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GRAND TOUR OF SRI LANKA

My May 2017 holiday

Contents

  • Introduction
  • Colombo And Galle
  • Yala National Park
  • Nuwara Eliya
  • Kandy
  • Matale And Dambulla
  • Anuradhapura And Mihintale
  • Sigiriya And Polonaruwa
  • Trincomalee
  • Conclusion

  • INTRODUCTION

    "It never required much to begin a conversation in Sri Lanka. The very air was primed for it. In a country so full of uncertainty, all life, and all death, was rehearsed through conversation."

    "This Divided Island" by Samanth Subramanian (2014)

    Top of my bucket list is the wish - so long as I have reasonable health and adequate wealth - to have visited as many countries as my age. I am 69 next month and my latest holiday is to my 70th country: the island of Sri Lanka. It is a two-week organised tour with Voyages Jules Verne. My only previous visit to the Indian sub-continent was a holiday in India and Nepal in 2003.

    Following successive colonisations by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British, in 1948 (the year of my birth) Ceylon gained its independence from Britain and, in 1972, the country was renamed Sri Lanka.

    From July 1983 to May 2009, there was a ferocious civil war with the government's military pitted against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) or Tamil Tigers who sought a separate nation for Tamils. The 26 year long war cost up to 100,000 lives. Then, in the final bloody weeks, some 40,000 non- combatants were killed in what many have classed a war crime by the Sri Lankan army. The Tamil word for the war was 'prachanai' which simply means 'the problem'.

    In preparation for my trip, I was reading "This Divided Island: Stories From The Sri Lankan War" by Samanth Subramanian and completed it on the tour [my review click here].

    Sri Lanka today is a country with a population of approaching 22 million, 75% of whom are Sinhalese who are mainly Theravada Buddhist and 15% of whom are Tamil who are mainly Hindu. Then there are Moors who comprise 9% of the population and are Tamil-speaking but Muslim.

    Sri Lanka has a parliament of 225 seats elected every five years. The island's politics is dominated by two political parties, the socialist Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the conservative United National Party (UNP). The SLFP is the main constituent of the currently ruling United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) headed since 2015 by the current President Maithripala Sinisena. He replaced the controversial Mahinda Rajapaksa who served for 10 years of increasingly authoritarian rule, so politically the situation in the country is now more stable and encouraging.

    COLOMBO AND GALLE

    As we boarded the Sri Lankan Airlines aircraft at London Heathrow, an air hostess welcomed us with palms pressed together and announced "Ayubowan" ("May you have long life"). Our Airbus A300-300 took off at 10.05 pm on a nighttime flight which lasted exactly 10 hours. Since the time in Sri Lanka is currently four and a half hours ahead of London time, our arrival in Colombo was at the local time of 12.35 pm. The temperature was an amazing (compared to London) 31C.

    At Colombo airport, I was met by the tour guide from the local company Walkers Tours - an amiable guy called Rashmika Anthony with a Catholic father and a Buddhist mother. It turned out that he was not just the guide but also the driver of our minivan for the whole tour. He introduced me to the other members of the group and I was astonished to find that there were only two, both single women of a similar age to me, Thelma (divorced) and Andrea (widowed). Indeed, for my extension into the Tamil part of the country, I would be on my own.

    Every year in the month of May, the Buddhist community in Sri Lanka celebrates Vesak, a religious festival that commemorates the birth, enlightenment and passing of the Buddha. So, on the drive to our hotel, the city was festooned with Buddhist flags of five colours and huge lanterns and in selected locations there were illuminated stage sets called pandals. Our hotel for the one night in Colombo was the Best Western and we had the rest of the day free before the tour began in the morning.

    I had thought that I might visit the National Museum but it was closed because of the holy day. So I braved the humidity to walk around the local area but there was nothing to see. The tour included an evening meal at the hotel and I had this with my two tour companions, Thelma and Andrea. I thought that I might have a drink but no alcohol is served on this holy day.

    On number of group holidays that I have enjoyed, the arrival point in the country is not really on the tour as such. This was the case with Johannesburg in South Africa and San Jose in Costa Rica. So it proved on this holiday with Colombo being the subject of just a very quick drive-around.

    Sri Lanka is an island shaped like a tear drop and Columbo is situated on the coast in the south-west of the island, The city is the commercial capital of the country, while adjacent to it is the new political capital called Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte. Colombo has been formed by centuries of Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial rule. Today the actual city has a population of almost one million but the wider cosmopolitan area is home to around 5.6 million which is around a quarter of the nation's entire population.

