture. We finished the meal with curd and the cooperative’s home-made treacle, and it was delicious. Curd and treacle is becoming a staple in my travelling diet – I’m having it for breakfast, lunch and dinner (and any time in between)!

We left Madampe around 1pm and continued our journey towards Dambulla, a bustling town on the junction of two main roads – the A6 and A9 – that traverse Sri Lanka’s Central Province. It was a long journey inland through coconut plantations and rice fields, where our preoccupied gaze over the flat agricultural landscape was occasionally (and fleetingly) interrupted by small villages. After about two hours the rain hit, which made driving a little slower and a lot more difficult.

On arriving in Dambulla we dropped into the town’s wholesale markets, which are (evidently) the biggest in Sri Lanka. Having travelled 175km after a 5:30am start, we were feeling more than a little exhausted, so it was difficult to take in the sheer scale of the market area. We picked up a couple of cold ginger beers from one of the market stalls, which went a long way to reviving our energy…

We finally arrived at our hotel (Gimanhala Hotel) in the late afternoon. We checked in, organised our packs and then crossed the busy Anuradhapura Road to pick up some snacks and drinks from Cargills Food City. While it was convenient for our hotel to be situated on a main thoroughfare, it was hardly a relaxing place. After resting briefly in our small but comfortable room and accepting that our bathroom was less than ideal, we walked a short distance in the warm night air to a local restaurant (Benthola). However, when we discovered beer was not available at Benthola, we decided to return to the hotel restaurant (Aharapana), which served a selection of alcoholic drinks. We ordered a chicken curry and an egg curry, which also came with vegetable curries. Both meals were incredible, and the cold beer was very welcome!

After dinner we headed back to our room and attempted to catch up on our writing, but we were far too tired. It had been a long day of travel, and we had a reasonably early start the following morning – we were heading to Sigiriya, an ancient rock fortress located about 17km north-east of Dambulla.

We woke early at 5am, organised our day packs and settled at a table in the hotel’s open dining area for our buffet breakfast. I opted for cornflakes with hot milk, sago with jaggery, an omelette and tea. With little time to spare, we jumped into our minibus and headed straight to Sigiriya, arriving around 7am. Rising from the plains of Sri Lanka’s Central Province, Sigiriya juts 200 metres into the air. Much like Australia’s Uluru (which stands 350 metres above the ground), Sigiriya is an iconic landmark that appears in most, if not all, of the country’s travel media.

We dawdled through the tranquil royal gardens surrounding Sigiriya before climbing a series of steep stone steps to the base of the imposing rock formation. At the top of the steps we came to a metallic walkway which led to an impressive open-air spiral stairwell, which I quickly climbed without looking out or down… heights are just not my thing. The one-way stairwell led to a narrow wooden platform attached to the sheer rock face, which (luckily for me) was sheltered by a wire mesh. There was a reason for the climb – the scaffold allowed us to view the renowned fresco of absurdly proportioned women painted directly onto the rock face. It was disappointing that half the platform was closed for maintenance, and that we were unable to take photographs. However, it was an amazing experience to view the fresco at such close range, and I entirely understand the need to preserve fragile artwork with historic significance. I tried to imagine how the fresco had been painted all those centuries ago, but the thought of clinging precariously to a sheer rock face while painting buxom women with tiny waists was just too much…

The only way off the viewing platform was via an open-air spiral stairwell (which was separate to the one we climbed), so I descended quickly with my gaze fixed firmly on my feet. It was a relief to arrive at the base of the stairwell and step onto a solid stone walkway that hugged the rock face. We made our way around the semi-closed narrow walkway to a large flat area of rock where the striking Lion’s Paws still hold their grip after centuries of exposure to the elements. This is where the final ascent of Sigiriya begins, and it’s where my ascent ended. The Lion’s Paws rest menacingly at the base of a set of stone steps which lead to an iron stairwell attached to the sheer rock face. Stories of an ‘exposed’ ladder about 20 metres from the summit made me opt not to climb, so I found a tree and sat in the shade while Ren made the final ascent with Damien (our Irish travel companion).

It was a beautifully serene environment sitting opposite the Lion’s Paws, and it was very, very warm. I watched endless groups of schoolchildren march up the iron stairwell without a care in the world. I watched older tourists slowly make their way up, stopping every so often to enjoy the amazing view. I watched younger tourists in long dresses and high heels make the ascent in style. However, when a three-legged dog casually hopped down the stairs behind Ren and Damien as they returned from the summit, I suddenly felt a bit stupid – a three-legged dog could make the journey, yet I couldn’t.

We made our way down from the Lion’s Paws via a series of steep, moss-covered stone steps which led us through Sigiriya’s impressive boulder gardens and terraced gardens. We eventually arrived at a grouping of ubiquitous souvenir stalls (which seem to congregate in carparks), so we bee-lined for our minibus to avoid the temptation of site maps, history books and fridge magnets.

