A Travellerspoint blog

A stately pleasure-dome decree


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Singapore
Wednesday, 20 February 2019

It was time for my last tuk-tuk ride. And what a ride. After I finished watching the sunset on Negombo Beach I returned to the Heritance Negombo resort, collected my backpack, showered, changed into my plane clothes, and walked onto the street outside and waited for a tuk-tuk. It was a long wait. Thousands of Sri Lankans had headed to the beaches for the Poya public holiday and the roads in Negombo were choked. Every tuk-tuk that farted past me was engaged. Finally, an empty tuk-tuk stopped, the driver quoted me eight hundred rupees to go thirteen kilometres to Bandaranaike International Airport. As soon as we took off he upped the quote to a thousand rupees. That would constitute false or misleading conduct under the Australian Consumer Law but such legal provisions must not apply here. I didn't complain, two hundred rupees is nothing to me.

Every railway station, every government building, every neighbourhood has a Buddha statue in a glass case illuminated at night. Being Poya day, the monthly Buddhist full moon holiday, every one of these shrines had massive crowds of devotees standing next to them. My driver took off down Negombo's back streets. When I questioned him he said it was a short cut. Maybe on any other day. At each shrine we encountered an immovable mass of people who seemed completely deaf to the sounds of the tuk-tuk horns and the horns of every other vehicle trying to get through. "Get off the road, you stupid bloody morons!", I think I shouted at one crowd.

The driver extricated the tuk-tuk from the labyrinth of back lanes crowded with worshippers and turned south on the A3 which was just as congested with traffic headed back to Colombo from the northern beaches. Thankfully my flight wasn't until 00:45 and it was only eight o'clock.

After about half an hour we arrived at Bandaranaike International Airport, a few hundred metres from the terminal because tuk-tuks aren't allowed to enter the terminal roads. I had a long wait. Not many restaurants were open in Negombo due to the public holiday and I thought there would be more to eat at the airport. Before security screening there is an ice cream shop, a place that sells short eats, a mini-Cargill's supermarket, and that was it. It was still too early to check in and there was no seating. I ended up sitting on some large stainless steel box that was used by the luggage trolley collectors as their rest area.

Someone soon joined me, Carmel, a young British traveller. She had missed her flight back to Heathrow due to the insane Poya traffic and had a very long wait for her next flight. Here's the thing - there is actually a railway line that goes nearly all the way to the airport terminal, but it is only used to deliver avgas. How great it would be if passenger trains ran on this branch line, even if it's only once or twice an hour.

We chatted for a while then Carmel left the airport, she was staying with a friend nearby until check-in for her next flight opened.

Bandaranaike is unusual in that security screening is before check-in and baggage drop. I went through security and waited until my flight, Singapore Airlines Flight SQ 469, was ready to check in. All the other flights were shown with green blinking "Check-ins" on the departures screen but not mine.

I waited long enough then decided to walk around. I found the Singapore Airlines queue in a hidden corner. When I dropped my baggage I let them know about the mistake. They were very apologetic and rectified the issue immediately.

I passed through emigration where my passport was stamped out by yet another po-faced, silent, sloth-like immigration officer. Goodbye, Sri Lankan bureaucracy, and good riddance!

There wasn't much food on the other side of emigration. There was a Burger King and a generic bar-restaurant, both selling exorbitant US dollar-priced meals. The Burger King looked slightly less unappetising. I was starving so I paid eighteen American dollars for a Whopper with Cheese value meal. That's twenty-five Australian dollars or about three thousand two hundred rupees. Outside the airport it would have cost one thousand rupees. Outrageous.

I boarded the Airbus 330 at Gate 7 shortly before midnight and we pushed off on time. As soon as we took off I fell asleep for about half an hour, then we were woken up for a meal. I couldn't get back to sleep after that. Red-eye flights are unavoidable for Australians who want to travel the world because, as former Prime Minister Paul Keating said, Australia is at the arse end of the world. They might be unavoidable, but red-eye flights can still go to hell.

We landed at Changi Airport as the peachy sun rose over Singapore. This holiday is the third time I have passed through Changi and each time I visit it seems more impressive. Changi is the only airport I have visited that I don't want to leave as soon as possible. It is part-glitzy shopping centre, part-entertainment complex, part-botanic garden, part-transport facility. Most airports are sterile, generic places but Changi's architecture is interesting and inviting.

I had three hours until my next flight, Singapore Airlines Flight SQ 211 departing Singapore at 10:30. I ambled in sleepless awe around Terminals 2 and 3. I checked out Terminal 2's orchid garden, its sunflower garden, the free cinema that shows free short children's films to keep the little ones amused. I activated my Changi wi-fi account (free for three hours but you have to scan your passport at dedicated computer terminals to get your wi-fi password), looked at all the birthday congratulations flooding through on Facebook. I withdrew fifty Singaporean dollars and grabbed a meal, only seven Singaporean dollars, quite a decent dry chicken curry with noodles. I caught the Skytrain to Terminal 3, the cute little driverless trams with rubber tyres that shuttle people and their luggage between terminals every two minutes.

I changed about forty Singaporean dollars to Australian dollars and asked if I could change the two remaining dollars to the full set of the new Singaporean coins for my collection, which the friendly lady did without any rancour. Often bureaux de change won't do this or they do it with a massive sigh as if I am asking them to do the impossible.

Terminal 3 is the jewel in the Changi crown. It has a butterfly garden. Yes, there is a whole garden, walled off from the rest of the terminal with double plate glass doors and hanging chains, full of tropical plants and butterflies. How many other airports in the world have beautiful butterflies? And affordable good-quality food, and free cinemas, and sunflowers, and cute little driverless trams, and toilets that are constantly cleaned at all times by rotating crews, and bureau de change employees who don't resent innocent coin collectors, and little touch screens outside each toilet asking you to rate your toilet experience, and such well-oiled clinical efficiency in every aspect of airport operations? It was a bit of a shame that I had to board the Boeing 777 back to Sydney.

Butterfly garden at Changi Airport

Butterfly garden at Changi Airport

Butterfly garden at Changi Airport

Butterfly garden at Changi Airport

Koi pond at Changi Airport

Koi pond at Changi Airport

Orchid garden at Changi Airport

Orchid garden at Changi Airport

Free sleeping pods at Changi Airport

Free sleeping pods at Changi Airport

Sunflower garden at Changi Airport

Sunflower garden at Changi Airport

Posted by urbanreverie 03:38 Archived in Singapore Tagged singapore airport sri_lanka changi bandaranaike Comments (0)

If you like the sand dunes and salty air


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Bandaranaike International Airport
Tuesday, 19 February 2019

The reception desk at the Heritance Negombo resort gave me a late checkout of one o'clock after I told them that my flight home didn't leave until after midnight, an offer which I gleefully accepted. They also offered, without me asking for it, the right to use the shower in the evening for free as well as luggage storage.

I woke up at eight, quite a bit later than when I have been waking up lately. (This is just wrong. I thought people were supposed to get up early on their work days and late on their holidays. With me, it's the other way around. I guess if you hate your job, there is an incentive to keep hitting the snooze button until the latest possible minute at half past eight.)

First I went to the Blue Tan hotel restaurant for a breakfast buffet. This was very good, there was a massive selection of dishes - continental breakfast foods such as croissants and fruit, full English breakfast foods like bacon and baked beans, cereals, a cheese platter, yoghurt, bread rolls and Sri Lankan breakfast fare like egg hoppers and string hoppers. My stomach cramps had disappeared, I didn't eat much the day before so I was starving and I certainly got my money's worth. It was a lot of money - I think Rs. 2,800.

The restaurant was packed with guests at breakfast time. They were overwhelmingly from Britain and Europe, a very large proportion were Eastern European. The guests were a mixture of young families, young couples and older couples, and unsurprisingly considering how expensive it is to stay here, they were all upper- or middle-class.

I changed into my swimmers, put my valuables in the safe in my room, grabbed a bath towel and went for a swim in the large figure eight-shaped hotel pool. It was a nice pool, the water was a perfect temperature, and in one corner was a bar with a thatched roof cover you could swim up to. You could order drinks and just give them your room number and it would be added to your bill. There were even bar stools under the water you could sit on while drinking. I tried to do some laps, as I often do after work in Sydney, but every muscle was sore and tired and my heart just wasn't in it. After all the strenuous activity of the past three weeks, I just wanted to float in serenity and enjoy just paddling around aimlessly. There is also a gym available for guests that I couldn't bring myself to use.

The Heritance Negombo is luxurious but it is not a sociable place. I had hoped when I booked my room on Booking.com that there would be a hotel bar that was vibrant where I would meet interesting people on my last night in Sri Lanka, that the pool would be like the Blue Lagoon in Iceland where we were all one big happy family, and that I would be able to regale other guests with tales of defying the Grim Reaper himself on faulty bicycles, dangerous buses and dangling live wires while they listened with mouths agape.

I was disappointed. Everyone else just socialised within their little family groups. At all the guest houses I stayed in outside of Colombo, I had lengthy conversations with other guests. We would compare our travel itineraries, talk about our lives back home, give each other restaurant tips or public transport information, swap social media details. It was one big community of travellers, constantly shape-shifting across the country, and it was a community I was thrilled to be part of. There was no community here.

