Sri Lanka - April 2001
I am still constructing map and slide show links
This is our day by day adventure in Sri Lanka. It is written in diary mode in parts but there are some bits with more detail.
Words are highlighted for link to map or photo....where there are a few photos click on slide show at the end of each relevant paragraph.
Purpose of trip: Find out as much about the caves as possible - aim to visit some - climb Adams Peak - generally get the taste of Sri Lanka.
Party members: Chrissy, Graham(husband) and Sam (age 6)
Flew on Monarch Airlines - cheepo flight.
Worked out itinerary from travel books - Lonely Planet etc., and brochures, then asked Trailfinders to book everything including our driver and micro bus.
Day 1: Picked up at Colombo airport by Eddly our driver. Drove to Negombo where we went to fish market on the beach. Saw brightly coloured boats and outrigger boats. Stayed at Hotel Goldi Sands. Worked out with Eddly exactly what we wanted to do - he had never had a group that wanted to see caves before. Slide show:-
Day 2: Drove into Colombo to Ordinance Survey Department. Tried to get some maps of areas that might have limestone.
Drove to Pinawella Elephant Orphanage. Watched them bathe in the river. Great! Slide show:-
Drove a couple of miles back up the road and questioned locals about caves. Man got in bus. Drove along a few side roads, man pointed at large rock outcrop, Utuwankanda, where evidently Robin Hood cave was. Ended up on dirt track by rice paddies. Man asked 5 passing boys if they could take us to cave. We were told we had about 1 hour before dark so we had to be quick. Boys shot off with Sam. G & C shot off sweating and gasping...Steep hill through woodland and bananas, higher up, long, sharp, rough grass and shrubs...Scrambled to top of rock....no cave...lovely view...it started to rain buckets.....boys didn't speak English...Where is cave?...Went back down.....but...shot off the track through bananas and up climb to large boulder that hid cave entrance....large overhang but small entrance...we were so excited that there was a passage way, that we pulled our head torches from our ruc-sacs. Before we could rush off the boys were interested in the torches, so I let one have mine and we crawled in the small entrance completely forgetting about looking for snakes etc! The cave was about 50 ft long some bits flat-out (ish). It was muddy/dryish dirt - enough to make us filthy. We emerged back to the overhang and the rest of the boys, who had (so I found out later) happily helped themselves to Sams' and my sunglasses from my ruc-sac whilst we were in the cave! Silly us for not dragging everything with us...not to worry. Slide show:-
Drove to Dambulla to the Kandalama Hotel in dark.
Day 3: Here for 3 nights. Beautiful!! Set into the rock behind, this large hotel is like a multi-storey car park in structure, but roof covered with grass and dripping with vines and creepers. By a the Kandalama tank (lake) and surrounded by jungle. Many types of birds, also monkeys. All bedrooms have views and large glass windows including the bathroom...they overlook the tank and jungle so are totally private! It is an eco-friendly hotel.
This morning we rode Monica, one of the two elephants, on a 2 hour jungle safari. Guides pointed out many butterflies, flowers and birds. We each had a go sitting on her neck, which was just like sitting on a moth-eaten coconut door mat. We rode through the lake. After Monica was unsaddled she was led to the lake where she bathed. Sam sat on her side when she lay in the water. Slide show:-
This afternoon we went on a walk through the jungle to see the Ali Gala Caves. These were in fact large boulders with the remnants of walls underneath, to create shelters for the monks that lived there years ago. We also walked on up the hill under elephant rock (a large rock that looks like a an elephant, of course!), to get a view over the jungle. It was spectacular.
The evening drew in and it was time to sample the hotels restaurant. What can I say...fabulous...many different foods, beautifully presented. The waiters were stunning in their sarongs and bare feet.