We left the rock fortress, journeyed a short distance and then stopped unexpectedly on the roadside in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere. We jumped out of the minibus, climbed into the back of a waiting jeep and slowly lurched our way into a Chena cultivation area on the narrowest of dirt tracks, surrounded all the while by tall grass and rice fields. Mistakenly referred to as ‘slash-and-burn cultivation’, Chena is a primitive form of agriculture that has been practised for centuries in Sri Lanka. It involves careful nurturing and rotating of plots, and it is regarded as one of the iconic symbols of rural sustainability. However, there is an alternate view held by some (including governments worldwide) that Chena is, or can be, a driver of rampant deforestation.

Anyway, on with our journey! Our jeep managed to get us part of the way to our destination, but the terrain became fairly rough and uneven, so we had to walk the last few hundred metres through rice fields. I only discovered towards the end of our walk that snakes love rice fields!

This was a fantastic experience, and one that we truly welcomed – immersive opportunities in local cultures is one of the key reasons we travel. We finally arrived at an open thatch hut on the edge of the rice field, where we were greeted with a coconut. Our host slashed the top with a few skilful cuts of his machete, and the coconut water was so refreshing. It was also bottomless – no matter how long we drank, we just couldn’t seem to finish its contents.

We waited, watched and helped our hosts prepare an amazing lunch in the open air over an open fire. We shared rice with sweet potatoes, pumpkin curry, snake gourd curry, wild mango curry, fried lake fish and pol sambol (shredded coconut with onions, chilli and lime). We sat on narrow wooden seats and enjoyed our hearty meal in the shade cast from the open hut’s thatch roof. It was fantastic – even the lake fish, which had been slowly fried to within an inch of its life, was tasty. We finished the meal with halape, a coconut, sugar and kurakkan (finger millet) dessert pressed into the fold of a leaf and steamed. I loved being able to share food with our Chena hosts… this was an absolute highlight of the trip so far.

We walked out of the cultivation area (the same way we came in), climbed into the back of the open jeep and jolted our way back to the roadside where we’d left the minibus. We jumped in, drove back to the hotel and quickly freshened up. We’d decided to go on an elephant safari in Kaudulla National Park with our Chena hosts, and we were pretty excited. It rained heavily on the way out, but the rain had stopped by the time we arrived at a deserted roadside rendezvous. We climbed off the minibus, clambered into the back of our host’s open top jeep and made our way along a dirt road to the park entrance, arriving around mid-afternoon.

After organising our entry fees and associated paperwork, we bumped and bounced our way around the park’s water-logged tracks at a snail’s pace. Lush foliage and trees rose above us on either side of the narrow tracks, so our vision was restricted to a few metres. However, we suddenly turned onto a wide open plain with an expansive lake and there in front of us was a solitary male elephant, feeding by the lakeside – we were beside ourselves! Our cameras and zoom lenses went into hyper-drive.

Our driver seemed eager to move on, so we reluctantly retracted our zoom lenses and prepared for another bumpy journey around the park. Little did we know that a herd of female elephants was grazing a little further around the lake. We couldn’t believe our eyes when we turned the corner and saw the herd in front of us. Our driver carefully parked a short distance from where the elephants and their babies were grazing, and they didn’t seem to mind us being there. They were very protective of the babies, and made sure none of them ventured too far on their own. I couldn’t help but wonder if they were keeping them out of our sight.

We watched in amazement as the herd grazed by the lakeside – we hardly needed our zoom lenses. It was an absolute privilege to be able to experience wild elephants in such an unobtrusive way. We felt like we were in their backyard, and that we’d been invited to be there. A few elephants who had been grazing across the lake decided to join the herd we were watching, so they slowly and sedately swam towards us. We watched in wonder as these massive mammals lumbered through the muddy verge of the lake and indiscernibly mingled with their sisters.

We could have stayed with the elephants for the rest of the afternoon, but we knew we had to leave at some stage. Our driver started the jeep and we resumed our slow jolting journey along the muddy tracks of this picturesque park. We passed a few solitary male elephants, along with a few peacocks, jackals, water buffalo, pelicans, storks and a fish eagle. It was, without question, a remarkable travel experience.

We lurched our way out of the park, retraced the dirt road back to our roadside rendezvous, climbed out of the jeep, clambered into our minibus and drove back to the hotel. It had been a long, long day of travel adventures, and we needed to freshen up before dinner.

