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Uncool Colombo

The eating section of the Verandah Bar

The view from my room

Jan 25-26, 2011: Alas, aside, possibly, for the view from my renovated room at Galle Face, the best part of my visit to Colombo was the drive from Unawatuna. All those recommendations to skip Colombo? Spot on, except I wanted to see where my father had been during WWII. Galle Face was good for that too, I feel quite sure he would have patronized the Verandah Bar.

Colombo was close enough I made a late start from Unawatuna, beginning the day lounging on my balcony in the comfortable robe I had found in my room, with a cup of Nescafe and a book from the hotel’s library. Once again we drove a rebuilt road barely inland from a coast that had been devastated by the 2004 tsunami, and we stopped to pay our respects at the memorial to the victims. The effects of the crushing wall of water were more evident than they had been along the south coast, and I was once again very grateful for the impulse that had sent me to Laos for Christmas that year instead of to a Thai island.

Tsunami memorial

Tsunami memorial - detail

The drive took three hours rather than the two I expected, not helped by a stop at a mask museum (shop). Then I had to wait until after 2:00 for Galle Face to check me in, by which time it was hard to find anything to eat in the hotel. Although my room had been nicely renovated, and I loved the view of the sea and the hotel’s main courtyard, I was otherwise unimpressed. I thought the food, when available, overpriced, the unrenovated room I moved to my second day was way, way overdue for some TLC, and the duvet on my bed made sleep impossible. Who on earth thought duvets made sense in Sri Lanka?

Downtown Colombo

I found the older part of Colombo also in need of TLC, and not at all atmospheric, while much of the newer part was off limits, access blocked by security guards. I visited the Dutch House Museum, a total waste of 500 rupees, and the National Museum, slightly better but gloomy. While I enjoyed wandering around the parts of the central area that were not off limits, I was glad to retire to a cafe in a blissfully air-conditioned mall close to the hotel (Colombo was miserably hot and humid) where I found some much needed free wifi, and enjoyed a chat with a woman whose husband was a doctor with Operation Smile.

Off limits

I needed the wifi to confirm the  time of my flight to Singapore – I had thought it left at 02:06, but then found the rather worn copy of my eticket said 12:06 (am, fortunately, not pm!) Then  Cathay Pacific’s website said it was actually scheduled for 00:45. I Skyped an urgent message to my driver, and retired to the Galle Face for an early dinner. While I was glad to have finally visited Sri Lanka, I was more than ready to move on.

Colonial era sign

Entrance to Galle Face

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Jan 18-22, 2011 – I liked Kandy but I loved the Hill Country. It turned out to be my favorite part of Sri Lanka, although next time I think I would stay in Ella rather than Nuwara Eliya. I stopped briefly in Ella on my way down to the coast and the scenery was even better than around Nuwara Eliya, plus it seemed that tour groups stayed in Nuwara Eliya while backpackers went to Ella.

Waterfall on the way to Nuwara Eliya

Hill Country is also tea country

On the other hand, Nuwara Eliya was a better base for hiking to World’s End. The truly energetic hike Adam’s Peak, at night so they are in position for the dawn, when the mountain’s shadow travels across the clouds below the peak. I simply wasn’t up for four hours uphill in the dark, whereas I thought I might manage the shorter, flatter hike to the World’s End viewpoint.

Botanical Gardens

I still had to get up at 5:40, arriving at the entrance to Horton Plain’s National Park at 7:30. Once again I was taken aback by the cost of admissions in Sri Lanka – $30 to get me and my car and driver inside. I was also not fully prepared for the hike itself. While nowhere was really steep, a lot of the time I was hiking along dried up stream beds, over uneven rocks, and was very glad of my boots and hiking stick.

On the way to World's End

Most everyone else on the trail moved faster than I did, but I still finished the full circuit, including two viewpoints and Baker’s Falls, by 11:00. I had started out shivering, but finished sweating in the sunshine – definitely a place for dressing in layers. I was more than ready for a rest as I trekked up the final slope, but still in better shape than my driver seemed to expect.

World's End

This was the most exercise I’d had since Lynn Canyon in Vancouver and I was relieved that my bad ankle held up. But besides a sense of accomplishment I was rewarded by remarkable views and an excellent waterfall. I am easily mesmerized by falling water, and would have made it back a good bit earlier if I hadn’t tackled the steep slope down to the falls.

