Noa and I have both been living in Asia for a whiiiile now which means lots of Asian travel. One country neither of us had been to was Sri Lanka. Everyone we talked to about it RAVED- a few of our friends said they want to live there or retire there. We figured it would be magical.
We flew into Colombo and stayed in the city for the first night. In the morning, we hopped on a train to Kandy. (The man at the airport was disappointed to hear that we wouldn’t be taking a car for a stop at the elephant orphanage on the way). The train ride was PACKED- everyone RUSHED aboard before the train had even fully stopped moving and people poured in around an elderly woman who slowly mounted the steps. We made it onto the last car of the 2nd class. I sat on the arm of a chair with some bags on it. Later, the old woman from the doorway appeared to claim her seat. I stood but she motioned me to sit back on the arm and later moved the arm altogether to give me 1/3 of the seat to sit on as my own—she was so small she only took up about 2/3 of the seat. It was a long 3 hour ride squished in between bodies in the aisles. When I could see out the window, it was a nice view of lush green fields or valleys. I think the train isn’t usually as crowded as it was on our trip, but since the local New Year was coming (a lunar holiday in April), everyone had places to go and things to do (like banking and shopping on auspicious days).
Once we arrived in Kandy, we walked through the crowded streets to the lake to admire it. Then we had lunch and got a tuktuk up to our hotel overlooking the valley- the Satyodaya Educational Training Center. It’s an inexpensive place that gives its profits to local plantation workers and villages that need some help.
Later, we went to the Sri Dalada Maligawa, or the Temple of the Tooth. We happened to be right on time for the ceremonial showing of Buddha’s tooth. Inside the main building, there’s a courtyard housing a smaller temple hall. Men in costume played eerie ceremonial music and we climbed the stairs to follow the crowd to the second floor. A sort of awning housed a wooden floor seating area for the faithful and people lined up to visit the door of the main hall. When the time finally came, the door revealed the large vessel holding the tooth. Worshippers and tourists alike filed past the door to bow and view the tooth. From there, I visited the octagonal tower out front that holds religious treasures and the museum-like new temple hall at the back of the compound. We had Indian food for dinner and returned to our hotel. And yes, we did eat candy in Kandy.
The next day, we took a VIP bus to Dambulla (there are TONS of buses- you just go to the parking lot and someone will be shouting the name of your destination so you get on). It is famous for its UNESCO caves and as a starting point for visiting the famous Sigiriya rock. We stayed across the 2-lane highway from the caves at a homestay that boasted delicious food.
Sri Lankan curries were fantastic. Papadam is a sort of large chip about the size of a small tortilla. It’s made of gram bean flour, rice flour or lentil flour. Sambal is crumbled coconut to mix into your curry. Each curry had a collection of vegetable dishes and usually dal too unless you ordered a meat dish. They were very flavorful and each one was a little bit different. It was perfect for this gluten free gal!
We climbed up to the caves that afternoon. There were monkeys that looked like they were wearing toupees in the forest around the path and a great view over the valley to the rock. The caves were magnificent. I loved the paintings on the ceilings and walls. Massive colorful statues lined nearly every wall. There was a little pagoda inside too. There were 5 or 6 caves, each similarly entrancing but all slightly different. Each one was bursting with statues and Buddhist aura. At the base of the trail is a Buddhist museum with a massive statue on top and enormous lotuses and a face decorating the façade. Its contents were not nearly as interesting; we found out the hard way. The caves though were one of the highlights of my whole trip.
In the morning, we visited *the* rock. We got a tuktuk ride out and started the “hike.” It wasn’t nearly as difficult as I thought it might be. Blogs warn about the wasps and a cobra den and locals demanding money for “helping” people through the difficult parts of the “treacherous climb.” We didn’t experience any of that. For me, the mirror wall wasn’t as reflective as I imagined, the old poems weren’t so easily seen, and the frescos were interesting but there weren’t as many as I imagined and no photography was allowed. The lion’s feet around the stairway and the views from the top were the highlights, but now that I’ve seen it I’m not sure I would recommend the $30 ticket to join the queues and climb with the masses. It was also really cool to see how they built the old capital into nature—it’s an interesting combination. But then again, it is THE rock.
After our visit, it was touch and go whether or not we would be able to catch a bus back to Colombo. Because of the New Year buses weren’t running after noon. We absolutely lucked out. A bus pulled up to the second bus stop our hotelier drove us to within seconds of our arrival. It was nearly empty (compared to other buses we took later) for the majority of the 5 hour ride. The buses were kind of fun- they had upbeat music, were great for people watching, came frequently and were dirt cheap.
Our plan had been to return to Kandy and take the train to Ella, which is famous for its tea plantations perched on the backs of the mountains. From there we’d go south to the beaches in the center of the southern end of the island. But the train’s reserved seats were sold out for the 8-hour journey and we didn’t have $80 we wanted to spend on a taxi so we decided to return to Colombo and get our beach on early, starting from the East and working our way counter clockwise along the Southern end of the island. Tune back in to the next post for beaching in Sri Lanka.