    We drove around the city centre for an hour and half to obtain a very brief overview. The traffic was lighter than usual because today (Friday) fell between two holy days and two weekend days, so many workers stayed at home. On the other hand, the security - police and army - was tighter than usual because the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in town for the Vesak festival.

    Our short tour enabled us to view Independence Memorial Hall, Beira Lake, Colombo Harbour, the old area called Fort, the bazaar area called The Pettah, and the site of the former Parliament (before it was moved in the civil war to the new capital).

    After this city tour, we headed due south on one of the few highways in the country, making for the southern city of Galle. About half way there, we turned off the highway and drove the short distance west to join the coastal road on which we hugged beaches combed by tall breakers.

    We made two short stops. First, we visited a turtle conservation project at a place called Kosgoda. Here we learned about the five types of turtle native to Sri Lanka and got to handle turtles of various ages including a charming creature just one day old.


    Handling a one-day old turtle

    Close up of the little fella

    Second, we viewed a Japanese memorial to the victims of the tsunami of 26 December 2004. Over 35,000 were killed in Sri Lanka and around 1,000 of them died in a local incident when a train was overwhelmed by the deluge near Hikkabuwa.

    We eventually reached the town of Galle which is virtually on the southern-most tip of the island. We had lunch in the Rampart Hotel overlooking the sea and then booked into the small Lady Hill Hotel (only 12 rooms) for a break before exploring the oldest part of town later in the day when the heat was not so strong.

    Galle Fort was originally built by the Portuguese in 1589; when the Dutch seized the port in 1640, they extended the fortifications; then, in 1796, the town was handed over to the British who modified the Fort. This was the country's major harbour throughout the 19th century and today it is UNESCO protected.

    We walked around part of the old ramparts and viewed ancient bastions and we took in the more recent additions of the clock tower erected in 1882 and a lighthouse dating from 1938. The name fort is a misnomer because the enclosed area was a miniature town and still comprises a couple of dozen picturesque streets. We strolled the length of the main road called Church Street but the two churches and the two museums on this street were all closed.


    A pandal as part of the Vesek celebrations in Galle

    Again the tour included dinner in the hotel. Again we were the only ones in the hotel restaurant - the season was clearly over. But this time I was able to have a cold beer. I found a large beetle crawling over my seafood salad starter but I decided to just flick it away - local colour!

    YALA NATIONAL PARK

    We all woke tired today (Saturday) because of a broken night's sleep, mainly because at 4.30 am there were very loud broadcasts of religious chanting from local Hindu temples followed by miscellaneous but similarly disruptive animal noises. However, we paid our bills to a delightful gentleman who seemed to have walked straight off the set of "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel": charming, unflappable, excellent English, and ears like those of an elephant.

    We left Galle in our minivan at 8.30 am. Heading east, we returned to the highway until we reached Matara and then we hugged the coast again with more views of the Indian Ocean and one small town after another as we overtook multiple three-wheeled tuks-tuks and avoided water buffalo wandering along the road.

    Our only stops were to drink from a king coconut purchased from a road-side stall and to have a quick (and very late) comfort break. It was 12.45 pm, after more than four hours on the road, when we reached the Jetwing Hotel located just outside Yala National Park and overlooking the ocean. The hotel replaced one destroyed in the 2004 tsunami and only opened in 2014.

    After a quick lunch, we went out on safari in Yala National Park in a jeep carrying just us three, Rashmika and our driver/guide. We were out almost four hours bumping along the parched and rough red earth tracks. The whole park covers an area of 141 sq km (54 sq miles). It is divided into five blocks of which only Blocks I and II are open to visitors and we visited Block I known as Ruhuna which is the most accessible (it adjoins the coast) and contains the leopard population (we never saw a single leopard).

    Now I have been to three national parks before (in South Africa and Botswana) and I know that whether you see given animals depends on the time of the day, the time of year, the skill of the guide, and sheer luck. I guess that, in all the circumstances, we did quite well today.

    We observed several elephants, deer (spotted and samba), water buffalo, wild boar, crocodile, jungle fowl, the grey langer monkey, a monitor lizard, and even a cobra snake slithering across the track. There was also a lot of bird life around and our observations included storks (painted, adjutant and open bill), peacocks, egret, cormorant, green bee eater, Indian pond heron, hornbill, spoonbill, serpent eagle, and lots of pelicans. Although we saw no leopards (apparently they were around yesterday), we found half a deer which had been killed by a leopard and stored in a tree for later collection.

    Again we had dinner in the hotel, but this time it was not part of the package and there were many other guests (mostly locals), I concluded my meal with a traditional Sri Lankan pudding called watalappan which is a coconut custard pudding made of coconut milk, jaggery, cashew nuts, eggs and various spices.

