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Sri Lanka's Cultural Heartland - the North and Centre

May 7, 2018

 

After a few months of travelling Iran and Armenia, my first port of call in Sri Lanka was a much-needed appointment with a beach. With that out of the way (more on that next week), and a short detour to Colombo for a Sri Lankan visa extension, I jumped on a northbound train to Jaffna to begin my foray into the historic and cultural heartland of Sri Lanka - the North and Centre.

 

Jaffna

 

Not a lot of travellers make it to the far north; as a result budget travellers will find no backpacker hostels, although there are plenty of reasonably-priced alternatives (I chose Yaarl Inn,1500 rupees including private bathroom and a fairly basic breakfast). There’s plenty to keep the traveller active up here, with an outstanding Hindu Temple, the second-best fort in Sri Lanka and fascinating islands off the coast (and for me, a cinema so I could catch The Last Jedi before everyone on Facebook gave away the plot 😊).

 

Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil is the most significant Hindu Temple in Jaffna. Now, I’m used to watching how I dress when visiting temples, covering shoulders and legs, that sort of thing. So it came as a surprise upon entering to be told to take my shirt off! Sure enough, looking around saw an array of pot bellies on display so at least I wouldn’t feel too self-conscious. With that partial undressing out of the way, I wandered in. It is a beautiful temple complex, with the main gopura (tower) dwarfing the surrounding structures, and is eye-catching with hundreds of Hindu deities decorating the white-washed walls. It is surrounded by several small courtyards, containing trees and smaller temples. Murals featuring scenes from Hindu epics are a feature, is as a giant bell.

 

Down by the waterfront is the second most impressive fort in Sri Lanka (after Galle, more about that next week). Unlike Galle’s fort, (over)developed with shops, restaurants and guesthouses, the Dutch-built fort in Jaffna is left undisturbed. Its imposing walls are still intact, while the interior reveals ruins of old buildings but is largely green space. With the interior uncluttered with 21st century consumer distractions, it’s easier to imagine how it stood centuries ago without an array of restaurants and tourist shops blocking the view.

 

For an experience unique in Sri Lanka, hit the islands off the coast. Getting from island to island is easy -they’re all interconnected by bridge or causeway (the exception being between Velanai and Karaitivu, where there is a free ferry at least every hour). You’ve got two choices – bike or scooter. Obviously a scooter is a lot faster and you can cover more in a day but let’s be realistic, how much exercise do you get when you’re travelling? Bicycle it was. As I found, the big advantage of bicycle is the slower pace - as scooters whizzed past me, I was regularly flagged down by curious locals (probably wondering why I wasn’t on a scooter), interested in knowing where I was going, what country I was from and usually a suggestion of a nearby temple to visit. I was flagged down at the first military checkpoint after crossing from Jaffna. Expecting to be queried on my intentions, I was instead asked why I’d cycled past the previous turnoff – apparently I had to visit the Thiruvenkadu Siththi Vinayagar temple; nothing amazing as it turned out but a pleasant side trip nonetheless and completely deserted bar a groundsman trimming weeds. Once I hit the biggest island of Velanai, reminders of the recent civil war were all too common. You’ll see plenty of abandoned houses, generally minus a roof due to the shelling, as well as plenty of dwellings still occupied but sporting obvious signs of damage. You’ll also notice the roads are in tip-top condition, due to being re-laid over the past decade due to war damage.

Whilst not a hot day, cycling was thirsty work so I was pleasantly surprised to discover an ice cream van travelling from village to village. Every stop, dozens of kids came flooding out of houses so I joined them for a refreshing 20 rupee cone.

My last stop was Casuarina Beach. After a hard day of cycling I was up for a cooling swim. You can imagine my disappointment upon arrival to find the beach was closed for swimming! Apparently conditions were too dangerous so no one was allowed in past knee level. A cold cola had to suffice, then it was time to head back to Jaffna. An easy 5km cycle and I was at the final causeway – the finishing stretch, or so I thought (after reaching the mainland, turned out Jaffna was still 15km away!). I was confronted with an unsheltered 3km causeway and a headwind. In hindsight I would have been better off dismounting and walking, I’m sure it would have been quicker (and far easier). Drained of energy, I hit the outskirts of Jaffna just as darkness fell, only to feel a pop and a hiss – puncture! I slowly trudged the last 3 km, mentally and physically exhausted. Before you go, check out the condition of your bike – you’ll be doing a lot of cycling (my journey of Jaffna-Mandaitivu-Velanai-Karaitivu-Jaffna clocked in at 71km, a long journey on a bike with no gears. Obviously you can’t plan for a puncture (portable repair kits never seem available), but the wrong seat can be agony on a long day and you can’t assume basics like brakes will be in working order.

