M double U

2016 Sri Lanka

The Pearl of the Indian Ocean…

This year I would be traveling without Paul, not something I was looking forward to, but after it finally sunk in I decided it should not stop me from going places. Several options went through my mind; Montenegro, originally an idea from Paul and with having so much enjoyed our, for us unusual trip, to Croatia in 2012 I could easily see myself going there. But not this time…

Then I looked into going to Bali and visit my friends Ulli, Nyoman and Daniel again but got distracted from this idea by India once again. I completely researched and planned a trip to Calcutta, The Sundarbans National park and then further north to Darjeeling, Sikkim and Assam. A magical journey to the Cloud Kingdom. All was ready to book but then I got concerned whether I would be able to do this, without doubt, strenuous trip on my own.

Back to plan B… back to Bali, by now I had found a very good priced flight from Amsterdam to Bali so I simply booked it and then informed Ulli, Nyoman and Daniel, that in spite of earlier news, I would be coming over this year anyway. Their reaction was so heartwarming I immediately knew I had made the right decision. Unfortunately it was not meant to be…

In the middle of July Paul became seriously ill, which resulted to an open-heart surgery in the beginning of September in order to have a heart valve replaced that was destroyed by a bacterial infection. It goes without saying that I cancelled my trip to Bali so I could be there for him after his release from hospital.

Fortunately all went well and with Paul recovering my mind started to wander to foreign places again, to a journey that after all that had happened this year I really needed. I simply needed time off to get my mind in the right state to look forward to the future again.

With the rainy season having started in Bali that was a no go for me and traveling India on my own was something that would be too strenuous in my condition. I made my decision to go somewhere I had not been before so I checked several countries in Asia. It did not take long to become clear that Sri Lanka would be the ideal destination. The Pearl of the Indian Ocean, The Tear of India, a country with so many places to discover, and such a variety of experiences I could not believe I had overseen it for so long.

So an itinerary was made that would bring me to many of the highlights Sri Lanka has to offer but adapted to me in a much slower pace than usual, a flight was booked and now it was only a matter of time. Finally on the 12th of November I boarded an Emirates A380 for my first leg of the journey to Dubai, and not much later onward to Colombo.

Thirteen hours after takeoff in Düsseldorf I landed in Colombo. As soon as the door of the plane opened I could feel the humidity. I could not be bothered though as the 30 degrees felt so much nicer than the cold I left behind. Customs went amazingly fast, luggage took a bit longer and confused as I am I arrived at the taxi stand without having bought a ticket in the arrival hall. Not that it mattered as not much later I was on my way.

My first impression of Sri Lanka was that it was less hectic and definitely much cleaner than its northern neighbor India. I enjoyed the sights and sounds while we slowly made our way through Negombo on our way to the Ging Oya Lodge in Waikkal. Although I had never been in Sri Lanka before I had this sense of recognition and felt right at home.

When we approached Ging Oya Lodge the whole surroundings became much greener and I could feel the rural buzz fade away. Immediately I knew I had made the right decision coming here to start my trip. We drove over small-unpaved roads and I saw beautiful houses surrounded by colorful gardens. A couple of wrong turns later we arrived at the gate of Ging Oya Lodge. After the driver made a short call after it was opened and from that moment on I turned speechless. An arch of trees surrounded the unpaved road, which seemed to go on and on. Such an unusual setting stunned even the taxi driver.

Leo, the owner, greeted me and brought me to my spacious colonial type bungalow. Not much later also met his wife Myrjam. Besides another Danish couple that arrived this morning and myself there were no guests. Being tired from the long journey I took a swim and dozed a bit at the poolside. Later that evening dinner was served, pumpkin soup, a delicious white fish curry, rice and dahl, home made ice cream and sorbet. Not much later I become overwhelmed with tiredness so I called it a day and went to bed.

Eleven hours later I finally woke up and after a refreshing shower went for a little walk on the premises. I made some pictures as the light was still nice and soft and enjoyed the extreme peacefulness of the place. I was very happy I had made the right decision not to make the obvious choice to book a home by the sea and instead booked a place on the Ging riverbanks surrounded by trees and bamboo. A place so peaceful, so relaxing I could not have thought of a better place to start my Sri Lankan adventure.

After breakfast I went for a swim and listened to some music. I planned to be absolutely lazy but after lunch I decided otherwise and made a canoe trip over the river Ging towards the beach. It was a wonderful trip and fortunately I did not encounter the crocodile that was spotted a couple of days ago. In spite of it being harmless to humans I’d rather not meet with it as I was carrying my camera in a rather wobbly canoe and did not want to make sudden and unpredicted movements.

The beach was rather polluted and I saw some people searching through the dirt for anything valuable or wood to burn. Others were having a picnic on the beach or gathered at the local Christian church. It was definitely an area that was not taken over by big hotels so far. I wandered around a bit and was greeted by many friendly locals. Then it was time to go back to Ging Oya lodge for another refreshing swim.

In the evening I enjoyed another stunning meal; Spring rolls, vegetables fried rice and a spicy beef curry. Pancakes as desert and this evening I did manage to have tea. Not long after that I packed my things and enjoyed a deep sleep.

Next morning after breakfast it was time to say goodbye to my wonderful hosts as I was picked up by Jude, my driver for the next two weeks. He turned out to be a friendly guy, but more importantly, a safe driver. We loaded my luggage in the car and headed to the main road northwards to Anuradhapura. Immediately I noticed the traffic was far more relaxed than at Sri Lanka’s northern neighbor and also the roads were in a much better shape. This made traveling comfortable indeed.

Somewhere on the road we stopped at a Hindu temple, an extremely colorful event, unfortunately the place was closed so we could only admire it from the outside. Not much later I was told off for making pictures, something I thought was only forbidden on the inside. Whoops, sorry…

A little bit later we had tea at a roadside stall and around 13:00 we arrived in Anuradhapura, just in time for lunch. After that I had a short swim, relaxed a bit and we were ready to go on the road again.

In the afternoon we visited Mihintale (Mahinda’s hill), the birthplace of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, a magical place full of ancient temples and dagobas. It was the first sight I officially visited in Sri Lanka and it blew me away! A sequence of beautiful shrines, stupas and caves. The surrounding are so extremely beautiful easily forgot the 1843 steps I had to ascend before reaching the first platform. It did not make things easier that I had to leave my slippers behind and make the trip barefoot.

At the first platform I could admire the Ambasthala Dagoba, surrounded by the Mahesaya Dagoba, a giant Buddha and of course the summit itself.

Although there were more steps to conquer I could not resist to visit each and every place. I started off with the Buddha and the path up there, with steps carved out in the rocks, was a tricky one. Once I made it there emotions overwhelmed me. Seeing both dagoba’s, the summit itself and a landscape of an almost unearthly beauty surrounding it I could not feel but feeling extremely happy once again, it had been a while…

Next stop was a small temple where a couple of young monks were emptying the contents of the offering blocks. Policemen were present to make sure all went according regulations.

And then it was time again to climb more steps to an even higher point, the Mahesaya Dagoba. This is where I spotted the first monkeys. Workmen were renovating the area around the Dagoba and Sri Lankan’s who visited assisted them. Each of them, as a kind of offering, carried a bag of building material, all 1843 steps…

The last place to visit was the actual summit itself, and the path over there was without doubt the trickiest one so far. But I had to go there, as this was the actual place where King Devanampiyatissa was converted to Buddishm in 247BC after which it was established as the island’s state religion.

And regardless of belief, regardless of all the stories surrounding this place, climbing the summit cannot leave you untouched. Yes I am honest, I shed a tear. If this is was Sri Lanka is going to be like I am going to be an emotional wreck at the end. An amazingly flat landscape lay deep behind me with some rocks shattered in between. Several shades of green pleased my eyes. Lakes, rice fields, forests. It just left me speechless for the next couple of minutes.

And then it was time to descend again, al 1843 steps. It went easier then I expected and still gob smacked on what I just had seen we left to the next destination, the ruins of an old hospital where during it’s excavation many advanced medical implements were discovered.

Back at the hotel I took a refreshing shower, a well deserved beer and I started to work on my journal. Not much later I enjoyed a wonderful fish platter, another beer and it was time to call it a day. And what a day it had been…

After a good night of sleep it was time to visit the ancient capital of Anurdhapura. It was the royal capital of 113 successive kings and 4 queens, a true marriage of faith and engineering. Jude had arranged a local guide for the day and we started of at the oldest part of the city at the southern sites.

