SRI LANKA | CASTLES IN THE AIR
They call Sri Lanka the “Island of the Gods”, or at least it was called that until Bali was invaded by yoga mat carrying yuppies. It may not be the downward dog paradise that Bali has become but at least it was nice to finally have some elbow room after India.
Just off India’s southern coast in the Indian Ocean Sri Lanka is just as hot and heavy as it’s northern neighbour. Despite some initial cultural similarities to the lay person (read : me) it eventually begins to feel very different. After flying from Mumbai to Colombo I stayed in a hostel just across the train tracks from the beach, and as far as city beaches go Colombo’s was pretty nice. In fact it was distractingly nice. A lot of the time days and evenings turned into lazily sipping some ridiculously strong Lion Stout with my toes in the sand. I’m not much of a beach person normally but the 9.5% beers tend to slow you down.
Compared to the likes of Delhi and Kolkata Colombo felt like playing human Tetris on easy mode. It helps it’s named after the greatest detective of all time (probably). My time here went by in a stout induced haze and after a few days I took a bus a few hours north into central Sri Lanka, a city called Dambulla.
One of my strongest memories of Sri Lanka is that the mosquitoes here will absolutely eat you alive. My hostel in Dambulla had nets on each bed which I made sure to completely tuck in and check properly each night to keep the swarms at bay. Yet again each morning a few of the bastards hot gotten INSIDE. I quickly turned the inside of my bed into a red streaky mess littered with the corpses of the previous nights blood suckers. I would need to eat a lot of meat to replace those blood cells. The same hostel was also home to the worlds most bite friendly puppy. I called him “Rabies”.
A few of the guys staying there had gotten into the habit of befriending one of the local tuk tuk guys so they could get free rides into the town centre. You’d think backpackers could spare some change as a “thank you” to a local dude who I’m sure could have appreciated it, but there you go…..
Just outside town is a series of cave temples built by a succession of Sri Lankan kings. Inside the caves contain many carvings and Buddhist paintings and is well worth the trek up the hill from the Golden Temple as they’re the largest and best preserved in Sri Lanka. Be warned that the area is home to the ugliest monkeys you will ever see. Seriously what the hell. I seen one holding a flower and it reminded me of the last scene in Gremlins 2 where the lady gremlin is trying to marry the guy. I’ve since learned these monkeys are called toque macaques. Shameful animals.
Finding a bus from the town centre to Sigiriya was easy, finding one the next day out to Polonnaruwa was a bit trickier, in fact I had to hire a tuk tuk to take me there (which I paid for, as bizarre a concept as it seems!) Sigiriya was one of the great ancient cities of southern Asia. Today it’s commonly known as “Lion Rock” perched as it is on a giant volcanic plug whose entrance was guarded by an enormous carved lion. You can still see its claws today each side of the staircase that hugs the cliff side and takes you to the cloud city at the top.
At the base of the rock was an intricate network of gardens and canals, be prepared for a lot of walking to visit them all. It may be hot and sweaty on the ground but those with a severe fear of heights will probably want to remain here and admire the rock from base camp. The ascent to the top of Lion Rock gave me chills. Now I enjoy heights as long as I’m reasonably confident that it’s safe. The metal walkway is literally bolted to a sheer cliff face, it must have been madness to install and makes you wonder how the ancient Sri Lankans managed to even climb up here never mind build an entire city up top. Not only is Sigiriya visually impressive it’s amazing to think of how the place was constructed logistically.
The best part is the cave porno about half way up the mountain. Goes to show everyone loves tits. And by that I mean the colours and brush strokes were so vivid. Stylistically it struck me as being very unique among pre-medieval south Asian art. And I’ve seen a LOT of pre-medieval south Asian art. It’s nothing but tits.
Back on terra firma I hired a bicycle off some old woman on the side of the road. I wanted to get around the surrounding area and it wasn’t long until I came to a small white church at the base of a hill. I’d heard there was a great viewpoint around here but I had no idea what people were talking about. An old dude pops his head around the corner and tells he can guide me to the top as he “knows where all the cobra nests are”. Not one to be taken unawares by cobras and their nests I readily agreed.
