Monday, Day 3 and we have been delivered to the Royal Botanical Gardens, Peradeniya where the scale and grandeur make you feel very small and young as this historic space dates back to 1821. At 32°c today even though I’d like to have some of these specimens in our garden, the humidity needed to keep them alive would be excessively expensive to reproduce in French France. There’s a reason they grow so well here in Sri Lanka!
Yes, that is a bat flying in daylight. The trees here are full of them roosting and the paths below are covered in excrement from them. Charlotte has taken my trainers from me, while we sit on the veranda with an iced tea and watermelon smoothie, to clean the offending nastiness from them. She’s a keeper!
Moving swiftly on, our guide then took us to the Buddhist Temple Cave site at Dambulla. What he failed to inform us about (although I should have had my suspicions alerted when he said he’d wait in the car rather than join us on the tour), was the 5000 (it felt like 5000 but was really only 364) pilgrimage steps to get to the caves! It is hot and moist!
Yes, it was high up a mountain on a set of stone steps that wound just enough to keep you guessing where the top would finally be. We eventually made it to the top, whereupon you were relieved of your footwear and guided around the five caves whilst being given a detailed explanation of their 2700 year existence. Getting to and from the caves was across sun-scorched, burning hot paving slabs, heated to fire walking temperatures. That was quite an oh, ah, oh, ah race against the blistering stone.
This evening we had a meal at a local restaurant. It might have been a pop up restaurant as the guy running it was so slow with the orders we managed to play several hands of gin rummy (yes, he gave us a deck of cards and some mosquito repellant) before even the drinks had arrived. Not that we had anywhere to be. It was a lovely meal when it finally arrived too.
Word is, he took our orders and then popped round his mates house on his scooter to get it cooked there and then. In this present climate Sri Lanka finds itself, this is the true case of ‘waste nothing’ culture.
Tuesday, Day 4 was filled with exploring different temples in the morning, starting with this city centre Hindu Temple en route…
…followed next by a tour of a genuinely huge site excavated and restored by H.C.P. Bell at Polonnaruwa…a World Heritage Site…
…followed by the most amazing off-road jungle evening safari and elephant spotting trip I have ever been on. That wouldn’t be hard as actually literally this is the only jungle safari I’ve ever been on, but as for nipping about off-road in a wonderful Indian-made Mahindra truck, as we careered down rutted tracks, hanging on for dear life and getting ribs and breasts banged about into the bargain, this trip is one that stands out as being exceptionally special. Spot elephants we did though and as the acacia trees attempted to scalp us with their thorns, we watched these amazing family creatures going about their lives freely, within their native habitat.
Our driver was making it his sworn duty to locate these beautiful animals before any of the other safari trucks around, so that we had the unique opportunity of viewing close up and without disturbances. Then, as the others arrived in our wake, we would leave them and head off to pastures new in search of the next family group.
To see these magnificent beasts roaming free in the jungle has been an absolute joy and wonder. A memory making trip to the wilds.
Wednesday, Day 5. So here we finally are. The answer to where the leetle blue dot on the map is… Lion Rock, Sigiriya.
Humidity is 97%. The sun beats down relentlessly from a clear sky. Everyone glistens.
Quite a few years back the centre magma plug of a now long extinct volcano was eroded to the point where it now looms large over all the surrounding jungle countryside. At 187 metres in height, 1,202 steps are needed to ascend to the very top. (There are many other shorter flights of steps throughout the gardens that also need climbing before you arrive at the major climb itself. Some of the steps are constructed of solid slabs of granite, some are metal ones. The type that cling-by-the-fingernails, limpet style to the side of this enormous monolith, enabling the brave and fit to reach the summit in about 40 minutes.
Sweating. Profusely. But alive.
Even with our water bottles, only our local guide seems impervious to the rigours of this achievement.
There were many times en route to the top where I was given the chance to recall to mind that earlier blog of being frozen in fear of the heights I attained back at home at the far reaches of my tallest ladder whilst strapped to the scaffold tower. If I were to tell you that that incident pales into insignificance where today’s venture is concerned, you probably still won’t appreciate just how scary this assent is to someone who, for some inexplicable reason, has acquired a ‘fear of heights’ somewhere along the way. Self preservation and the fact that Charlotte was in front of me making any chance of quitting totally nonexistent, I continued to place one foot in front of the other whilst keeping a firm grip on the handrail (when one was available – as there wasn’t always one there!). Several times I stopped. I’d take a glimpse of how far we had climbed. Then I wished I hadn’t. Just keep focussed on the next step. One more step. One hundred more steps. And finally we were there. We had made it. Apart from all the other flights of steps that were needed to ascend to the very top platform area of the palace excavated and restored for viewing by once again the intrepid H.C.P. Bell. Even when you came down, there were two more spiral staircases, up and down, to negotiate. Miss those at your own loss because at the top of that first spiral flight awaits the original wall paintings, frescoes that this place is so famous for.
