Namibia has some great roads
Namibia has some great roads
The view from our room at the Westin Macau
The view from our room at the Westin Macau
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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