Whales, Birthdays and Ancient Cities
Oft, trains at 4am are not fun. The trouble with some trains in Sri Lanka is that you can’t reserve seats on them so it’s best to turn up an hour before they depart to get a ticket, however at that time in the morning not much is running smoothly and I’m normally a little grumpy. The ticket office was a bit late opening, the electrics weren’t on in the station toilets so no lights and no paper, the train although in the station isn’t on yet so no lights or fans working and as such the carriages are dark mosquito havens…..but on the plus side tickets were cheap at around 420rs each (£1.40) and Paul managed to find us some triangles for the journey, so even though it was going to be a long one it wasn’t all bad.
We were heading back down to Unawatuna as New Year on the beach sounded cool (we’d heard the beach fireworks are a sight to behold) and as Paul was turning 50 on the 11th of Jan, we wanted to be with the friends we’d made so far on our travels. We’d already booked in with Manuta and Milinda back at Coconut Style and I was really looking forward to seeing how much the beach road had changed in the 4 weeks we’d been away.
Needless to say, loads of new things had opened and the place was now very busy with tourists, so busy in fact service had started to suffer in some of our favourite places and dinner time could mean a long wait for tables and food. We still managed to get some cracking meals and New Year on the beach was phenomenal, with fireworks periodically going off from one end of the beach to the other, music pumping from multiple venues and standing space only on the beach at midnight when the beach was lit up like daylight with fireworks.
10 days sped by and to be honest we didn’t do much except enjoy beach life. We did have a trip out to Mirissa as the Whales were now being spotted daily off the coast and it had been a childhood dream to see them in the wild. This meant an overnight stop in Mirissa as the boats leave at 6:30am so we packed a small bag and braved the crazy bus again for 70rs each. I was kinda hoping that Mirissa would redeem itself in my eyes and I’d enjoy a night back here but the combination of a really cheap guesthouse that stank of damp, pouring rain, rude bar staff and restaurants being closed meant for the 2nd time, we didn’t love it here. It was only for a night however and Paul had done a lot of research into this trip as some of the companies offering trips weren’t very ethical and didn’t have great reviews but two companies kept coming up – ‘Raja and the Whale’ and ‘Kumar and Whale’. We settled on Raja and the Whale, they weren’t the cheapest at 11,000rs each (£40) but you got local hotel pickup, breakfast, drinks, a fairly large boat over 2 levels and unlike other boats they don’t have seating on the top deck which makes moving around to see anything slightly easier but does mean you are sat on the floor for breakfast (which for the record was an a very tasty Sri Lankan omelette and toast). We ended up seeing a couple of pods of Bottlenose Dolphins, a mother and calf Fin whale and a couple of Blue Whales.
One of the best reasons for choosing Raja and the Whale for me was that they didn’t race against the clock or chase the whales when they appeared, so after all the other boats had either chased the whales into dives or reached their allotted time out at sea and headed home and we stayed out waiting for the Blue Whale to re-appear. That’s how we ended up being the only boat out when a Blue Whale came up right next to us and made us all jump! No-one had their cameras ready and even the spotters didn’t know it was going to surface there so it was a real bit of luck and is something that will stay with me forever. These pictures are courtesy of the professional ‘Raja’ photographer that goes out on every trip and they provide them free of charge to everyone on board, which is a wonderful service as our camera phones weren’t really up to the task.
The only other thing of note that we did in Unawatuna was celebrate Pauls birthday. Obviously as this was a big milestone birthday we milked it for a few days but the main event was dinner at Coconut Style, where our host Milinda gifted Paul a fancy bottle of Arrack and then on to Lucky Tuna for beach drinks with more friends, more Arrack, balloons and even cake. It was a fantastic night and luckily for us the next-door bar had a load of really good fireworks which just added to the great evening.
On to Colombo, which was supposed to be an easy 2hr train ride up from Galle but the 10:30 am train we’d set our sights on was mysteriously not running and we didn’t want to wait for the 2:45pm train so had to investigate buses instead. I can get horridly motion sick on coaches so was not looking forward to a crazy bus for 2 hrs but almost as soon as we got into the bus station we spotted a A/C minibus with the Colombo destination marker and at only 400rs each this was a bargain.
