I dreamed of traveling to many places while living in the Middle East. Though WE didn’t get to very many places, we did get to a few. Most recently we returned from Sri Lanka.
We had a very quick, 7 day trip. A place like Sri Lanka really deserves more time to see all the heritage and cultural sites, most places do I think. We flew overnight and landed in Columbo from Sharjah at 4:30 am. We traveled on the cheapest flight available at the time…not even a ridge on the head of the seat to offer some kind of support while trying to sleep sitting up. Though the couple next to me had no trouble finding a comfortable position while taking up half of my seat as well #skinnygirlproblems.
Our first stop was the Sigiriya Rock Palace in Central Sri Lanka, a 3 hour drive.
Thankfully we didn’t have to drive. Hubby likes to fly by the seat of his pants, but this was my trip and I wanted to be able to see the sites and relax in between. By using a tour company we not only had someone to drive us around, we had someone to hire licensed tour guides and explain to us the unspoken expectations of tipping as well as other tricks and advice. As it turns out our early flight was a blessing putting us in Sigiriya at the base of the Lion Palace for opening time at 7:30am. A perfectly coolish time to walk through a garden and climb 1200 steps into the blazing sun.
Before heading to our hotel in Polonnuraw, we went on a village tour. It was an
interesting, bumpy ride behind a Bullox cart to an oversized pond (or small lake). We crossed the lake sitting on a box balanced on two canoes (it was much studier than it sounds) to a small village. In the village we were welcomed by a lady who preceded to make us a traditional breakfast. She showed us how to thresh and winnow the rice to remove the outer husk, a job that surely keeps her young (it was much harder than it looked). The rice we milled into flour, and then into flat bread. She also showed us how to make a coconut samol that I will try to replicate one day because it was so delicious! Local fruit is typically served as ‘desert’ at every meal, or at least every place where we ate. From there we took our first and only ride in a Tuk Tuk back to the starting point.
Our first night in a hotel was at The Lake in Polonnuraw. We had a wonderful nap, followed by a swim in the pool over looking Bendiwewa Lake and a firework like display of lightening. Another great thing about purchasing a tour is having the meals taken care of. Breakfast and dinners were all included, and at the same time every day (breakfast at 7:30-10:30am and dinner at 7:30-10:30pm). Drinks and lunches we had to purchase, but most of the hotels had complimentary bottled water in each of the rooms (Slightly Chilled at Sri Pada being the exception). Wifi was available at most places, even Slightly Chilled, and so we were able to Skype the kids at home almost every night.
The next morning we toured the Ancient City of Polonnuraw. The ancient city is quite spread out with much to see. Our travel assistant, Farzan, drove us with our licensed guide by the highlights of the city, hopping out at each point to get a closer look and then quickly back to the comforts of air conditioning. Many of the ruins are in repair, but still considered sacred and so you are expected to remove your shoes and hats. Even though I wished everyday to be wearing my flip flops, I was grateful for sock covered feet when it came to walking barefoot on hot sand and brick to get a closer look at the sacred relics.
Our next stop was the Cave Temple in Dambulla. Another 364 stairs to the top of this shrine. There were many monkeys here and so once you reach the top and are asked to remove your shoes it is better to pay the man a small fee to guard you shoes (lest the monkeys take them in jest). This service is offered at many shrines, and sounds like good advice for the price. Especially if you hope to find your shoes when you return.
We had a very quick stop at the Spice Garden in Matale, which was more like an hour long sales pitch. Though it was interesting to see so many familiar spices in their naturally occurring form. The tour ends with a rather vigorous chair massage and a trip to the on site pharmacy to load up on “All-natural” goods. The massage can be a bit awkward…just warning you.
I forgot to mention the peddlers. The majority don’t immediately hock their goods. It starts with “hello, hi there”, “look at this historic piece I have here with me today”. Our guides, trying to help them out I suppose, use their goods as examples to explain the heritage of the place we are there to see. The thing is, once you touch it, make eye contact, speak to them… you’re hooked. They are relentless, persistent, desperate. “Special price for early morning costumer, first costumer, just for you” or so the pitch goes. One man we met in the Ancient City of Polonnuraw followed us around 3 different relics until we finally gave in.
Our second night was spent at Hotel Suise in Kandy. A beautiful heritage hotel
situated on the largest man made lake in Sri Lanka. There is a sidewalk around the entire lake that looked like it would make for a wonderful evening stroll. Running short on cash we thought we would explore to find a bank and walk around the lake. I don’t think we made it 50m before something came down on us the sounded like a sudden rain storm, but was actually a different sort of literal storm. I was only struck once by oozing bird dung (if you can call it that), but the cackling and the sound of IT falling above my head was enough to turn us back to the hotel until morning. I’d rather take that on in the day, than to blindly wander under the trees.