    NUWARA ELIYA

    Today (Sunday) was very much a travelling day and, boy, did we travel. At 8.30 am, we left our hotel outside Yala National Park and beside the rolling waves of the Indian Ocean. We headed due north, originally on a straight road but then on a steeply winding road that rose higher and higher and higher.

    In the afternoon, we turned west, still twisting and still rising. It was 5.10 pm when we reached our hotel at the town of Nuwara Eliya. In the course of almost nine hours, we had risen from sea level over 6,000 feet (almost 2,000 metres) and gone from a hot and humid climate by the ocean to a markedly chilly one in the hill country.

    Before lunch, we made two stops.

    First, at Buduruwagalawe observed seven huge figures carved into a rock face, belonging to the Mahayana School of Buddhism and dating back to around the 8th-9th centuries. The central figure stands at 52 feet (16 metres) while on either side there are groups of three figures about half that height. My guide book said that this location is "little visited by foreign tourists" (there were very few people there at all), but we were duly impressed by the size and longevity of the images and the beautiful wooded ambience.


    Rock figures at Buduruwagala

    Second, at Rawana Falls we viewed a lovely waterfall of 295 feet (90 metres), the clear water gushing down over coloured rocks. This was obviously a popular place for local travellers because lots of people were shedding most of their clothes, washing in an impromptu shower area, and then braving the cold water and large rocks of the falls. Clearly the authorities were not so keen on this because a sign warned of the dangers and announced that there had already been 36 deaths here.


    Enjoying Rawana Falls

    Lunch was at the town of Ella which is like Kathmandu in Nepal or Queenstown in New Zealand, a haven for backpackers and foreign adventurers. We took a steep road followed by a steep track to the 98 Acres Resort & Spa for a meal at the hotel cafe. The view was magnificent: overlooking a steep valley with a rock formation on one side and everything covered in lush green vegetation. Lunch was four courses and we all chose tuna steak for the main course but none of us could finish the enormous helping.

    After lunch, we had a short, heavy burst of rain as we kept climbing. Just outside our destination of Nuwara Eliya, we persuaded Rashmika to stop for a while so that we could check out an ornate temple, actually a Hindu one called Sitha Amman. Unusually for central Sri Lanka, the town has a population which is 30% Tamil (who are Hindu), descendants of Indian Tamils brought here by the British to work on the tea plantations.


    The Hindu temple ..

    .. of Sitha Amman

    Located so high up in misted mountains, Nuwara Eliya began life as a hill retreat for British civil servants and tea planters and is known as 'Little England'. The post office in particular looks like a corner of rural England and, thanks to the British, the town has a horse racing course and a golf course. Our hotel here - the Grand - was established in 1891 and was originally the location of the former governor's holiday bungalow but is now a huge, mock-Tudor affair. It lives up to its name (except oddly wifi was only available in the reception area).

    For dinner, the three of us decided to do something a bit different, so we went to the Grand Indian Restaurant in the hotel grounds. I ate murg makhani (marinated chicken in yoghurt) and keshar kulfi (pistachio & almond ice cream). A lot of travel and a lot of food today.

    KANDY

    This morning (Monday) we had an amazing train journey which was a pleasant change from all the time in our minivan and provided scenes of wonderful landscapes. Our train was a light blue affair and, thanks to the type of track and the open windows, the trip was very rattling and very noisy (an Australian who had previously done the journey in a red train had told me that they called their transport "the red rattler").

    We departed from a place called Nanu-Oya (a short road journey from Nuwara Eliya) at 9.20 am, originally headed west, then at Hotten turned north, and eventually reached Kandy at 1 pm. The first two thirds of the trip was very slow as we laboured upwards, but the last third was fast as we hurtled downwards. The whole of the time was incredibly noisy because of the elderly engine and the open windows.

    The first half of the expedition was wonderfully scenic as we looked over deep valleys and across to steep hills all covered in verdant green with endless tea plantations. The second half was much flatter with towns and villages and hamlets pressed hard against the railway track.

    I am a pretty chatty guy and I talked with a young Australian couple from Sydney called Damien and Britney. They were married a few months ago and are spending around six months travelling through Asia and Europe with the intention of finishing up in London where they plan to live and work. So far, they have visited Japan, The Philippines, and Singapore as well as Sri Lanka and plan to take the train from Beijing to Moscow. By the end of the day, we were Facebook friends and exchanging messages and checking out each ofher's travel blogs. Don't you just love the Internet?