We headed to Sakura Restaurant around 7pm. Located on the road to Sigiriya, this place bills itself as the ‘Best Restaurant in Dambulla’, and for good reason – it was amazing. We started with drinks at a large square table in the brightly lit front part of the restaurant, then relocated to a long table at the dimly lit back part of the restaurant for our ‘rice and curry’ meal. The table was covered with small plates of pasta, white rice, red rice, sweet potato, cucumber salad, beetroot, banana flower, chicken, tuna, carrot, dahl, beans and pappadums, and as soon as the plates were empty they were replaced. We finished the meal with Sri Lanka’s ubiquitous curd and treacle, and as always, it was incredible.

It was pouring with rain when we left the restaurant. We jumped into the minibus and drove back to our hotel, arriving around 9:30pm. We retired to our room to charge our laptop, iPads and cameras, as we were leaving Dambulla and travelling south to Kandy the following morning, and we had a few interesting stops along the way.

We woke early at 5:30am and headed to the hotel’s open dining area for breakfast. I had a slightly dodgy stomach from the previous day, so I took it easy with toast, jam and tea. We checked out of Gimanhala Hotel, climbed into our minibus and drove a short distance (4km) to the Dambulla Cave Temples. We climbed a steep rocky path to the entrance in the searing morning heat, and we were exhausted by the time we arrived. We entered the temple complex on the side of a huge rock-face and wandered the five separate caves that house countless Buddha statues, frescoes and paintings. While the caves were swarming with tourists, a calm tranquillity surrounded this place of worship, and I was grateful to be able to escape the intense sun in the cool temperate rock caves.

After navigating the tourist rabble and jostling unsuccessfully for a few iconic photo opportunities, we made our back to the minibus around 10:30am and continued our journey south to Kandy.



SHE SAID...
The drive north-east out of Negombo was quick, and soon we were in more rural settings, with houses on bigger blocks of land that were filled with fruit trees, and fields of coconut trees as far as the eye could see. There were also mango farms and teak plantations. We were on our way to Dambulla and Sigiriya in the hot central plains.

We were now officially on a Food Trip that would take us on a circuit of the central and southern provinces of Sri Lanka. As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, I feel my understanding of Sri Lankan food is very limited and I’ve been looking forward to expanding my knowledge of it (and no doubt my stomach in the process).

Here’s a little of what I know of Sri Lankan food… It’s claimed that the world's best cinnamon and cloves are indigenous to Sri Lanka, and these spices have been traded with other cultures for centuries. The way I see it, Sri Lankan cuisine is mostly distinguished from neighbouring South Asian countries by the way its spices (mainly cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, cumin, fenugreek and tiny black mustard seeds) are used. Along with roasted or ‘plain’ spices, food is also seasoned with red and green chillies, curry leaves, ramphe (pandanus leaf), tamarind, ginger and garlic. Red chillies were introduced to Sri Lanka by the Portuguese, before which indigenous black pepper was the main ‘hot’ spice. Coconuts are also very important in Sri Lankan cooking, with coconut oil, shredded coconut flesh and coconut milk (the liquid extracted from the flesh of the coconut) added to most dishes.

Sambols are hot and spicy relishes, and pol sambol (coconut sambol) made from shredded coconut, onions, red chilli and lime juice, is a favourite of mine... simple but so delicious. My other favourite dish is egg hoppers, where a fermented rice flour and coconut batter is cooked to a thin crispy crepe in a mini-wok to which an egg is added while being cooked. Though traditionally a breakfast dish, I love this at any time of the day, especially with seeni sambol – a sweet and hot caramelised onion relish. I will also be looking out for Sri Lankan desserts. I love any and all steamed egg custards from French creme caramels to Spanish flans, but I think I’m most partial to the Sri Lankan version – watalappan – which uses coconut milk and spices like nutmeg, cardamom and cinnamon with roasted cashews.

Andrew’s favourite Sri Lankan dish (as eaten in Australia) is ambul thiyal, a traditional dry curry prepared by cooking cubes of tuna in a clay pot with chopped green chilies and a paste of ground spices and goraka (garcinia or gamboge – a sour Sri Lankan fruit similar to tamarind that is used to flavour and tenderise meat). Ambul thiyal is too dry, sour and salty for my palate – but these are the very reasons Andrew loves it.

Sri Lanka has a large variety of spicy foods and styles of cooking that reflect the diversity of its ethnic communities and influences from outside cultures (through trade and colonisation). The most noticeable influences are Moorish, Portuguese, Dutch, British, Indian and Malay. For its tiny size, that’s quite amazing.

The Sri Lankan cuisine I know in Australia is fairly traditional. And from what I’ve seen so far, it’s very much the case in Sri Lanka too. The majority of Sri Lankan food is still based on the ‘rice and curry’ model. There are other favourite carbohydrate substitute dishes like roti (the main one being coconut roti), hoppers, string hoppers (vermicelli-like rice noodles pressed into a lacy circle and steamed), pittu (coarse rice flour and coconut rubbed with water like couscous and steamed in a cylinder), thosai (thin lacy crepes made of lightly-fermented black lentils and rice / called dosa in India) and idlis (steamed cakes made from fermented black lentils and rice). However, most Sri Lankans would admit that they ‘need’ to eat rice at least once a day, usually with very hot curry.

