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Phespirit goes to Sri Lanka
tour     February/March 2006

AROUND SRI LANKA

Map of Sri Lanka

1 Anuradhapura

From 437BC, the year of its founding, Anuradhapura quickly rose to become the pre-eminent city of Sri Lanka. It remained as such for over a thousand years until 993, when it was sacked by India.

Phespirit toured in a loop, starting with Jetavana dagoba - still the largest brick structure in the world - then headed north to Kuttam Pokuna ("Twin Baths"), east to Abhayagiri dagoba and the nearby moonstone, then south to Thuparama and Ruvanvalisaya dagoba, and lastly down to Sri Maha Bodhi - the Sacred Bo Tree.

The three biggest stupas show the three stages of restoration:

  • Abhayagiri - overgrown with trees and grass;
  • Jetavana - clean and intact but undecorated;
  • Ruvanvalisaya - restored, plastered and whitewashed.

It's archaeology on a massive scale.

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2 Aukana

Whereas the likes of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa can boast a range of monuments strewn over many hectares, Aukana just has the one enormous Buddha.

Standing an impressive 12m tall, it was sculpted from one lump of gneiss rock in the 5th century AD.

Phespirit stood at its feet, photographed it, wandered around for a bit, then took tea with the monk who runs the adjacent school.

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3 Habarana

In the 'Cultural Triangle' at the heart of Sri Lanka the key locations are Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya, Dambulla and Kandy.

Habarana is an unremarkable village in the midst of these greater attractions. Its one big asset is 'The Lodge' hotel, where Phespirit holed-up for a few nights in extreme comfort - an ideal jumping-off point for all the above.

Any sights in Habarana itself? None, unless the two-metre Water Monitor in the river by the entrance to The Lodge can be counted.

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4 Sigiriya

If Phespirit had only one day in Sri Lanka and could visit only one place and could see only one thing he would have chosen - would still choose - Sigiriya.

Consider: the ruins of a mediæval citadel built on a rock that rises 200m above the surrounding plains; a stairway between the claws of a gigantic stone lion; the mirror wall; the voluptuous frescoes; a vast landscaped complex of gardens, baths and fountains - fifteen hundred years old and still utterly spectacular.

Phespirit got to the top ..... and his camera battery expired.

He fell into despair.

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5 Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa became the capital of Sri Lanka almost a thousand years ago and remained as such for two centuries. Eight hundred years on it has been reduced to a fabulous collection of scattered ruins. For Phespirit, it was the most enjoyable place to explore in the entire country.

After a look around the museum he headed off to Potgal Vihara at the southern extreme, then meandered all the way back up to the glorious frescoed image house of Tivanka-Patamaghara, drowning under scaffolding in the far north. Phespirit was surprised that the Buddha statues of the Gal Vihara appeared so small, but perhaps this was an illusion created by viewing them immediately after the Ranhot Vihara - a colossal stupa shaped like a German helmet.

Phespirit's only regret - omitting to visit the Lankatilakah complex.

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6 Dambulla

There are five cave temples situated halfway up a 160m rock face 2km outside Dambulla. Each one of them is crammed to capacity with Buddha statues.

Only two of the five caves contain Buddhas carved in situ from the temples' own rock. The other statues are variously made of wood, brick, plaster, lime and cement. It's the quantity and location that makes them special.

Outside the caves, champion views are to be had across the lush plains below. Monkeys caper about all over the place.

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7 Kandy

The centrepiece of Kandy is the 'Temple of the Tooth'. This large complex contains Sri Lanka's most sacred relic: a tooth reputedly retrieved from the funeral pyre of the Buddha himself. Pilgrims and tourists swarm all over the site but none may gaze upon the tooth itself. Indeed, the temple monks guard the tooth so jealously that only once each year will they even deign to parade a replica of the tooth around Kandy.

Phespirit was surprised that such a precious tooth would be kept in so sugary-sounding a place. Do they not worry about decay?

(ahem)

For panoramic photographs of the Temple of the Tooth built by the shores of Kandy lake, plus the rest of the city and its surrounding hills: head up to "Arthur's Seat".

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8 Pinnewala

Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage is the big draw.

Elephants are admired for their size, strength and intelligence, but in truth it's the babies that everyone loves to see: small, weak and stupid. At the orphanage visitors can observe about fifty elephants roaming freely around the river and plains, with just a modicum of handler supervision. More dubious is the display of bottle-feeding, in which four of the elephants are chained to a concrete floor in an open-sided covered paddock surrounded by gawping tourists. The elephants enjoy their bottles but aren't so keen on the chains.

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9 Gampola

In theory, the train journey from Kandy to Gampola should take a mere thirty minutes. In practice, it took Phespirit over three times as long. His train sweltered at Peradeniya Junction for almost an hour, apparently due to a wagon train shedding its cargo of timber further up the line. Not unfeasible, given that Phespirit had noticed a trackside sign warning drivers: Speed 15km/h Weak Sleeper.

Gampola is a middle-sized town in the middle of nowhere. Having arrived all hot and rattled, Phespirit quickly headed for the hills.

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10 Nuwara Eliya

Pitching up at Nuwara Eliya in the late afternoon, Phespirit had to rush around town with indecent haste simply to gain a superficial overview of the place before sundown.