    Kandy, is famous for being the seat of the last kingdom to be defeated by the British (that was in 1815). Today, with a population of 125,000 and narrow streets clogged with traffic, it is the second most populous city in Sri Lanka and the most polluted. Geographically it is located in the very centre of the island and artistically it is regarded as the cultural capital of the country. Having started the day in Nuwara Eliya at 6,000 ft (2,000 metres), we had descended to 1,600 feet (500 metres), so it was warmer but still cooler than the coastal regions.

    After such an inspiring morning, the afternoon was a bit anti-climatic, at least for me as a man. Following a light lunch at Hotel Kandyan Arts, we visited a jewellery works cum showroom called Premadasa & Co, a woodcarving works cum showroom called Oak Ray, and the extensive Royal Botanic Gardens (where it rained a little).

    It was just after 6 pm when we rolled up to our next hotel: The Tourmaline in the hills overlooking the city centre. Dinner was at the hotel and I went for a Sri Lankan dish than was spicy enough for me. I went to bed in the seventh location in as many consecutive days: home, aircraft, Colombo, Galle, Yala, Nuwara Eliya, Kandy (this is probably a personal record).

    In terms of sightseeing, Tuesday was the busiest day so far - and that's how I like it.

    We left our hotel in Kandy at 7.30 am and travelled west to a place called Pinnawala to visit the elephant orphanage there. This is the second elephant orphanage that I have seen, the other being in Nairobi. It was a journey of an hour and a half, so we arrived just 10 minutes early for the first of the three daily milk feeding sessions at 9.15 am. They have this is Nairobi but there are many more elephants and an open air feeding, whereas at Pinnawala there were only two elephants being fed and they were in a covered enclosure which was rather dark.

    However, what we saw in Pinnawala that was completely different was dozens of elephants crossing a main road and striding down a side road to the local river (Maha Oya) where they had a wonderful time enjoying a refreshing bathing session. Close to the river, we called into a workshop that converts elephant dung into paper products which are on sale in the adjoining shop. Who would have thought it? Environmentally clever.


    Orphaned elephants .. ..

    .. at Pinnawala

    Of course, one cannot have a holiday in Sri Lanka without visiting a tea factory. One hour's travelling from the elephant orphanage and back In the direction of Kandy, we visited the Geragama tea factory in the town of Pilimathalawa (Sri Lankan names just roll off the tongue). We were shown around the various processes by the smallest woman in the nation (and that's saying something in this land of diminutive souls).

    On the one hand, a noticeboard provided staff with a whole list of rules for working in the factory and a sign above a sink exhorted them to "Kindly wash your hands and feets". On the other hand, nobody wore any protective clothing where the dust and the noise strongly suggested the need for face masks and ear defenders.


    Enjoying a cup of tea

    Back in Kandy, we had a light lunch at a restaurant called "Aloy". Much though I love deserts, I decided to pass on "curd and trickle".

    After we lunch, we viewed the most famous location in Kandy. Thus is the Sacred Temple of the Tooth Relic (locally known as the Sri Dalada Maligawa), one of Buddhism's most revered pilgrimage sites. This temple houses the sacred tooth of Buddha which apparently was smuggled into the island in the 4th century AD. The tooth itself is housed In a series of seven ever-larger, ornate, dome-shaped caskets like a Russian doll and the outer-most casket is only made visible to visitors three times a day when the crowd is overwhelming - so we did not even attempt to view it.

    The temple is not so much a building as a collection of structures but, compared to the Buddhist temples that I have seen in places like Luang Prabang (Laos) or Bangkok (Thailand), this was very plain.

    Finally, a little further round the Kandy Lake from the Temple of the Tooth is the Red Cross Society building which was the unlikely setting for a cultural performance lasting one hour. We were treated to seven traditional Kandyan and Low Country Dances followed by a demonstration of fire walking.

    We returned to the hotel towards 6.30 pm, having been out for a full 11 hours. Once more, dinner was in our hotel but this time it was the same hotel as the previous night.

    MATALE AND DAMBULLA

    During our two days in Kandy, there were hardly any other guests at The Tourmaline Hotel but, half an hour after we departed on Wednesday morning, some 200 guests were due to attend a wedding. We moved off in our minivan at 9 am (our latest start) and travelled due north to the town of Matale where we stopped briefly to walk around outside a Hindu temple with the snappy name Sri Muthmarian Thevasthanam which charges for taking photographs outside and then some more for access to the interior.

    In fact, our main destination in Matale was the Sirilak Spice & Herbal Garden where we arrived towards 1 pm and spent almost three hours. First, we were given a conducted tour of the garden with an explanation of the nature of some two dozen herbs and spices and their use in the locally popular form of medicine called Ayurveda ("the scjence of life").

