Sri Lanka Adventure [10 – 18 June 2010]
Part I: Pre-Trip [Singapore, 10 Jun 2010]
Part II: The Long Shuttle [Singapore – Kuala Lumpur, 10 Jun 2010]
Part III: AK255 [KUL – CMB, 11 Jun 2010]
Part IV: A Slice of Cultural Triangle [CMB – Dambulla, 11 June 2010]
Part V: Temples [Dambulla – Kandy, 12 Jun 2010]
Part VI: Into the Hills [Kandy – Haputale, 13 Jun 2010]
Part VII: Trekking to World’s End [Horton’s Plains National Park, 14 Jun 2010]
Part VIII: Retracing the steps of Sir Thomas Lipton [Lipton’s Seat & Tea Factory, 15 Jun 2010]
Part IX: Leopard! Leopard! Leopard! [Haputale – Tissa, 16 Jun 2010]
Part X: Will this journey ever end? [Tissa – Negombo, 17 Jun 2010]
Part XI: Goodbye Serendib [CMB – KUL – Singapore, 18 Jun 2010]
Part XII: Epilogue
Our vehicle took some time to arrive; we had to reject the first one sent to us as it was too small for six and didn’t have air-con. The second van was alright and after the driver stopped by at his house to collect his gear (in case we took up the week’s worth of rental), we were finally on our way at 9am, almost two hours after we landed.
Route: Bandaranaike International Airport (CMB) to Gimanhala Transit Hotel, Dambulla
Time taken: Approx. 4h
Mode: Air-con van
Driving through Sri Lankan countryside:
We requested for a pee stop and was taken to a restaurant overlooking a reservoir/lake located after Kurunegala.
Like the northern neighbor, motor vehicles in Sri Lanka have to share the roads with other users: pedestrians, bicycles, animals, etc. However, driving is significantly less hectic due to lower number road users and our van was doing a respectable average speed of 50 km/h for the journey.
Based on good reviews from the web and Lonely Planet, we got our driver to drive to Gimanhala Transit Hotel in Dambulla. Apparently it’s a well-known place and quite easy to find.
The reception told us that there were no rooms available for the night; this development forced us to consider our options. I had downloaded a list of accommodation in Dambulla from the website of Association for Dambulla Sigirya Tourism Promotion and we put our recently acquired SIM cards to use at the hotel lobby.
While waiting for the other guesthouses/hotels to revert to us, the hotel manager came and informed us that he had rooms available for the night. We asked about the rates and was shown the price list. A triple room cost a whopping 5400 LKR plus additional 10% service charge (breakfast included). We requested to see the rooms before deciding.
Since the other guesthouses (those we called) offered similar rates and we were all tired from the lengthy journey, we agreed to take the rooms. Furthermore, Cricket Asia Cup was taking place in Dambulla from the weekend onwards and the manager reminded us that it could be difficult to get rooms during this period.
After resting a while, we had to debate among ourselves regarding the van rental. As mentioned earlier, we would like to try out the trains and public buses in Sri Lanka and would not require the van for the entire journey. We thought that the quote of 55 USD per day was still valid and wanted to retain the van and driver for additional day; the driver told us that the rate was only available for longer rental and wanted something like 16,000 LKR for two days.
After more haggling, we settled the amount with the driver: an additional excursion to Sigiriya in the afternoon together with the trip between the airport and Dambulla would cost us the ‘best price’ of 9,750 LKR. The driver seemed a nice and honest chap but by then we could tell that he was a little disappointed that the potential week-long assignment with us would not be materialized.
The lunch menu at Gimanhala was way beyond our budget and we got our driver to drive us out to town for lunch. He wasn’t helpful at all with the recommendations; we drove past several unappealing food places (the interiors looked dark and dingy from the outside) before deciding to stop at a random place by the road.
It turned out to be a real gem.
Do not be fooled by the facade; this place serves probably the meanest fried rice in Sri Lanka.
