A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about buduruwagala

Up into the hills


View Urban Reverie 2019 on urbanreverie's travel map.

Ella, Sri Lanka
Thursday, 8 February 2019

I awoke shortly after six o'clock, well before I had set my alarm, having had eleven hours of deep sleep. I was not in a hurry so I took my sweet time eating a breakfast of leftover chocolate biscuits, spicy dried chickpeas and an apple that I bought for my bus trip from Matara to Tissamaharama, showering, shaving, reorganising my backpack, packing and searching for my hat.

My hat! My hat! I lost my beautiful hat! That steadfast and trusty companion on my travels that I bought at Big W in Bathurst for about twenty bucks six years ago. That hat was just perfect. It had a wide brim that protected my entire face and neck from the sun, it was made of straw so it collapsed easily into my luggage, because it was made of straw my head still got some ventilation, and it had a sturdy chinstrap with a movable woggle that stopped my hat flying away even in gale force winds.

I know exactly how I lost it, it was somewhere on the floor of the jeep that I went on to Yala National Park. Because the back of the jeep had a roof I didn't need it on all the time so I had stowed it under the seat in front of me. When I disembarked from my jeep at my hotel I did do a quick check of the floor to check that I hadn't left it behind but the hat must have slid away to some other part of the floor. I was also very, very tired and though I pride myself on my organisation, thoroughness and the fact that I rarely lose anything, when I am very tired I let my guard down and get a bit forgetful. It's why I left my daypack in the taxi van on the trip from the airport to my hotel in Colombo.

Oh well. I will just have to put plenty of sunscreen on my head until I come across a suitable hat somewhere else. Slightly pissed off with myself, I paid my bill of Rs. 3,690 to the owner's aunt - and at fifteen Australian dollars a night, that would have to be the cheapest I have ever paid for accommodation on any of my overseas travels - and asked her which bus I had to take to Ella. She didn't understand me so she called over some people from the shop next door. They also had difficulty with English so I got out my Sinhala phrasebook. Then they told me the good news - the stop was across the road and I only had to change once or twice.

Grateful for the glad tidings, I crossed the road and waited a whole two minutes until my first bus of the day, route 335/1 from Tissamaharama to Thanamalwila. I boarded the bus, I told the conductor that I wanted to go to Ella.

"I will help you, yes, I will help you."

It was the strangest bus I have been on in Sri Lanka - the driver stuck to the speed limit, obeyed the law, and was courteous to other road users. He even gave way to traffic already on a roundabout. I should have taken a video. I know that you won't believe me. I scarcely believe it myself. Most of the other passengers were country housewives off to do the shopping.

A few kilometres south of Thanamalwila on the A2 highway, a bus overtook us. "That's the bus towards Ella!" the conductor exclaimed. The conductor went up to the driver and asked him to honk his horn and flash his lights at the other bus. The other bus pulled over and the conductor told me to hurry, the bus was waiting just for me. Sri Lanka is like that - just when you get sick of the touts and con jobs, someone will surprise you with astonishing friendliness and hospitality that restores your faith in this country's people.

Thanking the conductor and driver far too quickly, I hopped onto the next bus, route 35 from Mathara to Monaragala. It was a fairly short journey for me as far as Wellawaya and I spent my time practicing my Sinhala with the middle-aged married couple sitting in front of me. I am starting to fall in love with Sinhala with its sinuous snail-like letters and musical murmuring and bouncy rhythms.

I got off at Wellawaya at about 11am. I had planned on just using Wellawaya as a lunch stop but on my way there I checked my Lonely Planet. There was a place called Buduruwagala, known for its ancient stone carving of Buddha on the side of a cliff, about ten kilometres out of town. I then changed my plans to have lunch then find a tuk-tuk to Buduruwagala.

I got off the bus and was mobbed by the usual crowd of desperate tuk-tuk drivers. One was a bit more persistent than the others and followed me.

"I am sorry, sir, but I don't need a tuk-tuk just now. I just want to find a restaurant so I can have lunch."

He seemed to relax. "It's OK, I will show you a restaurant. Follow me." He led me to one end of the bus station and on the other side of the highway was a Chinese restaurant.

The Chinese restaurant had yet to open for the day. "I'm sorry, sir, but the restaurant is not open. There is no other restaurant around here, you will need a taxi." And - what are the odds! - his tuk-tuk just so happened to be parked right there opposite the closed Chinese restaurant! What an amazing coincidence!

"I told you I do not need a tuk-tuk. I'll walk somewhere else, I know the town centre is just on the next street." I pointed at the busy intersection one block north.

"No, there's no restaurant there, it's too far. You can't walk there, you need a taxi." I ignored him and he followed me a short distance before giving up.

