Further adventures in Sri Lanka's historic sites
13.07.2011 - 15.07.2011 30 °C
Catching the bus in Sri Lanka was another new experience for us. Provided you get on at its origin and about half an hour before it departs, you stand a decent chance of getting a seat and somewhere to squeeze your backpack. Otherwise the bus fills to bursting point along its route, and you could be standing, wedged between old men, crying babies and bags of rice for the next few hours. It makes catching the underground in rush hour a breeze. But the buses are ridiculously cheap, frequent, and our chosen mode of transport to our next destination – Polonnaruwa.
At each stop men selling fried snacks squeeze down the aisle shouting “Wadewadewade”. These are served to you in paper bags made from the pages of school text books and exercise books. You can also buy many other things: posters; maps; corn on the cob; sweets; tooth powder – you could almost do your week’s shop whilst waiting for the bus to depart.
Our journey to Polonnaruwa was punctuated by Mr Badulla, the owner of Manel (the guesthouse we had booked), constantly phoning to check on our progress. He whisked us off the bus and into his tuk tuk before touts for other places could snatch us up. Mr B and his sister were very enthusiastic (read: slightly mad) but friendly all the same, greeting us with shouts of “Mister Tom, Mister Tom, welcome!”.
Polonarawua is similar to Anuradhapura in that the ancient city covers a large area and was also once the capital of Sri Lanka (they kept moving further East in an attempt to avoid invasions from India). It’s 1,000 years more recent however, so the temples are much better preserved and more striking for it. We hired bikes again and spent the afternoon cycling about. At one point a monkey took a liking to Tom’s saddle, and tore some substantial chunks out of it.
The next day we took another bus, aided by Mr Badulla, to Dambulla. This is a fairly non-descript town but it’s a convenient transport hub so we had decided to stay there. In the afternoon we travelled to nearby Sigiriya to visit the ancient site we were both really looking forward to. The core of a long extinct volcano rises out of the ground and has been the site of a monastery for nearly 2,000 years. Unfortunately our time there coincided with the “poya” day: every full moon is a bank holiday in Sri Lanka. Correspondingly it was packed with Sri Lankan visitors, and we had to queue for over an hour to climb the rock. Sri Lankan queuing is a bit like Sri Lankan driving, in that if there’s a space in front of someone, it’s legitimate to push past them to fill that gap.
It was worth the wait to see the amazingly well preserved frescoes that are apparently 1,600 years old. These are of rather well-endowed ladies, which seem to be the popular style for women in religious iconography over here. Another climb took us to the top of the rock, where we were rewarded with impressive views in all directions.
The following morning we visited the cave temples in Dambulla. Five caves of various size, all elaborately painted and filled with Buddha statues, sit at the top of a hill a short walk from our accommodation. We shared our time there with several large groups of school children. All the kids here like to shout “Hello!” and “What’s your name?” when they pass you, so here it was a bit full on. As with most of the temple sites, there were lots of monkeys here.