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Published: January 14th 2013
@ Belihul Oya
Apologies in advance for the lengthy missive that follows – I’m finding it hard to make time to write consistently and get decent internet access to upload photos. I’m going to post some additional pictures in separate blog entries (soon) but won’t send the email notifications – it would be too much like spam!
January 9…The group rented bicycles for the half day tour of the Polonnaruwa area temples. Not of the highest quality and generally with only one functioning gear, the bikes managed to get the job done. The Polonnaruwa area is another World Heritage Site and was the home of the second ancient city in Sri Lanka for about 300 years, beginning in the late 11th
century. We first visited the museum, which is very well done, to get an overview of the sights and see some of the artefacts found in the area. The Royal Palace area included the remains of a 50-room palace as well as the council chamber and a large bathing pool. The detailed stonework on the council chamber was especially impressive – friezes of elephants, lions and dancing dwarves are carved into all of the walls.
The area known as the Quadrangle
also had some beautiful temples, in varying degrees of restoration. The multi-terraced Vatadage is a circular relic house, very symmetrical and again with some superb stone relief carvings. Four Buddhas stand guard around an interior stupa.
The highlight at Pollonnaruwa was the Gal Vihara, a slab of granite into which 4 large, separate Buddhas are carved. Legend has it that the damage to the arm of the reclining Buddha was made by a British man on a hunting expedition who mistook the stone for an elephant, thereby discovering the site.
In the evening, we were treated to a dinner prepared by some locals. The meal included 2 kinds of rice, 5 curries (pumpkin, okra, breadfruit, eggplant & chicken), dahl, a fruit salsa/chutney, medicinal herb mix, coconut sambal, fried fish and pappadams. The local hard liquor (arrack) was on hand – I think it was the better quality stuff, as it was quite smooth when mixed with Coke and tasted kind of like rum. We got an exhibition of some local drumming and singing as well.
January 10… Off to the Dambulla Royal Rock Temple today. These are a series of 5 rock caves containing more than 150
Buddha images, the oldest of which are nearly 2000 years old. The temple paintings are much more recent additions from sometime during the 19th
century. Below the cave complex is a modern, 30 meter tall sitting golden Buddha. Yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site!
After the caves, we stopped at one of the spice gardens near Matale. However, it was pouring rain, so we really didn’t have much of a poke through the gardens. A traditional doctor of ayurvedic medicine explained some of the benefits of the various remedies made locally from the spices and plants.
The area we’ve been travelling through the last few days has been very hard hit by the unseasonably heavy rains and there has been a lot of flooding. Certain roads and rail lines have been closed this week because of the problem and there are a few thousand families that have been displaced as their homes have been flooded. For people who don’t have much to begin with, it will be a huge recovery effort and many of the rice paddy fields are lost for the year.
Late in the day, we arrived in Kandy, the third of the ancient royal
cities and another UNESCO World Heritage site.
January 11… Kandy was the home of the last Sinhalese kingdom that was defeated by the British in 1815. The claim to fame here is the Buddha’s Tooth relic, around which they’ve built an entire temple complex. The tooth is the most important relic for Sri Lankan Buddhists and is kept in a multi-tiered golden pagoda structure. We attended the daily Thewawa ceremony, during which you can file by the tooth. It was accompanied by traditional drums and flute. The botanical gardens in Kandy are superb and we spent time wandering through them.
Last up was a local cultural show in the early evening. There were a variety of traditional dances performed as well as a fire-breathing and fire-walking demo – those men must have no nerves left in their feet is all I can say!
January 12… We left Kandy and headed for the hill country near Nuwara Eliya. Enroute, we visited one of the tea factories and drove through some beautifully scenic tea plantations. I have much respect for the women who pick tea 6 days per week, on very hilly terrain and in most weather conditions. Daily
collection targets for the woman are approximately 18 kg of tea leaves per day – that’s a lot of tea when you’re only picking 3 leaves and a bud at a time! All this work for a pittance of a wage (by our gauge) – the women earn approximately the equivalent of $5 / day if they are fortunate. That’s just over $100 per month on which to provide for their families and basic necessities. I am humbled by their strength and fortitude.
