Colombo & Negombo, Sri Lanka - 8 to 10 April 2012

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April 17th 2012
Published: April 23rd 2012
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We left Hikkaduwa on the South West coast heading towards Negombo via Colombo and the roads were busy due to public holidays and festivals. Sri Lanka marks the main Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and some Christian festivals as public holidays. The dates of many Buddhist holidays change from year to year as they are determined by the movements of the moon (Moon Days). April sees both Good Friday and also the Sinhalese and Tamil New Year, so our visit coincided with both of these and the roads were busier than normal although ‘normal’ is still hectic. Whole families ride together on individual scooters and motorbikes - we saw many carrying both parents and two children and some even with three children including very young babies squashed between the adults. It was quite strange to see one coming toward you with a child sat in the front holding on to the handlebars........ However it was probably safer than travelling on the buses as they all speed along the roads overtaking everything with a toot of the horn. Our guide told us that the bus drivers try and overtake the bus in front so that they pick up more passengers and make more money - health and safety seems to go out the window as these buses designed to carry 60 sometimes hold 100 people!

We finally arrived in Colombo and as it was during the England/Sri Lanka cricket tournament the roads around the capital city were just as frantic. Colombo has lots of history but little remains of the Portuguese who ruled there for about 150 years from as early as 1505, or of the Dutch who expelled the Portuguese in the mid 17th Century. The central area of the city is still known as the Fort but the remnants of the colonial battlements have long been demolished. There are however many mementoes of the British period which was quite noticeable as we toured around by car as the city is quite spread out. We saw the Clock Tower which was originally a lighthouse but is now at the heart of the city centre. We passed the President’s House a magnificent neoclassical building which was originally the home of the British Governors and is now the residence of the Sri Lanka’s president - we were not allowed to visit though!

We walked around the Wolvendaal Church, a relic of the Dutch period built in 1749 which was quite interesting. The dates on the tombs of several Dutch governors showed how short life was for them even in peacetime, the death toll from disease was high and many died after only a short period in Colombo. We were the only tourists there at the time and the Church guide was very accommodating and even opened up a massive old organ to show us that it was made by Hill & Son of London, in a bad state of repair though but apparently still working. He also opened one small side room which contained many old family record books with a Baptism Register from 1709 to 1911 and a Marriage Register dating from 1743 to 1932 - great for genealogists!

We continued to tour the city and saw Colombo’s town hall a magnificent white building with huge colonnades and a large dome, our guide said it was modeled on the Capitol complex of Washington DC. The maze of streets and alleys were piled and crammed with goods of every description, colourful textiles, gold, silver and lots of colonial era antiques as well as the usual everyday items and foods such as spices, fruit, vegetables and piles of smelly dried fish. Whatever you want you will find it here in Colombo.

We left the city our guide Jaywa stopped the car to let a tortoise cross the road, this little creature was slowly crossing the road in amongst all the traffic, we are happy to report that he did manage to get to the other side. We travelled on to Negombo which has the nickname little Rome because of the number of Catholic Churches, most built by the Portuguese. Negombo surrounds a lagoon which is rich in fish and used to provide a living to the locals before tourism took hold and now the fishermen supply the local hotels and guesthouse with the lagoon’s prawns and lobsters. Twin-hulled sailing canoes made for a picturesque setting and many colourful fishing boats crowded the harbour. We saw an area the size of a football pitch covered with fish spread out to dry in the sun, our guide said this process sometimes only took a day due to the intense heat. It was amazing but there were not many birds pecking at the fish probably because it was just too hot - but now I know why I do not like dried fish........

Later at the hotel we had our first heavy rain storm, it was quite strange to see rain after so long but it soon stopped and the temperatures did not chill at all. After dinner we wandered along the beach amongst the locals enjoying the cooler evening air with their families and friends playing in the sand and surf. Many games were being played all along the huge sandy beach including volleyball and of course cricket and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Our guide, Jaywa picked us up early the next morning for the drive to Anuradhapura again the road were busy and we passed many temples and churches along the way. After a while we got our first long glimpse of the countryside as elsewhere most of the towns just mingled into one. We passed ‘paddy’ fields and lakes and saw many water buffalo and water birds. We passed large coconut plantations and Jaywa stopped on the side of the road to pick some cashew nuts and we tried the fruit which was sharp but quite nice. The nuts are on the end of the fruit and were ready as they are usually harvested in April. All along the road locals were selling produce from their land with many fruits and vegetables either on the roadside or placed on wooden frames. As we neared Anuradhapura Jaywa had to veer to the right as local farmers were using the roadside to dry the rice on the warm road surface - later we saw this on many roads and even in car parks.