Day 4: Drove to Anuradhapura to see the most ancient Bo-Tree, Sri Maha Bodhi. This sacred tree was brought as a sapling from India over two thousand years ago by the Princess Sangamitta, sister of Mahinda who introduced Buddha's teachings to Sri Lanka. Heavy security everywhere. Slide show:-
Then drove on to Mihintale, 11 km away. Positioned on a hill, there were huge flights of granite steps (1840 in total) lined with flowering Frangipani trees . First we visited the caves, near the Kantaka Chetiya, a 12 meter high dagoba. These were more large boulders with remnants of walls. Evidently King Devanampiya Tissa (247-207 BC) had 68 cave monasteries built here.
Climbed on up more steps to the Ambasthale dagoba and statue of Buddha. There were steps cut into the side of a large rock, Arahana Gala (Meditation Rock) to ascend to a view point.....very slippery...wonky hand rails....little bridge.....lovely views.
Drove on to Ritigala Strict Nature Reserve, hoping to see more caves. Situated on a large hill (266m) Walked up through ruins in the jungle. Guide took us to another boulder and told us that through the small hole (we forgot our head torches), was a chamber that could hold 50 people!? After a few more ruins we got to a sign that warned people of the dangers of the forest path up Ritigala mountain. Our guide told us it was too dangerous to go any further.....so that was the end of our hope to see the caves mentioned in the book. I think it was just too late in the day for him!
We drove back to the Kandalama via some rice paddies and Eddly showed us a look-out built in a tree for men to perch in at night, to frighten wild elephants away, as they make a real mess of the rice.
Day 5: Left Kandalama....Drove to Sigiriya on the other side of the tank.....a huge lump of rock, 180 m high, with ruins of a palace on the top. King lived on the top in the wet seasons and lived in the palace on the plain below in the dry season where there are pools and formal gardens. There are various caves in the grounds with the standard drip lips carved into each. There were ruins of walls around the base of the overhang of the large boulders. Wonderful walk up this rock, including ascending a spiral staircase to see some ancient frescoes, a mirror wall, and ascending the steps between the paws of the lion, all that remains of a huge stone beast that clothed the side of this rock.
Left Sigiriya and drove to Dambulla Cave Temple (1st century BC). Another flight of steps and sloping rock paths past a massive golden statue of Buddha. These caves are fantastic. Yet again rock shelters, with drip lips and walls, this time all in good condition. Inside the caves the ceilings were painted absolutely fantastically. There were Buddha's everywhere. Monkeys out side and lovely views. Slideshow:-
Drove to Kandy, to stay at the Hotel Suisse (grotty food) for three nights. We stopped at a Spice Garden on the way. It rained.
Day 6: Had a look around Kandy city centre to see if we could get another camera as Sam had dropped mine and it was sick. No luck. Went to the Temple of the Tooth. High security again. Beautiful temple. Bought some flowers to put on one of the shrines. Slide show:-
In the afternoon we walked in the Udawattakelle Sanctuary situated near the city centre. A pleasant forest with good tracks, huge dense trees and vines, monkeys and birds. Hired a guide to take us to another cave temple.
Eddly drove us to the Kandyan Dancing. Very good...lovely costumes...loads of drumming....and then outside - fire walking.
Day 7: This was a day to find out about the caves in the Knuckles Range, north-east of Kandy. We went to the Peradeniya University, (near the Botanical Gardens), In the geology department we spoke to a monk who was head of the department. After hearing us out he arranged for us to have a look at maps and information on various caves. It turned out that we knew just as much as they knew....so we politely left and headed for the Knuckles Range, to find Nitro cave. It was a beautiful drive high into the mountains.... the road deteriorating as we gained height. Eddly was worried about the bus but carried on gingerly....got to a sign saying Nitro Cave was another 10km. It was pouring with rain, the road was even more pot holey, and it was getting late, so sadly Eddly turned back. Slide show:-
Day 8: Left Hotel Suisse. Headed south to the hill country to stay for two nights at the Hotel Tea Factory, Kandapola, just outside Nuwara Eliya. The drive went through numerous tea plantations and we stopped for a tour around one - Mackwoods Tea Factory. We had tea and chocolate cake and then bought various souvenirs. It was chucking the rain down.....no wonder they call it Little England. Arrived at Nuwara Eliya and drove on through the most beautiful vegetable terraces...carrots, cabbages, leeks...lorries of beautifully stacked muck for the fields. We stopped at Hakgala Botanical Gardens. Sam stayed in the micro bus with Eddly while we had an enjoyable walk in the rain. The gardens were very English in places. Birds quite good.....good water gardens.