 

 

 

Anuradhapura

Anuradhapura provided one of the most memorable days of my 3 months in Sri Lanka. Visiting an impressive array of temples and stupas, at a gentle pace on a hired cycle, surrounded by history – I really was in my element.

The first thing that stands out about Anuradhapura is the design of the temples. The majority (and all of the biggest ones) are stupas, resembling a giant bell as you can see in my awesome photo. They’re also quite spread-out, although you won’t have to cycle any more than 10 minutes between each. And if you are visiting during the hot season, plenty of trees line the roads and temples to share their shade. 

Several of the stupas are still working temples so make sure you bring long pants or a sarong to cover your legs if requested (several of the temples will lend these for free but Thuparama did not so I had to be content with an exterior view).

The true highlight of Anuradhapura comes near the end (or the start, depends where you begin your loop) with a visit to the Sri Maha Bodhi temple, home to the sacred Bodhi tree. At more than 2000 years old, it is claimed that it is the oldest documented tree in the world, haven been grown from a cutting of the tree from Bodh Gaya in India, underneath which was where Buddha achieved enlightenment. Interestingly enough, a cutting from the Sri Lankan tree was then taken back to India to be regrown at Bodh Gaya, that tree having succumbed many centuries ago.

While all the above combined to make for a great day of sightseeing, it’s worth mentioning that Anuradhapura charges an astronomical 3850 rupee entrance fee for foreigners. Sure, it is one the most impressive sights in Sri Lanka but 3850 rupees? Shame there isn’t a way around that fee…… well it turns out there is 😊 You don’t have to break any laws or sneak in, you just take advantage of the system in place whereby there’s only a handful of ticket booths, with these not opening until 8am. Unfortunately, I only discovered it as I went so while I had to pay, a couple of Dutch girls from my hostel road-tested the method below the next day and it worked perfectly:

  • Grab a bike or a scooter and hit the road by 6.00am, 6.30am at the latest

  • Head north along Vata Mandana Road and visit the northern Abhayagiri group (Abhayagiri Monastery, Lankarama, Ratnaprasada and the twin ponds at Kuttam Pokuna) before 8am. After that you can head south and visit the remainder of the sites at your leisure

  • The downside of this is potentially missing both of Anuradhapura’s museums as they may ask to see your ticket; although that’s not necessarily a game-changer (depending on your level of historical nerdery). Abhayagiri Museum is down a well-shaded road and contains the usual array of sculptures and pottery, while the Archaeological Museum is currently undergoing restoration and has only a fraction of their exhibits on show.

 

 

 

Dambulla/Sigiriya

I’ve grouped these two due to their proximity; being 30km apart there’s really no reason to stay in both – pick one as a base and travel to the other via local bus. Dambulla is a bustling and noisy mid-size city, while Sigiriya is a tiny town, consisting mainly of guesthouses and tourist restaurants.

The Dambulla Cave Temples are nearly 2000 years old; this small complex is considered one of the most historically significant sites in Sri Lanka. The complex consists of five caves, each with amazing Buddhist statues, paintings and sculptures. Several also have reclining Buddhas. You can reach the caves via a clamber up a short slope from the main southbound road. There are great views over the neighbouring hills and countryside – if you’re lucky, the sky will be clear enough for a view to Sigiriya in the distance. A word of warning - plenty of monkeys congregate at the base of the temples, keep your food hidden as they will try to steal it!      

Sigiriya (also known in English as Lion Rock) is one of the symbols of Sri Lanka so it’d be wrong to be in the area and not go for a look. Throughout my Sri Lankan blog entries, you’ll notice a theme of extortionate entrance fees for foreigners. Well this really takes the cake – at 4600 rupees you can’t even convert it back to your own currency and justify it by saying “well, it’s only xxxx Euros/Pounds/Dollars”. So is there an alternative if you’re on a tight budget? Of course there is – a growing number of travellers are opting to climb the nearby Pidurangala. It has a far better ascent (around 20 minutes through forest rather than stone/steel steps), there are far fewer tourists once at the summit, and, best of all, you get a better view of Sigiriya than you do standing on Sigiriya itself!  Entrance is still 500 rupees as you need to enter via a small temple, but hey, at least it’s not 4600!

