Cycle Touring Sri Lanka 4: Sigiriya and other animals
What you’ve missed:
We travelled for 6 months without bikes, due to my careless wife injuring her knee. We got the bikes sent to us thanks to the recovery of said knee, and have been touring Sri Lanka by bicycle(and train shhhhh) whilst suffering a comedy of errors regarding various visas. Consider yourself filled in.
Visas eh? Oh yes. Having rushed back to Kandy by train in order to collect our now hopelessly premature Indian visas, I turned up bright and early at the visa centre to submit our passports, to which the visas would hpoefully be affixed for colection later. I was more than a bit miffed to be greeted by a group of disgruntled Sri-Lankans gathered round an A4 notice on the door informing us that the centre was closed for the day ‘due to holidays’. Great. Things like this are why you should always leave a day or two of float between critical activities in Sri Lanka!
With no great expectation of success I headed off on errand number two – trying to get my Sri Lankan sim card to work with data so that I could take advantage of the decent 3G network and cheap data plans to free ourselves from the perpetual hunt for guesthouses with Wi-Fi. Two hours and 3 network employees later, and I am sent to an extremely helpful lady in Kandy’s main Airtel branch, who has me up and running in no time, with 1GB of data plus a load of call credit for a mere £1.50 or so. This is a great thing – the guesthouses that have wi-fi are often those that are geared up for Western tourists, and are therefore poor value and often less friendly than the alternatives. And quite ofen the internet connection is pretty abysmal anyway.
Suitably pleased with myself, I cycled back to the guesthouse and ordered the world’s finest breakfast: dahl (lentil) curry, coconut sambol (fresh minced coconut with onions, lime and chilli) and rotti (flat bread). Tea for two goes without saying round here. Sri Lankan Breakfast and Som Tam from South Thailand are, I assure you, the two best meals available in the world.
It turned out that Lindso was still in bed feeling poorly, but managed to drag herself out onto the balcony overlooking Kandy Lake and The Temple of The Tooth Relic, where we have been having our breakfast. There’s a pretty busy road between the balcony and the Lake, but with the sun shining off the golden roof of the Temple over the lake it’s pretty special, especially when you consider that we’re paying Rs1500 for the room and 300 for the breakfast! That’s a total of less than a tenner. It’s called the Pilgrim’s Rest, and I highly recommend it.
With Linds feeling under the weather we decided to have a lazy day at the guesthouse, and met up later with new Cornish friend Richard for dinner and scrabble. Oh yes, we know how to live. Richard is a demon at quizzes (he’s been on Eggheads and everything) but we are absolutely delighted to find that he is rubbish at scrabble, his game being ruined by the overpowering urge to put down the longest words he can possibly make regardless of whether they are worth any points or not. My uninspiring numbers game wins out tonight; 2-0 to the North.
The next day I made another attempt at the visa centre, and selflessly they had graced us by opening up. Passports delivered and Linds still unwell in the guesthouse, I took it upon myself to do the day’s cycling and cultural activities myself, by riding up to the impressively large Buddha image sat on a hillside gazing out over Kandy. The climb was a first-gear lung buster, which was pretty galling when a bemused local pointed out that Buddha was actually sat on the next hill. When I got there in a right lather (cue more amused locals) it turned out to be part of a temple (Bahirwakunada), which meant shoes off. The painted concrete floor was so hot that I still had sore burned feet that evening. Thankfully the view was impressive, the artwork secreted in the room in the bottom (yup) of the Buddha was surprising, and the ride back down to town was worth at least one of the rides up.
Linds by now had decided to try 24 hours off food to sort out her ailng constitution, so I drowned myself in dahl and tea for the team, and then we wandered over to the reet-posh Queen’s Hotel and paid 250 rupees each for the privilege of spending the rest of the day flopping in and out of their small but immaculate and under-used pool. The wife was most pleased, and I got some work done on the laptop… To put the icing on the cake of a very pleasing day, I later realised that I had forgotten to pay the last of our drinks bills. Splendid. Obviously we returned later to settle up in full*.
The swimming-pool / no food combo worked wonders for Linds, so the next morning we set off bright and early for Matale, which was a fairly uneventful 32km apart from the bit where Lindso nearly passed out on a climb (not 100% yet, then) and with not much available in the way of decent budget accommodation ended up treating ourselves to a relatively luxurious wedding hall room for a big Rs2500. We spent the afternoon: 1) enjoying the hilarious wedding band playing at the function downstairs, 2) at the very cool Rock Temples up the road, and 3) at a local centre producing batik textiles, which was an impressively time-consuming process. More impressive was that from a starting price of $50, we ended up paying $13 for a piece! We mainly said the price as a way of stopping them trying to sell to us, and were pretty surprised to walk away with it.