As much as I wanted to just chill and relax, there was one last challenge I had promised myself. Every single pereon in that community of travellers I met were spending lengthy periods of time at beaches. Many seemed shocked that I had had no beach destination at all on my itinerary. It was time to change that and go for a dip in Neptune's kingdom.

Negombo Beach is Sri Lanka's Gold Coast or Cancun or Benidorm - a long, narrow strip of yellow sand fringed by a succession of resort hotels stretching to the horizon. There is a small gate attended by a security guard that connects the hotel grounds to the sandy beach. I walked through the gate, past some traditional catamaran sailing vessels for hire attended by touts who didn't understand that no means no, and walked into the Indian Ocean.

I am naturally most familiar with the beaches of New South Wales so I will compare Negombo to them. Beaches back home have massive surf. Powerful waves that stretch one arm that way, one leg the other way, and somersault you through the rushing water while water goes up your nose and into your lungs are quite common. The west coast of Sri Lanka is much more sheltered, presumably by being closer to the bulk of the Indian subcontinent; the waves on the south coast are much bigger and more like those in New South Wales. There are waves in Negombo, you just won't be able to surf on them, nor will they bury you head first into the sea bed. The biggest waves were perhaps one to two metres tall. They came in a pleasing rhythm, gently washing back and forth over me.

The sand at Negombo is much nicer too. The sand in New South Wales is very pale gold, almost white in some places, and consequently gets very hot. New South Welsh sand is also fine and very squeaky when you step on it. It sticks to every surface of your body like talcum powder, even parts of your body that never came into direct contact with the sand. The sand at Negombo is a bit darker, maybe a light beige, and somewhat coarser. It was compact, almost like a well-graded dirt road, and didn't stick at all, barely even on my soles.

Australia, and the Southern Hemisphere, has ghastly intense sunlight. Australia must be the only country on earth where people look forward to cloudy days. People of British heritage like me often burn to a crisp within half an hour - even with sunscreen. This is why I generally do not go outdoors in the summer in the daytime if I can possibly avoid it. In Sri Lanka the sunlight is much more muted even though it is so much closer to the Equator (seven degrees versus thirty-four degrees in Sydney). I put on one medium coat of sunscreen - careful rationing of my supply resulted in more than enough left over for my last day - and I was outside for two and a half hours and did not get burned at all.

The one thing where New South Welsh beaches win is the water. The sea back home is a brilliant, pure cobalt blue with crystal clear water. The sea in Sri Lanka is a weird blueish-brownish hue and is quite opaque. Oh, the lack of touts and tacky souvenir sellers too is another good thing about Australian beaches. But they don't have surf gangs or race riots at Sri Lankan beaches, so that counts in their favour.

Excepting the water quality and the touts, I wish beaches in Australia were like Negombo. I might not hate Australian beaches so much. I redsicovered the childlike innocent joy of swimming at the beach in Sri Lanka, of being rocked back and forth as the waves wash over me, of the rhythmic incantations of the water coming to and fro over the sand.

As great as going for a dip in the ocean was, all good things must come to an end. I went back to my room, packed my things, stored my luggage, and checked out of the Heritance Negombo resort hotel. I do not regret coming here, a night of luxury is probably what I needed. The service was professional, the rooms were comfortable, the food was good, the amenities were excellent. But I found the experience oddly dissatisfying. I missed the guest houses with their achingly slow ceiling fans and hard matresses and mosquito nets and dribble-like showers. Here at the Heritance, I was given great service and treated like a prince, but it was impersonal. I was just another sixteen-digit credit card number. At the guest houses I might not have been treated like a prince, but I was treated like family. The owners were interested in me, my story, my family back home, what work I did, and I was likewise interested in them. I ate the same meals they served their families.

Also, staying at a luxury beach resort was like staying in a bubble. All your needs - food, drink, exercise, entertainment - are met within the boundaries of the land parcel the hotel was on. You could spend an entire holiday here and never actually experience Sri Lanka. Travel is a very individualistic hobby; there is no "right" way or "wrong" way of travelling and no traveller has the right to lecture other travellers on what to do. So if you want to spend your holidays in some hedonistic luxury utopia by the beach where you are hermetically sealed from the real world, go for it.

I can only speak for myself - being pampered and living in luxury is not why I travel. I don't travel for pleasure. I travel to see things I have never seen, taste things I have never tasted, hear things I have never heard. I travel to immerse myself in other languages, to be stupefied by some historical site, to understand how other cultures tick, to challenge myself by climbing some moderately tall mountain. In short, I travel to be educated. And there isn't much lecture material on offer in the curriculum at luxury resort hotels.

After I checked out I caught the lift up to the fifth floor. Up there was an ayurvedic spa. Wherever you go in Sri Lanka touts and accommodation providers are always trying to sell you massage treatments and alternative therapies at ayurvedic spas. I just knew I had to try it before I left and so for Rs. 10,700 I had my own masseur for ninety minutes.

I had booked something called the "full body deep tissue repair therapy" or something like that. My body was aching all over after doing so much hiking, climbing and cycling. I thought this might be the thing that would help me get some sort of sleep on the flights home.

I waited in the reception at the spa. Incense was burning and soft flute music was playing. It reminded me of the final scene in Soylent Green where Sal goes to the euthanasia centre and soothing music and relaxing film scenes are played as the lethal injection is administered. The kindly masseur shook my hand and he led me into the treatment room.

I had to change into special underwear. It looked like a piece of black stocking a few inches wide. But it was so stretchy that it fit comfortably. I laid face down on the table and the masseur buttered me up with scented oil and started nice and gently. Then the "fun" began! His knees, elbows, fists, the entire weight of his body were used to press into the deepest parts of mine while all I could do was clench my teeth in agony. I felt like a ball of pizza dough in the kneading machine at the pizza restaurant I worked at when I was a teenager.

There was one part of my body, in the flesh of my lower right back near my kidney. There was possibly already a bruise there, perhaps it was a knotted muscle, maybe the masseur had caused a bruise there with his pressure. But for some reason the masseur kept returning to that spot over and over with his sharp elbows pointing all the way down to the inner organs.

I couldn't help it, I screamed in agony and my feet flailed up and down in reflex. "Stop! Stop! For goodness sake, just stop!"

"Why, is it painful?" he asked.

"No shit! Why do you think I'm screaming!" But he didn't stop. All I could do was breathe tightly through gritted teeth and sigh in relief when he turned his attention elsewhere.

After ninety minutes it was over. I showered to wash the oil off me and was offered a cup of tea with jaggery in the spa's lobby. It was weird - how is it that something so painful is so relaxing? I felt so good leaving the spa.

There wasn't much more I wanted to do. My flight didn't leave until 00:45, most places even in a tourist strip like Negombo were closed due to the Poya public holiday. I got my hair cut at a salon that was still open for eight hundred rupees, saving myself about fourteen dollars compared to if I had waited until I returned to Sydney. My hair had grown quite fuzzy. I looked like a mad Austrian scientist who had stuck a butter knife into a power point. I like to keep my hair neat and short and normally I would have got it cut well before now but I reasoned that longer hair meant less sunburn on my scalp.

I decided to head back to the beach to watch the sunset, my last ocean sunset for quite some time, living on Australia's east coast. It was as glorious as the others. Because of haze on the sea, the sun actually disappears from view before it reaches the horizon. It gradually gets redder and dimmer before it is extinguished completely. It was so glorious that I decided to stream the sunset to all my friends on Facebook Live.

While I was filming the sunset, my phone held in front of me as I was sitting on the sand, a Sri Lankan man came up to me. He introduced himself, I forget his name - it's very easy to forget Sri Lankan names - and he sat down next to me. We talked about my travels, he asked which Australian city I was from, he asked what the climate there was like. He seemed like a friendly, genuine guy.

Then the scamming began. His wife was suffering blood cancer! He was out of work! He couldn't afford to buy powdered milk for his baby! Please, please, could I help him?

There was a slim possibility that he was right and he was truly in dire straits. Most likely he was yet another one of the plague of locusts who hang around tourist areas looking for a sucker.

"No sorry, I'm not giving you money."

"Then can you give me milk?"

"Milk? It's a public holiday, the supermarkets are not even open."

"Yes they are, the shop across the road is open. Please! Please! Please!"

I know that in Australia there is currently a problem with black market milk powder and infant formula. Chinese groups are buying up a huge percentage of Australia's domestic powdered milk and infant formula supply to sell on the black market in China. The problem is so bad that supermarkets introduced limits on how many tins you can buy at once. The thought occurred that perhaps a similar thing is happening in Sri Lanka. Maybe I go and buy a tin of powdered milk for, say, five hundred or a thousand rupees or however much it costs, give the tin for free to this con artist, and then he sells it on the cheap at his market stall or out the back of his tuk-tuk and makes a tidy profit.

"No, sorry, I'm not giving you money or any milk."

He then got on his knees and made a praying gesture. "Please, please, I need milk! For my baby! My wife has blood cancer! You can come and see the baby! Please!"

