Another day, another beach
Another day, another beach
Our ride to our Berlin-bound aircraft
Our ride to our Berlin-bound aircraft

Anuradhapura was our last stop in Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle and by that time we were both approaching a state of temple overload. Like Polonnaruwa, the city is spread out across many kilometers of lightly forested land which is best explored by tuktuk or bicycle.

Sri Maha Bodhi (the sacred bodhi tree)
Sri Maha Bodhi (the sacred bodhi tree)

One of the most popular sights in Anuradhapura is the Sri Maha Bodhi or Sacred Bodhi Tree. This is the oldest historically verified tree on the planet and is one of the most sacred Buddhist places in Sri Lanka.

Mirisavatiya Dagoba
Mirisavatiya Dagoba

Anuradhapura also has lots of dagoba waiting to be discovered. The ones we visited had all been restored in modern times so they were much different than the ruinous ones we saw down in Polonnaruwa.

An evening bike ride along the shores of Nuwara Wewa
An evening bike ride along the shores of Nuwara Wewa

Like any good ancient city in Sri Lanka, Anuradhapura has some nice tanks that are worth exploring. One evening we took our bikes for spin around one of them and saw some water birds and a few aggressive stray dogs.

These guys are clearly bored by the temples
These guys are clearly bored by the temples

In the end, Anuradhapura wasn’t our favorite of the ancient cities but perhaps that is because it was the last one we visited. Visiting temples and ruins is great and all but eventually you’ve seen enough. I think we reached that point in Anuradhapura!

Anuradhapura
Mirisavatiya Dagoba
Mirisavatiya Dagoba
A door handle at Isurumuniya Vihara
A door handle at Isurumuniya Vihara
Isurumuniya Vihara
Isurumuniya Vihara
Sri Maha Bodhi (the sacred bodhi tree)
Sri Maha Bodhi (the sacred bodhi tree)
These guys are clearly bored by the temples
These guys are clearly bored by the temples
Ruwanwelisaya Dagoba
Ruwanwelisaya Dagoba
An evening bike ride along the shores of Nuwara Wewa
An evening bike ride along the shores of Nuwara Wewa

 

Sep 162011

Readers who have been watching the map on the website have probably noticed that we are no longer in Sri Lanka.  Indeed, we left the Pearl of the Indian Ocean a little over a week ago.  After almost 25 days of frequent use of Sri Lanka’s public transportation, coach seats on a Bangkok-bound airplane felt absolutely luxurious!  I still have quite a bit more to write about Sri Lanka but I thought I would interrupt the normally scheduled broadcasts and share our upcoming adventures.

During our last week in Sri Lanka I spent some quality time looking at airline award charts.  Ever since we left the States in July, I have been carrying hard copies of redemption charts for United, America, British Airways, British Midlands, and US Airways – all airlines in which I have a fair number of miles sitting in the bank.  I am sure I really confuse other travelers and locals alike when I sit someplace public and pour over these tables but staring at them for a long time is the best way for me to find the fun corner cases.  While planning our escape from Sri Lanka I think I had some good luck finding one of those corner cases.

The basic goals we had were as follows:

  • Thailand for a quick jaunt to Cambodia/Laos
  • Hong Kong – a city neither of us has visited
  • Mongolia – a country that has long been on my must-see list
  • Philippines – for more SCUBA and snorkeling

The first idea I had was to cash out some British Airways miles for an award with Cathay Pacific.  This would take us from Sri Lanka to Thailand for a stopover then onward to Hong Kong for another stopover.  Finally, the award would terminate by carrying us from Hong Kong to either Manilla or Cebu in the Philippines.  This seemed to be a good value but I wanted to stretch it even more.

Mongolia has long been on my must-see list and we are in the same neck of the woods, sort of.  OneWorld has no service to Ulaanbaatar but Air China, a Star Alliance member, has once daily service from Beijing.  Nesting a second award ticket inside of our Hong Kong stopover was doable but the miles required wasn’t all that attractive and the Chinese visa issues even less so.

Image from Wikipedia Mongolia article

Mongolia

Eventually it occurred to me that I could probably accomplish most of our goals with a single ticket using my British Midland (BMI) miles.  BMI allows stopovers, even on one-way awards, and prices their awards with a zone-based system which favorable groups all those destinations into adjacent zones.  By booking two one-way reservations I was able to construct a ticket to take us from Sri Lanka to Thailand for a stopover and then onward to Ulaanbaatar.  After a 16-day stay from Ulaanbaatar a second one-way ticket will take us from Mongolia to the Philippines…but wait, there’s more!

