Into the hill country

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August 14th 2018
Published: September 8th 2018
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R: And so we continued onwards up into the mountains of Sri Lanka. We started the day dropping in at Dambulla Golden Temple. This is more a museum of Buddhism, built by the Japanese with giant golden Buddha and even neon signs. It was very, very gaudy, but somehow quite cheerful. I really want to go back to Japan. Being on a tour with a driver this time, we had no real control of our stops so we ended up first at a wood carving place. Initially we were very sceptical of this stop, but it charmed my inner scientist - they make a wood powder from what they described as a Sri Lankan rainbow tree. When added to hot water, this turned red. When they added iron, it turned black, when you added lime juice it changed again to yellow, and finally by adding chalk it changed purple. Apparently they can also get blue by boiling it and other colours by adding honey! (He didn't show us this). I tried asking questions about the chemistry of this as he had clearly made some sort of indicator solution, but he couldn't tell me. They reduce this down to make it more concentrated then use it as a natural paint. After an extensive tour of the shop full of brightly painted masks and elephants, we were allowed to leave. Then it was on to a spice garden (Ranwelli) for a similar experience. It was quite a nice garden actually (though quite close to the highway) and probably the highlight was learning that some pineapples are red! But the expectation is you make a purchase at the end, and the guide will wait for you to do so so he gets his commission. Being a fan of spices, I may well have made a purchase as the prices weren't "too" bad, but heading to Australia in a couple of days made us nervous. Thankfully the "sell" wasn't that hard, and a small tip made the tour guide go away...

We headed into Kandy, more specifically to our hotel which was perched in the hills above Kandy with a fantastic view down over the valley and to the temple and centre of the city. After a lunch of some rather amazing grilled prawns, we headed off into town to look at the current temple of the tooth relic. This gets moved depending on where the royal capital is at anyone time as the King swears to protect Buddhism when they are inaugurated. Kandy has stayed the royal capital, even though there is no longer a King after being ousted by the British. The temple was pretty big and the only Buddhist temple we have had to pass security to get into but after a Tamil bomb exploded here 20 years ago - they are being fairly careful. Kandy is preparing for the annual festival of the tooth relic which means increased visitor numbers, and plenty of people coming for prayer. There were lots of flowers being offered to the relic (which is apparently in a casket behind a screen), and people were here to pray and celebrate. After a thorough tour, and a viewing of something resembling stations of the tooth relic (like stations of the cross) in a nearby audience hall, we ended up at a fairly tourist heavy drum and dance show next door. This was ok, but very touristy, but did end with some fire walking and breathing which was quite fun. After this we headed back to our hotel in the hills, which was being battered by high winds and rain, intermittently knocking out the power.

Next morning we woke up to more of the same weather which was amazingly atmospheric, every so often drifting in and out of the clouds, but wondered how we were going to actually look round the city in weather like this. We started by heading out to Embilmegama tea factory where we saw the process of tea from leaves being deposited at the back door, to loose leaf tea. The tour took 5 minutes really but we lingered in the cafe upstairs looking out at the sheet rain, and eventually bought some tea to bring back with us. After this we headed to the botanic gardens - a huge area that just used to be just for royalty, but is now shared with the public. We enjoyed a walk around the pretty gardens and displays of orchids and trees, despite the rain, and ended up having Ceylon tea in the cafe which was a nice spot where we could watch the rain come lashing down from under a veranda. Next, and somewhat uncomfortably, we we got treated to a tour of a "gem museum" which was practically attached to our lunch stop - the downside of a tour like this. Our driver was quite honest with us that he got a substantial reward at the end of the year that coincided with Christmas if people spend money at these locations - being catholic, this made his Christmas much better. Sadly, we were not in the market for any gems, and after a tour of a fake diamond mine (full of happy, smiling, plastic Sri Lankan workers - mines are such nice working environments!), a video about gems (that had nothing to do with gems) and a tour of the museum, we made a hasty exit through the shop to our driver, who was not in the slightest bit surprised we hadn't purchased anything. (We must have given the impression of being cheapskates....). We entered the lunch spot which was all a bit weird, overpriced and touristy, but had surprisingly good Chinese food here, and by the time this was done, the rain had subsided a little. So we asked Rajan to drop us in town so we could have a walk about on our own.

It was the typical Asian city assault on the senses - busy, polluted, noisy. And carrying waterproofs, umbrellas, camera, rucksack etc., it was all a bit much. After a quick stop in a local supermarket to see what Sri Lankans buy in a supermarket, we headed for a walk around the lake and the Tooth Relic temple to the National Museum to have a look about (getting out of the rain some more) then took a stroll down to a crumbing red brick Anglican Church which had been built by the British. Next to this, were some chained elephants that had been brought in for next months parade. This was quite sad to see, having seen them roaming free in the national park two days before, and reminded that Sri Lanka hasn't totally understood its relationship with these animals. There isn't very much to see in Kandy, except the lake, which is very pretty; just some faded colonial buildings, mosques and temples amongst the muddle of other Asian buildings, but it was fun for a wander. There are plenty of bakeries and fruit shops with their produce flowing out onto the pavement. We stopped in at the Royal Bar, an old British institution which was fun for a drink. After this, with the light fading, we again headed out to the hotel in the hills where it was once again (or perhaps still) being battered by the wind. With the rain closing in - Cate picked up the Spa brochure. It was unbelievably cheap for a massage. We asked reception how to get there, and they sent a car to come and collect us. Before we knew it, both of us ended up having the cheapest couples massage ever in a sister hotel. The best part was when they opened the big patio windows in the massage room for us to enjoy the sounds and fresh air of the rain storm that was bearing down on the hotel. It was quite a nice experience, but being in a different building to the rest of the hotel we got drenched getting home.

The dinner food at this hotel was probably the least interesting of our trip, but it was fine for what we wanted. As it is religious festival now, we weren't allowed to be served alcohol in public. After a fresh banana juice in the bar, and having had enough of the crooner who was just playing 70's love songs to us in the bar, we headed to our room. You can call room service and have alcohol delivered to your room, so Cate ordered a Gin and Tonic and I ordered a stout. Cate got a 50-100ml serving of gin in one glass, and a 500ml bottle of tonic to go with it. I got a Lion Stout, which I hadn't appreciated was 660ml and over 8%. Oh well - that made for an interesting game of cards.

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