    Next we were invited to try some Ayurvedic massage and I accepted the offer. I took off my shirt (my poor elderly female companions) and a young man used herbal oils to massage my neck, shoulders, back, arms and hands - very relaxing. At this point, we were given a drink of spice tea composed of cardamom, ginger, cinnamon and cloves - very refreshing. Inevitably we had to visit their shop, but there was no pressure and I actually bought several collections of spices as gifts.

    At this point, we experienced something quite different: a demonstration of curry cooking by a very good looking young man with decent English. One of us had to volunteer to be the cook, dress up in hat and apron, and cook the ingredients which included around a dozen herbs and spices. Yes, dear reader, it was me who rose to the occasion which will amuse family and friends enormously since I am well-known for my absolute lack of culinary skills. But, at the end of the demonstration, we sat down to lunch which was a mixture of my cooking and selection from a buffet.


    A new role as cook ..

    .. of my first chicken curry

    After lunch, we drove for another hour further north. The afternoon was spent at the Dambulla Cave Temples where we were occupied for just over an hour and a half. At the foot of the cave complex, there is the largest Buddha statue in the seated position in the world - it stands at 100 feet (30 metres) - which was constructed as recently as 1997-2000 and the gold covering glittered brightly in the strong sun. The climb up to the caves involve a lot of steep steps in humid conditions, but one stretch was inhabited by lots of cute little monkeys.


    The largest sitted Buddha statue
    in the world at Dambulla

    The Dambulla Cave Temples date back to the 1st century BC when King Valagambahu sought refuge here after being exiled from Anuradhapura. When the king regained his throne after 14 years, he converted the caves into rock temples in gratitude to the monks who had given him sanctuary. The location is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

    The cave temples are carved out of a granite outcrop that towers 350 feet (100 metres) above Dambulla town and the actual temple complex is made up of a series of five caves of different dimensions (Cave II is the largest and most impressive). The caves are filled with statutes of the Buddha in various sizes and gestures (called mudras) including several massive Buddhas lying down awaiting entry to nirvana.

    Almost eight hours after leaving our hotel in Kandy, at 4.50 pm we checked into our hotel in Dambulla where we would be spending the next three nights. It is called The Paradise - which I guess is the next best thing to nirvana - and consists of a series of chalets, each with a king-size bed and an upstairs sitting room, nestled in the jungle area of the city.

    Given the location of all our hotels on the edge of cities, we have had no choice but to have dinner in the hotel restaurant but the food has been fine. At this hotel, the was no Lion beer so I had Tiger (grrr!).

    ANURADHAPURA AND MIHINTALE

    One of the wonders of going on holiday these days is that one can share impressions and photographs instantly with family and friends. One of my Facebook friends - a Japanese woman who has visited Sri Lanka - posted a comment suggesting that I try a local food of which I had never heard: hopper. - a kind of bowl-shaped pancake made of rice flower and coconut mint. So this morning (Thursday) I had an egg hopper for breakfast (tasty).

    Our group set off at 8 am to spend most of the day at a place an hour and half's driving due north called Anuradhapura. This was the capital of Sri Lanka for more than a thousand years, becoming the capital in the 4th century BC under King Pandukabhaya, achieving the height of its power during the 9th century AD, and finally being razed to the ground by the Cholas in the 10th century. It was gradually reclaimed by the jungle and lay largely forgotten until the area was cleared in the 19th century.

    It is a very extensive area that is still being excavated and examined and we spent three and a half hours viewing some of the highlights. After an introductory visit to a small (three room) museum, our explorations took in no fewer than four reconstructed Buddhist stupas (or - as they are called in Sinhalese - dagobas) with amazing names and histories:

    Besides these four stupas, the other structures that we viewed included the Sri Maha Bodhi Tree (the largest and oldest bo tree on the site), the Samadhi Buddha statue (4th century meditation pose), Kuttam Pokuna (two huge ponds for bathing by monks), Mahapali Refectory (long stone trough which was filled with rice for the monks), and remains of the Mahasena's Palace (wonderful 8th century moonstone featuring five circles of life).

    After some lunch at "The Grand Heritance Hotel", we drove half an hour to a place called Mihintale. This is a sacred hill where Mahinda, son of the Indian king Asoka, converted King Devanampiya Tissa to Buddhism in the 3rd century BC, leading to most of the country converting to the new philosophy (not religion).

    If one is so minded, one can start at the bottom of a long series of steep steps and finish up at the very top of the hill, but this involves a grand total of 1,840 steps. Instead Rashmika drove us to a point missing out a lot of the steps and we did not actually climb to the top of the hill. It was enough to see our fifth stupa of the day, the Mahaseya Dagoba.

