A taste of Sri Lankan Kandy

The bus ride from Polonnaruwa to Kandy was spent packed in with a hundred-odd people who loved to stare at us, one chicken, no air conditioning and an overly horn-happy driver with a serious need for speed. Hurtling around narrow bends and built up areas, dodging people, animals and a ton of other road vehicles, we laughed nervously until we rolled into Kandy. We’d arrived in the cultural capital.

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The skies are a little more mysterious here – as if they couldn’t decide whether or not to rain – and the weather is cooler here; it’s a lovely change.

The scenery over the central lake and up above the hills is spectacular and green: tiny houses and buildings jut out and mist covers the distant mountains. This place is stunning.

A good looking view

A good looking view

The busy city centre is a sight worth seeing: women dress in brightly coloured flowing saris, people stream everywhere, and the central area is jam packed full of people and buses and other road users – one enormous chaotic traffic flow.

The buses get so close to you – and other vehicles – that you fear they’re about to collide, and people are packed in like sardines where ever they seem to go – on or off the bus.
There seems to be a few official bus stations, but instead the buses just seem to move about everywhere with no order – it’s as if sometimes they’re stopping here, sometimes they’re stopping there, and at other times, they’re not running at all. Regardless, where ever you go, it’s more than likely you’ll be surrounded by a cloud of petrol fumes and listen to the constant honking of several loud horns.

Traffic police stream the traffic, bringing pedestrians to a halt so that drivers can move, and again, so that people can walk safely – although sneaky tuk tuks try to pass through.

The Green Light

The Green Light

Street vendors are selling their goods where ever seems to suit – a woman selling cleaning products and sponges stands in a park, a shoe fixer sets up station on the busy walk way, and the bubble seller blows bubbles at you as you walk along the side walk.

They'll give you good price, very cheap, local price.

They’ll give you good price, very cheap, local price.

In the fresh produce markets, it’s hard to focus – too many things to see are happening at once and there is such a wide array of colourful fresh products; it’s hard to resist buying them even though we’ve got no where to cook them! The vendors give a quick wink at us as we walk through, then continue weighing on antique-looking scales and shoving egg plants and snake beans into tiny bags.

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We did happen to stumble on a cheeky fish monger who kept posing for us, insisting we photograph him. Of course, how could we resist when he whipped out the bloodied tuna head?

Here's Mr. Fishmonger's 5 minutes of fame

Here’s Mr. Fishmonger’s 5 minutes of fame

Of course, Kandy is a real tourist area – it’s famous dot on the Sri Lankan map lures the tourists in – therefore, there are always going to be those praying upon those who are a little more naïve, and it became a bit of a hassle to keep the pestering at bay, unlike the other areas we’d seen in Sri Lanka.

The tourists seem to move in droves here – we’re like pack animals – all hiding behind each other with our Lonely Planet guide books and mosquito repellant. 5pm comes and we’re all rolling down our pant-legs and rubbing citronella and Deet into our skin. And if you’re looking for the tourists areas – look no further than the 5:30pm nightly cultural dance show, where Kandyan dancing and drumming displays are commercialized yet rather enjoyable!

There are cafes here! Places to just sit, drink and enjoy! There is also a reasonable choice of restaurants! – something we’ve been missing a little in the other places we visited.

Dahl and Roti

Dahl and Roti

As for culture, we pretty much managed to avoid it here – not particularly by choice – but, well, it was more difficult to find than I thought it would be in the “cultural capital.” Perhaps it’s got something to do with the fact that we decided not to visit the two “top recommendation for tourists” – the sacred Temple of the Tooth and the Botanic Gardens.

Instead, we spent our time simply wandering about – we explored the markets for hours, ate some good food, visited a tea factory, learned about various spices, cooked Sri Lankan food with our home-stay hosts, took a tuk tuk up a mountain to the famous tea museum which ended up being closed, and walked around the large, beautiful lake.

Little markets

Little markets

...Get in your cot!

…Get in your cot!

Yay! Tea!

Yay! Tea!

