Buddhist caves, a big rock, a train trip and taking tea in the high country...

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January 17th 2013
Published: January 18th 2013
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Well, a most wonderful ayu bowan from sunny Sri Lanka. I’m sitting here writing this entry in our lovely little room, high up in the hills of the ever-so-sleepy village of Ella, looking out over the dense jungle to a huge, cascading waterfall as macaques and langurs leap from tree to tree all around.

After the relative non-stop activity-driven adventures of India, Jane and I decided to shift down a gear and have been moving at a much, much slower pace and really just enjoying this wonderful little country. And indeed, Sri Lanka seems to very much suit this slower pace of life and we’ve been truly and utterly charmed from the get-go.

Despite only being separated from southern India by the tiniest stretches of water, the differences appear huge. The vegetation seems denser, greener and lusher. The locals generally seem better off. Indeed, there are nowhere near as many locals per square metre. No one burns off piles of rubbish on the sides of the roads. Actually, there isn’t any rubbish on the sides of the roads. The roads themselves are really, really good. Traffic actually stops at pedestrian crossings. No one overtakes when there is a double line on the road. There actually is a double line on the road. And so on. But despite these differences, Sri Lanka is thankfully, very much like India. Everyone is genuinely and wonderfully friendly, the food is sublimely delicious and of course, cricket is still the main topic of discussion. Particularly today.

Our first stop was Sri Lanka’s second largest city of Kandy (a booming metropolis of around 120 000 people). We’d booked in to a beautiful retreat high up in the surrounding hills where we could gaze out at the city and the gushing river far below, nestled in our own little spot of serenity. At night the hills lit up with hundreds of lights from the various houses, matching the glittering stars far above and even the tuk-tuk drivers were caught frequently commenting on how nice and secluded it was up here.

We spent a lovely day just wandering the streets and visited the famous Temple of the Tooth – so named because it houses a holy tooth retrieved from Buddha’s funeral pyre. After admiring the outside, we shuffled up, paid our entrance fee, procured our offering of lotus flowers and joined the masses as they manoeuvered their way inside. Without really realising it, we were suddenly part of a separate throng and were being urged along by some very serious looking men who would prod every second person in the back and urge them forwards with sharp utterances - obviously the line to actually view this most sacred of Buddhist relics. Moments later, a small opening appeared next to us on our left, we briefly glimpsed a couple of monks and a large gold casket (which apparently houses the famous molar), thrust our offering into the hands of another official looking fella who quickly consigned it, with I must say, very little dignity or reverence, into a rather large receptacle with all of the holy offerings and were rapidly shunted out the door.

We also spent a great evening in the most wonderful bar - a beautiful old hotel, carefully restored with full colonial pomp and style. It was full of locals getting more and more sloshed as the night wore on, and we spent quite a few hours eating scrumptious Sri Lankan bar food and knocking back the beers. We also sent the waiters into fits of laughter when they noticed that the now rather full-bearded and pony-tailed Simon really did rather resemble the framed painting on the wall of the last king of Kandy, His Majesty Sri Wickrema Raja Sinha. I dutifully posed besides it and admittedly, pop a dot on my forehead, a crown on my noggin and a frilly collar round my neck and I could be looking at a long-lost but very royal relative…

The next day we hired a driver and headed north to Dambulla which is home to some remarkable Buddhist shrines housed in caves. Apparently habitated as far back as the 7th century BC, the current incarnation was constructed a couple of thousand years ago and we wandered around, looking at the various statues of Buddha (Buddha sitting, Buddha meditating, Buddha standing, Buddha reclining) as well as the stunning paintings of Buddha and his cohorts, as well as the amazing geometric shapes, that covered the walls and ceilings. They have been retouched a few times over the years and are in great shape and we slowly wandered through the five caves before descending the steps and braving the mango-hungry macaques who hassled tourist and local alike.

We then moved further north to the stunning rock that is Sigiriya or the Lion’s Rock. Much like Uluru, it’s pretty well a huge rock that thrusts up from the flat surrounding countryside to dominate the landscape for miles around. Originally set up as a remote Buddhist monastery in around the 5th century BC, it was briefly commandeered by the King Kassapa a thousand years later who, having knocked off his poor father and dispossessed his brother of the crown, decided that building his future palace on the top of such a formidable natural fortress would serve him rather well and might, quite justifiably after all that he'd gotten up to, hinder anyone who might want to knock him off. Alas, despite his best efforts he didn’t last long, and the rock was soon restored to its original purpose and reconverted into a Buddhist monastery for the next thousand years.

