Sri Lanka: Cities & Ruins

Even though it took us the better part of two days, by the time Stefje and I made it to the Colombo airport, our Sri Lankan journey was just beginning. 

Immediately upon stepping out of the pressurized cabin we were assaulted with the humidity of the tropics. It then took another two hours to navigate into the city. Through the stillness of a long and barren highway, we were slowly lulled to sleep until being pitched headfirst into Saturday night in the Colombo city center. Suddenly tuk tuks came blaring on either side, busses passed us with reckless abandon, and cars weaved through traffic circles as busy as beehives. 

After just a few hours of sleep, we were engulfed in the chaos of the train station with just a few minutes to spare before our 6am departure. 

As the train rolled into the station, there was a mad dash for the cars; the fact that everything was happening in pitch black certainly complicated the process. Yet soon enough the cars started lurching forward, someone found a light switch, and our journey moved forward yet again. 

Over the course of the next five hours we rumbled Northwest towards the town of Sigiriya. The sounds on the train were an absolute onslaught: cars shook and clattered with every tiny bump in the track and the fans overhead were ceaseless in their incessant whirring. This environment had a dichotomous effect: whereas Stefje was asleep within minutes and had trouble keeping her eyes open for the extent of the trip, my deliriously tired body kept jarring itself awake. 

Outside, the plains of central Sri Lanka painted a striking mosaic of the countryside. The city gave way to outskirts, the outskirts to slums, and the slums to agriculture. Fields of rice began popping up in a textural gradient of greens and yellows, accompanied by grazing cows and interspersed with palm groves.

Along the way we had dozens of momentary glimpses of a rural Sunday morning: a farmer chopping down rice with a scythe, woman balancing jugs to pick up water from local wells, groups of men in intense discussion, and children running to and fro. 

Although the journey stretched an intrepid five hours, we were never close to being hungry. At every stop basket-toting locals hopped on board, hawking freshly baked roti (delicious unleavened bread), samosas, fried biscuits, and a variety of fresh fruit. 

After months of living in and visiting the cities of Europe, for me the highlight of the train was taking in the natural scenery. Barely a few minutes could go by without green foliage or forests, and as we approached our final stop of Habarana the jungle seemed to fully envelop us. 

A gaggle of half a dozen tuk tuk drivers were on us immediately upon stepping out of the train car, ensuring we were at no want of transportation to our homestay in Sigiriya. With an almost singular focus on catering to visitors headed to Sirigirya Rock fortress, the town stretches just a single block long and consists solely of homestays, restaurants, and tour agencies. 

Although we instantly identified the surroundings as distinctly inauthentic compared to normal life, it was a welcome respite compared to the hubbub of Colombo. After such a long period of constant movement, our first through was just to sit back, relax, and enjoy our first Sri Lankan meal of rice and curry. 

Far away the country’s first choice for a lunchtime meal, we were instantly astounded by the wealth of choices. No less than nine sides accompanied a heaping bowl of rice, each one with a varying level of spice and catering to a different portion of our taste buds. At less than $3 for the whole platted, it soon become clear that we were going to thoroughly enjoy the culinary experiences of Sri Lanka. 

Fully satiated by lunch, we decided to rent a pair of bikes and set off for Pidurangala, the less trampled of two rocky plateaus that rise as sheer vertical cliffs from the endless plains. Stefje was right at home as we set off on a pair of rented bicycles, but the Sri Lankans aren’t exactly a tall group. My knees almost knocked my chin as we pedaled around the fortress’ verdant outer moat. 

The trail was an arduously steep climb to the top of the rock, but it took less than an hour and was peppered with unique sights, like caves that served as accommodation for ancient buddhist monks and a twelve meter long sleeping Buddha. 

Towards the summit we had to scramble over some large boulders, making the panorama all the more worthwhile. The greenery of the train had just been an appetizer; now we were feasting on the main course. Lush forests overgrown with foliage and large reservoirs were barely blighted by the footprints of civilization, adding an additional element of relaxation the solitude of the peak.

