Sri Lanka is one of those funny places when you see a list of countries. It has a funny name, a funny but cool flag, and it is seemingly in the middle of nowhere. It doesn’t really register with you on your to do list of visiting countries. I was just there for my third time and I still felt that way! This time I went up north to discover some of their World Heritage Sites in the cultural triangle as long as I could fend off traffic, rickshaws, heat, time and the worlds slowest driver.
The way it worked out for me this time was an unplanned stop in Sri Lanka after my Chagos Archipelago trip was cancelled (what a mess that is btw). I set it up so I would have a good solid day and a half to see the sights up north that I didn’t get to see the other two times I visited the island. I arrived at Colombo airport from Abu Dhabi at 4:30am and after connecting to the Internet to finally use Skype (it had been blocked in the UAE) at Coffee Bean in the airport, I went downstairs to hire a driver.
I knew what I wanted to see and do and I just needed wheels. I didn’t want to hire a car on my own because the web of roads in Sri Lanka is very confusing and I have never driven in conditions like they have there with so many objects in the roads. So after intense negotiations with the tourist bureau guy, we agreed on a price for a driver, hotel and airport drop off.
As I was negotiating my deal I heard a Canadian girl behind me trying to do the same thing and failing miserably so I turned and asked her if she needed help and then when she said she had no idea, I invited her to join my tour. It was no skin off my back and I didn’t mind the company. She accepted although she apparently had to be back in Colombo at 5:30pm that night which was 12 hours away but the first stop of Polonnaruwa was 6-7 hours away by car. We agreed she would come up there and then to Sigiriya and then she would arrange her own taxi back to Colombo in time to meet her couch surfing host. I knew she had no shot of making it. I said this to her but she was having none of it, so I was like, OK not my problem and was truthfully happy for the company for the long car ride.
After 7 hours (I slept at least 5 of the hours as I hadn’t slept the night before on the plane) we arrived at Polonnaruwa. It was to be frank, very cool, and also the site of an 80’s Duran Duran video. The World Heritage Site was an old kingdom that has been preserved to keep the original beauty and is in shockingly good condition. The tickets to enter the site are not cheap; they are $25 which seemed a bit steep. However, it was too late to turn around and it’s not like you’re here every day. So we paid and went inside.
The grounds were massive covering both sides of the road and bordered by a beautiful lake with some cool foliage and some wild palms jutting straight out of the middle of the lake. The searing heat was a cool and steamy backdrop for some cool photos. Not to be understated was how humid and sticky it is up in north central Sri Lanka. It is all jungle and excessively uncomfortable to be outside but you forget that when around such cool things!
The site is broken up into different areas, each labeled as such and containing different periods of the history of the kingdom. The main site (or the most touristed but I didn’t think the best) of Gal Vihariya is the farthest away and contains the reclining Buddha (below) and a few sitting Buddhas. These were cool but for me the coolest sites were certainly the less touristed but cooler building remains scattered throughout the complex.
Much like Angkor Wat, it is important that you have your driver drive you between the sites because they are far and it is extremely hot. Unfortunately, we didn’t know how big the place was and told the driver to wait at the gate and we would walk. Bad move. I think I sweated out about 5 pounds walking around the site. However, it was an experience, although the Canadian girl was bitching a lot about the heat and distances and annoying me.
Other cool sites included the Royal Palace, Lankatilaka Temple, Thuparama, Polonnaruwa Vatadage, many other ruins and several cool water holes which showed the ancient plumbing and bathing ways. The site was really cool and well worth a trek up there if you are in Sri Lanka. They also have a ton of monkeys to boot and who doesn’t love monkeys!
We then headed to Sigiriya which had always been high on my list and was recently highly recommended by a friend in Dubai. The humungous rock fortress was simply spectacular! However in order to get there, we had to dodge some elephants that popped up out of the jungle and scared the shit out of us. You forget that wild elephants and other animals live and roam free in Sri Lanka.
After paying the extortionate price of $25 again to enter we ended up hiking up the massive rock fortress to some 1214 feet high. The climb wasn’t too bad; just a little harrowing at times because of some poor stair design. But you had to be careful not to make noise because it might stir up the angry hornets! The view from the top however, was spectacular of the hilly valley surrounding the rock, in spite of potential hornet attacks.
There were also special paintings on the way up that contained their own 100 foot spiral staircase to reach them. As annoying as spiral staircases are, the climb was worth seeing the cool paintings dotting the rock wall (below). There is literally a stretch of about 50 feet with 5 or 6 of these paintings.
Back down on the ground, after 2 bottles each of water, the Canadian girl said she had to head back to Colombo…mind you it was 4:30pm and Colombo at this time would be 7 hours away easily. She was having none of that and said that at Dambullah she was going to get a bus back to Colombo. Dambullah is home to a decent rock temple but at the bus station I dropped her off to get a bus back to Colombo because she believed that taking a bus would be faster than my slow driver (he was annoyingly slow I must admit). She clearly forgot to take into account that busses are slow by nature, they make lots of stops, they are not air conditioned and they suck!
She was however set in her own mind as she didn’t want negative feedback on her couch surfing profile (I know nothing about couch surfing but I guess it’s something like eBay where they rate you). Although, I offered to give her a comfortable ride to Kandy which was a much bigger city where she could get a cab or bus easier and cheaper. She said a rickshaw would be faster than the driver and decided to rough it on the bus from Dambullah. I chuckled and said good luck. I also said you’ll be lucky to get to Colombo by midnight. She said I was nuts but what the heck, you can only lead a horse to water. I wish I had gotten her email so I could’ve found out what happened!
She was apparently very upset that we had to pay $50 for the two site entrance fees and she needed to make the couch surfing apartment because she couldn’t afford to get a hotel room she said (she was a grad student in Singapore). Mind you I met her trying to get a tour of the country which would have easily run her $100 minimum on top of entry fees etc. Also, I didn’t ask her for any money to share the car. Whatever I thought and headed to Kandy.
Kandy is a pretty cool town and the top place for tourists to stay after visiting the cultural triangle of Sri Lanka. I stayed at the Swiss Residences which were OK in general but the $40 price they were pretty darn good. I then woke up early to head to the airport to catch the plane to the Maldives where I am now relaxing for 2 nights before heading to Southeast Asia proper.