    In fact, at each of the five stupas we had to remove our shoes and walk around in stocking feet (or, in Rashmika's case, bare feet) which was tough when the stone was rough and/or hot (the temperature rose to 35C today) and especially hard at this stupa where one had to climb worn and rough rocks before reaching the actual structure. But I guess that you could say we had a stupa day!

    We were back at out hotel towards 6pm, having been out for 10 hours. As always, dinner was at the hotel and this evening I had my second banana split of the day.

    SIGIRIYA AND POLONNARUWA

    Friday was the last proper day of the basic tour, since tomorrow Thelma and Andrea start the journey back to the airport and I commence three days alone visiting the Tamil city of Tincomalee.

    Although our first destination was only a quarter of an hour's drive away (past delightful rice fields), we left the hotel at 8 am to avoid the crowds and the heat. Actually this was the one destination in Sri Lanka where there were lots of other tourists (mainly Chinese) and it proved to be the hottest day of our holiday (mid 30sC).

    Sigiriya (Lion Rock) sits atop a giant granite rock rising nearly 660 feet (200 metres) above the surrounding countryside. Although the site is thought to have been occupied for millennia, much of what can be seen there today is attributed to the time of King Kasyapa who killed his father to inherit the throne in 477 AD. The name of the place comes from an enormous entrance built by the King in the form of a lion. The location is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

    The rock is famous for its climb to the top and the view when one reaches the summit. Apparently there are a total of 1,200 steps and, since the trip to Sigriya was an optional extra at a cost of 9,600 rupees (£48), that made it 8 rupees (or 4 pence) a step. It is not really that difficult a climb since all the stone and metal steps are very even and there are guard rails throughout; it is just not suitable for anyone with breathing difficulties or suffering from vertigo and Thelma and Andrea opted out of the climb and instead spent the time in the museum.

    As one makes the climb, the first interesting feature is the so-called Mirror Wall. This was originally coated with a natural concoction of lime, egg white and honey which lent it a brilliant shine. The next thing to view is a set of frescoes in a sheltered gallery in the western rock face. It is estimated that there used to be some 500 but only 21 remain today, dating from the 5th century and depicting bare-breasted celestial nymphs.

    A terrace called the Lion Platform on the northern side if the rock marks the start of the final and steepest section of the ascent. At one time, a colossal brick lion guarded the stairway leading to the top of the rock but the lion's paws are all that remain of the structure. Raskmika left me at this point, so I made the final ascent on my own with other climbers urging each other "Keep moving!" and "Don't look down!!"

    The summit is a substantial area (4 acres) and used to be covered in buildings but only the foundations can be seen today. The views are spectacular and the Chinese tourists especially contrived all sorts of fun poses for photographs. Back at the museum an hour and a half later, I needed a long cool drink.


    At the base of Sigiriya

    Two-thirds of the way up


    On the top of the rock

    Our other destination today was another highlight of the cultural triangle: the ruins of the city of Polonnaruwa which was the centrepiece of the Sinhalese kingdom established by KIng Vijayabahu I who ousted the defeated Cholas in 1077. The golden age of the city occurred during the reign of his successor King Parakramabahu I, but the city was finally abandoned in 1293 and was quickly consumed by the jungle. The location is now another UNESCO World Heritage Site.

    The ruins are clustered today in various groups spread over a wide area, so we were very pleased to have our air-conditioned minivan to take us around the site. It was probably around the mid 30sC with significant humidity so, by the end, we were wilting somewhat.

    But we saw some highlights including the museum, the Royal Palace, the Council Chamber, the Royal Baths, and - our favourite - a large stepped pool shaped like the lotus flower plus of course various statues and shrines. By complete contrast with Sigiriya Rock, there were virtually no other tourists anywhere in the area.

    Lunch - at a place called "Thidas Arana" - was late (3 pm) and light (as always we declined the buffet and chose from the menu). On the road back to Dambulla, we twice came across wild elephants wandering in the road (elsewhere in the country yesterday such an elephant had killed two people).

    As always, dinner was at our hotel but, since it was my last evening with Thelma and Andrea, I decided to push the boat out by ordering Australian fillet of beet which was excellent.

    TRINCOMALEE

    In the part of north-west London where I live, there are lots of Sri Lankans, all Tamils who were refugees from the bitter civil war. Indeed the local cab company I use is staffed almost exclusively by Tamils. Therefore I was determined that, whenever I visited Sri Lanka, I would see something of the Tamil part of the country in the north and east. The basic Voyages Jules Verne tour does not include anywhere in Tamil territory, so I needed to book a VJV extension, only to find that I was the only person on this extension.

