Day three: Explore the eastern coast of the island/Trimcomalee
In the morning you'll travel toward the eastern coast of Sri Lanka and you will visit the city of Trincomalee. It's a fascinating place sitting on one of the finest natural harbours in the world. Trincomalee is an amazing multicultural town with lovely places such as Nilaveli Beach, Pigeon Island, and Nalur Kovil. With its white sands and gentle waves, Trincomalee beach is the ultimate getaway for those who desire a relaxing vacation in Sri Lanka. Here you will experience a quiet bliss on a tropical heaven, far away from the busy and chaotic life.
I've realised that if we follow this tour's itinerary, we'll need to be in the car at for eleven hours each day, or we'll simply drive past the attractions on our way to somewhere else. So we've decided to review the next day's itinerary each evening and pick out only the bits we are interested in and concentrate on those things. After all, our driver - I refuse to call him a guide - isn't giving us much assistance, nor is he explaining how long its going to take to go from A to B. To make this trip a success, we need to be more proactive in directing the day's activities, building in travel time and any stops we need to make.
It's Christmas Day, and our hosts at the hotel have all wished us compliments of the season at breakfast. They are so nice and very sincere. We ask the driver to take us to the area where the Bodhi Tree is located. The Sri Maha Bodhi is said to be the southern branch from the historical tree in India, under which Lord Buddha attained enlightenment. It was planted in 288 BC and is believed to be the oldest human-planted tree in existence. For its historical value, it's worth seeing the tree.
There are a lot of Buddhist people about this morning, most of whom are dressed entirely in white and are barefoot. Many of them carry white flowers, lotus flowers and elaborate gifts wrapped in cellophane, which they have bought from stalls around the gate of the Mahamewna Gardens. Our driver lets us off at the carpark, vaguely pointing in the general direction of the tree, and we follow the crowds towards the gate of the gardens.
Near the West Gate, we remove our shoes and leave them with an attendant. Today, I've worn appropriate clothing, which includes a T-shirt covering my shoulders. Tom's knees are exposed, so he uses my scarf as a sarong, wrapping it around his waist and tucks it into the waistband of his shorts.
Underfoot, the gravel isn't easy to walk on, especially since our feet are delicate, having only ever been shod. I stand on a piece of 'astroturf', which is much softer underfoot. As I go through a metal detector and have my handbag checked, I realise that here, in Sri Lanka, potential terrorism is taken very seriously. The courtyard surface is of course sand and although we initially find it hard to walk over the uneven surface, we quickly get used to it. We join the throngs of people, walking through the garden before mounting the stairs to an altar-like building.
For this ritualistic form of devotion, the offerings, such as white flowers, bowls of rice, and other gifts, are first laid respectfully on the altar, which is in front of a statue of Buddha. They pause briefly before exiting the shrine. Finding a spot facing the Bodhi Tree, which is located behind the shrine, the devotees sit cross-legged and pay homage by reciting simple formulas, which when said in unison sound like a deep humming chant. It is strangely calming and peaceful to listen to. Additionally, an important aspect of the worship of the stupa and the Bodhi Tree is the circumambulation as a mark of respect. Usually, the person walks around the shrine three times, keeping it to their right side with their hands clasped. They recite a different stanza for this devotion. Despite the huge number of people inside the shrine, there is an air of devotion and respect, and although Tom's unusual attire receives a few snickers from children, the atmosphere is one of prayer. This may be Christmas Day for us, but for the Buddhists in Anuradhapura, it is a day of spiritual worship and I cannot be anything but touched by the gentle and peaceful ambience inside this very special place.
We stand below the Bodhi Tree, its long snaking branches are propped up to ensure their weight doesn't damage the tree. This tree, the oldest one planted by human hands is well protected. Branches are never allowed to be cut from Bodhi, or fig trees, as they are protected across Sri Lanka as they are sacred.
We exit the garden on the eastern side and as we try to get our bearings, a man approaches us and gives us each a small candle lamp in a terracotta holder. Giving him a small donation, we walk to a stand on which many lamps are burning. The burning of camphor is done near the stupa. Camphor is used because of its fragrant smell and pure flame. However, the smoke is very black and billows out from the stand. Incense burns nearby.