Our first place to visit was the rock temple of Isurumuniya, built in the 3rd century BC. A great temple built around a rock. Like everywhere in Sri Lanka I could also see a Bodi tree and a white stupa. Inside several fresco’s were to be admired as well as a big reclining Buddha and some others. When I climbed the rock I could see the massive water tank behind a big dam. Almost complete Anuradhapura is surrounded by three of Sri Lanka’s largest and oldest water tanks.

A bit further south I admired the Vessagiraya Ruins and caves. The caves were used by monks to meditate and it was only thanks to my guide I saw the small details on how the rocks were cut to avoid water coming into the cave and the Brahmi inscriptions. There was not much left to see from the ruins on what used to be a temple complex for the reclusive Vaisya caste.

Sri Mahi Bodi, the site of the oldest Bodi tree in Sri Lanka, it was brought over here over 200 years ago Ana a lot of its cuttings are now spread over several sights in Sri Lanka. Actually it is not one but multiple trees that are planted here, something that is an ongoing process. Temples surrounded the tree, which we could not come close to, and I could see many pilgrims dressed at their best presenting their offerings. My guide had planned our visit carefully so I could witness the ceremony of ringing the bell and the banging of the drums. After that I was allowed into the holy site, a moving and spiritual experience. I had wished I had brought white clothes to wear to blend in with the crowd but they did not seem to be disturbed by my colorful appearance as they were to busy with their prayers and offerings.

Not much later I was invited to participate in a small ceremony where I was blessed and prayers were said for my well-being. I received a white cord around my wrist and a dash of ashes on my forehead after which the ceremony was over.

And then we headed to the Mirisavetiya Rajamaha Vihara Dagoba. This one was a massive stupa and we slowly walked around it clockwise. Amazingly that all the stupas in Sri Lanka are massive brickwork and there is no cavities in it. Reason why they are so big is that devotees can see them from afar and do their prayers to it without the need of coming close.

This visit concluded the tour for the morning and Jude and I went to a local place for a fantastic Sri Lankan lunch. I ordered a chicken curry but it came with a variety of site dishes and sambals. It was not too spicy and I loved the different dishes and the richness of their flavors.

Back at the hotel I slept for an hour, worked on my journal and enjoyed a beer. In the mean time the heavens opened but at 15:30 when the tour continued it was dry again, perfect planning.

We took a detour to the first sight so we could see a group of giant bats that were having an afternoon nap in a group of trees. This afternoon we would be focusing on the northern part of the city and Rawun, my guide, had planned the visit in such way we gradually went to see newer buildings as we went on.

Thuparama, the oldest Dagoba in both the city and Sri Lanka is believed to enshrine the right collarbone of Buddha. It might not be the most impressive size wise but it is very sacred to Buddhists.

Next stop was a giant brown Dagoba that had a meditating Buddha statue facing it. Originally it was white as well but this layer has vanished over the year..

Most buildings have a moonstone, two guard stones, stairs and a balustrade leading to it. Most of them are in more or less state of deterioration but at two different sights a moonstone and guards one in perfect state could be admired. I was so pleased to have Ruwan around me, as he was a valuable source of information. He described me the detailed carvings on the moonstone, the guard stone and their meaning. This lifted my visit from just seeing a collection of ruins with insight information on what I saw and why it was built the way it was.

While driving through the well-paved streets and parks of this Unesco site it suddenly struck me that this once had been a complete city. Remainders are still to be enjoyed of the main buildings, but what had completely vanished were the wooden houses of the majority of people who lived in this area. Memories of my visits to Bagan in Myanmar and Angkor Wat in Cambodia came into my mind as both of them also were remainder of ancient cities.

We wandered through some forest to visit the elephant pond. It was enormous which was not strange taking in mind that it was supposed to cater over 5000 monks with drinking water.

Not much further was another ruin of a monastery. There was a massive rice container in the shape of a large canoe when filled with rice was enough to feed 10.000 monks. Here I could also see the drainage pipes coming from the elephant pond used for drinking water, but also for cooking and cooling complete rooms, an amazing example of ancient knowledge.

A short drive later were the twin pond, another sample of an ingenious watering system. These ponds were mainly used for the bathing of the monks. After that we visited another giant brown Dagoba, the largest on in Sri Lanka. And that was supposed to be the end of an interesting day.

Sun was setting and very rapidly it was getting darker. But there was one final visit planned but first we went to the modern city for a well-deserved black tea. By the first zip I remembered a tip in the guidebook, if you prefer your black tea as it is, order it without sugar. Sri Lankans prefer their tea sweet, very sweet….

As it was now completely dark we headed to a temple where every evening at 7:00 a ceremony was held to bring offerings to the Buddha. First thing that stuck me was a giant Buddha of several stories high.

Not much further a group of pilgrims, all dressed in white, gathered whilst monks were preparing for the ceremony. Shortly before 7:00 I could here drums, trumpets and a man blowing on a shell that announced the ceremony. Men carrying a yellow umbrella each approached the central shrine followed by monks. The pilgrims were blessed and relics were brought to the shrine. Then the pilgrims could go there to perform their prayers.

The ceremony finished as abrupt as it started so it was time to head back to the hotel for a well-deserved beer and a Sri Lankan dinner. Besides some rice there were 11 bowls with several curries, one even tastier than the other. But it was much, far too much and I felt ashamed to give back so much food. And then desert was served…

The remainder of the evening I worked on my journal but did not go back to my room late, my suitcase had to be packed as the next day we would head towards the next destination. A new day, new adventures.

Somehow I am having restless sleeps and after being awake a coupe of hours again I fell asleep and overslept the alarm. Fortunately I still made it in time for breakfast and only was a couple of minutes late to meet Jude.

As soon as we left Anurdhapura the pace seemed to slow down and I could see a lot of farming going on. We passed another immense water tank, which once again proved the Sri Lankans are masters in irrigation. For kilometers we drove over a large dam with the artificial lake on once side and the deeper laying village on the other side.

And then we arrived at the Aukana Buddha statue. Of course we had to climb a number of steps again, after which I was greeted by a friendly monk and was requested to pay my entrance fee. The site was not big but still I was very happy we made the journey to see the 25 m. high Buddha. According to tradition there was also a holy Bodi tree as well as a small Dagoba. The view over the surrounding landscape was beautiful with a lotus pond trapped between rocks.

Not much later, whilst on the road again the heavens opened, big time! We could hardly see where we were going and after Jude consulted the local weather online he mentioned it would most likely rain the rest of the day. It would make no sense to visit the two other sites that were planned for today but instead Jude asked me whether I would be interested in an Ayurvedic treatment, and sure I was.

My treatment started of with an hour-long full body massage and by the end of it I was covered with oil. To add to that for the next 30 minutes oil was poured over my forehead, which had a very relaxing effect. Not that I needed to relax even more as during the massage I had to be awaken twice… Finally I took a steam bath so the essential oils could deeply saturate into my skin. By now I was so greasy it was good to take a shower to get rid off the excess oils before getting dressed again.

We made a short stop at a restaurant for lunch but since the buffet was not appealing to me I stuck to a beer. Anther short drive later we arrived at the Melrose villas where I would be staying for the next three nights. The place was simple but adequate and from the garden I had a fantastic view over Sigiriya Rock, which I would be climbing in two days time. The rain kept coming so I went for a nap for a couple of hours, enjoyed my dinner and had a couple of drinks with Jude. Arak with cola. In Sri Lanka Arak is made of coconut and it is a rather smooth drink. A few are enough though…

Next morning after breakfast we headed over to Polonnaruwa. It’s Sri Lanka’s second capital and served to do so from the 11th till the 13th century. A city full of monasteries and temples, both Buddhist and Hindu. Of course it was not far from a giant water reservoir that is nowadays still used for irrigating the rice fields. King Vijabahu I was responsible for the resurgence of Buddhism in Sri Lanka after it had suffered heavily under Hindu rule. He did so by bringing monks from Birma.

I started of at the Pollonnarawu museum, which housed an excellent collection of statues and artifacts from the excavations. Also several Marquette’s gave a good impressions of how the monasteries and palaces actually looked. This is where I also bought my ticket for the actual sites themselves. Then I headed towards the southern ruins, which were close to the water reservoir. Here I could see the statue of Parakramabahu and the Pothgul Vihara (Southern monastery). It was a nice small site with only two major things to be seen so it did take me long before I was back at the car and Jude brought me to the main site.

The quadrangle was located at the heart of the ancient city and that is where my tour began. It was where the famous tooth relic was kept safely for years before it was moved to Kandy.