While the basic structure of all curries are similar, there seem to be a slew of different types of curries and regional variations. We have been hoping that this trip will enable us to spend time with locals so we can discover the differences in Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim and Burgher cooking when we visit their homes. We are also hoping to get to know Sri Lanka’s signature local liquor – arrack. 😊

Anyway, I digress. Back to the drive.

Miraculously I had managed to stay awake for most of the drive from Negombo, and we eventually reached the small village of Madampe. We first stopped at the large Murugan Hindu temple, which had large rainbow hued eye-catching statues, but I was surprised that it was essentially an outdoor temple with shelter provided by a large industrial shed over the top of the whole thing. I’d never quite seen a temple like this before. We walked briefly around the very large statues, but weren’t allowed into the temple as we weren’t suitably dressed.

We then made our way to our lunch stop – a small business set in the backyard of a family house. The family grew coconut trees and ran a small scale factory that made coir (coconut fibre) products from the husks of the coconut. We watched the various processes involved in pulling the coconut husk apart, and then the four or five steps required to fashion the fibres into rope. There were many old style mechanical machines whirring away and a handful of women engaged in this very hard and dusty work. It was hard watching them work with machinery and potentially hazardous fibres without even the slightest consideration for OH&S practices.😞

The property also had a few coconut trees that were being tapped for coconut flower sap (called toddy when fermented, and arrack when distilled). We watched while the very skilled ‘toddy tapper’ shimmied one tree and moved from tree to tree on a rope rig, collecting yesterday’s sap and then recutting the coconut flower, tapping it to encourage the flow of more sap, and finally re-attaching a new pot for tomorrow’s collection. We got to taste the freshly tapped cloudy-white frothy toddy straight out of the blackened pots they collect it in (after they had strained the bees out of it!). It was a lot sweeter, fizzier and yeastier than I expected, and the sun-warmed liquid had a slightly smoky aftertaste from the pot that wasn’t pleasant. We also tasted the treacle they made on site from cooking down the sap. It was seriously good and probably the best treacle I've ever tasted!

The matriarch of the house then demonstrated the cooking of Sri Lankan dishes with coconut as the star ingredient – a dry Chilaw prawn curry, a cashew nut curry and a gotukola sambol (pennywort salad with shredded coconut, green chillies, onions, lime and salt). After the demonstration we sat down to lunch with additional dishes of rice, potato curry, dahl (lentil curry), fish curry and pappadums. It was a lovely meal, but I really wasn’t a fan of the cashew curry as the nuts had been boiled and had a mushy texture. Dessert was buffalo curd and the homemade coconut treacle that we’d tasted earlier – it was heavenly, and the perfect end to the meal.

Before we left the house, we thought it would be prudent to use the toilet. Unexpectedly, Lisa experienced her first ever squat toilet, and the look on her face when she returned was priceless. I was glad for Lisa’s warning though, as we had left our shoes outside and I now knew to retrieve my thongs (flip flops) before venturing forth… 😊

We then continued on our drive north-east for another two and half hours. The drive from Negombo to Dambulla was tiring, so by the time we reached the township and stopped at the Dambulla Wholesale vegetable market, I was ready for a nap. The market is the biggest in the country and was set in huge connecting warehouses. It was predictably chaotic, with trucks of all sizes piled high with sacks of hundreds of different types of fresh and colourful produce navigating the sheds.

The trucks from the farms would pull in and either unload their produce and wait for customers, or if they were lucky, their produce was purchased straight off their truck. These trucks slowly trawled through the sheds, with buyers tasting produce and bargaining for the best price. It was an interesting space, but I was a bit disappointed that the tour through the market wasn’t more structured or interactive. So far our group leader Thila hadn’t endeared himself to us… his vastly different political outlook was one thing, but his style of running trips was very lack lustre and low key compared to what we’d come to expect after the very passionate local group leaders we’ve had on other trips. Merely walking us through a space is not what we’d paid for – we could have done that on our own. Anyway, we lived in hope that he would get better.

By this point we were starting to seriously flag, and a bottle of ice cold Lion Ginger Beer from a small stall saved our sanity. 😊

Our hotel – Gimanhala Hotel – was just down the road, and it was nice to finally check in after a very early start that morning visiting the fish markets in Negombo. The hotel was set around a lovely lawned area, and our rooms were accessed from a covered old style wide verandah with beautiful furniture. It was all quite lovely, so consequently it was a bit of a shock that our room, although comfortable, was pretty basic. And the bathroom was even more basic… with the shower getting a big double thumbs-down from me. 😞

We walked to the local Food City to stock up on beer, water and snacks. I've been trying a new local snack every time we shop, and this time it was a lovely sticky sweet peanut brittle. The town of Dambulla isn’t what I’d call pretty. It’s an austere and plain commercial hub for the central region of the country, and the loud main arterial road running through the centre of town demonstrates this perfectly.

