Back in India

The flight was very pleasant and the free internet at Colombo airport was welcome. For those with a laptop/PSP/whatever using the airport, don’t head for the internet cafe. You’ll have to pay 200 Rupees per hour to access there. Instead, walk towards gates 4-12 and spot the posh lounges on the right and left. All of them have free internet and you don’t have to go inside to pick up the signal. You should get a couple of bars by sitting outside.

Unlike the inbound flight from Mumbai, we left dot on time and with nowhere near the amount of stringent security. Despite the minimal flight time – around 40 minutes airborne – we got a very tasty meal (some kind of veggie wrap, yoghurt and apple juice). Hans didn’t even have time to fall asleep, we arrived so quickly! Trivandrum, here we are!

On the ground, luggage was offloaded very swiftly, but for some reason someone was taking it off the carousel and piling it in one corner. Weird. We also once again came across the Indian philosphy that the closer you queue, the faster the line moves. Hans and I were near the front of the immigration line and were leaving the polite gap between ourselves and the person being dealt with – maybe four feet. The guy behind kept jabbing our elbows and pointing forward as if he was sure someone would leap into the gap and delay him. Needless to say, no people materialised from thin air, though the time we took to walk those four feet could well have cost him a valuable two seconds.

This must still rank as one of the fastest non-domestic airport departures of all time. From the on-time flight to walking out the destination gate and into a paid taxi couldn’t have taken more than 80 minutes! We were at our hotel (Hotel Ganesh) shortly after 21:30 where the rather abrupt clerk on the desk checked us in. The room’s passable enough but there are a gazillion mosquitoes around as the night progresses.

One bonus was free wireless. Someone nearby seems to have a nice broadband connection that they’ve left insecure, although it logged itself out in the early hours of the morning, so I’ll have to wait for them to log in again before I can download more MP3s. Very kindly, they’ve even left their router with the default – and stupidly easy-to-guess – username and password so it’s easy to check once they’re back home and online.

I sat up nattering to friends on MSN till gone 3am when I sat in bed and read. The “new” Pratchett is coming along nicely, and Hans is barreling through the copy of Airport I finished recently.

It’s very humid here, but finally I zonked out after covering myself liberally with anti-insect spray.

Around Colombo… and off!

Our last day in Sri Lanka and it was supposed to be a fairly busy one. We got up fairly early and packed before Nigel arrived with his tuk-tuk to drive us around the city for a few hours.

First port of call was the post office to mail postcards and a package Hans had. This proved to be more awkward that it could have been as Hans’ wrapping paper wasn’t “strong enough” for the postal clerk. So we popped next door, bought some tape and mummified the package. Only the stamps apparently wouldn’t stick to the tape, so we’d have to re-wrap it. Back to another shop to buy wrapping paper (which was about the same thickness as the stuff the box was already wrapped in) and finally Hans was allowed to purchase about 3 square feet of stamps to clag on to his parcel.

The postcards were simply franked – no stamps. My apologies to the handful of you who get them and were hoping for a nice SL stamp!

Our next stop was the museum. This was to be a brief stop – Nigel reckoned on 45 minutes – but ended up being closer to 45 seconds. As we got out of the tuk-tuk, one of the staff waved to indicate the museum was shut. We still don’t know why, but we ended up going to the beach instead.

It’s hard to believe that somewhere as bustling as Colombo is actually on the coast and has a fairly passable beach. The sand’s quite large rather than the fine stuff further south, but the water is clean and there are enough people walking up and down and fishing to give it some character. Just over the train lines is the hectic city centre, but the sounds are muffled by the small distance and you could be a world away.

For lunch, we went to McD’s as is becomign traditional. Each country has their own foodstuffs that need to be perused and Sri Lanka was no different. I had a McSpicy – which was nowhere near as McSpicy as Singapore’s version – while Hans had a McFill, which was basically a chicken masalla in some kind of bread. Nice, though.

Nigel reckoned we’d need to allow up to two hours to get to the airport as the roads keep getting closed for security reasons. Not wanting to be late, we agreed with him and he said his brother-in-law would collect us at around 3:30. This would get us there in more than enough time for our flight, but after the queues at Mumbai, we weren’t taking any chances.

Enough time was left to make full use of Mala’s now working broadband. Tickets were checked, emails perused, blogs updated, photos sent and friends chatted to before we had time for one last cup of tea. Unfortunately, Gilbert had had to go out, so we didn’t get to say “goodbye” to him, but Mala waved us off.

I’m typing this up at the airport where I’ve found a wireless connection and am toying with paying for an hour’s use. It’s only 200SLR (about a pound), but I’m most impressed by the options page asking how many “internet suffering hours” I want… I’m assuming they mean “surfing” but you never know.