We spent our time rambling across the wide and rocky plateau, taking in the 360 degree view. Mist-shrouded mountains hung like mirages in the distance and soft breeze slowly eliminated the sweat dripping down our backs. 

At the Southern precipice we posed for one last picture looking out over our destination for tomorrow: Sigiriya. 

As we cycled back into town, our adventurous day was capped with one last highlight: the village elephant was munching on some bamboo right next to the road, his tail swishing back and forth in the last light of dusk. 

Just as Sunday ended in the gaze of wildlife, so Monday began. After waking with the sun, we were walking towards the park entrance when Stefje noticed the we had suddenly trampled into the territory of a dozen monkeys, who were spending their morning foraging for fruit and rough-housing in the bushes. 

Constructed in a massive symmetrical rectangle, the rock fortress of Sigiriya has a disputed history.

Probably once home to both a Buddhist monastery and ancient royalty in differing eras, a long path leads straight through the ruins to the base of the rock. Our visit started with an amble through the pristinely manicured water gardens. 

As we slowly progressed towards the rock, the sharp angles and geometric perfection juxtaposed sharply against the coming boulder gardens. This area instead followed the natural contours of the local geology.

From here we were offered our first of many spectacular views of the rock’s dramatic ascension from the forest floor, with the top still shrouded in morning mist. 

Then the never-ending stairway began. The way to the top was a slow climb, highlighted by a series of frescoes delicately painted into the cliff. Right before the culmination we encountered another tribe of monkeys, this one featuring a pair of rambunctious youngsters play fighting in the morning sun light. 

The final staircase before the top was graced with perhaps the most impressive artistic feature on the grounds. From pure rock, ancient stone cutters had whittled away a lifelike pair of lion paws which give the destination it’s moniker: Lion’s Rock. 

Despite all the build up to this final destination and the wealth of sights we had already laid eyes on, the top surface blew my mind once again. 

Suddenly we were transported to an idyllic archeological paradise, replete with all the trappings fit for a king. Large bathing pools were carved smoothly and deeply into the rock, trees provided shade along brick-lined terraces, and all around us was the majesty of the Sri Lankan jungle. 

Another hearty lunch of rice, curry, and roti had us hankering for a nap, but that afternoon we instead pushed forward and took advantage of the sunlight to explore Sigiriya’s surroundings. 

On the docket was another ruin, this time the 2,000 year old capital city of Polonnaruwa. To get there we forewent the option of public transportation in exchange for a motorcycle rental. Half the fun of our afternoon excursion was simply getting there, whizzing along one-lane roads before opening up the throttle on the chaotic Sri Lankan highway. 

We passed through a nature reserve and skirted alongside a gorgeous hill-lined lake before arriving at the day’s second archeological site. 

Spread out across a massive compound, Polonnaruwa offers some of the most evocative and well-preserved ruins in all of Southern Asia. First, we wandered through the royal palace, an enormous structure that once rose seven stories high and is fabled to have held a thousand different rooms (Stefje for scale). 

We gazed upwards in awe at the remaining stone structure, wondering how such a construction project was possible two millennia past.  

Further along we came to the quadrangle, a large square jam-packed with relics. 

Despite the impressive sights, my favorite element of this historical area was the English translations of ancient rock inscriptions. The centuries-old writing read like modern day bureaucratic propaganda, and I wouldn't even be surprised to learn that Sean Spicer studied Sri Lankan history to prepare for his current gig as White House press secretary. Each rock lavished the royal family with praise, spewing vague laudations like "The king gave money to thieves, thus stopping all thievery", or "The kind gave his family's weight in gold to the poor" or even "The kind tried to start a war with India, but India refused and sent back money, gifts, and women to appease the king." Take notes, POTUS!

