We scored a nice upgrade at the Grand Hyatt Berlin
We scored a nice upgrade at the Grand Hyatt Berlin
Nice sculture in our floor's elevator lobby
Nice sculture in our floor's elevator lobby
Nov 032011

Thai Airways took us from Colombo to Bangkok on their way-too-short 3 hour red-eye – certainly a terrible night of sleep. We stayed in Bangkok for two nights to enjoy some of the food but our intended destination was actually the ruins of Angkor near Siem Reap, Cambodia. The most direct land route to Siem Reap is through the border crossing at Poipet. Citizens of most countries must obtain a visa to enter Cambodia and while this can be done in advance, we opted to do it right at the border.

The border crossing at Poipet has a pretty bad reputation in terms of corrupt officials and transportation scams but if you read up on it in advance it really isn’t that bad. We had one tuk tuk driver try to take us to a visa agency that likely would have overcharged for the visas. After we were past the Thai side of the border we found the official Cambodian visa office. There is a large sign hanging in the office that plainly states “Tourist Visa $20″ but this wasn’t enough to deter the official, who was standing right below it, from telling us that the visa would be $20 and 100 Thai baht (about 3USD). We chuckled at his request and handed over $20 per person – our passports were given back a few minutes later. Visas in hand, we passed through immigration and into the hands of a transportation mafia that gets $9 for the 2 hour bus ride to Siem Reap – horrendously expensive by local standards but it was a decent enough bus. In reality, the transportation mafia gets $9 to take you not to Siem Reap but rather a place a few miles short of town where the tuk tuk drivers pick the crowd over like vultures.

Nice digs on the cheap in Siem Reap
Nice digs on the cheap in Siem Reap

Safely in Siem Reap, we started planning out our visit to the enormous Angkor ruins. The planning process is quite intimidating since there seem to be as many opinions on itineraries as there are stones in the temples. We settled on a three-day approach. On the first, we hired a Cambodian tuk tuk driver to take us to some of the more remote attractions. On the second and third days we borrowed bikes from our guesthouse and hit the closer sights.

I’m not going to babble on and on about the history of all the temples because, honestly, I can’t remember most of it. What I can say is that they are all quite old (800AD – 1400AD) and are in various states of being consumed by the jungle. Many are being actively maintained and refurbished (like Angkor Wat itself) but others are left as is. The ones with jumbles of rocks all over the place and trees growing out of them have an eerie atmosphere about them.

Bike riding on the second and third days was hard work. The weather was hot and humid, just as one would expect in Cambodia, but at least the terrain is flat and traffic was minimal. The one bit of excitement was seeing something green fall from above onto the back of my bike. I saw it just from the corner of my eye and thought it was a tree branch. Amy, who was riding just behind me, pointed out that it was a bright green snake!

My favorite temple at Angkor was Bayon. It is well-known because of the dozens of giant stone faces that decorate its towers. The 12th century temple also has a huge variety of meticulously carved reliefs that show different historic events and scenes from everyday life. I also noticed a labyrinth of hallways and tunnels in the lower levels that left me wishing that I had brought my flashlight.

The biggest nuisance we faced while visiting Siem Reap was flooding. Not only did it prevent us from visiting one of the main temple complexes (Ta Phrom) it greatly limited what we could do in town. The old section of Siem Reap is right next to the river and many blocks of it were under water – sadly, this was the same area of town where most of the restaurants and nightlife are to be found. Amy and I did manage to find a cheap local vegetarian place which was outside of town but even going there required peddling through knee-deep water on our bikes. What a mess.

All in all, we enjoyed Angkor and Siem Reap but we certainly found ourselves “templed out” after three days of touring. The ruins are unquestionably impressive but just about any metric and I can definitely see where someone with a keen interest in ancient civilizations could spend a week visiting.

Siem Reap and Angkor Wat
Nice digs on the cheap in Siem Reap
Nice digs on the cheap in Siem Reap
Vegetarian noodle soup at Vitking House
Vegetarian noodle soup at Vitking House
Just another day trimming the weeds off an ancient temple
Just another day trimming the weeds off an ancient temple
Crowded streets of Siem Reap
Crowded streets of Siem Reap
Climbing Angkor Wat, note the slight repairs needed on my camera bag.
Climbing Angkor Wat, note the slight repairs needed on my camera bag.

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

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