R & R at Talalla

With less than a week to go before we would be back in London (yikes!) we headed further south towards the stunning little coves, rocky shoreline & stretches of golden beach which line the coast.  Destination Talalla Retreat, east of Dondra – the southern-most tip of the country.

Talalla beachfront

Talalla beachfront

Dubbed one of the best spots on the south coast, Talalla is a surf & yoga retreat, the perfect spot for the simple pleasure of chilling out – something we had not done a lot of yet on this trip!  The short drive to the beach resort was marked by pretty little villages, lush with coconut trees, banana plants. Between the homes & storefronts, we glimpsed the tempting azure waters & pristine sand of the beaches behind them.

Coconut penguins

Coconut penguins

Literally two minutes from an unspoilt & empty curve of tropical beach,  the retreat was a little oasis of calm – soft grass underfoot, shady coconut trees overhead, a huge swimming pool & restaurant featuring local food – mainly from its own organic gardens.  We were greeted by chirping birds & cooling glasses of coconut juice before we made our way to our open plan villa – complete with outdoor shower & patio overlooking the lush grounds. Bliss!  It was the first time, since we had been away that we didn’t have to do anything at all. We swam in the sea, chilled by the pool & watched the fisherman haul in their nets.

Our villa

Our villa

From the balcony day bed we lazily watched the small squirrels frolick – we thought they were ‘cute’ chipmunks at first – scampering up the walls, taking a nosey peek in the open plan bathrooms & bedrooms of other villas,  the odd black bird joining in the fun of picking up a souvenir or a snack left by an unsuspecting guest.  Beer in hand, it was the perfect vantage to watch the huge fruit bats swoop noisily  at dusk, in search of food.

We are neither yoga bunnies or part of the surf fraternity, however it seemed almost a sin not to take the opportunity to hit the waves with a board under our arms, as the coastline is  dotted with beaches that offer great reef breaks & waves that crash close to shore.  Jack,  one of the instructors,  had the dubious task of turning us into the next Keanu Reeves [in the movie Point Break] in the space of a day.  Just kidding!

Eagerly we made our way to a nearby beach, halfway between Talalla & Dondra Head.

Boats on the beach

Boats on the beach

We were ready to hit the surf.  Not before Jack had explained the mechanics of the sport- something I had not learned many, many moons ago, when I used to head to Croyde beach with my brother.  Size does matter & for beginners a  bigger long board is easier to handle than a short board made for tricks & ‘carving’ the waves.  Without getting our feet wet we got to grips with positions & understood the importance of placing our weight midway along the ‘deck’  of the board & how we could slow or speed our momentum through the water by just shifting our weight a few inches up (faster), down (slower).

With encouragement plus a bit of manouvering of our boards – by Jack – we picked up a fair few rides; gliding into shore, putting in a few turns & feeling how the board moved under our weight.

Next up… the pop up…. not a term that Jack thought made a lot of  sense  – & he did have a good point – you don’t exactly pop “up” but do more of a twisty squat thrust. Either way, we drew an imaginary board on the sand, marking the ‘stringer’ or  wood line centre of the board, marking the ideal points where you feet should end up once you have mastered the technique.  When you’re ready to catch a wave, you place your hands on the board,  near your ribs, looking ahead, you arch you back, push up,  while simultaneously jumping to your feet, with one foot ahead of the other.  All in one clean motion, with your head kept looking forward, so that you don’t come up butt first. The foot nearest the ‘nose’ of the board, pretty much where you hands started out, should be sideways, turned out a little bit, centered over the stringer. Your back foot should also be sideways, but not quite as turned out.  Your knees are supposed to be soft &  with arms either side for balance you should be facing towards to shore.  Simples! Not!!  Close but no cigar. Even on dry land, covered head to toe in sand,  we couldn’t quite hit our marks.

We headed back into the surf & our watery efforts were far from graceful, as we wobbled to a crouch before wiping out, Spectacularly on some occasions; backwards, sideways, over the nose – you name it – we did it, screeching with laughter & exhilaration, as we were thrown around in the surf, ‘rag-dolled’ by the force of the waves.  Frustrating as it was, I could get up to a low crouch but couldn’t get the back foot in position, as I left it too late each time.  Suckers for punishment we kept at it, for as long as we able to, before our first lesson ended.  Towelled off & heading back to Talalla, we tried to figure out if we could squeeze in another session in before we headed to Galle, the next afternoon.

Call of the wild…….jungle fever

Matt had done his usual & thorough research on which national park & operator we were going to use whilst in Sri Lanka. We chose Udawalawe National Park 165 kms south east of Colombo. Founded in 1972 & covering 30,000 hectares the park isn’t the most popular, but as far as elephants are concerned, its the most densely populated. About 10-12% of all Sri Lankan elephants can be found in this park (600 plus). As we both love elephants , it was a no brainer… As was the decision to go with Master Campers…leaders in their field …. or jungle!

Home from home

Home from home

Master Campers set up mobile camp sites for a maximum of 8 guests & then clear them without leaving a trace,  in keeping with their own strict eco-friendly ethos, plus park rules to move on every three to four nights. Their guiding & camp culinary skills are also ranked pretty highly.  With a luxury bug repellant & spacious canvas tent – complete with an en-suite eco loo & shower –  we were definitely going  ‘glamping’ in the jungle for the next three days & two nights!

Bye bye Anthony

Bye bye Anthony

Camp boss & co-owner Isuru picked us up as planned at the park gates around midday & we made our thank you’s and goodbyes to Anthony,  our driver who had put up with us these past 8 days & driven us 850 kms around this beautiful island.  When we spied the case of Black Opal Arrak & Merlot under the jeep seat, we joked about our reputation as Brit drinkers that  must have preceded us…. Little did we expect sundowners & bottles of wine with dinner!

Water buffalo

Water buffalo

Protecting their babies....

Protecting their babies….

