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Published: March 22nd 2012
Well here we are again, finally. After a few cold months at home then a few lovely warm months lounging around Thailand our travels have kicked off again, and it’s somewhere we have both been looking forward to immensely, Sri Lanka. A lot of friends, including two very good ones, constantly wax lyrical about the joys and splendour of this country so we couldn’t wait to see for ourselves.
A stupidly early flight from Bangkok taught us one thing new about the city, it is possible to avoid the traffic jams, you just have to drive around at 4am. We landed at Colombo airport mid-morning and after thinking, briefly, about the kind offers of taxis for the 40km journey into the city, “very, very cheap Sir, we’ll even stop at a bank so you can take out another mortgage to pay for it” at least I think that’s what they said we decided to do as planned and try and use the public transport route we had searched so hard to find, and once you work it out it’s surprisingly easy. Turn left out of the airport, get on scruffy looking white bus, which will take you to
but not ours!
a bus station 5 minutes away. Once there find the number 187 bus, luckily that’s easy because there are about 67 of them waiting, get on bus, pay conductor (scruffy small child) 100 rupees, about 50p, sit back, relax and enjoy your 2 hr ride into the city. How much better than a £50 air-conditioned taxi is that? We got chucked out by the Colombo fort railway station and although we knew our hotel was close decided to try to negotiate a rate on a tuk-tuk. After a bit of no, no and walking away, 25p sealed the deal.
Because we were heading off from the station early the following morning we had splashed out on a hotel nearby, when I say splashed out I mean been seen off. It’s not this particular hotel, the Grand Oriental, (to be fair they did upgrade us) it’s all hotels in Colombo. I know it’s a capital but it’s not Paris or London but its prices are, at least those available online are. When we visit at the end of the trip it’ll be interesting to see if that’s the case all over.
So bags dumped, we
Clock Tower or ...
Lighthouse, which is it?
headed off to explore. Unfortunately our hotel was slap bang in the middle of the business district and, as it was Sunday, everything was closed, so we headed over to Pettah, the hustling, bustling, market district with its myriad of stalls selling everything. Closed, oh well, we wandered around, found a few things open and then headed off back to the fort district. Unfortunately, we also struggled here because the area is one huge barracks, and despite, I’m sure, reading that the war between the Tamil Tigers and the Sinhalese ending a couple of years ago, the military seem to still be on high alert. Anyway, we found the Indian Ocean, Galle Face Road which was quite nice, a couple of large hotels being rebuilt and a nice little lighthouse. We decided to head back to the hotel and freshen up before heading off to sample some of the culinary delights Sri Lanka has in store, but despite being about 50m from our hotel a very serious looking checkpoint stood between us and it, manned by a very nervous child with a very big gun. So after getting an official sounding whistle blown at us a couple of times and
Chris’s cries of “Hotel” and pointing to the big building in front of us, we decided, in case boy soldier’s trigger finger was as nervous as his twitch, to retrace our steps and take the 2 mile detour back the other way.
We had been told of Sri Lanka’s treats for the taste buds so headed off to find a local eating house …. Closed. Oh well, we were reduced to doing something we don’t normally do and eating in our hotel. What a treat that turned out to be, unfortunately no Sri Lankan food whatsoever, but a very nice steak and chips, a nice piece of fish a few beers and a couple of glasses of Arrack, the local fire water, all for a few quid.
The following morning dawned all too quickly, as we headed to the station for the train to Kandy. The 1st
class observation car is supposed to be exceptional, unfortunately you have to book it up to 10 days in advance and only from the station, the local tour companies will book tickets for you but only if you are spending a few hundred dollars with them. The
Lake of love
Island used to house the King's concubines!
cost of these delightful tickets, £1.50. Luckily for us a new service, called Expo Rail, has added its own 1st
class carriage to the service and is bookable online, the downside is that it’s 4 times the price of ordinary 1st
class, but as that’s still only £6 … hey ho. For anyone interested, the 2nd
class carriages look fine, big windows & fans, cost about £1, but we had heard there can be a bit of a scrum so we decided to trade up. The first half of the journey was unremarkable, comfy seats, OK brekkie, awful coffee but after about 2 hours the train starts to climb into the ‘hill country’ and WOW what a stunning view. From here on in the journey is one of breathtaking, scenery, mountains rising out of the plains, sheer drops, rugged mountains, quite, quite beautiful. If you take this journey try to sit on the right hand side of the train as you face the engine or the left if in the rear facing observation car. The journey flew past and in no time at all we were in the capital of the hill country & Sri Lanka’s second city Kandy.