This is the moment when I definitely knew he was a con artist. Real beggars are too ashamed of their penury to act like this. Real beggars know how to take no for an answer and move onto the next person. Real beggars wouldn't trap someone with what seemed like genuine friendly innocent conversation and then segue into a sob story.

"Listen, I am just watching the sunset and--"

"Please! Give me milk! You must give me milk or money! Please!"

"I'm very sorry for your misfortune, but I'm not giving you money, sorry."

"Please, give me milk!"

"No! You are not getting any milk or any money! Now leave me alone! For f#$k's sake!"

He finally got the hint and tried the same thing with another tourist also watching the sunset ten metres along the beach. The scammer was such a moron he didn't realise the whole exchange was being recorded and streamed live for all my friends to see on Facebook. I will miss Sri Lanka. I will not miss the teeming masses of slimy con artists and touts. I don't care if Sri Lanka doesn't have a Western-style welfare state. The vast majority of Sri Lankans do it tough. The low wages are not adequate for the cost of living, secure work is hard to come by, the tuk-tuk is always just one bad month away from repossession, an accident or a chronic illness often means disaster. But the vast majority of Sri Lankans still go about their lives with dignity, integrity and amazing resilience. The sleazy scammers have no excuse for dishonesty.

And so I watched the sun set on my last day of my three-week adventure in Sri Lanka. I will miss Sri Lanka, the warmth and friendliness and hospitality of its people, its divine curries, fruit and vegetables, its incredible natural beauty, its mountains, its beaches, its wildlife, its rainforests, its uproarious energy, its ancient ruins sticking out of the verdant plains.

Sri Lanka, thank you. You challenged me, you inspired me, you frustrated me, you helped me, you entertained me, you scared me, but most importantly of all, you educated me.

Traditional boats on Negombo Beach

Traditional boats on Negombo Beach

This Negombo convenience store is not a ripoff of a UK supermarket chain at all

This Negombo convenience store is not a ripoff of a UK supermarket chain at all

Negombo Beach

Negombo Beach

Heritance Negombo

Heritance Negombo

Negombo sunset

Negombo sunset

Negombo Beach

Negombo Beach

Posted by urbanreverie 02:56 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged sunset beach resort spa sri_lanka negombo ayurvedic Comments (0)

A prince for one night


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Negombo, Sri Lanka

Sunday, 18 February 2019

Call me un-Australian, but I do not like the beach very much. After that admission, I now expect Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton to strip me of my Australian citizenship. But I will say it again: I do not like the beach. I simply don't get it. To me, "the beach" means my skin burning to a crisp after five minutes, saltwater stinging my eyes, ears and nasal mucous membranes, being dumped head first into the sand by a rogue wave, the moronic tribalism of surf gangs, the posturing narcissism of bikini-clad bimbos and their equally vacuous male counterparts, and sand stuck for days in bodily orifices hitherto unknown to medical science.

I don't care if you think I am not a real Australian, but beaches to me are torture. I think I have only swum at an ocean beach twice as an adult while visiting family on the Mid North Coast of New South Wales. Both times were thoroughly unpleasant.

I have also never stayed in a luxury beach resort. It would be an odd choice of accommodation for someone who does not like beaches. But I will try anything once. Well, maybe not incest. And definitely not folk dancing. But a luxury beach resort? Why not.

But I had to get there first. Thanks to the rumbling of the wheels and the blaring whistle of the up intercity express departing Anuradhapura for Colombo at twenty to seven, I woke up before my alarm went off. The good news is that my sweating fever had stopped and that I had gotten about eight hours of solid, restful sleep. The bad news is that my stomach still felt like I had been punched in the guts by Mike Tyson.

I showered and dressed and went gingerly downstairs, Purmina and her family were having breakfast. She could instantly see that I was not well. I told her what happened at the restauarant, and how stupid I was to assume that water put on tables for paying customers was safe to drink. She told me that it was common knowledge among Sri Lankans that water provided free of charge in jugs at restaurants is never safe. This still raises the question - why would any human being knowingly offer unsafe tap water to other human beings? And why would restaurant owners willingly do something that would deter customers coming back to spend even more money? If this happened in Australia the restaurateurs would be slapped with a massive fine, have their restaurant closed down by the state Department of Health, and perhaps even receive a prison sentence if intent or criminal negligence could be proven.

Purmina made me a Sri Lankan folk remedy for food and water poisoning, strong black coffee with the grounds in the cup mixed with lime juice. The concotion tasted disgusting but it actually worked, the stomach cramps became a bit more bearable. I just had some white toast with margarine and a few chunks of watermelon for breakfast, I had no appetite for anything more.

I packed my things, said a heartfelt goodbye to Purmina, a truly amazing and intelligent and kind-hearted host, and her two-year-old daughter. I got into a tuk-tuk Purmina had called and rode a kilometre to Anuradhapura station. The current station was built in 1959, a bright white building with neoclassical columns and modernist angles. It was an attractive, airy station.

While I was waiting for my train, another train came from the south. The engine was carrying a banner on its front with the Buddhist dhammachakra wheel symbol. This very long train of ancient red carriages stopped and hundreds, maybe thousands, of schoolchildren all dressed in identical white uniforms got off the train. They were obviously headed to the Sacred City of Anuradhapura on some sort of school excursion.

I sat down on the platform benches. They were rows of moulded plastic seats bolted to a metal frame like what you see at many stadiums. I sat down and almost fell on my back. The seats were so loosely screwed onto the frame that they rocked back at a great angle when the slightest force was applied. I got up and decided to stand instead. A Dutch middle-aged couple sat down on the same row of seats and they almost landed on their backs too.

"I think there's something wrong with these seats, the same thing happened to me," I observed.

"Yes, indeed," the wife said. "And the seats are especially unsafe for you, with your weight problem," she added while pointing at my belly. I love the Netherlands but sometimes I do wish that Dutch people would learn to shut their big fat stupid mouths.

My train, the up Uttara Devi (Queen of the North), a daily intercity express that connects the far north to Colombo, arrived shortly after nine. It was a very un-Sri Lankan train. It was brand new, very sleek, clean, undamaged and didn't look like it belonged in a museum. This was a Class S13 diesel multiple unit, introduced into service in late 2018. I found my seat in the reserved third-class car. First class and second class were booked out, this was a long weekend. Tomorrow is a Poya day, the Buddhist full moon festival that is always a public holiday in Sri Lanka, so public transport across the country was crowded.

The train left on time at a quarter past nine. It might have been new but it was certainly not comfortable. The rigid, straight-backed bench seats, three on one side of the aisle and two on the other, were designed for midgets with scoliosis. At five foot seven I was far too tall. I am sure I would have found it comfortable when I was seven years old. Every window and door was open but there was no breeze save that feeble wisp of air coming from electric fans swivelling on the ceiling far above. The maximum height the windows would open was far below the height of the bench seats. This meant that there was no airflow coming through the carriage, the seats blocked the breeze. Still, my ticket cost me only four hundred rupees. To travel halfway across a country for only A$3.20 ought to give me little room to complain.

The train joined the Main Line at Polgahawela. The line to Colombo from here is double track all the way and the maximum speed increased from 75 km/h to 100 km/h. This must be the Sri Lankan version of the French TGV or Japanese Shinkansen.

The Uttara Devi called at all the larger towns and as it neared Colombo it became ever more crowded. I was glad to have reserved a seat even in third class, though I couldn't want to leave the train. I had booked my seat all the way through to Colombo Fort but my connection to the next train on the Puttalam Line was very tight. The Uttara Devi was scheduled to arrive at Colombo Fort station at 12:55 and the Puttalam Line train was to leave at 13:10. The Uttara Devi was running about seven minutes late. You cannot book through tickets for journeys involving multiple trains in Sri Lanka, you must buy a separate ticket for each leg of the journey at each interchange station. I know just how glacial the ticket queues are at Colombo Fort so I almost certainly would have missed my next train.

So I made the impromptu decision to get off one station before at Maradana a couple of kilometers east of Fort. This gave me a few more minutes of wriggle room. I ran up the stairs, found no queue at the ticket counter for the Puttalam Line, bought my little date-stamped cardboard chip that entitled me to one-way third-class travel to Kattuwa and waited about ten minutes for my train.

Maradana is an interesting station. It is Colombo's version of Redfern station in Sydney and even looks and feels similar. It is a very large interchange station with multiple island platforms only one stop from the central station. The platforms are connected by an overhead concourse and ticket hall on a footbridge located at one end of the station. Nearby are the Sri Lanka Railways' largest yard, depot and workshops as well as the network control centre.

I only had about ten minutes until my Puttalam Line train arrived, a crusty old S8 diesel multiple unit, its exterior panels peeling away with rust, its airless interiors coated in dirt and diesel grime. I have read on the internet that these sooty, mouldy, sweaty rustbuckets have their admirers. It is unfathomable. Those people need to be given a compulsory mental health treatment order.

My train to Kattuwa was crowded when it arrived at Maradana. The Puttalam Line is a reasonably busy line served only by Colombo Commuter services, with a train roughly once an hour in each direction. I finally got a seat at Ja-Ela - not that the seat was anything great, the S8 trains have just a row of hard orange moulded plastic benches running along each side of the carriage - and ninety minutes and thirty kilometres later I disembarked at Kattuwa, one kilometre from my beach hotel in Negombo.

