Sri Lanka: surprise-filled final days

It’s the closing days of our month-long trek around Sri Lanka, and in this time, we’ve concluded our visits to the ancient capitals, completed the Jaffna to Colombo train journey, and come slightly north, to Negombo, to hang out in a kind of waiting room for our flight to Chennai this afternoon (Sunday).

The last couple of stops have essentially been ‘winding things up’ stops, where the intensity of pace slows down a little, and you start to say your metaphorical goodbyes; who knows when we may come back this way? You inevitably start to reflect.

While on the road, I’ve also been compiling some interesting observations and stories, and have turned them into some hopefully entertaining yet informative posts for potential visitors (and you should all fall into this category!). These ideas have spun out into a four-parter – eating, buses, trains, and general tips and hints – so, although this will be the last post from Sri Lanka, stay tuned for more stories to come; of food, of negotiating public transport, and some observations about tourists and their behaviours.

Just wow.

First though, Anuradhapura. The city holds a special place in Sri Lanka’s history, as the country’s first true capital, from 380BC. It changed hands multiple times over the centuries, as invading Cholas from South India made repeated attacks, and this led to the capital finally being moved further south, to Polonnaruwa, in the early 11th century (a place we visited a week or so ago). Monks lived here for another couple hundred years, or so.

Lonely Planet describes the vast ruins of Anuradhapura as “one of South Asia’s most evocative sights”; elsewhere I saw it referred to as Sri Lanka’s Angkor Wat. Both comments are a bit of an overreach, to be frank, and it does both places a disservice. As I’ve mentioned about the other historic sites here, the nature of the ruins means you have to think and imagine a little more to bring them to life; they’re not going to whack you in the face with Angkor Wat-like ambience. Helpfully, plaques have been placed in front of anything worthy of being noted, and these provide all the material you need to be able to imagine what once was.

Besides, although the ruins are vast – we spent a loooong day, 8.30am-after 6pm, cycling (happily) around its vastness – it’s the dagobas (stupas) that are the real jewels here.

We started at the northern reaches, in the massive Abhayagiri Monastery, which dates back over 2,000 years and housed 5,000 monks at its peak. The ruins are scattered over a large area, so perfect for cycling about. Wonderfully, because it was early, there was hardly anyone around (in contrast to Polonnaruwa).

We started out by taking in a twin set of bathing pools (makes our luxe rain-shower boxes look pretty pale by comparison!), and a very important if a little unremarkable Buddha statue (the only one of four remaining intact, placed facing cardinal directions and looking out from a boddhi tree under which a relic from Buddha was apparently buried).

Our day’s first dagoba was hugely impressive, and we were completely dwarfed by its towering size. At the time, it was one of the largest monuments in the world. Fascinatingly, we were also there as the maintenance crews were weeding. Crikes.

And you thought window-washing skyscrapers was a perilous job!

Beyond that, the rest of the site was really just a lot more ruins, of halls and residences and so on and so forth, really lovely to wander about and appreciate, but individually not particularly remarkable. What was remarkable was the huge elephant pool, not a pool for bathing elephants, as we discovered, but an impressive ancient water storage facility.

South of the monastery area is the citadel, dating far later than either of the main sites, but now almost completely reabsorbed by the forest. Lonely Planet says it’s a pertinent lesson in the Buddhist philosophy of impermanence. Yup. We passed through reasonably quickly, although finding a massive trough, used for placing alms (or rice) as offerings/gifts to monks, was pretty cool.

The alm trough (in the background), and a pretty cool kitchen water tank!

The other key area is Jetavanarama, dominated its gigantic dagoba and surrounded again by a whole bunch of ruins, giving hints about its once town-like livelihood. Even larger than the first, it was the third-largest monument in the world, behind only the two great pyramids of Egypt. Again we were extremely fortunate to be there when it was almost empty, in calming silence, and able to take time to appreciate and take in the scale of the place. The only real soundtrack came from locals coming to make offerings, chant and pray. That part was definitely evocative.

Hard to make out, but guarded by 372 elephants!

You’d think two huge dagobas would be enough, but no. We spent the remaining few hours before dusk, exploring the final area, east of Jetavanarama, and around the massive water tanks (lakes) built by ancient kings. More important dagobas are here, so we rinsed and repeated the previous experiences, and they were all just as enjoyable; such calm, quiet, and reflectful places. The only bung-note, but not really, was our drive-by of the massive new stupa being built (off-and-on, since 2010) by the government. It’s essentially a monument to the victory of armed forces in the civil war, and, well, you can imagine that not everyone thinks this is an ideal use of a Buddhist monument. Hmmm…

Stupa, stupa, hmmm…

We finished the day visiting what is believed to be the oldest authenticated tree in the world, the sacred Boddhi tree. It was grown from a cutting taken from Buddha’s birthplace, brought here by Princess Sangamitta, sister of the man who introduced Buddhism to Sri Lanka). Sunset was indeed a lovely time to visit, and even though there appears to be significant work being undertaken to secure longevity of the tree, which included noisey saws, it was still a lovely way to end the day, watching the many people coming to make offerings, pray and chant.

