Holiday in Sri Lanka (7): more Kandy

May 16th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

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 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.

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 fir 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.

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.


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Holiday in Sri Lanka (6): Kandy

May 15th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

This morning (Monday) we had an amazing train journey which was a pleasant change from all the time in our minibus 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 meters), we had descended to 1,600 feet (500 feet), 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.

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).

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Holiday in Sri Lanka (5): the road to the hill country

May 14th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

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 to 6,500 feet (2,000 meters) 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 Buduruwagala we 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.

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.

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. 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.

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 is 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.

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Holiday in Sri Lanka (4): Yala

May 13th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

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 minibus 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. 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, 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 (delicious).

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Holiday in Sri Lanka (3): Columbo and Galle

May 12th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

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 about 750,000 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 only two highways in the country, heading 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. 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 Lady Hill Hotel 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.

Again the tour included dinner in the hotel. Again we were the only ones in the hotel restaurant – I think the season must be 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!

I confess that, so far, the trip has been slightly underwhelming.

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Holiday in Sri Lanka (2): arrival

May 11th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

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 Anthony. 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. Indeed, for my extension into the Tamil part of the country, I will 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 colourful flags and huge lanterns and in selected locations there were 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 begins 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.

What you might call a slow start to the holiday ….

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Holiday in Sri Lanka (1): introduction

May 10th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

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 between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamil with the government’s military pitted against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) or Tamil Tigers. 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 have been reading “This Divided Island: Stories From The Sri Lankan War” by Samanth Subramanian.

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 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.

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How well does the British Parliament scrutinise legislation?

May 9th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

In the British political system, almost all legislation is proposed by the Government and much of it comes from promises made in the manifesto of the relevant political party at the last election. At the beginning of each annual session of the Parliament, the main Bills to be considered are announced by the Queen in a speech opening that year’s session of Parliament.

All legislation has to be approved by both Houses of Parliament.

In each House of Parliament, a proposed piece of legislation – called a Bill – goes through the following stages:

  • First Reading – the Bill is introduced with simply a reading by a Minister of the long title of the Bill
  • Second Reading – the general principles of the Bill are debated by all the members of the House and a formal vote is taken
  • Committee Stage – each clause and schedule of the Bill, plus amendments to them and any new clauses or schedules, is examined in detail, in the Commons by a small, specially chosen group of members meeting as Public Bill Committee
  • Report Stage – the changes made to the Bill in the Committee are reported to and debated by the whole House which is invited to consider the Bill as a whole, approve the changes by the Committee, and consider any further proposed changes that might be suggested
  • Third Reading – the final version of the Bill is considered by the whole House in a short debate
  • Royal Assent – the Crown gives assent to the Bill which then becomes an Act

This process of enacting legislation applies to what is called primary legislation which starts as a Bill and finally become an Act. Another type of legislation is called secondary (or delegated) legislation which is usually more detailed. The power to make specific pieces of secondary legislation comes from specific pieces of primary legislation. A piece of secondary legislation – formally called an Order-in-Council – is not even debated unless it is particularly controversial and then it cannot be amended but simply approved or opposed. In practice, the last time Parliament rejected a piece of secondary legislation was in 1979.

In recent years, the number of Bills passed by Parliament has remained broadly constant at around 50 a year. However, these Bills have become longer and, in the past few years, about 3,000 pages of primary legislation, as well as around 13,000 pages of secondary legislation, have been processed by Parliament. The reality, therefore, is that Parliament provides increasingly less scrutiny of a lot of legislation. This situation could become even worse as Parliament attempts to deal with all the legislation needed to take the UK out of the European Union (Brexit).

Of course this problem of elected politicians struggling to scrutinise effectively proposed legislation is not unique to the UK, but an an issue for all legislatures around the world.

You can find more information on the British political system here.

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A review of the new horror movie “Get Out”

May 7th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

OK, so this is a horror film which is not a genre I normally entertain and I would probably have never seen it if friends had not taken me. But this is a horror film which is as smart as it is scary, featuring a clever plot with some sharp twists, a political satire on liberal views of race, and even some humour. Made on a tiny budget of $4.5M, the movie has been a spectacular success earning over $200M at the box office.

“Get Out” is the directorial debut of African-American Jordan Peele who also wrote the script and who is an actor and comedian as well as a film-maker. Following an opening sequence which is only explained at the end, we join black Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) on a trip to meet her parents whom we are told are Obama-supporting liberals. So what could possibly go wrong?

The title hints that plenty could – and it does in a work that could have been called (except the title has already been used) “There Will Be Blood”.

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A review of the 1982 classic film “Gandhi”

May 5th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

When I first saw this classic film at the cinema, the audience applauded at both the intermission and the end (it is a long work of 188 minutes). Although the narrative covers over five decades in Gandhi’s life, a major segment concerns the the process by which independence of India and Pakistan was brought about and the huge loss of life and massive migrations that resulted. When I saw the events of 1947 portrayed in the 2017 film “Viceroy’s House”, I was encouraged to revisit the earlier film which I think deals with these events more powerfully.

“Gandhi” was a triumph both for Richard Attenborough, as producer and director, who worked for 20 years to bring the story to the big screen and for Ben Kingsley, a man whose father was Indian but who had until then had a minor profile, proving to be a superlative choice for the eponymous role. The cinematography is wonderful, making superb use of local filming in India and evocative of some of the work of David Lean.

The huge cast represents a rich array of British thespianism (as well as American and Indian actors) with cameo roles for stars such as John Mills, John Gielgud, Trevor Howard and James Fox and even a tiny role for Daniel Day-Lewis who would go on to be a towering talent. Finally the script by John Briley works well in communicating essential information with some effective lines.

Arguably the film is a little too reverential and at times it is a trifle ponderous, but these are minor reservations. It went on to win no less than eight Academy Awards.

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