I waved goodbye to my last Sri Lankan train on this magnificent little railway adventure, I wished that my last train could have been something a bit less grotty. I felt very sad. Sri Lanka Railways are like a railway museum on the scale of an entire country. They feature operational practices long abandoned everywhere else perfectly preserved in nineteenth-century aspic. The trains are charmingly antiquated, the staff dress like admirals with starched white uniforms, the stations feature lovingly tended gardens and fish tanks and newspaper reading desks and little libraries.

Sri Lanka's railways desperately need modernisation. No country should be forced to put up with trains that are not safe, not fit for purpose. The over-staffing and inefficiency must be brought under control. What I and other passengers went through at Bandarawela where the train was delayed for six and a half hours without any reliable information being given to the passengers by railway employees who were lying through their teeth should not happen to anyone.

But when Sri Lanka finally modernises its railways, as they inevitably must, I hope they do it in a way that retains that charm, that beauty, that feeling that this is how a railway ought to be - not some sterile glass-and-steel factory silently swallowing passengers at one end and spitting them out at the other like Deutsche Bahn or the Singapore MRT, but a railway that promises adventure, new friendships, an unfamiliar sight at every station, stimulation, camaraderie, character.

I rode a tuk-tuk to the Heritance Negombo, a five-storey resort hotel with two long wings stretching north and south along the beach. The tuk-tuk dropped me off under the portico and a purple-liveried doorman opened the door for me. I was led into the lobby, a glass atrium with beach views, and the solicitous reception manager sat me down on a comfortable ottoman couch while Erik Satie-like piano compositions tinkled on the speakers. It was certainly a big difference from the very basic guest houses I stayed in until now.

I pride myself on my frugality. I have very modest tastes, I am disciplined with my money, the only luxuries I afford myself in my daily life are eating out two or three times a week and drinking expensive craft beer. Normally I would be aghast at the idea of spending three hundred Australian dollars on one night in a hotel.

But I have been through a lot on this trip. I have encountered vicious street dogs, been harrassed by innumerable tuk-tuk touts and beggars and other scam artists who won't take no for an answer, travelled on buses driven by homicidal psychopaths, nearly gotten killed by being given a bicycle without working brakes, endured a six and a half hour train delay without any idea when we would start moving again, lost my hat and consequently suffered severe sunburn, been shocked by the sight of heartwrenching poverty, spent whole days walking in frightful tropical heat and humidity, been given incorrect directions and advice countless times because the locals are averse to admitting that they don't know the answer and just make crap up out of thin air, and now I was recovering from a bout of water poisoning. I also had a fifteen-hour journey home the next evening incorporating a red-eye flight from Colombo to Singapore, a journey I was looking forward to even less than dental surgery, and I wanted to be well rested and at ease before I departed. After all the challenges and frustrations of three weeks in Sri Lanka, surely I have the right to spend my own hard-earned money on being pampered like a spoilt little prince for just one night? I've been such a good boy.

So unusually I craved luxury. Not the refined, pompous, snobbish, intimidating luxury of the Grand Hotel in Nuwara Eliya, but decadent, trashy, self-indulgent luxury. So I made a last-minute booking at the Heritance Negombo and found myself sitting in a frigidly air-conditioned atrium listening to mood music as the ridiculously polite reception staff checked me in.

I was shown to my room on the ground floor in the north wing. It was like any other four- or five-star hotel room - tea and coffee facilities, separate shower and toilet, comfortable king-size bed, flat-screen television with cable channels, minibar fridge - but the main difference was the sliding glass door that gave a great view right out onto the beach. If I so chose, I could step out from my hotel room and be on the sandy beach almost immediately.

I had a very late lunch in the hotel restaurant, Blue Tan, at five o'clock, just a grilled chicken wrap with the tiniest serve of hot chips and garden salad I ever did see. It cost about Rs. 1,600. You'd pay far less in Sydney. I didn't have much of an appetite and even less of a desire to leave the hotel to find some place cheaper. I just wanted to stay in this little bubble, just for one night, insulated from the madness without.

There is a hotel bar on the top floor, the See Lounge, with a nice view looking west over the Indian Ocean. (See? Sea? Get it? Oh, how hilarious.) It was a good place to enjoy watching the sunset and catching up on my blog well into the evening. I had fallen far behind; the exhausting hikes of the past few days had left me too tired to complete my daily writing and last night with my gastric troubles I was in no state to do any task at all let alone marshal my thoughts into several thousand words, do the quickest of proofreads and edits, and then upload them along with a selection of captioned photographs to Traveller's Point.

The See Lounge was a perfect place to enjoy solitude. Throughout most of the evening I was the sole guest. At most there were three other people. I don't know what all the other hotel guests were doing. Presumably watching CNN or The Cartoon Network on the TVs in their rooms.

My stomach slowly got better. Not perfect, but more manageable. I managed to eat a very small tub of Pringles and an equally small pack of peanuts. I tried arrack for the first time. Arrack is Sri Lanka's most famous alcoholic drink, made from fermented coconut palm sap, I believe. It's not very good. I had fifty milliltres on the rocks. It tasted like very rough, cheap whisky, the bargain basement stuff with a brand name you have never heard of that you sometimes find for about thirty dollars a bottle in Australia. Alcohol is not a big part of Sri Lankan culture. It seems that only the most debased dregs of society drink any significant amount of alcohol, others either frown upon drinking or are indifferent to it. Bottle shops do exist, they look like they belong in prisons. They consist of a hole in the wall facing directly onto the street or up the back of a supermarket.. The hole in the wall has prison bars. You can't select your own purchase from the shelves, you have to tell the person behind the bars what you want and they pick it out for you from the shelves behind the bars. These dodgy little shops are surrounded by knots of dodgy little men who look like how I imagine the identikit pictures of criminal suspects would look like on Sri Lanka's Most Wanted. They also look like the sleazy tuk-tuk touts who congregate around bus and railway stations and tell tourists that the hotel they want is closed, their guidebooks and Booking.com are lying, but if only they would get into the tuk-tuk for three thousand rupees, there is a very nice hotel owned by their friend twenty kilometres away ...

Sunset at Negombo Beach from the See Lounge

Sunset at Negombo Beach from the See Lounge

On the S8 train from Maradana to Kattuwa

On the S8 train from Maradana to Kattuwa

S13 train on the Uttara Devi express at Maradana Station

S13 train on the Uttara Devi express at Maradana Station

S8 commuter train at Kattuwa station

S8 commuter train at Kattuwa station

Posted by urbanreverie 02:39 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged trains beach resort sri_lanka railways negombo anuradhapura Comments (0)

Stupa is as stupa does


View Urban Reverie 2019 on urbanreverie's travel map.

Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka
Sunday, 17 February 2019

I am a somewhat slovenly and half-hearted collector of coins and banknotes. My collection consists of what is known in the hobby as a "job lot" - a random collection of cheap poorer-quality specimens, usually acquired by pure chance, with little attempt to collect a certain denomination or certain country or certain date in any systematic manner.

When I was a teenager somebody gave me some older Sri Lankan banknotes, I think they were issued in the 1970s. One of them featured a gleaming white stupa - "dagaba" in Sri Lanka - in a town called Anuradhapura. I was intrigued by this place - not only because of the giant spiked helmet, but because of how unpronounceable the name is. (For those watching at home: it's something like unna-RAH-duh-poo-ruh.)

It was time to finally visit this place. Landana, the tuk-tuk driver who took me to Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa the day before, came around at half past eight to pick me up. I told him yesterday that I was going to Anuradhapura and I asked if he could deliver my clean laundry (which I had dropped off at a commercial laundry that morning) and then take me to the bus station. He made me an offer I could not refuse - three thousand rupees all the way to Anuradhapura.

I told him that I would think about it but truth be told, I didn't have to think very long. Maybe fifteen seconds. The bus would have cost around a hundred rupees. Cheap, sure, but have you ever been on a Sri Lankan bus? I am only one hundred and seventy centimetres tall but even that is too lanky for Sri Lankan bus seats. My knees are always jammed right up against the seat in front of me and my feet are curled under the seat right up to the legs of the person sitting behind me. Nearly every bus plays loud Sri Lankan pop music that sounds like live pigs being castrated with rusty circular saws without anaesthetic. Most buses have 3+2 seating, the aisles are so narrow that my thighs are squeezed between every pair of grab handles on either side of the aisle, and the seats themselves are so tiny that if I share a triple seat with two others I am squashed into mushy pulp. Sri Lankan buses are poorly ventilated, often the windows are stuck closed, and I have yet to mention the drivers. I keep calling them psychopathic maniacs but I think that is being too lenient. A better description would be demons that have somehow escaped the portals of hell and have been sent to Earth as a divinely inspired reminder of what awaits you if you sin too much in this mortal life. Sri Lankan bus travel is dangerous, uncomfortable and absolutely terrifying.