He walked around the outside of Victoria Park, admired the pretty red-brick post office, wandered up New Bazaar Street, through the covered Central Market, along Bandaranayaka Mawatha, popped into Cargills supermarket, and ended up at St Xavier's Church.

The entire floor of St Xavier's Church has been dug out and a sign put up to announce that the 6000sqft of space will cost 4,200,000 rupees to renovate. A fund-raising campaign demands 700 rupees per sqft in sponsorship ..... they have a long way to go.

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11 Ella

Phespirit stopped to stretch his legs and snap a few photographs at the exotically green village of Ella.

South of Ella he photographed the Rawana Ella waterfalls. Whilst there, he bought some quartz, tourmaline, and mica crystals from a roadside seller. Another seller instantly attempted to muscle in on the transaction, offering his own rose quartz and agate stones as a 'gift' (i.e. as a prelude to the tediously elaborate extraction of money). Phespirit politely but firmly declined, yet was persistently pestered to take them. When eventually he did, the seller chased Phespirit up the road crying out for cash. He got nought.

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12 Kataragama

The single lingering regret from Phespirit's trip around Sri Lanka is that he departed Kataragama without visiting its greatest centre of pilgrimage, the Sacred Precinct; not for the evening festivities that start at 7:00pm 'Pooja Time', nor during the hours of daylight.

He was simply too knackered for the former, and too disorganised for the latter. A bit pathetic all round, really.

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13 Yala National Park

Phespirit went on safari at Yala National Park and saw:

Elephants, Sri Lankan Leopard, Water Buffalo, Sambar Deer, Spotted Deer, Wild Boar, Grey Langurs, Mongoose, a Black-necked Hare, Crocodiles, Land Monitors, Indian Peafowl, Sri Lanka Junglefowl, Crested Serpent Eagle, other eagle types, Malabar Pied Hornbills, Open-billed Storks, Cattle Egrets, Red-wattled Lapwings, Yellow-wattled Lapwings, Grey-necked Crows, Spotted Doves, Green Bee-eaters, Blue-tailed Bee-eaters and Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters.

Everybody hopes to see the leopards so Phespirit was pleased to get a clear view of one at sunset. The strangest sight was a cloud of white butterflies all migrating to Adam's Peak to die ..... why?

As the park is located on the east coast it seemed fair to assume that hundreds of animals must have been lost to the tsunami - but not so. Park wardens reported seeing animals and birds all fleeing in one direction, away from the sea, before the initial wave struck. It was the first the wardens knew that something was wrong. The wildlife escaped, but sadly not all the people were so fortunate.

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14 Lellopitiya

It is a long drive from Kataragama to Kalutara, so Phespirit broke the journey at Lellopitiya.

He bought a chocolate Swiss roll for forty rupees at the Silver Ray pastry bar. It was tasty.

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15 Kalutara

Seated on the first-floor balcony of his cabana at the Golden Sun Resort in Kalutara, Phespirit looked out to the where the sea met the sand, just a short distance before him, and considered - what would he do if it withdrew for a mile and then thundered back as a colossal wave that towered twenty feet above his head?

He looked around. The only clear option would be to make a dash for the four-storey hotel a little way behind him. Palm trees dotted around the edge of the beach would probably survive the wave, but would offer scant protection for Phespirit's feeble flesh and bones.

In 2004, Kalutara was hit by the Boxing Day tsunami. The ground and first floors of the Golden Sun Resort were completely flooded. Nobody had ever seen anything like it. How could they know what to do? How could anybody on this coast have known what to do?

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16 Galle

On the train from Kalutara to Galle, a local man told Phespirit not to restrict his sightseeing to just the old Dutch Fort area because "it is not our history". Well intentioned counsel, but Phespirit is a European and, as such, the colonial era is his history .....

So, after a swift look around St Mary's Cathedral, Phespirit spent his time wandering around the Fort. The Meeran Jumma Mosque was particularly interesting - a modern building that stands on the site of a Portuguese cathedral, built in Portuguese Baroque style. Unexpectedly, Phespirit was greeted inside by a small delegation of Muslim elders - charming and hospitable people.

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17 Colombo

There's nothing especially outstanding about Colombo but, as it is the country's modern-day capital city, it has to be seen.

The most interesting area is the ultra-high security zone between the 'World Trade Centre' towers and the quays to the north, which incorporates the clocktower, the lighthouse, the elevated stupa on crossed arches, and the President's Palace.

Frustratingly, high security means no photography allowed.

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  1. Anuradhapura
  2. Aukana
  3. Habarana
  4. Sigiriya
  5. Polonnaruwa
  6. Dambulla
  7. Kandy
  8. Pinnewala
  9. Gampola
  10. Nuwara Eliya
  11. Ella
  12. Kataragama
  13. Yala National Park
  14. Lellopitiya
  15. Kalutara
  16. Galle
  17. Colombo
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Anuradhapura Aukana Habarana Sigiriya Polonnaruwa Dambulla Kandy Pinnewala Gampola Nuwara Eliya Ella Kataragama Yala National Park Lellopitiya Kalutara Galle Colombo