Thila had suggested dinner at a bake house restaurant near our hotel, but on getting there the group realised that not only were we going to be the only people in the massive restaurant (never a good sign), but they didn’t serve alcohol either. So a decision was made to return to the hotel restaurant. We ordered the rice and curry option which came with chicken curry, egg curry, green bean curry, dahl, pol sambol and pappadums. It was surprisingly very delicious! What the hotel lacked in modern bathroom amenities, it certainly made up for with fabulous kitchen staff. The included dessert was a small bowl of fruit salad. After the beautiful treacle we’d had at lunch, we asked for some treacle for the fruit salad, and while it was good, it wasn’t great. Clearly not all treacle is created equal.

The next morning was another early start – we were visiting the ancient city of Sigiriya, also called Lion Rock. We gathered at breakfast at 6am with plans to leave for Sigiriya at 6:30am. Breakfast was the usual continental and buffet fare, and nowhere near as tasty as dinner had been.

Sigiriya is a 5th century UNESCO World Heritage-listed rock fortress. It’s thought that King Kassapa killed his father King Dhatusena in Anuradhapura and then fled inland and built a fortress and palace on the summit of this 200 metre high squarish rock. It’s also known as ‘Lion Rock’ because a massive brick lion had once sat guarding the entrance to the palace, but sadly only the Lion’s Paws remain.

The whole complex is surrounded by a 12 kilometre moat which used to have crocodiles. After crossing the moat, we entered what used to be the Royal Gardens with symmetrical water garden designs. Walking down the central path of the water gardens, Sigiriya loomed big directly in front of us, it was dramatically backlight and looked every bit the striking monolith that it was.

As we approached the rock, we entered the boulder garden which is thought to have once been the bases for buildings, and which also contained Buddhist shrines. It was hard to imagine the scale and design of this part of the complex when merely faced with a bunch of big boulders in unnatural positions.

A series of steep moss-covered stone steps cut through the boulders, forming terraced gardens. At one point we climbed a spiral open-air metal stairway, which led to the long covered ‘gallery’ on the outside of the rock face. The rock face held those iconic frescoes of amply endowed curvaceous women who are thought to be apsaras (celestial nymphs in Hindu and Buddhist mythology) or representations of the king’s concubines. These ancient frescoes were in remarkably good condition, so it was quite justified that no photos of them were allowed. When I looked back up at this ‘gallery’ as we climbed down later, I realised we’d been standing on not much more than scaffolding that had been covered in with meshing!

We then climbed back down to a narrow rock path that mind-bogglingly hugged the sheer rock face, but thankfully there was an ancient 3m wall protecting us from plummeting to our deaths! This wall had a reflective glaze on it that had earned it the name ‘Mirror Wall’. However, I couldn’t quite see its reflective aspect through the ancient graffiti on it.

We had been walking in areas that had thoroughly tested Andrew’s aversion to heights, but he persevered and made it along the narrow path and around the next flight of stone cut steps to the platform with the Lion’s Paws and the remaining first few steps of the original stone stairway up to the rock fortress.

When we got to the Lion’s Paws there was an option to keep climbing to the top of the rock for panoramic views of the area, but given the narrow metal stairway was exposed and attached to near vertical rock, Andrew wisely decided to sit this one out while I gritted my teeth and started the climb with Damien.

As I ascended the stairs holding on tightly to the railing, I couldn’t help but reflect on how exactly the people of this fortress would have made this climb without the aid of the present stairway. It was mind-blowing.

The 360 degree views from the top were sensational and made the hot, sweaty climb on small metal steps worth the effort. To be honest I’d expected the ruins to be far more intact than the few foundations that were left, and without an aerial overview it was difficult to get a real sense of the complex. It was hard to imagine a whole palace complex balanced on top of this rock, even though there were very clear signs of human existence – the top of the rock was terraced, with some sections divided by low brick walls, while large water storage areas had been carved out of the rock – not bad for the 5th century!

Damien and I walked around the top and somehow managed to get lost. We circled the area a few times but kept missing the staircase that led us down again! When we finally made it down, we were very glad that we had got to Sigiriya early enough to miss the crowds we encountered who were just starting to make their ascent. By now people were essentially walking bumper to bumper, and a rickety iron staircase wasn’t somewhere I wanted to be with hundreds of other people. Sigiriya is the most-visited attraction in the country, and the crowds we saw as we left were definite evidence of it.

