02.01.2015 - 04.01.2015
Dilan picks us up and we set off towards Sigiriya. Not long into the drive we pass a river and spot the most beautiful kingfisher. We stop the car so I can grab a photo of it and when I tell Dillan I am ready to leave he apologises for the delay in setting off but tells us he was waiting for a snake to cross the road. Sadly by then it had gone and none of us saw it but from that moment on, on an almost hourly basis and for the entire holiday, Jack asks Dilan if he has seen another snake. Later Dilan takes a back road through the farm land and there in front of us is a Mongoose. My first ever sighting which was slightly marred by the fact that Amy chose that moment to throw up!
We then pass through tiny, rather poor villages, with makeshift houses barely more than tents. Two women are on their way to the river with the baskets of washing on their heads, the usual dogs barking round their heels. A couple of men, bodies thin from hard work, stand chatting clad in shirt and turquoise tartan sarongs (a popular fabric in this country). What never ceases to amaze me is that out of these run down houses the children appear dressed for school immaculate in their white uniforms. With all our modern facilities and washing products back home we could never achieve that level of whiteness.
After one and a half hours we arrive at Sigiriya in the Matale district and park in the tourist's car park at the base of the site. Slightly unjustly the Sri Lankans, when they visit, have to park a mile away from this point and walk in. We stop by the gate to go to the loo and the kids are fascinated by having to squat over a hole in the ground. The smell is overpowering in the heat and flies beginning to buzz around but luckily this only adds to the interest. It is boiling hot and the kids have wilted before we go ten feet and Ray wonders whether to abort mission but I am up for the challenge and drag my poor family along with me.
Sigiriya is an ancient palace which was built on top of and around a massive column of rock nearly 200 meters high. It was created in the 5th century by King Kashyapa who chose the site for his new capital. He built his palace on the top of the rock and decorated its sides with colourful frescoes. At one time the whole of the face of the hill would have been covered in paintings making it one of the largest 'pictures in the world'. On a small plateau halfway up the rock he built a gateway in the form of an enormous lion and it is from this structure that the place gets its name - Sihagiri or Lion Rock.
Today only the ruins remain and at the start of our journey, at the base of the rock, we pass the remnants of the garden complex with its two moats, various pools and halls. One of the amazing things about the construction is the water system they set in place with an intricate and complex labyrinth of clay pipes which still today bring water down the rock face to the remnants of the pools below. In two places you can still see the water bubble where a fountain once stood. This area was apparently used in the dry season and as the rains approached the entire court would move up to the palace at the top of the rock. The children moan and whine and we haven't even started our ascent of the 1000 (or 1200 depending on who you ask) steps! I mutter the usual thing about glass half full and half empty and how lucky they are to be at this incredible place but my words fall on deaf ears - who wants to travel with kids?! We climb up the first section of stairs, our guide struggling to get their attention. Luckily he has a breakthrough when he shows them a stone burial chamber which, as recently as twenty years ago, was broken into by thieves who stole all the treasure. This fascinates them and without realising, they have climbed another 50 steps whilst asking questions.
It is at this point that our guide realises he needs a ticket for Jack (as he is seven) and leaving us to rest in the shade and asking us to speak quietly so as not to disturb the wasps(?!), heads back down the steps to the ticket office. We hastily fill the kids with food and water and refuelled and cooled down in the shade they revive and are now on a mission to get to the top. Up we go until we reach a narrow metal spiral staircase which we have to climb in order to view the murals. The staircase hangs out off the rock with a view straight to the bottom. My vertigo sets in, legs are now jelly and I feel sick. Ray and Amy are nearly at the top which leads wobbly me to get Jack up. He is normally useless at heights as well but fortunately today hasn't noticed the sheer drop below and confidently walks up. The murals are still quite colourful and I find it amazing how they were painted in such detail on these sheer sides.
Back down the ladder and relief for me. Here, all those years ago, they carved a path (paved with marble) into the rock and built a large parapet wall to protect them from attack or from falling. These walls were painted in egg white, lime and honey, forming a white mirror-like lacquer which reflected the murals on the rock face. On these walls people would write their names as they passed forming a wall of graffiti. In its time it must have been a dazzling sight but still, with only remnants of the paintings, lacquer and graffiti remaining, it is pretty incredible.