Within minutes of entering the park, we saw a couple of small herds of  female elephants & their young calves, peacocks (which came to be a familiar sight) spotted deer, water buffalo, grey langur

First MC curry

First MC curry

monkeys & several mongoose. We were also reminded of the cruel hand mother nature plays; a black bird peck-pecking at an open would on the flank of a water buffalo, gouging a deeper hole in the already bloody wound

Warm welcome

Warm welcome

After a bumpy but scenic drive we arrived at camp & were met by one of the team, offering a fragrant towel & refreshing glass of orange & watermelon juice – it set the scene for the next three days.  We certainly didn’t go hungry – Roy the head chef & his team of five treated us like royalty – from lunchtime curries to BBQs & five course dinners.

Apart from us, the only people staying were Claire & Mani from London For one night! We celebrated Claire’s birthday with a yummy chocolate cake Isuru had thoughtfully bought from town & decorated in camp – the team came out sporting party hats & with a backdrop of  chirruping & calls of the night,  we sang a [very poor] rendition of “happy birthday” to Claire with party poppers in accompaniment….

Young male flapping his years

Young male flapping his years

The Sri Lankan subspecies ….Elephas Maximus Maximus is the largest &  darkest of the Asian elephants, with patches of depigmentation—areas with no skin color—on its ears, face, trunk & belly. It is one of three recognised subspecies of the Asian elephant & native to the Island. Once found roaming throughout the tear-shaped island, these elephants are now being pushed into smaller areas as development activities clear forests & disrupt their ancient migratory routes. Since 1986,  it has been on the endangered list with the population in decline by over 50% over the last three generations. However,  a recent census & other data would suggest numbers are on the increase….Hoorah!

The herd size in Sri Lanka ranges from 8-12 individuals or more. It is led by the oldest female, or matriarch. lactating mothers & their young plus other females & young juveniles – of both sexes. Today, they are protected under the Sri Lankan law & killing one carries the death penalty Irrespective of gender.

Facts not fiction….They need 250-300 kg of food per day & 150-180 litres of water per day. About 75kg when born they breast feed & rely on their mothers until post three yrs old. Staying with the herd (males) until they are around six years old  unless they become uranyl
Monitor

Monitor

We were woken at 05.15 AM with bed tea & just as the sun was coming up we  headed out for our first dawn excursion. Doves flitted in front of the truck, monitor lizards skittered along the track & jungle fowl ran alongside us, with their weird zigzagging gait.

Peacock strut

Peacock strut

Peacocks flexing their proverbial muscle, fanned out their impressive iridescent plumage, rotating slowly in a dance, their tail feathers shaking & quivering in a way that would even put Miley to shame. Not one, but several were out in the early morning sunshine hoping to catch their bird. Sadly the peahens were not impressed with their best efforts and were playing hard to get.  Better luck tomorrow boys!

Defeated for a day

Defeated for a day

As we headed towards  the huge man-made Udawalawe reservoir, wild boar &  herds of spotted deer shot across the paths that ran alongside the main trail. Down at the lake – painted storks & grey heron wandered the shores whilst egrets & woolly necked storks fished.

Painted Storks

Painted Storks

Malabar pied hornbills made a racket flying overhead – one of Matt’s favourite birds, they reminded me of toucans. On the fringes of the lake –  seriously well camouflaged by the grass – crocodiles lay motionless, recharging  their batteries.  All that was missing was a passing leopard!!!

King of the road...

King of the road…

A youngish bull elephant weighing in at around 4 tonnes ambled nonchalantly down the trail towards us, totally ambivalent to our presence. We held our breath as he walked within cm of our jeep, & carried on moving, not even breaking his pace, forcing the second vehicle that was behind us to reverse sharpish, out of his path. Their normal walking speed is 6-8kms per hour!

Hungry mud slingers

Hungry mud slingers

On our third excursion into the jungle, we saw our first tusker.  Tuskers – probably only 14 in total in the park are mature bull elephants that grow tusk – living up to 70 years old they move between Udawalawe, Yala and the other national parks through  6-8m wide  ‘elephant corrridors’ .  For anyone that has watched the BBC programme, the Elephant Diaries, you will know that over time the Sri Lankan elephant has developed a few idiosyncrasies that set them apart from other elephants  – the main one  witnessed was when they ate….holding firm with their trunk they whacked the roots of grasses &  branches on the ground to remove dirt & debris before eating. Incredibly smart!

Crested eagle

Crested eagle

Safaris were at dawn & dusk; it was pointless gong out during the day as like us, the animals were staying out of the heat & not easy to spot.  Travelling by jeep with a naturalist plus driver navigate the bumpy & often muddy dirt roads throughout the park. Many birds were spotted & more species were forgotten than remembered. Amongst our favorites were the kingfishers, bee eaters crested, fish & serpent eagles & the brahmini kite.

Dinner for two

Dinner for two

On our return to camp before the six pm park curfew we were met by lanterns that glowed off the boughs of the trees, tikki lights burning with the faint & vaguely pleasant smell of kerosene & citronella; our own private dining room set in the middle of the jungle.  Hot & sour chicken soup was followed by a tempura pork & mango ‘salad’, river fish & fragrant noodle salad plus pud & coffee. Immense & surreal.

On our last morning Matt & Roy swapped recipes & a crepe master class took place! Guess what we had for breakfast?  Personally, I voted for Roy’s roti & pumpkin dhal as the winning combo!!

As we headed out of the park on our final safari we were sad to be saying farewell to the guys we had spent such a great time with. One thing was certain the whole team loved their job, loved their country and were passionate about nature… Isuru offered to take us to the Elephant Transition Home; not nearly as well-known as Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, the Transition Home is run by Sri Lanka’s Wildlife Department, it too cares for young elephants – mostly babies – who have been orphaned or are recovering from injuries.  Fed a whopping 150 litres of milk a day plus vegetation, over the course of their four plus year stay, they are rehabilitated before their release into the wild.

