A Travellerspoint blog

Sri Lanka


Anuradhapura proved to be the most interesting of the ancient cities, as well as the oldest, dating to approximately 400 BC. The city was abandoned after an invasion some 1300 years later, and the jungle took over until the British rediscovered it in the 19th century.

Nearby to Anuradhapura is Mihintale, one of the holiest sites in Sri Lanka, where King Devanampiyatissa was converted to Buddhism in 247 BC, by Mahinda, an Indian missionary. However, we got there around high noon, and you know what they say about the mid-day sun in the tropics, only mad dogs and Englishmen, etc. As with many sites that are considered holy, we were not allowed to wear shoes or hats, and the hot stone literally burned our feet on the way up. I managed to cut my toe while attempting to move faster from step to step. We therefore did not spend a lot of time here, and skipped over several stupas or dagobas, as they are called. Perhaps the locals have more calluses and are able to handle it, but it seemed crazy to insist that we remove our shoes just to walk up to the base of the stupa during the hottest time of day in the hottest time of year.



So, we went from there to our hotel, and spent the rest of the afternoon cooling our sizzling feet in the pool, before heading for the Bodhi tree, in the center of Anuradhapura. This tree was supposedly grafted from the fig tree in India, where the Buddha first reached enlightenment,and said to be the oldest continually tended tree in the world, dating back some 2500 years. The cutting was brought to Sri Lanka by Sanghamittra, an Indian Buddhist nun. Actually, it is not just one tree, but several, and although spread out, none of them appeared to be that large.



Nevertheless it was an impressive place, prayer flags flapping in the wind, monks and others chanting at the end of the day, and people silently praying or meditating. So far, of all the places we have visited in Sri Lanka, it felt truly spiritual.



We watched the special caste of tree tenders, carrying water to each tree as they must have done for thousands of years.


As noted in a previous blog, even though the Buddha preached against the caste system, there is nonetheless a caste system in Sri Lankan Buddhism, which seems as rigid as the caste system in India. It would be nice to believe that somehow Buddhism is different than the other religions of the world, since many aspects of it appeal to me, but that clearly is not the case. Not only is the caste system proof of this , but so are the war atrocities committed by both sides during the 30 year civil war.

The next day we got up early to visit the other sites of Anuradhapura. We did not see them all. The brick dagobas, enourmous round structures with a squat part near the top, and then another narrrow spire pointing skyward, were especially noteworthy. They are, we are told, the tallest and largest stupas in the world, exceeded in height, only by the pyramids of Gaza. How they built them is still a mystery. The sloping round walls are far from uniform, but rather are undulating forms with indentations and bulges. Perhaps this was not how they originally were built, but a function of the bricks shifting over time. We did manage to circumambulate several of the largest ones, barefoot of course, but this time we came prepared with socks so that we did not burn our feet.



There were white ones as well.


Detail from elephant wall

Detail from step. It looks almost Mayan

And then we went out again, when the sun was low. We viewed another temple, seemingly built into and on a low rock face.


Temple detail

At sunset, we walked up to the large tank or artificial lake, also built thousands of years ago, as were so many of the lakes in this part of the country. There was a nice breeze across the lake and we watched the many birds, as the sun went down.


In the morning, we got up early for a safari jeep tour in nearby Walpattu National Park. It was mostly several hours of bone rattling riding in the back of the jeep. We did see many deer, their version of buffalo, eagles, some chicken like birds, but the highlight was a juvenile leopard stretching himself out in a tree.

From a distance, I managed to get a fairly good shot of him.


Back in Negombo, we said goodbye with some sadness to our very personable driver,Lalinda, but coming back to Serendib felt like coming home. Our hosts here, are a rather odd couple. Belinda, (a he not a she) is a 40 year old Sri Lankan, and the much older, and somewhat infirm Hillary, who is from Scotland. It is hard to know the true nature of their relationship, but suffice it to say, that they run a wonderful small hotel, and really make you feel at home. Belinda, it is clear, does most of the work, accompanied by other paid Sri Lankan staff who come in the mornings to clean.

We spent the evening watching, to us at least, the arcane game of cricket. It was the world cup final between Sri Lanka and India, taking place in Bangladesh. Belinda kept us supplied with beer, and gave us a running commentary of the game, attempting to explain how it is played to us cricket newbies. It was not intuitively obvious, but by the end we sort of got it. It was a pleasure to see the Sri Lankan team win, and then to hear the celebratory fireworks in the town afterwords.

