Day 12 (3 of 3).
On our last evening of the trip, we had a few hours to spare in Colombo before heading to the airport. From online research, we learnt about the widely acclaimed seafood restaurant Ministry of Crab, which is famous for their giant lagoon crabs caught in the mangrove lagoons of Sri Lanka, and prepared in a selection of Asian cooking methods such as Sri Lankan pepper, Indian curry, Japanese garlic chilli, Singaporean chilli, etc. For decades, Sri Lankan lagoon crabs have been prized for their size and tasty meat. Almost all of the decent sized lagoon crabs (500g – 2kg) have been exported to Singapore (90%) and other parts of Asia and Europe. Ministry of Crab is one of the few restaurants in the nation that offers giant lagoon crabs, and has been named Asia’s 50 best restaurants for several years in a row. In less than ten years, the restaurant has expanded to Shanghai, Manila, Mumbai, Maldives, and Bangkok. The Ministry of Crab in Colombo is located at the Dutch Hospital Shopping Precinct, a retail complex housed in the oldest building compound in Colombo Fort, dated to 1681 in the Dutch Era. The Ministry of Crab is a success story of Dharshan Munidasa, the celebrity owner of the restaurant.
The success of Dharshan Munidasa exemplifies how Sri Lanka may find its footing in today’s world by absorbing techniques and cultures from other countries, promoting themselves on mass media, making use of the local natural resources, and gaining global recognition by competing on the international stage. Born in Tokyo from a Sri Lankan father and a Japanese mother, and graduated in The Johns Hopkins University in the United States, Dharshan Munidasa returned to Sri Lanka in 1994. He came back with his Japanese cooking techniques and American way of thinking, and opened his Japanese restaurant Nihonbashi in 1995 and then Ministry of Crab in 2011, both have subsequently become the first Sri Lankan restaurants made to the list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants. Munidasa appeared on BBC Rick Stein’s program in 2009, then in 2010, Munidasa produced and hosted a culinary travel show called “Culinary Journey’s with Dharshan” on Sri Lanka’s ETV. He has also featured on Nippon Shokudo for TV Tokyo, and Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown on CNN.
While the fascinating Buddhist moments in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa showcase the cultural heritage of Sri Lanka, and the colonial legacies in the Hill Country and South Coast reveal the nation’s difficult first encounter with the West, Munidasa’s Ministry of Crab on the other hand demonstrates how a contemporary Sri Lankan identity is taking shape and how a new culture can be confidently exported to the outside world. From Anuradhapura to the Ministry of Crab in Colombo, we felt that we had gone through a 2000-year chronicle of Sri Lanka in a matter of 12 days.
The old Colombo Lighthouse or Clock Tower was a lighthouse in Colombo and still serves as a clock tower today. It signifies the bygone era of colonial Ceylon.
Now converted into a popular shopping and dining venue in downtown Colombo, the Old Colombo Dutch Hospital is considered to be the oldest building in Colombo Fort.
In the era of commercialism, Christmas is celebrated in Metropolitan Colombo despite the nation’s Buddhist background.
Just two blocks west of the Dutch Hospital lies an enormous construction site: 269 hectares of reclaimed land in the Indian Ocean designated for Port City, an ambitious construction project targeted to establish a new central business district with glassy towers that resemble a small Singapore. The $1.4bn Chinese state-owned investment has been controversial: non transparent contract agreement between investors and the former Sri Lankan president Rajapaksa, environmental impact of the massive land reclamation including potential damage on the fishing industry and burden on the limited natural resources to sustain the new downtown, and the unclear operation plan in the future.
In the midst of bustling commercial activities of downtown Colombo lies the peaceful courtyards of the Dutch Hospital, where the Ministry of Crab is situated. At the restaurant entrance, a display menu shows visitors the size range of local lagoon crabs (500g – 2kg) and prawns (150g to 500g+).
We left our luggage at the reception and sat down at our reserved table.
There were foreign visitors and expats as well as local business people in the restaurant.
The restaurant is causal and pleasant, and decorated with the orange theme colour.
From floral arrangement to dining utensil, everything in the restaurant was cheerful.
Prawns of different sizes were on display.
We started the meal with giant prawns.
As well as king prawn bisque.
Then we finished the meal with two giant lagoon crabs, one made with Sri Lankan pepper sauce and the other garlic chilli. They were perhaps the most tasty crabs we had for a long long time.
After dinner at 21:15, we had trouble locating our online pre-booked cab at the Dutch Hospital. A restaurant staff helped us to talk on phone with the driver to resolve the issue. We ended up finding the right car behind the restaurant. At the departure concourse in the airport, we once again passed by the advertisement of Ministry of Crab, the same one that we saw 12 days ago. What a satisfying meal and a fruitful journey! This concludes our December 2019 journey to Sri Lanka.
Day 12 (1 of 3).
Known as Asia’s largest remaining colonial fortress and an UNESCO World Heritage site, Galle is a popular tourist destination in southwest Sri Lanka. Galle has long been an important trading port of the island since ancient times. Cinnamon was exported from Sri Lanka as early as 1400 BC, and Galle was likely the main port of export. Throughout history, Galle traded with the Greeks, Romans, Persians, Chinese, Arabs, Malays, and Indians. Sri Lanka’s colonial history began when the Portuguese arrived in the 16th century and built a fortified city in Galle. Galle continued to serve as the main port for spices export. In 1640, the Portuguese surrendered to the Dutch East India Company. After the takeover, the Dutch built the fort that we saw today with bastions and a solid granite wall. In 1796, Galle and Sri Lanka changed hands again when the island became a British Crown colony named Ceylon. The 400-year colonial rule came to an end in 1948 when independence was granted to establish Dominion of Ceylon in the Commonwealth. Then 28 years later in 1972, Sri Lanka finally became a republic. From four centuries as a colonial port of export for spices and coffee (then replaced by tea) to a tourist town based on commercialization of its colonial past, Galle’s fortune has always been tied with the outside world.
We dropped off our backpacks at the baggage storage in Galle Railway Station, then found our way into the old fortified city.
The first thing we saw inside the fortress was Galle Services Club (est. 1947) and the 1883 clock tower.
Located on the highest point in the fortress, the Dutch Reformed Church (Groote Kerk) was built by the Dutch in 1755. It was the third Dutch Reformed church in Galle and signified the rise of the Dutch after the Portuguese.
Further down the road from the Dutch Reformed Church stands All Saints’ Church, Galle’s first Anglican Church (consecrated in 1871) and a powerful statement by the British.
The former Dutch warehouse from the 17th century has become the National Maritime Archaeology Museum.
In 1796, the British relocated the emblem of the Dutch East India Company from the outer gate to the inner, and put up the British Royal Emblem at the outer gate.
The interior of the old gate is used for motorcycle parking.
First built by the Portuguese, then renamed to Zwart Fort (Black Fort) by the Dutch. We accessed the Black Fort via a police compound. At Zwart Fort, a staff came out to show us around and told us about the history of the place.
The Old Dutch Hospital was established by the Dutch to look after the staff of the Dutch East India Company. Then the British extended the building and converted it into a barracks. After independence, the building was used as the town hall. In 2014, the building was once again converted into a shopping and dining complex.
Meeran Jumma Masjid looks more like a church than a mosque, but this Islamic prayer hall has been around for 300 years already. More than half of the population inside the fort are Moor. They are believed to be descendants of the Arab traders who settled in Sri Lanka at around the 9th century.
Galle Fort is built on a rock peninsula and there are a few small beaches near the lighthouse.
The Galle Lighthouse is the oldest light station in the nation. The original was built by the British in 1848 but was destroyed by fire in 1936. The current 26.5m tall lighthouse was constructed in 1939.
Strolling or cycling aimlessly within Galle Fort is a nice way to explore the town.
In Galle Fort, Dairy King icecream has been recommended by a number of guidebooks and blogs.
Dairy King is a great place to take a short break during a visit to Galle Fort.
Many houses in Galle Fort have been converted into guesthouses, restaurants, or shops catered for tourists.
The ambience of the colonial times is the top selling point for the tourist industry in Galle.
Some old mansions are transformed into high end retail shops for fabrics, furniture, housewares, and other design items with a twist of Sri Lankan style.
Established in 1892, Al Bahajathul Ibraheemiyyah Arabic College is one of the oldest Islamic Arabic institutions in Sri Lanka.
On our way out of the fort, we passed by Sri Sudharmalaya Buddhist Temple, a Buddhist temple with a unique appearance. The temple dated back to 1889. The belfry of the building suggests that temple might be converted from an earlier church.
Day 11 (2 of 2).