Feeding time at the Transition   Home

Feeding time at the Transition Home

Led in by the workers a few at a time they jostled for attention & milk at the feeding station; already you could see the different personalities of the elephants emerging as they tried different tactics to gain a few extra mouthfuls. Some of the older calves were quite boisterous & naughty but still oh-so-cute & adorable!

So with regret we left the jungle & the elephant transit home, taking a taxi towards the south coast where beaches & surf beckoned……..

Jungle treasures

We probably had one of the best breakfasts of our trip at Zion View in Ella, which overlooking the mist covered & impressive Ella Gap. Certainly it was the best cup of coffee by a long shot; cafetierre brewed & full of earthy flavour, it knocked the spots off of the wishy-washy brews suffered so far  – Matt’s ‘bed coffee’ aside!.  A fresh fruit salad of papaya, mango, pineapple & banana, topped with local curd & honey, washed down with a thick papaya smoothie.  A perfect omelette with the egg ‘still moving’, filled with grated vegetables needed nothing more than a hit of chilli.  Neither of us could resist the doorstop toast. An awesome start to the day, by anyone’s standards.

Time to hit the road.

Fall bathers

Fall bathers

En route to Udawalawe National Park, we passed the Rawana Ella Falls.  Bathers, made the most of the rains & the mini fall, that leapt down the mountain-side.     Vendors, sold everything from ticky-tacky trinkets to fruit, cold drinks & charcoal baked husks of corn.  A group of Kandyan drummers & singers jumped out of their van. Heading-who-knows-where, they entertained themselves & the rest of us, using the viewpoint lay-by!

Kandy men

Kandy men

Monkeying around

Monkeying around

We took a side trip to the jungle statues of Buduruwagala- the name derived from Buddha (budu), images (ruva) & stone (gala).  Believed to have been carved around 10th century by the Mahayana Buddishst school & feature different images to anywhere else in the country.  It was incredible. More so, given that 15m high central stature & other figures were carved some 12,000 years ago in the middle of jungle area.

Buduruwagala Buddha

Buduruwagala Buddha

Tea for two

We had umm’d & ahh’d a lot about whether or not to make the side trip & hire a 4×4 to head to Horton Plains & “The End of the world”.  It wasn’t so much the cost of the trip, more a question of, would it be worth it – exercise aside – the weather wasn’t brilliant & we didn’t want to find there were no views to speak of. You can you imagine how disappointing it would be, getting up at silly o’clock, trudging to the drop off, to be enveloped in the thick swirling mists.

We had made the right decision.  The day dawned & it was a cool misty morning. Time to mooch around the lake & pop into town before we headed to Ella.

Swanning around on the lake

Swanning around on the lake

If April was considered the locals holiday season, we only could imagine how much busier the town must be. The place was heaving. Literally.  The lakeside car parks were already full at 9am as was the road around the lake, with cars & trucks, parked bumper to bumper.  Buses were pulling up at the car parks disgorging more people, happy to take a turn along the already thronging walkways that fringed the lake. Ponies walked up & down with young rides astride their backs & groups gathered, sharing bags of sticky sweet jaggery based confection.

On the waterfront families lined up to take a ‘pedalo’ boat out; designed as huge swans or mini helicopters, or take a spin round the lake on one of the many small leisure crafts & paddle boats.

In town the festive feel had taken hold & the sun was shining.

Clothing bazaar

Clothing bazaar

Marching bands

Marching bands

In front of the busy bus station & Bale Bazaar – selling the latest in knock-off Hollister, A&F & Hilfiger, people started to gather behind the crowd barriers. We had no idea why until, in the near distance, we heard the sound of thump of drums & screech of trumpets.

Break time

Break time

In celebration of the Commonwealth, we think (or so we were told) there was a huge procession, complete with marching bands.  Proudly decked out in the their school colours, school bands came by, playing with gusto & in near perfect unison.  The best of the bands brought up the rear – the all-girl ‘painted’ & saree clad ensemble that twirled & stepped to the beat.

As we left town, we wound our way past colonial bungalows, Georgian & mock Tudor mansions with perfectly manicured lawns & rose gardens, the pink-bricked Post Office & the 18 hole, St Andrew’s Golf Course. The par 70 course sits at 6,000 feet, whereby the ball apparently travels 6% faster than at sea level (not that we tested that theory!).

Fruit market

Fruit market

It was not difficult to understand why Nuwara Eliya was often referred to as “little England”.  Well-tended allotments & terraced fields of leeks, told of the introduction of cool climate vegetables & fruits, post its ‘discovery’ by colonial officer John Davy & a legacy of Samuel Baker, who had made the town his summer retreat.

Rain almost stopped play later as the heavens opened with a deluge that rivaled the previous day – torrents of muddy brown water spewed down stepped paths, tuktuks ploughed through troughs of water that came close to the top if their small wheels. It was so bad at one point we had to stop the car as Anthony could barely make out the road ahead.

We took respite in Bandarawela, at the Bandarawela Hotel. Donning our pith helmets…..not really, the perfect pot of tea was served in the parlour overlooking the lawns, by a chap that had the most magnificent moustache I had seen! It was like stepping back to time, the tranquil setting of the old planters club, harking back to the days when tea pioneers needed an escape from the toils of their labour.

Serious business

Serious business

This was tea country & we took a second tour through a working factory, this time Dambatenne. Built in 1890 & at a length of 345 feet, Dambatenne’s claim as the longest tea factory in Sri Lanka remains unchallenged.  Over time, little has changed in the process or machinery used in the tea making process; from hand-picking to fermenting in huge shaped ‘bricks’ of tea, raked & spread 10cm high on the stone floor.