We arrived at our hotel which was more like a guesthouse, quite small and different to the standard of the other hotels we had stayed in. One could say ‘quaint’ as it used to be an old colonial house but it really needed a complete refurbishment. We thought ‘oh well’ we were only going to be there for two nights so we made do and as it turned out the food was excellent and we had a really good Sri Lanka Curry complete with seven separate vegetable dished all for 500 rupees (about £2.50). For those of you who are thinking “Sheila does not eat curry” well, Sri Lankan curry is based on Northern India curry and is not as hot as those from Southern India - well that is what I was told. Sri Lankans seem to eat curry - vegetable, fish poultry or meat for breakfast, dinner and tea, not sure I like it that much! Unique to Sri Lanka is Black Curry, with roasted cumin as the main flavouring - again not my ‘cup of tea’!!

Later we decided to walk to a nearby lake and as we turned down a narrow track we came across a group of monkeys playing on a wall beside a derelict house. Well not playing really as one monkey was hitting the other monkey which had a cute little baby who was trying to get away from its mother - but she was not letting go. In the end she decided to move away from the ‘bully’ and clambered up the next tree. At the lakeside we saw colourful kingfishers and water birds including large herons and waterfowl and even saw a huge osprey dive to catch a fish before disappearing with its lunch into a tree nearby. We cooled off with a drink in a nearby small hotel and walked around their gardens which stretched down to the lakeside and saw a bright orange and black Woodpecker (Black-rumped Flameback) as well as many other birds and of course lots of chipmunks everywhere. Back at the hotel we met a couple who were travelling together, the chap was from Nepal and the girl from Australia and we spent a pleasant evening chatting to them.

We headed off early with Jaywa to begin our tour of the Culture Triangle. Situated in the centre of the island the sites include the Sacred City of Anuradhapura, the Ancient City of Polonnaruwa, the Ancient City of Sigiriya, the Ancient City of Dambulla and the Sacred City of Kandy. This dry area of Sri Lanka contains the most famous cultural and archeological reminder of ancient civilization which is more than 2500 years old. During the last 100 years archeologists have uncovered many ancient sites and work is still on going to remove the jungle from the remains and restore them for everyone to enjoy. These sites are visited by many pilgrims, both laymen and the clergy (prominently Buddhist), as well as by locals and tourists.

Our first visit was to Anuradhapura which is Sri Lanka's most sacred city and the hub of the Culture Triangle. Founded in 475 BC it was for more than 1000 years the capital of an empire that was famed throughout Asia. It was also the place from which Buddhist beliefs spread to Sri Lanka. Anuradhapura was ruled by more than 250 Buddhist and Hindu Kings until it fell in the 11th Century. The city’s greatest treasures are its great palaces, bath houses and stupas (a dome-shaped building erected as a Buddhist shrine) constructed of small sun-dried bricks and hemispherical in shape. The most notable of these stupas are the Ruvenweli which dates back to the 2nd Century BC and is 300 feet in diameter, the Jetawanarama which is 370 feet and the Thuparama which enshrines the collarbone of the Buddha. The city’s most revered relic is the sacred Bo Tree grown from a branch of the tree under which Buddha attained Enlightenment. It was planted 2250 years ago and is the oldest historically authenticated tree in the world - gold supports were holding up a huge branch of the tree above the temple. Many pilgrims were there on the day we visited and the smell of their floral offerings sweetened the air. The tree was a gift from the Buddhist Indian Emperor Ashok in the 3rd and is reputed to have been overseen ever since by a series of guardian monks. We spent many hours wandering around the remains of great buildings which were once inhabited by kings but which are now ‘home’ to the local monkeys. Before you entered any temple you had to remove your hat and shoes, which was fine apart from at some of the sites the sand and stones were so hot it burned your feet. At one particular temple which was a long way from the entrance we had great fun with local children running to get into the shade of the temple which they found hilarious. Later our guide Jaywa took us off the usual ‘tourist routes’ and we saw many remains of great buildings including a building which was a meditation area for the monks with water channels running around each area at different levels all done without electricity. Meditation grass rectangle grass platforms were raised above the channels giving the monks a cooling area to enhance their mediation. Vast areas all around had so many more buildings still to be uncovered- a truly astonishing experience. Tomorrow we move on to Sigiriya a ‘fortress in the sky’ - see you there.


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