Day six: Sigiriya ancient rock fortress/cultural village tour
After a delicious breakfast at the hotel, you will travel towards Dambulla city, which is the central point of the cultural triangle in the country. Enroute you may visit the Millennium Elephant Centre, originally founded in order to protect and look after the wild elephants found wandering in and around the forests of Sri Lanka. Here they are treated before being released back in the jungle. It is a place where you may have the opportunity to feed baby elephants and perhaps you’ll give them a bath at the nearby river.
Upon arrival in Dambulla you’ll experience a bullock cart ride in theare beautiful countryside. The bullock cart is one of the most ancient and prime transportation systems in Sri Lanka and nowadays it’s still used in some villages. In addition to that, you will have the opportunity to visit green paddy fields and to enjoy amazing views in the Habarana area. While on the tour, you will have a fifteen minute canoeing ride across the lake and finally you will reach the farmer’s house, where you will experience the typical Sri Lankan hospitality and visit his farm. Moreover you will get to know the different types of cultivation methods.
In the evening you will visit Sigiriya Lion Rock, where you may capture the beautiful scenery of the sun setting. Sigiriya is an ancient rock fortress located near the town of Dambulla. King Kasyapa (477-495 BC) built his palace on the top of the rock and decorated its sides with colourful frescoes. Sigiriya today is a UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITE and it is one of the best-preserved examples of ancient civilisation. Sigiriya refuses to reveal its secrets easily; in fact you have to climb a series of vertiginous staircases to reach the top. On the way you’ll pass quite remarkable frescoes and a pair of colossal lion paws carved into the bedrock.
We decide to visit Sigiriya Lion Rock first thing in the morning to try to beat the heat. Our journey from the hotel is slowed due to the crazy unsealed road. Today, children ride their bikes past us, meeting us again at the intersection where the short concrete causeway provides a crossing across the narrow creek, and wave at us. We are travelling slowly enough for me to capture photos of workers in the paddy fields. Before long, we arrive at the site of the Sigiriya Lion Rock. As we enter the site and make out way to the museum to purchase tickets, we are overwhelmed by the number of ‘official’ tour guides, who offer to accompany us to the top of the rock. We refuse. This is our BIGGEST mistake of the day, but our driver should have advised us to employ the local tour guide. This mistake will come back to haunt us over and over during our visit to the site.
Sigiriya is a rocky outcrop, which rises from the central plains. Its almost vertical walls end in a flat-topped summit on which the ruins of an ancient civilisation. After the 14th century, the site was abandoned and remained ‘lost’ for several hundred years until it was rediscovered in 1898 by British archaeologist, HCP Bell. They were then further excavated in 1907. This was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1982.
We enter the gardens that extend from the museum to the base of the rock. Some excavations reveal an elaborate garden, which includes a series of small pools and pavilions. These are formally laid out, and probably had been renovated and improved over the centuries. The remains that are here today display the intricate design of the gardens and in my imagination, I can picture water splashing from fountains then flowing through the pools. Steps lead down into spaces that were once pools, whilst trees on the flat ground level provide shade.
The sun is making its way up through the sky and is beating down upon us as we reach the end of the gardens and prepare to start climbing the stairs that will lead us to the summit. I’m looking forward to the views. We start climbing the first set of stairs, old, worn and sometimes quite high. I am unfit, and probably look as though I’m ready to expire when a local decides to accompany me to the top, pushing his hand into mine and virtually dragging me up the stairs. I thank him and as he smiles at me, I notice the red betel-nut stained teeth.
I’ve somehow got myself a tout.
I don’t want help.
I am not going to pay a tout, nor am I going to be subjected to the demands of money from him once I arrive at the top of the rock.
I realise that if we had engaged a certified guide from the outset, they would protect us from these scammers. This is the type of advice that we expect our driver to provide to us if he is not going to accompany us to the top himself. At the next level, the same guy pushes Tom out of the way and persists in holding my hand whilst I climb the stairs. At this point, I politely ask him to leave us alone as I sit on a bench to regain my breath. I cannot continue with this creep constantly jumping in. He stays out of my line of vision, but I know that he is watching our every move as we sit and recover. We are one-quarter of the way up the rock, and I think Tom should continue to the top with my camera. The problem, of course, is that touts are positioned at every stage up the rock and due to the harassment from them, we both decide to stop at this section. I’m not so perturbed about not climbing to the top, but I think Tom would have not only easily climbed the stairs, some of which are metal spiral ones, but he would have enjoyed the challenge of getting to the top. Eventually, we decide to return to the car. The second we stand to leave, our tout jumps up, obviously thinking we are going to pay him. Big mistake.
