Cats and birds.  Both bigger in Africa.
Cats and birds. Both bigger in Africa.
Gemsbok (Oryx)
Gemsbok (Oryx)
Black Rhino
Black Rhino

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

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.

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.

Second to Madidi Park, the most popular attraction for visitors to Rurrenabaque is Bolivia’s vast grasslands known as The Pampas.  A guided tour seemed to be the way to go so we organized one from Rurre and it came to about $145 for a two-day, one-night tour – quite pricey for Bolivia!  The guy at the tour company, a real slick used car salesman type, told us that we had to meet at the office at 8:30AM sharp the next day for our departure.  He said we needed to make sure that we left on time to beat the other companies and to avoid the dust.  Certainly an intriguing reason for an on-time departure.

After a restless night of sleep in one of the dumpier room offerings in Rurre we walked over to the tour company for our 8:30 appointment.  A small SUV was waiting for us and there was a bit of commotion as the guide’s underlings strapped stuff to the luggage rack.  The salesman neglected to inform us that there was very little space in the vehicle so I had to quickly pull some essentials from my pack before storing it in the company office.

The road to the pampas.  A bit dusty, no?
The road to the pampas. A bit dusty, no?

Leaving Rurre the road quickly went from pavment to cobblestone to dirt.  The next 50 miles of bumpy road looked as if it was made of ground-up brown chalk and each passing vehicle, pedestrian, and cow stirred up an impressive amount of the stuff.  The calm winds that morning made the dust just linger over the road and many many times our driver plunged our vehicle into dust clouds we couldn’t see through.  Three hours to go 50 miles – yep, still in Bolivia.

An excess of hammock time on the pampas tour.
An excess of hammock time on the pampas tour.

At the camp near San Rosa, our guide told us that there would be a bit of a delay before our rooms and lunch were ready.  He suggested that we go relax in the hammocks for a bit.  Thirty minutes passed, and then an hour before lunch was served.  After lunch the guide told us that our first boat trip into the Pampas would start at approximately 4pm.  At this point Amy and I were pretty frustrated with this tour company.  We booked a two-day tour and we burned almost the entire first day in a car or hammock.

After the lengthy siesta we loaded up in one of the motorized canoes and headed up the river to see the pink river dolphins.  The winding river was flanked by short water-loving trees and there were large wading birds everywhere we looked.  The terrain reminded me of the Florida Everglades but the density of wildlife was seemingly much higher.

Giant aquatic rodents! (aka Capybara)
Giant aquatic rodents! (aka Capybara)

It wasn’t long before we spotted some capybaras, the world’s largest rodent, as well as some monkeys.  The capybaras, which top out at around 100 pounds, were surprisingly calm around us photo-snapping tourists.  At one point Amy got within just a few feet of one that was grazing on the riverbank.

Pink river dolphins, too, were easy to find but photographing them proved difficult.  They would frequently break the surface with their fins and snouts but it was next to impossible to predict when and where they would come up next.  We were given the option to swim with them but Amy and I declined and left that to the two Australians that were with us.

The next morning we were up early for our second boat ride on the river.  With howler monkeys howling away in the distance we loaded into the boat just before the sun came up.  A short while into our ride we heard something crashing through the trees along the river.  Our guide pulled over to the side and before we knew it yellow squirrel monkeys were running around on our boat.  Unfortunately, some of the tour groups feed the monkeys so as soon as they see a tour boat they jump on board and look for food.  They must have been disappointed in us though because we didn’t give them any more than stares.  One of them managed to catch and devour a huge water bug while we were stopped.  Crunch, crunch, crunch!

Yellow squirrel monkey eating a tasty insect
Yellow squirrel monkey eating a tasty insect

The variety of birds that we saw during the ride was absolutely incredible.  All sorts of herons and ibis plus a few storks and spoonbills as well.  Rounding each corner of the snaking river revealed more and more birds.  Equally plentiful were the caiman sunning themselves along the banks.

By midday we had all had enough of the boat riding.  Hours in a rickety metal seat in the blaring sun was enough and we were happy to return back to the camp.  After a quick lunch we loaded up in another vehicle (this time even more packed) to make the three hour trip to Rurre.

Black Caiman
Black Caiman

All in all, I would say that the Pampas are a great place to visit if you want to see lots of wildlife in a hurry.  By Bolivian standards, the tour was very pricy and it makes me wonder how much money one could save by traveling independently to San Rosa and arranging boat trips from there.  The next post will be my last on Bolivia and then the blog will take a turn for the South Pacific!

The Pampas
The road to the pampas.  A bit dusty, no?
The road to the pampas. A bit dusty, no?
An excess of hammock time on the pampas tour.
An excess of hammock time on the pampas tour.
Red-headed buzzard with a rainbow
Red-headed buzzard with a rainbow
Cappuccino monkey
Cappuccino monkey
Giant aquatic rodents! (aka Capybara)
Giant aquatic rodents! (aka Capybara)
A large male (you can tell by the shiny bump on his snout)
A large male (you can tell by the shiny bump on his snout)
Not Jaws but rather a friendly pink river dolphin.
Not Jaws but rather a friendly pink river dolphin.
Oropendola nests
Oropendola nests
Tropical comorant
Tropical comorant
Caracara and friend
Caracara and friend
Caracara
Caracara
Yellow squirrel monkey eating a tasty insect
Yellow squirrel monkey eating a tasty insect
Yellow squirrel monkey
Yellow squirrel monkey
Monkey on the boat!
Monkey on the boat!
Rufescent Tiger Heron
Rufescent Tiger Heron
Black Caiman
Black Caiman
Caiman
Caiman

Gray-necked Wood-rail (Aramides cajanea)
Gray-necked Wood-rail (Aramides cajanea)

On our second day of the park tour we left the San Miguel de Bala community and headed up river to Madidi National Park.  After about 30 minutes of motoring we stopped at a small hut along the bank of the river that serves as the park ranger station.  We paid our entry fee (125 Bs, $18) and continued to the point where the Rio Tuiche branches off from the Rio Beni.  Despite the recent flooding there were many shallow areas along the way and it was entertaining to watch our guide fight his way around the rocky spots.