Today, we are once again in the small pool attempting to stay cool. I may try to swim in the sea later in the day,but there is not much shade to be had there. The thing about travel, at least the way we do it, is that it forces you to slow down. Way down. I suppose you could choose to rush around from place to place, never staying more than a day here or there, but that is not what we do, particularly on this trip. In places, it feels like one day too many ,but that means you simply have to hang out, and more or less do nothing except read or swim. Maybe the heat also has something to do with it. Who wants to rush around in the day time when the sun is like a knife. Slowing down means relaxing, noticing the crows, the squirrels, the mangoes falling from the tree next to the pool, the clouds building up in the afternoon and the slow approach of a thunderstorm. You don't have a house or anything else to keep you occupied. You don't have people to see and talk to, other than whoever happens to be staying at your guest house. Depending on who they are, this can actually take up a fair bit of time, but other than that, your life is about noticing the things around you before you move on to the next place and do it all over again.

Almost a form of meditation.

Posted by jonshapiro 12:53 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged trees animals postcards photography tourist_sites Comments (6)

Polonnarwu and Passikudah Beach

After Sigiriya we continued to Polonnarwu, stopping first at Ritigala.


This is one of the more remote and less touristed sites on the cultural tour. And, because it is far less developed, it is free.


Former site of an ancient Buddhist monastery dating to 100 BC, it is the highest mountain (2500 feet) on an otherwise flat and dusty plain. Rumor has it that Hanuman, the Hindu Monkey God, dropped a small piece of the Himalayas as he was delivering medicinal herbs to Lanka. As in India, the rangers told us we could only go part way up the mountain because of wild elephants and leopards. Too bad, as it was a nice place for a hike and blissfully, there was no one around.

Termite mound

Urinal stones

After a half hour or so, we got to a place with a fence and a big sign telling us to turn around. Nearby there was a trail off to one side, and so we went a bit further. Not long after, Nanette heard some rustling noises in the trees. Then a monkey threw a small stick at her. We continued on, but then one of the monkeys with consummate aim, maybe Hanuman, pissed on her head. That's it, she said. I'm turning back. Leopards and elephants are one thing, but monkey piss, that's another thing altogether. And so we walked down the we had come.


Polonnarwu was another 2 hours, but when we got there it was just too hot, and we didn't feel like shelling out another 50 bucks for the ruins of an ancient city that is not as old as Anuradhapura, our final destination. Instead, we spent most of the rest of the day lounging about the pool of a nearby hotel. Our guest house, Seyara, was small and comfortable, but no pool. They served some excellent food however, and it turned out that the daughter of the owner, our server, had recently returned to Sri Lanka after living in Staten Island for 7 years. She plans to go back to the states when her daughter, age 3, is older. In the meantime, she seems pleased to be spending time with her family, and acquainting her American daughter with Sinhalise culture and language.

In the morning when it was a bit cooler, we walked around the parts of Polonnarwu where we didn't need an admission ticket.




We ran into this group of very friendly Chinese women. As always, most of them were hiding from the sun.


And then we drove on the remaining distance to Passikudah beach, a bit of a detour from our cultural tour. We passed the time chatting with Lalinda, our driver, who we have gotten to know fairly well by now. He is an easy going and educated chap who has told us a bit about his own background. Unfortunately for him, he married a Tamil, and he is Sinhalise. His wife is a lower caste Tamil as well. His relatively well to do and high caste parents, have more or less disowned him ever since, and his sister, now studying business in Japan, has become their favorite. We were surprised to learn that Buddhists, at least in Sri Lanka, have their own caste system, and we thought Buddha broke away from his royal Hindu background to free others from this repressive custom.

Belly to belly: the author with Lalinda

In Passikudah expensive hotels and some restaurants are going up on one side of the bay,


while on the other side, not much is happening, at least not yet, and it is still a largely wild beach.


The sea is dead calm, in contrast to our time in northern Kerala. Our hotel, while not right on the beach, is spanking clean, with a nice pool. It is empty, as is every other place, as the season doesn't start for another week when school lets out for a month. The owner is quite chatty, and divides his time between here and Colombo. He is a Tamil, but converted to Jehovah Witness. When he found out we are Jewish, he seemed quite pleased, and told us all about the connections between Jehovah, and Yahweh. We of course, know far less about this than he does We assume his family must have money, because they all scattered when the civil war came to his home town,Jaffna, in the far north, which it did early on. Several of his siblings live abroad in the West, and are highly educated.