Factory foreman's office

Factory foreman’s office

Slowly we started to better understand the processes involved in the withering, rolling, sieving, cutting, fermentation, drying, sorting & grading of tea… we had no idea that even the dust  – the lowest of the low & primarily used for tea bags – is graded too!

There was a no photographing policy in most of the factory – too distracting for the workers rather than for readings of industry espionage!

After plucking, the tea is taken quickly to the muster sheds to be weighed under close supervision & then the teas are brought to the factory – once again they are weighed. Each plant is harvested every seven days & each picker has a quota of around 15-18kg  day.  Two young lads hefted up three sacks of freshly picked tea & ran, literally, towards the drying hopers that cope with 400kg at a time. No messing, we were nearly mowed down, the guys keen to make their own targets.

Moving from rolling stage

Moving from rolling stage

As we made our way through each area we learnt there were some 1500 employees working for the factory, housed on the 2500 acre estate, with it’s own school & hospital complete with midwives.  Also contrary to popular myth the dust/waste that goes onto the floor post cutting, does not going into tea bags… it is bagged for fertilizer & goes back to the land.

In the firing room, we discovered it takes only twenty minutes to dry the tea; 350kg per hour at a whopping 268ºF.  During the final sorting stage a fibromat is used to sift the leaf particles into the necessary grades.  The final sorting is done by hand. With a difference of 200 rupees per kilo it is important to be able to distinguish the difference between BOP, Broken Orange Pekoe & BOPF, the fannings.

Unilever Tea Division, buyer for the Lipton Brand, purchases close to 45% of all teas produced at Dambatenne. Dambatenne estate sells its single estate origin teas under the ‘Bandara Eliya’ mark, which draws connoisseurs from Japan who make an annual trek to the estate for tasting & purchasing. The Japanese & Saudi markets favour the white tip tea – withered in the sun & processed separately it sells for a whopping 18,000 per kilo, compared to BOP at 900 per kilo.

We had picked up a box of each to try at home.

Dambatenne estate

Dambatenne estate

At the summit of the estate is the pretty Lipton’s Seat, at an altitude of 6,450 feet above sea level, the highest point of the Poonagala hills, where on a clear day you can actually see Sri Lanka’s southern coastline. This used to be Thomas Lipton’s favourite look out & what he considered one of the worlds most scenic viewpoints.  Others may disagree….

Tea picking

Tea picking

The hills are alive with the sound of … rainfall

Temple of Sacred Tooth Relic

Temple of Sacred Tooth Relic

We crossed back over the swollen Mahaweli Ganga, at 335kms the longest river in Sri Lanka, heading into Kandy,  the heart of the Hill Country.  Poya, or full moon, falling near the weekend meant that it was three-day holiday & the roads were blissfully quiet. Flipside meant a lot of holidaymakers would be in Kandy. Pavements filled with pilgrims heading past shuttered storefronts, towards Sri Lanka’s infamous, Sri Dalada Maligawa, or Temple of the Tooth Relic.

Temple of Sacred Tooth Relic

Temple of Sacred Tooth Relic

Nixing the idea of joining the already large queues to enter the temple we strolled along the banks of the protected – Kandy lake that teemed with huge carp; safe from fisherman’s lines.

Queen's bathing pavillion

Queen’s bathing pavilion

Constructed by the last king of Sri Lanka and Kandy, Wikrama Rajasinhe, in order to add beauty to the Temple of Tooth Relic. Legend has it that the central island was actually used by the King’s court for bathing, & was connected to the palace through a secret tunnel. More likely, the household shared the bathing house for the queen & her ladies, on the shores.

After a quick pit-stop at the sumptious colonial style Queens Hotel we headed out of town.

The Queens from the street

The Queens from the street

Crossing the railway lines, past sheets & colorful sarees gently blowing in the  breeze at the main laundry ‘depot’.  The road out of town was lined with reception halls, houses cum storefronts advertising, beauty salons, saree emporiums, shoe palaces, wedding showrooms with signs promoting ‘lady photographers for Muslim weddings’.

Not far past the university campus, timber merchants, cement works (offering up everything from molded pillars, breeze blocks to industrial piping), car salvage yards along & car service dealers peppered the climb into the lush countryside.

Tuktuk & bus outside Queens

Tuktuk & bus outside Queens

Ubiquitous fruit vendors & roadside general stores were doing a brisker trade with the holiday traffic heading to cool-climate escape of Nuwara Eliya, dubbed “little England”.

Winding our way higher into the mountains to the numerous tea plantations, the roadside was lined with gladioli & box hedging, the slopes covered with sturdy tea bushes, bright green and glistening in the midmorning sunshine.  Fruit vendors were replaced by farmers selling the fruits of their labours; turnips, carrots, leeks, beetroot, cabbages & lettuces from the district & avocadoes from further afield.

Glenloch tea factory

Glenloch tea factory

We stopped at one of the smaller plantations, Glenloch for a whistle-stop tour of the factory, tucked into the steeped & terraced hillside.  Our tour began on the first floor at the withering stage; leaves are spread out to dry in huge troughs to remove as much moisture as possible.

Troughs for air dry withering

Troughs for air dry withering

This is followed by the rolling stage to break down the cells, before being sieved to separate the finer leaves. One of the Saudis on the tour started handing out rupees – in spite on the signs everywhere not to – workers rushed over, not wanting to miss out (natch), leaving their stations unattended…. Mayhem broke lose as the hoppers started to overfill with tea.

Grades of tea

Grades of tea

Calm quickly restored, we whizzed through the fermentation  & drying rooms, with the fragrant & earthy smell of tea filling out nostrils. We learnt how important it was to pick the right leaf – two leaves with a small bud & equally important to get the grading right – leaf, broken, fannings and dust. Leaf grades only refer to the leaf size; however, they are not necessarily an indication of the quality of the tea.

We entered the packing room with its towers of tea, stacked in 65kg sacks. Although the best tea is saved for single estate packing and merchandising the bulk heads to Colombo for auction. Here buyers get the best deals and buy the tea for blending….who knows where it ends up!

