Touring Sri Lanka: Top 8

There’s tea and there’s tea alright. And that’s about all I knew about Sri Lanka before. Ashamed as I may have been of my ignorance, I am now, after our return from a recent holiday on the beautiful island of Sri Lanka, at peace with myself.

The wonderful Kandalama Lake, surrounded by lush jungle, with a view of magical Sigiriya in the distance

Sri Lanka is all that: beautiful and diverse landscape, lush flora, extraordinary wildlife, pleasant people, rich historical heritage, delicious food, but also bad roads, excessive bureaucracy and mad traffic. As a result, the mix of it all makes for a very much alive, colourful, energetic spectacle for the passing tourist. Sri Lanka took us by surprise in its own right.

Buddha of Gal Vihara, Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka
Carved out of granite but looking as tender as silk

Kandalama

Kandalama is actually the name of the lake in the Central Province, which makes a very practical base for exploring the Cultural Triangle.

Kandalama, I think you’re equivalent to falling in love.

Though the lake itself is a stunning place and its shores are dense with jungle vegetation, and thus it all makes you gasp while watching (that nice green patch resembling French lawn is in reality not a lawn after all but a not-so-compact patch of marsh) and invites you to regularly stare at it no end, observing the scattered fishing boats, or an occasional working elephant, what is the main attraction here is the Heritance Kandalama Hotel.

Built by the brilliant Srilankan architect Geoffrey Bawa, it was recommended to us by an architecture-loving acquaintance who spoke about the hotel so admiringly and convincingly that I caught her enthusiasm right on the spot (my man needed to check the web for himself before agreeing it does look like a great place). Her description made us set up a whole itinerary of our trip to Sri Lanka, specifically to the Cultural Triangle, around this place. It is a true masterpiece.

Hidden behind and under the canopy of everything green, tallest trees, lush tropical vegetation of every kind, climbing ones, hanging ones, with leaves huge or small, with or without blooms – it is virtually undistinguishable from its surroundings although it is a massive concrete edifice. (Also, the service is excellent and the food is superb. One piece of advice, if I may, take a high-floor room, as the views are indescribably beautiful.)

Then, there’s birdsong, countless playful monkeys jumping the trees, magical views of the lake and Sigiriya in the distance. (Which in fact is not so distant but Sri Lanka’s roads and traffic make a Western traveller reconsider the comprehension of distance especially in conjunction with time. But there’ll have to be another post about that.)

Mother Nature’s artefact
The ancient sites of Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle are full of monkeys. They don’t seem to be of a bullying kind but that’s probably only because one follows the rules of precaution. Interestingly, they don’t even mess with the shoes one has to leave at the entrance to the religious sites. There are also a lot of stray dogs in Sri Lanka that are usually seen sleeping during the day (but come vigorously to life when the heat of the day withdraws).
Polonnaruwa

When the remains of this ancient city dating back to 11th century were discovered (apparently by accident), they were completely overgrown by jungle, which offered a reliable protection so the remains are in very good condition considering their age.

Giant dagoba in Polonnaruwa, one of the largest ones in Sri Lanka. No need to emphasize how sacred they all are for the Buddhists. And immense. And long-lived.

Today, while roaming this beautiful, enormous site, meticulously maintained and taken care of with obvious respect, one can get a sense of what it must’ve been like for the archaeologists when they first started uncovering the area: to the left and right of the cleared ruins there’s thick forest complete with wildlife and its sounds.

Polonnaruwa was the capital of the medieval kingdom of the  Sinhalese and it is still a very important religious site. There are so many points of interests within (remains of the palaces and their gardens, numerous temples, dagobas, statues of Buddha, water tanks) it takes a good portion of traveller’s time to see them all. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss this jewel. It is simply spectacular.

This is one of four Buddha statues that are carved out of the same granite rock in a part of Polonnaruwa called Gal Vihara. People are gathering on the opposite side, overlooking this sacred place, burning incense and praying next to immense rounded boulders. Capturing all four of Buddhas in one photograph doesn’t produce an appealing end-result (I am an amateur after all).

Polonnaruwa is vast but I think it’s quite possible to do it on foot if one is a walker (the site is about 5 x 3 kms) and can stand the heat (there’s lots of natural shade though and many refreshment (including king coconut) selling stalls throughout).

Approaching the white dagoba in Polonnaruwa, smaller than the other but truly milky white as it was when the archeologists wielding their hatchets discovered it after jungle spread uninterrupted for centuries.

