Sri Lanka: an apology


It’s been a weird ten days. When we visited Sri Lanka eleven years ago, we loved it. It was a little hectic at times, but rarely failed to extend a warm welcome.

We’ve met some great people this time round. The lovely Chaya, owner of the brand new Harvest cafe and provider of delicious mushroom biriyanis. Her fiancé Supun, who showed us the sights of Anuradhapura by tuk tuk. The manager of Pradeep restaurant in Sigiriya, who was delighted that we chose to stay more than a night or two because she’s so proud of her village, and the lovely old lady at Shenadi opposite, who always remembered that we don’t take sugar. 

We’ve seen some unforgettable things. The view from the top of Sigiriya Rock. Ancient stupas and temples. A river bathing elephant. Leaf insects. Monitor lizards. Monkeys (lots of monkeys). 

There’s a ‘but’ coming, isn’t there?

But… in between, and on this occasion heavily outweighing, the good stuff has been a wall of selling, overpricing and even scamming. It’s constant. It’s exhausting. 

Of course, tourists are essentially walking cashpoints. One of the reasons you want them is so that they can spend money. But Sri Lanka seems to have forgotten the other reason you want tourists to visit: to take news of how great you are to the rest of the world. To build your global reputation, for tourism, business, international relations and investment. There’s a balance between offering a warm welcome and relieving them of cash, and Sri Lanka is slowly smothering the goose that lays the golden eggs. 

It’s not just the endless barrage of offers of tuk tuks, tours, massages, elephant rides, fresh coconut, Ayurvedic diagnoses, t-shirts, juice, wooden carvings (people understandably need sales) but that three times out of four, they are machine-gun fast from the same person, only for the whole scenario to be repeated ten seconds later.

The Sri Lankan government is also doing its bit to put off tourists. Designing the Sigiriya site so that you are funnelled up and out in two hours and charging you $30 for the privilege. Creating a national wildlife park, charging $20 to get in, but then allowing entry to hundreds of vehicles so that Jeeps are nearly nose to tail (we walked away from that one – elephants or no elephants). We also understand that the once-charming seaside resort of Unawatuna is being buried under massive new hotels, from which politicians are allegedly profiting personally. The same pattern is recurring all around the coast. 

And at the bitter end, Colombo Airport was a microcosm of Sri Lanka. An hour and a half of inefficient queueing and admin, to be funnelled around shops selling coffee for $6 and trousers at four times the (already high) price we saw elsewhere. Claims that our flight was boarding, when it was doing no such thing. Shabby infrastructure like dirty, leaky toilets despite the vast sums flowing through the place. And if you think you’ll avoid the criminal prices by spending the last of your cash on the plane, forget it: Sri Lankan Airlines doesn’t accept Sri Lankan money.

Yes, we’re a bit grumpy as we write this, but we’re not exaggerating. After telling everyone to go to Sri Lanka for the past eleven years, we now feel we owe you an apology. If your experience was different, we’d love to know because we’d need some serious persuading to go back.  

Chloe takes ‘paws’ for thought, Allan not ‘lion’ around

After an aborted attempt due to Allan getting his first cold of this holiday, it was time to try the climb up the 200m high, that’s 1200 steps, Sigiriya (Lion) rock. Yes, that massive thing in the picture above.

These 1200 steps are a mixture of original stone steps, new brick ones, ones that skirt beyond the edge of the rock, ones seem to be just scaffolding and, frankly, fairly terrifying ones that seem to be held in place by just a metal post jammed into the rock. But, lots of people do this climb, so hopefully it’s all safe. Hopefully.

We start at around 8am to avoid the midday heat and are very glad we did. We soon spot a group of Sri Lankan grannies who are starting at the same time as us. In flip-flops. So, the climb can’t be that difficult can it?!  In truth, it’s pretty hard work, especially for us pretty unfit 40-something westerners in constant sunshine and no real resting points between the flights of steps.

We reach three-quarters of the way to the summit at the carved Lion’s Paws and it is at this point we spot signs warning “wasp attack zone” and a whole cage to hold up to 50 people, just in case the black and gold nasties attack. Chloe, partly through tiredness and partly in terror of the final set of steps, says ‘enough is enough’ and decides it is time to head down to ground level.