Sri Lankan tuk-tuks are also terrifying, but they are like a ride in a battery-powered golf cart going twenty kilometres an hour in the grounds of a retirement village in Queensland compared to the buses. There is adequate ventilation, great views and decent photo opportunities, no annoying "music", and they don't have to stop every kilometre to let people on and off. So it is no wonder that I gleefully accepted Landana's offer. Twenty-four Australian dollars is nothing. It wouldn't even get me six kilometres in an Uber car in Sydney. Landana was offering me the same price for seventy-two kilometres. Also I have been so very good with my money, I had been sticking to my rough budget, and I have been such a good boy. Deal!

So Landana arrived with my laundry, I got changed into clean clothes, I settled my bill with Kumar and said goodbye to him and his wife and girls, and jumped into Landana's eight month-old Bajaj RE and headed north on the A9 highway towards Anuradhapura.

The A9 between Dambulla and Anuradhapura is the best road I have seen in Sri Lanka excepting the E03 expressway between Bandaranaike International Airport and Colombo. Unusually for Sri Lankan highways, it had a consistently wide shoulder, at least one and a half metres wide, even over culverts and bridges. The lane was at least four, possibly five, metres wide. The standard width of traffic lanes on Australian highways is three and a half metres. The highway was so wide that, assuming that slow traffic went onto the shoulder, there was more than enough room for one car to overtake another car, or a bus to overtake a tuk-tuk, without the overtaking vehicle encroaching upon the lane in the opposing direction. The surface was soo smooth too with such bright white lines. I was impressed.

Heading north from Dambulla you enter the North Central Province, the agricultural heartland of Sri Lanka, with its innumerable irrigation tanks covered in mats of lotus pads and blossoms, its rice paddies with scarecrows - not the scarecrows of children's books, merely plastic garbage bags fluttering in the breeze tied to timber stakes, the highway fringed with palm trees and small villages and banana trees and small market stalls selling whatever the smallholders can grow in their curtilages. The hills and rocky outcrops became less frequent until the tuk-tuk roared at 55 km/h through a landscape as flat as the Netherlands.

After about ninety minutes I arrived at the Senowin Holiday Resort guest house. I said my heartfelt goodbye to Landana and an equallt heartfelt hello to the owner of the guest house, Purmina.

Purmina ushered me in to the house, a large two-storey family home with the top storey converted to guest accommodation, and she offered me tea. She also offered to organise bicycle hire to explore the Sacred City of Anuradhapura which I accepted. While we were waiting for the bicycle she offered me tea and we sat and had a good chat.

Purmina is an interesting lady, a little younger than me, with impeccable English. She has a university degree in textile science and before she started a family she worked as an import-export agent in Sri Lanka's garment industry. She asked me what I thought about Sri Lanka. Rather than my usual "yes, yes, Sri Lanka is great," I decided now was the time that honesty was the best policy.

"I absolutely love Sri Lanka and I absolutely hate Sri Lanka at the same time," I said.

She didn't flinch. "That's great. What do you love about Sri Lanka?"

I comtinued with my honesty. "There is absolutely incredible natural beauty everywhere. The food is totally amazing, especially the fruit and vegetables, they are just divine! And the people are so warm and friendly and hospitable. I love the place."

"That's great," Purmina said. "Now what do you hate about Sri Lanka?"

"Well ..." I got nervous. Would I cause offence? Purmina with her education and fluency in English was the first Sri Lankan I felt I could open up to. I persevered. "There are a few things. I am Australian. In Australia, when someone asks you a question, and you don't know the answer, you say 'I don't know, sorry'. If someone asks you a yes-or-no question, and the answer is 'no', you say 'no'. But here, when I ask a question - like, directions to a bus stop or if some place is still open - people won't say 'no', they will never admit that they don't know the answer, they will make up some nonsense that they think I want to hear. You ask ten Sri Lankans the same question and you get ten different answers. It is absolutely infuriating!"

Purmina wasn't offended, or if she was, she didn't show it. "Yes, I totally understand where you are coming from. But in Sri Lankan culture, you can never say 'no'. If you say 'no', that is very disobedient. Sri Lankans are very honest people, but yes, we try to keep everyone happy and show everyone respect. They are not trying to mislead you or lie to you, they mean very well, but they are trying their best to give you an honest answer and keep you happy. Your culture is very different to ours but you are in a different country now."

I almost burst into tears of joy. I explained what had happened at Bandarawela station a week ago, where my train was delayed and the station staff kept saying the train would "definitely be moving in fifteen minutes" for hours on end, until the train started moving again after a six and a half hour delay.

"Yes, that's a common problem on Sri Lankan railways. They really have no idea. They are just trying to keep all the foreign visitors happy. The railways are terrible. They were given to us by the British but they haven't been improved at all ever since independence. They make people so ashamed to be Sri Lankan!"

I told her not to be ashamed. It's not the fault of the average Sri Lankan that the railways are stuck in the nineteenth century.

It is easy, so very easy, even for people who consider themselves intelligent and tolerant, to visit or move to a foreign country, be confronted by profound cultural differences, and ascribe those cultural differences to some moral failing of the citizenry. "Oh, those Ruritanians are a bunch of shifty lying buggers!" "You gotta watch out for them Lower Slobovians, they'll cheat you out of your life savings without turning a hair!" What cruel, needless misunderstandings, what bloody wars, what terrible genocides, what countless atrocities have happened throughout the history of the human race simply because people from one culture haven't taken the time and effort to sit down with people from another culture and tried to understand how the other culture works?

The bicycle man arrived with my hire bike for five hundred rupees added to my hotel bill. Purmina promised that she would organise a good bike. I do not doubt her intentions. It was a good bike by Sri Lankan standards. The brakes actually worked. Somewhat. The brakes would slow me down but not enough to come to a stop. To stop I needed to scrape the soles of my sandals on the road. The wheels weren't wobbly, rust hadn't completely consumed the frame and spokes, and I could maintain a speed of about ten kilometres an hour on flat ground. That makes it a good bike.

After my near-death on a bicycle in Tissamaharama caused by brakes that were not operational at all, I was nervous about getting on a bike in Sri Lanka again. But Anuradhapura is huge. The attractions are spread over several square kilometres. You cannot walk around Anuradhapura. I could have hired a tuk-tuk but I wanted to go at my own pace, and I was getting sick of tuk-tuks having spent a whole day yesterday in one and ninety minutes this morning.

I applied more sunscreen and pushed off at eleven o'clock. The Sacred City of Anuradhapura is a couple of kilometres west of the modern town. I needn't have worried about the traffic. Bicycles are probably the most popular way to see Anuradhapura and the roads were full of other foreign travellers on equally crappy bicycles. My bicycle wasn't squealing like a wounded fox with every turn of the pedal cranks and the wheels weren't wobbling like they were shaped like eggs so mine was obviously better.

Because Anuradhapura was so huge, there are three ticket offices scattered around the UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is my fifth World Heritage Site in four consecutive days, and my seventh in Sri Lanka. (There are eight World Heritage Sites here, the only one I didn't visit was the Sinharaja rainforest. For some reason, none of the huge numbers of travellers I have met have gone to Sinharaja. I kind of regret not seeing it.)

I tried finding one of the ticket offices. I came across two young German women who were just as lost as me, they pointed me in the wrong direction. It was only after looking at my Lonely Planet and Google Maps on my phone that I finally found an office. I paid my Rs. 4,525 entry fee, got my large cardboard ticket with perforated tabs that could be torn off for each area, and went off to find my first attraction, the Sri Maha Bodhi tree.

I would be lost without my Lonely Planet. I am equally as lost with my Lonely Planet. The quality of the maps in Lonely Planet travel guides is absurdly risible. Whole streets, even major arterials, disappear into the ether on Lonely Planet maps. A street that you think is only two blocks away is actually nine blocks distant. Street name labels are placed on the wrong streets, attractions are shown hundreds of metres away from their true locations, and many are the times when I have navigated to the exact location of a feature of interest shown in a Lonely Planet map only to find myself staring at a stormwater drain or a sporting goods warehouse or a hardware shop car park. I don't expect maps in travel guidebooks like Lonely Planet to be at the same level of quality as, say, Ordnance Survey topographic maps from Britain, but a bit more care and attention to detail would not go astray.

Not helping matters was the terrible signage in Anuradhapura. Signs to attractions at major intersections were either completely absent or only in Sinhala. I pick up new languages quite quickly, I have learned the Sinhala alphabet so I can pronounce Sinhala words without knowing what they mean, but I still couldn't read most od the signs. Occasionally I would stop at an intersection and pronounce each Sinhala character syllable by syllable. Sri ... Ma ... ha ... Bo ... Yes! The Sri Maha Bodhi tree! Got it!" Only to miss a turn off the road because it wasn't signed at all.

I finally reached my first major attraction of the day at midday, the Sri Maha Bodhi tree. This is one of the oldest known trees in the world, planted from a cutting brought from India 2,200 years ago. It is a bo tree, an attractive fig-like tree with broad, venous shield-shaped leaves, that through longevity had branched out into several mutually supporting trunks. Buddha achieved enlightenment while meditating under a bo tree, and this tree being the oldest bo tree in Sri Lanka, it is the object or veneration. A polite young Sinhalese man who was there to pray told me he was grateful that he had passed his university exams and was making offerings, coins wrapped in a handkerchief tied to a railing surrounding the tree, out of gratitude and asking for blessings for exams to come.

