Later that morning (after a much appreciated breakfast), we headed back to Hatton to board a train to Kandy, also an amazing ride. Kandy is the old capital, the cultural centre of Sri Lanka and has the country’s most important temple, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. There is also a nice central quarter that has a lake that is nice for strolling. Unfortunately, there is just too much noise, pollution and bus traffic to truly enjoy the city. The 1 stand-out thing that we did do there, was a trip to the wonderful Peradeniya Botanic Gardens, located about 10 mins away by bus.
Monkeys (and huge bats) frolicking in the trees, a vast array of both local and foreign fauna and an extensive orchid house are spread out over 60 hectares. Wandering amongst the humungous trees and graceful gardens is a wonderful way to spend a morning or afternoon. And though we appreciated Kandy, and its place in Sri Lankan life and lore, we were very ready to head off for our next destination, the “Ancient cities” area of Northern Sri Lanka.
Our first stop, was at the city of Dambulla, famous for its royal rock temples. 5 large natural caves are painted and filled with over 150 Buddha images about 1/2 km outside of town, about half-way up a small mountain. It’s a pretty spectacular sight, both the caves themselves and the views from the mountain.
Next, we headed up towards Sigiriya, with it’s oh-so-famous “rock”. Geologically, it’s a hardened magma plug of an extinct volcano; archeologically, it was both a monastery and a palace at one point. Whatever it was, it is a now atmospheric site filled with Machu Pichu style ruins, ancient wall paintings, water gardens, lush forests with squawking birds and joyful monkeys and quite a few tourists walking around. Luckily, we got there at 7am and were actually the first on the rock and had the place to ourselves for a whole 10 mins. The words “beautiful, amazing, spectacular” to describe Sri Lanka in general and Sigiriya specifically get worn out real quick, so hopefully the photos will do the places some justice.
Our accommodation there was also quite nice, and very cheap. In the afternoon of the second day, we rented 2 bikes and hiked another “rock” in the area that had some cave temples and a quite interesting sleeping Buddha. The scramble to the rock part of the hill was good fun and the view of Sigiriya was (dare i say) beautiful. After, we did a 15 km bike ride with the express wish to see elephants in the wild. We had a taste when we saw an elephant bathing in a river earlier, and wanted more. And though we didn’t see elephants on the bike trip, we got to see peacocks in the wild, snakes, 2 types of monkeys, monitor lizards, buffalo, pheasants and a bunch of birds-really very interesting.
The plan was to leave the next morning to Anuradhapura, another former capital of Sri Lanka with ruins, temples, etc…and in fact we were on the bus back to Dambulla to transfer to a bus to Anuradhapura when we decided we needed (last second-style) some more beach time. So, we jumped on a bus bound for the east coast beach of Nilaveli, near Trincomalee. The east coast was hit hard by both the 2004 tsunami and civil war, still evidenced by tons of soldiers walking around with AKs and quite a few police check points. The beaches are what you’d expect in this part of the world, white sand, turquoise water (though rough this time of year). The hotel was nice and cheap, with almost no one there and the food was very good. We spent a couple days lounging on the beach, eating our last curries and drinking our last lions (great Sri Lankan beer).
We decided to take an overnight train back to Colombo, which left from Trincomalee, so we spent the afternoon visiting this very interesting city. We spent a bit of time on a quite interesting beach, backing up to the back of a bunch of buildings, kids and dogs roaming around and staring at us. Next we walked to the Portuguese/Dutch fort area, which is now heavily guarded, houses a lot of military buildings, and both a Buddhist and Hindu temple. The fort is pretty amazing, with thick ramparts, centuries old buildings, beautiful, sprawling old trees and deer walking around. At the very back of the fort, there is a very important Hindu temple perched high on a cliff over looking the Indian ocean stretching on for infinity. If it wasn’t for all the barbed wire and military personal walking around with heavy artillery it would be a very relaxing, time-machine kind of place.
At 8pm we boarded our overnight train for Colombo. We wanted to take a 1st class train, with proper sleeping cars and bunks. Unfortunately, it was sold out (weeks ago I guess) so we had to settle for 2nd class, which should’ve been described as 10th or 30th class. Not only were the seats uncomfortable and dirty, they didn’t really recline, the lights stayed on all night and we were right next to the bathroom (the closet with a whole cut in the floor emptying on the rails). Needless to say, didn’t really sleep at all-really really makes me appreciate Japanese trains.
From Colombo we took a train to Negombo and headed back to Villa Shade, the first place we stayed at entering the country. It was almost like coming home and really made it feel as if our trip had come full circle. It really gave us time to reflect on everything we did over the past 3 weeks. I think if we would have stayed at some random place in Colombo before returning to Japan, we would’ve missed out on the closure that we felt we got by going back to a place we really fell for. Just to top off the trip also, we decided we were going to buy Nori a blue sapphire ring, Sri Lanka’s most famous gem. Just so happens that our super nice host was a gem dealer who lived in both Germany and Sri Lanka and he recommended an amazing place to buy a ring. As soon as the jeweler we went to heard that we were referred by him, we got a 25% discount. The ring is magnificent and will be a token and reminder of the wonderful country that is Sri Lanka.