Allan continues upwards. It is single file up the final set of scaffolding, sorry, steps, so there are no opportunities to stop for the next 25 minutes unless you want to hold up everyone behind. The summit comes as a complete relief, but with truly marvellous views for miles around. Red faced, thirsty and knackered, Allan spends the next half hour looking all around, taking selfies and that will never see the light of day (including a video humming along to Duran Duran) and sports a grin as wide as the Tyne. However, the sense of achievement is only tempered by spotting our flip-flop wearing Sri Lankan grannies, who managed to get to the summit somewhat earlier than your correspondent.

Finally, it is time to brave the journey down. The same steps seem slightly less terrifying and finally reach the bottom where there are gardens, old ruins, a wide moat with the clearest water we have seen in the whole country and flowering beautiful water lilies. The only thing spoiling this whole idyllic area are signs saying “do not swim, crocodiles in the water”.

It was difficult, it was expensive and legs are now aching. But it was so worth doing.

 

 

Introducing Leafy McLeaf-face

We have now arrived in Sigiriya which is famous for its ancient rock and the numerous steps up to the top of it, but more of that in a future post.

However, we seem to have made friends with a magnificent leaf insect. It has appeared twice on our patio area, the first time we genuinely thought it was just a stray big leaf from the gardens at our hotel and second time we can confirm that these things fly. We have named it now, so will be very disappointed if we don’t see it again.

Our hotel here is the best we’ve had in Sri Lanka, although that’s not been a huge competition.

Nice and spacious rooms, barely 200m from the entry gate to the rock and lovely gardens are the plus points. The negative points is remarkable rubbish internet (I’ve had to do this post on 3G on my phone and had to take a photo of L McLF from the laptop screen), food being stupidly expensive for here and fairly clueless staff. Fortunately, there’s cheap and great food at 20% of the price next door to the hotel.

However, a special mention to the laundry service provided by the hotel. We had a fair bit, 2 carrier bags full after previous hotels didn’t provide a full service. However, after adding up their charges, it was going to cost over £150 to do it. Unbelievable. We challenged this and they kindly offered to reduce this to around £130. We politely told them where to go and found a local laundrette that provided an immaculate service for less than £10 – which even included the “special tourist prices”.

To add to this bizarre pricing, after we’d got the laundry back, the general manager said they could have done it all for around £15, but unfortunately he forgot to tell us about this amazing 90% discount. Thanks for letting us know matey.

Sacred sights, mad trees and even madder trousers

Our trusted tuk-tuk driver suggested a visit to Mihintale, a short 15km ride from the centre of Anuradhapura. Allan jumps at the chance of another trip, Chloe sensibly stays in the hotel and avoids more numerous steps.

Mihintale is cradle of Buddhism in Sri Lanka ever since the King was converted here by an Indian missionary in 3rd century BC. Like most major historic sights here, it is still very much used and has many processions and religious events throughout the year.

On the way, we pass many different ruins and get a scale of the massive amount of history about this area. Old stupas are everywhere along the main road and a short detour stops at an old ruined monastery with banyan trees that simply defy belief as much as my fashion homage to MC Hammer. It is leafy, green, peaceful and everything that downtown Anuradhapura isn’t.

Arrival at Mihintale and I read there are 1840 steps to the top. Apparently, it is the done thing that if you lose count you must go back down to the bottom and start again. Fortunately the tuk-tuk driver cunningly goes to the car park halfway up, so barely 900 steps up although I’m sure I counted only 867.

After the steps, I reached a plateau with a working monastery, statues and multi-coloured flags and there are three further small peaks to choose from. One has a white domed stupa (obviously for around here!), one has a huge Buddha statue and one is barely a rock with a scramble up and a viewing platform at the top. I only go to two of them, especially as it’s a windy day and that platform looks pretty damn precarious.

The views are great, the Buddha is impressive and the Stupa is gleaming. However, for such a sacred site there is disappointingly a lot of rubbish around including the ubiquitous discarded carrier bags, plastic water bottles and fag butts. Come on everyone, have a little respect for the site, the history and the environment.

Stup(a)endous day out

We arrive in Anuradhapura after a five hour “first class” train ride from Colombo. And, yep, someone tried to scam us before we’d even left the station. Seriously, if your scam is in all the guidebooks, it’s not a very good scam (we’re looking at you ‘helpful’ man soliciting donations to the Deaf School).

Our hotel is basic and frankly odd. The room is a good size and has a balcony, but they’ve squeezed in two double beds that take up all of the floor space. There is nowhere to hang or store clothes and a much-needed laundry service is available but they “do not wash undergarments”.

