Thursday, 30 July 2015

Madness on Adam's Peak

Near the village of Dalhousie in the Sri Lankan hill country is a lofty mountain that soars to 2,243m has sparked the imagination of pilgrims here for centuries.  It is variously known as Adam’s Peak (the place where Adam first set foot on earth after being cast out of heaven) Sri Pada (sacred footprint left by the Buddha as he headed towards paradise) or Samanalakande (meaning Butterfly Mountain).

The path up Adam's Peak

The idea of climbing Adam’s Peak is to hike through the early hours of the morning and reach the summit just before sunrise.  This is the fourth time I’ve done a predawn hike so I’m familiar with the idea but wasn’t quite prepared for what this particular day would bring!  Climbing the 5,200 steps to the top takes between 2.5 and 4 hours, depending on how quickly you walk and how many rest stops you make.  I decided that leaving about 3.30am would get me to the top in good time because I didn’t want to arrive too early and stand around getting cold.  I also rather like sleeping at night.

The path is well illuminated by street lamps and tea shops that seem to stay open all night.  I passed many people along the way and everything was going fine for the first two thirds of the way.  It was then that I caught up to the mass of people who had started earlier and progress was badly hindered.  Then I literally ground to a halt behind the massive line of people.  So there we all were – unable to move in any direction.  For some reason a trickle of people were coming down the mountain but most were waiting in vain to ascend.

The painfully slow push to the top!

Slowly and painfully we moved forward.  The idea of getting to the top for sunrise was gone – it was now a question of whether I’d get to the top at all!  It was a circus and I honestly couldn’t believe how many people were on that mountain.  There must have been thousands.  Shortly after daybreak I passed a couple of tourists coming down.  They told me they were giving up and suggested I do likewise.  But I’m not that easily beaten and kept going even though the reality suggested only a slim hope of getting to the top and down again in a reasonable time.

Fortunately I had some luck in finding an alternative route that relatively few people were using.  It detoured around the summit and joined with another path that also led up the peak.  I could suddenly throw off the shackles and walk at full pace again!  At 7am I joined the throngs of people at the temple on top of Adam’s Peak.  It would have been an exciting feeling anyway but after all the problems and uncertainty, being able to take in the stunning vista was really exhilarating. 

The perfect triangle shadow of Adam's Peak

The best part of the panorama was seeing the perfect triangle shadow that the mountain throws onto hills below.  As the sun rises, this shadow retracts back towards the peak and eventually disappears into the base.  I didn’t wait for that to happen because the sun was already starting to heat the day and I had the long hike down to complete yet.  It’s for that reason that I didn’t join the huge line to enter the temple where people go to worship the sacred footprint.  I was quite content with just getting to the top!

On the way down I passed a tourist waiting in line.  It was 8am and she had started walking at 1am.  I estimate that from where she was it would have taken another two hours to reach the temple.  Nine hours in total!  Back in my guesthouse I talked to a group of three who had failed to make it so relatively speaking my day had gone very well indeed.  The hike down in the morning sun passes some pretty sights that were previously obscured by the darkness.  There is an ornate stone entrance arch, Japanese friendship pagoda, a waterfall and of course majestic views looking back at the mountain itself.  

Japan-Sri Lanka Friendship Stupa

After a refreshing shower and some breakfast, I was on a bus back to Hatton and on to the town of Nuwara Eliya.  This is a journey where you can really appreciate that travel is slow in Sri Lanka.  The jade green hill country doesn’t cease to capture the imagination with its serene beauty.  The area overlooking the crystalline Castlereigh Reservoir is just gorgeous.  Nuwara Eliya sits at an altitude of about 1,900 metres and it’s a spectacular climb up a winding road past various vegetable market stalls.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Three Temple Loop

I spent a full day exploring what is known as the ‘Temple Loop’ to the southwest of Kandy.  This area starts at the Botanical Gardens about 6km from the city.  When I arrived I was reminded of a girl I met in Myanmar who lamented the fact that everything in Sri Lanka has doubled in price.  I understood on this day exactly what she was talking about.  The cost of everything I wanted to visit was twice what it was four years prior and it irked me because it is only the tourists who have to pay these inflated prices.  Locals get in for little or nothing.

Kandy Botanical Gardens

Anyway, that aside the gardens are the biggest in Sri Lanka and are superb.  They are surrounded by a river on three sides and cover an area of 60 hectares.  It’s in various sections with good signage along the way.  From there I got a bus to a small village to the south and began a 10km hike through narrow country roads that led past three temples.  The main interest of these temples is their fusion of the Hindu and Buddhist faiths but the insight into Sri Lankan culture and rural life was equally good.