By now it started raining again but as Jude had brought an umbrella I decided to go on as there would be no other option to see these magnificent ruins. The advantage of the rain was that the list was much softer and the wet stone revealed it’s carvings in a much more profound rain. With most of the places regarded a red I left my shoes in the car and went barefoot.

Not to be ignored was the magnificence of the flamboyant Vatadage, a superbly decorated circular shrine. I was happy to have seen a small reproduction of it in the museum so I could imagine how it really used to be. At each of the four entrances I saw carvings of lions, dwarfs and lotuses. Moonstones with elephants, beautiful guard stones and in the center four Buddha statues.

Next to the Vatadage was the Hatadage, a much more modest building. Inside I could see some Buddha statues and it was the perfect place to shelter for the rain a while as it was coming down pretty hard now.

As soon as the rain mellowed down I continued to another temple that was close, the seven stories Sathmahal Pasada, but nothing much is known about this building.

For me personally though on of the highlights of this ancient city were the Gal Vihara rock sculptures. Four magnificent Buddha statues were carved our of a granite cliff face, unfortunately the names of the artists have been lost over time but what a brilliant job they did. Absolute highlight is a 14-meter reclining Buddha. It is so serene, so beautiful that a piece like this has never been matched in Singhalese art. The centerpiece, a much smaller Buddha in a rock who’s portrayed at the moment he slips in Nirvana. I must admit that the Gal Vihara rock sculptures are some of the interesting ones I have seen so far. So much detail although the nature of the material was not always kind to the artists.

The last place I visited was the area surrounding the Lankatilaka, an image house that features an immense, but now headless Buddha squashed in between the narrow space surrounding it. I was lucky to discover a faded ceiling fresco by it gave me a good impression on how the building initially was decorated.

With my sightseeing completed Jude asked me whether I was hungry. As it was two o’clock already a small bite would not hurt but I forgot that in Sri Lanka small bites were not done…

Lunch was served in a farmhouse with the dining rooms overlooking the rice fields. I was allowed to see the kitchen, which was spread out in several rooms. The actual cooking was done on firewood, which gave the curries a special taste.

Whilst I was admiring the view and a beer staff started to display a hug amount of curries and side dishes. I decided to fill my plate (a banana leaf) with one piece of each curry, including the two very spicy ones and once done my plate was full. It was the best lunch so far in Sri Lanka and I did finish my plate, even as the chef topped it up with some curries I had overseen.

And just when I was happy I finished my plate desert was being served. The highlight of it was water buffalo curd with honey, a true delight.

Outside it started raining again but that was no problem for the next thing on my program. We went back to the hotel where I had a short rest before I got a cooking demonstration by the chef whilst he prepared tonight’s dinner. Like Indian curries Sri Lankan ones consist of a complex mixture of spices but the preparation is completely different. Cooking times are short, 10-20 minutes per curry, but that is only for the vegetarian ones. Meat, fish or chicken takes longer.

The rest of the afternoon I worked on my journal, enjoyed another beer and listened to the latest Marillion album. Thunder and lightning was now constant and internet was down. A good reason to enjoy the present without distractions from outside.

That evening it did not stop raining, actually it went on almost all night. The noise was loud, very loud so I hardly slept at all. Fortunately early morning it finally stopped so at least I could have a bit of sleep.

I was rally happy it was dry the next morning as I was going to the summit of Lion Rock. It is said that little can prepare you for the experience of Sigiraya which I perhaps the most remarkable of all Sri Lanka’s former capitals. And it was….

We left the hotel at 7:30 for a short ride to the entrance. As I noticed the crowds were growing I decided to skip the museum and the water gardens at the foot of the rock and headed straight for the summit. I walked through the beautifully maintained park after which I started to climb the first stairs. It was not to busy yet which was absolutely fine to me. I would not have liked to do the ascend in a crowd of people not having he chance to go back…

The almost inaccessible summit could be reached through a sequence so steep stairs, overhanging ramps and more steps. The first part was absolutely fine but then things became much more awkward.

A Victorian-era spiral metal staircase lead up to a sheltered recess in the rock above. I must admit I thought twice whether I wanted to do it, especially looking down and seeing the depths behind me. But then I overcome my fear, focused on the steps and slowly made my way upward. It was worth it as I could admire some beautiful frescos on the overhanging rock. Unfortunately no photography was allowed so I went to the second spiral staircase that lead back down. I even dared to look at the depths below me a couple of times. From the bottom a small path led past the mirror wall with centuries’ worth of graffiti. Any attempts for additions were highly punishable. Another narrow metal path bolted to the side of the rock later I arrived at the lion platform, time for a breath as now I was on stable ground again.

A pair of giant lion feet marked the last bit of to summit. Originally the steps to the summit led through the mouth of a giant lion Tatum, for sure a bold way to impress. Unfortunately now only the feet are remaining but they marked the beginning of another hair raising ascend. Once again I needed to look away from the depths below me in order not to change my mind and return. Concentrating on the rock did its work so I safely made it to the summit.

Over there I discovered the remains of King Kassapa’s brilliant palace. It’s location, the views, it must have been a mind blowing experience. Somehow I got the feeling of how the Machu Picchu remains must look as this was breathing a somewhat similar atmosphere. It was cloudy this day but fortunately windows of clean space opened up every now and then so I could make some pictures of the breathtaking views.

And then there was the way down… This time there was no way to avoid looking at the depths below me so I descended very carefully, step by step. Once back at the lion’s platform I noticed how dizzy I had become so I rested a bit before my further descend to the water gardens.

As I had skipped them earlier I took my time to enjoy them and then visited the fabulous museum. Once again it gave me a very good impression on how the area looked in its glory days. It must have been so fantastic to live in that period, if you were part of the happy few…

I met Jude again at the parking lot and we went back to the hotel. There I slept for a couple of hours to catch up with the sleep I missed out on last night. I did not feel for lunch, as after all those wonderful Sri Lankan meals it was easy to skip lunch for once.

Later that afternoon we made our way to the Kaudulla National park. We were told to stop by a tuck tuck driver in front of us and that was when magic happened, two mature elephants carefully crossed the road, directly next to our car. What luck!

Of course it started to rain again when we wanted to get into our jeep so I decided to wait a bit, I did not feel like spending 65 US$ on a safari whilst being undercover in the rain and not being able to see anything. Not much later a phone call came, it was dry in the park and with that call the green light was given for my elephant safari.

Arriving at the park I first saw several other animals. Monkeys, an eagle, peacocks and other birds. Beautiful to see them so close. By now the roof had been taken of the jeep and I was standing up not to miss a thing.

And there they were, my first group of elephants, it were five of them, mothers and babies, and not much later two male elephants joined, on the look for a possible mating partner. I t was so nice to see we spent quite a while over there.

In the mean time one of the jeeps got stuck in the mud and soon a group of drivers gathered for what turned out to be a very clumsy rescue action. Even seat belts were removed to assist with the towing; one would expect that they come better prepared. After almost an hour I got a bit angry, as this was definitely not what I was paying for. Fortunately someone with a descent towing cable appeared on the scene and not much later we could continue our trip.

And then we saw what we were looking for. A large group of perhaps 90 elephants on the plains next to the water. They took their time eating, socializing and I even saw some minor fights. I was overwhelmed by the view, what a fantastic experience, so many elephants and so close. Some approached up to a couple of meters to my jeep, it seemed they were as curious to us as they were to them. My driver got a bit nervous though and scared them to safer distance.

By now a large group of jeeps was gathering around the elephants that did not seem to be disturbed by their presence. We stayed at least another 30-40 minutes to enjoy the activity within the group after which it was time to return.

In spite of the hiccup in the beginning it had been a fabulous safari and I can imagine I returned at the hotel with a big smile on my face. That evening another splendid dinner after which Jude, the chef cook and myself gathered to enjoy some arak and cola’s. Another splendid day had come to an end.

It was time to pack my suitcase again and head on to Kandy, at the very south of the cultural triangle. Our first stop was the Cave Temples and the Golden Temple in Dambulla, only an hour drive or so. First I saw a golden stupa, which made a nice impression, around the corner a massive golden Buddha statue, so far so good… But then I noticed the horrendous building it was placed on and the kitsch statues of deer, monks and elephants. It looked like a Wald Disney for Buddhist so I did not need an excuse to leave this behind and head on to the real purpose of my visit.