Why is it called World’s End? The Park is at over 7,000 feet, and at a one place the ground drops straight down to the plains almost 3,000 feet below. If you’re lucky with the weather you can see for miles.

Baker's Falls

While the hike was the highlight of my stay in Nuwara Eliya, I also spent some quality time at the Botanical Gardens – bigger and wilder than those in Kandy – and ate a couple of good meals at the colonial era St. Andrew’s Hotel. St. Andrew’s hovers over the west end of town, surrounded by lovingly tended grounds. I stayed at the much newer Governor’s Chalets at the other end, down by the lake. Clear, sunny days gave way to freezing nights and my log cabin definitely needed a heater.

Nuwara Eliya itself, aside from a park and the lake (where a new path was under construction) had little to recommend it. I checked out the shops, since I needed a new umbrella, and wasn’t impressed.

My chalet

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Liking Kandy

Kandy's lake

Jan 15-18, 2001: Kandy came as a bit of a surprise – bigger, noisier and more crowded than I had expected, but I liked it anyway, not least because I finally had dry, sunny weather. I recently read “A Covert Affair”, by Jenner Conant, supposedly about Paul and Julia Child’s wartime service in the O.S.S., but actually centered on one of their friends, later found guilty of espionage. Although I thought the cover and the reviews misrepresented the book, I did appreciate the descriptions of life in Kandy in the 1940s, at a time when my father would have visited. Much had changed!

Kandy's Botanical Gardens

Orchids at the Botanical Gardens

I enjoyed strolling round the central lake (although not being accosted while doing so), but my favorite spot was the Botanical Gardens further out. I happily spent several hours wandering around, admiring the formal gardens, checking out the flock of fruit bats, and lunching with a view of the huge lawn. The next day I made a pilgrimage to the iconic Temple of the Tooth (Buddha’s tooth), along with plenty of local devotees. I got no spiritual vibe from the place, but did enjoy the buildings. That evening I attended one of the dreaded “cultural shows” along with a large roomful of other western tourists. I thought the dancers looked bored and under-rehearsed, but had to admit being impressed by the fire walkers.

At the Temple of the Tooth

Unfortunately I was less pleased with my hotel. In fact, I was so little pleased that I spent one morning driving around Kandy looking for an alternative. I didn’t find another place to stay, but I did get to see plenty of Kandy and its serpentine streets, including lots of good views from the hills surrounding the lake. I liked the look of the Serene Garden enough to make a reservation for dinner, although the resulting buffet didn’t live up to the building.

At least the costumes were interesting

So, what was wrong with the Serendip Stone Bungalow? First, for me it was too far out of town. In fact it’s in a place called Kundasale, not Kandy. Presumably the people giving it rave reviews on Tripadvisor just wanted to chill out by the very small pool, or on the verandah overlooking the river, but I both wanted and needed to get into town. Needed to because the hotel only served vegan food, and that wasn’t enough protein to last me. Add in the lack of AC, the lack of driver accommodation, and the five minute wait for hot water (only available from the shower head) and I thought the place way overpriced.

Loved the orchids!

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Jan 14-15, 2001: The Cultural Triangle’s fourth and final key sight is Sigiriya – either a very large rock or a smallish hill, depending on your point of view. Formed from a magma plug from a long-gone volcano, the rock was briefly home to a fortress-palace, and for rather longer to a Buddhist monastery. It’s impressive from below, rising abruptly from a flat plain, but the tourist is encouraged to climb to the top – all 200 meters (660 feet).

Yes, you are supposed to climb all the way up

I tackled this on my last day in the region. The good news: it was a grey, cool, windy day, I didn’t have to worry about heat stroke and carrying lots of water. The bad news: it was a grey, cool, windy day that turned to rain – fortunately not until I reached the top, but that was no place for light-weight umbrellas. I was pleased to reach the top without finding the climb too much of a chore, but then I wasn’t doing it on a typical Sri Lankan day.