Next to the Sri Maha Bodhi tree was a large rectangle of hundreds of closely spaced columns, the remains of the Brazen Palace. Anuradhapua was the royal capital of the Anuradhapua Kingdom which flourished for over a millennium from roughly the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka in around 300 BC to the fall of Anuradhapura after the Indian Chola empire invaded in around 1000 AD. The Brazen Palace was one of many royal residences.

A short, though still appallingly signed, distance to the northeast was the Jetavanaramaya complex, dominated by a large brick dagaba (stupa) and a dizzying complex of ruins - walls, gates, water tanks. About ten minutes to the northwest is the Citadel, the inner sanctum of royal power. Not much remains of this, the citadel was razdd long ago and much of it is now small farms and shops and houses. The remains of the royal palace can be seen, and on the other side of the road are two symmetrical guard houses that once protected the main entrance to the palace. A short distance north are the ruins of the Mahapali alms hall. A very long deep trough where citizens donated rice and other goods to the Buddhist monks was still clearly visible two thousand years later, as was the alms house's s very deep water well shaped like an inverted pyramid. Next door were the remains of the Sacred Tooth temple. The most remarkable thing was that a whole bunch of primary school-age boys who live in the neighbourhood were playing a stick-and-ball game called elle among all the ruins. Why not? This was their neighbourhood, after all, and their ancestors have lived in this area for thousands of years.

Next to the Sacred Tooth temple was an active archaeological dig, protected from the elements by a large galvanised steel shelter on which monkeys were playing. Brick foundations and cellars of some building were clearly visible in the giant soggy pit. New ruins get found in Anuradhapura all the time. For centuries this place was lost to the forest. It is only since British archaeologists rediscovered the ruins in the tangled greenery in the nineteenth century that conservation efforts started and the monuments restored to their proper glory.

Another painful ride - the bike only had one gear, not low enough to climb even the tiniest inclines without getting off and pushing but not high enough to go any faster than about fifteen kilometres an hour - brought me to the Abhayagiri Monastery in the far northwest of the Sacred City of Anuradhapura. But not before my bike broke down. The chain got thrown off the gears. I turned the bike upside down and got to work. But the chain was encased within a metal guard, I rarely see this on Australian bikes but it is common in the Netherlands. I couldn't figure out how to remove the cover. There didn't appear to be any sort of clip or pin I could remove. I stuck my finger in the small hole around the bottom bracket and tried to feel where the chain was. My finger became smeared with a very thick layer of soot and grime. This bike had never been cleaned or serviced in its life. I was about to scream "damn this blasted country where nothing ever works!" when a tuk-tuk driver went passed. He got out, expertly removed the chain case (there was a small section at the back that could be removed with some force), put the chain back on, refused to shake my hand because his hands were now filthy, and went on his merry way. What did I say about how when this country sends you to despair, someone comes along and makes everything right once again? How many times have I found myself stranded on an Australian road due to a flat bicycle tyre or a bus that has been cancelled or a flat battery in my car? And how many people have stopped to help? Hint: it's not a very high number. In Australia, and the West generally, you're on your own. In Sri Lanka they haven't totally lost that spirit of helping a stranger in difficulty.

Thanks to this anonymous stranger ai reached the Abhayagiri Monastery. On the way there were some more sights - the fourth century AD Samadhi Buddha statue, the Twin Ponds where monks would bathe. The Abhayagiri Monastery was a massive complex of several residential compounds for monks - their living quarters, their classrooms, their refectory halls, their administrative offices, their water tanks. I cannot describe the scale of this. The centrepiece is yet another giant brick dagaba. There is the Elephant Pond, a very large tank used to supply the monastery with its water needs. Walking around Abhayagiri it was all too easy to imagine the days when the streets were full of rows of chanting monks walking from the refectory to their theology classes, or from their dormitories to the dagaba to pray and chant in unison for the Anuradhapura kingdom to be blessed.

The sun was getting low in the sky. There was no way I was going to see all of Anuradhapura. It really needs two full days to appreciate, from dawn to dusk, such is the gigantic scale of the place. This wasn't like Polonnaruwa, a compact little town that could be seen on foot in a few hours. This was a true metropolis with hundreds of thousands of people. Not just royalty, not just monks, not just bureaucrats, but the many people who were required to service their needs - the plumbers, the cobblers, the tailors, the merchants, the bricklayers, the barbers, the carpenters, and all their wives and children and elders.

I checked out two more dagabas, the Thuparamaya Dagaba, a small white stupa, and the stunning Ruwawelisaya Dagaba. This snow-white dagaba was built on a scale greater than mere human beings. It took me fifteen minutes to dawdle around it on hot pavers (all visitors are required to remove hats and shoes before approaching1any dagaba or statue of Buddha. Make sure your dresses and shorts cover your knees).

These ruins are not just mere museum pieces for the benefit of travellers. They are active places of worship. A very large prayer meeting was being held in the forecourt of the Ruwawelisaya Dagaba, a saffrom-robed Buddhist monk leading a large assembly of white-clothed parishioners in a soothing, monotonous prayer chant.

It was after five o'clock and my bike had no lights or reflectors. The roads in Anuradhapura have no street lights. It was time for me to leave though there was a whole section in the far south of the Sacred City I didn't even touch. I quickly checked out the Basawkkulama Tank, a nearby irrigation dam where a brilliant sunset was starting, and headed east back into the modern town as quickly as possible. I rode past little farms and cottages where children in shady frontyards waved hello. I waved back. Because I am the coolest boy in the world, because I spent a day cycling through ancient monasteries and shrines and palaces, and there is nothing in the world quite so cool as a boy or a girl on a bike exploring the world, this amazing planet which has been granted to all living beinga for all of us to share in peace and harmony if we could all learn how to, and the best way to learn is to get on your bike and start exploring.

I arrived back at the Senowin Holiday Resort - a rather grand name for a modest guest house. I mean, with a name like that there should be swimming pools and banana daiquiris and deckchairs. I am not complaining, it is a very nice place with a very nice owner who introduced me to her very nice extended family. But it is not a "resort" in the word's natural and ordinary meaning.

The two young German women who had innocently given me the wrong directions earlier soon arrived, they were by coincidence staying here as well. They were dripping head to toe in sweat, just like me when I arrived back at the house; the first thing I did was have a shower. Wherever you go in Sri Lanka, every white person will be drenched in sweat, their clothes clinging to every part of their bodies, even if they aren't doing much, like just sitting at a hotel having a drink. The locals, even if they are climbing mountains or riding bicycles, will be dry as a bone. Do Sri Lankans not have sweat glands? I am certain, without seeing the scientific evidence, that people from ethnic groups originating in higher latitudes cannot genetically handle tropical climates.

We chatted for a while, shared some tips on what to see - I was finishing my holiday going anticlockwise and they were just starting their holiday going clockwise. The ladies gave me a restaurant tip, and one of them escorted me part of the way while she was going to an ATM to try to retrieve a swallowed bank card.

I went to the restaurant on modern Anuradhapura's main street. I sat down and ordered my meal, cheese kotthu (stir-fried strips of roti flatbread mixed with vegetables and spices) with fresh lemon and pineapple juice. My order took forever to arrive. I was very thirsty, almost dehydrated, after cycling in the heat and humidity all day. I had run out of bottled water. On each table was a stainless steel jug of water with several clean glasses.

Without really thinking about it, I made the assumption - which at the time seemed very reasonable but was actually very stupid - that no restaurateur would be so evil as to knowingly serve their patrons water that would make them sick. Surely killing your customere is bad for business? So I poured a full glass of water into one of the glasses and drank it in one big gulp.

I instantly knew I made the wrong decision. The water looked clean, it smelled clean, but it tasted muddy and stagnant, like water from a fish tank. It definitely was not bottled water.

I hoped it wouldn't turn out wrong. There was no immediate reaction. My order of cheese kotthu and the juice arrived and, starving, I devoured them. It was towards the end of my meal that it started. Massive stomach cramps with a fever-like sweat over my whole body. I paid my bill and walked as quickly as possible back to my room.

The Sri Lankan Police had set up a traffic checkpoint on the A12, Anuradhapura's main street. I walked past the checkpoint and a three-stripe officer, presumably a sergeant, motioned me to stop.

"Hello, sir. What's your name?"

"Urban Reverie."

"And where are you from?"

"Australia." I hoped to hell that he wasn't going to ask me for my passport, it was in my room.

"When did you arrive in Sri Lanka?"

"January the thirtieth."

"Mark Taylor is a good player, isn't he? He's my favourite cricketer."

So the policeman just wanted to chat with a foreign stranger. What a relief. "Yeah, Tubby Taylor, that's going back about twenty years or so," I said, feigning an interest in cricket, a sport that I, along with a large number of Australians, usually find about as interesting as watching grass grow. I was very sick, sweating all over, and anxious just to get back to my guest house.

"Yes. And Steve Smith. When is he coming back?"