But this was Sri Lanka and before I could admire the famous temple built under an overhanging rock I had to climb steps again, many of them. It was very humid that morning so before I reached the top I was sweating like crazy. I left my slippers behind, went through an arch and got my first glimpse of the impressive 160-meter long Buddhist cave temples. Originally created by King Valangambahu I in the 1st century BC it is a series of caves. They were repaired and further embellished by kings in the 17th and 18th century and this was when many of the murals and statues come from I could see today.

It was busy, very busy with tourists, some louder than others and some completely disrespectful making selfies of themselves with the Buddha’s, although this is strictly forbidden everywhere in Sri Lanka. Still I highly enjoyed the atmosphere in the 5 caves. At times I even could disconnect myself from the noise and breathe the serenity of the place and how it was meant to be. In the first cave, he smallest of all, was a massive 14 meter long reclining Buddha and some other statues as well. Later on during my visit this cave was closed for a ceremony whilst a man was playing on the drums outside.

The next caves were much larger. They were filled with statues but the most impressive were the fantastic frescos that covered the walls and ceilings. Repeated figures and symbol formed a tapestry of colors and in a way it reminded me a bit being I the tombs at the valley of Kings in Egypt. But that was the only similarity as the paintings and style were completely different of course.

I took my time to admire the place. Some repairs had been very successful, the other ones repaired in the more modern kitschy use of colors. But it was good to get an idea of how this place must have been for the happy few that were privileged to join the Kings who came here for seclusion and meditation.

Once on the road again I fell asleep once again, only to wake up whilst we were approaching Kandy. The hotel was located in a quiet neighborhood, on the hillside and far away from the city buzz. I slept some more and at the end of the afternoon went to the cultural center for a dance performance. Jude had arranged a first row seat for me, perfect for making pictures.

Lasting exactly one hour the fast paced show demonstrated a range of dances and music, mainly drums and a kind of trumpet. All dances told a story which was explained in the accompanying leaflet (in Dutch) but the moves all seemed to be very similar, although at the second part of the show some impressive acrobatics were displayed by the men. Especially the ones where two men were moving flamed torches close to their body or licking the fire was an act not to try at home.

The evening ended with a traditional fire dance and if walking on the red glowing charcoals was not enough they were lit up for a final crossing. And then the evening stopped as abrupt as it had started. Entertaining indeed and fortunately not long enough to get bored.

Outside Jude waited for me and introduced me to my guide who brought me to the neighboring temple of the tooth. The serene white buildings are located on the lakeside and as it was time for the evening ceremony attracted a large number of people, both local and foreign. The temple is one of Sri Lanka’s most important Buddhist temples and houses one of the most sacred objects, the Tooth Relic. It attracts pilgrims from all over Sri Lanka and Asia as well. It is also an important symbol of Sinhalese pride as whoever had the relic as believed to have the right to rule the country. In 1998 a Tamil Tiger Bomb destroyed much of the facade of the temple but the relic was kept intact and the facade lovingly restored since.

The entrance to the inner part of the temple led through a beautifully painted golden tunnel, a worthy welcome. Men were playing the drums before a sacred shrine where the relic was normally stored. The walls of the courtyard where mainly white with dark wooden beams keeping the construction together.

During three daily pujas the relic is shown to the pilgrims, safely locked away in a golden reliquary. Only the most important visitors are allowed to see it from nearby. For all other mortals to get a glimpse of it there was no other way than joining the long queue and so I did. Guards ensured the crowd kept moving and once I made it to the window it was shortly opened so I could get a glimpse of the reliquary, of course displayed at a safe distance and guarded by monks.

In one of the other praying halls a group of devotees, all dressed in white were lead into prayers by a monk. A big collection of marble Buddhas were displayed and I really enjoyed this room.

There were still two smaller rooms to be visited, both heavily guarded by monks who ensured nothing was touched and no photographs were taken. The first room was a library containing prayer books made of palm leaves; the second housed a large golden Buddha statue as well as some other relics. I spotted a small Chrystal Buddha in a shine of its own.

This completed my visit to the temple of the tooth. It was time to return to the hotel and enjoy a well-deserved dinner and a beer. It had been another wonderful day.

High above Kandy, overlooking the city and the lake I saw an immense Buddha statue, called the Bahiravakanda Buddha so that was the first place to visit in the morning on the next day.

It was a beautiful drive and the higher we came, the nicer the views. The 26 meter high Buddha was built on a small but interesting temple. Of course I discovered the Bodhi tree and the Stupa, as well as several smaller shines.

In the main room behind the Buddha several reliefs were made telling important omens in the life of Buddha.

The nice thing was that one could climb up a set of stairs at the back of the Buddha from where I had an even better view over the city of Kandy.

Next place to visit were the Peradinaya Botanical Gardens. A lush 6-hectare big garden with a collection of plants, flowers and trees from all over the world. It was beautifully laid out in several family groups. I particularly loved some of the fantastic palm avenues which looked absolutely stunning. Although initially only an hour and a half was planned for the garden I spent just over two hours over there and by then had not seen it all.

And then it was time to leave Kandy and proceed to Sri Lanka’s famous hill country. The landscape slowly started to change and not much later I saw the first tea plantations. At a viewpoint there I admired the lakes below and some waterfalls. At one point I could spot there of them in one go.

Next stop was a tea factory. A nice lady explained me the complete process from picked leave till final product, which takes about two days. The tea factory had about 200 women picking tea for them and each of them earned 700 Rp (approx 4 euro) for picking 20-25 kilos of tea. Another 50 women worked in the factory for the sorting, drying and fermenting of the tea.

Another hour drive later we arrived at he hotel in Nuwara Eliya. By now we were at an altitude of approx. 2000 meters and it was noticeably colder over here. The cold did not make things more comfortable and it was the first time in this holiday I wore my fleece and socks again. I met 2 German women who I had earlier met in Sigaraya and the three of us ended up to have a wonderful evening together with lots of laughter. The waiter did not master English properly and this caused some hilarious stations especially when we asked for salt but were given ketchup.

Next morning I originally had planned to go to world’s end at the Horton Plains but I had heard by other travelers this was only worth it when the weather was really good. So I decided to save myself a 6 o’clock wake up call and a 30 US entry fee and take things easy.

So instead I had breakfast together with Nicole and Uta and headed to Nuwarra Eliya’s small city center. The post office was typically English influenced, something that was clearly visible in the whole area.

It brought a smile on my face to see some kind of drive around Buddhist temple, a small car that had a Buddha statue, music chanting and a monk who was binding white cords around devotee’s wrists for good luck. As I was making photo’s I was invited to approach and also I received another white cord around my wrist.

Next was the small market where a varied collection of vegetables, fruit and both fresh and dried fish was for sale. It was not a big market but still I managed to get some typical Sri Lankan spices for home.

My last place to visit was the small but nicely laid out Victoriapark. It was nowhere as big as the botanical gardens I visited the day before and also the flowers seemed to be in a different part of year. But at an altitude of almost 2000 meters the climate was completely different than in Kandy, which explained most of the flowers seemed to have gone past their best. A serious job of deadheading would be appropriate.

I enjoyed a tea and some cake with Jude after which we drove to the railway station to board the express train that started in Kandy and was on it’s way to Badulla. I met Nicole and Uta again and by coincidence we had seats opposite of each other.

We would only be on the train for two and a half hour and get out at Ella. This part of the journey is without doubt the most beautiful train ride in Sri Lanka, if not of South Asia. We meandered through tea plantations and could see the women pick the tea. Some of the far sights are mind blowing and it was not strange all three of us enjoyed every single minute of the journey.

Not much later we drove through a more agricultural part of the countryside which vanished quickly   When we drove through dense forest. The amount of tunnels was huge and each time we came out of one it seemed the landscape had changed.

Vendors came around with snacks and I could not resist to buy some prawn and vegetable cakes which were yummy indeed. We stopped at several stations and a couple of times I enjoyed the ride from an open door, bringing me closer to nature than from behind our opened window.

It was a fun ride which for my liking ended far too quick. Jude and the other driver were already waiting for us so each of us was brought to their hotel. Mine was a real surprise, it only had two rooms and a perfect view over Ella Rock and Little Adam’s Peak. I would be ascending both of them in the morning but first there was the evening to enjoy. We had arranged to have dinner at Chill Cafe with the three of us, our drivers and a mutual friend of them. It was promising to become a fun evening as we noticed the excitement of our drivers when we arranged this.