I’m no food critic so my descriptions would never be good enough to whet any appetites. What I could only say that the fried rice was really delicious and the chili superb; in fact it was so good that we ordered more and one of us even declared it ‘five-star’.
After the satisfying meal which cost only 170 LKR per person, we would visit Sigiriya, an ancient rock fortress built in the 5th century. Although Sigiriya is less than 20km from Dambulla, the poor roads took us almost 45min.
When we were dropped at the entrance, a man was quick to attach himself to us and showed us the way to the ticket office. Admission cost a hefty 25 USD worth of rupees (2,875 LKR) for foreigners while it is probably free for the Sri Lankans. The state of Sri Lanka probably subsidized the locals’ admissions but I remain no fan of such price discrimination.
In order to prevent any unhappiness, we asked the man who attached himself to us what was the expected tip at the end of the tour. 5 USD per person was the amount he quoted; the price was kinda steep and I didn’t find myself particularly interested in the history. We declined him several times before he gave up and allowed us to roam around on our own.
It was quite a steep climb up to the top and anyone who has acrophobia may not find the trek up pleasant at all.
It was really windy while we walked up the steps and we were really afraid that we might be blown off by the strong winds. In return we were rewarded by pretty nice views.
Mid-way through our climb we got to see some interesting frescoes (of very well-endowed ladies). A guide would probably be useful in explaining the stories behind them here.
After seeing the frescoes, we tackled the gusty winds again in our bid to reach the summit.
We had to pass through the infamous hornets’ nests at the last section. There were reports of tourists being attacked earlier in the year and the attraction was closed for a while as a result. We were told to keep quiet by one local man and he would attach himself to us uninvited on the summit.
Finally, after climbing forever, we reached the summit.
I didn’t really care about the stories from the guide and just wandered around the summit on my own.
We spent enough time at the summit and even spoke to some of the monks. One of them told Lewis that they usually remain as monks for their entire lives, unlike many of the monks in Thailand who only enter monk-hood for a short period of time.
The guide did his job by pointing out to us the ‘final step’ at the summit. Apparently it was the 1150th step that one would take on the way up to the summit but its position seemed kinda awkward to us. All tourists were taking photos with it though. The guide didn’t disappoint us at the end when he requested baksheesh for his service; I couldn’t recall the amount that Lewis gave him but he seemed satisfied enough. His service was unsolicited though and I wouldn’t want to pay for something that I didn’t request for.
The walk down was much faster than the climb up and we were among the last ones leaving the place. The driver drove us back to the hotel where we settled the amount owned to him. After leaving us, he would have a long 4-hour drive home in the darkness of the night.
Without private transportation, we felt kinda handicapped but we didn’t let it deter us from getting dinner. We walked out towards Dambulla’s town center and settled for a bright-looking eating place which has no menu. An overly-friendly waiter insisted that we sat down at the table even though we wanted to look at what was on offer. In the end, we got some fried rice, fried noodles and pratas.
Unlike restaurants in Singapore where food is prepared and served after order is taken, Sri Lankan eating places utilize a slightly different modus operandi. The waiters will put a variety of food on the table (for example ten pieces of pratas) and then charge the customers for the items consumed. The leftover items will be recycled and served to the next customers. Likewise for curry too; the waiter told us that gravy was free but we would be charged for the curry if we ate the vegetables inside. We wondered how many spoons had been through the gravy and thus chose to give it a wide berth.
At the dinner, we all agreed that Rangiri’s fried rice was superior. The waiter was friendly with a motive; our tip didn’t make his expectation though and he didn’t seem pleased in the end. Oh well.
After dinner we went to the supermarket Cargill Food City for some fruits and water. Outside it, an employee was grilling sausages and chicken wings for sale. Some of us couldn’t resist them and bought some back to the hotel for the opening FIFA World Cup game between South Africa and Mexico.
Despite splashing a big amount on the room, the TV reception was less than satisfactory. Nevertheless we finished watching the match which ended 1-1. I was in bed by 10pm, knocked out by all the traveling and sightseeing from the day.