While I was checking the Star Alliance timetables for Manilla, I noticed that Continental’s Micronesia division has twice-weekly service from Manilla to Palau.  I also noticed that Asiana has four-times-weekly service from Seoul to Palau.  I wasn’t sure if the airline would accept the detour through Palau but I was determined to give it a shot.  After checking award seat availability I phoned up BMI and read off the segments.  The agent commented on the long routing but also noted that routing through Singapore, a much longer distance, was legal.  He had to get a supervisor involved but eventually all was approved.  15,000 miles were used for the entire ticket: Sri Lanka to Thailand to Mongolia to Palau to the Philippines.

My good friend Charles opined that we will perhaps be the 55th and 56th people ever to fly from Mongolia to Palau.  It is certainly a strange routing and a testament to the power and flexibility of air miles and global airline alliances.  Even if we aren’t the 55th and 56th, travel that day should be a radical change of scene after 16 days out on the steppe!

Palau image from Wikipedia

Palau's Rock Islands

So in the end we didn’t accomplish the goal of visiting Hong Kong but we did add the bonus destination of Palau!  Hong Kong should be easy enough to hit up some other time as its a major hub.  Our stop in Thailand is scheduled to last 12 days; not enough time for Laos but certainly enough time to visit the ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.  We could have stopped longer but the Mongolian winter is closing in.  Even this week, the second full week in September, they are already seeing lows around 15F (-10C)!  It’s high time to shop for some cold weather clothing!

Nilaveli Beach

Asia, Sri Lanka Comments Off
Sep 152011

Nilaveli, one of the better-known beaches along Sri Lanka’s northeast coast is still trying to get back on tourists’ itineraries. The area was ravaged by the tsunami in 2004 and was a hot-spot in the Sri Lankan civil war for many years but things are changing now.

The biggest difficulty we faced in visiting Nilaveli was finding an affordable place to stay. Many of the hotels and resorts were destroyed in the tsunami and were never rebuilt, in fact you can see the decaying remains of many of them along some parts of the beach. There were a limited number of high-end resorts that were still operating but these were largely out of our price range. We were seeing rates of $100 and up per night – crazy expensive by Sri Lanka’s standards!

Amy eventually turned up a midrange option called the Seaview that had availability for our dates. We paid 3,600 rupees (US$34) per night for a fan “garden view” room. The room definitely wasn’t one of our best-value digs in Sri Lanka but it was adequate.

The beach itself was gorgeous. Nice soft sand that went on for miles and miles with hardly a soul. The area directly in front of our guesthouse seemed to be pretty popular with domestic tourists and, much to my surprise, there was even a lifeguard!

Pidgeon Island National Park, named for the birds which nest there, is just offshore from Nilaveli. We hired a boat and made a day trip out there for some snorkeling. I saw a black-tip reef shark, some lion fish and quite a few eels. The small harbor where most people snorkel was nice because the bottom drops away rather quickly and much of the coral hasn’t been trampled.

Seeing the sunrise was something we enjoyed each day of our stay. It seemed quite popular with the Sri Lankans as well. One morning while we were out for a sunrise walk a boy who was maybe 12 or 14 struck up a conversation with me. It quickly went from the usual “Where are you from?” to “Can I have you watch?” and I started to wonder if this little brat was going to rob me. Eventually some older folks walked over and I surmised that they were his family and they were all here on vacation on a village near Kandy. He behaved himself after that and the only other thing they asked me for was a group photo.

A family on vacation insisted that I take their photo.
A family on vacation insisted that I take their photo.

In the end we only stayed two nights at Nilaveli. The beach was really nice but food options were quite limited and, honestly, Amy and I aren’t the type to lounge for days on end at the beach. We return to Trinco on our third day and caught a bus back inland to Anuradhapura in the cultural triangle.

Nilaveli Beach
Crows are everywhere in Sri Lanka.
Crows are everywhere in Sri Lanka.
A family on vacation insisted that I take their photo.
A family on vacation insisted that I take their photo.
How about this stylin life jacket?
How about this stylin life jacket?
A dung beetle!  That's nearly a tennis-ball-sized ball of poo.
A dung beetle! That’s nearly a tennis-ball-sized ball of poo.