White-Lipped Peccary (Tayassu pecari)
White-Lipped Peccary (Tayassu pecari)

Eventually we pulled up along a rather nondescript section of the river bank and unloaded our bags. Our guide told us that he could smell chanchos (wild pigs) and that we might get to see them.  Sure enough, after we walked the half-mile to the ecolodge we came upon a group of a couple of dozen milling around the camp – talk about stinky!

We spent a total of two nights at the ecolodge in the park.  The accommodations were a little less sophisticated than what we had in the community but let’s face it – we were in the middle of the jungle.  The sleeping area consisted of a building divided into three rooms and the bathroom was a separate hut with running water.

Our fleeting glimpse of a tamarin.  Saddle Backed Tamarin (Saguinus fuscicollis)
Our fleeting glimpse of a tamarin. Saddle Backed Tamarin (Saguinus fuscicollis)

The main activity at the ecolodge was going on hikes through the surrounding jungle.  Over the two days we completed 5 or 6 hikes with our guide who had an uncanny ability to spot, smell and hear animals.  On our first walk through the woods we darted off the path after he heard the high-pitched whistling sound of a saddle-backed tamarin.  We eventually caught up to the small primate but he (or she?) was still really difficult to see high in the canopy.

Poison frog
Poison frog

Even though the monkeys and colorful birds are the most popular sights among tourists I found the smaller wildlife equally interesting.  Everywhere you look there are strange types of insects, lizards, plants and fungi on just about every surface.  Our guide pointed out a nest of bullet ants which are inch-long insects that get their name from the pain associated with their bite.  One of the teenagers at the community mentioned that he had been bit by one and spent the subsequent hours weeping in agonizing pain from the bite.  The Wikipedia article on the subject states “waves of burning, throbbing, all-consuming pain that continues unabated for up to 24 hours.” Note to self: avoid bullet ants.

Leaf-cutter ant superhighway
Leaf-cutter ant superhighway

The famous leaf-cutter ants were good fun to watch.  Spotting them is easy: you just look for the foot-wide river of leaves floating along the ground.  The pieces they carry dwarf the ants themselves.  Did you know that leaf-cutter ants are farmers?  They take the leaves back to their nests where they decompose and serve as fertilizer for a fungus that the ants in turn consume.

We found plenty of feathered friends in the jungle.  The toucans were a favorite and we came across the channel-billed variety on a couple of different occasions.  There were also various birds of prey, woodpeckers, water birds, etc.  Check out the thumbnail pictures below for more birds.

Male howler monkey
Male howler monkey

Monkey-wise the jungle treated us well.  It took about five walks and lots of effort but eventually we found some howler monkeys.  Hearing them is simple since their calls carry for miles through the jungle but getting close enough to see them through the dense foliage is another matter.  On our last day, as if out of spite, a large group of them came straight to the ecolodge and hung out in the canopy eating leaves for a couple of hours.  The males are strikingly large compared to the females.

So that wraps up our visit to Madidi National Park.  We returned to Rurre in the boat on our forth day and worked on booking the next adventure.  Heading the other direction from Rurre it is possible to visit Bolivia’s Pampas or grasslands.  It is an area not too different from the Florida Everglades that is chock full of birds, caiman, and monkeys.  More on that in the next post.

Madidi National Park – Part 2
Bullet ants
Bullet ants
Tayra (Eira barbara) tracks.  This critter sort of looks like an otter.
Tayra (Eira barbara) tracks. This critter sort of looks like an otter.
Our first capybara sighting
Our first capybara sighting
Macaws
Macaws
Orinono geese (neochen jubata)
Orinono geese (neochen jubata)
Gray-necked Wood-rail (Aramides cajanea)
Gray-necked Wood-rail (Aramides cajanea)
White-Lipped Peccary (Tayassu pecari)
White-Lipped Peccary (Tayassu pecari)
Solar panels and papayas
Solar panels and papayas
Fresh papaya juice in the making
Fresh papaya juice in the making
Poison frog
Poison frog
Some sort of turkey
Some sort of turkey
Some of the local plants are traditionally used as skin pigments
Some of the local plants are traditionally used as skin pigments
Vine snake?
Vine snake?
Our fleeting glimpse of a tamarin.  Saddle Backed Tamarin (Saguinus fuscicollis)
Our fleeting glimpse of a tamarin. Saddle Backed Tamarin (Saguinus fuscicollis)
Massive trees!
Massive trees!
Termites: They prefer to travel in these mud tunnels.
Termites: They prefer to travel in these mud tunnels.
Two beetles rolling a ball of mud (dung?)
Two beetles rolling a ball of mud (dung?)
Taking pictures of mushrooms
Taking pictures of mushrooms
Leaf-cutter ant superhighway
Leaf-cutter ant superhighway
Walking Tree - these trees can actually move themselves!
Walking Tree – these trees can actually move themselves!
Owl butterfly
Owl butterfly
Baby tarantula
Baby tarantula
Channel-billed Toucan (Ramphastos vitellinus)
Channel-billed Toucan (Ramphastos vitellinus)
Footprint of a jaguar
Footprint of a jaguar
Female howler monkey
Female howler monkey
Male howler monkey
Male howler monkey
Macaws
Macaws

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