It was probably not wise to tell the copper that I am not a board member of Cricket Australia and therefore have little knowledge of such matters. "Yeah, dunno, I heard he copped a twelve-month suspension after the sandpaper business in South Africa, I think that was in March last year, so maybe next month?" I swear that cricket is an elaborate practical joke the Australian people play upon themselves. We have to pretend to be interested in cricket, to do otherwise is to expose yourself to accusations of being un-Australian, but in reality most of us dislike the sport and it's really only the sad old obsessive-compulsives who remember every single batsman's score in the Third Test between Australia and India in 1985 who give a crap about cricket.

"Yes. Do you like Ricky Ponting?"

"Yes. Of course I do! He was a very good captain of the Australian team." All I know about Ricky Ponting is that he was the captain in the 2000s. Apart from that, I know nothing.

"Very well. What is crime like in Australia? Is it worse than here?"

This was worse than an actual real-life formal interrogation. At least in an interrogation I would have an idea about the issue I was being asked about. The copper was standing very close to me and his eyes constantly alternated between roaming over my entire body and staring directly into my eyes. "Well, I don't know much about crime in Sri Lanka. There is definitely more traffic crime in Sri Lanka, motorists in Australia are much more law-abiding and safer on the roads. But I think Sri Lankans are much more respectful to each other and to property. I have never seen graffiti on walls or on bridges here. In Australia, there is graffiti everywhere. Australia has a huge problem with drugs, also Australians get drunk very often and cause trouble. I rarely see drunks here or people affected by drugs."

The eyes continued to search into the very interior of my soul. "Very well. So, there are many Sri Lankans who try to go to Australia, illegally. Not legally, but illegally, why is that?"

Sigh. Now I was expected to give a concise answer to this question about the hornet's nest that is Australian asylum seeker politics. "Well, Australia is a very wealthy country. The minimum wage is about two thousand and two hundred rupees per hour. That's about the minimum wage for two days in Sri Lanka. Australia has much better health care, better education, better social security, more job opportunities, because Australia is so wealthy. So that entices a lot of people to try to come to Australia." All this is undoubtedly true; Australia's economic success and relatively generous social benefits do make it an attractive destination for asylum seekers. I could have also mentioned that nearly all of the asylum seekers are Tamils from the north of Sri Lanka, the tourism boom that has done so much to invigorate Sri Lanka's economy has yet to reach the Tamil north, the region has yet to fully recover from a desperate three-decade civil war, during that war the military seized a lot of land and has yet to repatriate much of it to its former owners leaving many Tamils landless and jobless, and the Tamils, despite efforts from the government to include them in the new post-war Sri Lanka, still face discrimination and inequality. But it would have been unwise to press these points with a Nosey Parker police officer

The copper seemed to be unable to think of another question. "Am I free to go now? I am terribly sorry but I need to go back to my hotel room."

"Yes. You can go now. Thank you, sir. Enjoy your stay in Sri Lanka!" He shook my hand and I walked as fast as possible to a supermarket to buy two bottles of water.

I was in agony by the time I got back to my room. It was going to be a quiet night for me, no listening to music or writing my blog. I stripped off, turned the ceiling fan on full blast, unfurled the mosquito net, climbed under the net into the sheetless bed with nothing but my phone and my bottle of water, constantly sipped from the bottle to keep myself hydrated, and writhed in agony, clutching my stomach, hoping that sleep would arrive soon and that the ceiling fan would relieve my febrile, delirious sweating fits.

Very wide A9 highway

Very wide A9 highway

Dodgy bicycle

Dodgy bicycle

Elephant Pond at Anuradhapura

Elephant Pond at Anuradhapura

Dagaba at Anuradhapura

Dagaba at Anuradhapura

Dagaba at Anuradhapura

Dagaba at Anuradhapura

Twin Ponds at Anuradhapura

Twin Ponds at Anuradhapura

Samadhi Buddha statue

Samadhi Buddha statue

Sri Maha Bodhi tree

Sri Maha Bodhi tree

Brazen Palace at Anuradhapura

Brazen Palace at Anuradhapura

Dagaba at Anuradhapura

Dagaba at Anuradhapura

Tank at Anuradhapura

Tank at Anuradhapura

Dagaba at Anuradhapura

Dagaba at Anuradhapura

Archaeological dig at Anuradhapura Citadel

Archaeological dig at Anuradhapura Citadel

Trough used for storing donations at monk’s alms house

Trough used for storing donations at monk’s alms house

Posted by urbanreverie 23:24 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged water ruins bicycles sri_lanka anuradhapura Comments (0)

Look on my works


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Dambulla, Sri Lanka
Saturday, 16 February 2019

Kumar, the owner of the Vihangi Guesthouse in Dambulla, had arranged a tuk-tuk and driver for the day for five thousand rupees, and the tuk-tuk arrived at eight in the morning for a long and exhausting day checking out not just one but two UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The tuk-tuk driver is a gentleman named Landana, a quiet yet friendly middle-aged man who stopped at places along the way to point out interesting sights. I felt at ease with him. There seems to be a world of difference between the greasy, untrustworthy touts who hang around bus stations and ATMs intrusively seeking my business, and the mild-mannered, professional drivers that are arranged for me by the guest houses I stay at.

The first site on our agenda was Sigiriya, about twenty kilometres northeast of Dambulla. Sigiriya is one of the more unusual places I have visited. It is a massive rock monolith with vertical sides that sticks two hundred metres above the northern Sri Lankan plain and on top of this unusual geological feature are the remains of a temple-palace complex.

I paid the foreigner's admission fee of a bit over five thousand rupees and entered the complex. First you cross two square moats, and then you walk through a symmetrical array of tanks, gardens, terraces, ramparts and walls all laid out on a perfect grid. After a few hundred metres you proceed through the Boulder Arch and up the first of many, many stairways.

At first the stairs are solid and made of stone. Soon you reach the sheer cliff face of Sigirya. The stairway becomes a tight spiral staircase inside a steel cage bolted to the side of the cliff. Terrifying enough but it is only a foretaste of what is to come.

At the top of the spiral staircase you reach the rock paintings. Ancient murals are still to be seen inside a small rock overhang on the side of Sigiriya. Here the walkway becomes a checkerplate steel platform cantlivered to the side of the cliff. With every person treading on the platform, it bounced up and down. I would like to say that I enjoyed the murals but I was too busy trying to suppress a panic attack.

After a bit more climbing you reach a large flat rock platform, the Lion's Paws. Here there is a Red Cross first aid station, drinking water, and some trees you can sit under while you catch your breath. There is still a little way to go. The top of the Sigiriya monolith towers over you, and you access the top by walking between two giant stone lion's paws and up more staircases.

These staircases aren't like the others. They are so steep they are more like ladders. The railings are so low, they are at about thigh height. Unlike the lower staircases were ascending and descending visitors are separated, on the final staircases at the top people going up and down push past each other. The stairs are made out of checkerplate steel treads with no risers between the treads. And there is no solid ground under the stairs; each step is cantilevered off the side of the cliff face. The whole assembly of stairs bounce like crazy with all the passing foot traffic and when you look down you can see the ground far beneath you between the steps.

I don't have an especial fear of heights; certainly none worse than the average human being. But I did on Sigiriya. All the signs warning about wasp's nests didn't help things. And while climbing these final stairs I had a panic attack. There were crowds behind me, crowds ahead of me, crowds pushing past on their way down. And I just had to break down into a hyperventilating wreck.

Suddenly I felt a man's hands gently pushing me from behind and a soothing Sri Lankan voice telling me it was all going to be OK. He told me he would take care of me and stop me from falling. He admonished me to not look down, just look at the steps one-by-one as they passed.

I didn't dare turn around to see him. I just concentrated on climbing up step by step and getting my panic under control. Eventually I reached the top. My guardian angel introduced himself and it is to my eternal shame that I forget his name. He was a guide, unofficial and unlicenced of course, and he asked me if he could be my guide for two thousand rupees. Deal.

He pointed out all the sights on top of this truly remarkable place. Over two thousand years ago the top of this rocky outcrop two hundred metres above the surrounding plains was an immense temple-palace-fort-monastery complex most likely dating to the era before Buddhism arrived in Sri Lanka. There were deep water tanks, a large flat expanse of grass that was a dance hall, the throne of the temple's king, remains of walls and stairways and gates. It was lovely and it obviously took a lot of work to build. It was also very hard work to get to. I hope the monks and courtiers and nobles who lived here gave huge tips to the Domino's Pizza delivery man.

It was soon time to descend back to the Lion's Paws. My guardian angel-slash-tour guide warned me that going down was much worse. He was right. I must have turned the colour of alabaster such was my terror. But I was going to be OK because my very own angel was holding my hand and steadying me every step of the way.

I reached the Lion's Paw and the angel-guide led me to the Red Cross station where there was free drinking water and a shady place to sit outside. I sat for a while and drank many litres of water and recuperated. This is the really stupid thing about living with anxiety and depression - you never, ever know when it is going to hit and the stupidest, most unexpected things set them off. I never knew I had a fear of heights but Sigiriya kortified me.