Finally we reach a small escarpment where the Lion Gate is situated. The paws and staircase are all that remain of a once colossal gatehouse built in the form of a crouching sphinx-like lion which measured 35m high by 21m wide. It is here that our guide's comment about wasps becomes clear. On this platform stands a first aid tent and as we look at the final steps heading for the summit we can see dark clouds around the rock face. These are wasp swarms and if disturbed attack with vigour. Our guide announces that the wasp numbers are not too bad at the moment but that nearly 1000 people had to be taken to hospital in July and August after bad attacks. Apparently this is the time of year the Sri Lankans visit en masse and they tend to be in large groups and rather noisy and it is the latter that irritates the wasps.
As we watch a noisy group of Americans head up in front of us and look at our near exhausted children we decide to call it a day and head back down. Multiple wasp stings on a 4 and 7 year old would not be the ideal scenario. We head back via the Cobra Hooded Cave named after the giant snake like rock that looms over the entrance. Jack, slightly disappointed that it is not an actual giant cobra, takes more interest in the ambush rock. Here, over a thousand years ago, they balanced giant 20 foot boulders on top of smaller rocks so that in a time of attack they could dislodge the small rocks and send the boulders hurtling down the hillside - awesome concept for a seven year old boy!
As we reach the bottom and look up once more at the giant rock we can see why Sigiriya was once proposed (against the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China) as the eighth wonder of the world. It is an incredible monument to man's great engineering and building skills and will rank with some of the greatest places we have ever visited.
We set off on our drive to Kandy, stopping at the side of the road for a quick picnic. Not perhaps the scenic stop we had envisaged when we planned the lunch and rather involves us sitting in the car eating our sandwiches with Dilan standing outside surrounded by hopeful looking stray dogs. We are near a Thambili (king coconut stall) and buy a couple to drink en route. I am getting used to the taste now and, with words of famous models extolling its virtues for great skin, persevere unlike the rest of the family.
After a long and bumpy, but rather beautiful drive we arrive at Victoria Golf Course where our hotel is situated. Although the grounds and lake in the distance are very picturesque Ray and I both have a slight sinking feeling as we pass other villas on the estate. We arrive at Bougainvillea Retreat and our concerns are justified. Although the villa is situated in a stunning spot with an infinity pool looking over the lake below, it is the building itself that lets it down. The open ground floor that we are standing in houses some dubious art, a free standing cocktail bar, rather nasty sofas and a pool table - none of the charm of Sri Lanka that we are used to. We head outside and sit on shiny green sofas until we notice they have been invaded by black hairy caterpillars. Beside the pool they have room for three sun loungers and the rest are crammed in a small patch of grass to one side. Sprawled in these are a rather large German family, beer bottles and cigarettes in hand and an impressively full ash tray beside them. It all feels very seedy and run down and we want to bolt.
Ray whispers to Dilan that we will not want to spend three nights here whilst I head upstairs to check the rooms (spacious and simple but fine) and the set menu which starts with cream of mushroom soup (not so fine and hardly a local dish!). The kids, oblivious to all this drama think the hotel is wonderful and have found two hanging chairs and are swinging rather precariously towards a side table. After various phone calls the other options are not really viable and we decide to stay and make the best of it. After a swim in the pool we head upstairs to our rooms and I start to unpack. Rather like the rest of the hotel the dressing room feels a bit dirty and the odd personal belonging still lurking in drawers doesn't help. The final straw is when I go to open the safe and find a gun and box of bullets and some loose change inside. I step back in horror and call Ray in. He sets off to find the manageress (who has just returned) whilst I try and hang our mosquito nets above the bed. The hotel has swarms of mosquitos but no nets in these rooms but as we have carried our own with us unopened so far on this trip I am rather pleased to be using them. After some swearing and with the use of a screw in hook and some parachute cord (my father would be proud) I have erected the nets.
Pi, the manageress, returns and is amazed I have managed to open the safe as it has been 'locked for a year'. The gun turns out to be a type of pepper gun kept for protection during times of unrest in previous years. Does this make me feel better? Marginally I suppose but it only adds to the Fawlty Towers atmosphere.
Later, after a tepid shower(!!), we sit outside on a candlelit table overlooking the pool. The mosquitos are out in force but we have coils lit by our feet and are fine. Dinner then changes everything - the staff are wonderful and out of the kitchen comes the best food we have eaten in Sri Lanka yet. The chef is a stand-in until the new one arrives and if I was the hotel I would hang on to him forever - everything he produces is delicious. It is funny how good food changes everything and happy and full we return to our rooms, exhausted.