We spent a while wandering through the series of beautiful, lush gardens that were constructed all around the base, before strapping on the hiking thongs and starting up the countless steps that while adequate, obviously weren’t created with large Western tourist feet in mind. Now, obviously climbing a rather large rock requires quite a bit of braving walkways that literally hang off of said rock and for those of us who really don’t enjoy looming drop-offs and rickety staircases with stunning but quite terrifying views to the ground far, far below, it did pose a few moments of knee-trembling vertigo and another couple of absolute sheer terror. About halfway up, you are required to circumnavigate a rickety spiral staircase where you come out among these quite amazing frescoes painted on the walls, all of which haven’t been touched up in hundreds and hundreds of years, yet still reflect the wonderful original colours. They depict The Maidens of the Clouds, some beautifully painted feminine figures, all of whom are topless and indeed quite well-endowed. I really do feel for those poor monks who must have felt blessed with such a stunning and peaceful spot to meditate and contmplate the mysteries of life, yet who surely couldn’t help but to have been slightly distracted by these quite beautiful and well-portrayed temptations of the flesh. There is also a long wall that sort of hangs off of the rock and houses what has to be some of the oldest graffiti in the world. Apparently the themes of many of these scrawls reflect rather specifically on the writers’ pleased reactions to the aforementioned endowments of said maidens.

We did finally made it to the peak and spent a while wandering among the various ruins of the palace, taking in the amazing views of verdant, thick jungle that stretched out all around and below us. That and the hordes of nouveau-riche Russians posing dramatically for each other – here is a barely-clothed Tanya standing provocatively, here is Tanya sitting with a sexy pout, here is Tanya sprawled amongst the ancient Buddhist ruins. After a good forty minutes of wandering around reflecting on this remarkable historical site that has stood the test of time for thousands of years, Tanya was still strutting her stuff for her Mafiosi-boyfriend, the tourists, the locals and the odd quite baffled monkey.

We arose early the next morning and made our way to the train station where we jumped on the train, heading to our next stop of Ella, theoretically only a couple of hours by road or six and a half hours by train. In reality, the train trip took near on nine hours but this was certainly not an issue as the day was spent slowly weaving through the most spectacular countryside. We chugged through banana and palm plantations and onwards and upwards into vibrant tea fields. Small villages and larger towns appeared and then disappeared just as quickly, the locals pausing from their daily routines or makeshift cricket matches to wave. Slowly the scenery changed into dense jungle and then further on into what was almost an Australian bush-like setting with towering eucalypts looming over the train tracks. The final stretch, as the setting sun bathed the countryside in a beautiful, golden haze was jaw-dropping as we slowly inched our way along mountain ridges, peering down into gaping valleys with huge waterfalls cascading over the edges. It was truly stunning and easily one of the best train rides either of us had ever experienced and one that won’t soon be forgotten.

And thus to Ella. Nestled around a thousand metres above sea level, this sleepy village is rapidly being transformed into a hotspot on the ever-burgeoning tourist trail. Apparently there are around 250 families residing here and there are already 150 homestays, with many more going up daily. But it is so stunningly, utterly gorgeous - perched amongst the luscious hillsides of vegetable gardens and tea plantations, thundering waterfalls and long and winding roads that slowly snake down the sheer hillsides.

After apparently torrential rain for the past fortnight, these last few days have been spectacularly beautiful with bright blue skies, scattered cloud and lovely breezes to take the edge off of the hot sun. The last couple of days have generally been spent eating delicious local delicacies, wandering through the surrounding hills which give way to breathtaking valleys, passing through tea plantations where the local Tamil women pause from their picking to smile and wave and along the overgrown train tracks, chatting to kids on their way home from school. We also had the opportunity to experience a wonderful and most informtive visit a local tea factory where we gained valuable insights in to the complexities that go in to making a standard cuppa.

Tomorrow we head south to a few national parks on the coast and the start of various wildlife expeditions over the next couple of days where we hope to see all manner of varied fauna. Throw in a couple of days lounging on a beach and another few in the wonderfully historic town of Galle and alas, our brief Sri Lankan adventure will be over...


19th January 2013

You light up my life !!!
Oh Simon, It is like reading a good book..... I immerse myself in your words and feel as though I am there travelling with you. It is like being in a bygone era as I find so many travel articles these days are superficial. You do look like the King of Kandy! Say "hi" to Jane and keep enjoying your travels. You are creating wonderful memories. Stay safe. Love Sonia and Warren

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