On our walk back down we saw many troupes of toque macaque monkeys – the only wildlife we’d seen other than a few cranes in the water garden. Thankfully we didn’t see the wasps that the signs warned us about. We also saw many vendors starting to set up shop along the path to the carpark, which was another reason we were glad we’d arrived early.

When we walked back to the minibus, Hemantha our bus assistant offered us a refreshing fruit plate of watermelon and pineapple. It was a very welcome treat after our hot and sweaty morning.

After Sigiriya, we drove to a rural Chena cultivation for lunch. Chena is an ancient Sri Lankan cultivation method, where a farm plot is cultivated for a short period but then left fallow for a long period before it is cultivated again. This plot rotation allows for maximum soil fertility, and it also allows cultivation in especially dry areas. However, this practice also requires the constant clearing of primary and secondary forests.

We drove most of the way in our minibus, but had to change to jeeps for the last part of the trip on very off-road roads. The jeep b-o-u-n-c-e-d along a very pot-holed road, and then dropped us off close to a cooking hut that we accessed by walking through rice fields. Lunch was prepared by Thila and our three hosts – Nishanka, his father and cousin – with occasional help from us.

We were offered thambili (orange king coconuts that are predominantly used for their natural electrolyte heavy water) with their tops cut off as a welcome drink. The first item cooked was deep fried lake fish that had been marinated in turmeric to neutralise the muddy taste that lake fish can have. We also helped cook pumpkin curry, pathola (snake gourd) curry, amberalla (wild mango) curry and pol sambol, which we had with rice and boiled sweet potato. The food was cooked in clay pots on an open wood fire, and it had that beautiful smoky flavour. However, every time the wind picked up the smoke would drive us to the other end of the hut. Dessert was halape, which is a mixture of red kurakkan (finger millet) flour, sugar, shredded coconut and water that is steamed in kenda leaves, which impart a particular flavour. It didn’t look pretty, but the dense steamed halape was sticky and delicious. Every dish was seriously delicious, and this was easily my favourite meal in Sri Lanka so far.

We returned to the hotel for 20 minutes and regrouped at 2pm for a safari drive in Kaudulla National Park. Kaudulla National Park is connected to two other nearby national parks (Minneriya and Chaitiya) by a large and much needed elephant corridor, which allows the elephants to move freely and safely between all three parks. Nishanka was not only a good cook – he was also a safari driver, and being a local he knew that the elephants had recently moved into Kaudulla NP in search of water, so we had a much better chance of seeing them.

Our minibus dropped us off at the gates of Kaudulla NP, where we were picked up by Nishanka and another driver to start our off-road adventure. Kaudulla NP has a diverse animal population, but our main aim for this safari was to see elephants. Elephants are native to Sri Lanka, and bones have been found dating back several hundreds of thousands of years. Of the three recognised subspecies of Asian elephants, the Sri Lankan elephant is the largest and darkest, although still smaller than the African elephant.

After driving for a while along a heavily tree-lined narrow bumpy road with occasional deep muddy puddles, we eventually hit an open space by a lake. Almost immediately we saw a lone bull elephant on the far side of the lake’s bank. We were very excited and stayed there for a bit, taking many photos on full zoom. The elephant was in musth, and we occasionally smelt a strong organic odour on the wind. Males in musth are highly aggressive and unpredictable, so everyone kept a very safe distance from this lone elephant.

We drove a bit further, came out of a clearing at a larger lake and were faced with a jaw-droppingly beautiful sight of a whole herd of elephants (about twenty) stretched out along the edge of the water. A few of the elephants were digging holes on the muddy bank and splattering themselves with the light brown mud. I’ve read that the mud acts as a sunscreen and insect repellent for their skin, and I think I’ve also read that there are salts and minerals in the mud that they need. However, I’m not very sure about that last fact. I really enjoyed watching the elephants engaging in such natural behaviour, despite being watched by a couple of jeeps full of humans. There was a mother and baby close to our jeep, but the mother always kept the baby close to her and strategically placed herself between the baby and the jeep. Every so often the baby would come into view, but would be gently but firmly guided back behind the bulk of the mother’s body.

It was hard to leave these gorgeous animals, but we still had a whole park to explore. However, we didn’t go far before Nishanka stopped so we could watch an older female feeding on her own. She was methodically kicking up tufts of grass with her front foot, then picking it up with her trunk and shaking off the excess dirt vigorously before raising her trunk to her mouth. She was almost in a feeding daze and inched closer and closer to our jeep. We didn’t seem to be bothering her, but I was glad when Nishanka moved forward a few metres so she could keep feeding in that oddly straight line. Not even in my wildest dreams did I ever think that I would get that close to a wild elephant! 😊

We kept driving further on around the large lake and were absolutely thrilled and amazed to see another herd on the lake’s edge. This herd was much larger, with at least fifty elephants all milling together and sheltering many babies among them. There was so much going on I didn't know where to look. We settled in to observe them for a while, but they kept moving in our direction, so our jeep had to keep moving out of their way. The oldest and usually largest female is the matriarch of the herd, but because there were so many large females, I just couldn’t identify which one she was (until I looked through all our photos later). We sat there for a long time, totally relishing in the fact that we were able to watch them eating, playing and doing general elephant-y type things!

