On the evening of Thursday, September 25th, it was finally time for Rebecca and I to fly to Sri Lanka and rendezvous with Uncle Steve and Auntie Susan. The 4 hour red-eye flight arrived at the Colombo airport at 4:30 am and we soon found our driver, Kalum, who would take us to Anuradhapura. Distances may not seem far on maps, but you typically average only 60 km/h. We stopped to stretch our legs around 7:00 am and happened to notice the string hoppers in the window of the roadside shop. We had read about the breakfast staple which is made by pressing rice flour dough through a sieve then steaming. It is typically served with a spicy curry and coconut sambol. So we decided to sit down for our first of many spicy breakfasts.
We arrived in Anuradhapura around 9:30 am and found the small guesthouse called Montana Rest. Anuradhapura is the capital of the North Central Province and was the capital of Sri Lanka from 4th century BC to 11th century AD. It is famous for its ancient ruins and is still considered very sacred because of its ties to Buddhism. Uncle Steve and Auntie Susan were there to greet us on arrival. We got freshened up and enjoyed a fruit platter before setting out. We met Steve and Susan’s driver and guide, Jagath, who they had spent the last 3 weeks with. The four of us hired a tuk-tuk for a couple of hours and set out for Isurumuniya, a picturesque Buddhist temple. We arrived back at the hotel and got in the van with Jagath and headed to the ruins of Mihintale. Mihintale is said to be the place which the Sri Lankan king accepted Buddhism from an Indian monk, Mahinda, thereby starting Buddhism’s presence in Sri Lanka. Jagath showed us around the ruins and then left us to climb Aradhana Gala, a sheer rock summit with iron rails to help the pilgrims. We could see a big thunderstorm coming in, but we thought we’d try to get up to the top. It was quite windy up there and we were a little worried about get struck by lightning. We quickly made it down just as the rain started. Although it was pouring rain, Jagath insisted that we stop at the Cobra pond and one of the 68 caves on our way back to the van. It was pretty surreal watching the rain from the monks cave. That night, we had one of the most delicious dinners of the trip back at the hotel with rice, dhal and a number of vegetable curries.
On Friday, we toured the ruins of Anuradhapura by van as the ruins cover such a large area. We visited many stupas (pagodas). Many of the ancient stupas were grown over by forest when they were discovered and looked like nothing more than an oddly placed hill. Much excavation and renovations were required and some stupas have been fully restored to the white plaster façade while others have been left with the red-brown brick. The first stop of our stupa tour was Jetavanaramaya which was, at the time of completion, the 3rd tallest structure in the world behind the Great Pyramids of Giza at 122 m. There, Rebecca and I tried buffalo milk curd and treacle which is served in a clay jar. After walking around the stupa we checked out the nearby museum and found a troop of Grey Langurs running around the ruins. The next stop was Ruwanwelisaya, a completely restored stupa which had many people praying, making offerings, lighting candles, and smashing coconuts. It’s interesting that white is worn by most people at the religious sites so we did our best to fit in. From there, we walked to the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi, a sacred fig tree brought from India and planted in 228 BC. It is said to be a clipping from the Bodhi Tree under which Buddha gained Enlightenment. On our way back to the van we tried a local favorite, mango with salt and chili powder. Thuparamaya was next, said to be the oldest stupa in Sri Lanka.
We stopped for some lunch at a shop inside the ruins. We each drank our own King Coconut while the owner prepared some fresh vegetable roti on an open fire. Across the way, we spotted a snake charmer and his Touque Macaque monkey. I’d always wanted to see a snake charmer so he gave us a demonstration with his lute and cobras. Our next stop was Abhayagiri Vihāra, where monks and locals were unfurling a long Buddhist banner around the base of the stupa while chanting. We stopped at the picturesque Twin Ponds before making our way to the final stupa stop at Mirisawetiya Vihara. It was nice to see all of the religious sites that people from around the country come to visit and do their prayers. That night we had another wonderful meal at Montana Rest accompanied with the local Lion Lager. We were all a little exhausted from what Uncle Steve called a very “stupa-fying day”.
We had a full on Sri Lankan breakfast of string hoppers, roti, and a number of fiery curries the next morning before saying goodbye to Anuradhapura and setting out for Dambulla. We stopped at the less touristic ruins of Ritigale which was once home to thousands of monks. We saw the ancient library and one of the many caves that the monks called home. We got back on the road and continued to the city of Dambulla and found the Arika Hotel. That night, Uncle Steve introduced us to arrack which is distilled from nectar drawn from coconut flowers. This nectar is fermented into a low-alcohol beverage called toddy then distilled.
On Sunday, we drove to the Dambulla Rock and Cave Temples. After walking up the many steps, we visited the 5 cave shrines which are located under a huge rocky overhang. The caves are filled with countless Buddha statues and the walls are covered in murals. After the caves, we had a nice curry buffet lunch and the local ginger beer which is made with real ginger. Post lunch we were greeted by our guide who would take us to what we thought would be Minneriya Park to see the Elephant Gathering. During the dry season, up to 300 elephants converge on this park to rely on the waters of Minneriya Tank. However, the guide said that the elephants had traveled north. So we were off to Kaudulla Park in the back of an ancient Mitsubishi jeep. It took a while to find the elephants, but as the hot sun began to drop, the elephants started to file out of the trees onto the plain. It was great watching these wild elephants as they gathered for a social meeting after sleeping the day away in the shade. Although we didn’t spot all 300 elephants in the park, we were fortunate enough to find a herd trying to cross the highway on the way back to town. After a little hesitation by one of the old cows, she started across and led the way for a number of others. First time stopping to let elephants cross the road! On the way home, we stopped at a street vendor and ordered kotu roti, which is fresh vegetables, egg, and thinly sliced roti fried on a flat top grill. We took it back to the hotel and had a well deserved dinner on Uncle Steve’s and Auntie Susan’s patio watching the evening rain.
The next day, we visited the most popular touristic site in Sri Lanka, Sigiriya Rock or Lion Rock. King Kasyapa built a palace on this 200 m high column of rock in the 5th century AD. We walked across the lawn gardens with its symmetrically shaped pools. We then started the climb passing the Sigiriya Damsels; murals of 21 bare-chested beauties painted on the sheer rock wall. We continued past the Mirror Wall and found ourselves at the Lion Gate. We clambered up the steep cliff on a metal staircase cut into the rock wall. Once at the top, you are surrounded by a beautiful 360 degree panorama of the jungle below. We knew we’d be tired after the hike up Sigiriya so we had booked a treatment at Aathreya Ayurvedic Spa. Ayurveda is a system of hindu traditional medicine. We all had an ayurvedic massage where a lot of fragrant oils are used followed by a steam bath. It was a nice and relaxing way to end the day.
The next day, we traveled to Polonnaruwa which was the capital of Sri Lanka after the decline of Anuradhapura. Along the way, we passed a number of huge land monitors and saw people working in the rice fields. We first stopped at the museum and got an idea of the layout of the ancient city and viewed some of the artifacts. The rest of the afternoon, we were led around the site by Jagath, who is an official tour guide so there are not many questions he can’t answer. Being much younger than Anuradhapura, the ruins of Polonnaruwa are in better shape, but lack the atmosphere of people going about their worship. Our next stop would be Kandy, the last city on the Cultural Triangle Tour.