The first of our train adventures in Sri Lanka was from Polonnaruwa to Trincomalee on the northeast coast. We certainly could have made the trip by bus but I had heard great things about train travel in Sri Lanka.  I was determined to give the trains a try but doing so certainly required some effort.

There are a variety of Sri Lankan train schedules online and in the guidebooks but we determined that there is only one reliable way to figure the system out. You have to go to the station where you want to depart on the day before travel and ask the station master if there will be a train. If you talk to anyone else, or use any website for schedule information and you are almost guaranteed to be disappointed!

We set off from our guesthouse at 8AM by tuktuk to make the 20 minute drive over to Polonnaruwa’s new town where the train station is located. We were to catch the 9:24am train for Colombo, ride it for about an hour and then switch to a Trincomalee-bound train at Galoya Junction for another two hours on the rails. Simple.

Most Sri Lankan trains have 2nd and 3rd class seats and a few feature 1st class. The station master in Polonnaruwa told us that the Trinco trip was only available in 3rd class that day. Seemed OK to us as the total trip including the connection time was only about 5 hours. Total fare was 95 rupees ($0.90) per person, a steal!

3rd class
3rd class

While we waited in the station I had a good look around. The train system in Sri Lanka was built during the British colonial days and it remains much the same today. Taking a train trip in Sri Lanka is a bit like going to a museum and seeing all the old equipment that is still in use today was excellent.

Equipment used to make sure there is only one train on a track at a time.  Important stuff.
Equipment used to make sure there is only one train on a track at a time. Important stuff.
Carnegie Steel USA
Carnegie Steel USA

The I-beams (discarded train track?) that was supporting the station roof was stamped “Carnegie Steel USA.” I found it pretty shocking to think that at one point in time the best way to get steel in rural Sri Lanka was to order it in from Pittsburgh! Roles are a bit reversed these days.

Once we arrived at Galoya junction we had about an hour to kill. The train to Trinco was already there but we had to wait for a northbound train from Colombo that had connecting passengers. I noticed that our train had one second class car tacked on the end so I asked about an upgrade.

Ticket counter
Ticket counter

A long conversion ensued in Sinhala between the two ticket clerks and the station master. Fare tables were consulted, distance charts were used, calculations were performed and double-checked. Finally, an excess fare form was pulled from a special binder and completed in carbon-copy triplicate. All the complexity stemmed from the fact that they were prorating our 2nd class fare based on the distance we had already traveled in 3rd class. We gladly would have paid for a completely new ticket but it seemed like they enjoyed the challenge. We happily ponied up the 55 rupee ($0.50) fare difference for the 2nd class ticket.

Exploring the station itself was good fun. There were monkeys sitting on the tracks waiting for handouts and a number of stray dogs milling about. The slender station building had all sorts of interesting rooms with signs labeling their purpose: “Carriage Examiner,” “Station Master’s Office,” “2nd Class Gents Waiting Room,” etc. I don’t know about other travelers but I get a great deal of enjoyment out of very orderly things like this when traveling in an otherwise chaotic locale.

Our train had about a half dozen cars in total and was pulled by a single diesel locomotive. I was pleased to find a plaque on the side of the locomotive that informed me that its name was “Alberta” and that it was a donation from the Canadian government. It performed well and got us to Trinco more or less on time.

We thoroughly enjoyed our first Sri Lankan train trip and aside from the fans not working in our 2nd class car, the ride was flawless. For me, it was infinitely more comfortable than the bumpy and cramped bus rides of days past and getting to experience a colonial relic of days past was icing on the cake.

Train to Trinco
Ticket counter
Ticket counter
Carnegie Steel USA
Carnegie Steel USA
3rd class
3rd class
2nd class
2nd class
Equipment used to make sure there is only one train on a track at a time.  Important stuff.
Equipment used to make sure there is only one train on a track at a time. Important stuff.
Paint reads: Flood Level Dec 1957
Paint reads: Flood Level Dec 1957

Sep 112011

Tusker.  That’s what the locals call Sri Lanka’s indigenous pachyderm.  Actually, the term refers only to the male tusk-bearing variety which make up a mere 6% of the population.  We learned that fact and many others on our evening visit to Minneriya National Park.

