The ancient cities – Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura

The bus ride to Polonnaruwa was another hair raising experience which left our legs wobbling as we stepped off. Thank God it was only an hour and a half.

I don’t know if I’ve just been spooked by the incident in Hatton, but I genuinely think the buses here are the worst I’ve ever been on, including Honduran chicken buses and Indian sleepers. It’s not that they are any more uncomfortable or crowded, if anything they’re nicer, but they are just so unbelievably fast all the time. Someone told us a couple of days ago that we shouldn’t worry as the bus drivers are all ‘very experienced’ and that while they might ‘kill anything in their path’, you’re safer on the bus than off it. Not reassuring at all and I’m extremely glad that we’ve now had our last Sri Lankan bus journey. Next time I’m sticking to trains and taxis!

Anyway, we survived and, after heading to a local joint for all you can eat rice and curry, we set straight out on our ‘turbo’ bikes to explore the ancient city of Polonnaruwa. We’d only planned to stay for one night here, so were hoping to tackle the 27 archaeological sites in one afternoon.

The ruins here are even more preserved than those in Sigiriya and we had great fun scooting between them on our rickety old bikes.

Particular highlights were the sacred quadrangle, with its impressive array of brick Buddhas, and the huge and imposing dagobas scattered around the complex. The Lankatilaka temple, with its headless Buddha statue, was especially memorable, not just for the incredible statue but also for the hundreds of monkeys playing on the walls!

We even spotted these macaques terrorising a poor old cat. The bigger monkeys were the bravest and slowly crept in and gave the kitty a gentle poke, jumping away in fright when it moved its head. A few more attempts at poking and the cat eventually gave in and let the monkeys start hunting for fleas.

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We were stuck watching the new friendship unravel for a good ten minutes before we remembered we were trying to make it to the Gal Vihara before sunset.

The Gal Vihara, four separate Buddha images cut into a giant slab of granite, was definitely the high point of the day, and probably the most impressive of all the statues and carvings so far.

We made it back to the homestay before darkness fell, having ticked off an impressive 25 of the ruins, just in time for yet another massive rice and curry. It’s very hard to stay fit when you’re on the move so much and, although we’re still walking at least 15km a day on average, it’s not quite enough to offset the mountains of food we’re being served on a daily basis. Feeling guilty after another full meal, we attempted our first run in a while the next day.

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It would have been a beautiful route down quiet back roads, but it seems that the local dogs have never seen runners before and, as well as waking up the entire village, we kept having to stop to fight them off. The locals themselves found it hilarious – some egged us on, some shouted and said hello, others scratched their heads in bemusement at the sight of us two funny looking pale people plodding through the village and running away from the dogs. And, of course, everyone had a good giggle. Not entirely successful, but better than nothing and at least we felt we’d earned the huge plate of hoppers and coconut rotti for breakfast.

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Another ancient capital, Anuradhapura is a much bigger place than Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa. We’ve spent a fortune over the last few days on expensive entrance tickets to archaeological sites and ancient ruins and, having already done two archaeological museums in two days, we decided to skip the museum and the other expensive bits of Anuradhapura and explore some of the other sights instead.

First up was a visit to the Sri Maha Bodhi, the oldest authenticated tree in the world. The sacred bodhi tree was grown from a cutting brought from India and has been tended uninterrupted for over 2000 years.

The tree itself is possibly looking a little worse for wear and is being held up by a set of gold scaffolding, but it was fascinating to watch the people in the complex, praying, offering flowers and chanting.

White is a holy colour for Sri Lankan Buddhists and almost everyone in Anuradhapura’s holy sites was dressed either entirely or predominantly in white clothing. As we strolled from the Sri Maha Bodhi to the Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba, we spotted crowds of people in white clothing making their way en masse to the temple.

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Turns out we’d struck gold and stumbled across a special puja day. Starting from half a mile or so from the temple, we followed behind a line of hundreds of people following behind drummers and flutists, carrying a strip of orange cloth and making their way slowly towards the temple, chanting as they went. As they passed, worshippers would touch the cloth and pray and, when they made it to the top, they did a full loop of the outside of the Dagoba before the monks began wrapping the cloth around its base. We couldn’t work out exactly what was going on, but there were crowds of people in white sitting in the grounds of the Dagoba and praying, some of whom seemed like they had been there all day. We stayed for a while, listening to the drums, music and chanting, and as we left we saw another crowd of people walking up with differently coloured cloth. This line went on even further so there must have been thousands of people there by the time we left.

We tried asking around to figure out what the procession was for, but all we managed to figure out was that it was a special puja day and, after the procession, the chief monk would give a sermon and lead some chanting. We’re still none the wiser, but it was beautiful nonetheless.

The next day we set out planning to take it slightly easier and just to steal a glimpse at the outside of the main sites without going in.

We ended up on a long stroll through the rice paddies, past towering ancient dagobas and over scenic rivers. Very beautiful but very hot in the rising humidity and by mid afternoon we were back at our hotel seeking shade.

Another attempted jog the next day before our train to Jaffna – no dogs this time, but a storm started after about five minutes so it was short, sweet and soggy. I never thought I’d be glad to see rain and clouds, but the heat is really building out here now and it’s such a relief when there’s a cloudy day.

In any case, we didn’t need the clouds in the end as the train to Jaffna was shiny, new and air conditioned which made for a much more pleasant journey than the sweaty buses!


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