Thursday, 9 February 2012

Days 157 to 159: Sigiriya and Three Days In Sri Lanka

A few months back, Burness and I were planning the best route from southern India to Beijing. The land between India and China border is closed, and any land border in the vicinity (Pakistan or Nepal) worked out as more trouble than it was worth. By air, therefore, was the obvious solution. I spent many hours poring over flight website favourites and and came up with a surprising, but very pleasing answer. For a little over £200, we could go from Mumbai to Beijing, with a stopover in Sri Lanka. We opted for a couple of days there. All of a sudden, we'd gained ourselves some bonus time in Sri Lanka at no extra cost.

This in itself was pleasing. I've heard plenty of good things about Sri Lanka, mostly focussing on its abundance of natural beauty, but of more direct interest to me, a fair amount on its history and legacy of ancient buildings and ruins. Of most relevance to my current quest for Wonders was the ruins known as Sigiriya ("Lion Rock"). During my pre-travel trawlings to find candidate Wonders to add to my list, Sigiriya cropped up on more occasion. Set atop a gigantic rock formation looking like a single massive boulder are the ruins of either a monastery or palace (depending on who you wish to believe). The setting is spectacular - the rock has sheer faces and there is wonder in spades at how on earth they got the substantial amounts of building materials to the top. It is a fascinating and visually arresting sight. But ultimately, I didn't add it to my list for two reasons: I felt the ruins were simply too ruined, being little left besides the foundations; and the sense of magnificence came from the natural setting rather than the man-made efforts. Was I to be proved right? Well, perhaps. Maybe. Kind of.

The catch with our cheap flight to Beijing, via Sri Lanka's capital Colombo, was the 3.20am to 5.40am flying time, somewhat on the side of anti-social. Burness and I had managed a few hours of pre-flight sleep in Mumbai, but by the time we'd made our way to Colombo train station and waited a few hours for the next available train to the scenic city of Kandy, we were a little fatigued. And by the time we'd walked around, checked out various hotels before settling on a guesthouse a fair way up a hill, all in pretty humid conditions, we were in dire need of some sleep. This we got, and by late afternoon we were much more refreshed and ready to venture round Kandy. We were pretty disappointed.

We'd opted to stay in Kandy because of some good reviews online and decent Lonely Planet write-up, but my research had been paper-thin and the Lonely Planet dated from 2006. A city of around 100,000, descriptions all mentioned it being scenic and filled with history, with highlights being the lake it was all centred around and the holy Buddhist site, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, by its side. It also would serve as an excellent base for a day-trip to Sigiriya, only a few hours away. What I hadn't reckoned on, based upon our first wander than afternoon, was that circumnavigating the lake would be a busy road filled with noisy buses and auto-rickshaws successfully destroying the potential peace, and that anywhere near the temple would be touts trying to make your acquaintance and sell you marijuana. Drug possession, as an airport notice had reminded us, has a death sentence in Sri Lanka, and so with the multitude of police in the area, we didn't enquire as to the price as it certainly wouldn't be worth the ultimate cost.

Also affecting our initial impressions was the fact that it was a Full Moon Day and a national Buddhist holiday. This meant lots of chanting but also a ban of selling booze. Naturally, Burness with his astonishing instincts, almost immediately located somewhere that sold beer in discreet teapots, but we had to drink it at the venue and couldn't take any back to our room.

Day 2 of our three in Sri Lanka was Sigiriya day. Up early, we meandered down to Kandy's utterly mental bus station. A mass of tin can buses and auto-rickshaws weaving between them, there appears to be no timetable or office in existence, but on this morning serendipity was on our side and virtually the first bus we encountered was the only daily direct bus to Sigiriya. It was 7.28am; the bus left at 7.30am. I wouldn't describe the journey as comfortable but my rear end numbness had not reached extreme levels by the time we arrived, somewhere before 11am. After an early lunch and some hassle from an annoying family of stray dogs (the lady running the restaurant chucked a broom at them which worked a treat) we began the approach.

There is no doubt that Sigiriya makes an excellent first impression. The giant rock is an unmistakeable feature against the flat surroundings, looking improbable and out of place. Indeed, there is no sign of the ruins at all until much closer, reinforcing that the wonder of this landmark is all about the natural rather than the man-made. Only upon reaching a large pool of water followed by another one do you realise that you have in fact just encountered the inner and outer moats, still functioning 1500 years on. I'm not sure how much restoration had been done, but the inner moat especially looks in great shape, still retaining its defensive function many years on - these days to keep the tourists from getting in for free.

And at the astonishing £20 entry free, I wouldn't blame them. Bloody hell, this would be steep by Western standards, by Asian ones it is outrageous, and the only real let-down of Sigiriya. The cost is significantly less for Sri Lankans, but is twice that of any other site I've been to in Asia, including Angkor and the Taj Mahal. The elaborate ticket might come with a mini-DVD - woohoo - but for that price I'd at least expect a map, a short explanatory history, a bottle of water and a biscuit, and a small jetpack.

Price aside, Sigiriya impresses from the moment the moat is crossed and the site entered. All the time with the giant rock looming ahead, the gardens are pleasant to walk among. Not being a chosen Wonder of mine, I'd not done anything in the way of research into this, so anything I might say upon the site's history is a regurgitation of what I read there and from the 2006 Lonely Planet. And that would be that it used to be a king's palace with great gardens and water features. Perhaps. That would be the impression very much got from visiting the site, but according to the Lonely Planet, this is entirely based on local legend. Actual evidence points to it being a monastery, albeit a large and important one. The lack of concrete evidence is supported by what remains - mere brick foundations giving an indication of floorplan and little else. Without a massive rock next door, these would be of archaeological interest only.