Home-cooked curry

Home-cooked curry

Kandy Lake

Kandy Lake

Kandy was a lovely place to visit; it was good to just simply stroll and explore, but for now, we’re ready to move on and see something new and different. Tomorrow its off to Ella on the train – observation carriage all the way – to soak up the incredible scenery and tea plantations. I’m ready for another cuppa and some hill-country hikes, so let’s see what our next destination has to offer!

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The Ancient Cities: Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa – with lots of monkeys.

“Hello! Where from?”

Travelling on from Anuradhapura to Mihintale, a sacred area 13km away, we prepared ourselves in the early morning for a massive climb to the top of the Mihintale hill – a sacred area associated with the first introductions of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.
This place is a really big deal; particularly for a nation whose state religion is Buddhism.

Ambasthale Dagoba, Mihintale

Ambasthale Dagoba, Mihintale

1843 (and the rest!) steps up, 4 hours and way too many scary monkeys later, we’d done an exhaustive climb whilst our guide had given us an equally exhaustive history lesson.

Cute from a distance

Cute from a distance

Standing at the very top, after climbing bare-footed up tiny steps carved into sheer rock, we looked out over the mountain whilst trying not to be blown away by huge gusts of wind. This is a place that looks damn good from up high – it’s good to be the king.

The final climb to the top

The final climb to the top

It's good to be the king!

It’s good to be the king!

….

Moving on from Anuradhapura and Mihintale, we took the local bus to Polonnaruwa – another ancient UNESCO heritage city, 3 or so hours drive away.
Oddly enough this bus ride was rather event-free; besides a few horn happy moments and a few too many pot holes, it was rather empty (only a few people had to stand for the journey) and the driver maintained a reasonably safe speed most of the time.
We’ve been making a list of all the different vendors who make their way through the buses here in Sri Lanka – it’s amazing what people sell, and how they go about selling things on the bus. Need a lottery ticket to get you through the journey? What about some faux-gold jewelry? If so, you’re in luck!

Traveling in comfort and style

Arriving into Polonnaruwa, we could barely make it off the bus before a tuk tuk driver had taken our backpacks and stuffed them into the tiny storage space behind the seats. You quite often don’t seem to get a choice – it can be a good thing, or a bad thing, depending on your mood.

We spent the afternoon wandering around the Old Town area, stumbling upon an impromptu fresh market where the locals all yelled “hello” or tried to shake our hands. One man would not let go – things got a bit weird.

“Hello! Where from?” is a saying we are now very used to. Even more so, the response that follows our chorus of “Australia” is getting very predictable. It goes a little something like this:

Locals: Hello! Where from?
Us: Australia
Locals: Australia!…. Ah! Ricky Ponting!/ Shane Warne!/ Gilchrist!/ Ah! Good cricket!/ Ah, cricket team very bad in moment!/ “……….” (insert something cricket related here).

We have to smile. Thank goodness Jacob has an interest in Australian cricket and can hold up a conversation – I just sit there like a stunned mullet, smiling and nodding. I’d hate to confess to them that I actually hate cricket and have no interest, nor any idea of what the hell they are talking about… Who is this Shane Warne person they speak of? I thought he was just some guy who liked getting married a lot, or some guy they just decided to make a musical about.
They say ignorance is bliss – I guess if I have the choice between cricket and bliss, I know which one I prefer.

Our guest house, Leesha Tourist Home, served home-made dinner for the guests, and we enjoyed an incredible feast of traditional Sri Lankan curries and rice. I’ve been on – am on – the hunt for the “best vegetarian Sri Lankan curry” and so far, this place wins hands down. We spent our first night feasting, drinking Sri Lankan Lion beer and chatting with fellow travelers; it’s a hard life, but we love it, and someone’s got to do it.

Feast!

Feast!

We spent our only full day in Polonnaruwa exploring the ancient ruins and historic sites, marveling at the archeological wonders that have remained for more than a thousand years.

Vatadage, The Quadrangle, Polonnaruwa

Vatadage, The Quadrangle, Polonnaruwa

We walked through structures that had once belonged to royalty, our bare feet standing upon intricate stone carvings of elephants, horses, lions and bulls.

Royal Palace, Polonnaruwa

Royal Palace, Polonnaruwa

It was simply incredible.

