Yawning and stretching at 6am, we were fed by our kind hosts and bundled into the car for the long drive out to the Hill Country region. Our first stop was to pick up another passenger – a small Sri Lankan boy, one of Mala’s nephews. We said “hello” and then promptly fell asleep. Well, it was early.
During the trip Mala passed around some fresh pineapple and we stopped for a quick drink just outside Pinnewala. A few minutes later we drove into the small town and hopped out to stretch our legs properly.
Pinnewala is the home of the longest-running elephant orphanage in Sri Lanka, also the largest. It’s a huge tourist attraction and a real chance to get close to a load of these wonderful animals. All are allowed fairly free range, except a couple of “naughty” elephants which are hobbled with lengths of chain as they have caused problems in the past (I assume chasing tourists and the like – Indy will know all about this, having been pursued by a baby elephant when he was about seven – he will never be allowed to forget this incident).
In all, there are over 60 elephants in the orphanage. Lots of them are teeny and rather cute. Of these, a handful have been born in the sanctuary while others are rescued from the wild and “adopted” by older elephants – quite a common thing for elephants to do in the wild when a mother dies. They have quite a complex social structure involving aunties and stepmums.
It costs 1000SRP (Sri Lankan Rupees) to get in, which is twice the price listed in the Lonely Planet we have. Having said that, feeding 60+ elephants and their handlers can’t be cheap! Twice a day they’re marched down to the river and the ticket has five “notches” on it – centre, river, centre, river and centre again. So if you stay all day, your ticket is punched five times as you walk back and forth between the two zones.
Bathtime is predictable fun, and the elephants all behave differently. Some of the older ones just lie down in the water and let tourists (or other elephants) splash water on them. Younger ones frolic, pubescent ones play-fight on the far bank, ruder ones sniff each other’s privates. Tourists and elephants alike are kept watch of closely by the mahouts as these are still large, unpredictable animals. I don’t know how many people have been hurt in the past, but a tourist stepping out of line is very quickly shouted at and surrounded before anything happens.
As an aside, there was a gaggle of Russian tourists at the centre and not one of the women was unattractive. I’ll be contacting a travel agent regarding flights to Moscow soon.
We stayed there for almost two hours in the baking sun before packing cameras away and going back to the car for the last stint into Kandy itself. On the way we stopped for Mala to pick up some red bananas for us to try. Just the skin is red, the fruit still the nice sweet yellow type we’re familiar with but they do look rather unusual.
Kandy was another hour or so away, and Gilbert dropped us off near the Temple of the Tooth. His parting gift was to attempt to drive over my ankle, though in fairness this was an accident and he did reverse pretty sharpish when I started yelling. No damage done! Kids, this is why you should exercise and drink plenty of milk. You never know when a 4×4 will start to drive up your leg.
After trying to ring a hotel that Hans had noted (it was engaged – the guy’s jinxed when it comes to making calls), we agreed to get in a taxi with a local who said he’d take us to where we were looking. That took some convincing, though, as he wouldn’t shut up about another hotel.
Shortly, it appeared that he was telling the truth, though. The hotel we’d originally gone for was miles outside of the town. Reluctantly, we asked him to take us to another one we picked from Lonely Planet. Instead, he took us to the one he’d been going on about before. Grr. We had a look around and thought “sod it” and dumped our bags.
The Lake Round was OK for the 1200SRP quoted, if a little rough around the edges. Less than ten minutes’ walk to the temple and with a decent, hot shower. We signed up for a night and picked another place in the Lonely Planet to try for the next night, which also did tours.
This was Expediter, where we met a very nice chap and his father in law. He spent a good while going over all the 1-day tours he could offer us and we settled on a nice, full day: 6:30am to 8:00pm and covering some major points of the Cultural Triangle, a collection of sites bundled together by the government and “sold” as a package. Our fee was $US75 for a driver and vehicle, and we had to pay for our lunch and tickets on top. This wasn’t a bad fee, in fairness, and we agreed – and to take one of their rooms for the following night as they were much nicer than the hotel we were in. And cheaper!
In town, we settled on KFC for dinner before checking our email and then visiting the Temple of the Tooth (Sri Dalada Maligawa). This gets it name fromt he relic of Buddha – a tooth rescued from his funeral pyre – that’s allegedly stored there. You can’t see the tooth – just a locked door behind which is a casket inside of which the tooth supposedly lies. There’s always the chance that the tooth’s stored somewhere even safer and in secret, especially as the temple has been the target of Tamil terrorist attacks in the past.
It was a nice visit, in all, making a change from the temples in India we’d been at. It’s also very different from the Buddhist temples I saw in Thailand and the pagodas in Vietnam. There are two baggage/security checks before you get into the temple proper and a 500SRP entry fee (plus 150SRP to use a camera). One very helpful man kept wandering around us repeating the entry fee to us, presumably hoping for a tip as he’d saved us reading it from the smegging big sign on the wall.
There is a fair bit to see inside. As we were there in the evening, we couldn’t see the “Tusker museum” – devoted to an elephant which served the temple for decades – but instead had music being played as a ceremony took place. Outside, many oil-filled candles were being lit and crowds lined up to pray in front of the little door that the tooth is hidden behind.
We spent an enjoyable hour or so wandering about and then Hans had a “discussion” with the people who had been minding our shoes outside. Of course, being a temple, shoe (and headgear) removal is a requirement for entry. Also, covering shoulders and legs. Hans had brought a sarong which one of the guards kindly tied onto him in the traditional style – very tightly! When we stooped to retrieve our shoes, a cupped hand was thrust barely 4 inches from our noses and a voice said “Give me money!”
Hans’ reply was a simple “It doesn’t work like that!” and he walked off. The staff member looked somewhat less than gruntled. We tried explaining that “Please may I have a tip” would get better results, but our advice fell on deaf ears and the staff went moneyless from us, though not from another tourist who was enquiring how much the usual tip was (“Hundred!” being the initial reply – and I think the fool paid it).
In case anyone from the temple reads this, here’s an idea – pop a big bowl up near the shoes. Above it, mount a sign which reads in several languages: “A tip would be appreciated. Thank you very much”. I think you’d find a lot more people would be happy to donate if they weren’t rudely pestered.
Our next stop was the first actual bar/pub I’ve seen in more weeks than I can remember… since Singapore, I think. We had a nice big bottle of Lion Beer each and then walked around the corner to the Olde Empire for some cheap food in huge portions. Hans finished the remains of my veg fried rice (the greedy bugger – although he can spellcheck like a pro).
Then up the hill to the hotel and bed for the night where my earplugs did battle with the Mighty Epiglotis of Doom that resides in Hans’ throat.