Cinnamomum verum, or true cinnamon tree, is an evergreen tree native to Sri Lanka. Considered as the better tasting and has more health benefits than the other types of cinnamon cultivated elsewhere in Asia and Africa, the inner bark of Cinnamomum verum has been a precious commodity sought after by the West since colonial times. Sri Lanka nowadays exports roughly 85-90% of the world’s true cinnamon. Spice plantations can be found in many parts of the island, including the South Coast.
We stayed at Mirissa Hills, a working cinnamon plantation near Mirissa, for two nights. At the plantation, there are three buildings that offer guest accommodation. We stayed at a building called the “Museum”, a work-in-progress cinnamon museum. At Mirissa Hills, we got a chance to join a plantation tour to learn more about cinnamon production.
Our room was located at the “Museum” building, around halfway up the hill of the plantation estate.
Inside the “Museum”building, four guestrooms are allocated on both sides of the courtyard.
Despite the age of the building, our room was quite comfortable.
The main building, Mount Cinnamon, is located 5 minutes walk uphill from the Museum. Designed by architect C. Anjalendran, Mount Cinnamon is an hidden architectural gem in the midst of dense vegetation.
Served as an apprentice of architectural master Geoffrey Bawa, C. Anjalendran is a leading architect of today’s Sri Lanka. At Mount Cinnamon, C. Anjalendran arranges the guestrooms around the courtyard and swimming pool.
The common room in Mount Cinnamon is dominated by Laki Senanayake’s sculpture “Enchanted Forest”.
Laki Senanayake worked as an assistant to architect Geoffrey Bawa, and created a number of sculptures and murals for Bawa’s buildings.
Outside the common room, the covered veranda was where we had breakfast and dinner.
The two dogs of the estate often lingered around the veranda. One of the dogs is already 16 years old.
The pavilion in the backyard served as the dancing stage for peacocks to attract other peahens.
After breakfast, we walked over to a covered veranda serving as a gallery for sculpture and artwork.
Seeing such an interesting collection of artwork was a great surprise for us.
In the second afternoon just before most staff called it a day, we followed the manager for a cinnamon tour. The manager showed us cinnamon trees of different sizes and ages. The cinnamon trees were virtually everywhere in the estate: by the road, behind the buildings, on the hill slope, etc., just that we didn’t notice them until the tour.
At the factory, a staff showed us how to remove the bark of the cinnamon branch.
The bark rolls were then placed over our heads for drying.
From 1970 to now, international production of cinnamon has grown more than tenfold. It is hard to imagine that such popular spice could still be processed in such a simple and traditional manner. Such production method in Sri Lanka hasn’t changed much in the past few centuries.
In the morning of December 16th, Mirissa Hills arranged a car to drop us at Galle.
We passed by a series of beaches near Weligama. Occasionally we would see empty stilts near the shore. The traditional fishermen that Steve McCurry encountered in the mid 1990s were long gone. Today, the stilts are mainly for tourist to take selfies or locals to mimic their the bygone fishermen and let tourists to photograph them for a fee.
Most beaches were empty except occasional surfers. Half day in Galle and a dinner in Colombo would make up the last day of our Sri Lankan journey.
Day 11 (1 of 2).
Mirissa is known as the best location for whale watching in Sri Lanka. In recent years, it is also considered as one of the world’s best spot for blue whale sighting. Doing a whale watching tour was one of the main reasons for us to visit Mirissa. While marketed as a special place in the world to have a good chance to see the blue whales, there are also opportunity to see fin whales, sei whales, sperm whales, bryde’s whales, orcas, dolphins, flying fish, turtles, manta rays, whale sharks, etc. just several miles out from Mirissa. There is never a 100% guarantee of sighting, but it is the expectation of seeing these elusive marine mammals that drives the multi billion marine tourism industry to grow rapidly around the world, including at Mirissa.
Mirissa was our second ever whale watching cruise after our wonderful orca encounter in Hokkaido, Japan six months prior. This time, weather was much warmer in tropical Sri Lanka, but the water of Indian Ocean was significantly rougher, and we spent much longer in the sea. While we didn’t hit the jackpot and see the blue whale, we did saw a fin whale, several groups of dolphins and a sea turtle in the 7-hour journey out in the sea.
At 5:55, a tuk tuk came to our hotel Mirissa Hills to pick us up. We were dropped at the office of Raja and the Whales to pay for the tour, and then followed the group to the dock.
At the dock, tourist boats from different companies were getting ready for the sail at 6:30am.
During the first half of the cruise we passed by a number of fishing boats.
The weather wasn’t perfect and the sea was rough at times.
Given the occasional rough conditions of the ocean, some fishing boats looked overly simple to us.
Apart from fishing vessels, we also saw large container ships in the distant horizon.
At about halfway of the journey, most tourists had their eyes closed to battle seasickness.
While we worried that the day might turn out fruitless, we finally had a brief encounter of a fin whale.
While it was difficult to determine the actual size of the animal, fin whale is in fact the second largest whale in the world, just after the blue whale.
Throughout the day, we had several encounters of dolphins.
For most of the times, we saw the dolphins in groups of about a dozen or more.
Most dolphins we saw were leaping in and out of the water in high speed.
My own photos were limited by the zoom extent of my camera lens.
After the journey, Raja sent us close up photos taken by a staff during the trip.
The staff even captured the twisting jump of a dolphin.
As well as a sea turtle swimming near the surface.
It was after noontime by the time we returned to the pier.
The day was getting hotter at the dock.
Walking back to the town, we passed by the office of Raja and the Whales again.
Day 10 (2 of 2).
In 1995, world renounced photographer Steve McCurry immortalized the South Coast of Sri Lanka with his iconic photograph Stilt Fishermen, capturing four local fishermen sitting on wooden stilts and fishing at the shore of Weligama. The mid-1990s also marked the beginning of tourism at the fishing town of Weligama and the adjacent Mirissa. Mirissa, historically known as the south’s largest fishing port for tuna, mullet, snapper and butterfish, was soon developed into a paradise-like holiday destination. Between Mirissa and Weligama, there are plenty of pristine beaches, decent seafood restaurants, accommodations of all sorts, good surfing spots, hidden coves for snorkeling with sea turtles, and the world famous whale watching waters. The Sri Lankan South Coast has all the essentials of a tropical holiday destination except the large partying crowds like Full Moon parties at Koh Phangan in Thailand. In fact, in Sri Lanka alcohol is prohibited during Uposatha, or the full moon days. Despite the lack of vibrant nightlife and the destructions and loss of lives caused by the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, tourism in Mirissa and the South Coast continues to thrive solely because of the area’s natural beauty.
Many travelers prefer to stay in the South Coast for days if not weeks, especially if one is interested in surfing. We didn’t have such luxury in terms of time, but could only spare two days to chill out by the sea, including a 7-hour boat ride out in the rough waters to seek for marine mammals.
Beautiful, laid back, and has plenty of space to just sit down to enjoy a fresh coconut drink, Mirissa Beach should meet most people’s expectations.
The quality of both the sand and water at Mirissa Beach is top notch.
Just months after the terrorist attacks in Colombo and Negombo, the number of foreign visitors might not match the previous year. Nonetheless, the beach was filled with the laughter of local beachgoers.
The Parrot Rock Bridge, a rock island accessible by a short walk in shallow water, is an iconic feature in Mirissa Beach.
Climbing the Parrot Rock Bridge allowed us to have an overview of Mirissa Beach.
The Mirissa Beach is one of the many resort beaches in the South Coast of Sri Lanka. In fact, the entire South Coast of Sri Lanka has a series of fine beaches along the Indian Ocean.
Two bays east of Mirissa Beach, we arrived at Coconut Tree Hill, a small peninsula topped with a grove of coconut trees that was made famous in recent years by Instagram users and online bloggers who post selfies taken from the hill.
Despite the poor weather, the Coconut Tree Hill was nonetheless a lovely place for us to enjoy a panoramic view of the surrounding beaches.
All tourists chose to stand at the centre of Coconut Tree Hill to take selfies with the sea as the background.
There is a local old man lingering around the Coconut Tree Hill. He loves to interact with tourists and showed them good spots for photo shooting.
In the evening, most tourists sat down at the outdoor restaurants along the beach, while the locals continued to have fun in the waves.
The last moment of sunlight created a dramatic moment at Mirissa Beach.
The locals refused to leave despite it was getting really dark.
A group of locals requested us to take a photo of them.
In the evening, most tourists would sit down at a beach restaurant for a seafood dinner.
We picked Zephyr Restaurant & Bar near Parrot Rock Bridge for dinner.
The staff at Zephyr brought out a plate of catches of the day for us to choose.
We sat down at a table on the beach.
One of us picked lobster as the main dish.
Another main dish we ordered was a grilled spangled emperor fish. Fresh and great ambience.
Day 10 (1 of 2).