We headed for Sigiriya after our wedding hall night, and as a bonus found ourselves passing Dambulla’s Golden Temple, which was built recently with Japanese funding. I liked it a lot. Mainly because it was quite funny to be honest – this plastic lion was a highlight.
We found out later that the famous Cave Temples were on the hill behind it, but missed that, having been distracted by the painted fibreglass manequins and rocks of the Golden Temple. Oops. So instead of the fabulous ancient cave temples, here is the magnificent fibreglass Golden Temple in all its glory – Note the line of plastic monks queuing up on the right – they stretch all the way past about a hundred metres of those papier mache rocks to the fibreglass lion:
After a total of 64km we arrived in the tiny town of Sigiriya, home of the incredible rock fortress and it’s equally incredible entry fee, which if you happen to be foreign is 48 times the local price. A bit harsh, and well outside our daily budget, but we realised some time ago that occasionally we need to stick two fingers up at the budget and just get on with it, because we certainly won’t be able to come back here for a while!
What we have just paid £32 (That’s a lot here!) to see is the magma plug of a volcano, with an ancient settlement on top. The volcano itself has eroded away leaving only the plug, and at some point some fine chappy who was in charge decided to build a fortification and monastery on top, and some tiered gardens on the approach. Very nice job he did of it too, though I believe he had some help. At some point the entrance to the climb up the final near vertical section of rock was through the mouth of a colossal brick lion, but sadly the entire thing apart from the paws has fallen victim to the elements. Shame. Now I’m not great with heights (actually I’m fine with heights, it’s edges that upset me) but Linds is a complete jessie with them. She very bravely started the climb up the walkways pegged to the side of the rock, but ended being dragged up quivering by a Sri Lankan guy who was far more helpful than me, and worth every Rupee of the Rs100 he took for his troubles. Fortunately we weren’t attacked by swarms of furious hornets as all the signs promised we would be, though a monkey did try to steal Linds’ waterbottle from her bag. He got away with it for being small, cute and ginger – a brunette monkey would have got a poke in the eye, I suspect, but Linds has endless patience for her redheaded brethren. She is a very special person.
After Sigiriya, we enjoyed a lovely quiet ride to the town of Girithale, which we picked for its proximity to Polonnaruwa, which the Lonely Planet informed us was expensive and disappointing to stay in despite its incredible sights. Thinking about it now, we should have tried it to see if The Curse of The Lonely Planet also works inversely. A missed opportunity. Anyway, it’s just as well we didn’t get there, because we ended up staying in a lovely little place overlooking a lake in The National Park, who served fabulous food – the best rice and curry we’ve yet had for lunch, and a dinner of fish and chips (hooray!); the fish was fresh out of the lake and served in small spiced battered pieces. Absolutely delicious. They also provided a small frog in our bathroom sink, which is a touch we haven’t had elsewhere.
That evening things went splendidly awry again. Splendidily because the problem was that Linds received an email inviting her to a job interview for a job she really wanted, awry becasue it was 6 days away, in Stockport, which is not famous for its proximity to Girithale. Cue a series of frantic skype messsaging sessions, some hastily booked flights home, and a van ride the next morning from Girithale back to Negombo so that she could catch the flight at 6am the following day. Fingers crossed she gets the job!
So that left me on my own at 6am back in Negombo, with Sir Bob the bicycle and a new toy elephant called Wiggins for company. There are two things that I have previously said I’d like to do in Sri Lanka – a meditation course, and try to learn to surf. Learning to surf is quite expensive, and meditation retreats are seriously cheap, so Wiggins and I mounted Sir Bob and struck out to Kandy again – the home of enough mediation centres to keep the most intent navel-contemplator happy. Did you know that when one reaches the 4th Jhana (trance level) Buddhist meditative practice, there are benfits such as remote viewing and hearing, telepathy and the ability to fly? According to a book I have just read (Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction, Damien Keown) “There is nothing distinctly Buddhist about these abilities and they are widely acknowleged in Indian thought as attainable by anyone wishing to invest the necessary time and effort”. So there you go. Tune in next time for some seriously enlightened blogging. Or not, as it turned out…