Packing room at Glenloch

Packing room at Glenloch

After a refreshing pot of Broken Orange Pekoe, we continued our journey into the Hill Country.

Overhead the sky darkened & we knew heavy rains were on their way. Hardly surprising when 300 or so days out of 365 there is some form of precipitation in this area!  It was time to head straight for Nuwera Eliya.

Thunder cracked overhead & the dark grey skies were suddenly lit up with fork lightening. Shopkeepers retreated inside their stores, wrapping tarps over their wares that would be exposed to the downpour.  This wasn’t just a cloudburst.  The rain started, bouncing off the road. Within minutes ‘streams’ cascaded down side streets, making their own path towards rivers below.

Vendors in the rain

Vendors in the rain

Those brave enough to face the elements, or with somewhere pressing to go, were soaked within seconds – sarees with coordinated umbrellas were no match for mother nature. Bedraggled figures huddled under awnings & shop doorways. The run off from the roofs cascading down  & the overflow pipes spewing out torrents of rainwater.

Safely tucked inside the car, windscreen wipers making a valiant effort against the driving rain, we could scarcely see out of the windows. Slowing to a crawl, Anthony navigated around deep troughs of water appearing on the road & soldiered on.

With Nuwera Eliya in our sights, we headed for the quieter area,  south of the town, around the picturesque Lake Gregory to find Villa Acacia, our stop for the night. How glad were were we, that we didn’t have to venture out for dinner later… Our villa came with & chef. Result!

Across the crops at lake Gregory

Across the crops at lake Gregory

Wherever I lay my hat…..

We have stayed at some pretty eclectic places along the way.  Not just on this trip, but on our travels.  Arriving at Delma Mount View Hotel, on the outskirts of Kandy, was a miracle in itself; set high on the hillside the road was windy with a few switchbacks and difficult to find – not an easy one for Anthony to attempt in the dark & pouring monsoon rain.

Banqueting hall no 1

Banqueting hall no 1

Matt on his throne..

Matt on his throne..

Eventually we arrived. One of the hotel boys raced to the car with a table parasol & ushered us into the hotel. The entrance led us directly into a large fully laid- up banqueting room bedecked with love seat, throne & flower arch… it was primarily a wedding venue with eight rooms set aside for the bridal party.

Meditating

Meditating

We were led up a series of stairs, onto the next landing & along the corridor to our room – a huge corner affair that was close to twice the size of our lounge at home; the armoire alone took up half one wall…perfect for Matt to meditate in & the huge wooden bed came with built in LED headboard lights, potted plants, petals strewn across the sheets & a couple of beside plants for good measure … all bright plastic and fake.

A frock occasion

A frock occasion

The only visible guests in the 800 cover banqueting halls; we were treated like royalty or returning honeymooners…. We suitably dressed [up] for dinner & in the rooftop restaurant – complete with resident bat – we were waited on by the two very attentive hotel boys, enjoying roti & dhal, chicken curry & rice, washed down with bottled water… the only thing that was missing was a decent bottle of wine … it was a ‘dry’ hotel !!

Misty morning

Misty morning

We woke early & were glad we did. As the sun came up the forested slopes of the mountain & plateau below were shrouded in a heavy mist, the tree tops eerily poking through, like cresting waves.

Breakie at Delma

Breakie at Delma

Try as we might, we made only a slight dent in the big breakfast before us – Coffee aside, it has to rate as one of the best breakfasts we had eaten so far – a mountain of cut pineapple, papaya & watermelon, followed by string hoppers, dhal, chicken curry & kick-ass coconut sambol, all laid out on the finest china.

On the rocks

Sigiriya from hotel terrace

Sigiriya from hotel terrace

We had stayed in Hotel Sigiriya, a grown up hotel that catered well for the mixed international crowd & tour groups.  Breakfast was a smorgasbord from across the continents. Thin & crispy Sri Lankan hoppers – ready to be filled with whatever you fancied, string hoppers, or fine rice flour noodles, curries & sambols vied for attention alongside a complete table of pastries, mountains of cut fruit & a full English breakfast set up that included –  in addition to the norm – chicken sausages & spinach sautéed with wild mushrooms.  After a hearty hybrid breakfast of scrambled eggs, sautéed spinach, dhal & sambol, we were ready to tackle the soaring pillar of rock, known as Sigiriya.

Legend has it that Sigiriya was associated with both king & clergy; the rock being once home to King Kassapa (477-495 AD) who built the surrounding moats, gardens below & palace on the summit, versus the, more likely theory, that it was a Buddhist monastery. Either way the ruins are pretty remarkable.

Walking through the amazing symmetrical water gardens, mini islands, bathing pools (complete with croaking frogs) & sculptured rock pools, you began to understand the sheer majesty of the place.  The boulder garden, with its deep indentations & grooves laid claim to the fact that these were in fact the foundations & timber columns had once supported a building.image

Above us, as we got closer to the rock we could see the open-air spiral staircase – an addition by modern man to reach the frescoes painted onto the rock face and the path which led upwards around the rock.

Frescoes at Sigiriya

Frescoes at Sigiriya

The paintings under a natural recess and out of the sun were unbelievably well preserved; buxom woman with nipped-in waists, believed to be either apsaras, celestial nymphs, or the king’s concubines, in a variety of poses.

Frescoe at Sigiriya

Frescoe at Sigiriya

Beyond the frescoes, the path clung to the rock with, thankfully a protective wall known as the mirror wall to shield you from a nasty drop.  Ironically the wall has graffiti on it going back over 1,000 years… not a new social problem it would seem!

Finally the path emerged onto a plateau….the Lion Rock.

