A tour of Sri Lanka – part I

As with most of my travels, I arrived in Sri Lanka with a cloud of interesting ideas but no real itinerary. This time, a combination of train strikes and weather helped make the initial decision easy. Beach bad, hills good. However, the first part of the journey was going to be the most challenging, and the easiest option seemed to be to hire a car and driver to make the miles. The airport in Colombo is full of people trying to persuade travellers to one guided tour or another, and my friend and I fell into a good-cop, bad-cop act to try and haggle down a price for a one-way journey. We settled on a 3 stop trip, taking us into the north centre of the island to Polonnaruwa, and then dropping back via Sigiriya and the Dambulla caves to Kandy where we’d find alternative transportation.

We drove into the night, on roads frequented by elephants, monitor lizards and rainstorms. Finding accommodation at our destination was easy, and we had a short time before bedtime to walk around the area and orient ourselves along the River Mahaweli which must have helped the ancient city to its status as a seat of power.

First thing in the morning, we headed for the ruins before the temperature peaked. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the ancient city dates back to around 1050CE. The city flourished as a centre for both religious and commercial exchange, with evidence of both still standing today. The different kings built their own temples, each trying to outdo the earlier efforts, and each put their own administrative and ceremonial structures in place.

The intricate stonework is fascinating – each of the elephants carved into the Assembly Hall is unique and many are still visible today. One of the oldest structures is a Hindu temple, dating back to the days of the Chola dynasty which had conquered the first capital city Anuradhapura, before the liberation by the first of the Sinhalese kings in Polonnaruwa.

Of course the ruins aren’t the only attraction in Polonnaruwa. The large population of monkeys has been living in the ruins since they were occupied, and continued to thrive long after the civilisation crumbled.

Leaving Polonnaruwa, we headed to the Lion Rock, Sigiriya. We stopped en route to visit a spice farm, with samples of each different plant and tree in a display garden. I think I’ve come to realise, though it has perhaps been clear to others for longer, that I take delight in facts. Every little bit of information is squirrelled away so I can fit it into my ever-growing web of understand of the world. Spices seem such a trivial example, but I loved hearing about the plants, the conditions for growing, the uses, the history, all set in context of tastes and scents.

Once carved into the shape of a lion, and used as a palace and a fortress, Sigiriya is now also a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s incredible to think of the efforts and will needed to build a palace on top of a rock like this.

It also has monkeys.

There are a couple of things I found particularly exciting. The gardens for a start are not only huge, but are amongst the oldest landscaped gardens anywhere. They have water features! Gravity-fed fountains that are more than 1,600 years old. Amazing. There’s also a mirror wall, part of the rock which would have been so highly-polished that the king could see himself reflected as he passed. The view from the top is also stunning.

Dambulla cave temple, not far away, was equally mind-boggling. Built into the face of a towering rock, and pleasantly cool inside, with incredible frescoes and statues, I could have spent a long time here.

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