At one point our attention was drawn to two elephants from the smaller herd (we’d been watching earlier) on the other side of the lake swimming across to join this big herd. It was so beautiful seeing them swim while sticking their trunks out of the water like snorkels.

Because of the very large herd, many jeeps had congregated where we were, so it became a bit crowded. However, with the exception of one or two pushy cowboys, I was happy to see that the vast majority of drivers were very respectful of the elephants and other jeeps.

As dusk started to fall, we finally set off back to the hotel. I had been so so so very overjoyed at seeing all the elephants that I completely forgot to mention the other animals we saw…. herds of water buffalo, a solitary fish eagle, a few beautiful peacocks, numerous water birds and what we thought were two small wild boars (we were later told that they may have been jackals).

We couldn't believe our luck. Having never seen elephants in the wild (apart from two wild elephants on the roadside in Southern India), we felt so lucky to have seen so many elephants in such healthy herds, and with so many baby elephants among them. It had been a day of total happiness! 😊

Dinner was at Sakura Restaurant, which was a bit far from our hotel, so we caught our minibus there. There was no menu – they only served rice and curry, and we had heard they did it well. We were served a banquet of red and white rice, sweet potato, an odd (as in weird, not bad) pasta salad, cucumber salad, fried eggplant, and curries of dahl, chicken, fish, banana flower, beans, beetroot, and carrot. The food was plentiful and it was a lovely way to share a meal. Dessert was curd and treacle, which I’m beginning to realise is the most common dessert option in Sri Lanka. I’m normally not a fan of yoghurt, but I’ve grown to love this curd and treacle combination very much.

The rain started as we were finishing dinner, and the force of the rain was so loud on the tin roof that we couldn’t hear each other speak. We had to sprint to the minibus, and for the first time since arriving in Sri Lanka I actually felt cold.

Even though we didn’t have an early start the next morning, we were annoyingly awake at 5:30am, so we sat down to an early breakfast at the hotel. I tried kola kenda, a pea-green herbal rice porridge with coconut milk. It wasn’t to my taste at first, but it slowly grew on me. It was quite savoury, so I really wasn’t sure why it was served with a piece of jaggery (Sri Lankan palm sugar) on the side. After breakfast we unintentionally photobombed a wedding photoshoot when we opened our room door to place our packs in the hallway outside. The bridesmaids and flower girls were sitting right outside our door, and very obligingly posed for some photos. I like to capture photos of traditional weddings in every country we travel to – but I think I’ve well and truly exceeded my quota of wedding photos in Sri Lanka already.

We checked out of our hotel and drove to the Dambulla Royal Rock Temple. It’s Dambulla’s main claim to fame, and I’d heard about these ‘cave temples’ ever since I was little. We were dropped off at the entrance to the complex, and it wasn’t anything like I’d imagined. At the bottom of a hill lay the large Golden Temple, with a gigantic gold Buddha statue sitting atop a kitsch Luna Park-like open mouthed face with neon signage. It made the place look like a theme park (but luckily this ‘theme’ didn’t extend to the cave temples).

We then started our steep ascent along a combination of zig zagging paths and stone steps that took us up the rock face to the cave temples. The surrounds were beautiful, but the climb got harder and hotter as we neared the exposed top. Thankfully we got a chance to catch our breath underneath a few frangipani trees as we waited for Thila to buy the tickets and catch up to us. It gave me time to take in the spectacular scenery spread out below and around us, and also gave the boys time to make themselves temple-ready by covering their knees with their sarongs. It’s about time a country thought that male knees and shoulders were as ‘distracting’ as female knees and shoulders in religious places!

We took off our shoes and entered the complex, and even though it was still early, the cement and stone floor was already uncomfortably hot under our bare feet. Even though there was a ticketing and security system in place, sadly there didn’t seem to be much crowd control. As a result, the feeling of calmness and serenity that we should have felt in a place such as this, was somewhat lost by the large number of people who kept pouring in.

Dating back to the 1st century BC, the temple complex is made up of five caves that have been converted into shrines. The caves contain well over 100 Buddha statues and colourful Buddhist art frescoes that cover every centimetre of the walls and ceilings. The frescoes were stunning and surprisingly well-preserved, given the substrate rock and moist environment they were contained in. Many additions to the caves and art work have been made over time, and thankfully it has been done sympathetically to the original work. I could barely tell the difference from afar, however on closer inspection the paint colours were much brighter in the newer caves and I preferred the carvings (especially of he faces) of the older statues. I later learnt that the older statues were carved out of rock and the newer ones were built out of bricks and plaster.