We walk outside the perimeter wall of the garden until we reach the place where our shoes are being held. Shod once again, we return to our driver.
Thirteen kilometres out of Anuradhapura, we stop at Mihintare, a village and temple complex. The driver stops at the base of the stupa and tells us that we can go into the complex but we'll have to pay to enter the stupa. There is a 1.5 kilometre walk around it and the scenery is really lovely. We pass by a tuk-tuk, which is filled with monkeys. The hapless driver must have forgotten to remove the food from the vehicle. We have a laugh as we pass by an empty police sentry box then climb a steep incline which opens out to a sort of a courtyard. Seeing a sign ahead, we make our way over to read it, as there is no sign of a ticket box. What happens next is a shock, as two men start to shout at us, screaming that we need a ticket. I explain that we are buying a ticket, but didn't see the ticket box and I walk over to purchase a ticket. There is no price list and I casually remark that the other people entering the temple grounds are not buying tickets.
'They're locals,' says one of the gentlemen.
'How do you know?' I say
'They're not white,' he says.
I put my money into my bag and tell him that I no longer wish to enter the temple, and walk over to an area overlooking some ruins to take a couple of shots before returning to the car. We are further chased and told we have to buy a ticket to even stand where we are standing. I point out that if there is an admission cost, then the ticket box belongs at the foot of the hill, where precisely the sentry box is located. We are called a few choice names by the men as we left the park. This is a clear case of racism, which we report to our driver. He shrugs. He doesn't care. Later, I check my Lonely Planet book, and this is what it says about Mihintale.
'Wannabe guides charge about Rs 800 for a two-hour tour. If your guide follows you up the steps you're committed, so make your decision clear before setting out.'
I wish I had read this beforehand, so I could be prepared for these 'wannabes'. After this morning's extraordinarily beautiful experience at the Mahamewna Gardens, this episode leaves a sour taste in my mouth.
We continue toward the East Coast of Sri Lanka and not long after passing rice paddy fields, rain falls. Softly at first, then in torrential sheets, so heavy that it is almost impossible to see a few metres in front of us. It doesn't deter the traffic flow though, because buses, trucks, tu-tuks pass by, splashing waves of water at us. The rain is short-lived and we are almost at Trimcomalee when the driver suggests we stop at some hot springs. We turn off the main road and very slowly make our way along an unmade track, dodging large and probably deep potholes. Children selling fruit, toys, and other odds and ends stand in front of the car in order to attempt to stop us. The driver doesn't stop, but beeps his horn and waves them away. They jump out of the way at the very last moment.
We get out of the car and head toward the ticket office to pay the tiny fee to enter. Here, we find that locals and tourists are charged exactly the same amount. Elderly people are permitted to enter for free. Just as we pay our money, the clouds open again, pouring buckets of rain on top of us. We continue walking through the pit where the hot springs are, and watch people ladelling water from concrete pits and pouring it over their heads. It's okay for them; they are wet already. Tom runs for the first shelter he can find; the doorway of the ladies changing room. Apparently there is no men's changing room. Although he is given a few funny looks, nobody takes offence, as he realises his mistake and runs for the nearest canopied tree. We are both drenched when we return to the car.
Fortunately our hotel is just ten minutes down the road.
After checking in, showering, and drying off, we find a tuk-tuk to take us to the nearest town. The wifi in all the hotels so far is abysmal and I buy a data dongle and plenty of credit to last for a month. We later find that we are able to log our phones, and iPads to the same network whilst it's plugged into my small computer.
Tonight, we meet someone who could easily pass as 'Manuel', who once worked at Fawlty Towers. It appears that he now works in the restaurant of Skandig Beach Resort, and as a result, we quickly decide that beer is the safest dinner option. Cheers and Merry Christmas!
TOUR: Across the Best Sites of Sri Lanka - Capital Lanka Tours
DISTANCE TRAVELLED: 112 kms.
ACCOMMODATION: Skandig Beach Resort, 742, 10 Ehamparam Rd, Trincomalee (Nice room overlooking the sea)