The stairs were mostly fine, but it had been raining for days

Unlike the other Cultural Triangle sights, Sigiriya lived up to my expectations, although the view was hidden by clouds, and then my camera lens fogged up. I enjoyed wandering through the elaborate former gardens at the foot of the rock, and breaking the climb with stops to see the caves near the bottom and the lovely frescoes part way up. Unfortunately, only the paws of the immense lion that guarded the final stairway remain, and the ruins of the palace on the flat expanse at the top are very ruinous.

Frescoes - my camera had fogged up by this time

The lion's paw

I followed a successful, if damp, morning with another good lunch at Gimanhala, but wasn’t sorry to leave the next day for Kandy. On the way I stopped at the small, old, and very atmospheric Nalanda Gedige temple, and the newer and not very exciting Aluvihara cave monastery, finishing with a Hindu temple close to Kandy. The Hindu temple was a poor shadow of those I had seen in India, and I left when I discovered admission cost 200 rupees. My driver said he had never been inside a Hindu temple before, and I assured him that it wasn’t very representative.

Nalanda Gedige

A good tourist would also stop on the way to Kandy at the spice plantations and batik workshops along the road. I chose to do this as a separate trip while I was staying in Kandy, but I have to say not only wasn’t it worth a separate trip, I wouldn’t bother on the way to Kandy either. When I visited a spice plantation in Goa in 2001 I was taken round the actual plantation to see the spices growing, here I was just shown the harvested spices – it was a pure shopping opportunity, with the spices sold at inflated prices. Similarly, while some of the batik pieces I saw were attractive, the prices were much higher than I remember paying in Indonesia a few years back.

Mace and nutmeg

The view from Nalanda Gedige

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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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Many Buddhas

My driver collected me from the Villa Araliya around 9:00 my second morning in Sri Lanka and we took off for the Cultural Triangle area. For this, my first visit to the island, I was just hitting the highlights, and the Cultural Triangle, home to dramatic temples and ruined cities, certainly seemed to be one of them. I would have the driver (J. R. A Ganiori at (0)71 49 50 890) all the way to Colombo, and unlike the drivers I had suffered with in India, he was not only careful but almost embarrassingly solicitous. Usually I travel on public transport, with a backpack (admittedly only weighing around 10 kilos, but still). Now my driver wanted to carry my day bag for me when I visited sights, and wiped my feet for me before putting my sandals back on when I had to take them off for temples. I thought I had traveled back in time!

Dambulla's Golden Temple, which I didn't visit

Perhaps as a result of the bad weather Sri Lanka had been experiencing, the road from Negombo to the Cultural Triangle area deteriorated as we got further from the coast, plus we hit a number of traffic jams, and so didn’t reach Dambulla until 2:30, instead of 1:00 as I had expected. Not a problem for some people, but I have a blood sugar problem, and lunch was way overdue. Fortunately, for once I enjoyed a buffet, at the Gimanhala hotel. Although I was sad to see the Sri Lankan dishes segregated in a small section of their own, I ate plenty of the delicious fried prawns.

Outside the cave temples

Before I tell you what I thoght of the Dambulla cave temples, I should explain that I am not really a paintings person. I preferred Ellora (sculpture) to Ajanta (frescoes) in India, and in London I head for the V&A (decorative arts), not the National Gallery. So when I say that I was not that impressed with Dambulla, I’m aware that mine is a minority opinion, although I certainly think that the wikipedia author who claimed they are the finest caves in Asia had either been drinking or hadn’t traveled very far. Dunhuang outclasses them easily, and so do Ajanta and Ellora, and even Yungang.

Inside the temples

The bad weather didn’t help, of course. What I saw of the setting was impressive, but the far view was obscured by mist. Nor was I happy about having to walk barefoot over the wet rocks outside the caves – I don’t mind taking off my shoes inside, but after six weeks in India I was really tired of getting my feet dirty every time I wanted to visit even the outer perimeter of a temple. I don’t even walk barefoot in my house any more – after several lectures from my chiropractor I keep a pair of “indoor” Birkenstocks. So when I say that I found both the Buddha statues and the frescoes repetitive and not particularly appealing, don’t let me keep from going to see for yourself. Note that I’m not complaining so much about the multitude of tiny Buddhas painted on the walls and ceilings – very reminiscent of Dunhuang – but about the larger frescoes.

