Serendipity in Sri Lanka

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Where I stayed
Le Grande Meaulnes

Flag of Sri Lanka  ,
Tuesday, October 8, 2013


On the
road again – Sri Lanka 30th Sept - 9th Oct
2013
We didn't start out to come here, we were on our way to Costa Rica, it is lucky chance that brought us here but we are so happy it did as we love Sri Lanka, so the early name of the Island, Serendip, is most appropriate




After a pproximately 6 weeks in England for the usual “MOT” of doctor,dentist, optician etc and the much more enjoyable experience of meeting up with friends and family, we are travelling again. We are especially grateful to Paul and Angela who once again let us rest in their beautiful barn, which is the closest thing to a home we have had for 3 years now.



Arriving in Sri Lanka on the 30th September we spent 2 days in Negombo, a beach resort selected for its proximity to the airport where we rested and acclimatised. The hotel, chosen on the Agoda site, one of our mainstays, was cheap and basic. When we checked the details again we saw the price included breakfast and dinner, all for 21 per night total. As you might imagine we did not have high expectations of the food and were ready to go out to a restaurant if necessary. In fact, it was superb and we had 2 of the most delicious meals ever. The Sri Lankan curry consisted of rectangular popodums, dishes of vegetables including tomato and aubergine, leek and garlic, potato, spinach, then lentil dhal and the curry itself, once with chicken, the second time with fish.



We walked along the beach to watch the sunset and local families playing games, eating and flying hundreds of kites – a lovely atmosphere.One stall holder insisted on giving me a deep fried prawn to try. It was good but Jim refused to sample any, thinking, I suspect, that one of us taking a risk was sufficient and he preferred it to be me! Apart from the beach there is not much too Negombo but it was a gentle introduction to the country.



Many visitors use private cars and drivers to travel around the country as it is relatively cheap but we never do things the easy way. Jim decided to take a taxi to a nearby town where we could connect to the Colombo to Batticoloa train rather than the more usual route of a longer drive to Colombo itself. As the train left Colombo at 6.10 am we had to depart at 4.45am. But it worked and was an interesting, if long journey, of 6 hours for a fare of 1.65 each. We were the only Europeans on the train but everyone was friendly. We had a good chat to a young Tamil man who was returning home. He shared some fruit with us. It resembled a small  lmond covered in brown velvet. Once that was removed a tiny fruit remained ( the size of half a pea) which was tasty, reminding me of a fruit gum. Then our friend gave us a lesson in how to spit the pip through the open train window. A little late as I had politely crunched my way through 5 or 6 by this time, not realising there was a pip!




By 2pm we were safely settled in our next hotel. The following morning we set off on hired bikes to go to the extensive ancient city of Polonnaruva. The site is large so the bikes were great and we cycled around the whole area. The buildings are approximately a thousand years old and many remain only as foundations as they were lost for hundreds of years and covered by vegetation. Others have fared better and are a little more intact. In the afternoon we went to the museum which contained maps and diagrams explaining the site but also some beautiful statues and pottery found at the site. The hotel owner was relieved (or perhaps surprised) to see me back safely as he said, “ The start on bike was not good, very wobbly”



As we were having a drink outside I spotted a Kingfisher, but one I did not know. We intended to buy a bird book here but have yet to find a shop. Jim grabbed the camera and we moved  nto the garden with one of the staff. After a few minutes we had a picture of the Kingfisher but
had also spotted a baby bird hidden in a hole. The staff member insisted on bringing out 2 seats for us to sit and watch for the bird to pop it's head out of the nest, being careful to position them out of reach of falling coconuts from the adjacent tree. The chick made a constant squeaking sound begging for food which it's parents delivered at regular intervals. Unfortunately they flew in and out so rapidly Jim had difficulty taking a photograph but he managed a few. At night the tiny flies which were abundant started to swarm so we ate dinner in semi-darkness to try and avoid attracting them to the table. I think we probably ate a few but the food tasted fine. The next morning, along the path, there must have been thousands of their bodies on the ground. They remained there all day. Our accommodation in Manel's was fine but it seemed to be run by a group of young men and, without being too sexist, it showed in a general lack of TLC – see mosquito net photo (I am sure a woman would have put a stitch in place? ) and the million bodies lying around!