The park is located about an hour’s drive west of Polonnaruwa and you need 4WD to visit.  By Sri Lankan standards, visiting the park is by no means cheap.  We weren’t able to find any other tourists to accompany us in the jeep so we ended up paying the whole 4,500 rupee (US$41) ourselves.  Upon arrival in the park you are escorted into the visitor center to pay the 2,600 rupee (US$24) entrance fee per person.  Nearly $90 for a three hour tour is pretty expensive for our budget but we are glad we did it.

Sri Lanka’s elephants actually migrate around the island but our visit coincided with the time they spend in Minneriya.  They spend most of their day in the shade of the forest but come evening they move into the nearby grasslands and lakes and this is of course the best time to visit!

A slow and bumpy drive through the bush followed our brief stop at park HQ.  Eventually we broke out of the forest onto a huge open grassland with a small lake.  Off in the distance we could see elephants and lots of them!  Our driver took us pretty close to them but I noticed he always made sure he was ready to make a quick get-away (engine running, vehicle pointed away from the animals).  I suppose you don’t want an elephant to go after your jeep/livelihood!

When we arrived there were perhaps 50 but that number grew to close to 200 as the evening wore on.  Given that they all must eat about 10% of the body weight each day, you really start to get the picture as to how much space and resources these giants need.  The total population of elephants in Sri Lanka is estimated to be around 5,000 individuals and they are listed as an endangered species.  Habitat encroachment by humans in mostly to blame.

Watching them graze was particularly interesting.  They use their trunks, of course, but they don’t simply tear off grass and stuff it in their face.  They seemed to tear it off bit-by-bit and form a small pile of grass on their ground.  They also use their front feet to help break grass free from the ground.  All the while they are rolling around their slowly-growing pile of grass with their trunk.  Maybe they do this to get the dirt and sand out of it?  Our guide/driver’s English was insufficient to find out.

Another highlight was getting to watch the baby elephants.  There were two small ones that might have been twins who were constantly wrestling with each other.

Another even younger baby was keeping himself entertained by pulling the tails, ears and trunks of the adults around him.  He was surprisingly energetic considering his size but eventually he just collapsed and fell asleep.

Getting to see them in a wild setting was an excellent experience.  They are fascinating creatures and it’s a shame that they are such a threatened species.  Hopefully the funds they get from tourists like ourselves helps to keep parks like Minneriya up and running.

Minneriya Park
Rugged late 70's Misubishi jeep
Rugged late 70′s Misubishi jeep
Some bats hanging out in the information center
Some bats hanging out in the information center
Pea fowl
Pea fowl

Sep 062011

The next stop for us in Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle was the ancient city of Polonnaruwa. We burned most of a morning on the journey from Sigiriya which involved two of those lovely red public buses. By the time we arrived we were only in the mood to relax in our splurge for the week: a room with AC!

Some buses have meal service.
Some buses have meal service.

Being the ruins of an ancient city, the sites within Polonnaruwa are quite spread out. We rented bikes from our guesthouse the next morning and got off to an early start. The goal was the see most of the major sites before the sweltering heat took hold of the situation.

Riding a bike in Sri Lanka is a bit scary at first. Actually, being in any vehicle in Sri Lanka is a bit scary. The roads are quite narrow and everyone is trying to overtake each other in seemingly impossible situations. Oh, and throw in the odd elephant or tractor for time to time just for good measure. Riding on the bus I couldn’t help but admire how calm the drivers are through all of this. Nerves of steel.

Rankot Vihara - Polonnaruwa's largest dagoba at 54m
Rankot Vihara – Polonnaruwa’s largest dagoba at 54m

We made a bee line for the remote northern group of ruins when we first entered the park area. When we made it to the first large dagoba, Rankot Vihara, around 7:30AM and we largely had the place to ourselves if you don’t count the monkeys. (Another golden rule of Sri Lanka: all temples have monkeys. Lots and lots of monkeys.) Rankot Vihara is Polonnaruwa’s largest dagoba and, in case you were wondering, the center is filled with dirt and bricks. All in all, quite spectacular considering it is almost 1000 years old!

