We made it through our endless eight hour bus journey and arrived into Dambulla late Tuesday evening for the first of our many homestays in the ancient cities.
We’d had limited WiFi at the beach house, so the first we heard of the state of emergency was when our host told us there had been a ‘small incident’ in Kandy. Our original plan had been to head to Kandy on the train and then catch a bus to Dambulla, but luckily we had changed our minds last minute and were already a good distance away from the city.
I’m writing this a week later and, although the state of emergency is still in place, we haven’t noticed anything out of the ordinary beyond a few army vans here and there. There have obviously been some serious issues in Kandy, but no-one we’ve spoken to further north has had any concerns about safety and the government are insisting that the problems are limited to the region.
Having said that, no-one has had any real information about the incident either. The government shut down social media sites, including WhatsApp, pretty quickly after the first riots, apparently to crack down on the spread of ‘false rumours’ online. In reality, it’s meant that the only access to information comes from government sponsored news channels, which several people have told us are unreliable. Twitter is still up and running and we’ve seen a lot of conflicting reports on there –the government website claimed there were no issues after the first few days, but locals in Kandy were reporting ongoing riots. Either way, it seems like things have calmed down a little now and there’s talk of the social media ban being lifted today.
Our stay in Dambulla was short and sweet and limited to exploring the famous Rock Temples, five separate caves with over 150 statues and paintings of Buddha and his assistants.
Pilgrims and devotees still worship at these temples and the whole place feels very peaceful and spiritual. Walking around in the early morning light, watching Buddhists pray and make offerings, while listening to the call to prayer from a nearby mosque, it was hard to imagine how different things were a few miles down the road in Kandy.
The statues themselves are remarkable, but the paintings on the roofs of the caves are what makes them special. The carefully painted Buddhas cover every crevice and fold of the rock, so that at first glance it almost looks like the caves are lined with ornate draped canopies. Some of them were done over 2000 years ago, but they’ve been retouched several times and are in incredible condition today.
After the cave temples, we headed straight to nearby Sigiriya on the bus. We stayed in a lovely little homestay in Sigariya, named Charly’s Lodge after the owner’s father who sadly passed away when he was ten. The family were so lovely and attentive and, after some adorable welcome coconuts shaped like elephants, we were constantly supplied with fresh juice, cookies, cups of tea and all sorts. Chanaka, one of the elder brothers who runs the place, works in a five star hotel up the road and you can tell he’s picked up some tricks. We’re not used to such luxury!
That afternoon we took a long walk around the Sigiriya complex, along the moats and up to Pidurangala Rock, the little sister to the famous and imposing Lion’s Rock.
A hot and sweaty climb in the afternoon heat, with some sketchy scrambling up boulders to finish, but we made it to the top just in time for a misty sunset over the jungle. Sigiriya is surrounded by miles of lush forest and lakes and, despite the haze, the views from Pidurangala Rock made for one of our favourite sunsets of the trip so far.
Up at the crack of dawn the next morning to tackle another big rock. Several people had told us not to bother climbing Lion Rock as it is overrun with people, very expensive and the views aren’t as good as from Pidurangala (which is just 500 rupees to climb). You can’t get in to the gardens or the museum without the ticket, however, and it felt like a waste to come all this way and not check it out.
I’m glad we didn’t listen and made sure to do both. It’s true that Pidurangala has better views, but Sigiriya is far more interesting. It’s also a tougher climb than expected, no scrambling this time but an endless series of steps to the top, although it’s worth it when you get there. Amazing to see the ruins of the old palace (or monastery, up for debate) at the top and imagine what it must have been like up there thousands of years ago.
The frescoes on the way up are also worth seeing. No pictures allowed, but there are drawings painted onto the face of the rock of a series of scantily clad ladies. The paintings themselves are interesting, but there’s also a wall of ‘graffiti’ in ancient Sinhala, from visitors who came to the rock and wrote about how ‘beautiful’ the ladies were and how much the visitors appreciated their ‘fine features’ (that’s putting it politely…).
Lion Rock is certainly more crowded than Pidurangala and, although we’d had a free run to the top, by the time we started to make our way down there was a backlog of tour buses and school groups queueing to reach the top. I have no idea why the big tour groups don’t just bring people a little earlier, but we felt like we’d missed the onslaught as we walked out through the gardens and saw the masses approaching.
Feeling smug that we already had the climb out the way, we spent a few hours exploring the gardens, tasting our first string hoppers (finally) and strolling through the surprisingly good museum.
Back to Charly’s for a few hours of life admin (booking our flights to Nepal and sorting out our first week back in India) before Chanaka took us on a walk down to the nearby lakes that afternoon.
A picturesque scroll through the diverse countryside at sunset, and we used Chanaka’s handy book on Sri Lankan wildlife to identify some birds and critters along the way. One of our favourite things about Sri Lanka is the diversity of the wildlife here. We decided not to visit any of the national parks, as we’ve already been spoilt by the safaris in South Africa a few months ago, but you can see a lot just by strolling around the forests. There are noisy but colourful peacocks everywhere, creepy dinosaur-esque rock monitor lizards, vivid blue kingfishers (or electric penguins as we prefer to call them) swooping right past your nose and impressive eagles soaring above. Not to mention the hundreds and hundreds of monkeys and macaques giving the funny looking humans quizzical looks.
There’s also some more dangerous wildlife around. Earlier that day we’d found a snake skin on the way up Lion’s Rock and, sure enough, when we reached the top I managed to narrowly avoid leaning against this little creeper (I know he’s small, but still…).
The moats and lakes in Sigiriya are apparently home to some nasty crocodiles and Chanaka told us about the troubles they’ve had with wandering elephants. Apparently elephants are quite fond of rice, particularly when it’s fresh from the paddy. There are two large national parks near to Sigiriya, both of which are home to hundreds of elephants and Chanaka told us how they are starting to wander further and further from home. On top of that, the villages and farms are increasingly encroaching on elephant territory. During the rice harvest season, which is going on at the moment, farmers have to sleep in hides above their fields and keep watch for elephants every night for almost three months. They’ve made up makeshift ‘elephant alarms’ out of cans of lager and string and have to set off fireworks to scare them away if they get too close.
Luckily we made it home just before dark, which is when Chanaka assures us the elephants will make their appearance. Yet another delicious mountain of rice and curry (Sri Lankans feed you a LOT) and an early night ready to move on to Polonnaruwa the next day.