The caves had a beautiful sense of structure, and I very much got the impression of how it would have felt to enter this space hundreds of years ago. Unfortunately, the large crowds made the smaller caves harder to appreciate, and as a result the biggest cave (Cave 2) was my favourite.

We left the cool interior of the cave temples and walked back to the minibus to begin our drive south to Kandy via Matale.

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18th May 2017

good photos
funny how we were there pretty much at the same time. Dambulla is a great area. There's a lot to do around. You never post pics of the 2 of you?
18th May 2017

Re: good photos
Thanks Jeremy! It's funny to think that we *may* have crossed paths :) No we don't post photos of ourselves on TB, but I do a sort of small photo essay on facebook for each place we visit and include the photos of ourselves in that. I've bookmarked your east coast blog to read later today :)
18th May 2017

Curd and Treacle?
Ok, I have to ask, what is curd and treacle? The only "curd" I know are cheese curds (you've heard of poutine?), but I don't think this curd is a cheese product. Is it more like a creamy version of yogurt? Also, is treacle a form of molasses? The food all sounds excellent. And those elephants, how amazing to see them like that (I loved your description of the swimming elephants using their trunks like a snorkel!)
18th May 2017

Re: Curd and Treacle?
No curd is nothing like poutine Lori (which I'm a big fan of!) :) It's as you said, a creamy/less sour version of yoghurt, and treacle is very much like molasses but less viscous. Those elephants were SO amazing, I can't help but smile when I think of hanging out with them - it was one of our main goals for our Sri Lankan visit and the experience more than met our expectations :)
18th May 2017

Cave
The cave pictures are just superb. I love exploring hidden place. Wonderful blog RenAndrew!!!
18th May 2017

Re: Cave
Thanks Marcos! The art contained in those caves was quite amazing considering their age... I think you'd enjoy travelling in Sri Lanka :)
19th May 2017

Elephants
Thank you for alerting me to the national parks near Sigiriya, I will add them to my research list. We are looking forward to doing a couple of safaris and this looks like a very good one for us.
19th May 2017

Re: Elephants
Hope your travel planning is coming along nicely Simon. Of the three safaris we did, we found this one to be the most enjoyable for the sheer number of elephants in one place :)
20th May 2017

your blogs always make me hungry!
All that nice food... nom, nom! It must be so nice to get so close to the elephants! Ella would have loved that :) If it makes you feel any better, I annoyingly wake up at 6am pretty much every day (without alarm!) and I'm not even jet-lagged!! :(
20th May 2017

Re: your blogs always make me hungry!
Those photos make me hungry every time I look at them too :) I had wanted to see elephants in the wild for so long... and finally being so close to those magnificent animals is a highlight of highlights! :)
22nd May 2017

Amazing pics ....
.... of elephants & food & sites ..... makes me twitchy for our next adventure, keep the good stuff coming. Cheers
22nd May 2017

Re: Amazing pics ....
Thanks Paul! We are always twitchy for our next adventure! When do you and Grace jet off to the north pole? :)
28th May 2017

Greeted with a coconut
So many world issues could be solved with the gift of a coconut water at the beginning. The elephant experience sounds wonderful I would have been tempted to stay longer. Some places are hard to leave. As always great food descriptions.
29th May 2017

Re: Greeted with a coconut
Yes I agree :) The elephant experience was one of my top travel experiences ever! We saw more elephants in other parts of the country, but there was something very special about this encounter... we stayed as long as we could before the gates of the NP were closed for the night :)
7th June 2017
kaudulla national park

Best National Park Safari
Kaudulla National Park is a national park on the island of Sri Lanka located 197 kilometres away from the Colombo. Beautiful Park, famous for elephant. Once a year these elephants gather around a large water reservoir.
8th June 2017
kaudulla national park

Re: Best National Park Safari
Yes is was a beautiful park, and we were very lucky to see the number of wild elephants we did :)
17th June 2017

Damn that fear of height thing
Shelley used to have a fear of heights and you couldn't get her up 3 steps without her breaking into a sweat, fortunately she doesn't have it anymore, unfortunately she transferred her fear of heights into Claustrophobia. We always hate struggling up hills and having kids and geriatrics past us so I understand being annoyed at the three legged dog. The Dambulla cave temple looks incredible.
18th June 2017

Re: Damn that fear of height thing
The fear of heights / vertigo is such a complex issue. Andrew is fine with heights if he feels safe - i.e. there's a secure barrier or wall, and he doesn't have to go near the edge; but we have a friend who literally cannot be anywhere higher than a few storeys...it comes in so many different forms and intensities. I totally understand battles with uphill walks - even that three-legged dog would have definitely beaten me :)

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