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.

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