Embekke Devale, renowned for it's wooden carvings

In fact, fed up with the increase in prices I decided not to go into any of the temples.  One of them had actually trebled in price so I was quite content with admiring them from the outside.  I’ve visited so many temples on this trip alone that I really didn’t feel I was missing much.  Instead, I enjoyed the pretty scenery of lush green plants, paddy fields, coconut palms and banana trees while also observing the daily life of the friendly people I encountered along the way.

Before I left I paid a visit to the National Museum (I’m not sure how the country comes to have two ‘National’ museums) which had a relatively small, but has a fine array of exhibits of royal regalia and reminders of life before the Europeans arrived.  I was then on a bus to the small village of Dalhousie.  I had to change buses in a town called Hatton and the second part of my journey was exceptionally pretty.  The Sri Lankan hill country is a symphony of green made up of tea plantations, banana palms, lush bush and sub-alpine trees.

Meeting the locals on the Temple Loop

Dalhousie sits at the base of Adam’s Peak and is where pilgrims and tourists stay before climbing to the top.  As my bus negotiated its way along narrow winding roads I noticed a few spots of rain starting to fall.  When we actually arrived it was pouring!  All I could do was run from the bus to the shelter of a nearby shop and wait.  Once I’d composed myself I noticed how many people were in town.  It was Saturday and Sri Lankans had come in their droves.  As I waited for the rain to ease I watched a man selling ponchos and umbrellas.  He’d never had it so good!

The lofty mountain that soars to 2,243m has sparked the imagination of pilgrims here for centuries.  It is variously known as Adam’s Peak (the place where Adam first set foot on earth after being cast out of heaven) Sri Pada (sacred footprint left by the Buddha as he headed towards paradise) or Samanalakande (meaning Butterfly Mountain).  Some even believe that the huge ‘footprint’ that crowns the peak to be that of St Thomas who I wrote about previously.  Reaching the summit of this peak would prove to be one heck of an adventure...

Thursday, 16 July 2015


My second destination in Sri Lanka was the lovely city of Kandy which served as the capital of the last Sinhalese kingdom until it fell to the British in 1815.  It is in what is referred to as the Hill Country and sits at about 500 metres above sea level.  This makes the climate more comfortable and relaxed than Colombo.  Kandy is set around a lake of the same name and spreads into the surrounding hills.  If you can afford it, there are some nice places to stay with beautiful views.  

Kandy Lake

Walking around the lake and stopping to visit a Buddhist monastery along the way took about an hour after which I walked up a hill to the British Garrison Cemetery.  This well-kept graveyard contains 163 graves and it was interesting reading some of the tombstones.  Deaths in 19th century Sri Lanka were caused amongst other things by sunstroke, cholera, jungle fever and even an elephant.  One gentleman survived the battle of Waterloo but later succumbed to mosquitoes.

The luck that deserted me in finding accommodation in Colombo thankfully returned in Kandy.  I stayed at the Old Empire Hotel which actually has as much colonial charm as the name implies.  It is also in a perfect location to visit the main attractions of the city.  It’s adjacent to the National Museum, lake and the extraordinary Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic.  This is Sri Lanka’s most important Buddhist site and followers of the faith believe they must make at least one pilgrimage to the temple in their lifetime because worshipping here apparently improves karma immeasurably.

Elephant walking from St Paul's Anglican Church

Understanding its importance requires some knowledge of its history.  A tooth is said to have been snatched from the flames of the Buddha’s funeral pyre in 483 BC and smuggled into Sri Lanka sometime during the 4th century AD.  It was moved around the country and even carried back to India by an invading army in 1283 but retrieved by the king of that era.  The relic became so important that it grew to become a symbol of sovereignty.  In other words, it was believed that whoever had custody of the tooth had the right to rule the island.

In the 16th century the Portuguese seized the tooth and with their devout Catholic passion, burnt it in Goa.  Or so they thought.  Apparently they had stolen a replica and the real tooth remained safe.  The temple itself dates back to 1687 and was originally part of a royal palace, complete with a moat around it.  In 1998 a section of the temple was badly damaged after a bomb blast and although this has been fully repaired security is tight and no-one enters without being thoroughly screened.

Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic

I timed my visit to the temple to coincide with the evening puja (offering or prayer).  It’s at this time that the well-guarded room housing the tooth is open to devotees and tourists.  But here’s the thing: you never get to see the tooth.  You join a long line and file past for a glimpse of a stupa-shaped gold casket draped in necklaces.  Apparently the tooth is in that but there are rumours that the real tooth is hidden in a secret location and what is in the temple is only a replica!

