essay: Sri Lanka 2015

Sri Lanka 2015

We flew to Perth last Sunday and had 5pm drinks with Bill and Norma Jamieson, their lawyer son my cousin William his young Thai wife Bee, and William’s young and grownup kids from both his marriages – all nice folk.  Bill, 91 had a bad back and was looking rather frail, Norma has moderately severe memory loss but does OK in social situations.  Bill made a short formal welcome to the family greenie, and I made a short reply.  Felt a little sad as it’s likely to be the last time I see one or both of them. Up at 3am next day for the long flights to Colombo via KL, one of those HUGE modern international air hubs – makes Tulla seem provincial.  Some computer crash delay getting our US$35 visas, but a nice man waiting to drive us to Ceilao Villas in central Columbo.  The week of Sri Lankan New Year holidays had just begun, so the roads are mercifully quiet.  Ceilao (old name for Ceylon, or Sri Lanka) are one of 3 sets of architecturally stunning guest houses built by a Sri Lankan Australian family in different parts of the country.  Had our first hot SL curry and got a supply of SL Rupees, using the wonderful Citibank plastic again.   Early to bed as we’d also been up and extra 4.5 hrs re Melbourne time, and picked up next morning for another easy 60k drive south to Bentota, one of a cluster of small towns at the base of the Bentota Peninsula, a sort of national holiday capital, with the usual frenetic traffic of tuctucs, motorbikes, lorries and overloaded buses.  The peninsula is a thin finger of land forming one head where the Bentota River meets the Indian Ocean in the Bay of Bengal ( on the southwest coast of the country, facing India).  Our resort Centara Ceysands was just completed last year and is very large (?300 rooms) and luxurious and grand in scale – no expense spared.  There’s a phone in our lavatory!! The resort straddles the whole peninsula, so you get there by motorboat from a grand landing across the river.  Our big balcony overlooks the ocean, and our door opens onto the river.  Sunsets are gorgeous, cute little squirrels run at great speed everywhere, and the lizards are impressive – met a big monitor on our beach walk yesterday, coming back from a little temple with a single Buddhist monk in a tranquil forest setting at the end of the peninsula.  Weather is fine so far, very hot and humid, and resort life – my first real attempt at it – is about filling in time between the very fine buffet meals, lying around the 50m pool, looking at the large numbers of other happy campers from all over the world, who clearly also responded to the generous Luxury Escape packages.  For about $150 per night per room we also get airport transfers, breakfast and dinner in one of a couple of fine restaurants, 8 complimentary cocktail vouchers, and a complimentary 1 hour massage in the lovely spa – now that was good! It’s best to do walks and activities early in the day.  This morning we went to Brief Garden, the home and extensive gardens of Bevis Bawa, a 6’7″ SL architect (had acromegaly – pituitary giantism – I suspect), who was gay and built it as a kind of boys’ playground.  The Australian artist Donald Friend came for a weekend and stayed 6 years.  Then visited a temple with a 160 foot (yes, 160 feet high) modern statue of Buddha; it was built after the tsunami in which 35000 Sri Lankans perished.  Inside it were floors of either bloodthirsty or erotic large religious paintings on cement bas-relief.  Then back to the resort for 3-4 more days of overeating before we go on a five day tour. A couple of mistakes on my part – got some dates mixed up so lose one day of the resort to the tour, and brought only one book – The Secret Pilgrim by Le Carre, one of my alltime favourite authors.  So I of course read it in about 3 days, and there are no English language bookshops around here.  Spent the almost obligatory hours getting internet and phone connections, and the resort put us in a pretty ordinary room even though we’d upgraded 6 months ago to a ‘superior ocean view’ one; we protested, they said they were full, but when we dug in they quickly found the right room!! Love from us ps no pics online as I’m using my camera, w doesn’t connect with an iPad