We moved on a short distance from Polonnaruwa to Habarana in order to visit a couple of National Parks. Le Grande Meaulnes ( think it means The Big Fish from a classic French novel) is very different from Manel's.  Here the rooms are large and immaculate, and the verandah is a lovely place to sit and watch the numerous birds, iguanas, tiny striped squirrels and mongoose. (Never sure if mongoose plural is mongooses or not but as we only saw one in the garden it doesn't matter this time.)



After 2 days at Le Grande Meaulnes ( which is really more of a high class homestay than hotel) we have fallen in love with the place and decided to stay an extra couple of nights. It is charming. The owner  are away in Colombo and an elderly gentleman with his younger helper
is taking care of us. We are the only guests and are looked after like royalty. The day is full of ritual. Meals are laid out beautifully with porcelain and cutlery placed with great symmetry and
precision. Everything is spotlessly clean. Breakfast is simple, freshly prepared fruit juice, tea, coffee, cooked egg, toast and marmalade and a huge plate of fruit. There is no menu and Mr Abi asks each day if we wish to dine in, then asks what we would like. Each day we say, what do you suggest? He tells us, for example, “I could prepare saffron rice with chicken curry,” and we say that would be lovely, and it is. It is like staying at an English country house without the house.


Sitting on the verandah provides a relaxing break between activities and chance to spot wildlife. Having said that the activities have proved spectacular, much more so than expected. The first day we took a taxi to Sigiriya, a soaring rock outcrop of hardened magma plug of an
extinct volcano standing some 200 metres above the plain, and 400 metres above sea level. According to legend (and some limited historical facts) this site formed the royal palaces of King Kassapa from AD 477 – 495. It was certainly a Buddhist monastery too from before that time and then again until the 14 Century when it was abandoned and soon buried beneath the jungle. It was only in 1898 that it was rediscovered by a British archaeologist, H C P Bell.



After walking around the complex and museum, and climbing (slowly) the 1,204 steps to the top, I am convinced this was the original Shangri La, or one of them anyway! The opulence and engineering skill demonstrated here is just mind blowing for its time. However, there is some discrepancy between legend and archaeological evidence.



The scholarly opinion is that the site has only ever been a Buddhist monastery. But legend suggests that the King had 2 palaces, one on the top, and one at the bottom and supposedly he spent 6 months in each. The site (over a square kilometre in area) was surrounded by an outer moat, then a ten metre brick wall and an inner moat containing crocodiles and being crossed originally by a drawbridge. There is evidence of guard posts at strategic positions. Once inside the moat there are landscaped gardens surrounding what is believed to be one of the palaces, including water gardens (original fountain stones with holes in remain), boulder gardens and terraced gardens. Then moving up the path to climb to the top it is necessary to go through narrow clefts in the boulders, again easy to defend from attack.



The climb is steep except for one part where it levels out to form a walkway between the rock face and a long concrete looking wall. I thought initially that it is a modern wall, but it was part of the original structure, made of brick and than plastered over. It is a fascinating feature as it was a 'mirror' wall. On the rock face were (and some still remain) brightly coloured paintings of women, supposedly of the 500 concubines who lived in the palace for the King's pleasure. The highly polished surface of the slightly curved mirror wall reflected these images so it appeared that both sides were painted. The wall is covered in some places with graffiti from the 6 -14 century which helps scholars understand the development of the Sinhala language and script. From there the climb becomes steeper and at one point it consists of a circular metal staircase (originally bamboo), and finally you are at the top with superb views across the plain below.



