From Kandy we went on to Rangala, a guest house in the tea growing hill country behind Kandy.
The minivan colecting us was late, stuck in traffic. When we phoned to see what was happening we were told that the van was not leaving until four o’clock, despite our previously having agreed two o’clock. We feared a rerun of Fawlty Towers, but need not have worried, the van was genuinely stuck in traffic, and while the road up was wet and slippy in the rain – at one point the driver touching his good luck wreath as the van slid and skidded round a corner, we got there, the fire was lit, and there was hot tea and ginger biscuits.
The rain even held off a little, which was heartening as we had planned to go walking during our stay.
The next morning the sky was almost clear with a stunning view down the valley back to Kandy with the sun glistening on rice paddies below.
The walk itself was a fairly simple one up through the tea estates and women picking tea, past informal Hindu shrines up to the top of the hill where there should have been a view, but there wasn’t as the weather began to close in again and we made a hurried descent.
The tea pickers are all descendants of Tamil workers imported by the British, and quite distinct from both the Tamils in the north who have been there for several hundred years and the surrounding Sinhala population who are all Buddhist (except for those that Christian missionaries got to.)
It’s quite noticeable when you’re in a Tamil area – the roadside shrines with images of Buddha are replaced with statues of Ganesh, and sometimes other members of the Hindu pantheon, and out in the fields you come across little informal shrines, this time with lignams not Buddhas.
Interestingly, in Christian areas, statues of the saints appear in roadside shrines, just the same as happens with Buddha or Ganesh – a collision of tradition and belief.
That afternoon it rained. However it did stop long enough to walk down the road to a handloom factory where people were weaving cotton cloth of incredible delicacy by hand in a non descript shed. The looms looked like the traditional tweed looms used in the Western Isles of Scotland and the factory was probably not that different from a pre industrial revolution workshop.
On the way back our guide gave us an impromptu botany lesson, identifying various spice plants growing wild at the roadside, including coffee bushes – a legacy of the British attempt to start a coffee industry. In fact if it wasn’t for coffee blight in the 1870’s, the hills would probably be covered in coffee trees, not tea bushes.
The next day we’d planned a longer walk up over the watershed to the next tea estate and down that estate to the main road and back.
The walk was quite leechy, and just before we got to the watershed and the boundary between the two estates the heavens opened, and we retreated back down the slope. The tea workers obviously also thought it too wet to work and were huddled under little shelters of plastic sheeting waiting to see if the rain would pass.
The original plan had been to go to a tea factory that afternoon. In fact it was so wet we didn’t and were rather glad when the guy who was going to take us phoned to apologise that he’d had a flat and was delayed while he had it repaired.
While we enjoyed our time, by this time the wet was getting to us and were rather glad to move on to Habarana.
Habarana and the ancient cities …
Habarana is nothing special, a road junction, a railway station and a town, but it is in the middle of a roughly triangular area that includes Sigiriya, Polunaruwa, Dambulla and Anandrhapura, the prime historical sites of Sri Lanka.
We didn’t make it to Anandrhapura and only drove past Dambulla, but we did visit both Polunaruwa and climb Sigiriya.
Polunaruwa is a vast ruin of a city bounded by an artificial lake to one side, littered with magnificent ruined buildings and sculptures. As always when visiting ruins significant on someone else’s culture you do tend to lack context and it does tend to retreat into hot dry incomprehensuble spectacle, which I’m afraid Polunaruwa did for us.
That said it is well worth a visit for the sculpture alone, but it’s also a good idea to take a decent guidebook and read up on things first. There are guides available but they don’t relly tell you much, and if you are interested in the culture you are probably better going on your own with a guide book. Take plenty of water and if you have hired a van to get there ask your driver to take you to the reclining Buddha and to the other sites at the far end of the lake.
After Habarana we visited Sigiriyaa quite remarkable 200m high rock in the middle of Sri Lanka with substantial arachaeological remains on top of it, we hired a guide at the suggestion of our driver. The guide turned out to be fairly useless and intent on telling us about how many concubines the king had and how the monks didn’t like pictures of naked ladies, rather than the history of the place.
To climb the rock you have to clime a set of steep steps and narrow iron staircases, which is moderately challenging, and at the top you get a magnificent view. Other than the frescoes and the view there’s not a lot that is visually appealing but it’s something that everyone should do once.