I skipped the kitschy-looking Golden Temple and we continued on to my “home” for the next four nights:  the Deer Park in (well, more accurately near) Giritale. I should have read the description of the hotel more closely, as I wasn’t really prepared for a place with 77 cottages that was home to tour groups and big buffets. On the one hand, I had a sizable bedroom with a nice window seat and a desk, although no view. On the other hand, it came with an indoor/outdoor bathroom. Rant alert! I really cannot understand this fad for outdoor bathrooms in the tropics. I live in central North Carolina, with a semi-tropical climate, and believe me, everyone who can afford it has a fully indoor bathroom and AC! The problem for me wasn’t the lack of AC as it was quite cool, it was rain. True, only the shower area was actually uncovered, except by wire mesh, but it was decorated with potted plants, and the heavy rain splashed off the leaves into the rest of the bathroom. Plus, even when it didn’t rain everything got damp from the humidity. I stored the towels in the bedroom.

My favorite Buddha

Not a Buddha

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Negombo: Going Deaf?

Jan 9-11, 2011: The first thing I noticed about Sri Lanka, being driven from Colombo airport to the tourist enclave of Negombo, was the quiet. Was it possible that my comfortable car was sound-proofed? Was I going deaf? Well, no. I quickly realized that the Sri Lankan drivers maintained lane discipline, and didn’t drive with one hand on the horn. But after six weeks in India, I had grown so accustomed to the continuous honking that accompanied any car trip on urban roads, that the quiet seemed almost eerie.

Just as my ears were no longer assaulted by the sounds of India, my eyes were spared the trash that fouled the streets of almost every Indian city. I had seen Sri Lanka described as India-lite. At first sight it was certainly India-clean and quiet. It seemed amazing that traveling such a short distance could have produced such a noticeable change. It surely also invalidated the excuses I heard for the dirt and chaos in India. True, Sri Lanka was a smaller country, but it had only just ended a vicious and long-lasting civil war.

Traditional boat off the coast at Negombo

About the car and driver – I had wound up planning for Sri Lanka over Christmas, with internet but without a guidebook, and finally took the line of least resistance and booked with Boutique Sri Lanka. Instead of taking trains and buses I would have a car and driver for the whole trip, plus they arranged all my hotels. While I certainly wasn’t staying at luxurious places like Tea Trails, I was definitely blowing my budget

Visitors to Sri Lanka are generally advised to spend their first night in Negombo, rather than tackling Colombo. In fact, they’re often advised to avoid the capital altogether. Since I wanted to see Colombo (my father had been stationed there during WWII) I had decided to start in Negombo and finish in Colombo. When I couldn’t get a reservation for the accommodation I wanted in Yala National Park, I added an extra night to Negombo.

Even though I had been prepared for Negombo to be touristy, the continuous row of cafes and souvenir shops still suprised me. My hotel, the Villa Araliya, was down an alley at the far end of the strip. My room, while a good size, was unexpected. The one double and one single bed were built from concrete, and just one single top sheet was provided. While the shower itself was fine, no hot water was available from the tap beneath the shower or at the sink. I fought a consistently losing battle with the door lock. I saw no sign of the supposedly welcoming owners when I arrived, and when I went down in search of coffee and internet and information, I assumed the woman who helped me locate coffee was another guest. Not until they greeted an arriving couple did I identify my hosts. I did not feel welcome.

Concrete beds

At breakfast I met a couple of long-term travelers – a Canadian and her NRI husband – starting their fifth year on the road. We shared a rickshaw down the street to the Ice Bear, a popular budget guesthouse, for lunch. The food was fine, but took forever to arrive, and while the place was on the water it looked pretty basic. I ate rather better in the evenings: a good Wiener schnitzel and fries at Bijou the first night, and an excellent sampler of Sri Lankan dishes at pricey Lords the second. The lobster, pear and lemongrass soup was a little tasteless, but I loved the spicy prawn curry, and enjoyed the dal and spinach, and pea and cashew curries. Between the wine with the meal, the Cointreau I treated myself to with coffee, and the free apple schnaps that arrived with the bill, I had something of a hangover the next morning!

January in Sri Lanka is still high season, one reason I had booked through an agency, and I should have been met by blue skies and bright sunshine. Instead, most of the time I was in Negombo it rained, and the Cultural Triangle area, my next stop, had been suffering from floods. Not an auspicious beginning.

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