My angel-guide showed me down the rest of the way. He pointed out the queen's throne about half way down, a sheltered rovk overhang where her throne was carved into the stone and beside each of her feet was a large dimple in the stone where water and flowers were placed to keep the throne smelling nice. There was another area where the temple-king and his advisors met, and the Cobra Hood Rock, a natural rock feature that is exactly what it says on the tin. There are fragments of frescoes visible inside the cobra's hood.

We reached the bottom. I paid the angel-guide our agreed two thousand rupees but he asked for even more. Maybe he's not so angelic after all. I didn't have much small change so I think I gave him theonly another one hundred. He looked a little aggrieved. Maybe his modus operandi is that he carefully watches everyone who goes through the Lion's Paws, uses some sixth sense that enables him to predict who will break out into panic on those diabolical stairs, and follows them and pretends to be their guardian angel so they will be so grateful they will shower him with money. Perhaps I should have done likewise but I believe a deal is a deal. We agree on two thousand, that means I pay two thousand plus any gratuity I may decide upon, even if you are the Archangel Gabriel.

I met Landana among all the tacky souvenir stalls at the bottom and returned to his tuk-tuk. We took off slong some narrow yet well-built jungle road. Along one side was a tall electric fence. Landana explained that this was the boundary of the Minneriya National Park, famous for its very large numbers of elephants, and that the fence was to keep the pachyderms inside and prevent them from causing chaos to surrounding communities. When we rejoined the highway we stopped on the banks of Minneriya Lake, a very large irrigation tank that is famous for The Gathering, when over a hundred elephants gather on the shore to drink from the dam. But this only happens had certain times of the day and no large grey beasts were to be seen.

After I had a rice and curry buffet lunch at a thatched-roof open-air restaurant on the shore of another lake, I bought a ticket to Polonnaruwa National Park. Polonnaruwa was the royal capital during the Polonnaruwa period after the fall of the Anuradhapura Kingdom in the tenth century AD until the thirteenth century AD. The ruins of Polonnaruwa are remarkwbly well preserved.

I spent the afternoon bouncing from ruin to ruin in a state of amazement and awe. I will say this about the Sri Lankan government - despite its general incompetence and inefficiency and meaningless red tape and blatant over-staffing, they do a very good job of running national parks, both natural sites and cultural sites. The grounds are as well managed and maintained as anything in Australia, the rules protecting the parks are strictly enforced to the point of searching every bag and ruthlessly confiscating any plastic, there is plenty of informative and clear interpretive signage at every feature of interest.

The main feature of Polonnaruwa is the Quadrangle, the undisputed seat of royal power. Here there are the remains of a large Buddha statue that was formerly encased in a grand pavilion, a former temple of the Sacred Tooth (Buddha's tooth bounced from capital to capital across the island as the fortunes of the various kingdoms waxed and waned), palace halls and sundry other ruins. There are remains of water tanks, dagabas (the large bell-shaped shrines that are commonly known as "stupas" in English), council chambers, and a large rock with not one but four Buddha carvings in a row.

I was in awe. This place was far more advanced and civilised than Northern Europe a thousand years ago. Here in South Asia there were cohesive, relatively expansive nation-states with intricate professional bureaucracies, large standing militaries, codified laws, vast irrigation networks, sanitation systems and massive institutes of higher education.

My British ancestors a thousand years ago, as well as people from similar northern European cultures, lived in poverty in peasant hovels during the stupor of the Dark Ages. Northern Europe was a rabble of tiny, constantly warring principalities and dukedoms and petty kingdoms, there were no universities, not much infrastructure apart from mere donkey tracks and the occasional water mill, the bureaucracy consisted of an ever-changing coterie of whichever brown-nosing courtiers were in favour with the sovereign at the time, sanitation consisted of latrines that were emptied direct into rivers for the next village downstream to drink, water supply consisted of cholera-infested wells and weirs, the law was not so much a codified body of statutes but whatever string of brain-farts some capricious chieftain had uttered that morning, militaries were ad-hoc affairs consisting of small formations that shifted allegiances at the drop of a hat.

Where did it all go so wrong for South Asia and the East in general? And where did it go so right for Europe, and Britain and Northern Europe in particular? This civilisation at Polonnaruwa and its successor kingdoms became ossified, and only three centuries after the fall of the Polonnaruwa kingdom the Portuguese colonised the coastal parts of Ceylon to ruthlessly exploit the local labour force and natural resources, then the Dutch kicked them out and expanded the colonised areas and continued their exploitation, and then the British kicked them out and expanded their rule over the entire island for 133 years and kept on with the exploitation, throwing in some divide-and-conquer tactics for good measure that played the Sinhalese and Tamils off against each other, a tactic that contributed to the eruption of a three-decade civil war after independence.

I'm not a historian. I'll leave it to others to list the causes to which the success of Western civilisation over the past five hundred years or so can be ascribed. I will say, however, that Polonnaruwa gives the lie to this silly notion that civilisations are permanent, that one civilisation is destined to be superior to others for eternity due to some permanent innate quality, and that the areas of the world that are now poor shall always remain so, and that the areas that are now rich shall likewise always remain so. Walking around Polonnaruwa, the famous poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley’s kept ringing through my head:

'My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains.

Shelley’s words don't just apply to fallen ancient civilisations. They apply to our own as well.

It was time to leave Polonnaruwa, I was exhausted even though there were still a few ruins I hadn't checked out. On the drive back to Dambulla in the late afternoon I had a good chat with Landana. I asked him about tuk-tuks and how much they cost and what it is like to be a tuk-tuk driver. He told me that a brand-new tuk-tuk, such as the Bajaj RE he was driving (by far the most popular model), costs eight lakh rupees - about six thousand Australian dollars.

Of course, few Sri Lankans have eight hundred thousand rupees stashed away in a biscuit tin at the bottom of the wardrobe. But it's OK, you can buy a Bajaj RE on hire-purchase. It only costs you Rs. 13,200 a month for five years, after which the tuk-tuk is finally yours. But of course tuk-tuks aren't the most robust and durable of motor vehicles so after five years of intensive use you need to lease another one and the cycle continues.

I have been in Sri Lanka long enough to know that a typical short taxi ride in a town costs a local about Rs. 50 or Rs. 100 (foreign visitors can expect to be quoted much more which they usually willingly pay). But there are far more tuk-tuks on the streets than there is demand for them. There doesn't appear to be a system of taxi plates that owners have to bid for at a government auction, the tuk-tuks all just carry ordinary vehicle plates. The barrier to entry for new drivers is very low, they just have to sign a hire-purchase agreement promising to pay the lease agreement every month. So men - it's only men - who find themselves out of work or bankrupted out of their farm lease a tuk-tuk and start driving a taxi.

Hence why whenever you leave a bus or railway station there are mobs of desperate tuk-tuk touts begging for your services. Most tuk-tuk drivers spend a huge portion of their days not in revenue service. It must take a large portion of the days of a month to do enough taxi trips to earn the Rs. 13,200 needed to pay the lease off, not to mention earn enough to pay for registration, fuel, insurance and maintenance. And only after those costs are met can drivers think of putting food on the family dinner table. No wonder so many tuk-tuk drivers are so pushy and intrusive and a few of them sometimes resort to underhanded tactics and lying and scamming tourists to get business. These are desperate men in desperate situations mostly just trying to give their families a decent life.

On the A9 between Habarana and Dambulla, Landana stopped the tuk-tuk on the hard shoulder and pointed off to the right. About a hundred metres away there was an elephant, munching away on shrubs, flopping its ears around. A whole lot of other vehicles had stopped too to admire the beast, both foreign travellers and locals. This wasn't a national park, just scrubland amongst all the farms and villages. What a magnificent noble animal.

Landana dropped me off back at the guest house shortly before six. The guest house owner called a tuk-tuk to take me to a nearby restaurant for another rice and curry buffet. Not only was I too exhausted to walk but the neighbourhood is teeming with vicious dogs that become even more aggressive at night. I can't ever get tired of rice and curry. Every rice and curry is its own unique symphony, no two are the same. Even at the same restaurant the kaleidoscope changes from day to day, sometimes massively, sometimes subtly. Just like Sri Lanka itself, rice and curry never ceases to surprise, to challenge, to inspire, to educate.

Sigiriya

Sigiriya

Boulder Arch at Sigiriya

Boulder Arch at Sigiriya

Sigiriya spiral staircase

Sigiriya spiral staircase

Lion’s Paws stairway

Lion’s Paws stairway

Ruins at top of Sigiriya

Ruins at top of Sigiriya

Queen’s throne at Sigiriya

Queen’s throne at Sigiriya

Minneriya Lake

Minneriya Lake

Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa

Dagaba at Polonnaruwa

Dagaba at Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa

Stone Book at Polonnaruwa

Stone Book at Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa

Dagaba at Polonnaruwa

Dagaba at Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa

Moonstone (used for cleaning feet before entering sacred sites) at Polonnaruwa

Moonstone (used for cleaning feet before entering sacred sites) at Polonnaruwa

Buddha carvings st Polonnaruwa

Buddha carvings st Polonnaruwa

Elephant near Dambulla over man’s right shoulder

Elephant near Dambulla over man’s right shoulder

Posted by urbanreverie 23:21 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged ruins elephants sri_lanka polonnaruwa dambulla sigiriya tuk-tuks Comments (0)

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