For two nights now we have eaten alone in the dining room. The staff is almost too attentive. They seem to hover over us, very anxious to please, but not that understanding of our need for space. Perhaps if there were more people here, they would have more to do and pay less attention to each individual guest.

Aside from lounging around the pool, and taking afternoon dips in the ocean, which feels like a bigger pool, yesterday we took a trip to Thoppigala Heritage Park. This was about an hour drive away through several small villages. It is essentially a small mountain, that overlooks a vast flat area of rice fields and forest, and was the site of several ferocious war battles.


The LTTE, or Tamil Tigers, took over the hill early on because of its strategic significance. They stationed a garrison of 5000 men nearby, and a much smaller force on top of the hill. We climbed up, accompanied by Lalinda and Franklin, a staff person at the hotel, as well as a park ranger. It was steep and hot, though short. On top, there was a bunker, now filled with solar powered batteries.


We asked questions about the war, which went on for more than 30 years. They said it was started by an uneducated Tamil, who wanted a separate country for the Tamils, who are Hindus, and speak a different language than the Sinhalese. We climbed down and went to the war museum at the bottom. There were few pictures of the LTTE members who are portrayed as terrorists by the Sri Lanka government. The museum clearly presents the government point of view.


From what I understand, many atrocities were committed by both sides, and in fact there is a debate now going on in the UN, whether to look into the war atrocities more closely in order to prosecute those involved. Lalinda, and the other two men we were with grew up with the war, although it was mostly fought in the east, where we are now,and in the north. For the last five years there has been peace, after the government forces decimated the LTTE in Jaffna, and if memory serves, killed many innocent people in the process.

Other people we have discussed this with, both Tamils and Sinhalese, say that the two groups lived in peace, and that the war was started by opportunistic politicians. Quien sabe? My understand is that the war was a result of years of hostility between these groups, started because of the colonial legacy employed by the British of divide and conquer. They apparently favored the Tamils, and later, there was the predictable counter-reaction from the Sinhalese, who far outnumber the Tamils.

On the way back from Thoppigala we saw this man, going about the chore of gathering firewood for cooking.

Tamil or Sinhalise? You decide.


Posted by jonshapiro 07:07 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged people postcards tourist_sites Comments (2)


Although we enjoyed the statues and paintings of Dambulla, it was Sigiyira that impressed us far more. Sticking out of the jungle by some 200 meters, the lions rock, as it is known, has been an ancient city and fortress for thousands of years.



Sigiriya is a unique witness to the civilization of Ceylon during the years of the reign of Kassapa I. The site of the 'Lion Mountain' was visited from the 6th century AD, by passionate admirers. The frescoes of Sigiriya inaugurated a pictorial style which endured over many centuries. The poems inscribed on the rock by certain of these admirers, and known as the 'Sigiri graffiti,' are among the most ancient texts in the Sinhalese language, and thus show the considerable influence exerted by the abandoned city of Kassapa I on both literature and thought.
In the heart of Ceylon, the extraordinary site of Sigiriya, a lofty rock of reddish gneiss dominating, from a height of some 180m, the neighbouring plateau, has been inhabited since the 3rd century BC, as attested by the graffiti which proliferate in the grottoes and the shelters of the Buddhist monks. The fame of the 'Lion Mountain' is, however, due to one single factor: during a short period in the 5th century AD, a sovereign established his capital there. King Kassapa I (477-95), son of Dhatusena, only came to power after he had engineered the assassination of his father and had, briefly, dispossessed his brother.
Justly fearing the vengeance of the latter, Kassapa had a fortified palace built on the rock of Sigiriya which was reputed to be impregnable. However, it was there that he was defeated after a short but cruel battle in 495, following which he cut his throat. After the death of Kassapa, Moggallana returned the site of Sigiriya to the monks, thus condemning it to progressive abandonment. During the eleven years that Kassapa resided in Sigiriya, he created a residence of exceptional splendour and founded his capital there, impressive vestiges of which are still extant.
At the summit of the rock is the fortified palace with its ruined buildings, its cisterns and its rock sculptures.Source: UNESCO/CLT/WHC

Lions feet at beginning of stairs

Nuns ascending the rock

Cistern at the top

Crumbling building walls


Shots from the summit looking out


Looking down toward the bottom of the city

A few of the nuns finally made it.