It's as we grew closer to the rock that things became more interesting, from the man-made perspective. Although a world smaller, there are a lot of fairly large rocks scattered around - I'm taking bus-size or thereabouts. And the brick foundations are built around these, obviously at one time incorporating the natural features into the construction. Suddenly the image of an ancient complex becomes more real, with large rocks built into the sides of buildings, and well-manicured lawns and ponds in patterns around them. Ruins now, but surely once of considerable wonder back then.

The ascent followed. Stone steps (surely heavily restored) lead to a metal spiral stairway, and into a niche midway up the rock, into which ancient cave paintings of semi-naked buxom ladies are adorned. Burness was particularly excited about this. Local legend - again I defer to the Lonely Planet - has it that these were paintings of the king's maidens, whereas real evidence suggest these are Buddhist monk paintings of divine feminine beings. Personally, given the very buxom nature of these ladies, I think they are more symptomatic of a bunch of celibate men hanging around on a big rock for too long. "Brother, I'm just going down to the secret cave to study these divine beings for a while. Please, I ask you for half an hour for my private meditations."

Sigiriya's best is saved for last, or nearly last. A little bit after the naked lady cave, upon a descent and further ascent, this time to a small plateau to one side of the rock, midway up, is a gigantic pair of lion's paws, carved into stone. They are huge, and are either side of the stairway that leads to the top of the rock. Impressive in their own right, I read that they were once part of a much larger sculpture, into which the stairway ran, emerging from the lion's mouth. Sadly, none of this remains any longer, and strangely the Sigiriya museum doesn't mention it all, but if it ever existed it would have been a remarkable sight.

Finally, the real reason to visit Sigiriya - the top. Not having done any reading prior, I wasn't even sure if it was possible to get to the top or if there was any construction on it. Well, you can and there is. Exercising patience behind a slow queue of fatties and oldies, Burness and I reached the top of Sigiriya and admired the excellent forest and jungle views all around. Lots of flat, lush land, with various mountains and large rocks punctuating it. And on the rock itself, the ancient ruins of what was either a palace or a monastery, now levelled to mere foundations but once very obviously a sight to behold.

In the end, I feel my decision not to add Sigiriya to my list was a justified one - it is too ruined to be a Wonder these days. In its time it very certainly would have been up there, but brick foundations are too little to really be amazed by. But at the same time, Sigiriya, based upon my single visit without research (thus in contrast to my usual approach) is better than a lot I've seen so far. Upper mid-table? I'm not sure. The obvious comparison for me is the as-yet-unvisited Macchu Pichu. Like Sigiriya, these are ruins in a spectacular setting. Remove either of the surroundings, and the wonder is removed. Our focus is not so much on the architectural splendour of the man-made edifices, rather their position in the world. But context is important, surroundings can define a monument. As with Sigiriya, on top of a giant rock; as with Machu Picchu, on top of a mountain. Taken from this perspective, perhaps Sigiriya does have some claim to at least having been a candidate. It may be ruins, it may have seen better days, but its mere ruined existence is enough to inspire awe, to inspire a degree of wonder - how did they do that?

In the end, I feel I paid Sigiriya the ultimate accolade I can afford to a Wonder - I purchased a small miniature model of it, a charming stone thing for £7. Although its inclusion wouldn't have threatened the high flyers of my current Wonders list, it definitely deserves an honorary position an an Unofficial Wonder, along with some of the other Angkor temples and Prambanan in Indonesia. A must-see if you happen to be flying from India to China.

Following our visit, Burness and I made our way back to Kandy on another arse-numbing bus journey, with a few beers later counter-numbing the pain. We managed a decent sleep, having killed several mosquitoes filled with our blood from the night before, and this time using the mosquito net. This brings us on to today. I write on the train from Kandy to Colombo, after a morning getting a little more to grips with Kandy. Weather has a significant impact upon impression, and the previous two days' weather was overcast and rainy. Today in Kandy was glorious sunshine. Suddenly Kandy sparkled, the lake shone, and the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic beamed by its side. Naturally, we had to pay a visit. Our conclusion - inessential. Unless you're particularly keen on Buddhist shrines, it's not very interesting. At least it's £6 rather than £20 to get into, and has a free audio tour, but it's simply not interesting to the casual tourist. If you're a Buddhist scholar or patriotic Sri Lankan (you get in for much cheaper) or an aficionado of incredibly dull audio tours then you'll love it. If you have genetic or cultural make-up more similar to myself, you'll not. The highlight of the whole experience was Burness having to wear a sarong, as his short trousers were inappropriate.

Nonetheless, the appeal of Kandy grew today, and with plenty of sights in the vicinity it would be a good holiday location, as confirmed by the large numbers of tourists around. And if the city planners could find a way to reroute the ton of traffic that rings the lake then we might even have somewhere that could be called charming.

Anyway, hello and goodbye to Sri Lanka, just a brief taster but a sweet little one at that, as soon I'll be flying to Beijing. Where after months of their blight, I can enjoy a mosquito-free existence, as well as the joy of a bitterly cold northern China in winter. Let's hope my £10 jacket from Primark, as delivered to me by Danielle, is up to the task.


  1. You forgot the Runaveliya and the Abhayagiri in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. They are true Wonders.

  2. You're right. I really need to go back and spend more time in Sri Lanka - this was just a very fleeting visit.


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