I slept a bit in the afternoon so I could bring up my energy levels for the evening. Shortly before seven Jude picked me up for the short ride to Chill Cafe. Somehow our reservation was messed up but we got a table for three so Nicole, Uta and myself ate separately. Chill cafe turned out to be an extremely popular backpacker place with a nice selection of cocktails and good food. My first choice was an Ella Mule; Cardomon infused vodka, lime, ginger beer and fresh ginger. It immediately became my favorite and although I tried another one I returned to the Ella Mule very quickly. Food was great, I selected a Sri Lankan curry dish which unusually was cooked together with the rice in a banana leaf. Very tasty indeed. After dinner the able next to us became available and our drivers could join. This is when the party really started. It was a long evening, we danced, we laughed a lot and yes there were plenty of cocktails to be enjoyed as well, a fabulous break from the more serious sightseeing.

Next day I had a long sleep in so I missed the opportunity to go on a hike to Ella rock. I decided for a relaxing day, far away from new impressions and spend the day listening to music. Later on in the afternoon Jude came by and we discussed the plan for tomorrow. I decided to do a pre-breakfast hike to Ella Rock after which we would make our way to Yala national park. As I had to wake up early I opted for an early dinner at Chill Cafe followed by an early night. It was the first time this holiday I chose a western style dinner and of course I could not resist an Ella Mule.

The morning after, shortly after 5:30 my alarm went of and I got ready for my trek. But first a cup of tea to get me going. Just before six we started off and it did not take long after we left the Leisure Dream Inn after I had to ascend a long and particularly nasty set of steps. I was completely exhausted when I reached the top (after having paused a coupe of times) and this was only the beginning.

From here we had to follow the rail tracks for a while and having to walk on the beams was a kind of hypnotic experience. Looking at the ground watching my steps constantly however caused that I could not really enjoy the scenery around me. When we arrived at the point where we would leave the rail track and continue on a narrow path we waited a couple of minutes full of anticipation for the upcoming train. In Sri Lanka it seems to be normal to walk on rail tracks as during the walk we encountered several villagers and schoolchildren doing the same. Something like this would be unheard of back home.

First the path lead through some farmland but it did not take long before we were walking steep uphill through some tea plantations. The light this early in the morning was beautiful and I was enjoying the trek in spite of the fact that I was having difficulties coping with it.

The next break was on a viewpoint from where there was a perfect view over Little Adam’s peak. Although it was initially planned also to ascend that one that peak was now of the list due to my day off yesterday. Another climb and we passed a small local restaurant, clearly made to offer refreshments to hikers to the top. We were friendly greeted by a dog and her two adorable puppies and when we continued the dog followed us all the way to the top.

And it was a final but very strenuous climb. A couple of times I thought about giving up but with only 20 minutes or so to go (most likely a bit longer with my pace) I used all my willpower to continue. As said the climb was strenuous. Not only steep, but at times slippery and very uneven surface did not make things easier.

Finally we reached a wider path so the last couple of minutes were easy going. Reaching the summit and seeing the breathtaking views made me forget my difficulties to get up here in on go. It was absolutely stunning and somehow our newfound companion found herself a friend over here as suddenly there were two dogs admiring the view.

And then it was time to descend again, fortunately this was much much easier, although a couple of times I needed to be extremely careful not to fall at the slippery parts. The descend went much faster to as there was no need for me to take breaks. Suddenly we found ourselves at the top of a waterfall, something that had not caught my attention during the way up.

Finally we made it to the rail-track, which we followed for a kilometer, or so and then there were those nasty steps again. Also now going down proved to be so much easier and not much later we returned at the hotel, just over three and a half hours after we departed.

A refreshing shower, packing my stuff and breakfast was served. As normal in Sri Lanka it was far to much so I decided to focus on the Sri Lankan dishes and skip the toast. I don’t know whether it was because of the track or not but the fresh fruit juice was without doubt the tastiest I had enjoyed during my stay in Sri Lanka. The hotel itself had been very special as it only had two rooms. It was run by three brothers and their mother took care of the cooking. They just opened a year ago and the rooms offered everything you need. As for the brothers, they were extremely friendly and helpful. One of them had even joined me to Ella’s peak in the morning. Yes this was my favorite place so far!

Jude arrived after breakfast so I said goodbye to the brothers and we were on our way. I asked Jude to go to the famous 9-arched rail bridge, not knowing this also required a hike to reach. Fortunately this was a short and easy one so I was to complaining.

Also this time I was lucky catching one of the four trains a day passing the bridge. This time it was a cargo train with three passenger wagons behind it. Even shortly before the train arrived locals were crossing the bridge, a crazy experience.

Next stop were the Rawana Ella falls, a sequence of falls where water dropped over 100 meters down on a cliff next to the road, no hike required this time.

And then the morning’s activities took it’s toll as I fell asleep during the next 2 hours or so. When I woke up the landscape had dramatically changed and we were approaching Yala National park. Time for lunch at a nice, but also rather pricey restaurant. It became clear this would be a popular place for tourists.

The hotel looked nice and had a pool so first I had a swim before starting to work on my pictures and journal again. Once up to date I felt it was time for another well deserved nap.

Another day in paradise… I had booked a full day safari in the Yala National park, Sri Lanka’s most famous park. It lies in the south east of the island and although the biggest part is closed for visitors there is still enough accessible for hours of exploration. It has most likely the most varied collection of wildlife of which the most famous, a significant leopard population. Of course the park is not a zoo and it was highly unsure whether I would be able to see at least one of them but the next hours would tell.

It was about a 45 minute drive to the park entrance and after my entrance fee was paid and paperwork taken care off we could head of to our adventure. Not long after we entered the park I saw something small but very strange. A beetle was moving a small ball of collected things over the road. It was many times bigger than himself and must have been very heavy to move. It was a fun thing to see.

Not much later we encountered wild water buffaloes and some deer. The Buffaloes were taking a nice long bath, seemingly indifferent from us passing by. The deer where much more shy and came to full attention with every single sound they heard. Once considered end safe they kept on grazing.

Of course we could not miss out on some elephants which were present plentiful in the park and we saw them on multiple occasions, both in a group where the mothers carefully protected their youngsters, but also single male who tend to live a more isolated life.

Birds were plentiful and it was a shame I could not identify more of the species that I saw but I could recognize kingfishers, heirs, pigeons and of course the majestic peacocks and peahen. I was lucky enough to see some of the males in their full glory parading up and down in front of the hens and showing off their full color in the hope to impress and being selected for mating.

Around the numerous wells and ponds there was the most wildlife to be discovered but it was not as safe and idyllic as it initially looked. Underwater, and sometimes barely to be seen were the crocodiles, some of them up to a length of 5 meter. When not underwater they were relaxing and sunbathing but I am sure it would only take a fraction of a second for them to come into action.

Completely to my surprise I also saw a couple of hares, I had not expected them over here. Also several times we encountered wild boars whose size did not justify to their shyness.

Centrally in the park were two massive rocks, one of which was called elephant rock. It was easy to see why. By now we had been driving all morning and although we had posted at a spot where frequently a leopard was spotted this time I was not so lucky. We headed to the beach where an extensive lunch was served. I had expected something simple but a complete Sri Lankan curry dish was brought along, followed by several fruits. For sure I will miss the pineapple and banana once back home.

Being so close to the coast also the Yala park was strongly affected by the huge tsunami in 2004. Fortunately most animals felt something bad was going to happen so they looked for higher grounds before disaster struck.

Of course no trip to the jungle is complete without seeing monkeys and this was no exception. We saw plenty of them during the day and once, on a short break, some braver specimens even tried to steal some food from our jeep but this time we were vigilant and they did not succeed.

Somewhere on the road we saw a cobra but as soon as we approached I seeks safety in the bushes. Fortunately at that time there was no mongoose present because when those two species meet it will without doubt end up in a fight which will end up lethal to one of them.

At times we also spotted some bigger lizards and every now and then a smaller chameleon. The last one was more difficult to spot as it changes it color constantly to adapt to the background so it is less visible for it’s predators.

We kept on driving for the remainder of the afternoon where we saw more elephants, monkeys, wild boar, crocodiles and more wildlife but so far I did not have any luck with seeing a leopard. I looked nervously at my watch knowing that with time going by my chances would become smaller and smaller. I was ok with not eyeing hem and had already decided to do another morning safari in case I would not see any. As I was here now I wanted to take every chance to see one of these impressive animals.