And so did the monks.


Halfway up the rock, within an inaccessible rocky shelter in the vertical wall of the western face are rock paintings which have brought universal acclaim to the site of Sigiriya - 'The Maidens of the Clouds', 21 non-identified female figures, comparable to the most beautiful creations of Ajanta.





At the foot of the rock are the two quarters of the lower city which are defended by a massive wall: the eastern quarter (perhaps postdating the 5th century), which has not been sufficiently excavated, and the aristocratic quarter of the capital of Kassapa I, noteworthy for its terraced gardens embellished by canals and fountains, as well as for numerous monumental remains which have been disengaged from the forest which had invaded the ruins.Source: UNESCO/CLT/WHC

Nanette at the base

Sweaty joint selfie at Sigiriya

Nearby was this girl

NB: Much of the history of Sigiriya was initially supplied by our trusted guide and driver, Lalinda, although, full disclosure, he did not climb to the top with us. However it is stated more completely and succinctly on the Unesco web site, so I have simply quoted that here.

Posted by jonshapiro 15:07 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged landscapes photography tourist_sites Comments (6)


The next morning we went to the Dambulla Caves with Lalinda, an hour or two drive from Kandy. By the time we got there it was already quite hot, which continued for our entire visit to the cultural triangle. Dambulla has been a Buddhist pilgrimage site for over 22 centuries, but most of the paintings and statues inside the caves were done much later, during the 18th century.

Outside the caves







No, I wasn't smoking anything when I took this shot

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While we enjoyed the caves, sitting on the grounds of our guesthouse, MPS, was certainly more relaxing, and oh so much cooler. The rooms were nothing special, but the landscape. Well, you can see for yourselves.

In front of us was the lake, cattails swaying in the breeze as they caught the late afternoon sun.


The air is a bit fresher now, and the wind is drying the feathers of a dozen cormorants sitting on a dead branch, sticking straight out of the water.


A small mountain sits gently beyond the trees lining the lake. Catbirds cry out and swallows flit by trying to catch mosquitos. I wish them luck in their hunt. Immediately behind us is the pool, nobody using it but us.


Behind that, another mountain, low, but with a rocky incisor jutting up on one side, catching the softening light.


Enjoying a cold one

Dinner about to be served. Overpriced and not that good, but what a spot

Posted by jonshapiro 08:21 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged postcards photography tourist_sites Comments (3)

Sri Lanka: Negombo/Kandy

Madurai is just a short plane away from Colombo, and so we decided to make the jaunt over to this nearby island nation, now peaceful after many years of civil war. At the last minute we had to make other arrangements for a place to stay in Negombo, as we had not heard from our guest house. They surprised us by showing up at the airport, and initially feeling guilty about changing our plans, we went with them. Golden Sands, however, turned out to be a dump, and so we went on to Serendip, which was quite nice, and we returned there for a couple of days of R & R at the end of our stay in Sri Lanka.

Next morning, we took the four hour bus to Kandy, where we are now. Greenhaven is a comfortable guest house about 2k from the main part of the city. It overlooks the mountains and has a pool. It also has a well reviewed guide service, and we had arranged for car and driver to take us around to a number of sites within the cultural triangle. After a dip in the pool followed by a torrential downpour, we met our driver, Lalinda, who speaks English well, and seems quite easy going.

View from Greenhaven

Later we took a tuk-tuk downtown, and went for dinner with a German couple who are staying here. Although, Kandy initially appeared to be as hectic and chaotic as Indian cities, the main drag turned out to be quite pleasant,and even a bit upscale. Things do seem cleaner here than in India, as we had been told by Hitesh and Ruchi. Although our plan had been to head out to the Knuckles Range for the night, we decided to spend another day in Kandy going to the botanical gardens and a few small Buddhist temples. Although the Temple of the Tooth is the most famous one, the steep admission charge put us off. In fact all of the main cultural sites have high admission charges. It seems the government has decided to gouge foreign tourists for as much as they think they can get. Understandable in a way for a poor country, and yet many of the charges seemed excessive.


Photo by Nanette


Posted by jonshapiro 08:04 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged postcards Comments (3)

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