    So on Saturday, I said farewell to Thelma and Andrea, who went off with Rashmika westwards to Chilaw preparatory to flying home, while I travelled north east to the Tamil city of Trincomalee. My new driver was Shaleen Leiton, a cheerful and chatty Singalese from Chilaw, and I sat in the front of his Toyota Allion car so that we could talk together.

    Clearly Sri Lankans are devoted to their religion: Rashmika - a Buddhist - had a small Buddha figure and a small prayer wheel (powered by sunlight) on his dashboard, while Shaleen - a Roman Catholic - had a small statue of the Virgin Mary on his dashboard and two crucifixes swinging from his mirror. It was a straight road north east from Dumbulla to Trincomalee and, in contrast to the previous days of my holiday, there was virtually no traffic but some army checkpoints.

    Two and a quarter hours after leaving Dumbulla, we arrived at the Trinco Blu hotel which in spite of its name is not really in Trincomalee but in a resort to the north of the city called Uppuveli. The hotel rather took my breath away. I felt that I had died and gone to heaven - except that it is not really my kind of heaven because I am not a sea and sand man. Both the open-walled reception area plus my modern ground floor room overlooked an open air swimming pool, just beyond which lay a beach of golden sand and an ocean of breathtaking blue with palm trees dotted all around.


    An unexpected vision of paradise ...

    ... otherwise known as the the Trinco Blu hotel

    I really had no idea what - if anything - was arranged for me during my time in Trincomalee and Shaleen did not seem much wiser. He advised me that he was supposed to show me the city so, after a quick lunch at my new hotel, I reconnected with him and we had a 'tour' of about an hour and a half in a record temperature of 37C.

    Historically known as Gokanna, Trincomalee (or Trinco as it is often called) has a natural deep-water harbour, said to be one of the finest in the world. The town suffered greatly in the civil war and it also sustained damage from the tsunami of 2004.

    Really there was only one place of interest on our 'tour' but that was splendid: the Hindu temple of Koneswaram Kovil. Although a shrine is thought to have stood at this spot for some 2,500 years, the present temple was built in 1952. It is one of the most sacred sites in Sri Lanka dedicated to Lord Shiva and a huge blue statue of this god stands outside the brightly-coloured temple.


    Lord Shiva at Koneswaram Kovil

    Lord Darlington at Koneswaram Kovil

    At the hotel, I ate dinner alone for the first time on this holiday and indeed there was only one other person in the part of the establishment where I had my food, but I'm OK with my own company. After eating, I wandered down to the beach to hear the waves and observed that on the beach there were a set of four-poster couches with side lights (very romantic).

    Trincomalee is not really what I was expecting. The hotel is not in the city but at a resort and all the other guests were young couples or parents with small children, so there were no cultural options on offer. However, I read about a place nearby called Velgam Vehera and, since Shaleen had decided to stay at the same hotel rather than go home, this morning (Sunday) I paid for him to take me to this place.

    The location is the remnants of a Buddhist monastery thought to have been built by King Devanampiya Tissa in the 2nd century which escaped destruction in the Chola invasion in the 10th century. As well as these ruins and a tiny modern shrine, two things attracted my attention.

    First, there is a tiny museum - just one room with photographs and a video - about a local attack by the Tamil Tigers at the site in 2000 when 26 Sinhalese soldiers and civilians were killed. Second, I called into a local Buddhist Sunday School and mixed with the teachers and the children.

    Back at the hotel, there was a different atmosphere today. At lunchtime a couple of dozen young local air force personnel - all male - on some kind of break from an intense course had a beach party, all dressed identically in jeans and air force T shirts and dancing to unbelievably loud music. I chatted to a group of four of them: two Sr Lankan (one Sinhalese, one Tamil), one Indian, one Bangladeshi. Their only common language was English and they were all fluent, so we got along well and exchanged contact details.

    I spent the rest of the day chilling: eating, drinking, writing, reading, swimming, sleeping. It's a tough life ...

    The Trinco Blu Hotel outside Trincomalee is the kind of place that, once guests have checked in, they tend not to leave until they check out - but I like to explore around and seek new experiences, so this morning (Monday) I booked a trip to a place called Pigeon Island. I was the only person on the excursion, so I had to pay quite a bit more than the list price (for me it was £68) for the three hours, but it was worth it for the opportunity to go snorkelling in an accessible and beautiful location.

    I have only been snorkelling once before in my life and I had doubted that I would be able to do it again since I go on cultural rather than beach holidays. My previous experience of snorkelling was four years ago at the Great Barrier Reef in Australia when I was on a vessel with around 200 other tourists but essentially left to my own resources. This was different in so many ways. It was on a small island, there was only a local guide and me in the four-seater boat, and my guide was with me at all times.

