Sri Lankan Diary!
So, a brief diary of our first few days in Sri Lanka, then.
After a pretty painless flight from London to Colombo, with a two hour stop in Mumbai, we headed straight from the airport down the expressway (very new in 2012 on our last visit here but now no longer a novelty and therefore very quiet) to Colombo Fort train station.
First negotiation was for seats on the 0700 Colombo-Kandy Intercity train. Unlike the Indian railway service which offers fairly smooth advance reservations online that foreigners can access, Sri Lankan reservations can only be made from within the country. This presents a choice: pay an agent a hefty enough fee to get your tickets for you in advance or take your chances once you arrive. First and Second Class reservations sell out fairly fast, but Third Class seats are usually available on the stoping trains if not the fast ones.
First Class it was to Kandy, then. It is particularly worthwhile paying for these seats for the observational opportunities, with the rear wall turned into window for the best views of the lush hill country. Unless you sleep the whole way, which I did. Sorry not sorry.
We reached our Kandy hotel 25 hours after leaving Mummy and Daddy Tractor’s house in Suffolk; not bad I’d say. In fact, we were quicker Colombo arrivals-Kandy swimming pool than Ipswich-boarding our plane.
If you’re coming to Kandy this tour, or at any other time, you really must eat at the Kandy Muslim Hotel. It’s a restaurant right by the clock tower that serves delicious food at very low prices, the kind of place where you order an extra main course just because it was yummy and costs about £1.
Apart from a quick wander around part of the lake, it has to be said that there’s not a huge amount to do in Kandy itself. We have skipped the Temple of the Sacred Tooth on both our visits here, and after grinning and bearing a Keralan traditional dance show a few years ago, we have no inclination to compare it with its Kandyan cousin. Call us philistines if you will, but these so-called sights just don’t appeal.
We did take a half day trip to Dambullah, though, which was worthwhile. The Dambullah Cave Temples are a series of five chambers cut into the edge of a rock hillside, filled with ancient Buddhas (and I spotted one Kandyan King but with no information sources I’ve got no idea who he was) and with walls and ceilings painted with various religious depictions.
It wasn’t easy to find out how long we should expect to spend at Dambullah so for the record, 90 minutes is ample time. There’s a 20 minute uphill walk to the temples, where you do need to cover your legs and shoulders, and then 45 minutes wandering into all the caves before heading back down again. We passed on the Golden Temple: a modern, Japanese-funded building that would have added another 45 minutes to the trip. If you’ve seen Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon or any golden Thai temple, you do not need to see this thing.
As we’d ascended Sigiriya, the famous Lion Rock, six years ago we chose not to do it again. However, you could easily combine Sigiriya and Dambullah (which is en route) in one day trip from Kandy. An early departure would be recommended so as to avoid the heat while climbing. We paid R6000 for a driver to take us to Dambullah and back, with a brief stop in a Spice Garden just outside Matale on the way home.
The spice garden qualifies as ‘interesting but missable’ in the grand tourist scheme of things. I quite liked seeing some of the spice plants growing, and there were some interesting medicinal uses. But obviously there’s then the painful gift shop visit and the calculations about what counts as an acceptable tip for your ‘free tour’. I felt a bit guilty as our guide (now R200, £1, richer thanks to our, ahem, generosity) escorted us back to the car park past the group that followed us in.....about 10 Chinese with rupees to burn and a ‘free tour guide’ with dollar symbols flashing in his eyes.
As I write we’re sitting in a Third Class carriage on the slow train waiting to depart for Colombo to catch the final ODI. We’re already 40 minutes late leaving, held up in part by the difficulty in getting the locomotive of the preceding train up and running. You’ll be pleased to know that the phenomenon attracted a knot of men who stood nearby, looking at the loco, with arms folded across the chest or clasped behind the back. After twenty minutes of collective staring, the telekinetic power was sufficient to get the engines going.
Much has been said about the sense in England touring Sri Lanka during monsoon season. We had seen conflicting weather forecasts and guides before coming out here, and I don’t think it was by any means guaranteed to rain through every ODI in the schedule. That said, the crammed cricketing calendar has clearly led to less-than-ideal scheduling.
We’ve had rain every day here, but also plenty of sun. It seems predictable that each match would be rain-affected, especially in the evenings. But there are different levels of monsoon out here and this really isn’t the main season, so there’s clearly been a bit of bad luck too.
Until we clear the calendars a bit I can’t see a way around it. I’m sure the West Indians feel the same frustration when they are invited to play at Durham in May, and the rest of the world when they catch our own traditional monsoon season of a British July.
Our train has finally departed, and by the time this issue is published we will know how successful our 24 hour jaunt back to Colombo has been, and will have discovered how advisable it is to climb Adam’s Peak at 31 weeks pregnant!