This guy must have been at least 70 but had the agility of a honed mountain goat. The path quickly steepened and sure enough he pointed out the tell tale skins of shedding cobras which littered the ground in places. Right below the summit was a series of boulders we had to climb over. It was like that bit in American Ninja where the contestant has to climb a section with his back and feet pressed against the wall and inch himself upwards. The difference here is that fifteen feet below was sharp rock instead of a foam mattress. And probably cobras. That shot scorpions from their mouths. Coated in acid. And were haunted.
The view, which looked over the central plains with the mountains on the horizon was worth the cobra infested bush, and smack dab in the middle was Sigiriya, the Lion Rock itself, protruding 200 meters from the jungle like an overgrown pimple ready to be popped. Can you believe that pimple popper lady got her own TV show? People will watch anything these days. The summit I found myself on is called Pidurangala, it is bare, flat, and has probably one of the greatest views in the world. Unless you’re immune to cobra venom (and some of you no doubt will claim to be) I would definitely recommend taking Goat-man (or a goat-woman) along as a guide. Aside from being an actual life saver he was great craic. I’ve always said that sometimes you need to whack your way through some bad bush to get the rewards at the end.
The next day Polonnaruwa was another ancient city, actually the second oldest in Sri Lanka. Its quite a big site and some of the ruins here are impressively large and well preserved. It lacks the jaw dropping spectacle of Sigiriya though. Apparently Duran Duran shot a music video here. The locals live in constant fear they will return.
Many travellers and bloggers take the iconic train through Ella and onwards to Kandy so they can take those Instagram-ready pics as it chugs through the misty hills and tea plantations. I probably would have too if I had researched it enough. Instead I took the equally jaw dropping bus from Dambulla to Kandy. It reminded of when I was in the northern Philippines with my camera firmly lodged in my backpack as we drove through some of the most lush mountain scenery I’d ever seen. Now I have to remember it with my eyes. In todays modern world if you cant reproduce something electronically did you even see it at all? Take my word for it, the bus ride is just as scenic as the train – just maybe not as camera friendly.
Kandy is a compact but incredibly pretty city up in the mountains. I thought I was staying in a regular hostel until the host gave me keys to what I still believe was someone’s house further up the hill. A house where I couldn’t lock the door. What happened to the original owners? Is it related to the missing lock? Just what was that ghost trying to tell me? I don’t speak Sinhalese! Anyway no time for such unimportant matters, I had a new place to explore!
Surrounded by mountains and seemingly planned around the small lake in it’s centre Kandy is very walkable. This city was once the centre of its own kingdom and to announce it’s importance a temple was erected to house one of it’s finest treasures, a relic of the buddhas tooth. Being raised a catholic I’m no stranger to obscure relics, I’m pretty sure I’ve even heard of someone’s foreskin having magic powers At the same time it’s weird to see people worship a tooth. Inside Sri Dalada Magilawa there are many paintings depicting the tooth’s journey across the centuries from gum to shrine. You can visit both shrines, both the new and the old. The old shrine (pictured) was by far my favourite. An array of elephant tusks stand guard as very apt protectors. Now if every dentist clinic in the country had a display like this it might encourage people to be more conscious of their dental hygiene.
You can also visit one of the formerly living elephants that used to “work” at the temple here in the early 1900’s. He is called Tusker and rumour has it he has a cameo in the upcoming Dumbo remake.
While milling about inside the temple I witnessed probably the most violent downpour I’ve ever seen. Rain storms in Sri Lanka are no joke. Bizarrely the part of the temple containing the old shrine is open to the elements and began to flood. I prayed to the tooth for either an umbrella or webbed feet.
Sri Lanka was a pleasant surprise and a nice respite from the hustle and bustle of India. Did you know Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was filmed here? What’s not to love? Also, I’d walk back to Colombo for another frosty Lion Stout. Things I’d do differently? Probably check out that train and see what all the fuss is about. I’d also probably double net my bed against mozzies just to be sure. If not I’d nuke the site from orbit, only way to be sure.
From Colombo I flew to Dubai and spent a few days here before heading off into the unknown to visit the ancient Persian ruins of Iran. Dubai is a soulless husk of a place so I won’t be dedicating a blog post to it. I have more rewarding things to do like decide if my socks don’t smell enough to be re-worn in the morning. Spoiler alert: they’re ok.