 

 

 

Kandy

 

Having talked to a lot of fellow tourists during my 3 months in Sri Lanka, it seems there’s not a lot of love for Kandy. While I wouldn’t class Kandy as a must-see destination if you have time constraints, chances are good you’ll pass through here at some stage since it is a terminus for the stunning Kandy-Ella rail journey. Personally, I found Kandy quite pleasant (as far as Sri Lankan cities go). I ended up here for 3 days, one of which was a rest day for Christmas (very uneventful, just a Skype call back home and a rare chance to cook dinner in the hostel kitchen). Due to its location amongst a series of hills, it’s one of the few Sri Lankan cities not built in a flat grid style layout and has a number of old colonial buildings in its centre.

Kandy’s main claim to fame these days is the famous Temple of the Tooth, which houses a tooth of the Buddha. You never actually get to see the tooth, just the case it’s stored in. And if you go at the wrong time of the day, you don’t even get to see the case! Next to the temple is the pretty but artificial Kandy Lake – the 30-minute stroll around the lake is worth the effort, and if you’ve got time to kill, you can watch the resident pelicans hunt fish.  

You can also wile away the hours strolling through Kandy’s markets, which are a great place to indulge in some Sri Lankan street food.

 

 

 

 

Ella

As mentioned above, the train between Kandy and Ella (or vice versa) really is an amazing journey. You’ll spend 6-7 hours staring out the windows at hills, valleys, tea plantations and waterfalls. Tickets can be hard to come by if you want First or Second Class, they often sell out weeks in advance in high season. You’ll generally score a ticket on the day for Third but be prepared to stand for at least part of the journey; the train begins in Colombo and is often packed by the time it hits Kandy.

Ella is often described as “touristy” but that’s not really the case. Sure, the town centre is mainly made up of guesthouses and restaurants but we’re talking a strip maybe 300 metres long plus a few side streets; this is more than made up for by the dramatic location – hills in all directions, all covered in either forest or tea bushes. Ella Rock looms 300 metres above the town, and provides a great half day hike with stunning views from the summit. If you’re not feeling so energetic, Little Adam’s Peak takes a sedate 20 minutes each way but also has views to make your Instagram buddies jealous. It also pairs well with a visit to the historic Nine Arch Bridge. Check the train timetable before you set out; try to time your visit to see a train emerge from the tunnel before crossing the bridge (although bear in mind Sri Lankan trains are notoriously late, 70 minutes on the day I visited). Given trains are more than an hour apart, an alternative way back to Ella is to head into the tunnel and walk back via the tracks; should a train beheading your way, their noise and slow speed give you plenty of time to get out of the way. 

Due to the hills and frequent rain, Ella is also a great spot for waterfalls. The most popular are Rawana Falls, 6km south of Ella, easily reachable by regular local buses or scooter. Further afield

 

are Diyaluma Falls. The third highest in Sri Lanka at 170m, you’ll find them 40km south of Ella, west of Wellawaya town. This is a fascinating trip to make by scooter – you start at Ella, 1000m above sea level and covered with tea plantations; 30 minutes later you’ve dropped the best part of 900m and tea is replaced by rice paddies for the last leg of your journey.  If you’re like me you’ll enjoy the trip back uphill, passing buses with ease on your zippy scooter - the roaring lions of the highways became sedate kittens as they struggle up the hills.     

 

If you’re into your tea, Uva Halpewaththa Tea Factory will teach you a little about your favourite beverage (spoiler – who knew that black tea and green tea came from the same plant? Not me!).

The tour is held over several levels of a lovely old wooden building, several balconies give stunning views over their plantations and further afield. And of course, there will be tastings (conveniently located close to their store).  Getting here is a little tricky - it is about 4km northeast of Ella, local buses can get you there but my suggestion is it works well to build this into a day when you have a scooter (although you will have to leave it at the bottom and walk the last 1.2km, tuk-tuk drivers will block your way if you try). It’s also important to realise that the whole place is closed on Sunday, while Monday morning tours are limited in scope as no tea was picked the prior day (you will still see some of the machinery in operation as the first tea arrives from the plantations)          

 

From Ella, you’re then only a few hours from the amazing south coast, with its beaches, surf breaks, whale watching and so much more. But that can wait for another week.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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