There are 26 national parks in Sri Lanka, covering an area of 5,734 km², or slightly less than 9% of the country. As a small nation, Sri Lanka has a diverse range of wildlife, from marine mammals to other big game. The island also has one of the highest rates of biological endemism (16% of the fauna and 23% of flowering plants are endemic) in the world. Having a chance to see Sri Lanka’s precious wildlife in its natural habitat should be a highlight for all visitors.
With several elephant and even one leopard sightings in our first drive, any wildlife that we saw in our second safari was a bonus. Nonetheless, it was a pleasant experience to venture into the open wilderness early in the morning, when the air was cool and birds were at their most active. As the day warmed up after 8am, most animals seemed to be hiding in the shade somewhere, except occasional elephants that were looking for other ways to cool themselves down. The morning safari was the final act for us before moving on to the South Coast.
Udawalawe Reservoir appeared in total tranquility at 6am.
Again our jeep passed through the Udawalawe Reservoir before entering the park.
Our morning safari began with the sighting of a golden jackal. In both Hindu and Buddhist cultures, jackals are considered an intelligent and cunning animals.
In a safari national park, one of the easiest places to spot wildlife is the vehicular path because of the lack of vegetation.
A group of birds came together for morning choir. Early morning, according to our driver, is the best time for birding.
At the top of a tree, we spotted a pair of malabar pied hornbills. Malabar pied hornbills are omnivorous. Their diet ranges from fruits to small animals and insects.
An adult female white bellied sea eagle can measure up to 90cm, with a wingspan of up to 2.2m long.
Due to their high reproductive rate, good adaptability in different environments, and the diminishing of their natural predators such as leopards, jackals, mongooses, pythons, monitor lizards and eagles because of human activities, the population of peafowls has grown rapidly throughout the island. With frequent damages to agricultural crops, the peafowls have become a headache for Sri Lankan farmers. On the other hand, peafowls have considerably cultural significance for the Buddhist and Hindu, thus a protected species in Sri Lanka despite of their impact to the farmers. For the Sinhalese, the peafowl is the third animal of the zodiac of Sri Lanka.
Endemic to the island, Sri Lankan junglefowl is the national bird of the country.
With a diet including small reptiles, amphibians, crabs, rodents and birds, white-throated kingfisher can be found throughout Asia.
In a woodland, a group of Sri Lankan axis deer were resting under the shade. As soon as they noticed our arrival, they immediately got up and walked away one by one.
Out of the dozen of so Sri Lankan axis deer, we only noticed one with horns.
Once again we bumped into a Bengal monitor lizard. The one we saw was about 1.5m long.
Of course, no visit to the Udawalawe would be completed without meeting the Sri Lankan elephants.
In both safari visits, we had seen both male and female Sri Lankan elephants of various ages and sizes.
In a group of Sri Lankan elephants, we also spotted two babies who were busy suckling milk from their mothers.
Near the end of our morning safari, we had an encounter with a large male elephant.
We saw him stopping at a water pond and splashed mud water onto his body using his trunk. According to our driver, the elephant was “applying sunscreen” with the mud. Apart from sun protection, the mud also protects him from parasite. The evaporation of the mud would also cool off his skin.
After exiting from the park, we passed by Udawalawe Reservoir one final time. This time, we were fortunate to see an Sri Lankan elephant bathing in the water.
Day 9 (4 of 4).
Udawalawe National Park is often considered to be the best place for elephant sighting outside of Africa. Advertised for 100% guaranteed elephant sighting, Udawalawe should not disappoint anyone who come for the biggest mammals on land. For other animals, especially large mammals like leopards or sloth bears, super good luck and an experienced guide/driver are probably needed for any chance of success. The park is also a fine venue for bird sightings, with both permanent and migratory species.
We didn’t have a whole lot of wild safari experience other than the Brazilian Pantanal. Unlike Pantanal in Brazil where we could choose between boat, 4×4 vehicle, or even a morning safari hike, Udawalawe National Park could only be visited by 4×4 vehicles. All 4×4 vehicles enter the park from one entrance, and most tours would start either at 6am or 2pm, and last for 4 hours. Unlike the famous Yala National Park in Southern Sri Lanka where all visitors flock to chase after the elusive leopards and as soon as one leopard is spotted all vehicles would rush to the same spot, 4×4 drivers at Udawalawe tend to disperse into different areas of the park. The first safari tour we had at Udawalawe was a afternoon drive.
Sri Lankan elephant is usually one of the first large animals to be spotted in the park.
Sri Lankan elephant is the largest of the three subspecies of Asian elephants.
Native to the island, Sri Lankan elephant has a widespread distribution in the country.
With a population of 2500 to 4000c Sri Lankan elephants have been listed endangered on IUCN’s Red List since 1986.
Oriental garden lizards are commonly found throughout much of Asia.
The oriental garden lizard can change its colours. During mating season, a male lizard changes its head and shoulders to orange or crimson, and its throat to black.
Much larger than oriental garden lizard, the Bengal monitor lizards can grow up to 175cm long.
Known by their rich colours and predominant diet of flying insects like bees and wraps, the green bee-eaters are common in the park.
Reside in India, Sri Lanka, and much of Southeast Asia, the changeable hawk eagle is also known as crest hawk due to its feature on the head. They are medium size birds of prey, and are usually solitary except in breeding periods.
The number of Indian peafowls or peacocks (male) we have seen in Udawalawe was probably ten times more than the total number of times that we had ever seen these birds in the past. Peacocks dancing, eating, running, and even flying, males, females, or juveniles, you name it, we have seen it.
The steady supply of water of the reservoir is probably the main reason why wild animals gather in Udawalawe National Park.
Even with their distinctive curved horns, no one knows for sure whether these wild water buffalos are truly wild, or if they are descendants of domestic buffaloes. With about 3,400 across the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, wild water buffalo has been listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List since 1986.
Painted storks can be found in wetlands throughout tropical Asia.
Native to the island, the endangered Sri Lankan leopard has a population of 750-900. Spotting one of the park’s 10-12 leopards was like winning the jackpot, given the reserve has 30,821 hectares of land (more than 5 times the area of Manhattan Island).
Usually live in herds, the Sri Lankan axis deer or Ceylon spotted deer once roam freely across the dry zone of the island. Now their conservation status is considered as vulnerable.
Towards the end of our tour, a curious Sri Lankan elephants followed us and get pretty close to our vehicle.
Before leaving the park, we had a unique encounter with two Sri Lankan elephants who greeted each other with their trunks and made a whole lot of sounds.
The greeting gesture of the two Sri Lankan elephants seemed friendly, as if a person was hugged by another person.
After the passionate change of the two elephants, one of the two elephants seemed to be interested in our vehicle and stayed much longer.
Near the main park exit, we spotted a curious mongoose climbing out from a drainage channel. It stayed just for a split second and dashed out of our sight.
Day 9 (3 of 4).
After the morning walk to the Little Adam’s Peak and Nine Arches Bridge, we returned to Zion View Ella Green Retreat for a quick breakfast. The car came to Zion View Ella Green Retreat to pick us up right at 10:30. We bid farewell to the two German shepherds and hopped on the car. We left Ella behind and slowly descended from the hills. Our next destination was Udawalawe, a small town between the hill country and the southern beaches. The two hour drive from Ella to Udawalawe brought us from tea plantations and green hills to grasslands, marshes and forests, the home of diverse wildlife. After world heritage historical sites and hills of tea plantations, our focus shifted once again to the natural treasure of Udawalawe National Park.
Established in 1972 as a sanctuary for wildlife displaced by the construction of Udawalawe Reservoir, the 30,821 hectares national park has become the third most visited park in the nation. With an annual rainfall of 1,500mm, the park lies at the boundary between Sri Lanka’s wet and dry zones. Within the park, there are marshes, grasslands and forests. Udawalawe is famous for its 250 or so Sri Lanka elephants. Other mammal species found in the park include Sri Lankan leopard, rusty-spotted cat, sloth bear, Sri Lanka sambar deer, Sri Lankan axis deer, wild boar, water buffalo, jackal, civet, monkey, mongoose, etc. The park is also a good venue for bird watching, and so as reptiles including lizards, crocodiles, and snakes.
Passing the Rawana Ella Falls on the Wellawaya Ella Kumbalwela Highway signified our departure from Ella.
The more we get closer to Udawalawe, the higher the chance we might see wildlife along the highway.
Domestic water buffalo are kept for their milk (curd and ghee) and rice cultivation.
Sri Lankan elephant is undoubtedly the superstar in Udawalawe, and can often be seen along the road.
Elephants are highly intelligent animals. According to our driver, some of the curious males have learnt to approach the highway fence regularly to greet tourists in exchange for easy treats like bananas.
Roadside stores near Udawalawe offer visitors a convenient stop for fruits, and perhaps have indirectly encouraged the unnatural habit of the highway approaching elephants.
Despite the popularity of the national park, the town of Udawalawe is relatively tourist-free. There is hardly any tourist souvenir shops along the main road.