I couldn’t help thinking about that as devotees poured into the temple with offerings of lotus flowers and prayers.  People were almost climbing over each other to get a photo of the gold casket.  Others were sitting around the walls in silent mediation.  I presume for some of them it was the zenith of their spiritual lives and I wondered how they’d feel if it became evident they weren’t worshipping anything genuine.  It would be like Milli Vanilli all over again!

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Sightseeing in Colombo

After my accommodation woes, I fortunately managed to get a room at the YMCA.  It wasn’t flash but it was clean and a reasonable price.  It’s an old building and the bathrooms have a waft to them but in fairness, they are in the process of renovations and improvements.  It’s a work in progress and when water started dripping into my room during heavy rain the second night I realised there is still quite a bit to do!

Accommodation woes aside, Colombo isn’t one of my favourite cities but it did have a few highlights.  I stayed in the Fort area which is named as such after the British built breakwaters and a fort there.  No remnants of this structure remain today though.  Instead, sightseeing in this part of the city is done at a handful of churches, mosques and Hindu temples.  Sri Lanka seems to be a more religiously balanced country that isn’t deeply rooted in Hinduism like India is.  Buddhism in particular seems to have a very strong presence here.

Breakwater of the old Colombo fort

The 1749 Wolvendaal Church is the most important Dutch building in the country.  It was so named because the Europeans mistook packs of roaming jackals in the nearby wilderness for wolves.  Hence the name translates to English as ‘Wolves Dale’.  I found this amusing because it reminded me of my visit to Rottnest Island off the coast of Perth in Western Australia.  This was also discovered and named by the Dutch.  The name in English is ‘Rats Nest’ because they mistook the resident quokkas that live there for large rats!

Another interesting church I visited was St Anthony’s.  At a glance, it looks like a typical Portuguese Catholic church but inside it is distinctly subcontinental.  Devotees pray in front of a dozen ornate statues in glass cases and the larger one of St Anthony himself is reputed to be endowed with miraculous qualities.  Mothers often bring their teenage daughters here to pray that evil spirits won’t take advantage of their girls’ pending sexuality.

Wolvendaal Church

In the narrow old streets immediately inland from the Fort area is the bustling market of Pettah.  It may seem chaotic and with crowds of near Biblical proportions during rush hour, it probably is.  However, in the chaos there is actually a degree of organisation because each thoroughfare has its own specialty.  So it’s actually quite easy if you know what you need and where to find it.  If you’re just there for a look then hold on to your hat and enjoy the ride!

Going south from the Fort area is a large oceanfront lawn area called Galle Face Green which makes for a pleasant walk.  Going inland is the suburb called Cinnamon Gardens which, as the name suggests, is a nice area and home to some of Colombo’s most exclusive addresses.  It is also where the largest city park, National Museum, art gallery, theatre, town hall, cricket stadium and university are.  I spent the best part of a day exploring this area which was an enjoyable change from where I was staying.

South Beira Lake, Cinnamon Gardens

South Beira Lake is also in Cinnamon Gardens and has a Buddhist mediation centre beside it.  A short walk from here is what I thought was the best tourist attraction in Colombo: the extraordinary Gangaramaya Temple.  Inside the temple is a stunning array of huge colourful images of Buddha and beautifully painted walls and ceiling.  For a donation that goes to handicapped children, I visited the museum which is an amazingly diverse and priceless collection of gifts that have been presented to the temple by worshippers over the years.  There were ivory carvings, porcelain and ceramic items, jewellery, bronze and gold Buddha statues, paintings and coins.  It was actually like being in a fabulous antique shop instead of a museum!

The National Museum is one of the must-see sights of the city.  Inside, there are numerous displays featuring carvings, artwork, weapons, coins, sculptures and other artefacts from the colonial period.  There was also a wealth of information to read with most having English translation.  On the other hand, the National Art Gallery as it is called is something of a joke.  Unless I missed something, there is one room containing a random selection of paintings and that’s it.  Less than ten minutes and I was gone again.

Sri Lanka National Museum

I finished my time in Colombo in the area called Mt Lavinia, which is oddly named considering it is a beachside suburb and nowhere even close to a mountain.  It is 11km south from Fort but still well within the urban sprawl of this huge city.  In the muggy climate I was tempted to have a swim but the water wasn’t very clean.  So I relaxed with a drink for a while until the overcast skies started to give way to a shower of rain.  Instead of seeking shelter I walked and enjoyed the feeling after so many hot, dusty days.  It was refreshing and nice listening to it on the roof that night.