Right-wingers and conservative parties, even some centre-left parties, in Western countries like Australia want to abolish the welfare state, the greatest moral advance of the twentieth century. They dream of some Hobbesian free-market utopia, a war of all against all, the law of the jungle, survival of the fittest, devil take the hindmost. They want to force society's most vulnerable people, the poor, the lonely, the disabled, the single parents, even the elderly into insecure poorly-paid work in the so-called "gig economy" like these tuk-tuk drivers and touts and scammers. The right-wingers claim that any job is better than no job at all and that there is greater dignity in working in such precarious, demeaning work than in being on the dole queue.

Bullshit.

There is far greater dignity in being paid a social security allowance from a system you pay into when you are healthy and able to find work. There is no dignity at all in being forced to lie, cheat, steal and harass innocent strangers by an unjust economic system that refuses to provide secure, adequately paid, dignified work to every citizen. No human being should be forced to degrade themselves and their morals just to put food on the family table and a roof over their heads. If you want to see a place that doesn't have a comprehensive welfare state, come to an underdeveloped country. You will then appreciate social security a bit more. The welfare state, built by the generation that suffered through the Great Depression and defeated fascism, is our most prized heritage. Defend it with all your might.

Only about a hundred metres north of the closed Chinese restaurant at the other end of the bus station was a whole row of restaurants where I could eat delicious rice and curry and drink coffee to my heart's content. Which is exactly what I did. I told the restaurant owner that I wanted to visit Buduruwagala. She told me to wait and got on the phone, presumably to a relative or friend. Soon a friendly man, Savan, appeared. He quoted me thirteen hundred rupees for a tour to Buduruwagala. My Lonely Planet said the going rate was seven hundred. I decided to meet him halfway at one thousand but he wouldn't budge. So we settled on thirteen hundred.

Here's my attitude to bargaining - I come from a country where it simply isn't done and is seen as massively disrespectful to the person providing a service. I do not have the confidence to bargain and I find it stressful. So I try and avoid it. Besides, what is the difference between Rs. 1300 and Rs. 700? It's A$10.35 versus A$5.60. What is A$4.75 to me? I am stingy but not that stingy. It's about what I pay for a cup of coffee with the boys at work every morning. But what's A$4.75 to a Sri Lankan? It's food for a whole family for a day. The marginal utility of A$4.75 is microscopically tiny to me. The marginal utility of A$4.75 to a Sri Lankan is many orders of magnitude greater. So by paying the extra six hundred rupees above what my Lonely Planet said, I am actually increasing the amount of utility within the human race. Jeremy Bentham would be proud of me.

I got in the back of Savan's tuk-tuk and we headed south out of Wellawaya. We stopped at a rice paddy. He ran into the field and harvested a mature stalk of grain for me. I looked at the rice stalk with interest, rubbed the grains between my fingers, even ate some. The grains were hard but not as hard as uncooked rice from the supermarket; the grains are oven-dried during processing before retail sale. They tasted like rice but fresher and more fragrant. It's as rice should be.

We then turned west off the busy A2 highway and down a bumpy gravel track fringed with lakes, rocky hills and more rice paddies. Savan stopped the taxi again so we could look at the teeming schools of flat, black, bulge-eyed fish in a lake.

Soon we arrived at a ticket booth and I paid my Rs. 368 admission. Savan parked the taxi in a car park and I walked a hundred metres to Buduruwagala. Buduruwagala consisted of a cliff on the side of a hill, and on the cliff a large standing Buddha was carved into the stone. The Buddha is fifteen metres tall and is the tallest carved standing Buddha in Sri Lanka. On each side of the Buddha is a group of three smaller figures each representing various figures from Buddhist theology.

Buduruwagala was csrved in about the tenth century AD. As an Australian, seeing such antiquities never ceases to strike me with reverential awe. I come from a country that was first colonised by Europeans in 1788. I work next to a UNESCO World Heritage-listed building that was built in 1817, one of the oldest buildings in Australia. Sydneysiders think this building is extremely old and treat it in much the same respect as Athenians treat the Parthenon. But really, 1817 is nothing. I've slept in a building twice as old on this trip.

Buduruwagala was interesting and I recommend it but it's the kind of thing that takes less than ten minutes to see. I went back to Savan and his tuk-tuk and we made our way back to the Wellawaya bus station. He pulled up outside my next bus and we exchanged hearty farewells. As I said, just when you get sick of the touts and rip-offs, you meet people here who stun you with their friendliness and warm humanity.

The next bus was, to put it mildly, a bit eccentric. My route 998 bus from Matara to Badula was bright pink all over. Pink exterior, pink interior, pink seats, pink frilly curtains, pink ceiling. I felt like I was stuck in a six-year-old girl's doll house minus the Barbie dolls. This bus was also a little bit fancy - it wasn't just playing hideous Sri Lankan pop music but hideous Sri Lankan pop music videos on the screen at the front of the bus.

The mobile doll house left Wellawaya and climbed north into the hills. The bus roared, swerved and honked its way up a twisty mountain highway with few guard rails protecting fifty people from a fiery death in the ravine far, far below. I just tried to concentrate on the glorious mountain scenery and looked away from the road.

