Saturday, 5 January 2013

Sri Lanka - 2012/12

Sri Lanka, known as Ceylon until 1972, is an island on the Indian Ocean south of India. The official language is Sinhala but many people speak basic English  Sinhalesee people believe that they descent from lion, despite the fact that lions don't inhabit the island, therefore lion is on the national flag and popular local beer is called "Lion".
2 weeks is not enough time to see everything the island has to offer but we tried our best to see as much as possible, therefore not wanting to waste any time straight after 10hrs flight from London we headed to Dumballa - our base for first 3 days.

The most popular form of the sightseeing is renting a car and the driver (costs 60-100 USD per day)  because the road conditions are not good and there is chaos on the roads. We decided to stick to the public transport except first day, where we were desperate to get inland straight from the airport without wasting any time. Our driver greeted as at the airport and we were on the way within 1 hr of landing.

It was raining for 3 days before our arrival which resulted in the flooded roads. That made us worry and we could see our busy schedule going wrong straight from the start but 10 USD tip did the trick and suddenly it turn out that we can get were we want using side roads

Sigiriya (lions rock) - 380m lava rock is visible miles away, was a capital for 18 years in V century. On the top of the rock are the ruins of the old palace, stone throne and water pool. The rock is surrounded by the water garden. According to the legend Sigiriya was built by the Kashyape, who murdered the father by burring him alive and tried to kill his brother (rightfully next in line to the throne)  but the brother managed to escape to India. Kashyape was very afraid of his brother revenge and moved the capital to the Sigiriya, impossible to concur at the time. After 18 years his brother managed to raise the army in India and returned and successfully managed to get the throne back (Kashyapa committed suicide when he realised that his army deserted him and he lost the fight). After that the Sigiriya has been converted into the monastery.

 it was raining when we were there but it didn't stopped us from having a good time
 one of the stairs to the top - we couldn't resist taking jumping photo
frescos on the rocks - showing concubines and mistresses of the king (they had impressive breasts)
to the top lead steep staircase, on both sites decorated with the lions pawns

Buddhist Cave Temple in Dumballa is on the UNESCO heritage that spreads over 5 caves. It contains 153 different size Buddha statues and 3 status of the kings. The walls are covered in colourful frescos and the air smells of lotus flowers..
it was still raining so the had to buy big colourful umbrellas

Polonnuwara was a country residence of the kings but in XI century it became capital. Today what's left are the ruins of the complex spread across few miles surrounded by the trees. The best way in our opinion to explore was renting the bike and cycle around at the leisure peace. At this was what we did and had a very lovely day. Some of you who know Mike will find it funny - his rented bike was called Princess and was pink.



Kandy is in the centre surrounded by the spectacular hills, this was the capital between XVI and XVII century. Temple of the Tooth is the most holly shrine for Buddhists, it houses the tooth of the Lord Buddha. The legend says that it has been recovered form the Buddha ashes and smuggled to Sri Lanka by the princess in her hair.It supposed to protect the country for 5,000 years.
The tooth is stored in the gold caskets decorated with the stones (7 caskets one inside the other). Each evening at 6.30pm hundreds of believers flog to the temple to see the casket (it is only open for 1 hour), the tooth itself can' be seen.
The temples are very different to the churches, the believers bring lotus flowers and pots of small white flowers, there is many incense sticks burning and the smell is great.
Every year in July/August in Kandy takes place festival Esala that lasts for 10 days, It is the biggest celebration in Sri Lanka with fire dancers, drummers and over 100 elephants adorn with lavish garments.

40km from Kandy is elephant orphanage - Pinnewala, house of 70 elephants. The interesting souvenir from here are notebooks/diaries made from elephant's dung. The dung is the perfect material for the paper making as the elephants diet is full of the cellulose.
Everyday at 2pm the elephants are taken to the nearby river, the tourists usually invade the restaurants along the river bank drinking double priced beer and enjoying watching elephants playing in the water

The most famous residents of the orphanage is Sam (on the right) with amputated left front paw and as a result deformed spine and front right leg and Raj (on the left) that is old and blind.
Unfortunately in our opinion the orphanage forgot about their objectives and become money factory. Probably lots of you won't agree but we felt let down especially if we compare it to the places in Thailand and Australia. The pleasure of feeding elephant costs 2USD and consists of climbing the wooden platform, putting 2 bananas and piece of water melon into elephant mouth, the elephant doesn't seem to show any enthusiasm and is just standing there with heavy chains around his neck. Another 2USD can buy you feeding elephant with the milk, this is even more commercial. The keeper brings the bottle with the rubber host  puts it in elephants mouth while the tourist stretches the hand to touch the end of the bottle (doesn't hold it, just touches it) then the picture is taken and its over - next one please.

Our next stop was Adam's Peak, 2243m, with the footprint. According to the Buddhists it's a footprint of Buddha, according to Hindu it's a footprint of Shiva and according to Christian it's a footprint of Adam (it's a first place he put his feet on Earth after his exile from the Eden). The top pilgrim season is between Unduwap (Dec full moon) and Vasak (May full moon). During that period the whole track is lighted and there are small stands along that serve tea and provide resting points.
To get to the top you need to climb 4,800 steps, it took us 2.5hrs but during the busy period it may take up to 9hrs. Most of the people start climbing at 2am-3am to get to the top for spectacular sun rise. Despite the fact that the peak doesn't have regular shape it produces perfect triangle shadow during sun rise (unfortunately it was clouded when we were there).