Bakery tuk tuk is quite common across the country. As soon as we heard the music of Beethoven’s Fur Elise, we knew one of these mobile bread vendors must be nearby.
Our guesthouse Green View Safari Resort was at a side street across the road from R/Emb/Udawalawa Primary School.
Hidden from the dusty main road, our guesthouse for the night Green View Safari Resort was a simple little retreat.
Facility was clean and simple. The guesthouse owners arranged both the afternoon and morning safari for us.
Dinner and breakfast were included in our one-night stay at Green View Safari Resort.
To reach the national park from Udawalawe, our jeep would pass by Udawalawe Reservoir, a place of potential wildlife sighting before reaching the park entrance.
Locals came to the dam to catch the sunset.
The Udawalawe Dam separates the lush green forest on one side and the peaceful reservoir on the other.
The Udawalawe Dam provides a high ground to watch the distant scenery.
The lush green forest revealed what the area might have look like before the construction of the reservoir.
Local wildlife has adapted to the man-made environment of Udawalawe Reservoir. The water has even attracted wildlife including birds and elephants.
Beyond the reservoir, we finally arrived at the ticket office of Udawalawe National Park.
We chose Udawalawe National Park over Yala National Park was an attempt to avoid overcrowding. During our first safari visit, the entry route into the park was loaded with tourist 4×4 vehicles. Luckily, as we ventured deeper into the park, we would have the park pretty much by ourselves.
Day 9 (2 of 4).
Also called the Bridge in the Sky, the Nine Arches Bridge in Demodara near Ella is the most well known colonial railway viaduct in Sri Lanka. The 300 ft long viaduct was built in 1921 by a Ceylonese builder with consultation from British engineers. Rumours said that steel was not available during construction because of the broke out of World War One. As a result, the construction was completed using only solid stone and cement. Today, the Nine Arches Bridge has become a popular tourist attraction thanks to its dramatic setting and its proximity to Ella.
We followed a sign and reached a quiet path. A cafe owner came for help and pointed us to a narrow descending path that led to the famous railway bridge.
Before finding our way down to the bridge, we stopped at a lookout for photographs. The rumbling sound from afar and the gathering of tourists near the bridge signified that a train was approaching.
A few times each day, tourists would gather by the bridge to welcome the approaching train.
At one end of the bridge, we found ourselves taking photos from a tea farm among many other tourists.
Obviously the bridge spans over the valley with nine arches.
On top of the Nine Arches Bridge, tourists take pictures from the tracks.
From the other end of the bridge, we walked uphill to reach another lookout and get a nice look of the bend of the bridge.
Everyone to and from Ella would need to walk through a railway tunnel.
Many tourists see walking through the tunnel as a unique experience and a photo opportunity.
Despite there were only a handful of trains passing through each day, we still had a slightly uncomfortable feeling while walking through the tunnel, as if a train could appear suddenly from the other end.
Beyond the tunnel, we continued to walk on the tracks for about half an hour.
Passing by a number of railway signage as we approach Ella.
At last, Ella station was in sight.
After all the track walking, we finally saw the sign that everyone, both locals and tourists, ignored, “Walk on the Railway Line is Prohibed.”
Day 9 (1 of 4).
On our final day in Ella, we get up early as usual. We had a car arranged to leave town at 10:30am. Before leaving Ella, we decided to do a bit more hiking. Our plan was to head east to the summit of Little Adam’s Peak, then descend to the north to visit the iconic Nine Arches Bridge, and walk back to Ella via the railway track. This is a popular tourist route for anyone who has 2-3 hours to spare in Ella.
With a shape resembling the much higher sacred Adam’s Peak (2243m) near Nuwara Eliya, Little Adam’s Peak (1141m) offers a much easier hike for everyone. Climbing Little Adam’s Peak took us no more than an hour from the trailhead. The scenery was pleasant at the top and there were only a family up at the peak when we reached the top. Despite short, the hike was a great activity to start the day.
To ensure we had plenty of time to walk around Ella in our last morning, we got up at dawn.
After we put on our hiking boots and packed our water bottle, we stopped by our hotel terrace to enjoy the sunrise scenery of the Ella Rock.
From the main intersection of Ella, we headed east on Ella Passara Road towards The One Ella guesthouse, where the trailhead of the short walk up to Little Adam’s Peak is located.
On our way to the trailhead, we bumped into three familiar faces: an European couple and their baby boy, the friendly family that we kept on bumping into at different towns and attractions since our first encounter at the Quadrangle of Polonnaruwa.
The short hike began from a small tea plantation.
As soon as we arrived at an open area, Ella Rock immediately dominated the view.
We passed by a tea farm in the first part of the hike.
The last bit of the hike is a set of steps that go all the way to the top.
At the top of Little Adam’s Peak, the panoramic view of the surrounding mountains was breathtaking.
The iconic Ella Rock was right across the valley in front of us.
The highend villas of the 98 Acres Resort seem to blend in perfect harmony with the surrounding natural landscape.
A small Buddha statue marks the summit of the Little Adam’s Peak.
Just below the peak of Little Adam’s Peak, Flying Ravana Mega Zipline established a range of recreational facilities including zipline and archery.
Instead of returning to the trailhead, we continued our walk through a tea farm towards the resort ground of 98 Acres.
The huts of 98 Acres across the valley from Little Adam’s Peak are probably one of the most luxurious accommodation in and around Ella.
Beyond the compound of 98 Acres, we found our way towards the most well known attraction of Ella, the Nine Arches Bridge.
Day 8 (1 of 1).
In 1890, Scottish merchant Thomas Lipton who owned a vast business of grocery stores in Britain, visited British Ceylon and partnered with tea farming pioneer James Taylor to secure supply of Ceylon tea and distributed it throughout Europe and the United States. Lipton’s business plan of providing affordable tea to the mass working class in the West led to the increasing demand of tea and the bloom of tea plantations in Sri Lanka. The plan eventually developed into the business empire of Lipton tea.
Near the hill town of Haputale, about an hour of train ride west of Ella, the enormous Dambatenne Tea Factory and the surrounding tea fields have been immortalized by the legacy of their founder, Thomas Lipton. An 8km uphill hike to the lookout known as Lipton’s Seat remains as one of the best hike through the tea plantations in the hill country. Unlike taking the train or car, hiking in the tea plantations allow visitors to get close to the tea bushes and interact with the tea pickers.
From Haputale railway station, we hopped on a tuk tuk and got dropped off at the entrance of Dambatenne Tea Factory. We had no hurry to tour the factory, and left the factory tour for after the hike.
From the factory, we began to walk uphill into the plantation area along a winding road frequented by tea pickers. Tea terraces extend out in all directions from the road. We passed by all sort of buildings from worker dormitories to school complex, all apparently belong to the community of plantation workers.
Rows after rows of tea plants terraced up the hill slopes. Busy tea pickers dotted on the slope moving slowly horizontally on the slope.
Dramatic shadows were cast on the tea slope in the early part of our hike.
Everywhere was lush green as we walked deeper into the plantation.
Causally zooming into any cluster of tea pickers would create a scenic picture.
For visitors who don’t want to hike uphill may opt for a tuk tuk ride up to the destination. But surely walking would offer much more opportunities to get close to the tea shrubs and tea workers.
Past the first valley, we soon realized that the tea plantation was much larger than we thought. Tea terraces extended out from all directions to as far as our eyes could reach.
Shrines of different religions, including Roman Catholic Christianity, signify the wide range of religious backgrounds of the tea workers.
A tea plantation is much more than just a place for work. It also includes settlement of housing, school, dining places, temples, etc. Many tea workers are Tamils from Southern India, thus settlements with a Hindu shrine are quite common.
Near Lipton’s Seat lookout, we stumbled upon a weighing station where tea pickers offloaded their tea leaves, got them weighed and repacked into large bags for transportation.
Soon we arrived at the lookout of Lipton’s Seat, apart from a sleepy dog and a bronze statue of Sir Thomas Lipton, only fog coming from the other side of the mountain greeted our arrival. Some said this was the spot where Lipton loved to linger when he came to inspect the plantation. With the fog, we had no luck to see the supposedly good view from the lookout.
Soon we realized that great scenery of this hike were basically everywhere, not limited to the final lookout.
Doing the journey on foot allowed us to get close with the tea pickers.
Returning to the first valley where we started the hike, the slope with dramatic shadows was replaced by a foggy scene.
Following a tea picker, we chose a different route to descend the slope towards the factory.
The small path through the tea rows gave us a closer view of the working scenes of tea pickers.
We took our time to walk down and were greeted by several smiling tea pickers.
Close up of working tea pickers.
We leisurely walked back to Dambatenne Tea Factory in the fog. At the factory, we joined a tour to learn more about the tea making process, machinery and traditions.
Day 7 (2 of 2).