After about an hour I arrived in Ella where I quickly disembarked on the main street. I found a lovely, bustling little village surrounded by steep, cloud-fringed hills. It is also very tourist-oriented, most of the people on the streets are foreign backpackers. There has not been such a large concentration of smelly dirty feral hippies in one place since Occupy Wall Street.

It was a ten-minute walk to my guest house, Up Country, which just so happens to be located opposite Ella railway station. Not that I would intentionally pick a hotel opposite a railway station. Oh no! Perish the thought!

Ella is a very steep town. At street level is a small café and shop, and the guest rooms are out the back down the hill behind the café. The station road is on a ridge and it was a great place to relax with complimentary pancakes stuffed with coconut and treacle and a soothing cup of black Ceylon tea while enjoying the recuperative breeze. Ella is 1010 metres above sea level and the weather here is marvellous - mid-twenties, moderately humid but not sweaty, cloudy. I worked on my blog as I watched the occssional train go past.

Ella is famous for its array of cookery classes and I booked one at a restaurant, Nanda's, on the corner of the station road and the main highway. For eighteen hundred rupees I and six other tourists were taught the fine art of how to cook a rice and curry. We all participated in the preparation - grinding the coconut, soaking the dhal, kneading the coconut roti dough, cutting the pumpkin and such like - and we were handsomely rewarded with a magnificent meal of our own making - garlic and pandanus rice, coconut roti, coconut sambal, and three curries (green bean, pumpkin and dhal).

Afterwards I retired to a nearby pub with a thatched roof, open sides and log pillars of the sort you find all around the world in every tropical tourist destination. I am not a party animal so I picked a nice, quiet one a bit off the main drag where I could work on my blog and catch up with friends online.

Soon I fell in with an English chap, Jason. I do have a rule - meeting people is preferable to my writing project; my blog is just a spare-time, chill-out endeavour. So I put away my Samsung Galaxy tablet and got to talking with Jason. This loud but affable fellow is thirty-three, he owns a campsite back home that closes in winter, and so he spends three months a year travelling overseas to a warmer climate with his young family. This year they are staying in Sri Lanka. I am so jealous of those kids. Why couldn't I have a childhood like that? Not fair!

We got to chatting, compared notes, made some terrible jokes, laughed. The Lion beer was way too warm - there had been a blackout for most of the day, the Ceylon Electricity Board was doing maintenance work on power lines in the neighbourhood. I remarked that the beer was a bit warm but that Jason being a Pommy bastard should be used to it, and he just laughed and gave me the finger.

Soon we were joined by a mad fat drunk Czech bastard aged in his fifties who knew we couldn't speak Czech but insisted on speaking only Czech. He would hug me without asking for my leave and would sometimes bring his face right up to mine when he spoke. I found this when I was in Prague in 2017 - Czechs are aloof and gloomy when sober but terrifyingly convivial when drunk. This guy got a bit too huggy, he wouldn't stop laughing and making lewd gestures (I guess while telling bawdy jokes in Czech), and though we tried to use Google Translate to understand what he was saying the translations only came out all garbled.

Later we were joined by a local whose name I forget, a young, sharp-eyed guy with a scar on his forehead who claimed to be in the Sri Lankan mafia and to have served time in prison for murder. I have been in enough pubs in my life to know that they are full of people whose relationship with the truth is rather flexible. But it was enough to make me worried.

"Doesn't this guy give you the creeps?" I asked Jason when the young local had gone to the toilet.

"Just a bit. Yeah, just a little bit," he said.

It was time for me to leave. It was eleven o'clock and though I had had only one gin and tonic and two beers, I was rather tired, had planned an early start for the next morning and the Czech weirdo and Sri Lankan wannabe-mafioso were annoying me. I walked the hundred metres back to my room through the marauding packs of street dogs, occasionally turning to make sure I wasn't being followed.

Lake near Buduruwagala

Lake near Buduruwagala

Buddha carving at Buduruwagala

Buddha carving at Buduruwagala

Pink bus

Pink bus

Savan and a rice stalk

Savan and a rice stalk

Bus from Thanamalwila to Wellawaya

Bus from Thanamalwila to Wellawaya

Complimentary welcome snack at guest house in Ella

Complimentary welcome snack at guest house in Ella

Dinner is served at Sri Lankan cooking class

Dinner is served at Sri Lankan cooking class

Ella railway station

Ella railway station

The beginning of the Hill Country north of Wellawaya

The beginning of the Hill Country north of Wellawaya

Pink bus at Ella

Pink bus at Ella

Tambourine-playing beggar on the bus at Thanamalwila

Tambourine-playing beggar on the bus at Thanamalwila

Sri Lankan cookery class at Ella

Sri Lankan cookery class at Ella

Posted by urbanreverie 16:05 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged buddha buses nightlife sri_lanka ella tissamaharama buduruwagala wellawaya Comments (0)

(Entries 1 - 1 of 1) Page [1]