Mark and I got up very early and we were downstairs by 5am ready to board our private minivan for our Sigiriya-Kandy tour from Colombo (£150 for both of us for transport and driver only). The driver took us to Sigiriya (Lion Rock) first and we were there for 3 hours or so. We paid $30 each for entry and walked along the central path passed the low, crumbling walls of some ancient water garden and soon we got our first glimpse of the rock. Shaped like an old route master bus, it dominated the skyline, and we could see people at various stages of their ascent. Approaching the climb we passed under a natural stone arch made by two large boulders before we started on the stone steps. After four flights we reached a viewing area where we got a nice panorama of the ornamental grounds. We then continued upwards before taking a spiral staircase up to the cave painting of ancient buxom topless women in traditional dress. We descended again before circling the rock on the inside of the famous ‘mirror’ wall, which was made of plaster now dyed an orange colour but it was originally a polished marble that refected light. It was built to allow people to safety view the frescos on the rock (but unfortunately they are no longer there) and it contains graffiti from tourists 1,600 years ago. The path by the wall took us round and up another long flight to the Lion Terrace. Here we found the famous Lion’s feet created from stone and a modern, vertigo-inducing metal staircase to the summit. On the way back we were soon intercepted by a would-be guide who took us on a shortcut over the ruins, passed the Cobra Hood Cave to the other car park where our driver was waiting. The place was well signed so you can get around without any help. The man keep walking in front of us as if he was showing us other things and the way back. We told him we didn’t need a guide and did not gave the man any money.
We then started out towards Dambulla but we stopped on the way to marvel at two elephants being washed in the river. We paused at a traditional buffet restaurant for lunch where we helped ourselves to the curries, vegetables and rice.
The Dambulla Rock Temple or Golden Temple was a very interesting place (1,100 rupees per person entry). We left the museum and climbed up the hundreds of steps towards the famous caves. Once at the summit we left our shoes at a place and showed our tickets before entering. The mountain top was a long flat area with white building built into the rock face on the right. Inside were a number of caves each with glorious patterns painted on the undulating ceilings, and golden Buddhas lining the walls alongside small white stupas. It was quite a sight!
We got to Kandy just after 6 but we still managed to catch the Kandyan dancing show (£5 each), set in a hall just by the wonderfully serene Kandy lake. They had fancy traditional costumes and the show consisted of several sections of dancing, musicians, fire-breathers and even a bearded clown. The grand finale involved the two fire-breathers walking backwards and forwards across a long tray of hot coals, which neither of us had seen before. We were then driven to our suggested hotel for the night. Called the Carlton Rest Hotel, it was centrally located and cost 4,000 rupees per night including tax, after a bit of haggling. The room was quite nice and we both managed to have showers before dropping down the mosquito net and drifting off.
Next day we met our driver at 7am and our first stop was the Tooth-Relic Temple, just five minutes away. It was 2,000 rupees each. Mark had to hire a sarong (200 rupees) from one of the flower sellers as his shorts were deemed not appropriate, they were just a bit above his knees. We were pressed into taking a guide (500 rupees), he was an old, skinny man with poor teeth and I felt sorry for him. He told us he was a bit of a joker, and entertained us with his humour and trivia. He showed us a cannon-ball tree, which was covered in spherical, hairy, coconut-like shells, which was interesting. The main building was adorned with Buddhist imagery but the central shrine doors were closed, so we couldn’t see the tooth (apparently they are opened briefly, three times a day). We saw the gold, lotus flower ceiling, the meditation hall and an ancient wooden, open-sided building where the parliament used to meet and Prince Charles once visited. Our guide then made us pose in the positions he wanted, to produce some good photos and let us out to reclaim our shoes, he was nice. The driver’s next stop was the bank of the wonderful lake so we could enjoy the views of the water, and the colonial buildings of the World Heritage City covering the hills. He then took us to Bahirawakanda Buddhist Statue, overlooking the city, which thankfully had a road taking you right the way up. We removed our shoes again and paid 200 rupees entry each to a young boy in orange robes training as a monk. The temple was a fairly simple walled courtyard dominated by a huge statue of a white Buddha. We climbed the first flight of steps behind the statue and admired the artefacts in the small room we found there, and went up as far as we could to take pictures. You could see Kandy prison, the large river and the cricket ground.
We then headed to Nuwara Eliya, tea growing country, at an altitude of 1,868 metres. The road climbed further and got more windy as we went. Soon we passed rolling hills covered in bright green, waist-height tea plants neatly arranged and connected by paths for the pickers. The plantations still had their colonial names such as Inverness and Edinburgh, and were interspersed with beautiful waterfalls. After a while we pulled into Mackwood’s tea factory, one of many. The place consisted of an old Victorian warehouse on one side and a large, low outbuilding on the other containing a cafe and a shop. There was also a large veranda with views across the valley to a large, white, Hollwood-style Mackwood sign in the middle of the tea terraces. We admired the view for a few minutes before a local lady gave us a free tour of the tea making process (withering, sifting, grinding, drying, etc.). She explained that the plants live until 60 but after that they no longer produce the sought-after top leaves. She explained that it was a Hindu holiday and that meant that the factory was not processing and there were no pickers in the fields before offering us free tea in the café. We sat outside sipping from the Mackwood china and watching the birds and squirrels in the hedges. I even saw a bright blue hummingbird feeding on the nectar. What a relaxing place!
Satisfied we got back in the van and headed towards the Botanical Gardens (2,000 each). These were lovely and we were lucky enough to see two lots of people posing for wedding photos dressing in their traditional, highly ornate outfits. We saw, avenues of palm trees, an orchid house and one of the highlights was the trees full of giant Indian flying fox bats. They were huge and there were hundreds of them, with black heads and golden bellies. They were hanging upside down from the tops of a few very tall trees and they were sleeping in the afternoon sun. After the gardens we had a similar lunch to the day before (only £4 for both of us including drinks and cakes) and set off in the direction of Colombo. The driver stopped to offer us white water rafting (£10 each) but we were too tired. On the way, to our surprise, we saw an elephant being transported on the back of a lorry! It was shackled around the front legs but it was so tall it could see over the cab at the front. We had seen a few decorated carts on the roads due to the Hindu holiday so maybe it was being used for that. After three hours we arrived back at Colombo. Sisira, the hotel owner, had moved our bags and food to the second floor, meaning we had fewer steps to climb and we slept soundly.