Back at the hotel we treated ourselves to a 2-hour, Ayurveda oil massage. I had been warned by a friend that they aren’t shy about nudity there, but I might have forgotten to warn James. Before the massage began I was asked to strip to my panties…while she waited…in the ‘room’ (curtained off area – there were 4 beds and a steam bed in one approx. 15×15′ room). She started with pouring, what I can only guess, about a cup of oil on the top of my head and scrubbing into my scalp and hair. Then I was asked to lay on the massage table.
Face up. No sheet. Naturally I tried to cover myself, but she needed to massage my arms. So I closed my eyes and tried to relax. I managed to do alright, until I turned over onto my belly and the flying ants came in through the open window. I was so oiled up, slippery and sticky that when the ants landed on me they started biting immediately as they surely were beginning to drown. Not so relaxing after that. For the rest of the massage the ants were all I could feel or think about – yuck. My skin itches just thinking about it now.
Since we didn’t make it to the bank the night before we made another attempt to find one in the light of day. The sidewalk, and lower leaves of a number of trees along the path we pelted in white. Not their usually colour I assure you. We did however make it to the bank and back without any incidents.
Before leaving Kandy we had the opportunity to see the Sacred Temple of the Tooth. We had a guide here as well who helped us push through the crowds of people and explained different rituals that we were witnessing. I came to a profound realization here that kind of saddened me. First let me explain that I find the legends of Buddha interesting as he plays a big part in the culture and history of the country we were getting to know. I would like to think that I am respectful of that and what that means to people who believe he is more. What saddened me was as a tourist, and having no religious purpose in the temples we were walking through, I was taking away from the hundreds of people that were there to worship and pray. We pressed through thick crowds of people waiting (patiently or impatiently I’m not sure) to give offerings behind rows upon rows of people with their cameras held over their heads, snapping away. If our places had been reversed I think I may have been frustrated and offended at the spectacle I saw before me. And that’s my two cents.
We also spent several hours walking around the Botanical Garden in Peradeniya. It was a nice change of pace. No guides. No peddlers. Just us exploring and walking around on our own. We ended up walking on a side path under these huge trees that were clearly home to hundreds of giant fruit bats. Though it was mid-day while we were there, we were able to see quite a few flying through the trees, and hear them chattering back and forth to one another (or in their sleep).
From the Botanical Garden we began our long 5 hour trek (by car) up the mountain side, through multiple tea plantations, to Dalhousie, our base at Slightly Chilled Hotel before our long climb (by foot) to Adam’s Peak. The way is not marked clearly, and we had to stop for directions multiple times. Another perk to having a travel assistant…he speaks the language 🙂 When we finally reached the hotel we had just enough time to find the starting point, eat dinner and head to bed.
Farzan wanted to see us off, and drive us to the starting point (he’s such a nice guy). 2:00am was hard enough for us, and we hadn’t been driving all over the country side the day before. Despite me texting him to stay in bed, he got up anyway to look for us but we were already gone. A group started walking from the hotel at 2:15, and it just felt right to leave with them. For the first hour it was like walking up a market road. Stores lined both sides of the path, and the incline was gradual with a few steps here and there. Then things start to get a bit more serious and you begin think you’re in it now. Steep, ladder like stairs give way to another short stint of gradual incline…for a short time anyhow. The stores continue to follow the path all the way to the last couple hundred stairs. 5200 we climbed in all, with a time of 2 hours and 25 minutes from our hotel. We took brief stops to keep
momentum, and grab a drink or a snack before carrying on. I tried not to sit, or the temptation to lay down would surely have over come me. When we got to the top it was crowded already with people who had clearly woke up hours before us. We got our bearings, tried to get a look at the footprint (another sacred shrine inundated with tourists), and then settled down to watch the sunrise. We managed to find a spot on the edge of the building, with nothing to obscure the view. Once there, the space around us filled in quickly and the last few hikers that tapered in to find a spot to watch were forced to get comfortable on the steps below. I had read that the sunrise, though breath taking was only half of the view. We got our fill, and moved away to let others get a better look. Climbing against the crowd who were beginning to make their descent, we moved to the side opposite of where we had been sitting. There, cast a top the clouds, was the shadow of Adam’s Peak.
The descent only took a little over an hour and a half at a run, hop kind of pace. We probably could have come down a lot faster if we weren’t having to jump the railings back and forth to get around some of the older, slower pilgrims. The nice thing about coming down from the summit in the daylight was seeing the view and the beautiful landscape we had struggled up in the darkness. The bad thing was not being able to walk properly for the 3 days afterwards.
Breakfast was ready and waiting when we returned to the hotel. A quick, cold
shower and we were on our way to the southern province of Sri Lanka. Our 4th hotel was the Hotel Chandrika in Tissamaharama. This place was quite beautiful. I probably even like this hotel better than The Lake in Polonnuraw. Not much to do here but relax, swim and recoup for the upcoming activities.
