Part 2 30 September 2005
The mood and prices of Sri Lanka are like many Asian destinations.
It isn’t cheap to stay comfortably unless you book a package. Alcoholic drinks are priced similarly to Australia.
However, your dollar does go further here.
Food is cheap and good. But don’t expect Indian food or hot curries. Sri Lankan food is stapled by curry and rice but these are flavoured rather than chilli and spice hot.
Clothes and other items associated with cheap shopping in Asia aren’t great so you will save on not buying too much. Jewellery shops are plentiful but Colombo has the best value.
Back to Galle and less than A$3 in a tuk-tuk from here is Unawatuna, a sublime piece of beach voted by Lonely Planet as the best in the world 2001.
Four years on, the general tourist still has not discovered it and the swimming area, protected by a reef, belies – even in rough weather – the treacherous rips in some parts of the island. This is backpacker heaven at the moment, relaxed cheap accommodation and a beautiful beach to laze on with young people from many nations in evidence.
We return to Colombo and organise a tour from Rail Tours at Fort Railway Station. We start with a train to Kandy (first class with observation) and a driver to meet us in the hill country city to take us around for three days.
For A$216 we get the train trip, a driver and mileage in an air-conditioned sedan and accommodation at two Government resorts. If you don’t want the full trip, the train ride is cheap and takes less than three hours.
Viewing the lower hill country from the train as it climbs to Kandy was one of the highlights of the trip. A little too late, I discovered the baggage car adjacent to first class and was able to hang out the door and get a wider, more panoramic view of the scenery. No pesky Nanny state person to tell me I was not allowed to do it.
The train stops at Perendiya Junction and first stop is the Botanical Gardens where 68 hectares of English parkland – groomed and grassed and paved – is a welcome haven.
We imagined Johnny Depp as J.M. Barrie in Finding Neverland (2004) sitting on a bench and writing in his journal while overlooking a huge ficus, spreading its wings for tens of metres.
Nature lovers will be enthralled by the park – with all plants and trees given their botanic names. Monkeys, birdlife and the occasional orchid bob up in the least-expected places.
A river runs through the park and entrance is about A$6.70.
Not far from Perendiya is the famous elephant orphanage and feeding time of the young ones is well received by visitors, especially children.
Of more interest was bathing time when the elephants and their handlers walk a path between shops to the river. This is fabulous and the enjoyment of the elephants is palpable.
You can get down close enough to sit on the elephants while they lay in the water (a small fee to the mahout for having your photo taken with the elephants). It’s well worth it.
Later that day we went to Dambulla to see the huge Golden Buddha built adjacent to rock caves with carvings said to pre-date Christ. Be careful of the touts who proffer things into your hand and then ask for a fee when you take it.
It’s a decent climb up the hill to the caves but the carvings (directly into the rock) of Buddhas are a sensational sight. If you don’t want a guide, buy an explanatory pamphlet from the Buddhist bookstore at the foot of the hill.
That night we stayed in the Lion Rock Resort – cheap, clean and the first hot curry eaten in the country. This was courtesy of a 21-year-old Tamil cook who is headed for bigger things.
It was walking distance to the area’s tourist attraction, Siguriya – the Lion Rock. Entry is US$20 but the experience is priceless.
However, you’ve got to be fairly fit to make the climb and if you’re scared of heights, give it a miss.
Siguriya is a fortress city built atop the rock in an attempt to thwart possible attack from the bastard son of a former King.
Only the foundations remain but the garden beds and pool constructions are readily visible.
Again a guide would be important to explain the full story but we were over touts by this stage and therefore didn’t want any help.
My ploy for keeping the prospective guides at bay was to talk in schoolboy French hoping to drop them off.
The young guy who had approached us spoke fluent French, Japanese and several other languages so I had to work hard and shrug a lot to climb the hill without him.
Once atop the sheer edifice – after a lot of pausing and plenty of puffing – there was the layout of the fortress city. It was a great view and a breathtaking architectural and construction achievement, well worth the climb.
(To read on, go to Sri Lanka Dreaming part 3)