Lankatilaka
Lankatilaka

The nearby Lankatilaka gedige (a type of temple) was also quite a sight. The ceiling had collapsed but the massive walls (17 meters, the book tells me) still stand in a mostly vertical way. The standing Buddha inside was appropriately massive.

Even further north we came to Gal Vihara, a nice collection of rock carvings that are widely regarded to be some of the finest in all of Sri Lanka. There is a large 14m reclining Buddha and a smaller standing Buddha. Both are covered in an unsightly metal roof (infested with monkeys, I might add) that makes photography a bit difficult.

Lotus pond
Lotus pond

By the time we arrived at the relatively minor attractions (Lotus Pond and Tivanka Image House) in the far north corner of the park we were drenched in sweat. The final stretch of road to these sights was uphill and the sun was getting to be quite high in the sky. We rode back south to an area where there were some drink stalls and I promptly downed a liter and a half of water.

The southern end of the park, including the ‘quadrangle’ were our final stop before lunch. These are the most compact area of ruins in the park and are including on just about any tour of Polonnaruwa. If we were to go back and do Polonnaruwa again, we probably would have come here first thing in the morning as it was very crowded when we visited. Nevertheless, we still enjoyed seeing some very impressive stone carvings (including a 9m long ola book made of stone) and buildings.

After a quick bite to eat at our favorite eatery in town (Darshana Hotel on the main drag) we visited the Archaeological Museum (air conditioned! mostly) to some very interesting models of what many of the ruined buildings used to look like. The museum also had some good narrative in English but photos weren’t allowed.

From the museum we rode along Topa Wewa, the large tank (recall: tank is the Sri Lankan term for artificial lake) that sits west of Polonnaruwa. There is a nice road along the levy and the views of the surrounding countryside are quite picturesque, even in the blaring midday heat. A few kilometers down the lake we arrived at Polonnaruwa’s southern group of ruins. These are much smaller than the ones we saw further to the north and the highlight for us was a 4m-high stone carving of a person. Some believe it is one of the ancient kings.

By the time we finished with the southern group it must have been three or four in the afternoon and we were wiped out. The bikes were definitely a good choice but the heat made it very tiring despite the modest distances covered. The ruins of Polonnaruwa were definitely one of the stand-out attractions of Sri Lanka as were the country’s wild elephants. More on them in the next post.

Polonnaruwa
Some buses have meal service.
Some buses have meal service.
A refreshing Kik Cola en route to Polonaruwa
A refreshing Kik Cola en route to Polonaruwa
Rankot Vihara - Polonnaruwa's largest dagoba at 54m
Rankot Vihara – Polonnaruwa’s largest dagoba at 54m
We took our shoes on and off many times when visiting Polonaruwa.
We took our shoes on and off many times when visiting Polonaruwa.
Kiri Vihara
Kiri Vihara
Lankatilaka
Lankatilaka
Monkeys at the temple
Monkeys at the temple
Lotus pond
Lotus pond
The oldest Hindu structure at Polonaruwa
The oldest Hindu structure at Polonaruwa
Giant stone replica of an ola book.
Giant stone replica of an ola book.
Thuparama Gedige
Thuparama Gedige
Decorative moonstone
Decorative moonstone
The baths
The baths
The tank near Polonaruwa - Topa Wewa
The tank near Polonaruwa – Topa Wewa
Lots of storks keeping an eye on us.
Lots of storks keeping an eye on us.

Sep 052011
Sigiriya Rock
Sigiriya Rock

The journey north from Kandy to Sigiriya was another arduous Sri Lankan bus ride. About four hours in length but long enough that we both felt exhausted when we arrived.

A nice lizard we saw along the road to the rock
A nice lizard we saw along the road to the rock

Sigiriya lies at one corner of Sri Lanka’s “Cultural Triangle” and is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. The village itself is unremarkable and probably wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the nearby ruins. The mostly dirt road through the village is dotted with a handful of shops and guesthouses and that’s about it.

Sigiriya rock is a magma plug from a long-gone volcano and the ancient people took to using it for everything from meditation site to fortress to palace. Actually, from what I gathered all of those are theories about its purpose and there is very little evidence to support any of them. Regardless, most of it dates back to the year 500AD, give or take.