Three of us took in a cooking demo provided by the cook at the rest house where we were staying. It was fascinating to see the kitchen – pretty basic cooking facilities can turn out some wonderful food. On the menu was how to prepare a dahl (lentils), eggplant mombo (slightly different than a traditional curry as the eggplant was fried first, with secret ingredients of mango chutney and pineapple pieces), pumpkin curry and a coconut sambal. We then enjoyed the dishes for dinner – yum.
January 13… Exhausted! What a day….up early again for a 6 am departure to go walking in the Horton Plains Nature Reserve, part of the Central Highlands of Sri
Lanka and yes, another UNESCO site. I’m calling this the World’s End and Tea Plantation Half Marathon – sadly, there were no medals or t-shirts at the finish line! The morning started with a 9 km undulating walk to a viewpoint called World’s End – on a clear day from here, you can see the southern coast of Sri Lanka. Not surprisingly, it was not clear enough (Deva, our guide, has done this walk 80 times and has seen the coast 5 times – our odds weren’t good!) but we still got very expansive views. The plain is 2000 meters above sea level - at World’s End, there is a sharp escarpment falling nearly 900 meters – you don’t want to get too close to the edge.
After a quick lunch break, we drove a short distance and started walk #2 – just a 15 km stroll (ha!) through the tea plantations in the area. I can say the scenery was beautiful and while 80% might have been downhill, it was no picnic tramping through the tea plants, especially when taking the shortcuts using the steps down – I much prefer the switchbacks. My respect for the tea pickers
has been elevated another notch! Near the end of the walk, the Bambarakanda Falls came into view – they are the highest in Sri Lanka at over 200 meters and were flowing nicely, given all the rain in the region recently. I went from tired to grumpy with about 4 km to go (Kate, does that remind you of Iceland at all?) and have never been so happy to see tuk-tuks, waiting to take us back the minibus. All 10 of us did both walks, so it was a great accomplishment by everyone. Total time – approx. 3 hours for walk #1 (but we stopped a fair amount) and 4 hours for walk #2 (the downhills helped).
Our accommodation in Belihul Oya, though a bit lacklustre, was right beside a stream. A cold dip in a natural pool was just the remedy for sore, aching leg muscles, as was ingesting a couple of Tylenol. I slept well! Note to self – I need to train to do this kind of stuff….
A leech managed to attach itself to my left ankle some time during the second walk (gross!) – I was wondering why my ankle wouldn’t quit bleeding
after I took off my socks at the hotel or after the cold pool. Apparently the leech had been feasting for some time. It made more sense when at dinner someone mentioned a leech discovery in the hotel entry. Thank goodness it had fallen off before I discovered it as it would have sent me over the edge – I don’t
January 14… What a cool experience this morning. At dinner last night, we noticed the hotel staff were preparing flower arrangements for a wedding taking place today. While we were having breakfast this morning, the bride comes through to inspect the arrangements. After most of the others left for a short walk in the rice paddies (I didn’t go – fear of another leech encounter), I was able to meet the bride, mingle with the wedding guests and take some pictures – awesome! The bride was stunning in her white and gold sari and jewellery – the pictures probably don’t do her justice.
This afternoon we took the train from Haputale to Ella, another hill town. The train was late (not an unusual circumstance here) so that gave us some time to wander the town
and get lunch. A pick-up cricket match on the road beside the train station helped pass the time – I am slowly learning the basics of this odd game. The scenery from the train was pretty, the train itself a fairly standard third class car with limited seating – it was fine for the relatively short time we were we on it.
On the bright side, we've now managed 3 entire days without rain, which I'm thankful for.
I’m now up to date now…off to the south coast tomorrow and the beaches!
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