We stopped in Dalhausie - 7km from the top, 33km from the nearest train station in Hutton (tuk tuk journey was over 1 hour). The 3hrs train journey from Kandy was interesting experience itself, the train was very crowded all the windows and doors were opened. The local kids were playing with us and locals were sharing with us the local delicates (something that was very tasty but probably never occur to us to buy)

Ella in Hill country was the highlight of our trip, surrounded by hilly tea plantations it was small town with few cool places to eat and drink. We stayed in very friendly guest house run by the older couple, their grandchildren just visited. The home cooked food was delicious, it's here were got introduced to the pumpkin curry and each morning we were served freshly made juice from the fruits we never seen before. It was so much better and educational that staying in the hotel. 
It's were we spent Xmas eve, eating curry. The waiters were wearing Xmas hats and some palms were decorated with the lights, but the Xmas atmosphere can't be compared to one in Europe.

On the tea plantations are many thalami tea pickers with the bags on the head. Only woman has delicate enough fingers to pick up the best quality buds. The best pickers can pick up to 20kg per day, they pick up only young buds with 3 leaves. The time of picking is very important, it needs to happen when buds is 7-10 days old (the tein is the highest at 80%, after 10 days it drops rapidly to 20%).

The tea production process is very simple.
The leaves are taken to factory and left for 12 hours to wilt in the wooden panels with the metal grid bottom.
After that the the leaves are bruised and torn a bit and then process of the process of fermentation occurs - it's very quick and it is just leaving the bruised leaves on the metal shelves for up to 1hr so the oxygenation process can take place. Only black tea goes through the fermentation process, green tea doesn't go through it. After that the leaves are being dried - this takes up to 30min and sorted. In the factory we visited it was sorted into 6 different types - from the biggest to the smallest one (it's like shelf unit with the different size grids instead of shelves). From 5kg of the fresh buds 1 kg of tea is produced.
The interesting thing is that the factories can't sell directly, everything needs to go through the broker and auction.

Lipton tea, known probably by everyone reading this, is closely related to Ceylon. Thomas Lipton was for Glasgow in Scotland where he owned the small grocery shops. He despised middle man, which he thought were charging too much. On a way to Australia he stopped in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) where he spotted run down tea plantation which he purchased. This provided very successfully move and after few years Lipton started to sell his own grown tea in the shops with slogan "direct from the tea gardens to the tea pot". By bypassing the brokers he was able significantly reduce the tea price, which up to that time was very luxurious and expensive. In 1898 he was knighted by Queen Victoria at the age of 48.

Last few days we spent at the sea side.
First we stopped in Weligama for 1 day, in the bungalows on the beach in the middle of nowhere 15min beach walk to small town. It's still the place where the big resorts didn't get to but they are knocking on the door. This was where for the first time we didn't have anything to do and could just lay on the beach and read the book. For lunch we walked to the village and had a meal at the "very" local place (we ate before in local food stands, this was the most local) with cut newspaper instead of the napkins on the tables and no cutleries (the locals use hands), the curries were delicious, we were full and spent only 2USD.
Never before we dinned in such a "local" places as this time in Sri Lanka but we really enjoyed it and never experienced any stomach problems (we followed 3 rules as usual, wash the teeth with the bottled water, don't eat meat, don't eat salads as you never know what water was used to wash it). You could really taste the difference between food served for tourists and locals.
Last 3 days we stayed in Unawanduna - it was excellent decision, great place. Allong the sandy beach there are small restaurants and hotels putting out tables with the candels on the beach in the evening and serving fresh grilled seafood. Our hotel location was perfect at the end of the beach away from evening noise. We could easily stay there another few days doing nothing.

Galle, 10min by bus, is 4th biggest city of Sri Lanka established by Portuguese in XVI century. The Old town is surrounded by the city walls. Inside are many lovely restaurants and souvenir shops but we preferred more laid back atmosphere of Unawatana.

Ambalangoda, 1 hour by bus,  is small not touristy town known from the generations because of the mask making and devils dances. The dances are performed to exorcise evil spirit and diseases and seek blessing from the good spirits. The masks are made from the local wood and stained with vegetables dyes.
the mask to treat fever
We went to the cooking class to learn to cook curry. Surprisingly for us the curry is not as heavy as indian curry (corma, masala..) and very easy to make if you know how. The best for us was fish curry and mango curry (we not extreme fans of mango but this was delicious).
fresh curry leaves - it doesn't smell until you break it or start cooking

We were impressed with the colourful lorries.
Tuk-Tuk was our main mean of transport other than bus. The drivers are very skilled and use horn a lot.

When travelling in the buses we were fascinated by the 7 Buddha images above the driver head that were lighting up every time the bus was breaking. The first seat behind the driver is always reserved for the monks - if the seat next to the monk is free a male can sit down but it's not appropriate for a female to sit next to themonk.

It is not unusual to see the cow walking on the pavements or admiring passing traffic.

That would be our short summary of our trip to Sri Lanka. This is interesting country, still developing in the terms of tourism. The centre of the island were many travel by rented car with the driver don't have too much interaction with the locals, is very friendly and people helpful. Closer to the resorts the attitude is changing - getting of he bus we were greeted by the bunch of kids shouting "give us some rupies". We liked the food a lot there - curry with rice and no bread suited as nicely. It's definitely worth visiting and it can be very cheap.