Then we headed to the Hotel Tea Factory. The scenery was a bit tatty in places but as we turned into the driveway of the hotel there were terraces of tea neatly lining the hillsides. A small Hindu village nestled below the factory. The factory was beautifully converted. The entrance hall was full height with some of the factory fans still in place. The engine room was in the centre and they occasionally started the engine up. The brass was gleaming. In the dining room the food was served off copper covered tea chests, with wheels and cogs fixed in dramatic places. The food was superb, and the waiters were so friendly and did their own burst of mad entertainment after people had finished eating. Everybody could join in. Slide show:-
Day 9: Early start as the sun was rising as we had a long drive to Dalhousie to the start of the walk up the sacred pilgrimage mountain, Adam's Peak, or Sri Pada (2224m). As the walk was 7 km, with approximately 4500 steps and would take 2 -3 hours, we hired a guide to look after Sam and carry him when he got tired. We got it wrong.....Sam ran up with the guide chasing him...we needed some one to carry us! So many steps! Beautiful views....very disappointing at the top as the temple was an ugly, dirty lump of concrete smothering the top of the mountain, but nevertheless a good trip. Slide show:-
On the drive back we passed the Somerset Tea Factory, which of course amused us as we live in the county of Somerset!
Day 10: Left the Tea Factory Hotel to head for Bandarawela for 2 nights. We had to find the Istripura Caves, near Welimada first. Eddly drove to the village near the caves to find a guide. He had a chat with a young man who got into our micro bus. Off we drove up a dirt track and stopped beside a steep path. Out we got and changed into our walking boots and were almost ready to go when another chap appeared out of the bushes. Five minutes later we were all in the micro bus with the new chap saying that he could get us much closer. A long drive then was undertaken up through very rough tracks through tea plantations. The road was once tarmac from when the British were there but now it was mostly dirt and plenty of pot holes. We ground to a halt at a junction in the road in the middle of nowhere in the middle of a tea plantation. The road was too bad the way we needed to go. We left the bus in the middle of the road and walked about quarter of a mile to the edge of a nearby eucalyptus forest. The rock protruded in places and it was generally very gravely. We decided that there was a lot of pink quartz. Very soon the holes became evident. There were three holes in the area metres away from each other. The biggest cave was a vertical shaft about 10ft deep. Graham and the second guide climbed down and explored the cave. Sam and I stayed on the surface as we had no caving insurance and felt that it could be a bit dodgy. They were gone for about 20 minutes. Satisfied that we had found the Istripura Caves (but wondered why they were marked on the map, for something so remote and small) we walked back to the bus and made our way back down to the village, walking sometimes so the base of the bus wouldn't scrape on the road. We had to keep an eye on our belongings in the bus! Say no more! Slide show:-
Before we went to Bandarawela we did a quick trip to the Resthouse at the Ella Gap (1100 m ) - a beautiful cutting through the hills with a view to the plains below. Tried to find out about the Ravana Ella Cave. In his usual style Eddly asked a few people and we drove up a small bumpy lane to a small Buddhist monastery, across the valley from the resthouse. Eddly talked to the few monks that came out to see us and one of them offered to guide us. We made sure our socks were tucked over our trousers to keep leaches at bay, grabbed our head torches and shot off up the hillside after him. Eddly soon gave up at the first rocky bit, as he had a bad knee....we scrambled on up and along a tiny path through grasses taller than us under a rock face. After about a quarter of an hour we reached a steep, slippery slope. Sam as usual had shot on with the bare footed guide. We as usual were puffing and panting behind. The slope led up to the cave mouth, about 20m high and 10m wide. There was a muddy, slippery slope up to a ledge....suddenly I felt all motherly and glum as one slip and the holiday would be ruined. We clung on to a couple of roots and reached the ledge. The cave then sloped gently up for a 100m or so, to the end. At least we had found a proper walk-in cave (once we got there!), even though there was not much to see once in it. Gingerly we picked our way back down with the occasional leach trying to find a meal on my hand. Slide show:-
Once back at the monastery we were invited to visit the tiny temple. It was a beautiful little cave temple with a fabulous painted ceiling. There was a reclining Buddha to one side and painted statues to the front. As it was New Years Eve a family had come to pray and give their offerings to Buddha. We quietly listened. They lit candles. It was a lovely moment. A perfect ending to a very interesting day. Slide show:-
We arrived at the Bandarawela Hotel on Sri Lankan Buddhist/Hindu New Years Eve. Fire works were let off periodically all through the night.