In the midst of tea plantations and cloud forests, the town of Ella situates at an elevation of 1000m above sea level and maintains a relatively cooler climate than the surrounding lowlands. Well known for its scenic valley view of Ella Rock at the Ella Gap, and a laid-back backpacker’s atmosphere, there is no surprises that the hill town has developed into the most popular tourist hub in the entire hill country. Almost all businesses in Ella are somewhat related to tourism. Because of its decent guesthouse and restaurant selection, convenience of transportation, and pleasant surrounding scenery, many travellers including us chose Ella as their base to explore the area’s hiking trails and tea plantations.
Since July 1918, Ella railway station has been an important stop on the Main Line, the oldest railway line in Sri Lanka running from coastal Colombo to Badulla in the hill country, via Kandy.
Just like other railway station in the country, curious dogs were often the first to greet us on the platform, especially when we had breakfast in our hands.
Depending on the time of day, visitors would either get off at Ella from the red or blue train.
We stayed at Zion View Ella Green Retreat for two nights. A number of guest houses, including Zion View, are erected on the valley slope facing the Ella Gap, one of the most scenic spot in town.
Every room in Zion View has a terrace overlooking the Ella Gap.
The terrace was the perfect spot to watch the sunrise over Ella Gap with the silhouette of Ella Rock.
It was also in Ella that we had our first Sri Lankan egg hoppers for breakfast.
The two German Shepherds at Zion View always welcomed us at the hotel entrance.
Walking on the railway tracks is often the the most direct routes to go between attractions. Because only a few trains would pass by Ella daily, both the locals and tourists would use these tracks as footpaths during the rest of the day to reach their destinations.
From our guesthouse we walked half an hour on the tracks to visit Kithal Ella falls. We reached the falls just before nightfall.
Just a few kilometres away from Ella, Halpewatte Tea Factory is a popular tea plantation that offers factory tours for tourists. The factory can easily be reached by tuk tuk.
Halpewatte is one of better known tea plantation in the UVA Ceylon tea region.
Founded in 1971, Halpewatte is a family run business.
Visiting a tea factory is a good way to learn more about the variety of Ceylon tea.
From the factory, we enjoyed a panoramic view of the tea terraces and surrounding scenery.
Among the many restaurants, we picked AK Ristoro in a quiet neighbourhood off the main road for dinner.
We chose to dine at the lovely veranda area at AK Ristoro.
AK Ristoro serves good fusion food with Italian, Japanese and Sri Lankan touches.
We couldn’t resist but to order a can of the local Lion beer to wash down our delicious dinner.
At night, the Main Street of Ella is flanked by lights and signage of restaurants and souvenir stores.
Day 7 (1 of 2).
Established in 1864, the railway system of Sri Lanka was constructed by the British colonial government for tea transportation. While not the fastest way to travel, making intercity journeys by train was a unique way to absorb the history of Sri Lanka, and enjoy the beautiful scenery in a relaxing pace. Some journeys are particularly more popular than the others because the beautiful scenery they offer. The journey from Kandy to Ella is one of the most popular routes, and is often referred to as one of the world’s most scenic train journey.
Getting a reserved ticket (1st class or 2nd class) from Kandy onward to the hill country is a challenge for many tourists, including us. We tried purchasing through online agent 1.5 month prior to our departure, but failed to land on any reserved tickets for our desirable date. We planned to try our luck to buy unreserved tickets and get on at an earlier stop. At worst we might need to stand for a period of time until someone get off during the 7-hour ride. The staff at Villa Rosa heard about our situation, and helped us to obtain two 2nd class tickets with reserved seats from a local agent on the day before our departure. We were grateful for his help.
The wooden timetable board at Kandy Station looks like it has been around since the colonial time.
As the train slowly left the train station, we bid farewell to Kandy and moved on into the hill country.
Soon we arrived into the tea plantation country.
Hindu temples are often erected in tea plantations as many Tamils working in the plantations are Hindus who came from Southern India.
The entire hill country is lush green and dotted with houses of pitched roofs.
Our train passed by one village after another.
On occasions, our train would get close to a sloped tea farm.
It was amazing to see so much land have been converted into tea plantations.
The tea farms seemed never ending.
Some tea farms seemed to receive poorer maintenance.
Since the train was relatively slow, many tourists chose to sit at the doorway with their legs hanging out of the train car.
Tourists took turns to lean out of the doorway of the train to take selfies and enjoy a moment of “flying” over the tea farms.
Many villagers stood near the railroad to watch our train passed by.
Many locals walked on the train tracks.
And so as dogs wandering around the railway stations.
Near the end of the journey, the weather suddenly turned breezy and foggy.
Fog covered much of the area near Ella.
After 6.5 hours, we finally arrived in the area of Ella. We would stay in Ella for two days before moving on to the south.
Day 6 (3 of 3).
Located in the hilly heartland of Sri Lanka, Kandy was the last capital of pre-modern Sri Lanka before the country was colonized by the British in 1815. Kandy was our last stop in the Cultural Triangle, and the first stop into the hill country. The Kindgom of Kandy was established under King Sena Sammatha Wickramabahu (1473 – 1511). In 1592, Kandy became the capital city of the last remaining kingdom in Sri Lanka, while the colonial powers, Portuguese and Dutch had taken over the coastal regions and gradually made their way into the heartland.
Home to the Temple of the Tooth Relic, Kandy is an UNESCO World Heritage site and a popular tourist attraction. Many tourists, including us, stop by Kandy before heading to the villages of the hill country, such as Ella, Nuwara Eliya or Haputale. Today, Kandy remains as the second largest city in Sri Lanka, and a major transportation hub in the region. It also lies in the midst of tea plantations. Known as the Sea of Milk, the artificial Kandy Lake remains as the focal point of the city. The lake was built in 1807 by King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe right by the Temple of the Tooth Relic. During our 1.5 days in Kandy, apart from the Temple of the Tooth Relic and Royal Botanic Garden in Peradeniya, we had a waterfront stroll at Kandy Lake, made a brief visit to the national museum, had lunch in the old city centre and dined at the historical Empire Cafe. Though a heavy shower in the second afternoon cut short the time we spent in the rather laid-back city.
On our first night on Kandy, we dined at Empire Cafe adjacent to the Temple of the Tooth Relic.
Housed in a beautiful colonial building, Empire Cafe also serves as a hotel.
Under a rather vintage ambience, we had a enjoyable meal at Empire Cafe.
It was pleasant to sit by the window and enjoy the evening streetscape right by the Temple of the Tooth Relic.
Taking the tuk tuk down the steep slope from Villa Rosa was an exciting way to enter the city of Kandy.
Wall paintings could be seen in a number of locations around Kandy.
On the outer wall of a school building, different groups of painters were busy making murals.
Similar to other Sri Lankan cities and towns, tuk tuk is the best way to get around in Kandy.
Like other tourists, we spent most of the time in Kandy near the Temple of the Tooth Relic. The temple entrance plaza was always crowded with visitors.
Around the Temple of the Tooth Relic, vendors were selling all kinds of Buddhist souvenirs, lotus offerings, snacks and king coconuts.
We made a brief visit to the small national museum behind the Temple of the Tooth Relic.
Kandy Lake is the main focal point of the city. The waterfront scenery reminded us of some European cities and towns.
Right by lake embankment, the Ulpange or Queens Bathing Pavilion stands out as a beautiful between the palace and the lake. Built in 1806, the building was used as a bathing chamber in the past. Today, it belongs to the local police.
Kandy Lake is also home to Asian water monitor lizards, one of the largest lizard species in the world.
In the heart of Kandy Lake rises an artificial island planted with palm trees and shrubs.
Known as Walakulu Bamma or Cloud Wall, the ornate wall was built around part of Kandy Lake for aesthetic purpose.
With over 160 years of history, the Queen’s Hotel stands proudly across the street from the entrance of Temple of the Tooth Relic and Kandy Lake.
The elegant colonnade of Queen’s Hotel prominently connects the entrance plaza of the Temple of the Tooth Relic with the old city centre.
We followed the colonnade of Queen’s Hotel towards the old city centre.
The old town centre is a busy hub of shops, banks and restaurants. We had lunch at one of the cafes before an afternoon shower forced us to return to the hotel.
Day 6 (1of 3).
“Steeply up the hill” was what many tuk tuk drivers referred to when they heard us mentioning the name of our guesthouse. Every time we head back or out of Villa Rosa would be an exciting uphill or downhill tuk tuk journey. High above Mahaweli River, Villa Rosa was more than a tranquil retreat of several spotless rooms with amazing views of the river valley. Sitting on our private terrace looking over the river valley in search of returning flying foxes in early morning, having a fine Sri Lankan dinner at the outdoor patio in a breezy evening, resting in the airy bedroom surrounded by traditional wood furniture, these pleasant moments would live long in our memories.