Hatadage, The Quadrangle, Polonnaruwa

Hatadage, The Quadrangle, Polonnaruwa

We wandered about the sites, through old monastery complexes, around dagobas and amongst sacred crematorium.

A snippet of a Monastic Complex - 'Monk Cells' in Polonnaruwa

A snippet of a Monastic Complex – ‘Monk Cells’ in Polonnaruwa

The old Monastic Hospital was incredibly interesting to see; a medicinal trough still stands in place in one of the ‘rooms’ of the hospital, and the Polonnaruwa Archeological Museum displays many ancient surgical and medical tools found there during excavations.

Herbal Medicine Trough in Monastic Hospital

Herbal Medicine Trough in Monastic Hospital

And if these ancient sites couldn’t get any more stunning; we literally had the areas to ourselves. Where are the tourists? I wonder what this place will be like in years to come…

Lankatilaka, Northern Group, Polonnaruwa

Spectacular Lankatilaka, Northern Group, Polonnaruwa

Our time in Polonnaruwa was brief, but incredible. We saw an enormous amount in a short space of time, and furthermore, we managed to scrape through without any monkey bites – winning! (No need as of yet to carry a “monkey stick!”)

Next we’re off to Sri Lanka’s cultural capital Kandy, leaving the ancient cities behind us – but probably not the monkeys – they seem to be everywhere.

Snippets of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

Our time in the ancient city of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, has been a brief but wonderful two days. We spent time exploring the ancient city on bike and by foot, and took in the spectacular sites of the enormous dagobas, temples, spiritual sites and ancient ruins.

Our slick wheels

Our slick wheels

Riding our bikes in the sweltering heat, we rode through the city centre – past people and animals, cars, buses, trucks and tractors. People were constantly smiling, waving and yelling “hello” as we passed them. The ride was often really peaceful: around rice fields and lotus ponds, through empty stretches of road and path, and past remnants of ancient monasterys and palaces. At other times, you could feel the breeze of the passing bus or truck as it honked and whizzed past, only centimeters away from our bikes.

Lotus Pond

Lotus Pond

We bought a ticket that allowed us entry into the historic areas, and spent time riding between each site on our maps.

Lankarama

Lankarama, Abhayagiri Monastery – 1st Century BC

Abhayagiri Dagoba, Abhayagiri Monastery

Abhayagiri Dagoba, Abhayagiri Monastery – 1st or 2nd Century centerpiece of monastery

Moonstone, Abhayagiri Monastery

Moonstone, Abhayagiri Monastery – a ruined 9th Century school for monks

Ratnaprasada, Abhayagiri Monastery

Ratnaprasada, Abhayagiri Monastery – 8th Century guard stones

Hoppers in the making! A national food of Sri Lanka

Hoppers in the making! A national food of Sri Lanka

Thuparama Dagoba - constructed in the 3rd Century: the oldest visible dagoba in the world

Thuparama Dagoba – constructed in the 3rd Century: the oldest visible dagoba in the world

The Royal Palace, Citadel - 12th Century

The Royal Palace, Citadel – 12th Century

Jetavanarama Dagoba

Jetavanarama Dagoba – 3rd Century

Cycling through the 'Buddhist Railing'

Cycling through the ‘Buddhist Railing’

Vessagiriya - Remains of cave monastery complex  (4th and 5th Century)

Vessagiriya – Remains of cave monastery complex (4th and 5th Century)

Isurumumiya Vihara - Rock Temple

Isurumumiya Vihara – Rock Temple

Royal Pleasure Gardens

Royal Pleasure Gardens

Sri Maha Bodhi - the sacred Bodhi tree: the oldest historically authenticated tree in the world

Sri Maha Bodhi – the sacred Bodhi tree: the oldest historically authenticated tree in the world

Brazen Palace: The 1600 columns are remnants of a 9 storey palace, built more than 2000 years ago

Brazen Palace: The 1600 columns are remnants of a 9 storey palace, built more than 2000 years ago

Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba - (140 BC)

Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba – (140 BC)

Sri Lanka: Big Smiles, Honking Horns and Curry!