On our last days at Bentota we walked around the local markets and visited a sea turtle hatchery – lovely creatures – about 10k down the coast towards Galle, before starting a five day tour of the ‘cultural triangle’ in the central highland plateau. We’ve had a wonderful driver/guide Ajith in a comfy spacious Hiace van; he’s been doing it for 20years and his English is fine. He’s one of the majority Singhalese Buddhists – the smaller darker Tamils in the north are Hindus, originally from India. It’s a neater cleaner country than India (they tell you so), and you can’t kill animals so they are everywhere and treated with respect. Our hotels – of the Cinnamon chain, have been truly grand and luxurious – amazing value; these things are not unimportant after each day of exploration and big climbs in 35 deg heat and 90% humidity. Sri Lankans seem very polite and friendly, fine boned and often fine looking, with big smiles. First day was quite a long slow drive on narrow crowded roads to SL’s 2nd city Kandy ( shortening of a long SL word meaning mountain city); had a nice walk around the botanical gardens amid a tropical storm, then a rather underwhelming visit to the temple of the Sacred Tooth. Kandy was the capital of the last SL kingdom before the colonial period – Portuguese, Dutch then the British. The sacred tooth, belonging to one or other of the Buddha’s close pals, always went with the seat of government. Back to the lovely Cinnamon Citadel, more grand buffet dinners and breakfasts, in a forested spot high above a broad river. Next day drove to a spice garden at Matale where a clever chap took us around all the many spice trees and bushes, tasting them, learning about their use in cooking and Ayurvedic medicine. At the finish I told him I was a doc, and he seemed a bit nonplussed, but took it in good part. It’s painfully obvious that on all these tours and visits you are a walking target for the many hawkers of souvenirs etc, so you quickly get good at “No thankyou” but they can be very persistent, as can the ‘commission boys’ who stalk you in the towns. Next the world heritage Dambulla Cave Temples and frescoes under a great rock ledge – cavernous spaces filled with buddhas from small to enormous, upright or reclining, carved out of the granite. Quite a climb up many stone steps. Then on to our main base at Habarana, where we stayed at the gorgeous Cinnamon Lodge 3 nights and days – another vast luxury accom set amid beautiful grounds, lake and big pool; lots of squirrels, macacque monkeys, tortoises and big fearless monitor lizards- land ones ie goannas and water ones with a lace pattern. Drove out to ancient archaeol sites each day with our very knowledgeable Azith, a trekker and twitcher with a keen eye for spotting fauna we’d miss; saw a few mongooses today, and a pair of big porcupines. The highlight has been Sigiriya – lion rock, the fortress in the sky. It’s a 350m high sheer monolith, a smaller Uluru with vertical walls, surrounded by 2 moats (quicksand, crocodiles respectively) accessed by 1300 very steep steps. Kings of old sought refuge here from family skulduggery, murderous relatives; there are world heritage frescoes in great caverns half way up one rock face, and an enormous sphinx built into one side, though only the giant claws remain. Remains of pools and palaces on top, and lots of very clever waterworks by savvy ancient engineers. The country (popn 22million) is still very militarized – heaps of soldiers and big bases, the more so the further north you head towards Tamil country – their capital Jaffna has only Tamils now as the Singhalese were all killed by the Tamil Tigers; the very bloody civil war ended when the Tamils were crushed by the SL army in 2009. Next day to Polonnaruwya, site of the 2nd ancient capital 1017 – 1215; ruins around a great manmade lake and one mighty stupa intact – bell-shaped, hundreds of feet wide and high, made from small bricks. I stopped cursing the heat and humidity when I thought about those ancient brickies. Back to our hotel for a swim and more big yummy meals, next day to the ancient first capital Anuradhapura 380-1017 and the nearby sacred site of Mihintale where Buddhism was first brought to SL; 1800 more steps, thankfully less steep. These sacred buddhist sites require no hat (so sunstroke) and no shoes or socks from the perimeter, and the ground or flagstones are hot as, so lots of hotfooting about between bits of shade, and sore feet afterwards. And if anyone asks me what I know of SL Buddhism I’ll give them 2 words: MANY STEPS. Lots of big new stupas here, as not much remains of the first capital other than lots of foundations and another huge old stupa. So we are stupefied to the point of stupefaction. Long slow drive back to Colombo today; meant to visit an elephant orphanage but the monsoon is starting – our first rainy day, and it was too heavy to get out of the Hiace. All these sites are moderately dear to enter, but your rupees go to exploration/preservation. Overall a very good value luxury hol, our first. This is my second typing – the first disappeared completely, so hope this one gets through the at times dodgy internet connection. See you soon, love, R&R

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