Sri Lanka is pretty challenging after the very easy tourist places of Malaysia and we feel like a walking ATM at times, but we do discover a gem. A café near us (Harvest) only opened a couple of months ago and does great food including the best biriyani this side of Colombo. We talk with the owner/chef and she mentions that her husband is a tuk-tuk driver. For once there was no pressure and because of this, we book him in for a morning tour.

 Anuradhapura was the ancient capital of Sri Lanka for over a thousand years from 377BC. Over that time, the area became dotted with temples (the great domed stupas), tanks (artificial lakes supplying water to local people and their land) and palaces. It was abandoned following an invasion in 993AD and the jungle took over for centuries.

Our first stop was to see the sacred fig tree, allegedly the most ancient tree in the world at over 2,000 years old, said to be grown from a branch of the tree under which Buddha attained enlightenment. Supported by ornately decorated golden props, it towers over a courtyard around which pilgrims make offerings, pray and meditate. It’s still a very active place of worship, with hundreds of Sri Lankans there on any given day. As a sacred site, it was shoes and hats off, but it also turns out that pilgrims wear white. We stood out a mile in black, but people were pretty tolerant of stupid tourists who don’t know the most basic things.

Moving on, watched by families of monkeys who lounged in the low trees and grabbed anything that looked remotely like food (I don’t think many fruit-based offerings make it to the temples), we walked towards the Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba. By no means the largest, this impressive stupa is 55m high and surrounded by friezes of hundreds of elephants. Like most of the sites here, it is still very active, hundreds of people came and went just while we were there. It is painted a dazzling white and girdled with a huge belt of coloured cloth.

We found a more tranquil atmosphere in a smaller stupa nearby, surrounded by shady trees and almost empty. By now the sun was out in earnest, our heads and feet really starting to feel it. By the time we reached, Isurumuniya Vihara, the pavements and sand were burning hot and Chloe was eyeing Allan’s socks enviously. Sadly, that was why she chose to explore the museum area (dwarves and apsara very popular motifs in 7th century rock carving, by the way) while Allan climbed to the top of the rock into which the temple was built for the view over the jungle. Given that you can see just a handful of the many sites from up there, you can get a feeling for just how vast the city-complex was.

Our final stop may remain a mystery, as we don’t know its name. Our driver told us it was a ‘place of meditation’ but as we climbed the hill surrounded by a deep trench and vast rocks seemingly dropped out of nowhere, we could only think it was a hill fort.

We finally enjoyed a day in Sri Lanka, only slightly dampened by Chloe’s touch of sunstroke after hours without a hat. Luckily, she recovered enough to partake of Harvest’s magnificent mushroom biriyani that night. 

Zawesome


As we prepare to leave Colombo for the ancient city of Anuradhapura, Chloe is reminded that momentous events are afoot back in the real world. The 13th Doctor will be announced tomorrow. 

So here’s a last shout out for Zawe Ashton. It is perhaps a vain hope, but then we don’t watch Doctor Who because it’s fun. God knows it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works, because it hardly ever does. We watch Doctor Who because it’s right. Because it’s decent. And above all it’s kind. It’s just that – just kind.*

 
* Yeah. Stopped making sense there towards there end, but I was on a roll!

Sri Lanka: a hard landing

Our last sight of Malaysia is a lovely sunrise at the distinctly unlovely Air Asia terminal. Three hours later we arrive in Sri Lanka, our second last country of the holiday.

We last came to Sri Lanka twelve years ago, not long after the 2004 Tsunami. Back then, Colombo was not a city in which to linger for long, but we were lucky enough to stay at the best hotel around here – the majestic Galle Face Hotel.

It still seems to be a city to get out of as soon as possible. It is loud, traffic is bonkers busy, drivers often ignore the concept of pedestrian crossings and the nearby river is pretty damn stinky. Sadly, this time we’re not staying anywhere near as good as the Galle Face.

Our hotel on a very busy road (think Piccadilly circus only three times busier). It has echoing corridors that render a door opening an experience loud enough to wake the dead. There are probably 30 guests, but only enough space for eight to have breakfast. It backs onto a train line and the wifi is dial-up speed or less. We’ll be very pleased to get out of here but at least it’s clean, staff are friendly and it is near to the main station.

We escape the noise, traffic, scam artists and constant offers of rides by tuk-tuk drivers in the nearby Hilton. It is an oasis of calm, with wonderful gardens with swans and massive fish in the landscaped pond. It has great coffee and the best rated Italian restaurant in Colombo, which delivers us a huge meal for around £25. The wifi is even good enough for us to research our Greek adventure starting in a couple of weeks. How wonderful.