The remains of ancient fountains
The remains of ancient fountains

Just pass the entrance gate are gardens that are filled with the ruins of ancient fountains and ponds. The signs posted about also claim that there is a sophisticated subterranean plumbing system which I certainly believe, the Sri Lankans are masters of hydro engineering. They were constructing canals, dams and artificial reservoirs (called tanks) well over a thousand years ago! Many of these are still in use today.

The outer moat around Sigiriya Rock
The outer moat around Sigiriya Rock

After the gardens we started to climb. There are a series of stone steps, stair cases and ramps that took us to the top. At the base was this rather hilarious sign.

High quality signs at this attraction!
High quality signs at this attraction!

A short while later, we passed another sign and then another. They seem serious about this!

The final ascent starts between a pair of huge stone lion paws that once formed a gigantic stone lion. Half way up while jammed shoulder-to-shoulder with other tourists we saw what all the fuss was about. Meter-high hornet nests not too far from the stairs that were teeming with activity. I figured it was going to be just my luck that caused them to swarm when I am trapped on a staircase with a bunch of other people. Fortunately for us, they were calm that day. Later on, somebody pointed to a screened in room at the base of the rock and informed us that it was the hornet refuge.

Originally these paws were part of a huge lion
Originally these paws were part of a huge lion

The views from the top were worth the sweaty slog. To the north we could still see a good part of Sri Lanka’s mountains and in all directions there were lakes and grasslands.

The next day we got an early start and bussed it over to the nearby town of Dambulla which has some cave temples that are also listed as a UNESCO site. These caves are also near the top of a large rock but the climb wasn’t nearly as strenuous as Sigiriya.

Dambulla Caves
Dambulla Caves

The inside of the caves are meticulously painted and contain many many many Buddha statues. There are also a couple of Hindu gods mixed in as well.

Inside one of the Dambulla caves
Inside one of the Dambulla caves

Visiting Dambulla only took part of a morning and we were back in Sigiriya for lunch. We were staying at a very nice but budget guesthouse in Sigiriya – the Flower Inn. We read that it was possible to use the swimming pools (for a small fee) at some of the nearby 4 and 5 star resorts so that’s just what we did in the sweltering heat of the afternoon. We ate our lunch at the Sigiriya Village Resort (which came to a costly 1600 rupees, US$15) but they let us use the pool free of charge and even provided us with nice mattresses for the lounge chairs as well as towels. It was a great way to end two days of slogging through temples and ruins.

Sigiriya and Dambulla
Sigiriya Rock
Sigiriya Rock
A nice lizard we saw along the road to the rock
A nice lizard we saw along the road to the rock
I can also confirm that this was not an idle warning.
I can also confirm that this was not an idle warning.
The outer moat around Sigiriya Rock
The outer moat around Sigiriya Rock
The remains of ancient fountains
The remains of ancient fountains
High quality signs at this attraction!
High quality signs at this attraction!
Frescos inside the caves.
Frescos inside the caves.
Narrow stairway to the top - flanked by hornet nests
Narrow stairway to the top – flanked by hornet nests
Originally these paws were part of a huge lion
Originally these paws were part of a huge lion
Meter-tall nests seething with hornets!
Meter-tall nests seething with hornets!
The hornet refuge (in case of likely hornet attack, you know)
The hornet refuge (in case of likely hornet attack, you know)
I think this is a mountain hawk-eagle
I think this is a mountain hawk-eagle
Oriental Magpie Robin
Oriental Magpie Robin
A refreshing reward after climbing the rock.
A refreshing reward after climbing the rock.
Dambulla Caves
Dambulla Caves
Inside one of the Dambulla caves
Inside one of the Dambulla caves
Rose-ringed Parakeet
Rose-ringed Parakeet
Red butt bird
Red butt bird

Most advice for travelers visiting Sri Lanka starts as follows: “Get out of Colombo.” To be fair, we do plan to visit the city briefly later in our trip but apparently it has little to detain tourists. We stayed in the town of Negombo near Colombo’s airport while we got our bearings in the new country.

We made a break for Kandy early on our second day. The proprietor of our guesthouse wanted to send us to a nearby town on the Kandy rail line but he wanted a somewhat outrageous sum of 1500 rupees (US$14) for the transfer. We followed our budget instincts and hired a tuktuk to drive us down to Negombo’s bus station. Now “bus station” is a bit misleading. What I actually am referring to is a nondescript vacant bare-dirt lot where buses are in a continuous state near-collision with each other. We were soon to get our first lesson on public transport, Sri Lankan style.