Day 11: Woke to the New Year celebrations at breakfast. Sam lit one of the candles on a pretty tall brass candle holder which was strung with small white flowers. We weren't too keen on the goodies they had cooked but it was beautifully presented.
Today we drove to Horton Plains National Park (2000 m). Yet another contrast of Sri Lanka. High plateau of rough, spiky grassland. A national park with entrance fee, we were left to our own devices (after being thoroughly searched for any sort of litter that we might drop, including taking the label off my water bottle!) Made a change not having a guide rammed down our throats! There are very well maintained tracks that lead to 'Worlds End', a huge drop over the plateau edge with a view of the lowlands for miles below......if you are able to get there before 10am, as the clouds come in and obscure everything after that...you then have to imagine what could be...like we did! It was a very nice walk, maybe 10km, not too many people...some good waterfalls....it took us a couple of hours.....the people that we did meet were very friendly and insisted on hugging Sam, picking him up, having their photo taken with them etc. etc....needless to say, Sam started to dread the next people and would try and hide!
After finishing the walk and not seeing any wild animals apart from a couple of baby snakes (one hiding under a paper bag that hadn't been put in the litter bin), we headed back to Bandarawela, two hours away.
Day 12: Left Bandarawela Hotel to drive to the Safari Beach Hotel, at Yala on the South coast for two nights. Went via the Ella Gap and stopped at the restaurant to view over the valley and try to work out the exact spot where the Ravana Ella cave was. Satisfied, on we drove down onto the low lands through rice paddies. Arrived at Tissamaharama at lunchtime, arranged a safari jeep for the afternoon to take us to Bundala Bird Reserve. After having a splash in the swimming pool and watching the monkeys run around we were off in our jeep to Bundala. What a lovely afternoon.....the driver and guide spotted so many things for us to see.....mongoose, peacocks, painted storks, open billed storks, wild pigs, deer, woodpeckers, crocodiles, monkeys, pheasant tailed jacanas, and many more and also the highlight - seven wild elephants. One group of elephants were happily munching in the undergrowth whilst we stood in the back of the jeep with the engine off.....suddenly one was a little suspicious and started to charge....with cameras whirring and the driver banging on the door we drove off just in time. Slide show:-
We arrived at the Safari Beach hotel. What a place....right on the wild untamed beach, with a lagoon with crocodiles only a few feet from the bedrooms, wild elephant tracks right close to the buildings, parrots zipping from tree to tree....wow!!!
Day13: The next morning was my birthday and I chilled out watching the crocs, the fishermen, a Brown-headed Barbet feeding it's young in a hollow tree.
In the afternoon we had a jeep take us into the Yala National Park. We had originally wanted to go early in the morning but we were told that it would be best in the afternoon.....what a mistake....we think the guides wanted a lie in....there were so many cars that all the animals hid so we endlessly drove around seeing almost nothing. I did see a female Paradise Fly Catcher though so that was good. There was one elephant but it was ruined by the sheer quantity of cars trying to hog the view. Just as well that we had had a fabulous trip the day before at Bundala!