My first impressions of Sri Lanka?
I’d have to say the big, big smiles.

Big smiles with red-stained teeth, covering the faces of the gorgeous people here. The women in bright, bold patterned outfits, and the men in their traditional skirts. Bicycles – lots of bicycles: sharing the road with trishaws and cars, buses and tractors, chickens, cows, dogs, goats, cats, people, motorbikes and more. The roads are filled with the obligatory Asian hectic traffic, which I seem to be able to best describe as “organised chaos.”
It’s busy here. And it’s hot: really hot – humid and sticky and wonderful.

We flew in to Colombo, Sri Lanka in the early morning, and headed to our accommodation in the beach city of Negombo. Holding on to the handles as our trishaw turned and darted and weaved through the traffic, we had to smile. We’re here – we are finally in Sri Lanka!

A quiet street in Negombo

A quiet street in Negombo

We spent our first day in Negombo, where we walked into the town, through the bustling and lively (and fish smelling) fish market to the city centre. It was exciting, but intimidating. We didn’t see one other tourist, and people everywhere around us were openly staring and laughing at these two very white foreigners. People were leaning out of their passing trishaws to get a better look at us, and the eyes following us were something we are not used to.

Negombo Fish Market

Negombo Fish Market

The hectic sprawl of Negombo city was bustling with life – so much colour and noise, people and traffic!
We spent a while wondering around Negombo looking for a bank that would accept our foreign cards – it took us 8 or 9 different banks before we found one that worked. Relief.
One thing is for sure – we now know that Sri Lanka has a large range of banks, should you wish to open an account.

We spent our first night in a little restaurant near our accommodation, enjoying Sri Lanka’s Lion Beer and traditional rice and curry. Sri Lankan curries are great fun – they come with all these little dishes in separate bowls, making for a real experience as you taste each one, trying to work out what it is.

Lion Beer and Vegetarian Curry

Lion Beer and Curry

On our second day, after sharing a traditional Sri Lankan breakfast with another Melbournian couple (Em was adventurous and ordered banana pancakes) we prepared for a day of travel, as we made our way inland from Negombo to Anuradhapura, an ancient city with sprawling ruins that was once Sri Lanka’s capital.

The bus rides there (two two-and-a-half hour rides) were a very new and, well, let’s say ‘different’ experience.
The first leg of the journey, Negombo to Kurunegala, was pretty standard – a dodgy looking bus that sped over the pot holes and unsealed roads at staggering speeds, dodging whatever was in it’s path. We took over the back seat of the bus so our big packs would fit – luggage storage doesn’t exist here on busses, apparently – and bounced our way into Kurunegala.

Kurunegala bus station is something else – something I can’t even put into words, although, I’ll try my best.
It is a station packed full of, surprise surprise, busses. But not just a few busses – lots, and lots, and then some more – all fighting for space and room to reverse and turn and move in. Horns honk constantly, as people mull everywhere. The smell of petrol fumes was overpowering, but the sights before us were just oh so wonderfully hectic! Finding a bathroom, first off, was an experience, as every person stared us up and down as we walked through the halls. Local touters and restaurant owners tried waving us down, “come lady, sir! Come madame, sit, sit, here, you come!”

To find our bus to Anuradhapura, a little man was kind enough to show us where to go. We waved his hand for us to follow, then marched us right on through and into the centre of the station, in front of and behind moving busses, through small gaps between vehicles, through groups of people and petrol fumes…
Then, when we managed to board the bus alive and take our seats on bus 57 to Anuradhapura, another little  man was kind enough to inform us “no A C.” (air conditioning)… Oh yes, the ride was about to get very interesting – and hot.

Before the bus started rolling, the “music of the station” as I decided to name it, began to ‘play’. As the bus engine hummed and shook, passenger after passenger kept boarding our bus. The humming engine and the footsteps of people provided the hum and pulse of the song. Constant honking of horns around us provided a beat. And the melody came from the many vendors who boarded our already jam packed bus, yelling out their sales pitches in the exact same tones over and over. Pop corn vendors, snack vendors, cold drink vendors, hot food vendors, fried food and short eat vendors… and then the picture book vendor and the gold jewelry vendor moved about, squishing through the bodies and touting their goods. What a sight and sound – we had to smile and laugh.