So, what have we learned about Sri Lanka while we’ve been here? Well, for a start, a week is not enough. If you ever visit, allow at least two weeks, preferably three. You get a 30-day tourist visa on entry and that would give you plenty of time to see everything without rushing around. The country has a wealth of history, a lot of character and some lovely people. Anyone who’s found India too much hard going due to the huge number of people should definitely consider island-hopping down here. The climate’s rather hot all year round, but in the hill country it gets nice and cool in the evening.

The people remind me of the Nigerians I’ve met. Not the ones who seem to make a bad habit of mislaying multi-million dollar sums and then ask for my help in retrieving it, but the good hard-working ones who are constantly asking what you think of their country. Sri Lankans want more tourists – they’re not daft, they know it’s a great source of income for their country. But they’re also proud of what they have, and rightly so. For a small country, it’s got a lot of history. Watching Mala pointing things out, and Gilbert showing us videos of processions and so on it’s hugely obvious that these two people alone want to show their nation off to as many people as possible.

Talking of our kind hosts, another huge “thank you” to them both for their time and effort in making our stay that much easier and cheaper.

We also noticed that a huge number of Russians visit Sri Lanka for some reason. Maybe it’s just well-advertised over there. We have also come up with a theory that only attractive Russians are given permission to leave their country, which would explain the fact that every woman we’ve seen hailing from the former USSR is at the very least hugely attractive. I guess the idea is to encourage people to visit their country. This plan would be foolproof were it not for the nightmare procedures they have in place to get a tourist visa.

Well, now to sit and wait for our flight. Next update, back in India!

Bussing it

Our recommendation from the hotel manager was to get the bus to Colombo rather than the train. Instead of rushing to get the 10:00 (or was it 10:20? Opinions varied) train, we dawdled a little over breakfast and chatted for a while with a delightful Aussie called Dion.

The aforementioned manager drove us into town for 150SLR and dropped us at the bus queue for the Colombo express. Ten minutes later he whizzed past with Dion waving at us as she headed for a different bus. In good time our coach appeared and for 160SLR each, we endured the 3-hour cocktail mixer to Colombo. I swear the guy next to me was getting rather annoyed with my sleepy head landing on his shoulder by the time he disembarked on the outskirts.

Once there, we decided just to get a tuk-tuk straight to Mala and Gilbert’s. Our first driver started the pricing at 550 Rupees so we told him to shove it – we’d paid 250 the other day for much the same journey. Apparently, according to Mala, this was a very good price. As locals they usually pay 350! We argued him as low as 450 (“Good price – come!”;”No, 250 good price. 450 very bad price!”) before turning our backs to try our luck elsewhere. One of his companions instead collared us and offered the journey for 300. Sold to the man with the tan.

Then we found out, about 45 minutes later, that he was new in Colombo and didn’t really know where he was going. He got us to the ballpark area and then spent 15 minutes going around in circles until we found another driver who knew the street. In fairness, the guy never gave up and always asked – and he was honest about Colombo being fairly new to him. Seeing as he’d offered us a good price in the first place, we paid him 400 for his honesty. See how those “give money now” people from the Tooth Temple could benefit?

Mala and Gilbert were out when we got back so we sat outside and ate cheesy biscuits. One of the staff brought us some coconut milk and the dog gradually learned that we weren’t trying to kill it. By the time our hosts returned home, the pooch was our best friend. In fact he’d tried to get intimate with Hans on a couple of occasions, but (I’m glad to say) had been rebuffed at each attempt.

The rest of the day was spent eating, drinking, catching up on blogs, reading and receiving some guests. Four people Hans worked with at the Asia Games came from Sri Lanka, and three of them from Colombo. Two managed to pop over this evening to say “hello” and – small world – the girl’s father and Gilbert share some acquaintances.

All very civilised, we had a nice chat for an hour or so before they had to leave. The two kids are in school and that means a 5am rise in Sri Lanka for a 6:30am start! They very kindly brought Hans cards from the two who couldn’t make it, and a traditional Sri Lankan devil mask painted in bright colours for him to scare children back home in Canada with.

Tomorrow we do a whistle-stop tour of Colombo before our flight to Trivandrum. A week is not long enough in Sri Lanka. Bear this in mind in case you’re thinking of visiting!

Cultural Triangle

I’m not sure what woke us first – the alarm clock or the beep of the horn outside. True to his promise of “between 6:00 and 6:30” our guide arrived at 6:15. Evil man.