Time was going by quickly and as he had to be out of the park at 6pm we started to head towards the exit. It had not been my lucky day but still I was not complaining as I had really enjoyed it and hardly can recall a day where I saw such a variety of wildlife. And then my luck changed…

We passed by a jeep full of excited people who pointed us into the right direction where a leopard was deep asleep in a tree. The place was not difficult to find as a true traffic jam had formed in both directions its people waiting to get a glimpse. A park ranger was controlling things and ensured people did not take to much time at the best viewpoint and everybody would get their chance. By now I was very impatient and excited but finally it was my turn to watch the leopard who was seemingly unaware of the hectic and excitement he was causing. I made some pictures where Jude hold me so I would not fall out of the car and then it was time to make space for others. By now I had a big smile on my face, I could hardly believe that at the last moment I still was lucky to see one of those beautiful creatures.

The way back to the exit became a bit of a race as each of the drivers clearly wanted to be out of the park before the deadline of 6PM. One time we still had to wait as a couple of elephants were eager to cross the road but we still made it in time to the gate, at only a couple of minutes before six.

What a day it had been, so much wildlife, so much nature. It was all a bit much to take in which I did whilst enjoying a beer. Tomorrow’s plans were discussed, another early rise for a bird safari. Therefore I ordered my dinner and called it an early night. I felt asleep feeling pleased and satisfied. I had seen a leopard….

5:30 I was rudely awaken by the alarm and by six o’clock sharp I was picked up by another jeep driver. This early morning we headed towards the Bundala wetlands, which is also a national park. It was close to the coast as well but as it was protected by natural sand dunes it was not affected by the tsunami.

At the entrance of the park a bird spotter joined us and he turned out to have the best eye to spot the birds, regardless whether they were large and easily to be seen, or small and very difficult to spot. More importantly, he knew every single name and had something to tell about each of them. The kingfishers, the peacocks, the herons, they were all there but so were so many other species.

In total 274 types of birds live in the Bundala wetlands and I do not know how many different ones I saw but it were plenty. Although the bird spotter told me all the names I could only respond yes and ok, or sometimes look really blank when I could not see what he was pointing out initially. As much as he did his best I immediately forgot the name of the bird I just saw as he was already attracting attention to another species.

It was a beautiful ride and it was obvious that this park looked so completely different than the Yala national park. Somehow it seems to be a safe haven for birds as it attracts them from everywhere. But besides the birds there was plenty of other wildlife to be discovered although not in such variety as the day before.

About 3 1/2 hours after we left I was dropped of at the hotel where I had a short swim and enjoyed my breakfast. After that I went back to bed to catch up on some keep and took things easy the remainder of the day.

Late afternoon we headed towards a temple in Katagarama to witness another ceremony. I must admit I have seen so many ceremonies over the years but nothing could have prepared me for what I witnessed this night.

On arrival we passed through a market were fruits were sold for devotee’s to offer. A bit further on things looked more like a fun fair with all kind of religious and non-religious kitsch was being sold. Chrystal Buddha’s, gold (looking) Ganesha’s and deities for every bodies choice were there in plenty of variety. So much bling, so much crap, one could hardly believed this was all brought together in one place but the devotee’s seemed to like this stuff.

As I approached the temple I noticed 2 large lanes with smaller temples on the side, some of them had a large crowd of devotee’s gathered around a priest who was performing the rituals, at other places there were only one or two people keeping attention. Flashing lights in all kind of colors tried to attract them but of course it was the deity of choice that determined how any devotee’s were attracted. Ganesha turned out to be extremely popular.

A bit further on I heard music, mainly drums and trumpet, it somehow seemed to fit more in New Orleans than at did place. The musicians were followed by dancers carrying Hindi objects that I had seen before but could not really identify. Some of the people were clearly in an ecstatic trance, shaking their bodies and heads in an almost uncontrolled way and a bit further I noticed someone totally out of control rolling himself over the sandy surface somehow into oblivion.

And it got even more weird… But before I was allowed to enter the temple compound I had to leave my slippers behind but as Jude could not join me he took care of them.

From inside the temple a cacophonous of noises could be heard and by no I as really confused. I saw both Hindu and Buddhist followers, each of them in their own world of worship. There was also a large group of Katagarama followers but I could not make sense  of who was following which God or deity, there was simply to much going on and nothing seemed to make sense.

One of the men I saw rolling himself through the send before was praying with a coconut in his hand. He blessed several people around him and hit them o several body parts. Then the coconut was smashed on the floor. Later on this sample was followed by several other worshippers.

Some women were completely in trance and did some kind of dance which looked more like an uncontrollable shaking of their bodies while their husbands tried to create a path through the crowd for hem so thy would not hurt themselves or anyone else.

A bit further on was a serene scene of a Buddhist monk under a holy Bodhi tree who was putting arm wrists around Buddhist followers and a bit further on was a large collection of burning candles. A note was saying not to use animal fat for lightning the lamps.

And then there was this enormous queue of people waiting to bring them fruit offerings to one of the temple. I could see prayers were going on inside and people were blessed. Then, shortly before seven a man rang a bell outside which was followed by a storm of bells sounding from within the temple. The rhythm become faster and faster, almost in hysteria whilst the blessing kept going on.

It was indeed one of the most bizarre rituals I have ever witnessed. Somehow it felt like there was a group of people coming together for a nice Saturday evening out but then there was the religious ecstasy that was driving some of them into sheer madness.

Katagarama’s yearly festival is famous for people hinging themselves on hooks or driving spikes through their sheets. It is one of the bloodiest festivals in the word and with tonight’s events I could understand the devotion driving this people to do so. It remained a bizarre experience though and I can only say I left the site rather confused, still not being able to understand what I had just witnessed.

Back at the hotel I enjoyed dinner after which Jude joined me for a couple of drinks. It was our last evening and he had bought a personalized mug with a selfie from the both of us on it and a personal message, I was very touched by this wonderful gift, something that will remind me of my trip with him for years to come.

On my last day of our tour together Jude brought me to the Mangrove Capana’s in Tangalle, somewhere on the south coast of Sri Lanka. But before going there we made a stop at an elephant orphanage close to Uduwale national park.

My first sighting of the elephants was a slightly bigger one who had a pro-these on one of his back legs. Thanks to that he still was able to walk on his own, however slightly limping. He was the first one to be given his daily portion of milk, most likely as he would otherwise be pushed away by the other elephants.

Once he was satisfied the other elephants were let in, each time in small groups. Of course the eye catcher was a very young and small elephant who not only was the cutest but also the most naughty one. Apparently he could not get enough and in spite of the caretakers trying to get him away from the feeding place he remained reluctant and returned and returned; this caused a lot of laughter amongst the people watching.

I think there were in total about 30 adolescent elephants, who for one reason or another lost their mother. Normally they would not stand a chance in nature but thanks to the efforts of the orphanage they were brought up until they were old enough to return to nature.

In spite of the sadness of their circumstances they seemed to be a happy bunch and so many young elephants together remained an adoring sight. I stayed watching a while after which I returned to the car for the final stretch to Tangalle.

And yes, Tangalle had everything I hoped for. I have a dislike for crowded beaches and this one was just as I hoped for, nice and quiet. But before I could enjoy that it was time to say goodbye to Jude and I must admit I hated to see him go as he had been really good company the last two weeks.

My Cabana was a nice chalet directly on the beachfront. It was simple but very tastefully decorated. But wait, where was the bathroom? To access that I had to open a hatch in the floor after which a solid wooden stair led to the huge bathroom downstairs. I had never seen this type of construction before. Rather ingenious as it helped to keep the footprint from the chalets relatively small.

After having settled I went to the bar, found a table at the beach and enjoyed my welcome drink after which I ordered lunch.

Unfortunately the sea was unsuitable for swimming and the sun was rather shy behind a layer of clouds. Still I could imagine myself relaxing at this place for a day and a half and so I did. After lunch I found a hammock and listened to some music, only the second time during this trip.

Some hours later I woke up as I found myself feeling a bit chilly. I got dressed and returned to the bar for a beer and update my journal.  Once done it was dinnertime, I had a nice curried prawn dish. The rest of the evening was rather uneventful. It seemed this was definitely a place for couples so I felt a bit left out and lonely. Oh well, these things happen as a single traveler but tonight was definitely not one of the best. Went to bed just before nine.

Next morning the sun was trying to break through the clouds so I enjoyed breakfast at the beach. After that I went for a walk amongst the shoreline and made some pictures. The water, as inviting as it appeared was to be avoided because of the strong undercurrents. Oh well, there was always the shower in my cabana if things got to warm.