We take the track to the tourist car park. Along the way there are some interesting caves and rock formations to look at, such as Cobra Rock, which does look like a striking cobra at a squint. Ferns poke out of small gaps in the rocks, so there must be plenty of moisture seeping into them. As we descend into the carpark, a small group of stallholders greet us, all trying to be the one to sell us water. Behind the stalls, there are many monkeys in the trees. I’m getting used to seeing them around. One little monkey collects a coconut shell from behind a stall and cleverly manages to climb to the top of a tree, the coconut still in his hand. Other small monkeys join in on the game. They jostle over the coconut, which invariably is thrown from the top reaches of the tree, breaking on impact. Without hesitating the young monkey hurtles himself at the coconut before another gets into the act. With the coconut now broken, the monkey now drinks the remaining water in one side of the shell before holding it in front of his face and eating the coconut flesh. I get great pleasure from watching these little creatures doing their thing in the wild, sort of.
We advise the driver that we’re not interested in visiting the elephant centre as we have seen them in the wild and do not wish to see those kept in captivity. We also wish to return to our hotel after the cultural village visit.
Along the road, not far out of Dambulla, there is a place where palm-covered wagons are lined up along the road. A water buffalo is hitched to the wagon, then we are seated inside the wagon before the buffalo handler clicks his tongue and we start off down the road. This is good. The handler keeps the buffalo under control by patting his back, shouting commands and gently pushing him along. I’m enjoying the ride along the bitumen road and am lulled into a false sense of contentment when the handler gave a couple of shouts, gently pinched the bullock between the horns, and the large docile animal turned to the right in front of oncoming traffic and we are plunged into a rough unsealed road. Rattling along the track, the bullock is led around the large mud-filled potholes, but baulks at a large wet patch, previous wagon tracks have gouged deep trenches in the mud, making it difficult for the wagon wheels to grip. Our driver steps off the wagon as the handler encourages the bullock to continue through the mud.
We eventually stop after being thrust this way and that in the back of the wagon. I’m glad to get down. We then follow the bullock-handler down the track until we come to the edge of a calm, still lake. Lotus leaves lie on the surface and its ambience is welcome after the rough ride on the wagon. The handler unravels a chain, which is threaded through the handles on a number of vessels. Two kayaks are joined together with a type of wooden platform. We sit on the top of the platform whilst our multi-talented bullock-handler sits into the back cavity of the right-hand side kayak. After a few minutes, and halfway across the lake, Tom picks up a paddle and slips into the front cavity of the left-hand kayak, helping us to scoot across the water a little faster. That skinny old man is incredibly strong.
At the other side of the lake, we take a short walk to small village farm, where we are met by a lady and her daughter. We learn how the husks are removed from rice, how its winnowed and ground into a flour. We learn how to open a coconut and remove the coconut flesh from inside the shell. These ingredients are then used to create dishes for our lunch. We are not the only group here today. There are three others; a total of ten people. Sometimes, however, you come across someone who makes you cringe. When lunch is offered, one woman screams at our gentle host that she wasn’t eating THAT. There is an embarrassed silence as everyone stares at her before collectively looking away. That horrible woman didn’t even have the grace to apologise for her behaviour. All in all, the lunch, which included bread and a crushed coconut and chilli-type salad, for want of a better description, was delicious.
Another day has ended. We return to the hotel at the end of the rocky road for our second night. I’m not sure why we are staying in hotels hidden in the middle of nowhere. I don’t even feel confident about exploring the banks of the lake near which our hotel is located, as the vegetation on the properties on either side of our hotel are utterly overgrown and I’m afraid of cobras and little green snakes.
TOUR: Across the Best Sites of Sri Lanka - Capital Lanka Tours
DISTANCE TRAVELLED: 10 kms
ACCOMMODATION: Wewa Addara Hotel, Kayenwala, Sigiriya, Srt Lanka. http://www.wewaaddara.com (A long way from civilisation. Comfortable hotel, the staff are very good, especially in the restaurant.)