The following two and a half hours was a bum-numbingly, uncomfortably good time (We’re keeping things positive).
As we bumped and bounced and swayed in our tiny seats, every seat and space in the aisle of the bus was jam packed with passengers – I felt so sorry for the ticket fee collector who had to squeeze and shove his way through the crowd. Jam packed does not even begin to describe it: we were packed in so tightly, at times I wondered how any more people could actually fit in! People were leaning over me, on me, and around me. There is no such thing as personal space when it comes to travelling on a public bus, it would seem. If I didn’t have someone’s crotch rubbing on my shoulder, I had a stomach pressing against me, or someone standing on my feet, or staring at me from a few centimeters away, or breathing heavily on me… But still, it was all an experience – an uncomfortable at times but positive one – and we laughed and smiled our way through it; it was really a lot of fun.

And as the monsoon rain arrived and night closed in, and the bus driver continued to honk his horn and dodge and dive and weave, we looked forward to what we’d find in the ancient city we were about to arrive in: we could not be happier to be here in Sri Lanka.

Travel Planning: Spectacular, spectacular Sri Lanka

Okay, so our trip is getting nearer – 68 days, to be exact! If the count down wasn’t enough, our sore arms – quite reminiscent of pin-cushions after our latest travel immunisations, are another reminder that our big trip is inching closer and closer.
Along with our growing excitement and also some nerves here and there, our ‘to-do’ list is also getting bigger and bulkier by the day. Sure, we just ticked off tetanus and the flu vaccine off our list, but we also added another 100 odd things to it, too!
As per usual, Em’s been scouring through forum after forum, blog after blog, websites, travel magazines, guide books, travel literatures and anything else even slightly related to get ideas, information, and be inspired.
We decided that, although we’re quite laid back travellers; backpackers who want to meet lots of people, go where ever we so choose, follow advice of others, find our own way etc. etc. … we need to have a rough plan.
Planning is something we’re both good at by trade; it’s a big part of our daily work and lives, so – isn’t it funny that we’re actually pretty lazy when it comes to travel. Really, we can’t work out if we’re shit at planning travel in general, or that we just hate to do it becuase we like to leave things to chance, and pre-booked accommodation gets in the way of that.
When it comes to places like mainland Malaysia, Thailand, India (to an extent), Vietnam and Singapore, we have no plans. We will probably at some stage before arrival organise the first night or two of accommodation and leave the rest to chance… However, places like Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Malaysia Borneo, we’ve read and heard over and over from various sources – you need to have a plan.
So. We might as well start with our first major destination – Sri Lanka. Spectacular, spectacular Sri Lanka. It’s a country that we didn’t really know too much about – instead it lured us in with its beautiful scenery, walking trails, tea plantations, lucious beaches, tantalising food and friendly looking faces.
After reading and hearing from a number of people, it seems as though (and correct us, if we’re wrong) budget accommodation can book up reasonably well in advance in certain areas, leaving the more pricey guesthouses/hotels as the only options. As long-term travellers, we need to be living on the cheap whenever possible, which means we can’t really risk, nor do we want to, have to stay at the Hilton or the likes of, night after night. We’ve read this is also the same sort of situation for Myanmar, and Malaysia Borneo…
Another reason we want to plan some of the places we’re going to, is becuase we have a limited time there and want to make sure we get the most out of it; to get to the places we want to go. This of course can also be done without prior planning, and we fully intend to work this way in some of the other countries we are heading to, but again – we want to book accommodation in advance, and that requires planning the places you’ll go and where, in turn, we will stay.
Sri Lanka, if we wern’t already excited, and didn’t already love it before we started really planning; well, we sure do love it now and we haven’t even touched down! In less than three months we’ll be travelling through Sri Lanka, and we simply can not wipe the smiles off our faces every time we think about it.
Spectacular, spectacular Sri Lanka; we can’t wait to meet you!
What is your travel style? Do you like to plan ahead or see where your journey takes you?