When I returned I found a beach bed and listened to some music. It was a lazy and relaxing morning. As lunch yesterday was so nice, fire yellow tuna, I decided to enjoy it once more. Rest of the afternoon was very relaxing and as lazy as the morning. What else can one wish for after having toured Sri Lanka intensively for two weeks this felt like the right thing to do, and it was.

Late afternoon I opted for my first cocktail of the day and I met an Australian couple with whom I dined together. It became a very nice evening but shortly after ten we were informed the restaurant was closing. Bedtime…

I slept well that night but as I went to bed early I woke up early. Then I took my time for an extensive shower, sort out my suitcase more or less and had a Sri Lankan breakfast. There was still time enough for a beach walk but I had to be back by eleven as Jude had arranged a Tuck Tuck to Galle, my next stop.

As I was getting used to by now the Tuk Tuk driver was there a couple of minutes before planned. With the suitcase loaded in the back there was still space enough for me and my two carry on bags.

Traveling in a Tuk Tuk makes you see the world in a totally different perspective. You have to ditch your head all the time in order to see something but still the traffic seems to be more intense and hectic than from a car. The noise, the fumes and the use of the road wherever that was ossicle made it a frantic, yet still rather safe way of traveling.

I did notice that the roads had become slightly dirtier; there was plastic laying on the sides of the street, something that I did notice before in Sri Lanka. Also it became clear to me that Tangalla had been the perfect choice. Far away from the road, a quiet beach, it had been wonderful. Exactly the way I like it. Over here the resorts were on a small stretch of beach, cramped in between the water and the busy road. Not my idea of fun…

We passed the busy city of Matara, the second biggest town of the south coast. Apparently the old part of town was built by the Dutch but I did not even get a glimpse of this as we were only passing through the hustling and bustling modern part of town.

And then we passed some more beach resorts and former fishing villages and once again I was not unhappy to skip them. I did see the fishermen on their stilts who seemed to have an unbelievable patience sitting there waiting to catch something.

And then we arrived at Galle. Driving at the modern part was like driving through any Sri Lankan city but as soon as we came close to the fort things changed rapidly. We had to wait 10 minutes as the only gateway into the old fort had been changed into a one direction lane but then we were allowed to enter.

The atmosphere changed dramatically and somehow I did feel like being in a time warp. Many of these buildings were built by the English, Portuguese and let’s not forget the Dutch. Some were beautifully restored, others still had a lot of work to be done and looked more like a ruin.

It did not take long to find my guesthouse and I was welcomed into the living room of two older ladies who were running the guesthouse. They were extremely friendly and I was shown my room upstairs.

I decided to take the remainder of the day to walk without any aim through the old fort, just enjoy the atmosphere and check out places I wanted to give a closer look next day. The fort was small enough it was easy to get my bearings yet enough places to discovered, lovely small alleys with small shop, restaurants or a combination of the both. One could easily breath the ancient history over here. Obviously I am not talking about similar history as seen in Annuradnapura but then there were almost two thousand years in between those places.

Galle had a long colonial past. It was mainly built by the Dutch but also the English and Portuguese left their mark to this stunning fortification. I took a light bite to eat and enjoyed my first beer. After that I went for a short afternoon nap.

In the evening I took a short Tuk Tuk ride to Unuwatuna where I had an appointment with Nicolle and Uta. We had a lovely evening with the three of us recalling memories of times we had spent together in Sri Lanka but also times apart. Some cocktails and wonderful food, what else could one wish for.

Next morning I woke up early and decided for an early morning stroll. It was the time the major groups of tourists had not arrived yet and the city still had that authentic atmosphere. I waked down lighthouse street towards the walled fortification and headed towards the Utrecht bastion where the famous lighthouse was located.

From there I decided to make a nice stroll over the wall so I could get a good impression on how the defense system was built up in former ages. I assume the most threats came from the sea hence the thick wall around the city and several bastions where I could still see remainders of the foundations where the guns were located.

The sights over the sea were stunning but my attention was more focused on the inside of the city. It seemed there was a labyrinth of streets but after a closer look they all formed a more or regular grid.

The wall was a popular place for joggers in the morning and a field in front of the clock tower I could see a group of youngsters playing cricket. When I arrived at the clock tower it still was before 9 o’clock.

I continued my walk at street level and by now I found out Galle also was a spot chosen by a lot of young couples for their wedding photographs. I saw at least a couple of them, followed by a group of photographers, brides maids and other people assisting.

Then I passed the National museum and the maritime museum but I decided not to go into them and enjoy the quiet atmosphere of Galle as long as it lasted. The brilliant Galle Fort Hotel was a converted Dutch warehouse and I remember looking at it during my preparations for this trip and decided it was to expensive.

Next place I discovered was the Dutch reformed church and inside there was a nice organ, some modestly decorated glass in lead window panes and some gravestones with Dutch inscriptions.

It was time for a break, time for breakfast. I found a nice place where I had a decent breakfast before I continued my exploration. Galle fort was not that big so I did not see a reason for a well planned route, instead I just followed my instinct and breathed the atmosphere. At the east side of the fort I found the old Dutch hospital that was now converted in a range of boutiques. Although a lot of them were clearly catering to tourists I had not seen anything to my liking. I was not interested in jewelry or gems and woodwork was not my thing either. The only thing I really wanted was a nice T-shirt but the selection offered was rather limited.

The area round the Dutch hospital was predominantly houses and even a church was converted into a mosque. A strange awareness indeed but then, why not.

The remainder of the morning I happily strolled around the narrow alleys and found it rather enjoyable. But then I was getting a bit dizzy so I returned to my guesthouse for a nap. A bit later then expected I woke up again and headed towards a spa I had discovered earlier. There I opted for a 90 minute deep tissue massage which, at times, was more like a torture as my therapist turned out to have extremely strong hands and arms, or whatever he was using for the massage. Still, in spite of the forceful treatment I managed to fall asleep and had to be woken up in order to turn around. Still I felt completely rejuvenated after the massage so it must have done me good.

I returned to the wall surrounding the city and the joggers had now disappeared. Their place was taken by couples in love, strolling over the wall hand in hand, making selfies and enjoying the last remaining moments of the day.

By the time sun was setting I found a nice place to eat and after dinner, whilst I was just relaxing I was told the restaurant was closing. By then it was only 20:30 but places close down early in the fort…

Many hours later I woke up again, had a shower and went for breakfast. That was served on the balcony of the guesthouse so I could overlook the street whilst eating. My suitcase was packed in moments after which I settled my bill and took a Tuk Tuk to the railway station which turned out to be within walking distance from the Fort.

180 Rupees, less than a Euro was my 2nd class ticket to Colombo, a trip that lasted two and a half hours…

Most of the journey was close to the coastline and my thoughts went back to the 25th of December 2004 where a disastrous tsunami caused the most serious train accident in Asian history on this particular line. The complete train was wiped away leaving hundreds of people to drown in an awful death. Every now and then I could see the remaining scars. Ruins of houses where the owners had died or perhaps not had the funds to restart their lives after this terrific force of nature.

At one part I could see remainders of the old rail track but then, most of the journey went through a beautiful landscape. Closer to Columbo it seemed that resorts and slums were competing for space amongst the shoreline and it got stuck in my mind this was the very first time I saw slums in Sri Lanka.

And then I could see the first container ships and gradually the first skyscrapers appeared. We were now approaching Colombo and things were slightly different over here from what I had seen in Sri Lanka until now.

At the Colombo fort station there was a lot of confusion amongst the tourists whether this was the right place to get out or not and although the majority of them got out I initially wanted to stay until the next station. However? Minutes later I was on the platform on the way to the exit. There I got a (far to expensive) Tuk Tuk ride to my hotel which turned out to be on the outskirts of town, oh well, away from the Centre anyway.

My hotel was absolutely stunning, maybe the most luxurious I had so far in Sri Lanka, but the area around it had not a lot to offer besides getting a good feeling what it must be like to live in Colombo. I checked out what to do the next day and opted for a walking tour in the morning and a Tuk Tuk food safari that started in the late afternoon.

Once that was taken care I strolled around the area and after an hour or so found a South Indian restaurant where I had dinner. By then it was only six thirty so once again I went to bed early, ready for another day in Colombo, a city that was in such big contrast to what I had seen before. Still I was convinced it was the right thing to do as this was Sri Lanka as well after all. I would discover the next morning.

After breakfast it was time to hit the road again. It did not take me long to find out the busses were on strike, for the took Tuk drivers this meant business… Prices had adapted accordingly overnight but I it did not take me long to find a driver that would bring me to the world trade center at a reasonable price. The roads were congested because of the strike so it took me over an hour to the city center. 