The next morning was another early one. We were to meet the safari guide at 5:30am to take us to Yala National Park. Being as we were leaving before breakfast the hotel packed us a nifty little ‘breakfast’ box to take with us to the park. We saw Water Buffalo, Peacocks and Peahens, Crocodiles, Storks, Ravens, and a small herd of
Elephants. We had heard there was a leopard along one of the maze like roads, but after sitting for 30 min … quietly…in the heat, we gave up on waiting for it to come out of the shade. Smart cat. Yala National Park was one of the areas affected by the Tsunami in 2004. We stopped to have breakfast at the site of a Tsunami memorial and past rest house.
The next hotel was Dickwella Spa and Resort, right on the beach. Another beautiful place with ocean views over dinner and breakfast. The only issue with this place was the amount of noseeums or ninja mosquitos that clearly made a smorgasbord of my legs. That evening we had a late evening out to see the turtles at the nearby Turtle Conservation Beach. The people here were so very nice, and all volunteers. They employ local people (through donations) who
once poached turtle eggs to feed their family to now defend the turtles and protect the eggs against other poachers. The sand was very dry and kept collapsing when the Green Turtles would dig their nest, but we did get to see two turtles struggle to get back to the ocean to rest before trying again.
Our last day in Sri Lanka was fairly relaxed. The only thing scheduled for the day was to catch the train from Matara at 2:00pm. We relaxed around the pool, and skyped with the kids until checkout. We arrived in Matara much earlier than anticipated and so we stopped at a beach for lunch and to explore. Down near the end of the beach we noticed an island with a bridge to it and decided to explore to see what it was. To us it looked like a resort of some kind. At the foot of the bridge there was a peddlar selling flowers (flowers I’ve only seen as offerings to Buddha). This man shoved a small bundle into James’ hands and into mine, then demanded money. When I tried to give it back he would not take it. I tried to put it back on his cart and he dropped his price. So we walked across the bridge with the flowers to discover that it was a shrine. We walked around, took a look, gave the majority of the flowers to people there intending to worship and then headed back to shore. I kept one flower for myself and immediately felt selfish and awkward walking across the bridge. I felt like a thief, or like someone would think I was one. I needed to get rid of the flower. I tried to offer it to one little girl, but she wouldn’t take it from me. James had better luck handing it off to her than I did.
We got to the train station just before 2:00pm and had to sit on the walkway to wait. The train is used like a metro for most of the locals to get between the big centres and all the places in between. Looking at the train car in front of us, loaded to over flowing with people standing, or sitting in the isles and the doorway, the windows open, children piled on laps, I felt a solid lump in my throat and wondered how much we were going to enjoy this ride to Colombo. For 6 hours. As the train rolled away our guide walked us to the other end of the platform, where the luxury, air conditioned, wifi car we would be riding in was waiting for us. The ride was obviously more enjoyable than anticipated and we arrived in Colombo well rested.
We arrived at The Full Moon Hotel just in time for dinner, which was mediocre at best. Of all the places (even Slightly Chilled, which has an excuse for being in the middle of nowhere) this was my least favourite stay. The layout of the hotel is quite pretty, and everything is easily accessible. The dining area is right on the pool deck (pools were usually closed by dinner time) with a cool view of the waterfall that flows into the pool. We had a nice big room with a full kitchen and living room, even an extra cot. The a/c however, only seemed to work in our bedroom in which we were not alone. Upon preparing for bed I tripped down the small step into the bathroom. When I turned to look at the step there was a giant spider. A penny sized spider would have been huge, this guy was the length of James’ ID card (which he kindly chucked at me to put next to it for a comparison in the photo). Sitting on the toilet I did not take my eyes of it in case it were to make any sudden movements. To my chagrin a poor little fly got to close and the spider leapt into action. Good thing I was already on the toilet. The spider wasn’t the only one in there with me, as I sat on the toilet I noticed a cockroach running along the bottom of the wall where it meets the floor. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. Taking a towel with me, I pressed it into the crack below the door in the hopes that it would prevent them venturing to far while I tried to sleep.
Thankfully it was a short stay in this hotel, as our travel assistant must have been glad for as well. Most of the hotels offer driver’s accommodations. These accommodations are typically shared, with several men bunking in a room. At this particular hotel, there was no a/c in the driver’s accommodations and our driver opted to sleep in his car until he was needed to take us to the airport. [Insert disgusted look] 2:00am drop off at the airport for our short/long journey back to the UAE. Glad to leave this hotel behind us, sad to leave so soon.
If we ever have the opportunity to go back, James thinks he would like to travel the entire island by train relying on TukTuks and buses to get to hotels and tourist destinations from the train stations. I suggest if you’re going to go that route that you are a stronger negotiator than my husband or you’ll surely spend a lot more money then you intended.