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Jan 12-13, 2011: Polunnaruwa and Anuradhapura. Multi-syllabic must-sees according to the guidebooks, each once the capital of a Sri Lankan kingdom. Anuradhapura was off-limits recently because of the civil war, but both are now firmly ensconced on the tourist circuit. Having realized that I’m not a fan of very ruinous ruins I had originally intended just to visit Polunnaruwa, but when I gave up on visiting Yala I added Anuradhapura. One day each, although as you can’t leave for lunch and re-enter on the same expensive ticket it turned out to be more like half a day each.

Ruins at Polunnaruwa

While I didn’t have to worry about getting caught up in fighting, I did have to contend with very unfriendly weather. The unseasonable January storms had been so bad that a good part of east central Sri Lanka was flooded. While the worst effects were east of me, I felt more than normally unfairly privileged driving past drowned fields and houses with water over their door sills. On the way to Anuradhapura we had to ford a small river that had overtaken the main road, and some of the side roads were washed out, but otherwise the main impact was that I saw the sights by car, and from under an umbrella. Perhaps that affected my response.

Buddha, guardstones and moonstone

Of the two sites I preferred Polunnaruwa. The museum had good English signage, and I liked my guide. However, the ruins were very ruinous – lots of low brick walls, and the carving was good but sparse. The signature carvings were moonstones and guardstones, both at the entrances of temples. Moonstones could be thought of as stone door mats – half circles at the foot of entrance steps, while guardstones stood to either side.

Detail of a moonstone

At Anuradhapura the ruins were supplemented by dagobas – stupas – mostly plain and undecorated, which I found rather boring. Of course, if you believe in the power of the relics supposedly housed inside, I’m sure your response would be quite different. For me the absolute top sight at Anuradhapura, which made the trip there worthwhile, was the bodhi tree, a 2,000 year old descendant of the tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. Unfortunately, without special arrangements you can’t get very close to it, but it’s still a remarkable sight, and looks remarkably youthful as well.

Dagoba at Anuradhapura

Unlike the meal in Dumbulla, my lunches the next two days did nothing to brighten my outlook. The first day I picked the Polunnawura Rest House, once host to Queen Elizabeth II, with every expectation of good service and good food. Boy, what a let down! I passed on yet-another-buffet in favor of deviled chicken, only to be presented with a dish that appeared to have been concocted from scraps intended for the soup pot. The diners across the room, who had opted for the rather scanty buffet, didn’t look much happier. A complaint had no effect whatsoever. I needed an afternoon stop for a cheese sandwich and fries to last until dinner.

The next day my driver took me to a small, local place next to the Abhayagigi Museum, but while the food was much tastier, the chicken was cold, and I wasn’t willing to risk it. I topped up with another cheese sandwich at the Tissawewa Rest House: better food and service that at the one in Polunnawura (hard to be worse), but also looking tired and run down.

Sri Maha Bodhi

I had chosen not to visit the elephant sanctuary that shows up on a lot of itineraries – I had ridden an elephant in Thailand, and didn’t feel a need to do it again. But on the way back from Anuradhapur my driver suddenly stopped the car, because up ahead of us a wild elephant, perhaps flooded out of its usual grazing grounds, was feeding by the side of the road! Now that absolutely made my day.

Sri Lankan Elephant

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