The 150metre by 75metre plateau on top of sheer cliffs supposedly housed a palace, homes for the 500 women and 4 swimming pools for them, an octagonal swimming pool for the King, a meeting chamber and dancing area. Water was pumped up from the bottom to provide  rinking water and fill the pools.



I prefer to believe that King Kassapa held court here as I really have difficulty understanding why the monks spent so much time and energy building the complex, making it so beautiful and having hundreds of women painted on the rock unless it was some weird form of  temptation they had to overcome! I am sure it must have had an interesting affect upon their meditation.




In the afternoon we went to Minneriya National Park to see wild elephants The park surrounds a 'tank' or reservoir (which looks like a lake) and at this time of the year the land is dry so the elephants come to the tank each evening to drink and have mud baths to protect their skin. It was a rough ride standing in an open top truck, just two of us and a guide who kept shouting, “Lookout Madam” as we drove under low hanging trees as I tend to be overcome by the beauty of the scenery and the birds and forget to watch for branches. We saw Grey Headed Eagles, Green and Blue Tailed Bee Eaters, Serpent Eagles, Purple Herons, Brahmin Kites,  pen-Billed Heron and most spectacularly, flocks of Painted Heron and a Brown Fish Owl. The guide was very excited as that is the first time he has seen the owl during the day.



The elephants themselves were fantastic. Over 150, in family groups, wandered down to the water. I wasn't particularly enthused about going to see the elephants as I have seen so many in captivity but I have to say it was quite special to see them in the wild. A couple of males were fighting in what seemed a half hearted fashion and one large male decided to mate in front of us.




The 'Tanks' are intriguing, they are numerous artificial lakes varying in size, with sluice gates that can be opened to allow irrigation of the surrounding land. Over a thousand years old, they are dotted all over the island, and are one of the reasons why the cultured civilisations were allowed to develop here because they allowed irrigation to be used to increase food production. Another example of great engineering.



The next morning we went on a village tour. Taken first by Tuk-tuk to the village, we then transferred to a bullock cart for a ride through the fields. Again we saw lots of birds including a Malabar Hornbill  Eventually we arrived at the river and transferred to a boat, a mini catamaran. We spent a lovely hour pottering through the water lilies and looking out for birds, more Bee Eaters, Brahminy Kites and Serpent Eagles, before reaching a village house where we were given tea and a roti bread which we watched being prepared. Like all the food we have eaten here it was delicious, and the kitchen, although basic with mud walls, was clean, without flies and well organised with spices and vegetables. I was given a test by our guide. I had to smell all the spices and say what they were.



After the break we were guided through the kitchen garden and given explanations about the plants and what they were used for. Lunch came next – a buffet of vegetable dishes and fish, after which we were taken back by boat to the Tuk-tuk and home. I have been on similar tours in other countries and always felt like a tourist. Here I felt like a guest and everyone, bullock cart driver, guide and boat man seemed genuinely keen to find things for us to look at and to explain life in their village. However, we did wish the bullocks had had their bottoms washed as they were very close to our feet and well coated with dung.



I was surprised by how much of a problem the elephants pose for the villages here. The farmers spend most nights high up in the look out posts on his patch to spot elephants before they do any damage, especially now during the dry season. At midnight, the farmers sing, to make sure they are all awake and to discourage the elephants from coming close. They have even been known to come in the garden at Le Grande Meaulnes.



The next day, Sarat, who is a neighbour and who had driven us to Sigiriya, turned up to take us for a walk along the back lanes to see birds, stopping off for drinks at his house and his friends. It was a lovely gentle walk with lots of birds including the Imperial Pigeon,Munias and Minivets.



Tomorrow we are going by car with Sarat to Dambulla and then on to Kandy. More about that in the next blog, bye for now.



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Comments

Margaret Knudsen on

Hi Sue and Jim,
looks like a very interesting place, great photos! , you must be nearing the en d of your travels now! Hope to see you in Lanza over navidad,
Take care, Maggie & Johnx

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