Sri Lanka – Culture Overload!

Another update without photos, I’m afraid. Not managed to find somewhere that we can upload pictures yet, though I’ll try harder in the next couple of days. We still have the Taj Mahal pictures to upload, and have since filled the 512mb memory card again!

We arrived in Sri Lanka late on Monday 7th February. We had a hotel room booked so got a taxi from the airport to the Airlink hotel. After being shown to our room (which was basic but looked okay) we started to unpack but noticed a cockroach appear from under the door. A big cockroach, maybe 3-4 inches long. One wouldn’t be a problem, but then more and more started to emerge from the bathroom, from under the bed and a variety of other dark locations. We put some roach-killing chalk down but this only worked slowly. After half an hour, with 4-5 roaches in their death throes around us we went and asked for another room, which was available, but at additional cost (what a surprise!).

The next room was fine, and we slept until about 7 when we got up and headed for our next hotel, the lovely Colombo House in Colombo.

Great room there, more of a suite in fact. Lovely old house with a balcony etc.
We went for a walk to absorb a bit of Sri Lankan atmosphere. The first thing that struck us was how much cleaner and better built everything was. The roads were less unruly, people seemed happier than in India, and it was lovely and warm, much welcomed after our last week of cold and rain in Delhi.

After a day of shopping and eating, we booked ourselves a tour of the Cultural Triangle through Mr Linton of Rail Tours, just close to Fort Station in Colombo. We would have a car and driver for 5 days starting out from Kandy which we would reach by train.

The train journey was very pleasant, 3 hours in the 1st Class observation car on the train. 1st class isn’t as posh as it sounds, probably equivalent to a dirty Standard Class train in the UK. We travelled up through the hills to Kandy, passing some lovely views of forested and cultivated hillsides.

On reaching Kandy we stayed at Mr Linton’s Blue Haven guesthouse, up in the hills above Kandy with beautiful views over a valley.

I won’t go into great detail on all the places we visited, but over the next few days we went to Dambulla, Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa, Mihintale and Anuradhapura, all part of the UNESCO Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka.

We saw some amazing buildings, ruins, stupas (dome-shaped Buddhist shrines) and sculpture, most of which we took pictures of. As I say, I’ll upload some of the pictures when I can as they surpass anything I can say about them. We met some great people too, particularly Mr Peter Larsson (from Sunderland; good luckwith the teaching job, Peter), Kumar our driver, and Nuwan who guided us so well at Mihintale

After the tour we returned to Kandy, and caught a train to a hill-station town called Nuwara Eliya, about 4 hours away. We spent a day there, with a quick look around the town before heading to Ella, a small village in the Highlands surrounded by spectacular views.

In Ella we walked down to Ravana Ella Falls, before catching a bus back to the guesthouse. Ella is a lovely place, marred only by the excessive competition between the guesthouse owners. We stayed at both the Ella Gap Tourist Inn, and the Ravana Heights guesthouse, and both were very good, although very different.

On Sunday 20th we caught the train back to Colombo, a marathon journey of 11 hours (again in the observation car) which delivered us back at 10pm.

So that’s what we’ve been up to. The photos will take some weeding through but I hope to get them sorted soon.

Our next step is on to Negombo on Wednesday, one of the few beach places which wasn’t badly affected by the Dec 26th tsunami. We haven’t spent any time on a beach since Arambol, so we figured we could so with a bit of relaxation.

And so, on to Sri Lanka

My last blog entry was written in Bangalore so I’ve got a bit of catching up to do.

We got a flight with Air Deccan to Delhi, and spent a couple of days at the Hotel Ajanta having booked a bus ticket to Dharamsala through the travel agent there (after first checking that the bus would be “luxury” and we wouldn’t be given the back seats. “Bus is used mostly by foreigners, sir, is very good bus”).

On Thursday evening we went to get the bus, only to find that the bus wasn’t luxury, it was filthy and at least 20 years old. And they had allocated us… the seats at the back… the ones that don’t recline. We decided to wait until the next pickup (still in Delhi) and then make up our minds what to do. As we pulled up, it was obvious that things weren’t going to get any better as there were loads of Tibetans waiting to get on (and precisely one foreigner!). We jumped off and after a struggle managed to retrieve our bags from the boot. We couldn’t face a 12 hour journey on the back seats of the rickety bus (which had flung us all over the place just going through Delhi, heavens knows what the Himalayas would have done to it!).

So we got off and caught an auto-rickshaw back to New Delhi, and checked into a hotel down the road from the Ajanta.

We decided that we wouldn’t be going to Dharamsala after all, so rearranged our flight to Sri Lanka for Monday. We were both pretty disappointed as we wanted to go up into the foothills of the Himalayas, but we really couldn’t face the journey on those seats in that bus. It was the second time we’d been let down or lied to by the travel agent at the Ajanta so we were pretty angry.

On Sunday we caught an early train to Agra, and headed straight for the Taj Mahal. The entry fee was expensive (Rs.750 each) but well worth it. The building is magnificent, quite amazing, possibly the most photogenic structure I’ve seen. We took 65 photos (will try to upload some of them either today or in the next few days) and could have taken lots more.

The Taj was very busy but it was still possible to find places in the garden which were quiet and shaded.

Our rickshaw driver then took us to a good restaurant which was pricey compared to other places in India, but that’s pretty typical of Agra.

Next was Agra Fort, another Rs.250 each. The fort was nice, if a little delapidated. All of the rooms which the public are allowed in are empty and many have had their decoration removed or vandalised. Still a nice place to visit, but nowhere near as good as the Fort at Jodhpur.

After that it was the obligatory visit to a marble workshop/store where we declined the opportunity to buy over-priced marble inlay, and then back on the train to Delhi.

Today we’re at the airport waiting for our evening flight to Sri Lanka. We’ve got hotels booked for the first 3 nights while we find out how things are there.