Day 14: We now had to head up the coast to Unawatuna. Just a few miles up the road from the Safari Beach Hotel we turned off the road up a track to the Nimalawa Hermitage that Eddly knew of. This place, Eddly seemed to think, was a place where the monks lived in caves. We drove to some buildings where we were greeted by some mangy dogs. Eddly went and found out about what we could do while I made sure that I was dressed correctly - not too much skin showing.
He came back and told us that the three monks that were at the hermitage would shortly be coming down to the temple from the jungle where the caves were. They came down every day to receive food and clothing from locals who considered it a privilege to look after these holy people.
Firstly some food was placed on a circular tray. A procession of people took this tray, four people holding a canopy on poles over it, to the shrine where Buddhas' of various sizes were sitting behind glass doors. The offering was made. We then waited a few minutes.
The three monks walked down the track from the jungle and stopped in a line opposite the door to the temple. They held bowls under their robes. A man greeted them, bowed and then proceeded to wash their feet one by one. Then the monks went into the temple and sat down on a bench covered in red cloth and cushions. In front of them food and parcels of clothing were placed. then the puja started. We sat down cross legged on the floor on mats with the other people. They chanted for a while which was nice. Then the head monk gave his sermon (which went on a while). We politely sneaked out as Sam was getting bored so we chased lizards around outside. Slide show:-
At 11 o'clock we were told that we could drive down to the hermitage. It was only open for an hour a day.
We were only to whisper as it was a totally quiet zone. Poor Sam....how was he going to manage. There were paths, beautifully manicured, leading through the scrubby jungle. We wandered around, coming across bottles turned upside down, buried in the ground in long rectangles. These were used for meditation, pacing up and down to each end. Also we found the caves the monks lived and prayed in. The caves were yet again large boulders that had drip lips carved along the top front, with walls built up to form rooms. Inside they were painted white and were very sparsely furnished. The beds were rock solid and we were told that the monks had to suffer this for their faith.
We wandered on and were passing a larger cave when Eddly got quietly excited and told us to stay where we were. He was invited in to meet the head monk which was quite an honour. Then we were asked to go into the cave. The monk was sitting reverently and he swept his arm to ask us to sit on the mats in front of him. We sat down politely and smiled. Then he and Eddly had a conversation, Eddly translating. The monk told him that we were good people and that he noticed that we had dressed correctly to respect their religion, and prayed at the puja. Evidently he rarely met tourists because they didn't behave in the way he liked. Phew...we felt very honoured. We finished our chat and thanked him and bowed on the ground....Sam didn't need any prompting - good little chap.
The hermitage was certainly a very special, peaceful place....we were so glad to have been there.
We now had a long drive to Unawatuna. As you have gathered this was not a beach holiday, but we stopped frequently to see the coastline. We wanted to see the stilt fishermen. Eddly pointed out a couple...not quite as dramatic as some of the photos we had seen...but then the sun was not setting! We arrived at the Closenberg Hotel. It was a charming colonial building, very quiet, slightly rundown, but nevertheless superb for our last night in Sri Lanka.
Woke to a lovely sunrise, packed up and headed towards Colombo to the airport. On the way we visited a Turtle hatchery, tasted coconut milk and watched a man high up in the King Coconut trees collecting the sap from the flowers to make an alcoholic drink called Toddy.
The holiday: As we had a young child, hiring a micro bus and driver was certainly the way to travel. Eddly was good company, thoughtful, and made sure we saw most of the things we wanted. We had a superb time.
The downside: Guides seemed to pop out of nowhere and sometimes we really didn't need them, especially two at a time, but we were too politely 'British' to complain, as half the time it was in Eddly's hands to organise things and we didn't know what was going on .....it ended up costing us loads in tips.......This over saturation of tipping for a service we didn't need, probably means that we will choose somewhere else to go next time! If this hadn't happened we definitely would go back again.
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