Greeted by friendly staff and three dogs, we were glad to arrive at the entrance foyer of Villa Rosa after the car journey from Dambulla.
Flanked both sides by guestrooms, the entrance foyer, upper living room, and the courtyard bisects the complex of Villa Rosa.
Accessed from a covered veranda, our room was situated at a corner on the upper level.
At the upper living room, we spent a short period of time flipping through an architecture book on Geoffrey Bawa, one of the most famous architects in Sri Lanka.
Our room was spacious and spotless. The ambience was relaxing and the river views from the terrace was amazing.
Even the bathroom revealed a tropical sense.
Sitting at the terrace to enjoy the river scenery was a delightful morning activity.
After heavy rain at night, a rainbow emerged for a short period of time in the second morning during our stay.
The 335km long Mahaweli River is the longest river in Sri Lanka. It passes by the valley right below Villa Rosa.
The courtyard offered views to the river valley and the dense forest beyond.
In the courtyard, small lily ponds and sculptures are put together in perfect harmony.
The courtyard is a well tended garden for all guests to enjoy.
Another classical sculpture somehow goes well with the surrounding tropical vegetation.
Despite their size, the dogs were pretty friendly. The staff was helpful too. We were especially thankful that they were able to get us two reserved train tickets for from Kandy to Ella, something that had been sold out online 1.5 month prior to our arrival in the country.
One of the dogs has its own resting mat in the foyer.
The dogs play together every morning.
We had two breakfast and one dinner at the patio facing the river valley. Fruits were always served during breakfast in Sri Lanka.
For dinner, we had local prawns as one of the main dishes.
And tuna steaks for the other main dish.
Fine details at the veranda reveal some lovely touches from the owner. Staying at Villa Rosa for two nights was truly a remarkable experience.
Day 5 (3 of 3).
It was about 2.5 hour drive from Dambulla to Kandy. After settling in at our guesthouse, we hopped on a tuk tuk for Sri Dalada Maligawa, or the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. The temple is the most important attraction in Kandy and probably the most sacred Buddhist site in the country. We wanted to visit during the evening puja, the prayer session when the altar door of the gold casket that carries the Buddha’s sacred tooth would be opened for blessing. The tuk tuk dropped us right at the entrance of the temple compound, at a busy section of Kandy Road where it bends upon reaching the waterfront of Kandy Lake. After security check and a pleasant stroll through the forecourt dotted with historical memorials, we stored our shoes at the shoe booth for foreigners. At the temple entrance, we purchased some lotus flowers as offering.
Apart from its religious importance as a relic of the Buddha, the tooth relic has long been considered as the symbol of political power since the ancient times. After a war was fought in India over the possession of the tooth relic 800 years after the Buddha’s death, the tooth relic was eventually brought to Sri Lanka by Princess Hemamali. It was first housed in the Abhayagiri Vihara in Anuradhapura, then to Polonnaruwa and other cities in the nation as the capital city shifted from place to place. In late 16th century, the tooth relic arrived in Kandy. In the 17th century, it was periodically fallen in the hands of the Portuguese invaders. With the aid from the Dutch, King Rajasimha II eventually drove the Portuguese away and recovered the tooth relic. King Vira Narendra Sinha (reigned 1707 – 1739) was responsible for building the current temple that houses the sacred tooth.
We approached the temple after walking through the forecourt. Before entering, we left our shoes at the shoe storing facility.
Paththirippuwa, the octagonal pavilion built in 1802 by Sri Vickrama Rajasingha, was intended for the king to showcase the tooth relic and address the public. Since the British era, Paththirippuwa has been used as a library of the temple.
We entered the temple complex through an arch passageway full of wall paintings.
Time was still early for the puja, so we decided to visit the Royal Palace complex next to the temple first. We ventured out into Maha Maluwa, the Great Terrace dotted with statues and pavilions, as well as Magul Maduwa, the Royal Audience Hall. Looking back to the temple from Maha Maluwa, we could see the golden canopy of the main shrine.
Magul Maduwa or the Royal Audience Hall was where the king met his ministers and facilitated public audience. Built in 1783 by King Sri Vikrama Rajasinha, Magul Maduwa is supported by two rows of elegantly carved wooden pillars.
Maybe the time was late, most buildings in the Royal Palace area were closed. Before heading back to the temple, we stopped by a prayer pavilion.
Behind the main shrine we arrived at a prayer hall with a golden statue of the Buddha. The room also houses a series of paintings depicting the legend of the Sacred Tooth.
In front of the Palle Malaya or the lower level of the main shrine lies the Hewisi Mandapaya or the drummer’s platform. Beats from the Hewisi drummers marked the moment of puja, the evening prayer.
Hewisi drummers dressed in traditional costumes perform their rituals twice daily.
Visitors can walk around the richly decorated Palle Malaya (lower floor of the main shrine).
Above the main shrine is the golden canopy built in 1987, while the upper floor of the main shrine, known as Weda Hitana Maligawa, is the venue where the main worship takes place in front of the shrine of the Sacred Tooth.
The upper floor of the main shrine is known as Weda Hitana Maligawa, a beautiful timber pavilion where tourist and local worshipers wait for the opening of Handun Kunama, the main shrine that houses the Sacred Tooth.
On the upper floor, we put down our lotus flower offering on the long table and sat down at a corner to wait for the actual ceremony.
During puja, visitors are allowed to get close to Handun Kunama where the Sacred Tooth is housed.
The Handun Kunama where the Sacred Tooth is housed is covered with golden decorations.
The metal work of Handun Kunama is exquisite.
During the actual ceremony, the window of Handun Kunama was opened, allowing us who queued for quite some time to get a quick peek at the golden casket of the Sacred Tooth. After a quick peek, we left the Weda Hitana Maligawa altogether as it was getting really crowded and a little chaotic.
On the lower level, tourists and worshipers lined up for entering different shrines and display areas.
We left the temple through the same passageway we came in.
It was completely dark when we returned to the forecourt of the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic.
Day 5 (2 of 3).
We arranged a taxi from Sigiriya to Kandy, and made a stop at Dambulla to visit Sri Lanka’s largest cave temple complex. The UNESCO World Heritage site is usually visited along with Sigiriya or Kandy nearby. About 80 caves are found in Dambulla, with most of the highlights found in five caves. The 153 statues and 2,100 sq.m of murals of the Dambulla Cave Temple represent the finest example of Buddhist cave art on the island.
King Valagamba of Anuradhapura concerted earlier caves into a Buddhist temple in the 1st century BC. Later kings continued to expand the cave complex. By the 11th century, the caves had become an established religious centre on the island. This significant religious hub remains to the present. The white verandas and colonnades outside of the caves were added in 1938 as an embellishment to the two thousand year old cave temple network.
The 10 minute climb up to the rock temple prepared us spiritually for the visit.
Near the cave temple, a family of monkeys greeted all visitors with funny looks.
At the temple entrance stairway, a cat was busy chewing onto grass.
The 1938 verandas gave the ancient cave temple an elegant facade to greet visitors.
The Cave of the Divine King is dominated by the 14m long reclining Buddha.
Above the reclining Buddha, the walls and ceiling of the cave are covered with Buddhist murals.
The statue of Ananda, favourite pupil of the Buddha, stand next to the feet of the reclining Buddha.
A rather Western appearance of the 1938 veranda give the cave temple an elegant look, contributing to the fact that the cave temple is continuing to evolve as time goes by.
Reinforcement were added to the cave entrances.
Antique wooden booth inside the Cave of the Great Kings.
In Cave of the Great Kings, the largest cave of the temple, a small stupa and a “healing” spring dripping from a ceiling crack are two of the distinct features apart from the collection of statues and murals.
Every inch of the cave is covered by murals.
In this cave, King Nissanka Malla of Polonnaruwa was responsible for gilding of 50 statues in the 12th century.
Artificial lighting have been installed to replace candles from the past.
Statue of what could have been King Vattagamani Abhaya or Valagamba, the first patron of the temple.
Throughout history, these caves have been repainted over and over again.
Lighting at some of the other caves are dimmer than the Cave of the Great Kings.
We loved the tranquil atmosphere of the lotus pond, white veranda and rock caves. After checking out the caves of Dambulla, we moved on to Kandy, the last historical capital of Sri Lanka before the colonial era.
Day 5 (1 of 3).
After watching the majestic sunset from Pidurangala Rock the day before, we were excited to climb the actual Sigiriya Rock in the next morning. We get up early in order to arrive at the ticket office of Sigiriya right at 7am sharp. A short tuk tuk ride dropped us off at the gate of the archaeological park.
