After saying goodbye to India and a very short flight from Kochi we landed in Bandaranaike International Airport. Sri Lanka, officially the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, was known as Ceylon until 1972. Mainly Buddhist it is among Kenya and India one of largest exporters of tea in the world. And, only recently in May 2009, after almost 30 years, they gave end to what has been Asia’s longest civil war between the Sinhalese (Buddhists) and the Tamils (Hindus). Apart from the few things we had read, we new little about Sri Lanka and its customs, so we didn’t really know what to expect.
Our first impression couldn’t have been any better! Everything at the airport was super well organized and new, passing through emigration took us just 5 minutes (we got our visa online in advance), getting a phone SIM card with 3G was a 10 minutes job (what in India took us many hours), there was a free shuttle from the airport to the nearest bus station, people were super friendly… We quickly realized that Sri Lanka was much more developed than India but also more expensive.
With only 8 days in Sri Lanka (a country more or less of the size of Ireland) we had to plan and choose carefully where to go and what to do. We decided to first visit the ancient cities and the hill country before heading south to the beaches. So after doing all the diligences at the airport we headed to Kandy, 115 km from Colombo (3h by bus). Kandy hosts Sri Lanka’s most important Buddhist relic: a tooth of the Buddha. We were curious and thought of visiting the temple where they keep the tooth, but the 1100 LKR that costs the ticket made us back away. Kandy was our hub for a couple of nights just so we could go and visit both Sigiriya and Dambulla.
Sigiriya, or the “Lion’s rock” is a 200m high rock-top fortress. A popular myth says that king Kassapa (AD 477 – 495) built a palace and garden at the top of the rock but recent archaeological discoveries suggest that the rock was never a palace, that is was a monastery sometime in the 5th century BC, much before king Kassapa. The sight itself is amazing, and even from the distance you get a feeling of its magnitude. In the past the summit was only accessible by climbing into the jaws of a giant lion carved into the rock, nowadays there are stairs that help reach the top, though the state of them would be raising the health and safety alarms in any other country (you could think that after paying 30 $ at least the place would be very well kept!). The views from the top are stunning, you feel you are in an island in the middle of a green sea of tropical trees.
Dambulla’s cave temple (as Sigiriya a Unesco world heritage site) is a very important place of worship for many Buddhist. The temple that sits on top of a hill has 5 caves, which contain more than 150 status and many paintings related mainly to Lord Buddha and his life. Some of the statues, like the 15 metre long reclining Buddha in the first cave are truly impressive.
Our Sri Lankan sightseeing marathon brought us next to Adam’s Peak, which is many things to many people. An important pilgrimage sight for over 1000 years, for Christians and Muslims it’s meant to be where Adam set his foot on earth after being exiled from heaven, for Buddhist where Buddha left his footprint as he headed towards paradise, for Hindus where the footprint of Lord Shiva is. It is also known as Samanalakande, the butterfly mountain, where butterflies go to die.
We got to Dalhousie, the starting point of the trek to Adam’s Peak around lunch time after two 3-hour bus rides, first Kandy to Hatton and then Hatton to Dalhousie. I have to say that getting to Dalhousie was worth it if only for the scenery among the tea plantations. We wanted to do as the local pilgrims do and climb overnight to see the sunrise from the top. Pouring rain as it was, we weren’t sure if we were going to carry on with the trek. After an early dinner we went to bed for a few hours hoping that the rain would soon stop. The alarm went off at 2am, and fortunately for us it had stopped raining. More asleep than awake we started the hard climb of the 5200 steps. In the darkness of the night the only lights were the ones that showed us the path to the top. It took us three hours to get to the summit, and I’m not going to say that it was tougher than climbing to Thorong La, but it was hard for sure! When we got to the top we saw hundreds of local pilgrims freezing waiting for the sun to rise. Seeing how the sun started illuminating the deep valleys and how the colours of the scenery changed from darks and greys to the most stunning greens and oranges was breathtaking. Going down wasn’t too easy either, as both the rivers of people and the steep steps made it very difficult and tiring. Back in Dalhousie and after a yummy breakfast with fresh bread (you can get this white bread everywhere in Sri Lanka and it’s delicious!) and a warm tea, and a hot shower we were back on the road again.
Kandy, Lakshmi Guest House – Quiet guest house near the lake with simple rooms. With mosquito net and attached bathroom with hot shower (the cheapest rooms don’t have attached bathrooms). Wifi available at an extra cost. The best was the rice and curry we had for dinner one of the nights. 2000 LKR per night.
Dalhousie – We stayed in a guest house that had just opened one month ago. It was near the beginning of the village, it was an orange house a few meters away from the bus stand. Rooms were clean and new, with attached bathroom with hot shower (electrical). We didn’t like the very fishy rice and curry we had for dinner. Check out time around 11am what gives you plenty of time to have a shower after the trek. 1000 LKR per night.