Lion Rock

Lion Rock

Discovered in 1898, by a British archeologist, HCP Bell excavated the two enormous lion’s paws that now sit either side of the steps. At one time, a gigantic brick lion sat at the end of the rock, which meant the final climb would have taken you through the lions mouth to the summit.Penguins & claws

We slogged it up the 200 modern steps to the summit – with more than just a few beads of sweat appearing – our efforts matched by the expletives heard as people made it to the top.  We marveled at how the monks originally had made their way up rough steps hewn in the rock face that predate the ‘lion steps’ & took them to the final stage.

Rock with a view

Rock with a view

Atop, the views in the early morning mist were magnificent. Music drifted up from the vendors below, setting up to catch passing return traffic. In the distance the plaintive call of peacocks.

The return journey was much easier. Showered & shipshape again we headed off towards Dambulla.

Golden temple in all it's Glory

Golden temple in all it’s Glory

Arriving at the entrance to the Golden Temple & higher on the hillside, Dambulla Cave Temple, my heart sank.  The kitscher-than-kitsch structure, complete with fake molded boulders & neon sign behind the 30m high Buddha image, was completed using Japanese donations. It looked liked it belonged in a Disney-esque theme park – all that was missing was the water ride.

Undeterred we paid our entrance fee for the Dambulla Temple & made our way up the steep granite steps towards the huge overhanging rock & the five caves tucked beneath it.

Cave I Buddha

Cave I Buddha

The caves’ history as a place of worship is thought to date from around the 1st century, when King Valagamba driven out of Anuradhapura, took refuge here. When he regained his throne, he had the interior of the caves carved into magnificent rock temples to show his appreciation.

Had we read the “rough guide” we would have looked at the caves in reverse order – as we walked into the first of the two caves, we were blown away…

In cave I, Devaraja Viharaya ,Temple of he King, a huge reclining Buddha had been carved into the rock, totally dominating the narrow space. The figure is believed to be Ananda, one of Buddhas most faithful & loyal disciples; the ornate gilding on his arm & intricate painted feet, shimmered in the dim light of the cave.

Cave II

Cave II

Central Buddha cave II

Central Buddha cave II

We walked through the doorway into Cave II, Maharaja Viharay, Temple of the great King & stood stock still, in awe. The most spectacular of the caves. It measures 52m from east to west and 23m from the entrance to the back wall; the highest point of the ceiling is 7m. Before us, the side & back walls lined with sculptures of Buddha, perfectly sized to fit the cave height. The main Buddha statue was set under a makara torana (archway decorated by dragons) in the abhaya (“Have No Fear”) pose.

Cave II

Cave II

Cave III, Maha Alut Viharaya, the New Great Temple, was said to have been converted from a storeroom in the 18th century by King Kirti Sri Rajasinghe of Kandy, one of the last Kandyan monarchs. This cave, too, is filled with Buddha statues, including a beautiful reclining Buddha, separated from Cave II by only a masonry wall.

In every cave, even the fifth smallest, all the ceilings were completely covered with images & intricate murals directly painted onto the rough contours of the rock. They cover some 2,100 square metres & all the caves had drip lines carved into the rock to keep the interiors dry.

Ceiling murals

Ceiling murals

There are a total of 150 odd Buddha statues, three statues of Sri Lankan kings & four statues of gods and goddesses. And what we learnt afterwards was that the eyes of Buddha are finished at the end of the sculpting  – never painted directly on, but by using mirrors the painters would stand alongside the image, looking directly into the mirror to gauge their handiwork.

The heat is on…

We arrived early at the ancient city, the second capital of Polonnaruwa. Keen to savour the highlights, trying not to cram too much into our third day on the ‘cultural triangle’. Eager beavers that we were we headed straight to the museum … only to find that we had to wait for it to open officially at 8.30am. Tempting, as it was to head straight for the ruins, we really wanted to see the scale models of the temples & buildings, as they might have appeared, in the 10th – 12th centuries.

The eye watering smell of freshly polished floors met us once we were finally allowed in – the perfect excuse to scoot through the smaller rooms, depicting monastic life, heading straight for the models of the seven storey high Royal Palace, double storey chapter & temple houses. We were more than happy to accept the theory they all had wooden roofs – it was fascinating to see what they might have looked like in their glory, when for three centuries, Polonnaruwa was the royal capital after the fall of Anuradhapura. Firstly under the conquering Indian Chola Dynasty & then again under Sinhalese sovereigns under the prosperous rule of King Parakramabahu I.

Kings council chamber

Kings council chamber

Kings council chamber

Kings council chamber

Parakramabahu I had by all accounts brought Polonnaruwa to it’s zenith, creating a vast man-made lake & bathing pools, elaborate walled gardens, alongside the ‘usual’ array of council & relic chambers palaces & an enormous monastery covering 35 hectares.

The three tiered King’s Council Chamber alone had intricate carved pillars, each denoting the council member who would have sat beside it & huge lions flanking where the throne once stood – now housed in the National Museum.

As we walked round the sunken bathing pools with their carefully crafted filling system, two groups of school children joined us in their all white, government supplied school uniform – bees to a honey pot – we suspected the draw card was actually the vendor selling ice lollies beside it!

Feeling the heat

Feeling the heat

They say, only mad dogs & Englishmen stay out in the mid-day sun.  They had obviously not spent any time in Polonnaruwa….. We were joined by a handful of Dutch, Germans, Australians & coach loads of French & local tourists, circling the great ruins, trying to pick shadier paths & capture the images that just might convey how vast & majestic the city would have been.

Royal palace walls

Royal palace walls

Towering three metre thick palace walls gave little clue to the incredible palace that once stood on the spot. Covering around nine hectares, the size of nine international rugby pitches laid sideways, the main hall had 30 pillars alone. Nowadays these gave brief shelter from the beating sun to a handful of panting dogs.

Hawkers were doing a brisk trade in both ice-lollies & straw hats. We took a leaf out of the locals book & went for the king coconut juice. It was a good call – I take it all back about coconut juice, it certainly hit the spot. Full of natural electrolytes it revives and rehydrates….no wonder it’s a good hangover cure!