Where monks are or have been, statues or paintings of Buddha abound. Where this particular King resided, ladies wearing little on top, save for jewellery, abound. He evidently liked the ladies. With a harem of 500, that would surely keep anyone pretty busy! One idea is that every painted lady represents one from that body of women.
It is a moving and meaningful experience to be one who has made it to these heady heights. It has that ‘surviving an arduous pilgrimage’ effect, experienced previously when visiting the Dambulla Buddhist Temple Caves on Day 3.
By this point you will have suffered so many privations to move yourself from the lowland outreaches of the palace gardens to the height of the royal palace (which in its heyday even extended another three stories to the heavens) that you will undoubtedly feel somewhat emotional. What once was a royal palace is now an archeological site of such splendour it’ll take what’s left of your nonexistent breath away as you gaze out over the jungle landscape below.
It is no wonder that there was never a successful attempt at attacking this location even though the defences were constructed on a massive scale.
Visited by UK royalty in 1954 it is now being visited by another caste originating from that same country. Apparently even the King of Sri Lanka climbed these heights when, in his time, the steps were constructed of wood rather than metal, to enable rapid burning of them, should an attempt on his life be made. It never was.
And then the whole place was given over to the monastic community for a few years before it fell into disrepair from lack of use.
Re-found, excavated (by H.C.P. Bell) and brought back from the brink, as you stand on the edge of this enormous site (9km x 4km), in the jungle, in the centre of Sri Lanka, you can’t help but marvel at the scale of construction that it took over 9 years to create this palace complex. The engineering feats are astounding in themselves.
If ever you are in this country, at any point, in this life or the next and you are able to visit, there will be no surprise in finding out that Lion Rock, Sigiriya, has been called the 8th Wonder of the World and made a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
As if the soaring temperature isn’t enough, a spicy curry for lunch has been just the ticket after this morning’s experience!
So, lunch over, we head back to our hidden gem of a hotel. Sigiriya Water Cottages is another Charlotte triumph of balancing perfection and purse. 70€ for three nights B&B is superb value per person. That’s 70€ total. Don’t tell anyone, just go. You won’t be disappointed. You might think the dirt track that gets you from the main road to your cottage is a bit, how shall I put it…, rustic…, but where the track ends and this wonderful vista appears, you will see just how truly beautiful this spot is!
Throughout our whole stay here in Sri Lanka the reception received from the people of this Indian Ocean Island has been overwhelmingly welcoming. The majority of people we have spoken with, speak very good English, putting our limited Sinhalese vocabulary to shame. Having said that, the most important sentence one can learn to use while here is “maddah epah estuti” which will send all the street vendors into a shocked state, telling you in perfect English themselves, how well you speak their language! By the way, you’ve just politely declined their wares, thank you. This has been a public service announcement…others are available…
Sounding your car horn is an integral part of life here. To say hello or goodbye, coming or going, as a warning of your imminent overtaking, actually overtaking, to alert of an unseen danger, to say you’ve passed the vehicle you’ve overtaken. The vehicle warning horn is sounded more times in two minutes here in Sri Lanka than I’ve used in 2 whole years of living in French France. In fact, I think the only time the horn has been used between the Control Techniques I’ve had on the Land Rover Discovery has been at the test centre when it was checked over for its roadworthiness.
Thursday, Day 6 and we are returning to Kandy for one night only. But before we get there, Roshan just has to show us one more place worthy of our attention. He swerved the car off the road and into a dusty car park outside a cabin with multiple chaps apparently loitering outside.
Placing us in the allegedly safe hands of a guide, he invites us to go off with this person into the gardens. For what purpose we know not, but trusting in Roshan’s ability to amaze us, we go like sheep to the slaughter.
Within a few moments we deduce that we are on a spice plant informational tour. Finding out lots of interesting facts that the cooks and chefs among us would give their right arm for. It is fascinating and educational as we are liberally smeared with oils and creams derived from the plants growing around us.
He then takes us into an open sided shed where we are invited to remove our clothes. Now I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t take much for me to get rid of what I’m wearing. Still trusting in Roshan not placing us in harms way, we are introduced to two strapping chaps who proceed to give us both full body massages with the oils and creams aforementioned. Energetic therapeutic groping! This is the first time I have had this sort of massage. As far as being out of my comfort zone goes, this was one of those times where there was nothing I could do about it but just let it happen! It won’t be the last massage I’ll have though. It was superb. And I can say that as I lay here relaxing and writing my thoughts of the day too. Sign me up Matron! I had no idea what I’ve been missing all these years!
Carry on regardless…
And finally today for all the foodies…
Taking the Tea Train to Nuwara Eliya…and beyond!