The day we climbed Sigiriya it was the Saturday of Poson Poya weekend, the full moon festival that marks the arrival of Bhuddism in Sri Lanka and one that’s especially popular with the people in the area around Habarana, which meant that Sigiriya was busy with local tourists cimbing the rock and consequently rather crowded, if you are at all claustrophobic or worried about heights you might want to visit on a non poya day.
And then suddenly it was our last non-travel day in Sri Lanka.
And we decided to chill. It was warm, sunny, and the hotel we were staying at was part of the same chain that had a resort at Trincomalee so we negotiated for a free pass to use the private beach, hired a car and headed to the beach for a day – Chaaya Blue (hotel) in Uppeveli is the place to be in this season as it’s not monsoon there – hot, dry, laid back, interesting -it also has a crab restaurant called, surprisingly ‘Crab’, and the crab cakes are good. Wonderful to swim in the sea again – the first time since Mirissa. We saw some reminders of the war in Trinco itself – a burned out tank, and the presence of military checkpoints everywhere.
Trinco itself was shut for poya, but did go to Fort Frederic, which is a massive military fort still partly used by the Sri Lankan army where photography is restricted, but you can visit on the pretext of visiting the Hindu temple on the point.
Interestingly the fort also conatins it’s own herd of deer, which are looked after by the soldiees. Trinco has a history as British naval base, and while there are no obvious remains of the British presence we did learn afterwards that Charles Austen, Jane Austen’s brother, and Percy Molesworth the astronomer and one time British military surveyor are buried in Trinco.
The next day it was back to Colombo wher it was, predictably, wet. The best thing was the Galle Face Hotel where we stayed – an old edifice dating from 1864 and facing the Indian ocean, where you can see a lovely sunset if there is one. We saw a storm coming in instead.
We lucked out and had an upgrade to one of the ocean rooms as the hotel was in the midst of being renovated.
The towers all round the hotel are manned with soldiers with very large machine guns trained out to sea – quite disquieting when you are swimming in the pool to look up and see groups of armed soldiers on te rooftop of the neighbouring tower block – they probably don’t want a repeat of the Mumbai attack of 2009.
Armed soldiers are everywhere in Colombo, and the old parliament building, which looks like a smaller tawny version of the State Parliament building in Melbourne is surrounded by a security fence. In fact a whole lot of the old government area is out of bounds behind security cordons.
One thing we did do in Colombo is visit the Dutch House museum, the old Dutch governor’s residence in the Fort. The museum is down a side street and it’s probably best to get a tuk tuk to take you, and has a slightly lost and desolate air.
What it does give you however is a sense of just how extensive the Dutch East India Company’s involvement with Sri Lanka was, down to the cases full of duits picked up in the fort.
After that it was home via Singapore – a long drive in traffic out to the airport, endless security checks and the joy of a 1 am flight to Singapore.
While we were in Habarana we’d had a reasonable choice of English language channels on TV, and in among adverts for the Lovely Professional University in Punjab (Google it, it really exists) and Windows phones from Nokia (India is one of teh last Nokia holdouts) we’d had the opportunity to see some news and had discovered that Singapore was blanketed in smog – the Haze – caused by burning forests to clear land for palm oil plantations in Indonesia.
When we landed the air was reasonably clear, and on the way to the hotel the cabbie told us it had rained really heavily the night before and cleared the air so that it was now back to the high end of normal.
After an overnight flight we crashed for a couple of hours, went shopping, had an incredibly overpriced drink in Raffles hotel on the balcony overlooking the street and meal in a japanese restaurant and crashed again.
The next morning the air was still clear so we set out on the MRT to visit the Singapore zoo to see the big cats. What we failed to realise was that (a) we’d turned up on the fortieth anniversary of the zoo’s foundation and (b) it was school holidays so everyone was taking their kids to the zoo as the air was clear.which wasn’t such a good idea because it was the zoo’s 40th birthday and school holidays and every Singaporean child was being taken to see giraffes, giant mole-rats and kangaroos, so we stood in a hot queue for an hour. The Sumatran tigers we remembered from last time were all gone, replaced by a grumpy white one.
A singapore sling in Raffles Hotel is a tourist cliché, and a bit of fun. People get their pictures taken there by the waiters. A satay at Lau Pa Sat food hall was more a genuine Singaporean experience, though these days it’s surrounded by skyscrapers, and then it was back to a chilly Canberra winter …
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