Opposite the WTC was the old Dutch hospital, and this is where I met Harold, my guide for the morning. We started of with a tour of the former hospital, now converted to a luxury shopping center and he told me a bit about the history. We were very close to the harbor so in the center where it all began, centuries ago.

We strolled towards the shoreline from where I could see the old Parliament House and some canons in a rather miserable state. We went to the sky bar of a luxury hotel and from here I had a great view over Colombo, a good excuse to tell me more tales about times long gone.

It was rather clear Colombo was changing it’s skyline rapidly as there were building sites for new skyscraper all over. In front of the harbor new land was being won from the sea in order to build a completely new seafront city and perhaps even a state of the art Formula 1 racetrack.

Back on ground floor we wondered around the old part of the city, I was not allowed to make pictures everywhere as part of it was the office of the prime minister and came with strict security regulations. I saw buildings in Victorian style, others in Dutch style, all in different state of restaurant ion. A lot of work still had to be done but I got a good impression of how things had been.

In the restaurant of the famous Grand Orient Hotel we enjoyed a cup of tea while Harold told more stories about former times. At the very place we were seated the grand ladies of high ranked personnel waited for boats which either brought them relatives or took them away from them. With their workaholic husbands having little time for them there was no other way to relax and gossip all day. What a life…

From the GOH we continued our walk to Colombo’s Main Street, a hustling bustling cacophony of people, cars, and tuk tuks finding space to move on to wherever their destination might have been. The noises, the exhaust fumes, but also the nice smells of the ripe fruit that was sold everywhere. I absolutely loved the chaotic atmosphere where everybody seemed to find their way.

Our first stop was a Hindu Temple in one of the side streets, unfortunately it was closed so I could only admire it’s facade.

Not much further on was the red mosque in an extraordinary architecture. Prayers were going on so also here I missed the chance to see it from the inside.

And then Harold decided to alter the original walk and proceed to a nearby vegetable market. He could not have pleased me more as markets are usually a photographic paradise. This one was no exception on the rule.

The wholesale market was closed today as the busses were striking. There for we enjoyed a king coconut at on of the street stalls after which we went to a local restaurant for lunch. A restaurant with Sri Lanka Curries was almost sold out so we proceeded to a biryani restaurant where I tasted on of the most complex layered biryanis I had enjoyed so far. A complex mixture of spices made it a total delight. I was a happy person.

Harold helped me to find a Tuk Tuk that brought me back to the hotel and also this trip took much longer than usual duets the chaos caused by The bus strike. I had planned to rest a bit before my next adventure but as I arrived just after three there was not much time for that.

Shortly before four I heard a knock on my door and one of the hotel staff told my my Tuk Tuk safari driver was waiting for me. Time for the fun to begin.

I was welcomed by Randy, who was dressed in a crispy white colonial style uniform with a fresh King coconut after which he explained me about the tour and the facilities of the Tuk Tuk.

Not much later Marillion’s latest album sounded through the speakers, I opened a can of beer and we were on the way. 

Our first stop was a Hindu temple and in spite of me wearing my shorts I was allowed in and admire the statues and small ceremonies going on. Like everywhere in Sri Lanka religions mix and also over here I could see some deities that were worshipped in both Buddhism and Hinduism. It was a colorful place to visit indeed and Randy was well informed about what was to be seen.

Now the roof was taken of my convertible Tuk Tuk and I could stand up and make pictures whilst driving. Perfect timing as we were now driving though the 2nd cross street and down Main Street. Our bright lit Tuk Tuk was something to be seen and many people were friendly waving as we passed by. What an absolute stunning and fun experience.

Next stop was a fruit juice stop at Sadew. This stall with fresh fruit juices is famous in Colombo and during lunch time there were long queues of office workers hoping to buy a fresh juice. I was treated on a mango lassie which was very tasty indeed and had a soft, creamy taste, exploding with mango flavor.

And then we were on the road again. Sun had set by now and the atmosphere was changing. We stopped at a tea outlet where once again I was informed about the different types of tea available. I sampled some and could not resist to get some more tea to take home with me.

Time for a small bite, a traditional Sri Lankan egg hopper with Dahl curry and coconut sambal. I could simply not believe that such tasty fast food available one could see western fast food chains on the streets as well. For me the choice was clear, the hoppers at Taste of Asia were so much better.

I must admit I was not prepared from what I saw when we arrived at the Buddhist Gangaramaya temple. At first sight I looked like a normal temple but once inside it looked more like an extensive museum with an immense collection of ancient relics, books, statues and gifts from all over Asia.

It was rather bizarre to be honest, especially when I found a Royce Royce and a Bentley being parked in a corner and gathering a large amount of dust. Next to it was another car with the first license plate in Sri Lanka and some more modern cars, even a Mercedes.

In between this rather curious collection of memorabilia people were worshipping the countless statues. Butter lamps were lit, the Bodhi tree was watered and I sense was being burnt all over.

And then the monks appeared, ready for blessing the worshippers and doing some chanting. As said it was a strange place, so much unlike the Buddhist temples I had seen before and which somehow made a far more serene impression. Still I loved this place a lot, maybe just because it was so different.

Time was flying by quickly and once again we left to go to our next stop, my chance to flavor some Sri Lankan street food at Hulftidorp street. The area was predominantly Muslim but that did not change the atmosphere. People were genuinely friendly and after Harold cleaned the table I was allowed to sit down and enjoy some curries and fried chicken. Now this was the real thing, not adapted to the taste of western people but far more spice, hence tastier!!! I was not really hungry after my egg hoppers but still wanted to taste everything that was served. A very good idea.

Once we left the Muslim area I opened my second beer of the day and enjoyed the views whilst driving around. In a way this was such a hilarious way to travel, a bit mad but definitely good fun. And so we arrived at the Independence Memorial Square where a commemoration hall was erected for the annual independence celebrations.

There Randy served me a curd with lime and honey, as if I still was hungry… The lime added an additional flavor which I thought was a welcome addition. We chatted a while after we went on to our final destination of the day.

The former asylum… Also this historic building was converted into a luxury shopping mall and I could even see preparations going on for an Apple Store… The building was beautifully lit and it was a good place to stop my Tuk Tuk safari through Colombo.

Originally we were still supposed to go to the Dutch hospital but as I had seen that already in the morning I told Randy we could return to the Richmond House Hotel where he picked me up about six hours earlier. A final beer, the final stretch. As traffic was much lighter now it only took another 20 minutes and shortly after 10 I said goodbye to Randy.

It had been a crazy but wonderful day. The combination of the walking tour and the Tuk Tuk safari had worked out brilliant and for me it was the right way to sample Colombo in a slightly different way.

I slept long and deep that night and was awoken by the alarm I had set. Shower, pack my suitcase, breakfast… My taxi, a Tata Nano, was already waiting for me and not much later we were absorbed  in the chaos of the traffic. My driver asked me whether it was ok to take the tollway to which I agreed. It was the perfect decision as once we had left the busy streets of Colombo things went much faster. Two and a half hours after we left we arrived at Ziegler cottage in Negombo, my final stop of this trip.

The next two days I hardly left the poolside. I made a short stroll to the beach to see the fishermen prepare their boats and other people collecting mussels from the shallow water ad that was my only activity. Swim, relax, listen to some music, enjoy my last Sri Lankan meals and a beer or two.

My Sri Lankan adventures been absolutely stunning. Deeply impressed by the variety of things I have seen and done. Even more so with the fantastic food and the stunning nature. The best thing however were the extremely friendly people. Thailand may be the land of 1000 smiles but in this case I would like to name Sri Lanka the land of 1000 genuine smiles.

Rarely have I felt so safe, rarely have I seen so few touts and rarely have the people been so heartwarming. Now don’t get me wrong as this is generally the case in Asia where I have met some of the most friendly people around but in Sri Lanka things were brought to a higher level.

Sri Lanka, a country that for whatever reason I have seemed to forgotten for so many years. Only this years circumstances made me decide to come here, a decision I knew was right from the very first moment I got a glimpse of what lay ahead.

Traveling alone after so many years was different and for sure I have missed Paul on more than one occasion. Still I have enjoyed my trip a lot and from now on I could even call Sri Lanka the land of 1001 genuine smiles at the moment I board my Emirates flight to Dubai, no then on to Düsseldorf.

To all I have met the last three weeks or who made this journey the success it was…

Estutti.

Thank you form the bottom of my heart, this trip will bring a big smile on my face every time I think of it….