We’d pushed the budget for this one, seeing as it was someone’s birthday and were staying at the Cinnamon Red, a 3* city hotel with a rooftop infinity pool, cocktail bar, free international buffet breakfast and such a comfy bed that I didn’t want to leave it. We’d also booked a swanky French restaurant for his actual birthday meal, which was close to the hotel and had a few hipster type bars near it for pre or post drinks. It was a very enjoyable 48hrs, we walked around town and saw some great art in pop up stalls outside the National Gallery, ate amazing Indian food, drank pitchers of beer in a British style pub, swam in the pool and had happy hour cocktails then capped it all off with a fantastic Chateaubriand at Café Francis and G&Ts at a trendy bar called Uncle’s.
Another great thing about being in the city was I didn’t find myself humming the Fur Elise tune for 2 days! Have I mentioned that this tune is played by the bread vans that go up and down every town in Sri Lanka, sometimes you hear it upwards of 4 times in a day and it will slowly drive you mad but in the city they either aren’t there, or you can’t hear them! There is one huge downside to this busy city and that is the pushy tuk tuk drivers and tour touts, if you think they are aggressive and forceful in other areas it’s turned up to 11 here in Colombo with some actually following you down streets trying to get your business, it’s a little intimidating…. scrap that it’s very intimidating and I called one driver a stalker as he continued to follow me round some streets and this was whilst Paul was with me, dread to think what they are like with solo women.
The next bit of our Sri Lankan adventure was going to be around the ancient cities and temples in the centre of the island. We had hoped to get a train out of Colombo but for reasons only known to the Sri Lankan Railways they had cancelled all but the night slow train on the line out to Habarana, so we decided to cut our losses and get a taxi to Sigiriya which wasn’t going to be cheap but meant we could relax and not worry about The PickMe App helped enormously on this occasion and almost instantly we got a driver that didn’t mind the long drive and we negotiated cancelling the official ride and paying him in cash so everyone got the best deal, which was 9,500rsp (£35).
We stayed in Sigiriya for 5 nights, which is quite a long time compared to how long most stay in the region but with Lion Rock, Dambulla cave temple, Polonnaruwa ancient city and a couple of wildlife parks nearby we knew we had a fair bit to get on with, our hotel also had a pool so I planned on chilling out there a fair bit as well. Unfortunately, this is the first place where we encountered the horrid practise of elephant rides, they had a few chained up throughout the town and you often saw this beautiful Elephant being paced up and down the tarmac road with tourists perched on top. Please, if you are ever tempted to do anything other than observe an elephant from a distance look into the training or ‘crush’ that these elephants have to go through to make them safe to be around humans. It’s very distressing. Never give money to a company that lets you bathe, ride or handle them.
Lion Rock is the big draw in town, it’s a UNESCO site that one of the old kings decided would be his stronghold and palace location even though it’s on a 180m column of rock. How they built an extravagant palace at the top of this rock is beyond me and the gardens and ruins that remain are mind blowing with an incredible 360-degree view from the top, it’s well worth the very steep entrance price of $30 in my opinion. The steps are steep but there are loads of places to rest and recover, plus if you go first thing in the morning it’s not so hot and you have all day to look about.
Dambulla Cave Temple, another UNESCO site is the largest and most well preserved cave temple in Sri Lanka, we decided to try and see it for sunset but didn’t really know how long it would take to get there or climb it etc, this meant we misjudged it and ended up getting there way to early, which was a shame coz it would have been stunning for sunset but it was beautiful none the less! We paid 1700rs for the tuk tuk to take us wait and bring us back and entrance was 1500 each, so this was by far the cheapest UNESCO site we visited.