Vatadage buddhas

Vatadage buddhas

The area known as the Quadrangle was very much the highlight for us. A compact group of temple ruins over a small raised area; the Vatadage, or terraced relic house was hugely impressive.  Its four entrances, flanked by elaborately carved stone guardstones & moonstones – very different to the earlier ones we had seen at Anuradhaphura –  led up to a central dias & dagoba with four, almost intact stone Buddhas.

Gal pots - stone book

Gal pota – stone book

Literally next door to it, Gal Pota, or stone book, a colossal carved stone representation of an ‘ola book dating back to an earlier King Nissankamalla (1187 – 1196 AD).  It may extol virtues, but what of the men who managed to bring the 25 tonne, nine metre long slag from Mihintale, some 100 km away!!

Gal Vihare

Gal Vihare

Once again we were blown away by another set of ginormous rock carvings of Buddha at Gal Vihare, less than a kilometer away.  Gal Vihare consisted of four separate images, all beautiful & all cut from one single lump of granite – with the central standing Buddha measuring seven metres tall & the reclining one a mere 14 metres long, it was some feat & a labour of love.

Reclining Buddha at Gal Vihare

Reclining Buddha at Gal Vihare

Amongst the sacred dagobas & spread out ruins in Polonnaruwa, we were surprised to find a couple of Hindu temples, survivors from the earlier Chola reign. It was nice to think that the conquering Sinhalese King did not destroy artifacts from a different religion or era.

Sarongs & socks

All over the world, high places are given religious significance, with the result that devotees  – & tourists – are always climbing steps. After the heat of the day before we planned to head out early; with 1843 steps to climb to make it to Mihintale, or the place of Mahindra, it seemed a sensible idea. We slathered on layers of sunscreen whilst we awaited the return of our freshly laundered clothes. They arrived Sri Lankan style neatly folded & wrapped individually in newspaper.

Mihintale

Mihintale

As we joined the trail monkeys eyed us on the wide steps, far too busy gorging themselves on fallen mangoes to really care who passed them by. A handful of hawkers were out, setting up their stalls of tacky knickknacks & ice cold soft drinks – ready to do a brisk trade on the pilgrims’ return journey.

Mihintale

Mihintale

At the second stage of the temple complex, we walked around the crumbling walls & remains of the almshouse, complete with cistern for holding water plus rice & porridge stores. At the nearby relic house you could still make out some of the faint inscriptions on the tablets, one detailing the rules and regulations for the monks, the other, wages & allowances of the employees of the vihare – amusing to know a chef received ‘one kiri & two paya of land’, whilst an ‘outside event manager’ received the same plus a daily allowance of rice on top – result!!

Slab inscriptions

Slab inscriptions

Having learnt – the hard way – to avoid temple grounds in the midday heat, we adopted the western wuss look.  David Beckham had nothing on us; sarongs nattily tied – to cover the knees that peeked out from beneath our shorts – coupled with socks. We drew a few sniggers from a group of schoolboys, but this may well have been from our attempts at Sinhalese!

Seated Buddha

Seated Buddha

We toiled up the short climb to view the pristine & peaceful seated Buddha in all it’s glory. Having learnt the Rule of Dimensions to be used when carving a Buddha in the National Museum,  it was difficult not to admire the clean lines & workmanship involved; more so given it was sculpted atop a steep hillside.

Climbing down from viewpoint

Climbing down from viewpoint

Viewpoint MihintaleWith a cooling breeze & plenty of water, we made our way to the viewpoint, atop Aradhania gala, or meditation rock, overlooking the temple complex & impressive dagoba. We slipped and scrambled up the steep rocky path grateful for the ugly metal railings that had been imbedded in the well-worn rock.  As we neared the top the wind picked up & with hair whipping my face it made me wonder how safe we really were. It’s not that I don’t like heights, I have a silly fear of exposed ridges or anywhere I don’t think I can get a firm foothold.  Heart pumping, the final climb was short & the viewpoint so very much worth it.  Within minutes I soon forgot my angst as we could see for miles – the hill country to the south & Anuradhapura to the west.The complex lay below & the dagoba on the opposite hill with its decorated shrines, or vahalkadas, which faced the cardinal points.

According to legend, it was at Mihintale that the Indian apostle Mahindra, met and converted King Devanampiyatissa, in 247 BC, establishing Buddhism as the island’s state religion. Mahindra was the son of the great Mauryan emperor Ashoka, sent by his father to bring word of the Buddha’s teachings to Sri Lanka.

Curry no 12

Curry no 12

Hungry & happy after our morning’s climb, we were ferried to the Village Hotel, a short ride away for a late late lunch.  On the Chillaw curry scale it reached a 7.5. with the help of the extra sambols & spicy rogan josh style beef that really did hit the spot.  On the merchandising scale, an interesting 5…

Aukuna statues

Aukuna statues

We cut the day short, after visiting the Aukuna Buddha – some say carved back in 5th century –  & headed to our home for the night at the Rice Villa, a little off the beaten track & outside the hubbub of Habarana. After a very warm welcome we stepped onto our little bungalow porch to enjoy a cup of Ceylon (natch) tea,  as we checked out our views of freshly cultivated paddy fields with perimeter ‘fences’ of tall grasses, banana plants & coconut trees.

In the short scrub grass, a monitor lizard scuttled after something that had caught his eye, whilst a bright green chameleon eyed us lazily from the coconut tree beside our bungalow.  We hadn’t even finished our cuppa when a mongoose shot thru the muddy bank of the paddy field just a few feet from us –  throw in the peacocks crossing the field & it was enough to get even David Attenborough excited!