Reaching almost 200m above the jungle, the fortress on Sigiriya Rock was the site selected by King Kashyapa (477 – 495 AD) for his new capital. In 477AD, Kashyapa I seized the throne from King Dhatusena with a coup. His half brother and legitimated heir to the throne, Moggallana, fled to South India. Kashyapa moved the capital from Anuradhapura to Sigiriya, where he erected a city around the rock and a fortress/ palace atop the plateau. Despite the effort of fortifying Sigiriya, the eventually downfall of Kashyapa was inevitable. He was eventually defeated by Moggallana, who returned to Sri Lanka in 495AD with an Indian army. After defeating Kashyapa, Moggallana returned the capital to Anuradhapura and converted Sigiriya into a Buddhist monastery which lasted for another 800 years.
Our tuk tuk passed by the moat of the Sigiriya fortress.
After getting the admission ticket, we entered the archaeological park of the Sigiriya Rock. The short lived capital of Kashyapa lies pretty much in ruins now.
We did manage to arrive earlier than most tourist groups, and enjoyed a short moment of tranquility at the base of Sigiriya Rock.
Going through the natural triangular gateway, our 1200 steps up the rock officially began.
A few dogs greeted us at the beginning of the ascend.
At midway, we arrived at the Mirror Wall, a 3m wall covered with a glazed material that had been around for over a thousand years.
Apart from modern markings, some graffiti on the Mirror Wall date back to visitors between the 6th to 14th century. These markings remind us that marking graffiti at tourist attractions has been a thousand-year-old habit of humanity.
A spiral staircase led us to a series of small caves where the famous ancient frescos depicting a group of beautiful ladies. It is commonly believe that the depicted ladies are either celestial nymphs or the king’s concubines. No photography was allowed.
Continued onwards from the caves of frescos, we followed the only stepped path up.
The name Sīnhāgiri, or Lion Rock, came from the lion like structure of the fortress gateway at the upper platform. Two massive lion paws guard the upper fortress gateway.
Beyond the lion gate, a narrow stair allowed visitors to ascend in single file.
After some sweat and heavy breathing, we finally reached the top of Sigiriya. The plateau top is pretty much occupied entirely by the ruins of the fortress/palace.
Looking down to where we came, we could see the central axis of the entry path.
Looking across the jungle, the lush green Pidurangala reminded us of the amazing sunset.
We walked around the ruined fortress for about half an hour.
The view from the top of Sigiriya was not bad, but it was not as stunning as the view from Pidurangala Rock.
After an exhausting morning of climbing the Sigiriya Rock, we returned to the village and prepared for our departure.
We would move on to Dambulla, a transportation hub in the region which is also famous for its Buddhist cave temples.
Day 4 (3 of 3).
Anyone who has done travel research on Sri Lanka would probably come across the dramatic image of the Sigiriya Rock rising above pristine jungle. Appearing on many travel literature and tourist promotions, the UNESCO World Heritage hilltop fortress atop Sigiriya Rock is on most tourist’s itinerary. Climbing the nation’s most popular attraction is best done in early morning or late afternoon to avoid getting stuck with the crowds on the narrow stairways. We decided to visit the hilltop fortress early in the morning. In the late afternoon prior, we opted for climbing the lesser known Pidurangala Rock.
Rising in the jungle across from the famous Sigiriya, Pidurangala Rock has been gaining huge popularity in recent years because of the impressive view of Sigiriya it offers from the top. Some travelers even suggest that climbing Pidurangala is more worthwhile than visiting the actual Sigiriya Rock. After arriving at the village of Sigiriya from Polonnaruwa and had a quick lunch at Chooti Restaurant, we hopped on a tuk tuk to the trailhead for Pidurangala Rock.
A short tuk tuk ride took us to the trailhead in the midst of thick dense forest. The trailhead is actually located behind Pidurangala Rajamaha Viharaya, a historical Buddhist monastery at the foot of Pidurangala Rock.
The 20-minute hike up the rock was relatively easy. Near the top, we reached a large reclining Buddha. In fact, Pidurangala Rock has been occupied by Buddhist monastery since ancient times.
The tricky part of the hike came at the very top, when we had to scramble up boulders in order to reach the top.
All the sweat of hiking up was more than worthwhile when we saw the scenery of Sigiriya Rock right in front of us.
The top of Pidurangala Rock is an open plateau, a perfect spot to watch the sunset.
We could hardly see the fortress on Sigiriya from Pidurangala Rock.
The colour of Sigiriya gradually changed as the sun set.
Rice paddy fields beyond the dense forest.
Apart from hikers, a few small dogs wandered around the top of Pidurangala Rock.
We picked a spot to sit down among other tourists to watch the sunset.
Watching the sunset on Pidurangala was one of the most calming experiences we have had among other sunset watching locations we have been to around the world.
Like most visitors, we stayed till the sun was gone before descending.
It got pretty dark by the time we returned to Pidurangala Rajamaha Viharaya at the base of the plateau.
We exited the monastery and reunited with our tuk tuk driver, who had been waiting for us at the trailhead.
For dinner at Sigiriya village, we picked Kenoli, a restaurant recommended by quite a few travelers online.
The friendly restaurant owners invited us to check out their kitchen, and showed us their cooking techniques.
We ordered a chicken kottu, a popular Sri Lankan dish with chopped rotti and chicken meat to complete our eventful day.
Day 4 (2 of 3).
Parakramabahu I (reigned 1153–1186) is often considered as the greatest ruler of the Polonnaruwa Kingdom. Under his rule, Sri Lanka had entered a prosperous time. The ambitious king unified the island into one kingdom, expanded and beautified the capital city, constructed extensive irrigation systems, reformed the army and religious customs, and conducted in military campaigns in Burma and South India. Today, many surviving structures of Polonnaruwa, such as the Royal Palace, the circular Vatadage at the Quadrangle, the Lankatilaka Viharaya and the Buddhist statues of Gal Vihara, all could be traced back to the majestic ruler. King Nissanka Malla (reigned 1187 – 1196AD) continued the building spree of his predecessor Parakramabahu I, and spent much of the nation’s resources on construction. One of his most prominent projects was Rankoth Vehera Stupa, the largest stupa in Polonnaruwa and fourth largest in Sri Lanka. With a base diameter of 550 feet and an original height of about 200 feet, Rankoth Vehera was the skyscraper of ancient Polonnaruwa.
Our third stop in Polonnaruwa was Rankoth Vehera Stupa, the tallest structure in the ancient city.
Similar to the stupas in Anuradhapura, small shrines known as vahalkada were constructed at the four cardinal axes of Rankoth Vehera Stupa for offerings of worshipers.
Completed in 1190AD, the Rankoth Vehera Stupa was constructed in a similar style as Ruwanwelisaya in Anuradhapura, which was built over 1000 years prior.
An beautiful tree at the base of Rankoth Vehera Stupa provides a great spot for worshiper group to gather and perform Buddhist chanting.
Around Kiri Vehera, smaller stupas were also constructed as burial place for royalties and high priests.
On our way to Lankatilaka Monastery, the fourth highlight of Polonnaruwa, we passed by Kiri Vehera, the second tallest stupa in the ancient city. Kiri Vehera is believed to be built by King Parakramabahu the Great (1153-1186 A.D.) in memory of his Queen Subhadra.
Then we arrived at Lankatilaka Image House or Lankatilaka Vihara, the largest image house in Polonnaruwa. Unlike traditional stupas, the building focused on presenting the religious image, a large standing statue of the Buddha. Two tall pillars frame the entrance of the building. The original pillars were thought to be two times the existing height. The building was part of the Alahana Pirivena Monastery complex erected by King Parakramabahu 1 (1153-1186).
Two beautiful guard stones mark the entrance of Lankatilaka.
According to some accounts, the building was originally five storey high, while the statue was 41 feet tall. The entire structure, including the main Buddha statue, was made from clay bricks.
Near Lankatilaka, we passed by an impressive pool in the Alahana Pirivena complex. This pool was part of a larger bathing and water storing network.
Gal Vihara, the impressive rock temple featuring four Buddha relief statues carved from a single piece of granite rock, was our last stop at Polonnaruwa. 15 feet of rock was carved away to create the surface where the statues were carved.
The statues at Gal Vihara are considered some of the best ancient Sinhalese sculpting art.
Some believe that the 22’-9” standing statue was not depicting the Buddha, but instead monk Ananda with a sorrowful look standing adjacent to the reclining Buddha at his deathbed.
The 46’-4” reclining statue depicting the parinirvana of the Buddha is the largest statue in Gal Vihara.
The Gal Vihara marked the end of our brief visit of Polonnaruwa by car. Ideally if we had more time, we would spend more time walking or cycling around the archaeological park to fully appreciate the scale, planning characteristics and other highlights of the ancient capital.
Day 4 (1of 3).