It was obvious that exploring by (rented) bicycles is very popular but we nevertheless entered the site with our car (yes, as a foreign tourist you can drive through and stop as you go at many designated areas) and it still took us several hours.

I’ve seen many beautiful moon-stones in Sri Lanka: they’re laid at the entrance or below the staircases and are painstakingly carved of stone slabs, representing swans, lions, elephants, horses, lilies, lotus flowers that are believed to be the symbols of the circle of life.
A waterlily pond in the ancient city of Polonnaruwa is one of many water features within this vast archeologic site.
Another spectacle performed by Mother Nature
Sigiriya

Pure magic, I tell you. Being atop Sigiriya with 360 degrees of views and a cooling breeze in your hair is one of life’s great encounters. The views from the summit are phenomenal: across the lush, green countryside that is interspersed with a giant statue of Buddha or a dagoba here and there, of the Kandalama lake and hills behind it, and, of course, of the formal gardens of Sigiriya’s ex-royal palace down below. It is so enchanting up there you have to force yourself to descend. The only other time I experienced a feeling remotely similar was on Marmolada last spring.

Sigiriya, here we come.
The avenue among the well maintained ex-royal gardens leading to the boulder garden and the stairs up the rock. The tickets are sold in a worn out museum which is housed in a building of interesting tropical architecure.

Whoever says this place is a must visit is more than right. Sigiriya is a giant 200m high single rock rising above a surrounding plain. At the foot of it, there are magnificent formal gardens of what is considered to have been a royal palace in the 5th century. The landscaped gardens feature elegant water gardens (streams, pools, islands) along the main avenue leading to the rock, which are followed by really particular boulder and terrace gardens.

Remains of the Buddhist monastery and terrace gardens on top of Sigiriya rock.

Climbing the 1202 steps atop is not difficult at all, especially because during the ascent one admires the fantastic frescoes of legendary Sigiriya nymphs drawn on the rock face and further up the lion platform with the giant lion paws: the only remains of what is believed to have been a whole lion structure (which lends to the popular name of the place: the Lion Rock). The summit used to house several buildings (only foundations can be seen today) of a Buddhist monastery spread on numerous terraces complete with pools, gardens and tanks. But the views, people, and that feeling of being on top of the world … priceless.

The relaxing view from the summit of spectacular Sigiriya.

Remember Duran Duran? Guess where their Save a Prayer was filmed in 1982.

That’s right. Right there.

The airport security check at least uses x-ray machine. I can’t imagine what was left of that poor man’s luggage. (The monkey managed to tear it up in the minute we spent watching.)
Frangipani bloom on the stairs of Cave Temple in Dambulla. Did you know they smell heavenly?
Dambulla
Above the town of Dambulla (another set of stairs) there’s fantastic Cave Temple: virtually hundreds of Buddha statues and endless colourful wall drawings located in caves under a huge stone ledge.
I always feel strange taking photographs of religious objects and subjects. I know it’s not forbidden or something but still to my understanding religion is a matter of one’s intimacy.

On our way from Sigiriya to the Cave Temple in Dambulla we stopped at the central market hoping to get a chance of watching some action not knowing what exactly we were after. Action it was! Suppliers’ vans and lorries form long lines through each of the three huge halls in both directions, muscular men unload and carry the goods on their shoulders and backs to the vendors’ shops squeezed one next to another along each side of the hall.

Colourful heaps are piled on the floor in front of the shops: papayas carefully wrapped in old newspapers, the longish, sweetest pineapples, numbered coconut clusters, aubergines, watermelons, bags of beans, snake resembling gourds, large packs of curry leaves, Sri Lankan oranges (small, with fibrous flesh and of sour taste), even odd strawberries, onions, potatoes, dried fish (not a pleasant smell), bags of limes, bunches of bananas, heaps of cabbage – to name only the known varieties.

Some of the others were familiar to us only from seeing them on trays at dinnertime in our hotel and some we had no idea what they were: like those bouquets of pointed long leaves for example – very popular judging by the quantities of them.

The business ran smoothly, evidently following some mysterious, unwritten rules: the chaotic order of a regular market day. I still regret not buying the best ever Sri Lankan limes that I will crave forever (sweet and sour and piquant and heavenly aromatic all at the same time) and a bouqet of fresh curry leaves to bring home.

Weird and Wonderful Vegetables of Sri Lanka

The next day we left this oasis of peace and beauty and headed to the hills for tea and elephants. It was hard to say goodbye (can you tell?) but new adventures awaited.

To be continued (with Part 2) soon 🙂

EDIT: Here’s link to Part 2 of my top 8 of Sri Lanka