The ancient city of Polonnaruwa was the old capital of Sri Lanka back in the late 10th Century, its yet another UNESCO site and as it’s so spread out requires a tuk tuk or pushbike to get around. My bike riding days are over, especially in this heat so we got given a price of 5000rs for a tuk tuk and he’d take us the 1.5hrs there, chauffeur us about ticking off the various sites and drop us back at the hotel later. The entrance ticket is again a staggering $25 each, but you do get random ticket checks so it has to be done really. For that you get a leaflet that doesn’t fold up correctly and a map that’s too small to read, thankfully Sanpat our driver already knew the well-worn route around the sites and some of the stories that go with them. We’ve done a few different ancient cities in our travels over the years and this one is very similar but some of the detail in the uncovered ruins are really beautiful, my favourite being Gal Vihara which is 4 statues of Buddha carved out of a single huge granite rock.
4hrs went quickly and it was only sun fatigue that made us glad to tick off the last sight and be heading back to the hotel and on the way back we were lucky enough to spot a wild elephant at the side of the road. This whole region is renowned for having a lot of elephants in it and it’s not advisable to walk some of these roads after dark as wild elephants do roam about freely but it was still a lovely surprise to spot one unexpectedly like this. It was on a really busy road that runs past the Minneriya National Park but our driver quickly did a U turn so we could go back to see her properly, much to the annoyance of the local drivers who probably see loads every day on this stretch.
We had hoped to go and see more wild elephants in Minneriya National Park but the local guides advised this wasn’t the right time to go to this park as there was still a lot of water about and they said most of the elephants were in the Hurulu Eco Park nearby. We’d not read great things about this Eco Park as it’s a privately owned park so none of the money made here goes towards the elephants or conservation and it’s rammed with jeeps all trying to get that shot, so we followed our gut instincts and didn’t go to either, saving our money instead for Wilpattu National Park that we’d be at later in the trip.
That ended our 5 days in Sigiriya but not our cultural exploration, Anuradhapura was our next stop for more UNESCO sacred temples. Yep, there’s a whole lot more to still see and truth be told I was beginning to get a bit ‘templed out’ by now but this next stop seemed to have such important Buddhist sites and with the monthly Poya (Full Moon Buddhist ceremony) approaching it seemed like the ideal place to stay a couple of days. It cost 5000rs and took around 1.5hrs by tuk tuk to get to Anuradhapura but the roads were noticeably quieter I think because we travelled on Poya day after the morning rush.
There isn’t much going on in this city apart from the sacred temples, but we’d heard rumour of a beer pub and we decided it would be rude to not try and track this down. The address was a bit vague and the google map pinpoint didn’t help much either but eventually we managed to find it next to the Bus Station up a metal staircase. It was a very rough and ready drinking den but had access to the restaurant below so anything from their menu was also available upstairs, cold Lion bottles were about 350rs each and if you stayed past 2pm the door got locked and you had to use the back entrance through the kitchens to leave as their licence laws meant they are supposed to be closed until 5pm. We went there a couple of times just to make sure we liked it.😉
The sacred city here is again very spread out but this time with main roads and ‘normal’ life happening in between them, this means that they can’t police if you have the valid ticket for a lot of the temples and this is something the local tuk tuks have taken advantage of. You are supposed to go to the museum and part with $25 each, which then grants to access to all of the sites, apart from 2 or 3 more sacred sites that require you to pay an additional few hundred rupees, you’ll still need transport so you still need to hire a tuk tuk or a pushbike for a few hours. What quite often happens is the local tuk tuks will not take you to buy an official ticket but instead will show you the smaller less policed sites or do back handers with the guards at the more important sites and hence you never actually pay the correct UNESCO fee, but it is a cheaper total price.
It was expensive but we did the right thing and bought our proper ticket and then with a list of places we knew we wanted to see had a tuk tuk driver take us round them for a further 3500rs. One of my favourite sites was Sri Maha Bodhi which is said to be one of the branches from the original Bodhi tree in India, so about 2000yrs old. If you asked me which of the ancient cities I preferred I would probably say Polonnaruwa but as Anuradhapura has such important Buddhist sites it’s very hard to discount it completely, in the end I’m really glad we did both although my bank balance would say otherwise.
Right, I have prattled on way longer than I meant to and the next bit of the adventure will be a train journey to Jaffna right at the top of Sri Lanka where the cuisine is meant to be more Indian influenced…….YUM!
Link to Photos