    We set off at 8.30 am and, a little way off shore, my guide stopped the boat opposite a small Hindu shrine and made some sort of supplication. Gosh, I had no idea that our venture would be so potentially hazardous. It was a wet and bouncing ride of half an hour to Pigeon Island about half a mile offshore from the village of Nilaveli. The island is a national park named after the blue rock pigeons that nest there.

    I changed into my swimming trunks and donned orange life jacket, lime green flippers and black snorkel. Two problems soon became apparent. First, my guide knew only a handful of words in English and pronounced them with an incomprehensivable accent. Second, as on my first snorkelling experience, it took me a while to breath through the snorkel without ingesting salty sea water. Later a third issue emerged and I learned an important lesson in life: when wearing flippers, you can only walk backwards and slowly (it makes you look like a dumb duck, but it works).

    There are two beaches on the narrow island and the first is noted for its sea life. I saw a couple of small sharks and several turtles really close. The area was affected by coral bleaching in 2011, but the coral still looks mysterious and, when there is some colour left, absolutely glorious.


    Two glorious views of ...

    ... wonderful Pigeon Island


    Meeting two fellow snorkellers from Germany

    When we moved to the second beach, my guide repeatedly told me there would be "lots of piss". Only when we were in the water did I appreciate that he meant that I would see plenty of fish. Observing at close quarters underwater fish of different sizes, shapes and colours is a truly wondrous experience. Suspended in warm water with the only sound one's breathing is almost a mystical experience.

    Since this was essentially the last day of my holiday (the rest of the time would be travelling), snorkelling on Pigeon Island was the icing on the cake of a fascinating and fun holiday.

    After lunch at the hotel, I had a post-prandial stroll outside the establishment but, since the temperature was 34C/93F, it had to be a short walk. The rest of the day was more writing, more reading, more swimming, more sleeping and of course more eating and drinking. Such a tough life ...

    On my last morning (Tuesday) at the Trinco Blu Hotel, I checked the news online and was horrified to learn of the suicide bombing in Manchester, the city where I grew up and where my brother still lives. Following an exchange of texts with him, I learned that four schoolmates of my niece had been at the concert but fortunately all were safe.

    My Sri Lankan holiday was effectively over and it was time to go home - but this was quite a journey. First I had to travel from my hotel north of Trincomalee on the north-east coast of the country all the way over to a hotel north of Chilaw on the central west coast of the island.

    Shaleen picked me up at 9 am and - seven and a half hours later - just after 4.30 pm we rolled up to my hotel. Driving was four and half hours - via Anuradhapura and Puttalam - but we had two breaks of an hour each, one for coffee and the other for lunch. It was a ride of around 170 miles (275 km) but we chatted all the way on a range of subjects from movies to palindromes.

    My hotel was the Anantaya Resort & Spa at Bandadeniya, just north of Chilaw, and by the ocean. It was the eighth and last hotel of the holiday. Even more so than the other hotels (except the ones at Yala and outside Trincomalee), I was aware that we were out of season because for a time I was literally the only person having dinner in the hotel restaurant. Fortunately, later a German mother and daughter came into the restaurant, I approached them, and they kindly invited me to join their table for a chat. On my last day in Sri Lanka (Wednesday), Shaleen collected me from the hotel at 7 am to take me to Colombo airport. He picked me up early so that he could take me to his home in Chilaw where I met his wife Dhashika and their four and a half year old daughter Raffaele. They kindly gave me sweet tea and ginger biscuits and showed me their wedding and homecoming photograph albums. It was a lovely way to end a special holiday.


    My Sri Lankan friends:
    Shaleen, Dhashika & Raffaele

    CONCLUSION

    Sri Lanka was beautiful - stunningly verdant and pleasing peaceful - and a fitting choice for my 70th national destination. After a slowish start, the programme was enjoyable and varied with a mixture of cultural and natural locations. My personal highlights were the train journey from Nuwara Eliya to Kandy, the cookery demonstration in Matale, the climb to the top of Sigiriya Rock, and the snorkelling at Pigeon Island.

    All the time we were in Sri Lanka, there was talk of the late arrival of the south-westerly monsoon which they have at this time of year. Clearly we were travelling out of season which is why our hotels were so empty and we were able to save so much money by not having to pay a single supplement. But, just days after my departure, there was the terrible news of massive flooding from the arrival of the monsoon. At least 100 people were killed and nearly 500,000 displaced. So sad for the wonderful people of Sri Lanka.


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