The first time I went to Sri Lanka we toured the island. It was supposed to be a group tour, but there were only a couple travelling with their granddaughter in the bus with us for most of the time. We began in Colombo, a city which grew to importance because of its large harbour and very strategic position on the trade routes. The British made it the capital, when they incorporated what was then called Ceylon, into their Empire. It's still the largest city, financial hub and judicial capital, but the legislative and administrative duties were pushed out, to a new capital, in the Colombo suburbs, called Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte,
Colombo features plenty of colonial buildings and our first sighting, (to be followed by many more), of the locals playing cricket on Galle face Green. Volleyball is the national sport, but cricket is the national obsession. I saw the cricket ground at Galle on a later visit but that’s moving on too fast.
Our tour takes us to the tea country at an elevation of over 6,000 feet in Nuwara Eliya. We are accommodated in an atmospheric relic of a tea plantation mansion. The tea is described as light in colour and delicate in taste. The mansion is cold and damp.
Kandy was the last capital of the ancient kingdoms of Ceylon. It's also an important religious centre. We are lucky enough to catch the annual grand Esala Perahera procession - the parading of the Buddha's Tooth. It's kept in The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic or Sri Dalada Maligawa, iwithin the royal palace complex of the former Kingdom of Kandy. It's one of the most sacred Buddhist relics in existence. They process it through the streets on the back of an elephant - in a specially decorated howdah.
A whirlwind tour involved the famous rock Buddhas of Sri Lanka, reclining and reposing,
The area around the city of Dambulla is known as the Cultural Triangle for obvious reasons. Though it's more like a weird rhomboid. It includes the rock fortress at Sigiriya the Dambulla caves and Mihintale, the old capital at Anuradhapuror and the ruins at Polonnaruwa.
The fortress at Sigiriya is built on top of a massive rock column 180 metres high (AD 477-495). There are frescoes on the rock and a lion gate half way up- hence the name 'Lion Rock'. It's stunning and truly vertigo inducing.
The huge white Ruwanweli Maha Seya, also known as the Mahathupa, is a stupa in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. Two quarts or one Dona of the Buddha's relics are enshrined in the stupa, making it the largest collection of his relics anywhere. Anuradhapura is centred on a Sacred Bodhi Tre. It's, believed to be grown from a cutting taken from the original Bodhi tree, under which the Buddha gained enlightenment.
The cave temples at Dambulla are thought to date back to the first century BC, but over the centuries they have been added to and extended, to form the present complex of five separate cave temples.
Polonnaruwa was the second oldest of all Sri Lanka's kingdoms, after Anuradhapura in 993. Here are, the colossal ruins of the incredible garden-city and statues, created by King Parakramabahu I in the 12th century. There's even (it's thought) one of Parakramabahu himself. The reclining Gal Vihara is the most famous Buddha at Polonnaruwa. And the Polonnaruwa Vatadage structure is thought to have been built to hold the Relic of the tooth of the Buddha. The one that is paraded in Kandy. There is an alternative theory, though, that it might be for Buddha's bowl instead.
We finally make it to the beach at Trincomalee, on the east coast. We aren’t allowed to go any further north, because we are near Tamil Tiger country. Our hotel is overbooked and they send us to a smaller basic place down the road. We learn to eat authentic Sri Lankan curry, with heaps of chilli on the side, mixed with coconut to take away the heat of the chilli. Eventually, we manage to complain our way back, into the right hotel.
My second and third trips are to Ayurvedic establishments in the south west of Sri Lanka at Weligama and Beruwela. I'm collected from the airport in the small hours and have to keep poking my taxi driver to keep him from nodding off. He stops at a McDonalds to get us both a snack. McRice and chicken, with ginger beer. There's no escaping the Yellow Arches.
Each day, I eat a vegetarian pitta and vata balancing diet (the curry is still pretty hot and some of the vegetables are truly vile). Then, I have a massage involving yellow-orange paper knickers, wooden trays and a great deal of warm oil. Sometimes i Have oil dribbled on my forehead and have to wear a cap afterwards. These are followed with daubings of sticky brown poultices. (More yellow. I'm beginning to feel like Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.)
Then, I lie on a bed with acupuncture needles stuck all over me. An Indian lady jabs them in and moves onto other prone victims, removing them in rotation. She's a little absent minded and sometimes loses the needles. I'm not convinced she knows who has what. I fear she is just being hopeful. Finally, I glug disgusting, specially brewed, draughts of medicine. They're intended as purgatives. An accidental double dose ensures they work splendidly.
In-between, I doze on a sunbed looking down on golden beaches and watch the sun set, through thousands of waving palms. There's some fabulous snorkelling, though rain cuts both these pleasures short. The clientele was mostly German - I do a lot of reading too.
In the evening there is entertainment, such as traditional dancing. And, on New Year's Eve, greasy pole climbing - and firecrackers.
Weligama is known for its sweep of beach (it means sandy) and its stilt fishermen. They erect a single pole in the chest-deep water on the beach, just few metres off-shore. Then they perch on a cross bar and use a bamboo fishing rods to cast their cast their lines. It means they can out reach the surf.
In-between treatments I get to sneak in outings.
There are several gorgeous beaches in the area. In mate Frances and I take a trishaw to Mirissa, just along the coast. It boasts some diverting jewellery and fabric shops. As well as an island. Taprobane Island (see above). It was built in the 1920's by Count de Mauny-Talvande (not his baptised name). It's the only private island on Sri Lanka and it makes play on its luxurious mansion and grounds. And the fact that there is nothing between the island and Antarctica. Except the sea, of course. You have to wade out to it. There's a nice cocktail bar at Mirissa too. though we are not supposed to have alcohol.
Th city of Galle is half an hour up the road. The main sight here is the Dutch fort with its adjacent light house, by the water. Others would argue that it is the cricket ground. There' s also the fish market. the fruit market and some temples, especially an old Hindu temple with an intriguing interior.
In the other direction Matara and Dondra, right on the southern tip of Sri Lanka. There's a 39 metre high seated Buddha statue at the Weherahena Buddhist Temple, followed by the lighthouse at Dondra and yet another temple with several giant buddhas, further on at at Wewurukannala Vihara. Here. there's the biggest Buddha in Sri Lanka. This one is 50 metres tall. It dates back to the eighteenth century. but that's the more restrained part. The larger, gaudier part, was added in the middle of the last century. As was the Tunnel of Hell, through which you have to pass to approach the Buddha. It reminds you of all the punishments that await should you succumb to temptation on the road to enlightenment. It's not pretty.
You can climb to the top of the Buddha for a close up look at his head and views across the complex.
The retreat at Beruwela is closer to Colombo and nearer the tourist beaches of Bentota. More shops, and the Kande Vihara Temple.
Read more about Sri Lanka here.
Levels of extreme poverty run at about 4% of the population, which is low for a developing nation and good when compared with most of Asia.
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