The sun pours into the room through the net curtains at 6.30 and we wake early but it is rather nice to lie and read a book. Today we are going to be lazy and chill by the pool so we are in no rush. When we finally head downstairs the other guests have headed off on tours and Pi is away for the day so we have the hotel to ourselves. Bliss.
I bring out the paints we brought from Java and the kids sit for an hour, brushes in hand, happily painting away. We swim, play cards and lego and laze in the sun. Amy and I get attacked by the caterpillars (agony) and their minute hairs remain in our legs and continue to hurt for days. We later learn the trick is to pour on some coconut oil and scrape the area with a blunt knife. We also discover that the sun loungers by the hedge or on the grass are not the ones to use (red ant bites) but these insect attacks apart, the day is a happy one.
Later that afternoon the staff carry a huge wooden canoe on their shoulders down the hill to the lake. The rains have left the route rather muddy and by the time our little procession reaches the water we are all splattered in mud and we giggle at our appearance. The canoe has two seats but both are broken (no surprise!) and so whilst Ray balances on one, the kids and I sit Indian style on the floor of the canoe and paddle off. It is beautiful out on the lake and we go past local men fishing and swimming before paddling out into the centre. The lake is surrounded by lush forests and birds sit in the trees or skim the still water surface looking for insects. We are on our own, surrounded by pure beauty and the peace of it all is rather wonderful. Finally when our arms are too tired to paddle any more we return to the banks and are met by our lovely staff who help us back up the hill. I feel so guilty looking at their white uniforms covered in mud but they are gracious as always.
That evening the children make friends with a girl and boy of similar age and are happy as can be - the only problem now is keeping the noise level down. We eat an exquisite Sri Lankan curry (local food at last) by candlelight sitting outside which is a perfect end to a great day,
4th January - Kandy
Dilan comes to the villa with strict instructions to make sure our knees and shoulders are covered as we are off to visit Kandy, the last royal capital of Sri Lanka. It is most people's favourite city in Sri Lanka and it is not hard to see why. It is situated in the hill country 465 metres above sea level surrounded by tropical forest and built around an ornamental lake. The architecture is elaborate and ornate and made up of palaces, royal parks, bathing houses and temples as well as a few colonial buildings built during the time of the British Empire. The overall effect is of grandeur and splendour and this is made more so because today is the ceremony of the full moon and everyone is dressed up in their ceremonial costumes to visit Temple of the Tooth.
The Temple of the Tooth is a series of temples originally built around 1690 but restored in stone in the 18th century. It was built to house the upper canine of The Lord Buddha himself and this precious relic attracts hordes of pilgrims throughout the year, clad in white and bearing offerings of lotus blossoms and frangipani. We have picked both a good day and shockingly bad day to visit depending on which way you look at it. Due to it being the Festival of the Moon and a public holiday there are thousands of people queuing to get into the temple and as we head through the gates Ray is turned away as his shorts do not reach the knee (we had warned him!). I think he planned this on purpose as he looks remarkably relieved and pleased with himself as he heads off to view the British cemetery in peace and quiet. Dilan gets the tickets and we leave our shoes at a little kiosk before joining the throngs heading for the entrance. It is pandemonium and rather scary as the crowds converge to get through the archway and make their way up the stairs. Amy drops her flower offerings and I try to scoop them up between people's feet. Oddly, for a nation so child friendly, they are anything but in this queue today and push and shove the children just to gain a few feet in the queue. The children whimper in fear but there is no turning back for us against this tide of people and we have to carry on. Dilan takes Jack and I carry Amy and lose my polite British 'after you' attitude and begin to elbow my way forwards glaring at anyone who pushes against the children.
There are literally thousands of us heading up the stairs and halls of the temples and just when I think we have made a grave mistake and can take no more we reach the main hall and the crowds disperse into its cavernous space. There in front of us, visible through a small arch, is a glimmering gold and bejewelled casket measuring around 3 foot high which contains the sacred tooth. It is mesmerising and a privilege to see as it is only on view on certain days of the year. We leave our offerings, say a few prayers and decide that that is enough and head for the exit leaving the pilgrims to pray and queue for further rooms. We blink in the bright sunshine and I give the children water and a banana whilst Dilan gets their shoes. The chaos of earlier forgotten as we survey the Buddhist flags and all the colourful sashes on the saris, splashes of colour against the dazzling white walls of the temple. I still love the Buddhist religion and the aura of its temples but oddly here, with more of an Indian culture, it has less of the peaceful spiritualism that we experienced in Thailand and Indonesia.