Negombo's bus station
Negombo’s bus station

One of the joys of traveling in Sri Lanka is that most locals have at least some command of English. A quick check with a few of the locals taught us that a vague area in the center of the dirt lot was where the Kandy-bound bus would magically materialize at 7:30AM. We had quite a few false alarms but eventually one of the local guys yelled “Kandy bus! Kandy bus!” and pointed to the adjacent road.

There she was. The typical Sri Lankan bus engaged in its boarding sequence: a well-used Indian-made TATA bus, dust-and-white in color and absolutely mobbed by people at both the front and back doors. We soon learned that locals are hyper-aggressive about securing seats on their transport. Throwing random belongings through the window on to open seats seemed to be a popular technique. Pushing and shoving is also a much-loved tactic. At the same time, however, they are often quite kind about relinquishing seats for foreigners.

We made it on to the bus and managed to get ourselves some seats. Strangely, buses here lack luggage compartments and one of the great mysteries in life seems to be how Sri Lankans travel with little to no luggage! Eventually we learned that you can stack your stuff next to the driver on top of the engine cover – just make sure it doesn’t fall over on to him or the gear shift!

The Tooth Relic Temple
The Tooth Relic Temple

The ride up to Kandy took something like 4 hours and covered some miserably short distance (around 60 miles). Land transport in Sri Lanka is slow and often uncomfortable but is also quite fun not to mention very cheap. This will no doubt be a reoccurring theme here on the blog over the next few posts.

The city of Kandy sits at about 500m and the noticeably cooler temperatures were immediately appreciated. A man-made lake sits at the center of the city and a stroll around it proved to be a nice afternoon diversion. There was a surprising amount of wildlife considering we were in the middle of one of the country’s biggest cities!

Tooth Relic Temple
Tooth Relic Temple

On our second day in Kandy we visited the Tooth Relic Temple which contains one of the most sacred artifacts in the Buddhist religion – a tooth of the Buddha. It is not possible to see the actual tooth but at certain times of day you can briefly glimpse the gold casket in which it is contained. In one of the other buildings in the complex we saw Raja, the most famous of Sri Lankan tuskers (elephants). He was the lead elephant in Kandy’s annual Esala Perahera festival for something like 50 years. He died in 1988 and was stuffed in order to be admired for years to come. The Sri Lankan’s definitely love their tuskers!

Raja the most famous tusker in Sri Lanka.
Raja the most famous tusker in Sri Lanka.

After Kandy most tourists head south for the Hill Country but we had other plans. We first wanted to go north and visit the “cultural triangle” before finishing our tour in the cool hills to the south.

A very determined turtle crawls over a huge water monitor to get to the sun.
A very determined turtle crawls over a huge water monitor to get to the sun.
Kandy
Negombo's bus station
Negombo’s bus station
Empty buses and moving buses are mutually exclusive in Sri Lanka.
Empty buses and moving buses are mutually exclusive in Sri Lanka.
Last row, middle of the bench: first class on a Sri Lankan bus for tall people like me.
Last row, middle of the bench: first class on a Sri Lankan bus for tall people like me.
A bus with a United 747 painted on the side!  I wonder if my 1K card would get me special seats?
A bus with a United 747 painted on the side! I wonder if my 1K card would get me special seats?
Fruit bats hanging out.
Fruit bats hanging out.
Bad monkeys!
Bad monkeys!
A rather stately looking kingfisher
A rather stately looking kingfisher
Sun bathing water monitor and lizard.  Not a care in the world!
Sun bathing water monitor and lizard. Not a care in the world!
A very determined turtle crawls over a huge water monitor to get to the sun.
A very determined turtle crawls over a huge water monitor to get to the sun.
The Tooth Relic Temple
The Tooth Relic Temple
Tooth Relic Temple
Tooth Relic Temple
Raja the most famous tusker in Sri Lanka.
Raja the most famous tusker in Sri Lanka.
Tusker costumes!
Tusker costumes!
I definitely need to watch my head in this part of the world.
I definitely need to watch my head in this part of the world.
Coconut palms and mountains, a very very Sri Lankan scene
Coconut palms and mountains, a very very Sri Lankan scene
One of the first of countless rice and curries to come.
One of the first of countless rice and curries to come.

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