Puja at the sacred boddhi tree

Rather wonderfully, we had allocated two days to explore Anuradhapura, but after one very long, very enjoyable, immensely pleasant day, we were done. This gave us our first rest day of the entire trip. Bliss.

Now THAT is what we call a church ceiling!

Onto Negombo. We’re staying bang in the middle of the city, only really because it was close to our transport in and on to the airport. It’s a reasonably generic town, with some colonial influences still visible and some beautiful churches but, as I say, pace slowing, winding up, so I wasn’t expecting much. However, it’s surprisingly been quite pleasant and gave us some quite unexpected memories to end our month with. The first was the fish market, which includes a fish drying operation that really had to be seen to be believed; so much fish, all sorted and graded, gutted and opened out, preserving themselves in the hot hot sun and ready to be sent to a market near you!

Fish, fish, as far as the eye could see!

Yesterday, we took a pleasant stroll up the canal (so long as you didn’t look too closely or sniff too deeply; but boy, the Dutch love(d) their canals). We were making our way to the Negombo where the majority of the tourists go: the beach. The scale of it was quite unexpected; I hadn’t realised there would be so much. It was easily the place that felt the most like an internationalised tourist zone, and least like Sri Lanka, in our time here, with a long, long main street lined with hotels and guesthouses, cafes and bars, shops and pizzerias. It was bustling and actually quite pleasant. The beach itself is not quite south coast standard, but made for fine afternoon of strolling and sanding. I can see the attraction of planting yourself here for a bit. It also gave us a phenomenal (and very gratefully eaten) final feast of rice and curry.

But the really unexpected surprise was still to come.

On our walk there, we had come across yet another pretty amazing looking church: the church of St. Sebastian, a Roman Catholic church modelled on the Reims Cathedral. Like the ones we had seen the day before, it was also being dressed up for something; must be a wedding we thought. But, as we were leaving, we noted that the scale of the dressing up seemed to be far more elaborate and we wondered if, perhaps, there was some kind of church festival or feast day happening. We thought no more about it.

On the (long) walk(ing off the curry walk) home, towards the southern stretch of the main road, the street suddenly became draped in lights, creating an archway tunnel effect. How cool, we thought. And then it didn’t end, but went on, and on, and on, and on. And then another street, also festooned, merged into ours, as it continued ever southwards. And then there were speakers chanting Sinhalese something-or-other. OK. And then I was pretty sure I kept hearing the word Sebastian.

And as we got closer to where we had found the church earlier, and the lights continued to twinkle, the penny started to drop. We had found ourselves slap bang in the middle of the massive annual St. Sebastian festival, which takes place around this time of year in many places around the world. Furthermore, St. Sebastian is the patron saint of the city of Negombo, so durr…

What the actual…?

It was certainly a sight to behold, and I’ve definitely never seen something Christian on this scale before (and this brightly and colourfully lit). It turns out that similar (and similarly vibrant) St. Sebastian festivals are held across Kerala, South India, so I assume there is a connection here. But the fact that our earlier stumble across the church, as we’d left the canal, and our stumbling back across it later on, were such moments of serendipitous cool, made for a great final memory. It’s something we would never have experienced, if it weren’t for a series of unconnected random decisions, about what to do, where to walk, what to eat, and what to stop and look at; it’s such a nice affirmation of our ambling method of discovery.

And that’s that. I’m now sitting here, packed, ready to go, and trying to comprehend that, in mere hours, we are going to be back in India (I’m also trying to prepare for the inevitable sensory explosion that’s about to hit). I feel a bit anxious; that’s probably not a bad thing. Time to activate the hawk-like defences that we’ll need on the daily.

And I think that’s been probably the biggest surprise about Sri Lanka. We came here expecting mini-India, in some ways, but pretty quickly learnt that India-level defences are not needed here. People are actually genuinely, without-agenda, friendly and helpful. No scammage. No dramas. It’s been an incredibly easy country to travel in (my forthcoming posts will detail all the ways how). And this then leaves far more mental space and energy to relax a bit, ease into island time, appreciate all the many little things that have the last month a dream start to personal sabbatical 2.0.

There is much history here, both historic and more recent, obvious rich culture, gastronomic orgasms galore, and and the kind of variety that people often attribute to the joys of travelling New Zealand. You can do glorious tropical beaches, you can explore its towns and lively bazaars, there’s ancient sites, colonial-era sites, religious sites, hiking and hill country wandering, pilgrimages, and so much more. I’ve loved it all, immensely, and so much more than I thought I would. So my only advice, if you were thinking about visiting, is get here, and quick.

Ancient guardstones and moonstones, and dwarf-lifting staircases…