Our chariot was a large van with very soft suspension that felt like a bouncy castle mounted on a bath of jelly going down some of the roads outside Kandy. We had a very short breakfast stop around 7:30 and then Hans and I attempted to sleep as we drove to Sigiriya. We were aided by our heads being slammed off the sides of the van with each bump. In effect, we slept. In real terms, we were knocked unconscious.

Sigiriya is one of the ancient cities of Sri Lanka and a feature part of the Cultural Triangle. It’s $US20 to get in ($US40 for a Triangle Ticket) – or the equivalent in Rupees. In fact, they only accept Rupees though the local currency is linked to the dollar. This posed a problem as Hans didn’t have enough and paying for both our tickets wiped me out financially. The Triangle Tickets we got allow entrance to Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa and a half-dozen or so other sites. They cost the same as the combined entrance to the two cities, so are worth the fee. They’re also valid for 14 days from the date you start using them, so it’s possible to buy them in advance somewhere and spread your touring out over a fortnight.

Given that the city is around 1500 years old, it’s forgiveable that much of it lies in ruins, though these have been very well excavated and tidied up. Metal stairs have been bolted to the rock face allowing easy access to the heights for those who don’t suffer vertigo. It’s a heck of a climb!

The first obstacle to get past, though, is the huge crowd of “very good” guides who throng around the entrance and even tail to inside once you’ve said “no” a dozen times. One of them kept walking around with us until Hans eventually asked, simply, “Who are you?” at which point he took the hint and left us alone.

On the way up the rock face, there are frescoes of ancient paintings in remarkably good condition for their age (5th century) despite some numpty vandalising a few of them in the 1960’s. Of the 500+ original portraits, 22 remain and it’s staggering how new they look.

Above these is a level area where you can stop and rest and feel the first of the breezes that help reduce the temperature. I’m glad we did this tour fairly early in the day – at lunchtime the heat would have been ridiculous. On this platform are a pair of huge carved lion’s paws discovered in 1898 and thought to date back to the 5th Century with the rest of the older remains. Originally, the steps between these paws led into a carved mouth, but this has sadly decayed over the years. The paws themselves are in fantastic condition.

So up we climbed. The stairs are very narrow in places and quite steep. The view from the top is well worth the climb. I didn’t count, but I’ve been told there are 1200 steps plus a final two right at the top of the topmost platform (which resembles a helipad) if you want to make sure you can claim to have reached the utmost summit.

This is one of the best views I have seen anywhere. In fact, it’s so good it doesn’t look real. With the slight haze in the air, it gave the impression of being a painting hung up to fool tourists. As ever, my photos just don’t do the real thing justice.

I ended up with a new friend when one of the stray dogs (how it got up there I don’t want to know) kept following me around. I suppose it was really my fault for feeding him small bits of ginger biscuits. Well, he looked hungry.

The clamber down didn’t take too long – a good thing with the heat starting to build up. Running the gauntlet of souvenir sellers (“Look! Magic Box! Try and open – you like!”) we met up again with our driver and chatted with him as we drove to lunch. It turns out he was a soldier in his youth so he kept peppering Hans with random questions about modern guns. When he tired of that, he asked questions about Canada. I sat in the back and read books. Some things don’t change, no matter how much older you get.

Lunch was lovely, in a very pleasant restaurant with a lakeside view around thirty minutes from Polonnaruwa. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the name of the place but their chicken omelette was lovely and fluffy!

After letting our food settle, we stopped at the first of several points within the ancient capital of Polonnaruwa. This city is over 1000 years old and a lot of the ruins are still standing, minus their roofs. We made about five stops in the area, taking in buildings, statues, carvings, monuments and a rather good museum. All of this was included with the Cultural Triangle ticket so after lunch we had no further outlay until we got back into Kandy.

There are many more sites of interest around the area, but we simply didn’t have time. Instead, at around 5pm, we began to head back towards Kandy with our driver slamming the anchors on suddenly to point out “fox!” or “bee-eating bird!”. He certainly knew his stuff.

With a quick stop for snacks at a town about 90 minutes away from the city, we made our way back. Today was a full moon and therefore a public holiday for religious reasons. All the Buddhist temples we passed were busy, with lights and torches burning. Our driver seemed to be struggling to stay awake, so we kept him talking right until we got back to the hotel.

The walk into town was a welcome chance to stretch our legs after over four hours of travel and we managed to catch an internet cafe before it shut. Then over the street to Pizza Hut. Everywhere else was closed, and we only just caught this place before they locked up. Besides, you can’t complain at a meal for two for £2.50 including drinks, starter and dessert.

Hephalump Kandy

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.