We meet up with Ray and head off in the car to the Botanical Gardens in Peradenya about 5 km west of Kandy. The children announce they are starving and so whilst Ray offers to watch them and Dilan gets the tickets I have to negotiate a Sri Lankan cafe/store to get food. After a lot of smiles and waving of hands I manage to buy some biscuits and everyone is happy. We are met by our guide Pali, an incredibly knowledgeable botanist and lecturer who takes us to the Orchid House. After the orchid houses in Singapore this feels rather basic but still beautiful and the children are happy as they have spotted some terrapins in a nearby pond. A buggy then turns up to take us on a tour of the rest of the gardens and I feel a bit silly initially as we glide past the other visitors as if we are visiting dignitaries. I soon change my mind, however, as the Botanical Gardens cover an area of 147 acres and walking that far in the late morning heat would not have been an easy option with the children.
The Royal Botanical Gardens, originally the Queen's pleasure garden in 1371, were converted to botanical gardens by the British colonialist rulers during their stay between 1815 and 1948. Having cleared thousands of hills of invaluable forest cover (not popular with the Buddhists who see them as sacred) for their tea plantations they then created this extraordinarily beautiful area, similar to Kew. Over the years these gardens have not only become one of the most visited sights in Sri Lanka but also contributed to the conservation of much of the flora so unique to this country.
After the orchids we pass the spice gardens with cardamom, cloves, peppers and vanilla - all examples if what is grown in Sri Lanka and exported world wide. We then move on to the main gardens where the vegetation is purely tropical with an abundance of palms, bamboos and lofty trees with their large buttress roots. Growing off the trunks of many of these trees are orchids and ferns and amidst the large leaves are either bright vivid flowers of large fruits. The children shout out excitedly when we see a group of monkeys eating mangoes and we stop to watch them as they play.
We pass bamboo of such immense proportions which apparently grows at a rate of a foot a day until they reach around 30ft high and then grow no more. A statistic I still find hard to comprehend. We see cannonball trees, rain trees and rows of sentry like palms which form the various avenues such as Coconut Avenue, Royal Palm Avenue, Palmyrah Avenue and Cabbage Palm Avenue. We then approach a large lawned area of park where young children, enjoying their day off school, are running around playing games or resting in the shade. Amy is desperate to join in and begs for some time to play. I watch as she nervously approaches two young girls, dressed in saris, unaware of the language barrier between them. They all stand a bit nervously eyeing each other up and I come to her aid, introduce her to her new companions and start to chase her around. Soon the girls and a group of children have joined in and we race around playing tag laughing at each other. Amy hangs on to the hand of her new friend and together they laugh and giggle and chase Jack and me around. I marvel at the freedom with which children break down the barriers of race and language and form bonds so easily. I feel immensely proud of my little girl as she hugs them all goodbye and then slips her 'loom band bracelet' off her own arm and on to the arm of her new friend. She is so genuine in her affection.
Beside this lawned area is a white colonial building which during the Second World War was used by Lord Louis Mountbatten, the supreme commander of the allied forces in the South Asia, as the headquarters of the South East Asia Command. Ray is fascinated and he and Pali discuss the history whilst the kids and I recover from our energetic play in the sun .After an hour and a half our tour is coming to an end. These Royal Botanical Gardens are extraordinary and well worth a visit not only for the plants but also for the beautiful landscape of lakes and bridges, parks and trees. They are far better than I had ever envisaged and magically brought to life by Pali who has dedicated his life to these gardens.
We head back through Kandy and Dilan drives us around the lake and past some of the beautiful buildings before heading up the hill to a famous scenic spot where the whole of the city is laid out below - a sparkling jewel of a place beside the blue lake, fringed in white railings and set amidst the green background of the forests. It is easily the prettiest town we have visited.
We head for home and spend the rest of the day swimming in the pool and dodging the caterpillars. A final candlelit supper - this time a barbecue, and a chance to reflect on our time here. This hotel is in such a pretty spot and has exceptional staff in its employment. Pi (the manager) is lovely but I think happy with this shabbiness and enjoys the freedom to come and go as she pleases (most days) and yet the hotel is crying out for some investment both in time and money. It needs gutting and refurbishing and could then be a great place to stay in. It is funny, though, how people you don't like on your initial meeting later become good friends and this is how we feel about Bougainvillea Retreats. We have, despite the set backs, been really happy here.