Finally we progressed onwards to an absurdly large pagoda before capping the trip with two more impressive ancient constructions. First there was Lakitwawala, a tall temple with a collapsed roof that featured incredible symmetrical formations, a standing buddha, and intricate engravings. 

Finally, three massive buddhas carved out of one rock signaled the capstone to our exploration. One sitting, one standing, and one sleeping, these three icons provided the perfect setting to reflect on our busy and history-filled day.  

However, the local wildlife ensured that our day wouldn't end so peacefully. While crossing back across a national park on our return trip, we saw a caravan of parked cars and pulled over to check on the commotion. Just fifty yards away, a family of elephants stood grazing on the edge of the lake, completely oblivious to the dozens of spectators observing their every move. 

As we zoomed on after taking in the scene, Stefje and I couldn't help but think that something was amiss. Passerby kept flashing their lights at us and yelling out their windows. Although at first we thought something was wrong with our motorbike, the situation quickly revealed itself. 

Just as I sped around a corner, my jaw dropped: there was a wild elephant just inches from the highway. The enormous creature could have wandered just a few feet away and created absolute chaos, but instead it munched passively right next to our bike. We were warned that they may start charging without notice so we quickly moved along, but nevertheless it was a magical experience to cap an amazing day of traveling in Sri Lanka. 

On Tuesday the alarm sounded off at an inhumane hour for the fourth day in a row, and at 6:15am Stefje and I were waiting for the day's only direct bus to Kandy. Soon we were whisked away by a vehicle that ultimately felt more like a roller coaster than a bus. 

Luckily we were some of the first ones on, because soon the aisles were packed full of locals on their morning commute and school children dressed in crispy white ironed uniforms.

As the bus careened through the wind roads dotted with tiny villages, it stopped every few minutes to jam more and more people on board. 

Three hours later the first signs of industrialization materialized on the outskirts of Kandy. Here, used car dealerships and auto repair shops ruled the economy. Dozens of buildings were packed to the rafters with lonely bumpers, spare parts of all shapes and sizes completely dismembered car frames. 

20 minutes later we were paralyzed by the rush hour traffic that encompassed Kandy's twin bus and train station.

The chaos here was palpable and overwhelming, so after retrieving our bags we quickly negotiated for a tuk tuk and escaped the scene. High up in the hills, Jilly Stay offered us comfortable lodging, an open veranda, and our first taste of the beautiful hillside scenery that surrounds Kandy. 

Far removed from the hubbub, we re-charged and then set up to explore. If I had to come up with one word that described the inhabitants of Sri Lanka's second most important city, it would be unity. From all walks of life, ethnicities, and religions, Sri Lankans live side by side in Kandy. We saw young professionals headed out for a lunch break in button downs and ties, walking along the same street as a group of monks adorned in Orange robes. 

While the younger Sinhalese's fashion would seem appropriate in any Western metropolis, their parents wore traditional Saris, exposing the midriff yet always covering the legs and shoulders. 

The muslim population was also quite prominent in town, featuring men in dress robes, boys in fine hand-knitted caps, and women in full hajib from head to toe. 

Amongst all these interesting fashion choices were concentrations of tourists, their under armour and nike sneakers sticking out like a sore thumb compared to the traditional Sri Lankan attire of a plain t-shirt, a sarong wrapped tightly around the waist, and a pair of rubber flip flops. 

So even though there are sights to see in Kandy, our afternoon consisted of meandering through every street and alleyway in the compact city center, thoroughly enjoying the opportunity to observe normal daily life. 

Eventually our feet led the way to the local market, which was set in a gorgeous open-air colonial style building and centered around a luscious garden. 

Inside, teas and spices of every flavor imaginable caught my eye, while Stefje was drawn to the colorful fruits, leaves, and vegetables popular in the local delicacies. 

We capped the day with a long walk along the outer fringes of Kandy's lake, taking in the placcid waters while insane traffic whizzed right behind us.