100km southeast of Anuradhapura stands the ruins of Sri Lanka’s second ancient capital, Polonnaruwa. For two hundred years, Polonnaruwa served as the centre of the nation after Anuradhapura was sacked by the invading Chola Kingdom from Southern India in the 10th century. The Chola Tamils destroyed Buddhist monuments and monasteries, and established a new capital in Polonnaruwa. In 1070AD, Vijayabahu I of Ruhuna Kingdom (southeast of the island) drove the Chola out, unified the country, and established the second major Sinhalese kingdom and restored Buddhism as the national religion. Polonnaruwa flourished as the most important medieval city in Sri Lanka until the 13th century when the island was again invaded by the Tamil Pandya Dynasty from India.
Today, the archaeological ground of Polonnaruwa is a popular tourist destination in the Cultural Triangle (marked by Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Kandy), the region on the island dotted with ancient capitals and World Heritage sites. To save time, we hired a private car from Anuradhapura to Sigiriya, with a detour to Polonnaruwa. At Polonnaruwa, our driver took us first to the visitor centre for the admission tickets and a brief visit to the museum, before driving us to the five highlights in the archaeological park: Royal Palace, Quadrangle, Rankot Vihara Stupa, Lankatilaka Monastery and the Buddha statues of Gal Vihara.
Built by Parakramabahu I (reigned 1153-1186 ) in the 12th century, the Royal Palace was once seven storey tall in its heyday.
The Royal Palace of King Parakumba was said to contain 1000 rooms. Now only a few dozens remain.
Much of the crumbling ruins is covered with lush green moss.
The Royal Bathing pool (Kumara Pokuna) near the Royal Palace was a delightful treat for visitors.
Built by Parakramabahu I (reigned 1153-1186 ), water would enter the pool through the two dragon mouths, and could be drained out after use.
The Audience Hall of the Royal Palace is another feature at the Royal Palace.
The Audience Hall is famous for the frieze of elephants, each has a unique pose.
Two stone lions guard the entrance of the Audience Hall.
The stone pillars of the Audience Hall have some amazing details.
The second highlight we visited at Polonnaruwa was the Quadrangle. On a raised platform, Quadrangle encompasses a cluster of religious structures erected by different rulers of Polonnaruwa. Atadage is the oldest building among them all. Built by King Vijayabahu the Great (1055 – 1110), Atadage is believed to house the Relic of the Tooth of Buddha. Adjacent to Atadage, Hatadage built by King Nissanka Malla (1187 – 1196) was also a shrine for the Relic of the Tooth of Buddha.
Built by King Nissanka Malla (1187-1196), Nissanka Latha Mandapaya is an interesting structure with unique columns and a small stone stupa. The building was used for the king to listen to Buddhist chanting.
Built by Parakramabahu I to house the Relic of the Tooth of the Buddha, or by King Nissanka Malla to hold Buddha’s alms bowl, Vatadage was an essential structure at the Quadrangle.
Because of its circular form and well preserved carving details, Vatadage is also the most famous building in Polonnaruwa.
Vatadage has two stone platforms and a small stone stupa atop. Steps and statues were constructed at the four cardinal directions. Stone pillars suggest that a wooden roof might have once covered the circular structure.
Monkeys are everywhere in Sri Lanka.
At all temples or ruins, including Vatadage, tourists would be reminded that taking selfies with their backs toward the statue of the Buddha is prohibited.
Completely built with bricks, Thuparama is about 84 ft long and 56 ft wide. Its brick walls are about 7 ft thick.
Inside Thuparama, the central seating Buddha statue was long gone. Yet the adjacent limestone statues survive till the present day.
Day 3 (4 of 4).
Mirisawetiya Stupa was just five minute walk away from our hotel Sanctuary at Tissawewa. As we left the ruins of Abhayagiri Monastery, it was still a little early for supper, so we decided to check out Mirisawetiya Stupa before sunset. The road leading to the stupa was decorated with colourful Buddhist banners and flags. Large group of people, some dressed in traditional costumes, gathered at the entrance parking lot. Red carpet was laid on the ground leading into the forecourt of the stupa. We were excited to see the scene, despite we couldn’t figure out exactly what was going on. We figured that there must be a certain kind of religious ceremony taking place. And so we followed the red carpet, took off our shoes at the forecourt, and entered the stupa complex.
It was still too early to call it a day, so we asked the tuk tuk driver to drop us off at Mirisawetiya Stupa.
A long red carpet led us into the stupa forecourt. A large TV screen was broadcasting the speech of a monk.
The vivid Buddhist colours and traditional costumes stand out extremely well from the white wash stupa.
The costume looks like to be some kind of ceremonial costumes.
Shrines at the Mirisawetiya Stupa was full of offerings.
Monks also gathered at the stupa with their offerings.
Crowds sat down at various locations around the stupa.
A parade of ceremonial procession walked right by us.
Followed by a number of people dressed in white.
Because of the crowds and security control, we could not move freely around the stupa.
We stayed with a group of worshipers for a while.
And admired the stunning Mirisawetiya Stupa below the setting sun.
Unfortunately we didn’t understand the language so we didn’t stay for long at the scene.
Later at night, we found out that the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka came to Mirisawetiya Stupa for a visit. What we saw was part of the ceremony associated with his visit.
Due to the close distance, we could still hear the speakers of Mirisawetiya‘s ceremony from our hotel until late at night. The event perhaps gave us an insight on how a Buddhist event might have look like in Anuradhapura over a millennia ago. The next day we would move on to Polonnaruwa and then Sigiriya, two other popular attractions in the Cultural Triangle.
Day 3 (3 of 4).
From 399 to 414AD, Chinese monk Faxian traveled to India and Sri Lanka in search for Buddhist scriptures. In his travelogue A Record of Buddhist Kingdoms, he documented the places he visited in his journey, including Anuradhapura where he stayed briefly in 412AD. Faxian gave the following account on Abhayagiri, the largest Buddhist monastery in Anuradhapura: “A monastery, called the Abhayagiri, where there are five thousand monks. There is in it a hall of Buddha, adorned with carved and inlaid works of gold and silver, and rich in the seven precious substances, in which there is an image (of Buddha) in green jade, more than twenty cubits in height, glittering all over with those substances, and having an appearance of solemn dignity which words cannot express. In the palm of the right hand there is a priceless pearl…”
Founded in the 2nd century BC, Abhayagiri Vihara was once a world renowned Buddhist monastery and learning institution attracting monks from all over Sri Lanka and surrounding countries including Java, Burma and India. In the 4th century, the Buddha’s tooth relic was brought to Sri Lanka from India. Abhayagiri was selected as the shrine and designated venue to showcase this precious relic in public veneration. Supported by different rulers, Abhayagiri continued to serve as the main hub of Mahayana, Theravada and Vajrayana Buddhism until the 12th century, when Anuradhapura was sacked and abandoned, and the national capital was moved to Polonnaruwa. The magnificent monastery fell into ruins for 800 years until late 19th century and early 20th century when excavation and restoration work began. Today, Abhayagiri has become one of the largest clusters of ancient ruins in Sri Lanka, where gigantic stupa, stone pools, brick walls, foundations of multi storey buildings, and exquisite stone carvings in the midst of lush green jungle reveal the bygone glory of Anuradhapura two millennia ago.
After lunch at Sanctuary at Tissawewa, we hopped on a tuk tuk for Abhayagiri Dagoba, the largest monument in the monastery vicinity.
Although not as crowded as Ruwanwelisaya and Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi, Abhayagiri Dagoba is popular among local worshipers.
Believed to reach a height of 115m, Abhayagiri Dagoba was once the fourth tallest monument in the classical period, behind the Egyptian Pyramids in Giza and the Jethawanaramaya Dagoba.
The shrine in front of the stupa houses a reclining Buddha.
Abhayagiri Dagoba just went through a 15-year restoration at 2015 as a UNESCO project.
Devoted worshiper praying at the stupa.
The majestic stupa was the main focus of the entire Abhayagiri Vihara Monastery.
A group of Western Buddhists sat down and listen to the teaching of their mentor.
Another highlight at Abhayagiri Vihara is the ruins of Pancavasa palace hidden in the woods.
The Pancavasa was famous for its exquisite carvings.
Interesting carvings of Buddhist guardians at Pancavasa.
All these exquisite carvings are not the reason why tourists flock into the woods in search for the ruins of Pancavasa.
All tourists come here for one thing, the moonstone carving on the ground.
Moonstone is a unique architectural feature in Sri Lanka. It usually appears as a base landing at a set of steps. Moonstones symbolize samsara, the endless cycle of reincarnation and the path to nirvana. Each ring of animals represents a successive phase of one’s passage through samsara.
The last thing we checked out in the monastery area was the Samadhi Buddha Statue. The statues is believed to be part of a sacred Bodhi tree shrine.
The 7′-3″ Samadhi Buddha Statue was carved out from a dolomite marble. Sculpted in around the 5th century, the statue is considered one of the nation’s finest.