Kandy’s tuk-tuk drivers are notorious for their fees, not having a clue where our guest house was we decided to brave one. We were lucky enough to find an honest one, maybe due to the fact he also ran a tour company and was hoping for some business later in the trip. We checked in at the Freedom Lodge, a nice little family home where they try to treat you as an extension to the family, albeit paying relatives. We still had the best part of the day to explore the city so we set off. At the heart of the city is a huge lake, an artificial one but no less impressive for it. It was created 200 years ago by Sri Wickrama Rajasinha. Although now considered a huge asset, at the time the local council tax payers were up in arms about this white elephant. The king dealt with this disagreement by impaling a few on stakes on the bed of the lake. Maybe Weymouth Council could learn a lesson or two here! We wandered around the lake and headed straight for the city’s most important temple. Sat on the North of the Lake is the
Temple of the Tooth, Sri Lanka’s most important Buddhist Shrine. Unlike many other Asian countries, buddhist shrines here in Sri Lanka don’t have masses of offering and donation boxes everywhere exhorting you to purchase a few more years towards eternal happiness, here they charge you on the gate. A little bit if you are Sri Lankan and, just like their nearest neighbours and financial mentors, a small fortune of you are a foreigner. More about that later I expect!!
So what do you get for your money, the main tooth temple was badly damaged by a Tamil Tiger truck bomb in 1998 so a lot of the buildings are new but the inner temple and shrine, while modest, are prettily decorated, some parts lavishly embellished others left quite simple. So what’s it all about. Well so legend has it when the Buddha (and I still haven’t got my head around if there is one or many) was cremated in 543BCE in Northern India, various parts of his remains were rescued from the fire including one of his teeth. About 2000 years ago when Hinduism was on the up, this precious relic was smuggled from place to place
to keep it safe finally arriving at Anuradhapura in Northern Sri Lanka. Various local rivalries saw it move as the capital moved (about every 2 weeks) and then an invading Indian Army captured it & took it back to India. Over this period the tooth become not just a religious icon but a political symbol of Sri Lanka’s independence, this meant when another King crossed the water, captured it again and brought it home he was dead popular. A bit of a spanner in the works came when the Portugese captured the tooth, took it to Goa, pounded it to dust, burnt it and threw the remains into the sea, pretty final you’d think, but nope those clever Buddhists simply claimed the tooth magically reassembled itself and flew back to Sri Lanka. Smart thinking there eh.
So here we were going to see the magic tooth but wait, you can’t see it. Well apparently they open a tiny little hatch twice a day for about 4 seconds for the ultra faithful who queue all day, twice a decade, take the tooth out and put it on display. Of course the cynical may say the reason is that the tooth
is 10cm long, looks like no human tooth ever known and seems to be made from ivory. Whatever the reason, to many, many Sinhalese it remains and object of devotion.
A complete surprise popped up as we wandered around the complex, in it’s own ‘shrine’ next to the tooth temple was a huge stuffed elephant. In an old palace building stands the Raja Tusker Museum. This magnificent creature is/was Sri Lanka’s most famous elephant, for 50 years he served as the Maligawa Tusker, the elephant that carries the tooth relic at the festivals. He was held in such high esteem that on his death in 1988 the government declared a national day of mourning. Since his passing many have tried to fill his magnificent boots but all have come up short in at least one department, tusk, tail and even willy length an important consideration.
We stopped off at a small café and sampled our first Kandian ‘snacks’, some rotis, dosas and a few other bits that generally blew your head off. All accompanied by hot milky tea. Nice. From here we moved on to check out a few of the other temples in
If only it were true
Well everyone should have a dream!
town but other than a few great stories attached to them they were unremarkable so we headed off to explore the city itself. And, while nice, it was unremarkable. Chris had been looking forward to seeing the old Kandy Cricket ground, one which many commentators describe as one of the loveliest in the world, that must have been a fair few years ago because now it’s just a run down wreck which is a shame because some great test matches were staged there.
After a quick spruce up we headed off for a bit of ‘Culture’. At the YMBA a daily display of Kandian dancing and drumming is held and, while many bits were like watching the annual June Hornby School for Elephants dance extravaganza, some bits were absolutely brilliant. The drumming was tremendous and some of the male dancers displayed amazing dexterity, strength and skill, and the fire walking at the end was enjoyable, we even learned the Sinhalese for “Ouch that’s bloody hot”. After the show, we headed off in search of this some Sri Lankan cuisine at a place we had spotted earlier. Unfortunately in the evening it was burger & chips, fried rice
Sri Lankan style
or ice cream. Oh well, Chinese it is then.
The next day we were off to see some of Lisa’s favourite animals.
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