Breakie at Rice Villa

Breakie at Rice Villa

Banana leaf

Banana leaf

On the Temple Trail

The World Heritage ruins of Anuradhapura sprawl for miles, with sacred temples, impressive dagobas, or stupas, crumbling ruins & towers that tell of a time before the city fell to a South Indian invasion.

Fully recovered from our wedding hangover no 2 & the long drive to Anuradhapura  first capital of Ceylon for over a thousand years – we slept, whilst Anthony,  our driver for the next eight days did the hard work –  We were ready to hit the ‘Cultural Triangle’ head on & had earmarked a number of places we wanted to visit.

Jetavavanarama dagoba

Jetavavanarama dagoba

Chapter house

Chapter house

After a good nights rest Jetavanarama was our first port of call.  We skimmed through the museum; keen to see the relics & jewels of the treasure room & what we could discover about the monastic life of the 3000 strong brethren that lived at the monastery during the 3rd Century. Cleanliness is next to godliness, or this instance Buddha – remains of elaborate carved urinals that filtered through stacked pots of charcoal, along with complex cisterns to channel water & waste. There was a purpose built Jantaghara, or steam room, where sick monks applied various medicine & clay on their bodies & bathed.  Crumbling walls & pillars marked out where the chapter house once stood, the chamber where the main business of the monastery was carried out; nearby the ornate remains of relic room & library, with their weathered carved guard stones flanking the stairs leading up to the sacred spaces.  We were like kids in a candy store heading from one ruin to the next.

Preaching hall

Preaching hall

Dagoba

Dagoba

When it was built the dagoba stood an impressive 100m high, from its base to the tip of its spire & was the third tallest monument in the world, at that time – Supposedly it was documented in a late 19th Century English guidebook, the number of bricks used would have been enough to build a 3m high wall stretching from London to Edinburgh.  A fact not lost on us was we circumnavigated the ginormous dome.

Twin pools

Twin pools

Feeding the fish

Feeding the fish

We stopped by Kuttam Pokuna, dubbed the twin ponds, hat were in fact close to the size of a leisure centre swimming pool.  Used by nearby monks from the Abhayagiri Monastery, the water entered the larger of the two ‘ponds’ through the mouth of a makara, a mythical beast, which fed the smaller ‘pond through an underground pipe. Now the only ‘beasts’ to be found are the hundreds of fish & frogs that have taken claim to the place. However interesting enough – or at least we thought so! – The five-headed cobra symbol was picked up & used as by the modern water board.

Carved relief

Carved relief

The words from Robin William’s character in ‘Good morning Vietnam!’  – “its hot, damn hot” echoed in my head as we hotfooted it (literally) around our third (or was it fourth?) dagoba of the day, at Abhayagiri Monastery. The significance of the site as a monastic centre, royal capital of international repute some 2000 years ago, started to become less important: the scorching heat from the well trodden stone floors & red sand underfoot had started to become a lot more pressing…. With shoes & hats forbidden in the [sacred] grounds not just inside the temples, it was tough going.

Ancient City Sightseeing 101 – Less is more – marvel at the sites in two days not one!

Moonstone

Moonstone

Shoes back on we made our way across shaded grassland towards the ruins of the old Queens Palace or Kings Pavilion  (depending on which guidebook you read) to see one of the finest moonstones fully preserved– the elaborately carved moonstone had five semi-circles; the first small semi-circle has a lotus engraved – which is said to stand for nirvana. The next band has swans which stands for the ability to distinguish positive or good from negative or bad, given the swan’s ability to separate milk from water. The third row has a band of intricate foliage that stands for the intricate network of desires that chase us through our lives.  The third band has animals carved on it – elephants, lions, horses & bulls which stand for birth, decay, disease and death. Finally the outermost band has flames carved which represent the never-ending pain in this cycle of life… So much thought had gone into something that was a doormat on the threshold to each temple & place of worship. However as each person stepped on it, they were reminded of their life,  purpose & future.

By now we were both feeling hot, bothered & hungry – time to get out of the sun & grab a bite to eat (plus a well deserved beer) before we saw another temple, dagobas or ruin!!

Lunch-time!

Lunch-time!

When in Rome, as they say….we were doing exactly that – eating curry twice a day; breakfast & lunch, plus on the odd occasion, supper too. Each lunch being graded against the fabulous feast we had at the wedding plus the simple rest house at Chillaw on our ride north. Quality of rice, style & flavour of dhal, number of veg dishes, freshness of poppadum, heat of sambol(s) & the spice combination of the main dish.  Both had set the bar at a mighty 9; The wedding breakfast, with its smorgasbord of dishes & mix of flavours, Chillaw, with its simple unassuming menu description of “chicken curry with rice” that can only be described as lip-smackingly amazeballs!!

 In Sri Lanka, there grows to this day, a tree, the oldest historical tree in the world which we know certainly to have been planted as a cutting from the Bodhi tree in the year 245 B.C.– H. G. Wells

Bodhi tree

Bodhi tree

We couldn’t end the day without visiting the revered Sri Maha Bodhiya – the second most sacred place in Sri Lanka. The huge Bodhi, or Bo, tree is allegedly a cutting from the original Bodhi tree, in Bodhgaya, India, under which the Buddha is said to have achieved enlightenment, It has been continuously guarded & tended for over 2000 years, making it the oldest historically authenticated tree in the world – & one visited by thousands of pilgrims & devotees daily.

Reclining Buddha at Bodhi Temple

Reclining Buddha at Bodhi Temple

door at Sri Maha Bodhiya

door at Sri Maha Bodhiya

There really was something very soothing & spiritual about the place. The soft hum of chanting as devotees offered up ‘puja’ greeted us, as we neared the temple steps.  Golden railings support the ancient tree on a tiered platform, with prayer flags & pennants fluttering in the breeze. Inside the temple, with its painted walls & enormous doors studded with heavy brass pulls & ornately carved dragon locks, the air was rich with the smell of oil burners.  We were glad we had made the effort to pay our own respects.

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